The sun fell over the wasteland with hardly a whimper, the last of its light extinguished by the barren wastes. Despite the darkness and fog and light drizzle that turned the dirt to mud, there remained two figures. One stood grim, cloaked in shadow, while the other worked tirelessly, digging his own grave. He had began at sunset and managed to dig through three feet before night came and the rains began. The other watched him wordlessly, only grunting when the mud slid down the grave’s borders, filling up another foot. Jedediah would sigh and wipe his brow before continuing, hoisting piles of mud up and throwing it off to the side. Every minute of digging felt like an hour and Jed found himself growing impatient despite all logic. What was the point of another minute when the end result would remain inevitable?
With that thought, the rain came down harder as thunder rumbled in the distance. A slab of mud slicked down back into the grave, only for Jed to pick it up and throw it aside again. The cloaked man groaned.
“Faster,” he snapped. His voice was a hoarse whisper, as if he had a throat full of dust. “The horsemen approach and you do not have much time.”
Jed rolled his eyes. “I’m almost done. Jus’ another foot to go.”
“There is no time for a foot. This burrow shall do.”
“Now hol’ on.” Jed planted the shovel into the dirt and turned to the man. “Ya’ know how many wolves are ‘round these parts? Vultures? They’ll dig this grave right up to pick at the corpse.”
A cool breeze passed. “Would make little difference when you’re dead,” he groaned.
Jed sighed and rested his hands on his side. The man had a point. Still…
…Raindrops fell onto his hat, causing it to sag over his face. He took it off and tossed it aside before closing his eyes and losing himself in the shower. He absorbed every droplet, enjoying the chill of the rain, the smell of the water, the echo of thunder. Behind the veil of clouds, there was a canvas of night sky with a thousand stars dotting its expanse. Jed tried to imagine it, hoping to etch that picture into his mind. It’s said that heaven lies just beyond and that God’s throne rests at its peak. A pretty dream.
“Will you not finish?”
Jed scowled. “Is lettin’ a dyin’ man think too much to ask for?”
“What use is ‘thinking’ when digging a grave?”
“Well actually it’s very important. Ya’ see, ya’ gotta get the dimension all right an’—"
“You lack the time for that. If you wish to finish the grave, do so befo—”
“—an’ sometimes,” Jed took a long breath, “sometimes a man needs time to think about whether or not he’s makin’ the right decision.”
Lightning flashed, lighting up the plains. For a moment, Jed was able to again glimpse the man in his black tattered cloak, hunched posture, and twisted cane. Despite the flash of lightning, his face remained obscured in shadow from his hood. Everytime Jed looked upon the man, a well of despair opened in his stomach and his mind was flooded with whispers of regret. The man was a stranger and yet, Jed had known him his entire life. He could still faintly remember how the man came to his lone cabin in the wastes at the end of the day. At the time, Jed had been sitting on his porch, drinking while looking out into the barren horizon. He remembered how the rider approached on his pale horse before dismounting and shuffling towards him with a tale of the night’s end and how he would soon be visited by a cackle of old friends. It was afterwards that Jed decided to dig his own grave in the backyard as one last futile show of dignification and independence.
“I had given you another option,” the figure said coldly. “If you had only escaped when I said, you would’ve lived another month.”
Jed chuckled and raised his brow with a grin. “There even a point to that?”
Death was silent. “No.”
“Then I’m fine right ‘ere,” he said. “Besides, runnin’ all the damn time gets tirin’ real quick. Drains you out.” He picked up the shovel and began digging again. “At this point, I don’t mind a lil bit of rest.”
Eventually, the rain relented and Jed began to work again. He pushed the shovel deep into the mud and threw it over his shoulder, adding it to the mushy mound behind him. In a few minutes, he managed to add three feet to the grave. He stood over it with a haughty grin beside Death, content with the grave’s seven foot depth.
“Well ain’t she a beaut. What you think Grim?”
The Reaper nodded at it. “Sufficient, but ultimately meaningless.”
“Well you’re all beer and skittles, aren’t ya Grim?” Jed laughed and slapped the Reaper’s shoulder. The Reaper’s head snapped to him and Jed held his hands up. “Pardon, pardon! Didn’t think you’d be so touchy.”
Jed picked up his hat and shovel and looked towards his cabin in the distance. “How much time I got left?” he asked.
“Oh good,” he smiled. “I’m gonna go have a drink.” He began to make his way to his home, marching through the dirt. He could feel the Grim Reaper’s eyes behind him as he walked, observing his every step with quiet judgement. That was what first bothered Jed when he met Death. Every action Jed made was being measured and weighed; his every movement dissected and compared. Sometimes it felt like disapproval, as if he had failed to meet the spectre’s empirical expectations. Other times, it felt like nothing at all. Just quiet observations made by a cosmic entity that transcended human thought and understanding. How could he even begin to question the motivations of such a being? Was it even his place to question at all?
He climbed the steps of his home; the wood groaned under his weight. He opened the door and was greeted by cobwebs and shadows. Yawning, he lit a dim lamp and made his way to the kitchen, hanging his wet hat on the rack and throwing off his drenched jacket. Dust hovered in the air and a spider web on the lamp cast its long shadow across the living room. In the kitchen, there were a few rustic bowls and molding pots. Jed took it all in before pulling a bottle from the shelf and sitting down on a couch in the living room, watching water slide down the window. For a few minutes, there was nothing but the crackle of the lamp’s flame, the groan of old wood, and the sobbing of a man still not yet ready to die. Then the echo of raucous laughter as Jed’s friends arrived. He saw their lanterns light up the night from the window. Jed grit his teeth and stared at the door.
“This was the answer to your sins,” Death whispered. He appeared just by the doorway.
Jed turned and looked at the Reaper with bloodshot eyes. “I know.”
“You chose to live foolishly, sinfully, violently—”
“—gloriously,” Jed chimed.
Death tilted his head to the side. “Now you live as a hermit in a dead wasteland, in fear of the world and how it would respond to your actions. Your name ends by my hand.”
Jed rubbed his palms and pondered his answer. He shook his head. “I don’t think I ever really cared about all that, you understand? It was a lovely life I had, ‘fore it went belly up.”
“All men regret,” Death replied.
Jed frowned and thought long and hard. He remembered the booze, freedom, women, and horses. He remembered the money and the crimes done to attain it. He looked back as far as he could but could only arrive at one answer.
“My only regret,” he answered, “is that I ran away.”
Suddenly, there was a banging on the door. “Open up Jedediah! We’s knows its you in ‘dere!”
He looked frantically at Death who looked back coldly. Bony hands clung to a twisted cane that began to tap rapidly to the beat of Jed’s throbbing heart. Jed wiped his eyes and cracked his neck.
“No more runnin’ Jedediah. You’s a wanted man in three states now. Ain’t nowhere to run no mo’!”
He got up and walked over to the door, eyes still on the Reaper who continued to tap, tap, to his heart’s beat. He took a long breath and tried to imagine the night sky. The Reaper’s tapping slowed.
“Jedediah! Ya' knew this was comin’! Ya’ knew ya’ can’t rob from the boss and get away! Ye’ can’t run away from the debts ya’ made!”
Jed exhaled. He could see the stars light up the sky in his mind’s eye. The Reaper’s tapping stopped. He nodded at Jed and lifted his head, allowing Jed a peek under the tattered hood. He looked on in half-horror and awe.
Jed swung open the door and looked down the barrel of the long-awaited revolver. There was a long pause, until he smiled at the four horsemen.
“Hello there boys. My fault for takin’ so long but I took the pleasure of digging my grave out back," he welcomed. "Jus’ toss me in when you’re done, alright?" He pleaded.
The deed was then done. After, the horsemen looked and beheld a pale horse, and sat on him was Death, with a hundred souls trailing behind him.