Drifters Lament

by Karen

The sky over Four Corners was unrepentantly blue. The universe flat out refused to mourn the passing of another forgotten soul. JD scowled darkly at the swollen sun. It just wasn't right, he thought, for someone to be so utterly invisible. No one in town had bothered to spare the old drifter a kindly thought.

His cheeks burned furiously at the memory of old man Conklin's words when he'd demanded that JD make the arrangements for the body. Conklin was offended that the man had chosen his boardwalk to lie down and die. He rabbited on about the customers he was loosing while the body lay there; already turning ripe in the early heat. Refuse got more regard than the human life that had been lost.

JD had been so angry he hadn't said a word. Hadn't dared. He'd just turned on his heel and gone to fetch Josiah.

The coffin maker had given them a plain pine box at a discount. But the grave had been theirs to dig. It was hard work -- harder under the hot sun, but JD attacked it with a ferocity he couldn't name.

When the deed was done, he and Josiah hadn't even bothered to clean up before the makeshift funeral. It was just the two of them. And as Josiah had pointed out, it wasn't likely their customer was going to complain. The dead almost never did.

Josiah scrubbed at his face with his handkerchief before he drew a tattered bible from his back pocket. The words he said over the fresh grave were meant to comfort a family that wasn't there. Would never be there. Would never know that this particular mound, on this particular boot hill was the final resting place of their loved one.

It hadn't been so very long ago that he himself had been something of a drifter; albeit a drifter who'd run a straight line smack into his destiny. When he'd hopped off that stage into the middle of a gunfight, there wasn't a soul on the earth who would have noticed if he fell. There were still days when he wondered how he'd found the gall to stick around after that first disastrous morning. Contemplating the man buried at his feet, JD shuddered at the thought of what might have been.

The words Josiah intoned were more familiar to JD than his own name; and in an odd way, they made him homesick. At the appropriate times he said amen and echoed the prayers by rote. His thoughts returned to the scene on the boardwalk that morning. He didn't think he'd ever get used to the look of death. The lack of something human in features gone heavy and still turned his stomach every time.

The old man had been no different from any other death. He certainly hadn't lain down expecting to die. His worn jacket had been pulled close around his whip thin body. The only other thing the he owned was a flask of whiskey so raw it burned JD's eyes when he uncapped it.

JD still had the flask, tucked into the waistband of his pants. When Josiah was done with his prayers, JD pulled out the flask. He held it up, saluting the western horizon -- a place where he'd always fancied heaven to lie. JD wasn't brave enough to sip the amber liquor. Instead he tipped the flask and let the whiskey drizzle on to the bare earth in a benediction of another sort. When the last drops had fallen from the battered tin, JD recapped it.

Kneeling where the headstone belonged, JD scrapped aside enough dirt to bury the flask. He pressed the metal, warm from his flesh, into the cool darkness of the earth. The prayer he whispered over the unmarked and unmourned grave was one for lost souls.

Josiah helped him to his feet. He settled his arm around JD's shoulder in a brotherly embrace. They walked back to town in silence, letting the sun warm their shoulders and chase the shadows from their thoughts.