Death's Pretty Face

by Charlotte C. Hill
A Halloween story

There she is again.

It took me a week to realize I wasn't just imagining things: the fog's been ridin' the hills hard, thick enough in some places that a man can't see his hand in front of his face. It's been getting worse every day, and this morning it poured into this old burg like water flooding a sluice, filling up the streets, soaking up light and noise until I wonder if this is how I'll feel lying in my grave. When the time comes, it'll be like this: muffled stillness pressing on my chest like the dirt weighing me down, everything I care about out of my reach, and everything I want swiped clean away. Just gone.

It feels more like death every time, something that's been breathing down the back of my neck for days, now that feels like doom. I've been off ever since I looked up toward a horse riding in and saw her standing right in the middle of the road. I couldn't believe my eyes. I still can't. But she looked so real I'd come to my feet before my brains could take over and stop me from running toward her.

She's across the street this time, a good fifty feet between me and her, and I just want her gone. Sarah, you've been dead for years. Me and Chris buried your body. We've both found us a measure of peace, and I can't believe you'd begrudge either one of us that.

She ain't real. She can't be. I know my mind's playing tricks--hell, I know I've been feeding it 'cause for days I been funning the little kids. I hadn't done nothing to give 'em nightmares or keep their mamas up late, but I'd been scaring the shit out of J.D. because that's just dead easy.

I hadn't started up on Josiah, but that's because that mean old cuss has taken whatever ghost story I started around a campfire and turned the tables on me. He plays dirty, too, citing Bible quotes and the philosophies of the ages, descriptions of strange creatures that once walked the earth and the demons that might walk it still. Then he'd throw in werewolves for good measure and I'd be the one with an itch between his shoulder blades and butterflies in his belly. I can't help but be impressed with the guy, but I'm not offering him any more easy chances to get me.

I'd been all ready to start trying to trick Chris when she showed up.

After that, I decided to leave Halloween to the kids.

But she hasn't gone away and my moodiness is causing Chris to worry, some. Neither one of us is used to me turning down a reason to celebrate, and sure as hell neither of us is used to me refusing one of those kinds of offers from him. But he offered, right here in town, invited me to sneak into his boarding house room and I turned him down flat. She showed up twice that day, and no way in Hell was I gonna risk her wandering in on us like that. I don't care how lofty my feelings for Chris are, or his for me, I don't think I could ever touch him again if she showed up when him and me were together.

The jangle of familiar spurs cuts through this cloud, while the softer scuff of boot leather takes longer to be heard.

Speak of the devil.

I know it's Chris long before I see him; nobody walks like him. Nobody's spurs sound like his. And lately, nobody else but me has been stepping as lightly as he has. I wonder if he sees her too, wonder if that was what inspired him to offer me his bed when he did, because that's a risk neither one of us takes lightly here in town.

I wonder if he sees her, but I can't bring myself to ask him.

I can only hear his spurs now; he's in the dirt between the next block and mine, and he'll be on me any second. I turn my head to watch the fog darken, to watch his form break through: black hat, black suit, and black look in his eyes, and finally his boots on the step.

"Chris," I greet him, barely a whisper.

He looks startled, and I suppose he is. Ain't nothing could have told him I was standing out here in the silence. He glances around right quick, then steps closer to me than we usually dare in public. "Buck," he says, and slips his hand under my coat to rub his knuckle above my belt. His hand is warm, and I welcome it.

I put my hand over his and press, just acknowledging. "You all right?" I ask.

He shrugs, which says he isn't. "You?"

"I'm all right," I lie. She's still there across the street, far enough away that there's no way I should be able to make her out through this fog, but I can see her as plain as I see Chris right here beside me.

He leans even closer, so close I can feel his body heat along my hip and side. His eyes turn to follow my gaze. "What do you see?" he asks. He's not talking loud, but he's not talking scared, either; he just wants to know.

"Can't see anything in this soup," I reply.

He glances up at me, disappointed, and I look away.

"I kind of want to get out of town today," I tell him. "Thought I'd ride out to your place and make myself at home, if it's all right."

"Fine by me," Chris tells me. "I've got no plans, and I didn't want to deal with the folks out tonight anyhow," he huffs. His hand moves out of my coat and up to squeeze my shoulder, then he lets his fingertips brush the bare skin at the back of my neck: warm. Familiar. I'm glad Chris'll be riding out, too.

He turns without another word and I turn too, just enough to watch him walk down the boardwalk and push through the saloon's batwing doors.

It's eerie, how they're only half-doors on swing hinges, but when they close behind him the noise inside gets shut in. It's eerie that I'm standing out here instead of going inside to be with my friends, but I'm afraid she'll follow me. So far she's stayed out doors, but she got close this morning when I strolled into the restaurant for breakfast, and I don't need an audience for whatever's happening. I don't know why this is happening. I don't know why I get more scared every time she appears.

I turn my head back to the street and almost jump a mile; in the time I spent watching Chris leave, she's crossed the street and is closer than she's been since I first saw her. She's standing beside a horse at the hitching post, not eight feet away.

Fog swirls in eddies and flows like water. It's strange how the horse don't seem to know she's there. Glancing right and left real quick, I step off the boardwalk and into the dirt. I walk toward her, expecting her to disappear again, but now she stays. I'm two feet away--closer than I'd usually have gotten to her in life without a chaperone, an invitation, or a damned good reason, but she just stands there. She tilts her head, looking up at me, and her eyes... I'd forgotten what color they were, pretty brown like a calf's. It scares the hell out of me that I can see Chris's dead wife and he can't. Nobody ought to be seeing her, but if anybody can, it ought to be Chris.

"What're you doing here?" I ask, barely a whisper. If the words sound desperate it's because they are. I am.

She shakes her head and her mouth opens, but no sound comes out.

"I don't understand," I say to her. She frowns, like she can't quite hear me, so I repeat myself. "I don't understand."

As soon as her weight shifts forward I jump back, fast enough and far enough that the backs of my boots catch the boardwalk and I go down hard. I didn't know it before I moved, but her ghost ain't touching me if I can help it. I didn't know it before, but now I'm sure--if she touches me, she'll be taking me home.

My ass hitting the boards makes me yelp, and I scrabble back and sideways before I can even look to see if she's still coming at me.

The commotion of me crashing and crawling brings gawkers from inside, but Chris has beat them to the door and he's holding each wing, keeping everybody back. I try to right myself while my eyes dart between Chris's and the space where Sarah was, but she's gone again. I'm relieved, and sad that I am.

"Go on back inside," Chris orders folks blandly. "Nothin' to see but Buck Wilmington tripping over his own big feet."

Most folks fade back, but I know someone's probably peering through the window. Chris and Vin step on out while I right my jacket and dust dirt off the sleeves. Vin bends to pick up my hat and holds it out, giving me a worried look. "You ain't been yourself, lately," he says.

No shit, I ain't. "I'm all right," I say as I get my feet back under me.

Vin shrugs and turns back toward the saloon, holding the door. Chris gives me one last look, that "wish you'd tell me but I'm not gonna ask" look, and passes Vin by, but Vin stands there for a second longer. "Buy you a drink if you want to come on in," he offers kindly. He knows something's wrong with me but he's too decent to pry.

"Thanks, Vin," I say, meaning it. "Maybe after the stage comes in." He nods and walks back inside, and I feel so lonesome out here, and more alone than I have in a good long while--maybe since my ma died.

The distant shake of harness bells relieves me some and I check my pocket watch; the stage is late, but it's coming. I look east and I can see the fog moving forward like something's pushing the current at the far end of the street, and my bones go cold. Sarah's there again, between me and the Wells Fargo office. Why her? Why is it her and not my ma come to fetch me? What the hell else is coming at me?

Turns out it's just the stage, hoofbeats and tack rattle, then ghostly horses' heads and a big ol' lump that looks like the driver and reminds me of the trials of Ichabod Crane.

Sarah has faded to nothing by the time I get to the coach, and Larry sets the brake as I reach up a hand for his coach gun and empty lunch pail.

"Any trouble?" I ask him.

"Nothin' I could see," he says. "But then, what could anybody see in this?" Larry's got a pleasant laugh and he's in good spirits, which eases me some.

"Any folks staying? Or just passing on through?"

"Everybody's stayin'," Larry announces. "I don't aim to edge around Oakley Pass until I can see that the wheels are still on the road."

I can't blame him. Wind and a rock fall ate away more of the narrow road last month, and until somebody with skill and blasting powder gets up there to cut out more of the cliff, the passage is precarious on a good day.

"Well. The business owners'll be happy," I say, trying for optimism.

Larry climbs off the carriage and hops off the axle with a grunt. "Bathhouse too. I been aching ever since we rode into this soup."

I hand out the ladies and measure up the gents, and I've just decided there's no one to worry about in this load when J.D. strolls over from the jail. Good. Better him than me. I need to get out of town before I do something stupid in front of witnesses.

"Hey, J.D.," I say, calling him to one side. "I told Chris I was wantin' out of town and was going to bed down at his place tonight. Anybody asks, that's where I've gone."

J.D. frowns. "You're gonna miss the party!"

I shrug. "So?"

J.D. frowns hard and looks closely at me. "Buck?" He's really concerned, and I could see that in his eyes if I couldn't hear it in his voice.

Damn, I hate it when the kid reminds me he's growing up. "It's nothing for you to worry on," I say, and try to smile. "Just feeling the ghosts walking on my grave, and I ain't good company."

"You can say that again."

I knock his hat of his head for that, but then I head past the stage and on to the livery, quick like. I've got a lot more years of living to do before I'm ready for death, and while I ought to feel grateful it's a face I trust as much as Sarah's, I'm not. I thought I'd be old and crippled or gunshot, not walking along healthy and virile and cut down before my time. I've heard tales of folks not being ready and just turning away, so that's what I'm gonna do. I'm just gonna go out to Chris's and hunker down and keep my mind on the living. On me living.

I'm a mile out of town and listening to the pound of galloping hoof beats approaching before I wonder why I thought she wouldn't follow me to Chris's.

I can't make out whose horse it is, not in this fog, but I've still got the sense to know ghosts don't need to saddle up. It's got to be J.D. or Chris, come to check on me. It's got to be, but the urge to pull off the road and hide in this fog is so strong I almost give in. Almost.

Buck Wilmington ain't no coward.

I turn Don and back him a pace off the track just so's he don't get run over in this soup. Don jumps a little, and I take up all the slack in the reins; he's been feeling my fear since I climbed into the saddle, and I know he wants to get the bit in his teeth and run.

Chris's black lopes out of the fog like the grim reaper, and I reckon it takes him a second longer to see my grey, but when he does he reins in Pony so fast that the horse almost sits back on its haunches and its hooves slide, cutting trenches in the dirt.

"God damn it, Buck!" he snaps.

Hearing Chris pissed at me does more to calm me than just about anything else could have, I imagine. Still, I'm breathing hard and yeah, maybe I'm halfway backed off the road after all. Chris is more angry than afraid, but he's just mad I left without him, and mad that I haven't told him what's wrong with me. He stopped asking a couple of days ago, and I can't blame him.

"You looked scared half to death when you rode out of town!" he tells me.

"I am," I say. "I'm scared half to death, Chris." Don starts dancing a little, trying to sidle back to the road.

Chris's eyes narrow and he leans out of the saddle to grab Don's reins. "You ain't fit to ride," he gripes, and I'm not in a mood to argue.

Soon as he gets our horses walking, he gets pushy, and I don't have it in me to carry this on my own anymore. "You'd best be ready to tell me what's ridin' you so hard," he snaps. "You look like you've seen a ghost."

"I have," I say, flat out. "I am. I'm seeing Sarah."

Chris stiffens, but I give the man credit; his face just looks confused. "What?"

I say it as plain as I can, because I just don't know what else to do. "Chris, I been seein' your dead wife since last Sunday."

"Sheeit," he says, dismissing the words as foolery.

I shouldn't have expected him to believe me--I wouldn't have believed him if he'd told me the same thing. But my heart's pounding and I still feel that awful fear in me, so I don't even fight him for my horse's reins back. I just sit back in my saddle and wonder if I've gone crazy.

By the time we get to his place half an hour later, he's asked me enough questions that he knows I'm serious. He doesn't know I'm not crazy, but he knows I'm not drunk and I'm not trying to play some trick. He knows I believe what I'm saying.

It ain't fair. I knew Sarah Larabee. That woman didn't have a mean bone in her entire body, and I know as sure as I know my name that she wouldn't have wanted any harm to fall on me. They say it's the Lord sending someone familiar, family to help guide the soul home, and that it's supposedly a comfort to the dying. But it ain't working so good on me because I just ain't ready. I'm not ready to die, I'm not ready to leave Chris or these boys or this two-bit down I've grown so fond of.

I'm sure as hell not ready to be the next thing Chris cares about that dies on him for no good reason.

But death doesn't care about any of that, I reckon, because when we reach Chris's shack I can feel her here, and it's a stronger and stranger feeling than I've felt yet. That same feeling tells me if she touches me, I'll fall where I stood.

The hairs on the back of my neck stand up as we dismount by the corral, and I turn to find her standing on Chris's dirt porch. She looks sad, and a piece of me knows she don't want to do this, but I guess she's got no more choice in the matter than I do.

"What," Chris says.

"She's here."

Chris tries to reason with me. "Look, this weather plays tricks on--"

"Chris, I'm telling' you, I see her clearer than I can see you! She's right there on the porch!"

"Fine, so she's here," he snipes right back at me. "What the hell is there about Sarah to scare you?"

"I think she's here for me, Chris," I mange to choke out.

Chris looks over toward the porch and I know just from the look on his face that he can't see nothing. I hear him sigh, and let him nudge me aside so he can let the horses into the corral. "Get your saddle," he tells me, so I haul it off my horse like death isn't waiting for me, and I follow Chris to the bin where we store the tack. She's still on the porch when we round the corner of the house, right by the front door.

Chris stops moving when he realizes I'm not following.

The air goes static, like lightning's about to strike, and all the hairs on my body try to stand on end. Chris feels it too, from the way he rubs his bare wrists. He can't see Sarah's ghost but he can feel something now, something wrong.

"Tell me," he orders me, but I can't make any words come out. Sarah stares at me with that tiny frown marring her brow, the one she gave me every time she heard about something I might've done that she didn't approve of, and that, at least, almost makes me smile amidst all this. Reckon she can't approve of Chris and me choosing to sin together regular now, but him and me lost all hope of Heaven long before he first touched me.

Her frown fades into that smile she used to give me, the affectionate one that tells me she's about to hug my neck, and I stiffen so bad I feel like I'm gonna topple over.

Blinking pushes the tears out of my eyes. My chest feels like it's being sat on by a bear. Chris looks at me for a long minute before he reaches out to grab my hand in a tight, tight grip. "I've never seen you this scared before," he says. He says it slow, like he's thinking.

I nod agreement. I don't think I ever have been. I didn't think a man could be this scared, and it's not just the end I fear. There's something awful, and sad beyond words, when a woman so beautiful and so kind, who was probably the closest female friend I've ever had and one who Chris loved more than anybody else in the world, would be one to bring death to me. It's no comfort, because I'm not ready to go.

She's looking at Chris now, and I recognize that look on her face too. It's the one she wore every time I brought him home from some horse auction or working trip. She looks like she just barely survived his time away, and that she can't wait to greet him properly just as soon as I make myself scarce by taking the new stock to the barn or riding on back to town.

It ought to be him she's come for. Not that I want him taken from me, but at least if it was Chris she'd come for, he'd welcome the trip over.

"She ain't here for you, Buck," Chris says. His voice is flat like he's giving me an order.

I can still feel Chris's hand, the grip so tight it's pushing my knucklebones together. I can see his eyes tracking from my face to the porch where I'm staring. I know he can't see her. But he can see the tears running down my face and spoiling my mustache, and the look on his face tells me he believes me.

If this is my time, I'm not leaving without saying it. I have to cough and swallow and work hard to get the air into me, but I manage. "I don't know why I been waiting to say it, but I love you, Chris. Always have, one way or another. You're my family."

Chris frowns at me and glances thoughtfully back toward the porch. "Shut up for a minute," he replies.

Sarah's gaze moves from Chris's face and back to mine. Her eyes bring a chill wind with them, and I feel like this infernal fog is thickening up on my insides now, too.

"Sarah?" he calls, his voice as soft as I've ever heard it. "You really there?"

I can't take my eyes off her face. It looks so kind, and sad, and it just ain't fair. It ain't fair, damn it.

"Stop hiding, Sarah," Chris breathes, and the pressure on my chest eases for a moment.

I suck in air for more last words. "I don't know why it'd be her ghost sent to fetch me home," I tell Chris. I guess I'm telling it to her, too. I really don't know.

Chris stiffens like he's been hit with a two-by-four.

"You sayin' Sarah's here to kill you?" he demands, but my throat's done closed up and I can't even get air into me. The fog thickens around us all. I can still see her though, and I can still see Chris. Chris shoots a hard look at me before he lets go of my hand and walks straight up to the porch where she stands. "He ain't ready," I hear him mutter as he walks, "and I ain't ready for him to go. If you have to, then you can take me, but Buck ain't leaving today."

If I could move, I'd shove him away or tackle him to the ground. I'd keep him from touching that ghostly form any way I could, because if he touches her it could be the end of him, too.

I can't defend him from that, though. I can't defend either one of us. All I can do is watch as Chris walks right into the place she's standing and jerks to a halt, dead still. I can see 'em both, right there in the same space, and Chris's body moves like he knows he's someplace not of this Earth. He turns, real slow, until he and Sarah are both looking at me.

"Buck ain't ready," Chris says again, as calm as if he's telling the time. "I'm not ready for him to leave me, and I'm not ready to go either. Wait a while."

Nothing. I know she's still there even though I can't see so good anymore. Everything's going grayer than this damned fog.

"Wait a while, flower," Chris says, so low. I don't ever remember him calling his wife 'flower,' but now that he's said it here I know he must have, all the time, when they were alone.

Chris's eyes close. "We won't be long. No hurry." His voice grows softer, more mumble than whisper: "I've got reason to stay now, and you don't need to take it away. We'll be along soon enough."

I can't see anything anymore. I can feel my heart pounding like a triphammer, and I can still feel where Chris was squeezing my hand, but that's all. I don't know if I'm more afraid now that I'm gonna die, or that Chris is. Then he whispers, "I love--" and the static in the air finds its ground and I hear a crack like lightning splitting the trunk of a tree. The next thing that happens is that I can get a breath.

I draw in air so fast and hard, I feel like I've done sucked it down into my boots. Whatever it was had a hold of me has let me loose, and I waver for a second before I tumble forward and fall to my knees. Gasping in breath after fresh, pure breath, I look up and now it's Chris not moving. It's Chris standing there frozen, and Sarah's ghostly light playing all around him.

"Always miss you," he murmurs, and smiles. Then she's gone as fast as she first appeared, and Chris is let go of whatever hold she had on him. He opens his eyes, sees me, and hurries forward to drop down beside me, grabbing me hard by my arms.

"Buck? Buck!"

I don't know what to say in the face of all that feeling in Chris. That I thought I was gonna die of fright? That I'm so grateful she didn't take him I feel like a selfish lunatic? That I always knew he cared but I didn't ever expect him to make that choice, not even if it took him dying to get back with her?

"Buck!" he yells, close enough that I feel his warm breath on my face. "You okay?"

"She's gone," I gasp as blood surges into my tingling limbs.

Chris frowns and glances sidelong at the porch. "I know."

"Did you see her?" I ask him, urgent. "Did you, Chris?"

"No," he says, thoughtful. "I didn't see anything."

"Then how--"

"But I felt her, Buck," he keeps talking right over me, like I didn't ask anything. "I felt her." He's staring at that empty place on the porch and his eyes shine with tears, but none spill over. I feel guilty that it was me she came for. "She really was right there."

"Why--" I stop before I can start. I can't ask him why she wanted to kill me. The question sounds wrong-headed even to me, and besides, I can think of at least one good answer. "She mad at us, Chris?" I ask him.

Chris turns back around and looks at me like he's about to smack the back of my head. "Hell no, she ain't mad at us," he snipes, like that should be obvious. "You think she wanted me to be alone for the rest of my life?"

I think there's nothing to say to that. "There's nothing there anymore," I say instead.

"No," Chris says. His hand travels absently up over my shoulder and across my back, and everywhere it touches I feel warm again, alive.

"I don't think she'll be back," Chris whispers.

I shrug, helpless. My gut says the same, but I can't believe he's run her off. I can't believe he even tried. I nod, weak with relief, and swipe hard at my messy face. I didn't know a growed man could feel that much fear and live to tell of it. Not that I plan on telling anybody....

"Come on," Chris says, and he hauls me bodily up to my feet. I'm still shaky enough that he keeps a good grip on me, and he has to use his elbow on the latch and his boot to push the front door open.

Things get a little sketchy after that. I don't remember what happens between the time we cross the threshold and the moment I realize that the fire's blazing and I'm sitting half naked in the rocking chair with a blanket tucked around my shoulders. The smell of biscuits fills the room; I've been out the whole time he's built up a fire and cooked for me.

"One thing she told me when she was alive, Buck, plenty of times," Chris is saying, and his voice is a little bit rough like he's been talking for a while now. "You focus on the living. I couldn't do that with any ease for years after she passed, but damned if you haven't got me into the habit again. It makes a little more sense to me, now."

None of this makes any sense to me, but that fear that clawed at me feels more like a nightmare now, a fading dream. I clear my throat and try to add something to the conversation. "A'right."

Chris looks up and grins, and picks up a coffee mug. "You decide to wake up?" he asks me, and his voice is as soft and filled with feeling as I've ever heard it.

I clear my throat again. "I didn't know I was asleep."

"I'm not sure where you were, Buck," Chris admits as he drops down onto a bench beside my chair and puts his hand over mine, "but I'm glad you're back."

I look at him, and I remember I told him I loved him.

He looks at me like he remembers it, too.