Death searched the desert, a moonlit shadow stalking sand and shrub.
The Cowboy’s horse whickered softly at Death’s approach, but remained faithful and did not run.
“It’s a cool night,” Death called from just beyond the ring of flickering light that warmed the Cowboy’s tired hands.
“It’s about time,” the Cowboy replied, welcoming Death to his fire. He did not stir from where he lounged back against his saddle bags, left leg stretched long, right knee propped up, dusty hat lowered over his eyes.
Death was polite and settled down in easy quiet; the Cowboy was a man of few words, most of them gone to dust with his youth. They gazed into the dancing flames. Somewhere in the dark, a rattler hissed its warning, and the two sat without speaking in companionable silence.
They had met many times over the years.
Death was the Cowboy’s oldest friend.
They first encountered one another at the local swimming hole when the Cowboy was just nine years old.
At one edge of the muddy pool there was a small rocky overhang perfect for jumping. The safest way to the top of the bluff was to scramble up the bank and around a wide thicket of prickly bush. The fastest, more impressive way was to monkey up the rock’s craggy face.
It was hot the day that Death came diving.
As the Cowboy treaded water, watching his friend Beau scramble up the slick stones, he noticed Beau’s twin brother peering down curiously at Beau’s deft ascent.
Beau did not have a brother.
Helpless in the pool, the Cowboy’s heart became lead in his chest.
The boy who was not Beau or Beau’s brother glanced down at the Cowboy. Their eyes locked for just a moment, and Death raised his hand in solemn greeting.
Nearly at the top, Beau slipped.
The Cowboy scratched his grizzled whiskers and took a generous swig from a tarnished flask. He offered it wordlessly to Death over the flames, and Death accepted.
Eight years after Beau’s fall, the Cowboy and Death became much better acquainted.
The Cowboy and his father were making the rough ride home up the mountain trail when a bandit with his father’s face appeared around the final bend. Just off the path, leaning indifferently against the scrawny trunk of a scraggly pine, he carved dirt from under his nails with the point of a rusted blade.
The Cowboy pulled his pony to a halt, the call to turn back dying on his tongue as his father stiffened, clutched at his chest, and rolled off his horse in a lazy exhale of dirt.
The Cowboy scrambled off his mount, but Death stepped between the living and the lifeless.
“It was time.”
Death placed a familiar gnarled hand on the Cowboy’s shoulder and looked him gravely in the eye. Without another word, he disappeared around the turn from which the Cowboy and his father had come.
Under the infinite indigo star-littered sky, Death pulled out a harmonica and sang with the cicadas and the crickets and the coyotes.
When Death came for Maria, the Cowboy cried.
She fell ill right after they married and suffered many sickly months. From the tiny window in their rotting ranch cabin, he saw Death watching from the road, blond curls waving in the wind, eyes blue and bright as the summer sky. The Cowboy closed the hand-sewn curtains against Death’s determined gaze, but Maria despised the dark and the dank, and had flung them wide again in protest.
Every morning, the Cowboy would wake and walk to the road where Death loitered.
Every morning, he would say “Today?”
And Death would answer, “Not today.”
And the Cowboy would ask, “When?”
And Death would reply, “When it is time.”
And then one day, just before the sun rose, Death knocked at their door.
The Cowboy collapsed to his knees. He wept and he begged. He clung to Death’s skirts and he pleaded to be taken instead.
Death’s gentle hand brushed the top of his bowed shaking head. “It is time.”
And Death deserted him on the doorstep, howling at the breaking dawn.
That night, he packed his pistols, saddled his horse, traded the shack for the stars and never looked back.
When Death’s song subsided, he tucked the harmonica away and they returned to contented quiet, save for the spitting and snapping of the fire that danced with the shadows.
In the lonesome years that followed Maria’s untimely time, the Cowboy roamed the red-caked earth, fording rivers, patrolling hills, sleeping free. He tried to call upon his doppelganger through booze and blood, rope and knife, but Death stayed stubborn. Despite his best efforts, someone always found him, someone always staunched the wound.
Under the battered banner of desperation, he eventually picked a fight with a hillside gang of crooks. In the midst of the crude brawl, the Cowboy found solace in strength and desire for justice, and it was then that Death deigned to join the fun with carved cheeks and blackened teeth. It was there the Cowboy learned he could keep Death near, by beckoning on behalf of those whose time had come.
Sometimes the Cowboy summoned Death with the call of a gunshot. Sometimes he made Death offerings slung in rope over the nearest tree. Sometimes he delivered to Death in the nearest county jail.
Their partnership spanned many long years. The Cowboy collected bounties; Death collected outlaws.
Overhead, the stars turned and the night withered. Death and the Cowboy watched the fire burn low, its embers sizzling, flaring with their final breath.
“Do you have any questions?”
“She’ll be okay.”
The Cowboy finally lifted his eyes from the flames, flicked up the brim of his hat with a crooked thumb, and studied the weary weathered lines on Death’s final face. He saw Beau’s boyish grin; he felt his father’s heavy hand; he softened at Maria’s azure eyes.
The Cowboy nodded. Without hurry, he clambered to his feet as best as his saddle-bent legs allowed. He tipped the flask heavenward and savored the burn in his chest. The horse’s ears twitched sadly back and forth as she was brushed, unbridled, and set loose into the night.
Death waited patiently as he made his final arrangements.
When there was nothing left to do and nothing left say, Death and the Cowboy abandoned the smoldering circle of ash and disappeared into the dying dark of the west, day dawning at their backs.