He was nowhere.
Thick warmth covered him, buoyed him, held him close in a sea of absolute nothing. Darkness, velvet soft and infinitely seductive, swaddled his very soul. He was alone, the only creature in his tight yet expansive world. From this contradiction sprung another: to want in a place where there was nothing to want, to need in a place where there was nothing to need. He wanted and needed to remain in his cloak of nothing. God, but he didn't want to awaken.
The choice, apparently, was not in his hands. A disruption in the endless soft made itself known, and winded its way to his awareness. At first, he couldn't name the disruption. He couldn't name anything, not the softness, the bliss, or the dark. But he could feel these things, and with it, he could feel the disruption, sure and cold and pale. A marble ghost, come to chip away at his dark.
Chip, chip, chip.
He tried to turn away from the chipping, tried to turn back to the darkness, but the darkness was all around, without a focus to latch onto. The harder he tried to pull away from the chipping, the paler the darkness grew, the stronger and more distinct the chipping was, until it began to form separate concepts in his mind. Scratching. Sniffing. Yipping.
Disappointment weaved through him like a ribbon, slipping silkily through the lace holes in his mind. With it came the faintest awareness of a mind: I think, therefore, I am.
The notion was promptly dismissed, silly and useless. Best to remain in what was left of the dark, hidden away from the slow but sure spread of light. Best not to smell that smell, that godawful smell which had no name, no form. Sweet almighty, what the devil is that?
Frustration crested, and finally he began to fight the darkness. An answer. He needed an answer, to know what the stench was that'd begun to pull him from the blessed warmth, and into this harsh chill. The answers flitted away, just out of reach, leaving him with little more than the faint whisper of emotion. Later, he'd be able to name the emotions that piled him as quickly as the odors rolled over him, though he'd never be able to pick out any one scent. It didn't matter, though. There wasn't, nor ever would be, any need to do so. In the end, only the emotion mattered, because the emotion was enough to drive him to the surface.
He choked suddenly, on the smell, on the fear, on the darkness. Just as suddenly, the once-inviting warmth was oppressive, and he shook it off as best he could, fighting for that pale chill. His face - an object that seemed to float to him from nowhere - twitched and spasmed as he fought to move. The effort was colossal, and he began to sweat. The cold drenched him and sent a shiver through him, marking the length of his body.
His body. Another object, a separateness from the dark, the warm, the soft. It had weight. It had an end. The end seemed to surround him - he was contained by his body. His body was the darkness. The light was out there, beyond it, and it was digging its cold claws into the soft dark, dragging him out to the open.
He was birthed into a dirty, stinking room. There were panting, yipping animals, with long snouts and longer tongues. Dogs. Several of them. They nosed at him and made strange little yowling noises once in a while, and walked around his head. He looked up at them, at wooden beams that supported a wooden roof, at rusty looking farm equipment that hung on the walls. He smelled copper and dung, horse and, of course, dog. He was on his back. He didn't want to be on his back. He wanted to get up, find cover.
He twisted his body, intending to sit up. Searing pain blazed through him, a rip in the universe, the universe that was his body. He flopped back with a gasp, and the dogs began to bark and whine more fitfully. He squeezed his eyes shut, and gasped for breath, breaths that now were impossible to take in. His head spun. The cold bit harder. The copper and shit smell grew stronger. He forced himself to look, to look at his body, to see if he could find the source of pain.
The dogs suddenly let him be, all save one, a big yellow dog that sat on its haunches and stared at the others. The rest of the mutts gathered to bark at a door, a door that let in all the light, a door that faced a muddy looking stream and a beat up, weather rotted wagon. From this open door, new sounds reached his ears, sounds that ought to have made sense, but didn't. Some kind of animal, a mating call maybe, back and forth they went. A pair of them, he thought, talking to each other, like they could understand one another. But maybe they could. Maybe he was the one who couldn't catch the meaning of their sounds.
His gut burned. A sound formed deep in his throat, swelled and gathered force in his mouth, and reached his ears slow and shaky. He sounded like the animals outside, the ones calling back and forth to one another. They'd gone silent. The dogs were agitated all over, shaking and warbling.
Or maybe he was shaking all over. He didn't know. He didn't know anything but the pain in his belly.
A moment later, he didn't even know that.
He was nowhere.
Something cold touched his face. Gratitude melted from his pores, dripped down his face, soaked his clothes. So hot, so unbearably hot.
"-water on no gunslinger!"
"-bein a old fool! Plenty a water in the crick!"
Face was hot again. He tried to pull away from the moist heat.
"See there! I'm getting my rifle!"
"Clyde, you cut all that out!"
He tried to open his eyes. They felt like they were sealed shut, pressed together with sap. Nothing made sense. Gunslinger.
"-all we worked for, woman! Now get away from that gunslick!"
His hackles began to rise - there was a gunman? In the room with them? He needed to open his eyes, needed to get a bead on the sidewinder! His hand went for his hip, slow, too slow, like swimming through cold molasses, but if he could just-
"See there! Delirious my eye!" The old man's words came out in a long, loud wheeze.
"Maybe he can hear you, Clyde, you ever thunk a that?"
"He's a killer! Now get back here, Eunice!"
"Tain't Christian to leave him shakin and sufferin that way! And he can't do no harm - look he don't even know he ain't got no gun! He's more afeared a us than we are of him!"
"That's on account a his bein a gunslinger, woman! Prolly lost the gun doing something he ain't had no business doing no ways."
His hand went down. There was no gun in his holster. He was at the mercy of whatever madness came his way. Maybe it would stop the skin melting heat, the ripping pain in his gut.
The cool relief returned, and with it came the certainty that whatever came next, would come without any prompting or interference from him. He was helpless to stop anything, or anyone.
His eyes slid open. It was easy, like opening a door.
An old woman crouched in front of him. A thought tried to form, an idea of a kind hearted, bustling little lady, but there was nothing. The dust of a notion flitted away on the wind, and left this wizened old thing peering into his face with dark, beady eyes. "Them dogs a yourn ain't supposed to be draggin grown men down the hill, neither, Clyde. What a you gonna do, take em all back and shoot em too?"
Movement behind the woman drew his attention up to the rifle pointed in his direction. It was held by an old man, older maybe even than the woman - it was hard to tell. They both looked so damned old, it looked like they'd seen the Battle of Lexington together on their honeymoon. The rifle shook in the old man's hands. "Dogs did their job. They kept us safe, ain't they?"
"From him?" The woman plunged her hand into a bucket near her feet, and brought up a cold, wet cloth to swab his still steaming face. "I'm tellin you, yer bein an old fool! Is the knife hot yet?"
"You ain't cuttin nothin outta his belly! You wanna get the preacher man, you can do that."
"Clyde." The woman never stopped tending to his sweltering heat. "Ifn I don't get this thing outta him but soon, I'm gonna need the preacher for me."
The gun lowered, just a touch, but it came right back up again. "Alright. But I'm gettin the sheriff."
"Ain't no time for that."
"Then there ain't nothin for him, and God rest his damnable soul. I'm gettin the sheriff."
He tried to speak, tried to protest - what the hell could he do to anyone? He felt hot and sick and his gut felt like a dragon was eating him from the inside out. He couldn't hurt the old folks, even if he'd wanted to. All he could do was moan a little, and even that sounded feeble to his ears.
"Uh huh. He don't like the idea of the law comin to watch over him! He's a guilty one!" The old man finally took the rifle away, and hobbled over to a corner to rustle around in the equipment.
"Meebe he's just hurtin! Now, wait, Clyde, what's that for?!"
The old man came back into view carrying a long, thick rope in one hand, and the rifle in the other He thrust the rope at the woman. "Tie him up. And keep the gun on him," the old man said.
"Tie - what on earth for?"
"Now, Eunice, you stop arguing with me! You wanna try to save this dirty saddle tramp, alright, I ain't gonna stop ya! But we're gonna be safe about it! And we're gonna save him so's he can answer for whatever he done to land him like this!"
"That ain't right, Cl-"
"I'd rather be wrong, and have you safe and sound, than be a good man what got to bury his one true love. Now tie him up."
This time, he could feel the difference in his mind. There was a madness in him, something wild and glittering, hot and pulsing. He was burning alive, roasting from some fire within. He knew it, and he knew that if he didn't cool off, he'd be consumed, and that would be the end of him. He knew nothing else, not even his name, or if he'd ever had one. It was as if he'd spent his entire life aflame on the dirty straw covered floor of this old barn, and the universe would end the way it began - warm and dark and filled with nothing.
That wasn't right. His was a life full of something. He just needed to figure out what the hell that something was.
He licked dry, cracked lips. His head shook as he tried to lift it off the ground. The rifle seemed to shake, too. Unsteady gun hands means an unsteady shot. Good.
He didn't know where the thought came from. He didn't know what it meant. He only knew it told him not to fear the gun, or the shivering old woman holding onto it. "Mother," he said. He didn't know why he said it. It just seemed like a good thing to say.
The old woman lowered the gun half a hair. That was her only response.
The old woman shook her head slowly. "I'm sorry, sonny. Not until my husband comes back with the Sheriff." The gun moved down another half hair. "When Clyde comes back, then we'll see."
That was the wrong answer. The glittering madness at the edge of his awareness surged, and he tensed. Someone gasped. Might have been him, might have been the old woman. He didn't know, or care. He only that knew he was on fire. Reality fell away as the universe collapsed on him, leaving him alone with the blistering heat.
"You'll tear your wrists open, now!" The old woman's voice came to him from somewhere left of God. A shivering pressure on his arms filtered into his awareness, and he began to feel a separate burning at the end of his sleeves. "Stop, stop." A cool, damp cloth came to his lips, and the tension dropped out of his body as the flames slowly died. Soothing sounds accompanied the soothing moisture on his mouth, and he sucked greedily at the cloth. He closed his eyes, and breathed a sigh of relief as the madness receded. It still lingered, glowered menacingly in the back of his mind, but it was quieter.
"Please." He didn't know what he was begging for, but the old woman seemed to understand. Calloused, leathery hands touched his face lightly, calling to mind a touch from so long ago, a time before he lived, before the barn and the pain and the unending flame. There was a word, not 'Mother,' which had come to him so easily, unbidden, but something... other. He tried to follow the thread of the unspoken thought, but it faded into the mist, leaving behind only this strange old woman who touched him with gnarled but gentle hands. "Please," he said again, as she began peeling away the dirty, crusty strips of cloth that still clung to his body.
Before she could do more than cluck piteously at his bloodied, muddied body, the barn door whipped open with a slam. The old man came stalking into the barn, breathing like a wild stallion. The old woman jumped and turned to look at her husband for a moment, before returning to her task of soothing, cooling touch. The old man stalked slowly towards the two of them as if they were conspiring against him. "What in tarnation are you doin', woman?"
"I'm cleaning him up, Clyde." She seemed unfazed by his slow, meanacing approach. "This young man needs our help," she said, with the finality of a woman used to her husband's hollering.
"He's a stranger!"
"We've been all through that. Where's the sheriff?"
The old man actually growled. "He's a damned fool - says I'm paranoid!" The old woman sniffed, and began poking at something sharp, painful, and dizzying. Through the sudden hurt, the old man's voice came down from some wide open field. "Don't you laugh at me, Eunice! How could you laugh at a time-"
"Oh, pipe down, Clyde, no one is laughing at you! I just think you're being a bitter old fool, is all!"
"Well, how can you blame me!"
The gnarled old hands stilled on his sick and razed belly, and he forced himself to focus on the old woman's - Eunice's - face, and on the old man's - Clyde's - balled fists. He didn't want to slip back into the darkness again. "No one is blaming you for anything, Clyde. But... he didn't do it." The sound of heavy breathing filled the room. Eunice cleared her throat. "What about the doc?"
Clyde's response was a touch softer. "He ain't comin' neither." When his wife turned to look at him, the old man's hackles rose again. "Well what do you expect me to do about it? The Jordans and the Whinninghams got the flu, and the sheriff says its been goin' around something fierce!"
"So the law ain't comin, and neither is no help? That's it. Go git the water boiling."
"Now, wait just a minute, woman-"
"He's fever-sick! If I'm gonna save this boy, I got to do it now, Clyde."
Clyde shook his head and stooped down, just out of line of sight. When he straightened up, he had the abandoned rifle, and held it with steady hands. "Ain't nobody saving nobody - and that ain't no boy. He's older than Gilbert was when-" The old man's voice cracked. "Sheriff said to do what I gotta, to protect m'family. That's you."
Eunice turned fully to face her husband, setting her plump body right between the gun and the slowly graying vision the stranger was trying so hard to cling to. "Clyde Ward. What in the name of all the blessed angels in Heaven is that supposed to mean?"
Clyde gulped audibly, and said, "Sheriff says, if we gotta put the man back where we done found him, then so be it."
Heart gripping terror seized the stranger, and his throat closed up with the jumble of questions and fears he couldn't possibly begin to name - no! Don't want to die, not this way! Ain't a man supposed to have a chance to make peace??
"We are not putting this man back in the stream to drown, or get eaten by those mangy, flea-bidden... things!"
"Now, look here, woman-"
"Clyde, it'd be more humane to just put the poor bastard out of his misery than leave him on the road to die a lingering death! Do you want to leave him to die, the way those gunslingers left poor Gil? Do you really think anyone will come before he's past help?"
"Then git outta the way, woman."
A breathy little sound passed through the old woman's lips, and she slid over, just a touch. The stranger could feel the heat digging into the hole in his gut, into the edges of his mind again, but he made one last bid for mercy - he had nothing left to lose. "P-please... help..."
And then the darkness shuttered in on him, hard and cold and full of the mercy he sought.