Darkness. Not the darkness of a night sky nor a room without candlelight, but thick, opaque black without a hint of color. A strong smell of wood, freshly cut...
Jake could see nothing, though his eyes were open. Had he gone blind?
Experimentally, he spread his arms and touched cold wood. He tried to raise himself, and rammed his head.
He had faced death before—played roulette with him, looked him in the eye. Yet he had never panicked, and he pounded and shouted for only a minute or so. Then he forced himself to breathe steadily and think rationally.
He had been buried alive. He had heard of such things... but how had it happened to him?
The Barton brothers ... ambushed us at Honey Creek... always wanted our territory...
The last thing he remembered was the barrel of Jeb Barton’s gun.
His side ached, so maybe he did have a mortal injury. And maybe someone... somewhere... had given him a chance to... What? Make his peace?
Men love the darkness because their deeds are evil.
His stern uncle had quoted that text often, during Jake’s Philadelphia boyhood before the War Between the States. The uncle had been respectable, wealthy, and grimly religious, and there had been no love or laughter in his tall brick house. Jake had loved the nighttime, when he sneaked away to run with the gang of slum boys who idolized him. And after one of those nights, Jake had not gone home.
When the War was over, Jake had ridden West and collected a motley group of night-lovers. They looked up to him because he was suave, intelligent, and somewhat principled. But he’d killed a fair number of men, and passing stagecoaches provided a steady income for him and his gang.
And now he was going to die as he had lived: in the dark.
It could have been different, I guess, he thought.
But regret was useless.
If I had another chance...
And he pounded on the wood and shouted, until he knew there would be no other chance. He would die here in the close, stifling darkness...
Then he heard a faint noise, far off and muffled, and he bellowed in a hoarse voice he didn’t recognize.
A moment later, he heard a thud outside his prison.
“You alive?” called someone, and Jake cried out a desperate affirmative.
He waited. After awhile, the coffin shook and a thin sliver of grey shone along one edge, until at last the lid was pried up. Jake struggled to sit, his eyes watering and smarting in the lantern light. He took the hand held out to him and pulled himself over the edge of the box. Then he looked around.
He was in a newly-dug grave, not yet filled. And the face behind the lantern—old, grizzled and weathered—was as beautiful to Jake as that of golden-haired Mollie at the Black Swan Saloon.
“Thought you was a ghost, son,” said the old man, putting down his pickaxe. “I’m Pete... dig the graves ‘round here. Came to fill this one tonight, and got the shock of my life.”
“Thanks,” rasped Jake. “How... how’d they come to bury me?”
“Doc Grey took out the bullet, then said you was dead. He’d been drinkin’... so he mighta been a little hasty. I thought so... but your boys didn’t ask no questions...”
No, thought Jake, they wouldn’t. Because he knew “his boys” had never been his friends. They’d followed him because of his brains and his aim... but he’d always known they’d take the loot and leave him behind if they could. And so they had.
Pete helped Jake clamor out of the grave, then eyed him warily, as if remembering Jake’s reputation.
“I got a good horse... you can have him... belonged to a cowboy who died...”
“I’ll buy the horse,” said Jake. “But I don’t kill people who save my life.”
Months ago, he’d buried a bag of coins near the outskirts of town. And before he rode away, Jake filled his rescuer’s hands with gold.
“Horse ain’t worth that much,” Pete said, his voice unsteady.
“It’s not for the horse. You’ve got to finish the grave... and keep the secret.”
Pete nodded. He understood.
If I had another chance...
And Jake spurred the horse and rode east toward the sunrise... toward the light.
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