The moon was a coin all aglow with gold
in the swirling clouds of that chilly night
and the crooked tree by that wooded road
was a hand clutching in vain at Fae light.
Mounted on a black horse with a black name
was that blackguard and killer, Bill O ’Keefe,
whose gallop brought fear to all men the same
and whose fat purse ate with a dragon ’s teeth.
Pistols and daggers and swords were his friends
that he kept keen to ply his devil ’s trade
and all other friends came to treacherous ends,
along that old road in graves freshly laid.
O ’Keefe wore black boots and a riding coat
and black hat with black plume in the brim,
and black mask, his black beard curled like a goat,
his cufflinks black at the end of each limb.
Scarce were pickings along that road of late
for words were swift as birds when winged with sins
and Bill wanted like a collection plate
in the famine months when a snowstorm spins.
Bill bit his lip until the skin broke and bled,
tasting iron in that October breeze
while the crowned owls stood watch, just overhead,
their hungry eyes spotting small prey with ease,
and he heard the gibbering marsh, the beasts
alike to him in the hunter ’s grand game,
stalking and eating their fill of such feasts
as Nature ordains, without thoughts of shame.
Was that a footstep? A giggle? Grunt? Squeal?
Bill did not know, his fluttering black eyes
like crows flapping at the scent of a meal:
carrion delights in a victim ’s cries.
Bill waited till the gallop neared the tree,
then he struck his horse to spur it to haste,
yet found a rider before him who did not flee —
a man in livery pale as bone paste.
Glowing like the moon above, the fellow
parted his lips in a smile, pearls agleam,
his hair golden, curly, his mien mellow
as if he was passing through a sweet dream.
Taken aback, Bill stared with mouth agape,
confused by the aristocrat ’s bearing
and that the man did not try to escape,
but stood as stone afore the storm, daring
with demeanor and command likewise steeped
in ancient kingdoms beyond petty Man
except in glimpses and dreams such as peeped
in the realm of Sleep, at a frugal span.
At length, Bill leveled pistol at the lord
and said, “Turn out your pockets and your purse
or I ’ll run you through with bullet and sword.
If you try any tricks, I ’ll do much worse. ”
The fair-haired lord dismounted gracefully
in one smooth motion, like a squirrel,
and said, “Indeed, I shall, and faithfully
as a green knight seeking to hew the burl. ”
The lord unstrung a pouch from his saddle
and offered it to the ne ’er-do-well thief,
unstringing the pouch, which clinked and rattled —
the only music which pleased Bill O ’Keefe.
Crooked tree above, crooked man below,
O ’Keefe snatched the pouch away with a swipe,
tantalized by the gleaming golden glow
of such coins so foreign in face and type.
The lord said, “Of all such you may have, sir,
being possessed thereby, and by this path. ”
Here the lord gestured. “Wherefore possessed, cur,
you shall reckon debts owed to greed and wrath. ”
Bill misliked such words and looked up with scorn
from the gold he had snared with his misdeed
only to find the lord gone, as if bourne
away with a wind, both rider and steed.
Uncanny things meant naught to Bill O ’Keefe
as long as gold jingled in his gloved hands,
so he laughed aloud, proud in the belief
that he was the best thief in all the lands.
Taking rein of his black horse once again,
he led the beast out from behind the oak
and climbed atop it, holding his gold like his sin
and struck up a gallop, but someone spoke:
“Damn you, Bill O ’Keefe, ” a hoarse voice whispered,
“damn your thieving heart and your greedy eyes! ”
The black horse startled and kicked at each word,
tumbling Bill off to lay him out lengthwise.
The horse bolted, spilling the pouch of gold
while like a kelpie frenzied with its thirst
along that moon-flooded, tree-cluttered road,
each coin rolling to a stop, now reversed,
no longer showing a face of features
foreign to human lands and human kin,
but a skull brimming with insect creatures
dining on the festering flesh within.
“Damn you, you dumb beast! ” Bill hollered so loud
that his wrathful voice spurred the spooked horse on
at a faster sprint than the dark allowed
till beast came to grief down the bluff beyond.
Not hearing the scream of the horse, Bill turned
again to the coins scattered here and there,
and crawled after them while the moonlight burned
on the gold, agleam in that chilly air.
To the nearest coin O ’Keefe crawled and knelt
like a sinner seeking within a church
deliverance from the sins he has dealt
in years past, wronging angels on their perch,
but Bill sought not forgiveness while kneeling —
rather, the gold mesmerized like a sidhe
afloat with rainbow wings unfurled, wheeling
around his now-hatless head, tauntingly.
Yet, as Bill reached for the coin nearest him
a hand grasped it first, out from neath the earth,
its bones white and gray, and so, too, the limb
that rose like a shoot from the leaf-strewn turf.
A head emerged, all rotten and gaping
from a withered jaw, hung aslant the face,
and the tongue lolled freely, as if aping
human speech, some soil sprinkling from that place.
“Bill O ’Keefe, ” it said at last. “You villain! ”
You slew me for six pence, and not one more!
And for that debt I shall be repaid when
I drag you low, beyond Hell ’s brimstone door! ”
Bill O ’ Keefe recoiled from the corpse, screaming out,
but not in terror —rather in great rage
for he would share coin with no brag-about
and tried to snatch it from that bony cage.
“What good was your life? ” Bill growled, “but a pence?
Count yourself lucky as been worth so much,
for you had no value, and less so sense,
to have been riding alone, late and such. ”
The corpse ’s jaw gawped so wide in dismay
that it swung off the hinge, gasping, “You brute! ”,
meanwhile Bill filched the coin and made his way
to other coins, nestled within a root.
Or it seemed a root, but when Bill neared it
a bony hand emerged, and then a skull
webbed with a bridal veil, each black socket
full of worms writhing in the hollow hull.
No tongue to speak, neither had she the need,
for Bill knew her as his own from years past
and said, “You had less wealth than you had breed,
which is why our marriage, dear, did not last. ”
A banshee shriek escaped those rotten teeth
and Bill only laughed, plucking back the coins
as she crescendoed in her wailing grief;
he said, “Swiftly taken, as were your loins. ”
Many were the coins, and many the dead!
Bill had a reunion earning his wealth,
each coin raising a victim from their bed
so O ’Keefe could appraise them and their health.
A nobleman here and a peasant there,
Bill was not prejudiced in his slayings,
and had he the chance, he would have had care
to kill dukes and bishops and popes and kings.
Alas, no such prey chanced his hunting grounds
which was why he took whatever he might,
buried all along that road, in their mounds,
not knowing what fool might intrigue his sight.
And there were, of course, those whom he despised,
whose disputes in bars had earned them his ire —
whom he killed, raping their wives while disguised
as a vicar to indulge his desire.
And those who were innocent, having done
nought to him or his own, nor another,
once sown in their graves, now sprouting as one
to crawl after him —him and no other.
“A sorry bunch of sour grapes you lot are, ”
Bill laughed, surrounded and yet still affixed
on the strange golden coins strewn here and far,
not concerned with the foul corpses betwixt.
“I did you each a favor, ” he said with a smile,
“for I saved you all from a cruel life
and the suffering it offers meanwhile,
so be thankful for the ol ’ Reaper ’s scythe. ”
Coin to coin he crawled like a supplicant,
nigh overtaken on perdition ’s road,
yet still his smile gleamed, and eye, without a hint
of fear about the victims he did goad.
A final coin, and a final sally —
“Alas, I must be on my way, ” he said,
rising to his feet with a fast rally,
“for I ’ve got gold in hand and dreams ahead,
and mustn ’t waste it on the likes of you. ”
He hobbled down the road, coins in his purse,
but turned about. “As the French say, ‘Adieu. ’
Awful to be dead, but it could be worse. ”
Shrieks of outrage followed him down the road,
but Bill was too keen on the coins to hear,
whistling lively, and smiling like a toad,
as he dreamed of rum, wine, whisky, and beer
and the other things he would soon enjoy,
like mutton, girls, and a life of pleasure
spent doing as he pleased, like a young boy
enthroned in privilege and in leisure.
Yet, dust to dust is the way of the world,
and a man ’s wealth, too, no matter how vast,
and all at once, while a sudden wind whirled,
the coins faded to coppery leaves fast.
O ’Keefe gazed at the purse, his eyes agog —
he blinked and rubbed them, but to no avail,
for all the coins were gone, like prince to frog,
maiden weeping by the end of the tale.
Only, Bill never wept: he swore and kicked,
vowing revenge on the strange foreign lord,
for Bill could see that he had been thus tricked
and wished the man ’s blood to slather his sword.
So wrathful was the blackguard in his loss,
that he saw not where he was then going,
stepping off the bluff where the moonlight gloss
shimmered pale like an icy stream flowing —
an icy stream, and a Stygian stream,
for it took Bill O ’Keefe straight down to Hell
where he woke to an inferno that teemed
with imps, demons, Satan, Lilith, and Bael.
And there was the strange lord that Bill had robbed
standing afore him, a smirk so profound
in its malevolence that other men would have sobbed
to see it spread, like an infernal hound.
“Face to face with your sins, you have now come, ”
said the stranger. “And coins have paid your way —
a princely sum, even in this kingdom,
but try to defend yourself, if you may. ”
“I offer no defense, ” Bill said, “except
the world itself, and its ways, which were made
without my counsel or consent, and kept
by tooth and claw and the patterns thus laid
by that harsh seamstress, Fate, a cruel witch
by whose hand all are designed and destined
to be king or peasant, down to a stitch —
so was I, bound by hem and trim and trend. ”
Bill O ’Keefe smirked, for he thought he had found
a defense most fateful, and a good ruse,
to protect his soul because all around
the throngs of Hell seemed very much confused.
“Just-so, ” the stranger said at last. “Forsooth,
we were banished for ingrained allegiance,
but the world, being so, and Fate and Truth,
does not expunge sins, despite your grievance,
for it is Fate who determines for all
and, just-so, you are predestined for Hell,
so regardless if you are a mere thrall,
her whim determines the end of your tale. ”
Bill argued, but the stranger would not hear.
“Like you, we are highwaymen in wait
and if by Fate you happen to pass near
we will take your soul, for that, too, is Fate. ”
“But that ’s not fair! ” Bill O ’Keefe cried aloud.
The whole of Hell resounded with laughter.
“Life ’s not fair, ” the Stranger said, “nor Death proud,
nor so fair or proud the Ever After. ”
And so the road the highwayman haunted
claimed him as he claimed many other souls —
he thought of the lives he took, and taunted,
as his soul was raked upon brimstone coals.