Full disclosure, I died. Whenever you read something written in first person it's usually a safe bet that whoever is telling the story lives. Just so there isn't any confusion, I want to say up front that I came to a tragic end. Of course, I died about a hundred and sixty years ago, give or take a few, so maybe this isn't the twist ending at the beginning that I thought it would be. If anyone ever decides to give my life the big-budget movie treatment they can go ahead and skip my origin story because, really, it's kind of embarrassing.
My name is Calvin Bennett and I was born in West Texas shortly after it quit being East Mexico, my daddy was a Civil War Vet who worked as a vaquero on a ranch owned by a wealthy Mexican fella named Miguel San Domingo and I worked as a hired hand from twelve years old up till I was about thirty, which is when I kicked it. I look about the same now as I did back then, except my hair is shorter and I bathe more often. I'm a touch over 6 feet tall and I keep in pretty good shape, always have. I was always decent in a scrap but I preferred to let the other guys soften each other up before I would get involved. For the most part things were simple back then and the work was honest, if not easy. Most of the time I was the one riding drag at the tail end of the herd when we were on a drive. Those were pretty good times and I was well on my way to a fairly unremarkable life until one fateful autumn day.
Miguel's ranch was small compared to some of the other outfits in the area. He had about five hundred or so acres with a decent sized house for himself and his family and a few smaller out-buildings for the ranch hands. There were anywhere from a dozen to thirty men working for him, depending on the time of year. Most of the time we worked sunup to sundown everyday with the exception of Sundays since ol' Miguel was a good Catholic. Every once in a while, for whatever reason, we would get a day off during the week. It was on one of these rare holidays that the entire direction of my life changed forever.
Early fall in West Texas is a lot like summer in West Texas – hot, dry and God-awful boring. I decided that the best way to spend my day off was to spend some money on my favorite puta. Her name was Maria, at least that was the name she told me (the other guys called her Rosa, Lupe, Isabelle, Gloria, and on and on). A couple hours with her would have a lesser man begging for the comfort of a sixteen hour horseback ride through the desert. She wasn't exactly pretty but she was a pro. Now I never had much trouble with the ladies, it's just that the gals you pay for are a lot less trouble. I did have a pretty young thing that I was courting at one time but her granddad didn't like the idea of his upright young lady hitching up with guy like me, so I decided to stick with what works. Never did make it to see Maria that day though, in fact I never saw her again.
Leaving a horse saddled overnight was an unforgivable sin around Miguel's ranch. But, when I walked out that morning to get my gelding ready for a ride across the river to Ojinaga, I saw that one of the drunks had apparently just crawled off his filly and stumbled into bed the night before. If Señor San Domingo saw one of his horses roaming loose with a seat on it there would definitely be a firing and probably a beating for good measure. Since I was feeling less than ambitious and wasn't sure which hand had done it, I figured I would save myself some time and someone’s job and take that pony instead. That turned out to be a defining bit of laziness. See, I was unfamiliar with that particular horse, but I found out later that it was basically the clumsiest and stupidest animal on the property, which is saying something since there was a dog that did continuous somersaults in an effort to catch his own balls.
Ojinaga was about a three hour's ride from the ranch if you were in a hurry, which I wasn't. Me and that pony were making our way nice and easy, taking a slow and steady pace through the mesquite and junipers. We had just crossed the river when a roadrunner darted out and spooked that damn dumb horse something silly. She started crow hopping and side stepping like she'd never seen a bird before. Before I could settle her down and point out that she probably didn't have anything to worry about even if the little fiend did decide to attack, my horse stepped on a chunk of limestone and slipped. I was nearly crushed when a thousand pounds of fuzzy idiot came crashing towards me but I managed to kick off just in time. Just in time, that is, to use my skull to cushion the blow of landing on a nice, jagged rock. The back of my head was split wide open and I instantly had the worst headache in the history of ever. The back of my neck was warm and sticky and I couldn't move. My eyes were wide open but my vision was fading fast and my last thoughts were fantasies of unloading my rifle into that goddamned piece of walking dog food.
Before the world went completely black, a hand reached down and grabbed mine. I was pulled up onto my feet and I instantly felt bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. I looked at the man that had helped me up and said, "I don’t know how you did that, but I sure do appreciate it, Padre." Looking back, I guess I assumed he was a preacher because he dressed so fancy and had the soft hands of a man that had never done a day of manual labor in his life. He also had a certain condescending way of looking at me that you don't usually find outside of religious folks. He was a short little man, maybe five feet tall and he couldn’t have weighed more than a buck twenty. A dark, thick mustache framed his mouth and tufts of coal black hair were escaping from his hat. At first I assumed he was Mexican but his features weren't real well defined, and, other than being comically short, he was pretty forgettable looking. For all I knew he could have been a tanned gringo or an Apache. He didn't say a word, just gestured to the ground behind me. I turned and saw something that will stick with me for the rest of my days. There I was, laying on the ground, tongue sticking out like I was teasing the clouds, eyes rolled back just enough to make me look deficient, and with a nice red-black pool of blood soaking into my best whoring clothes. I was a mite taken aback, to say the least. I must have stood there for a good ten minutes just staring at my corpse while that mysterious Man of God quietly watched.
"What you were is no more." He finally said.
"Thanks for clearin' that up for me. Exactly why in the hell are there two of me and who the hell are you?" I asked him.
"I am what you will be. A gatherer of souls. You have been chosen to walk the Earth in search of those who are in need of help moving on once they have finished their time here." Little guy got right to the point, which was alright, but I also got the feeling he had an elsewhere he'd much rather be. Now normally I would have been inclined to call 'horseshit' if someone started telling tales like this, but, since I was very clearly in two places at the same time, I figured I would give him the benefit of the doubt.
"So… I am dead, right?" I wanted to make absolutely sure. He just nodded. "And now I'm a ghost that has to, what? Help all the dead people get to heaven?"
"Not all who die, only those who need help. And not everyone has a pleasant afterlife, some souls are claimed by less…forgiving forces. If you choose to accept this calling you will be returned to your body but you will unable to go back to your former life."
"How am I supposed to know who goes where and how do I find 'em? You gonna be showin' me the ropes?" I didn't relish the idea of spending a whole lot of time with this guy but I wanted a few more facts before I decided to become a spooky undertaker.
"You will know. When the time is right, you will know." At least he wasn't being overly cryptic.
"You ain't the devil, are you? 'Cause you can just keep your poison fruit. I been to church and I know all about temptation." He shook his head and laughed at me, actually he laughed for a bit longer than I was comfortable with.
When he finally quit he said, "I have been a Gatherer for several lifetimes. It is not a calling that should be approached lightly, as the responsibility is profound. If you accept the offer I am making then I will return you to your body, if not I will escort you to your fate."
He wasn't giving me much to go on so I had a hard think on it for a couple of minutes. On the one hand I liked the idea of this "several lifetimes" angle, on that very same hand I wasn't terribly sure what my "fate" was gonna be. I recalled the frequent trips to Maria's place and the fact that I had never not cheated during a card game. I considered what I would be leaving behind. My daddy had passed on a few years back and there wasn't much chance of a promotion at San Domingo's place, besides, I was sick of looking at cow assholes for months at a time. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that there didn't seem to be a downside to his offer. Maybe I was taking a lot on faith but I've always been a snap decision now, consequences later kind of fella.
"Alright, I’ll do it." Just like that I was back in my body and that brain-cracking headache was waiting for me. For a second I forgot about the little preacher man and walked over to that dumbshit horse. I pulled my old man's Winchester out of the holster and pumped the 7 rounds that were in it into the broadside of that pony. It felt good to make that creature pay for the pain in my skull, but it wasn't until I heard the solid thud of it hitting the ground that it occurred to me that I was a day’s walk from the nearest anything.
"Oh damn," I said to myself. Then I looked around that little preacher. He must have had some kind of transportation. A person would have to be a complete idiot to wind up in the middle of a nowhere like this without a horse. But he was long gone. There wasn't a single indication that he had ever been there. I swore to myself and started walking. No food, no horse, an empty rifle, and enough cash for one romp with a cheap Mexican prostitute. I decided to head north, at least for the time being, and let whatever was going to happen, happen.
I was lacking on a clear idea of how I was supposed to go about this new profession, but the blood on the back of my head and on my shirt was rapidly beginning to draw flies so I started moving. Not exactly on the same level as getting bitten by a radioactive spider. Forget what the little guy said about being a "Gatherer," it didn’t take long to figure out that I was actually a Reaper, and let me tell you, the job sucks. Now don't get me wrong, there are some definite pluses to the gig, being damn near indestructible, for instance, is pretty sweet. The immortality part ain't bad either. In movies and T.V., when someone is immortal, all they do is bitch about how hard it is to watch the people you love grow old and die. I actually like watching the biggest of the pricks around me slowly succumb to Alzheimer's. And I've had some great times over the last hundred plus years. Of course, none of those stories can match what happened recently.