A Meeting of Strangers

This story doesn’t fit in my Modern Gods world, but it’s a fun one.  I wrote it in high school, if that tells you anything about my psyche.  So, without further ado…

It was a cold, December evening.  The sky loomed overhead, gray, overcast, and heavy with a snow that refused to fall.  The devil shivered and grumbled on horseback.  He topped a small rise, brightening as he saw a lone cowboy huddled miserably over a small, smoking campfire.

The devil grinned, taking on the guise of a rich Easterner.  He rode up to the fire, dismounted, and turned to face the cowboy.  “How do, cowboy,” he said pleasantly.

The cowboy tipped his hat back and looked up at the stranger from under the wide brim.  He was gaunt, hollow-eyed, and skeletal.  Except for his burning gray eyes, he looked like he’d been dead for a couple of days.  It was a shock to hear the pleasant, gravelly voice with which he spoke.  “Howdy yerself, stranger.  Set down.”

“Thank you,” the devil replied.  “Don’t mind if I do.  You got anything to eat?”

The cowboy shook his head once, his gaze never leaving the stranger’s.  “Nope.”

The devil, disconcerted, asked, “Well, are you hungry?”

“Yep,” the cowboy answered.

The devil hurriedly left the fire for his saddlebags.  Something about this starved cowboy seemed vaguely—not wrong, just—not right, and he couldn’t put his finger on what it was.  “You’d better be watching this, Claudias,” he whispered into the evening’s chill breeze.

“I am, master,” the wind moaned.

Returning to the fire, the devil put some leftovers on to heat.  “Cold night, ain’t it, cowboy?” he remarked.

“Yep,” he replied softly.

Unnerved, the devil prattled on.  “Don’t talk much, do you?”

“Nope,” came the short reply.

The devil finally realized what seemed so wrong.  This gaunt, half-starved cowboy was somehow making him, the Lord of Hell, nervous.  He looked up from the beans and salt pork over the fire and forced himself to meet the cowboy’s gray eyes.  “What’s your name, cowboy?”

“Depends,” the cowboy grunted, upper lip curling in a silent snarl.

The devil dropped his eyes back to the beans.  “On what?”

“On why you want to know,” the cowboy replied, low voiced.

Silence fell over the small camp.  The beans finally warmed to a palatable temperature, so Old Nick dished them up and handed a plate to the cowboy.  A rare smile accompanied the cowboy’s few words, “Much obliged, stranger.”

They ate in silence.  The cowboy finally turned from the Easterner and lay down, pulling his hat down to cover his face.  The devil smiled and whispered a single word.  Time crawled to a standstill, and with a sigh of relief, the devil dropped his disguise.

“Where are you, Claudias?” he called into the evening breeze.

A minor demon appeared before his disguised master.  “I’m here, master,” he answered.

“Did you learn anything?” the devil asked.

Claudias hung his hideous head.  “No, master.  He doesn’t say enough.”

The monarch of hell stroked his chin thoughtfully.  “I wonder who he is.”

Claudias sidled closer.  “Master, maybe we would learn more if he knew who you really are,” he suggested, cringing away from the expected blow.

The devil raised a hand to backhand the little demon, then stopped to actually consider the suggestion.  “Maybe you’re right,” he said thoughtfully, lowering his hand.  “I’ll try it.  Disappear, you ugly little son of a gun.”

Claudias wilted in relief and faded into invisibility. Satan whispered softly, and time unfroze.  He pointed a misshapen forefinger at the cowboy and grinned wickedly.

The cowboy moaned and began to thrash around.  He sat bolt upright, screaming wildly.  Still panting, he looked around.  All was the same as it had been when he’d gone to sleep except for one thing: the devil now sat where the stranger had been sitting before.  “Who the hell are you?” he snarled, vicious in his fear.

The devil shrugged.  “Which name do you want me to use?  I have a thousand.”

The cowboy his hard at the stranger at his fire.  “Just tell me one,” he replied, deadly cold.

Satan shuddered, bothered by the complete lack of fear on the cowboy’s part.  “Well, most of your kind call me Old Nick or Old Scratch,” he replied weakly.

The cowboy smiled grimly, and looked down to roll a cigarette.  Time again came to a screeching halt, this time without the devil’s command.  Startled, he glanced around, and found Claudias groveling on the ground at his feet.

“What is it, Claudias?” he asked impatiently.

“Master, beware!  You don’t want his soul,” the little demon exclaimed.

Irritated, Satan kicked the imp lying prostrate at his feet.  “I need every soul I can get.  Why shouldn’t I try for his?”

The small demon cringed away from his master’s cloven foot.  “He doesn’t have one, my lord.”

“Don’t be absurd,” the fallen angel snapped.  “Every human has a soul.”

Claudias began to fade, and raised his face to his dark master before he was gone completely.  “Ask him again who he is, master.  You’ll see.”

As soon as the little demon was invisible, time thawed from its standstill to its normal flow.  The cowboy finished rolling his cigarette, lifted a small, burning twig from the edge of the fire, cupped his other hand around the freshly rolled cigarette to shield the fragile flame from the sharp, cold wind.  His hungry, haunted eyes reflected the dancing flames.  He took a deep drag, exhaling rudely in the devil’s direction.

Finally, after a long, uncomfortable silence, the devil burst out, “Who are you?”

The cowboy, speaking around the butt of the cigarette, replied, “Why d’ya wanna know?”

The devil waved a hand impatiently, fanning away the tobacco smoke that the cowboy kept directing toward him.  “I’m behind.  I need to gather in more lost souls.”

The cowboy smiled grimly.  “You don’t want me.”

“And why wouldn’t I?” the devil persisted.

The cowboy looked away and leaned back, pulling his hat back down.  Flipping the cigarette but away into the fire, his smile widened, though it still didn’t reach what the devil could see of his eyes. “Because I’m still hungry. I was here long before you were, and I’ll be here long after you’re nothin’ but a story that mothers use to scare their children.  I reckon I’ll be seein’ you before long, in the scheme of things.”

The devil turned to stare into the fire.  From time to time, he glanced at the neutral force of nature embodied seated beside him, thinking of the delicious irony that Fate had set up in this meeting.

Lucifer and Death both sat in silence, watching the fire die down to embers, watching the warm embers fade into cold ashes.  As full dark settled, both vanished into the night, leaving only the ashes of the now-dead fire.