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A small mining camp is reeling from the aftermath of a bad accident. In the morning two riders appear on the horizon; they are Death, and his insane sidekick, the Joker, coming to collect the souls of those who did not survive.
This story originally appeared in Danse Macabre: Close Encounters With the Reaper, on sale through Amazon.com and other sites.
Out of the Sun
by Gabriel Boutros
Two riders were approaching.
They came from the east, out of the desert. The rising sun had begun to creep over the horizon and it cast their shadows far ahead of them like tentacles. Even at such a distance and with the sun at their backs, the miners realized who these riders were, and each man felt a chill pierce his soul.
For the taller of the two riders was certainly Death sitting arrogantly astride his black charger. Beside him, riding jauntily on a pony so small it could have been a donkey, and with his dangling feet almost dragging in the sand, was the Joker.
They always rode together, Death and the Joker. The former rarely spoke, performing his tasks with a grim professionalism that many might have mistaken for indifference if it weren't for what was at stake. As for the latter, he was in many ways the crueler of the pair. His greatest joy was to tease and mock the people they sought out, giving them false hope that their time had not yet come.
The miners were seven, surely a lucky number they had told themselves the previous night when they gathered around the campfire, some of them still bandaging their injuries. They had hoped to delay the arrival of these travelers, if not postpone it indefinitely, but neither their medicine nor their superstitions were strong enough. Every man gulped down his own fears and looked surreptitiously at his comrades so that none could accuse him of casting an evil eye.
Each man hoped that it was not his time, that the danger might yet pass. Each quietly prayed that another might be taken instead. There was always someone else who deserved it more, maybe for cheating at cards or for not attending mass when the priests passed through the camp. None would ever admit to wishing ill on a fellow miner, although at a time like this such wishes lay in all seven hearts.
The eldest among the miners coughed, covering his mouth, and then coughed again. He spat out a thick black stream of phlegm, his weakened body trembling. He looked around him and saw the others turn their eyes away, some of them ashamedly, for a hint of hopefulness had come to their faces. He straightened his back and walked wordlessly to his tent. He closed the flap behind him to hide the fear he felt because he was old and had breathed the poisoned air of the mines longer than anyone else. Yet hadn't he moved quickly when the alarm had sounded? He felt that his bravery should count for something, but doubted that his opinion in such matters held much weight.
Behind his back a few of the others nodded meaningfully, the old man's ill health a portent that they might not be the ones taken after-all. One man sat down and began to stir the fire in preparation for his breakfast, suddenly remembering how hungry he was. Those who watched him took confidence from his actions, the fate of the eldest seemingly settled in their minds.
The youngest among the miners, however, turned to look at the tent into which the old man had disappeared. He still felt fear for himself, but the possibility of losing the old man filled him with sadness. He said nothing to the others, though, the throbbing pain in his head making it difficult for him to speak or to move.
The riders were almost at the camp now, and the wind that had blown heavily during the night suddenly died down. The birds that lived in this arid land, and who loved to flit about and sing in the cool of each dawn, were nowhere to be seen or heard. The clop-clop sound of the horses' hooves drowned out the buzzing of the cicadas, and it was many days before their song was heard there again.
Despite their brief moment of confidence, none of the miners would turn to look at the new arrivals. The one who had stirred the fire fiddled with a frying pan for a bit, but couldn't make up his mind whether to break any eggs into it or to put it back down.
One miner stood up, deciding to take off his hat in greeting, but try as he might he could not raise his eyes above the leather-booted feet that rested in stirrups on each side of the black horse. He looked at his compatriots for encouragement but found none, each man busying himself, adjusting a bloody bandage or examining some stone or other on the ground that he had never noticed before. Finally the miner put his worn hat back on his head and slid down into a cross-legged position in the dirt, deciding that greetings were probably not appropriate at this time.
It was then that the Joker, who had been eyeing the miners with a mischievous grin, jumped down from the back of his pony. The animal was so short that the Joker was the same height standing as he was when sitting upon it. Perhaps it was this realization that struck him as ridiculous, for he let out a piercing peal of laughter which froze the six men in their places. A sad and hopeless moan soon followed from inside the old man's tent, clearly audible to everyone's ears, although none of the other miners reacted to it.
Instead, their eyes turned for the first time to the Joker, and he stared back at them with an exaggeratedly stunned expression. From where each man stood they could see that the Joker was of average height, except to those for whom he seemed taller, or shorter, than expected. His hat, the pointy kind which may have been flopping down over one or both ears, or standing straight up depending on one's point of view, was all yellow, and all red, and all blue, and a mix of all the colors they could think of. His expression was like that of a naughty child, or a demented madman, or maybe even a playful clown, taking into account each man's state of mind.
After a moment the Joker put a finger to his painted lips, and with his other hand pulled out of a deep pocket what looked like a shiny marble, although it may have been a spinning top or even a piece of broken glass. He held this hand up for a moment and gently bounced the object in his palm, drawing the curiosity of the miners. He stepped lightly forward, his shoes hardly disturbing the sand around him, and brought his hand closer so that each man could see what he balanced there.
When all the men had looked upon it for several seconds, and it had brought the smiles of happy memories to each one's face, the Joker stepped lightly toward the tent into which the old man had retreated. Another soft moan was heard coming from the tent, for the old man must have seen the Joker approaching, or maybe he had simply felt the air inside the tent grow cold.
The Joker turned back at this sound and looked to the dark figure with whom he had ridden in. None of the six miners dared to follow his gaze. Each preferred looking at the many-colored face that smiled before them. The men instinctively felt that this was a friendly visage, one they didn't mind seeing this early morning. They were happy to ignore the fact that the Joker was travelling companion to a much more lethal being. That harsh truth was something they would whisper about later, over cold beers from the village canteen to which they would certainly be treated after the recent events.
The Joker moved then with no warning, swiftly disappearing into the old man's tent and taking his shiny bauble with him, to the chagrin of the miners who had so enjoyed looking at it. Seconds later another moan issued from the tent, but it was cut off by the Joker's high-pitched laugh. This time the laugh went on much longer than the Joker's earlier shriek. It rose and descended in waves, and in its brief lulls the miners could hear the Joker take a deep breath before letting loose again.
After a minute or two of this it occurred to the man who still held the frying pan that for the Joker to laugh this loud and this long the situation must truly be humorous. And so this man began to giggle softly, earning a look of rebuke from one of his colleagues, and then to giggle even louder. Then the man who had thought to greet the riders also began to snicker, and in a moment both men were laughing heartily.
As their laughter rose louder, so did the Joker's, challenging them to keep up and inviting the others to join in. Soon all six miners were roaring with laughter. They laughed where they stood; they laughed where they sat. One laughed so hard he rolled in the dirt, slamming his fists into the ground, forgetting about any injuries he may have suffered the night before, such was his mirth. Tears poured from the eyes of all the men at the unexpected humor of the occasion, leaving wet trails in their dirt-caked cheeks.
The one who rolled on the ground came close to the black horse upon which the grim figure of Death still sat, and the horse stamped its hoof in warning, although it did not step on the man. The man must have been aware of how close he'd come to the horse's sharp hoof, but this did not cause him to interrupt his laughter. He merely rolled in a different direction, although he made sure that he never looked up at the face of the horse's master.
And so the six miners laughed, feeling good to be still alive and to be allowed, even encouraged, to enjoy themselves like this. They did not notice that the sound of laughter from inside the tent eventually subsided. They did not see the Joker step out through the flap, with the old man at his side, looking forlorn. None noticed the Joker lean over and whisper in the old man's ear, nor the old man responding with a sigh of such despondence that it would have brought more sensitive men to tears.
And none of the six miners saw the old man point timidly at the man who'd long since dropped his frying pan, but who now stood laughing as he leaned against the outhouse wall. The old man quickly lowered his damning finger as if ashamed of his action, but the gesture was not to be undone. The Joker stepped nimbly over the miner who was laying face down in the dirt, gasping for breath while still laughing uncontrollably. He approached the man leaning against the outhouse and tapped him lightly on the shoulder, bringing the man's laughter to an instant halt.
This man tried to smile, then tried to laugh again, but the effort was obviously painful. The happy expression in his eyes was replaced by one of confusion. Was their enjoyment to end so soon? He saw that the other men were still laughing, and that none were looking in his direction except for the old man who could only shrug guiltily when their eyes met.
The Joker, wearing a smile of unnatural glee, took the man by the shoulder and turned him to face the rider on the black horse. At once the man's throat constricted as he found himself looking into the blood-red eyes of Death. Death's face remained impassive, showing neither joy nor anger. The miner grabbed at his shirt collar, but loosening it would not allow him to breathe more easily. He stumbled forward, falling at the horse's hooves, but the well-trained animal did not trample this man either.
The Joker quickly returned to the old man and whispered into his ear again. The old man shook his head, but this merely caused the Joker to whisper more urgently. The old man shrugged once more, powerless in the face of Death as all men are, and pointed this time at a fat miner who was sitting laughing by himself. This drew a loud guffaw from the Joker, who slapped his hands together merrily, inciting the remaining miners to even greater gales of laughter.
But before moving away from the old man the Joker looked back at him expectantly, his eyes twinkling in a way which made the old man think of far-away stars and circuses and insanity as he lifted his finger again, a tremor running through his arm. He hesitated at the youngest of the crew, a lad of fifteen who'd come to work there after his father had died in an earlier accident at the mine. The boy was laughing with all his heart, his happiness making him forget the gravity of his wounds. The old man jerked his finger away, his expression clouded by fear and uncertainty, and quickly pointed down at the man who was rolling on the ground.
The Joker's smile disappeared for a moment, and he hesitated, displaying a rare ambivalence. Finally he shrugged just like the old man had done before and moved to the fat miner, lifting him up by his collar as if the man were nothing but a doll. The Joker dragged the fat miner to where the third man lay on the ground, laughing so hard it was a wonder he could breathe at all. Looking back at the old man with a leer that may have been mischievous, or maybe wasn't there at all, the Joker let his hand hover over the man on the ground. The old man took a moment to think, then nodded and shrugged once more, sending the Joker into paroxysms of delight, jumping and slapping his thigh as he laughed.
Finally the Joker grasped these two men and turned them to face Death, who sat unmoved on his horse. Both men fell in front of him, gasping for breath through clenched windpipes. The Joker stood briefly at attention before Death, his sarcastic expression mocking the seriousness of their work. He then removed his hat and bowed so low to the ground that his yellow forelock touched the dirt. He straightened wearing his widest smile. He kicked lightly at the man who'd been unexpectedly chosen then looked questioningly up at Death. Death's lips twitched slightly as if he wanted to smile, and the Joker leaped with delight, landing nimbly upon his patient pony.
The two riders recommenced their journey, heading west with neither a word nor a backward glance at those they were leaving behind. Their newly-minted travelling companions, those three unfortunate miners, rose and shuffled after the two horsemen. Their eyes were clouded and their faces purple from their inability to breathe, all three faces expressing surprise and disappointment at their fate.
As the travelers rode off with the three following, the remaining miners slowly stopped laughing. They looked toward the old man but said nothing, because what had happened was obvious to all. The boy of fifteen shivered as if an icy hand had run down his spine, but he smiled at the old man who shrugged modestly in return.
All four men stood and watched the departing group until it began growing small and blurry in the distance. For a brief moment the three men on foot became indistinct, as if surrounded by the shadows of many others, then all the travelers disappeared. The surviving miners blinked and rubbed their eyes, their thoughts turning now to their cuts and bruises, and their good fortune.
The old man thought that maybe he'd go to mass the next time the priest came out this way. He crossed himself, feeling a sudden need for confession. As for the fifteen year old, he went to his sleeping bag and pulled out a small pencil and a piece of paper. He would finally write to his mother as she'd begged him to do. He would tell her of the tragic accident that had occurred at the mine, and of the brave old man who'd saved his life at great personal risk, when the boy had feared he'd never see sunlight again.
The wind began to howl once more, carrying with it sand and a high-pitched screech that sounded like the Joker's distant laughter. A bead of cold sweat made its way down the boy's spine, and he wondered if the riders would be returning to the mining camp one day soon.
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|Reviewed by Ronald Hull
|Written with a lot of imagination. I find life and death to be simpler than this. However, some people like to give character to thoughts of death. How the Joker fits in, I don't know.
|Reviewed by Budd Nelson