The Pauper’s Reaper
On a narrow path on the side of a precipice, hugging the rock wall beside him, Angus the scout rounded an outcropping of granite and found himself face to face with an enemy scout. Their startled gasps echoed off the cliff, down to the forested canyon below, and back up to them. They stood in the bright sunlight for a moment, before doing anything. Realizing they were standing with their muskets pointed at each others’ chests by happenstance, each frantically sought to cock and fire. Angus realized the instant before the shot went off that he was too late. The young man standing before him with a face full of fear was already squeezing the trigger of his rifle. He heard the boom and felt the impact of the lead ball as passed through the right side of his chest. He saw the young man’s startled expression followed swiftly by a palpable sigh of relief. The expression changed to horror as Angus’s swaying form oozed blood and began to topple sideways into the canyon.
But his musket was still in his hands, and, as he fell, he squeezed off his own shot, which pierced the enemy scout’s chest on the right side. He fell toward the upraised branches of the trees below, the enemy scout falling after him with an expression of agonized disbelief.
He’d been a handsome boy, Angus had, one the girls had adored and after whom they had yearned. Before being drafted, the very night before, he’d lain in a haystack with a beautiful girl, his lust warring with his sense of honor, and his honor and hers edging out their shared lust by the slightest of margins to a strangely sweet and satisfying victory. He’d carried the memory with him every since, along with her letters in the pocket over his heart. As he lay on the forest floor, he dreamed of her beside him in the hay, his arm around her, her face close to his, their breath mingling as they whispered to one another.
He awoke in confusion, his arm around a warm body beside him, someone’s breath mingling with his own, and blood in his lungs and on his lips assuring him that he was all but dead and would never see her again. His eyes opened, and he saw his enemy in his embrace. The young man was his own age, likely, and his eyes were also opening, and from his mouth also issued blood. Angus’s only thought was that he must disengage from this man, get away and not die disgraced in the embrace of his enemy. Feebly, he began to struggle, pulling away, shoving his enemy away, but the other suddenly grasped at his clothing and held fast, saying through a gurgling throat, “They’ll never find us, never bury us, never pay our way in the proper rites. We’ll be ghosts.”
“Get away, damn you,” said Angus.
“No, listen, we’ve got to help each other, or we’ll be stuck like this ‘til the end of time.”
Angus paused his struggle and regarded his enemy with increased horror. The other man’s eyes closed, and his breathing stopped.
“Get off me,” he pleaded as he felt himself drowning in his own blood, but he was too weak. In a moment, he lay still. In another, his weeping eyes closed. In another, his breathing stopped.
The two, fresh corpses lay there in their twisted, but intimate embrace - one pushing away, one holding fast. No one had noted them. Even the vultures were ignorant of their whereabouts.
When Angus’s ghost coalesced in the air beside them, he turned away, unable to bear the sight.
“It is a bit embarrassing,” admitted the other wraith. He was sitting with his back to a tree trunk. Angus slowly faced him.
“I’d rather,” continued his enemy, “I were laid out on a proper slab with you at my feet, but really, you’ve just as much right to me at your feet.”
Angus did not try to hide his loathing.
“Don’t take it so hard,” said the other, “We were both startled, both did what we thought was our duty, or at least we thought we were defending ourselves. It’s all that could be expected and just bad luck for us we both killed the other.”
Angus said nothing. He went and found a tree of his own, slid down beside it, and stared across their corpses at his enemy. They regarded one another quietly for some time. Angus found that he had to look away from himself. He wasn’t sure how he was supposed to feel, being dead, but he was certain that, were he not staring himself in his dead face, he would not have known he was. And he looked too peaceful as a corpse, too resigned, to comfortable in the embrace of his killer. And his killer looked too comfortable with his head upon his chest. Realizing he was already looking at the sight again, he looked away.
“I’m Riley,” said the other.
Angus shot him a look of hatred and looked at trees.
“I think we should know each other’s names,” said the other, “We’ll probably be together for a long time, unless a reaper should take pity on us. As ghosts, aren’t we bound to the place where we died?”
Angus had nothing to say, but he thought Riley was right. Riley, he’d had a friend, a neighbor’s boy, named Riley, growing up. He resented this foreign young man having that name. Friend Riley and he had run wild as youths, catching frogs and turtles in the millstream and selling them to a market man for copper pennies. They’d shared aspirations of wooing the same girls. They’d stood by each other when it came to fisticuffs with other boys, and, usually, come out all right. This young man had no right to his friend’s name.
Riley, his enemy, said, “They say the Great Reaper only calls once, one week after you die, no later. He drives by in a great coach, an omnibus taking souls as passengers. If one has been buried and prayed over and given the fair, he lets one aboard. If not, he passes on by. No ride for the pauper, the pauper becomes a ghost. Isn’t that what your people believe as well?”
Angus glared silently. Did this chatty young man have a surname? He couldn’t think of him as Riley.
“I’ve no coin at all,” said Riley, “so I’m stuck. You?”
He didn’t, but he still said nothing.“I wonder,” continued Riley, “if your people have the same belief that mine do about the Pauper’s Reaper?”
Potter's Field 5