It was August of 1867 in Nevada, in the region known to most as Death Valley. As if there were any doubts as to where it acquired the name, it would most likely be due to fact that the desert itself could kill you just as easy as any of its inhabitants.
On this particular day Hezekiah Samuels was riding through on his horse when a rattlesnake gave him warning, but didn't wait for him to heed it. The snake launched itself from its rocky perch and struck high enough to reach just above his right boot, the pain of the bite jarring him from his saddle. The fall followed by the snake still rattling spooked Hezekiah's paint into bolting.
Between the bite and the fall, he was in no shape to cut the wound open or suck out the venom, and it wasn't long before the poison began to take its toll. His vision blurred and waves of nausea brought on by slight dizziness accompanied profuse sweating and feverish chills. It was then he thought that he had started to hallucinate, seeing the early afternoon grow a bit darker.
Hezekiah felt his life slipping away as the rider on the pale horse rode into view. The man was dressed in black from head to toe, which he thought must have been as hot as an oven to wear in the desert heat. The rider's head was bent towards the ground as though asleep while he rode, and his face could not be seen beneath the fancy brimmed hat. The stranger had the look of a "Fancy Dan", but carried a huge pistol on his hip.
"Help!" Hezekiah cried out in a barely audible voice.
"I thought I'd find you here." the man said as he rode near.
"Help me, please." Hezekiah moaned in a whisper-like gasp.
"That's what I'm here for." said the stranger as he looked up, revealing a grinning skull where a face should have been.
The rider climbed down and walked over to Hezekiah without a sound coming from his spurs or the rocks beneath his feat, and though fading into what felt like drunken oblivion he noticed the man's feet were about an inch off of the ground.
"I'm assuming you are Hezekiah Samuels. I don't generally get the wrong person, but there was once this woman in Pompeii that should have survived while another woman should have died, and son I tell you that was a mess to clean up." the Stranger told him.
"Help me..." Hezekiah tried to squeak out.
"Yep, you're him as there isn't anyone else here. You can call me Death if you wish. Or I sometimes am called the Grim Reaper or the Angel of Death, and many other names in many other lands. I'm here son because you are dying, and I'm here to collect you." the stranger informed him.
"No. Help me!" Hezekiah shouted, gaining new found energy in his fear. He pushed his back up further on the rock behind him.
"Son, what part of your impending death are you having trouble getting used to? Wait I know, you don't believe that you're actually dying. OK, place the heel of your hand over your ear as tight as you can. Trust me, just try it." Death said.
Hezekiah tried it, not knowing exactly what he was doing it for. The stranger who called himself Death lit himself a cheroot, somehow inhaled, and smoke poured out through his missing chin, nasal cavity, and eye sockets.
"You're not hearing your heart now are you. That's because it's barely beating anymore, and will stop in about...six seconds." Death said consulting a shiny silver pocket watch.
They waited the remaining seconds in silence, and Hezekiah saw the day turn to twilight although it was just afternoon. The wind stopped blowing all together, and for some reason he no longer felt any pain and his strength returned.
"Welcome to Death Valley or as some call it The Valley of the Shadow of Death. Same place, different reality. This is where you come when you die, before going on to Limbo or wherever after that. Any questions so far?" Death asked.
"Yeah, I sure do have questions. Why the Hell am I here?" he returned, getting angry.
"It's your time to go, son. There is just no getting around it, when your time comes you go. I don't decide the when and where, I just come to get those who pass, sometimes thousands at a time, and sometime in the future it will be billions. It was decided the day you were born how and when you'd pass, and here we are." Death told him, almost sounding sympathetic.
"You've done this a lot I reckon" Hezekiah said, still trying to make some sense of it.
"From Julius Caesar to Abraham Lincoln just two years ago, I've collected them all. Well not actually all, I do have some help to gather the dead. And lovely ladies they are to behold." Death added, just making idle talk at this point.
"How long have you been at this?" Hezekiah asked.
"Since Creation itself. The first dead I gathered were angels, both fallen and righteous in The Great War." Death answered, more smoke billowing from openings in his skull.
"Ever gathered anyone I know personally?" Hezekiah inquired in a more timid tone.
"That pretty senorita from El Paso a few months back, well her man found out that she had been untrue, and gave her a new smile from ear to ear under her chin. Your friend Ethan that you traveled with from St. Louis got himself a new haircut from some Apache at the beginning of the year. And let's see, remember that nasty fellow Harry Hudson that tried to rape your sister before you shot him back in Maryland? You thought he had gotten away didn't you? That snake died in his own bodily waste on the banks of the Susquehanna River." Death answered, with what appeared to be an actual smile at the mention of the last one.
"Where am I heading?" was the last question Hezekiah had for the Angel of Death.
"I don't decide that either, nor do I pass judgment on any soul. There are three places you can go. Limbo if you haven't been righteous or evil enough for the other two. Hell if your sins are unforgiven, and you would suffer with Satan himself. Or Heaven if you are found worthy. I don't normally tell people which direction they are headed, but your sins having been found justifiable have been forgiven, and the good that you have done in your life has marked you with special favor from God himself. So I am pleased to meet you sir, and glad to inform you that you will be ascending to meet God." Death told him with a tiny trickle of blood flowing from an empty eye socket.
Hezekiah saw a bright spear of sunlight piercing through the dark clouds above and striking the ground mere feet away to reveal a stairway to the sky. Two angels stood at the bottom of the stairs with arms outstretched towards him. Hezekiah got up from the ground and reflected on how he had gone from killing Harry Hudson and running from the law to aiding in building churches throughout the west, and how even though he would not be able to build his own, he had finally found the forgiveness he had sought.
He thought it strange that even Death had wept a tear of joy on his behalf as he stepped up onto the stairway and took the hands of the angels.