It was always light.
The light was a bright, blinding light, the kind that seared a man's eyes right out of his head - only, this light never hurt. Sometimes, he'd try to look into the light, but it was too bright to hold, even without the pain, and so his eyes would slide back to the silhouette. A silhouette of a man. A tall, faceless man, whose features could only be seen in faint flickerings on the peripheral. Large, expansive hands. Beautiful, expensive but well worn boots. A pile of golden hair, hair like the sun. Hair that was brilliant enough to be seen even in silhouette.
Indistinct figures sometimes passed over the man's form, separate but part of him. Sometimes these faceless, featureless beings emerged from the bright, bright halo of light that surrounded him for just a moment, before dissolving again. Almost always, the sound of children laughing floated on the air, like the peal of Christmas bells back in Amarillo.
He didn't know what Amarillo was, or what the thought meant at first. Eventually, he decided it had to be some unknown place a million miles away. Something like a little corner of heaven, a corner he couldn't get back to anymore.
It didn't matter. He had his own heaven, right there in the brilliant light, with the faceless, golden man, and the loving laughter of spirit children. He stopped to admire the soft, gentle movement of the faceless man, the sweet smell of hay and horse mixed with the warm scent of coffee and some unidentifiable essence that had to be the golden man, the warm, gentle touch of silken hair and soft, velvet skin on his hand. In that moment, he always found himself filled with boundless, nearly indescribable joy. If he could stop the hands of time, he would. He'd stop and stay with his angel of mercy, this perfectly golden man.
But he had no power, not to stop time, nor to stop the rolling destruction of his joy. That indescribable joy never failed to become inexplicable anxiety and fear. The light always grew dim, and the man always faded away, blending into the darkness, until he was no more. The children's laughter hardened to horse hooves, hard and fast on rocky ground. The silk and velvet became a cold, hard six shooter, with a sawed off nose and a heavy pearl handle so distinct and familiar, he'd swear it was part of his torn and mangled body. But the worst was the smell. The beautiful, sweet horse smell always turned to blood.
The stranger's eyes snapped open. The denial died in his throat unspoken, as always. He stared at the ceiling and waited for the terror to settle down, for his body to remember that whatever godawful nightmare took hold of his waking life was now over, and that this was just a dream, just a dream. When the sour swill in his belly calmed to quiet distaste, he held himself in his bandages and sat up, unwilling to spend another moment in that bed if he didn't have to.
The first few days and nights in that bed had been alright. There'd been no dreams then. He was too sick, too weak, and too cut up to hell and back again to do more than wonder if he'd see another morning. When the old woman showed him her handiwork, a big flat wad of metal that used to be a bullet, he'd breathed a prayer of thanks for the end to his troubles. But soon the dreams came, and he knew his prayers had been premature. The stronger his body grew, the stronger too grew the dreams. There were no needles and thread, no tweezers and old army nurses to mend the crack in his mind. He didn't know how much longer he'd be able to stand the noise in his own head. Maybe Old Clyde should have shot him down, after all.
Enough. He forced himself to his feet, and headed towards the back door to start feeding the hens. His gut complained. It always complained. Bullets and knives and weeks of being tended to by a feeble old woman and her nervous and bitter old man would do that. But laying around in bed wasn't helping his gutwounds heal any better now, and anyway what he really wanted was to get out and ride. He couldn't though, not until he was strong enough, and until he'd paid his debt to the old woman. He supposed the old man could have a share of his gratitude, too, since it was his home that was opened, his food that was served, and his clothing the stranger dragged onto his aching body. But the stranger was reluctant to say thanks to a man who'd as soon shoot him in the head and be done with it as let his wife do 'the right and Christian thing.' Still, the man had given him a good coat, soft with age, but warm and whole, and told him it was good to see the coat get some use, with no one left to wear it. There had once been kindness and mercy in the man, maybe as much kindness and mercy his wife had shown. But the kindness went right out the old man's eyes (and for a moment, hers too) when the stranger tried to ask who'd the coat belonged to before.
The stranger learned quick not to ask questions.
The chickens gathered around at his feet. The animals knew the stranger, had taken to him quick. Miss Eunice said that way he had with the animals is probably what saved his life. "Those mangy old dogs is always bringing me something back I don't want or need, but this got to be the first time they brung it back to me alive." She'd set down a big plate of grits and gravy when she'd said it, though, so the stranger hadn't taken offense. She seemed to take deep pleasure in the way he scarfed that one dish down. He didn't have the heart to tell her it was only because his belly wouldn't take much more chewed food, and he was half starved otherwise. If the smell brought up thoughts of giggling children and places called Amarillo, well, she didn't need to know that.
He could hear the horses snorting and snuffling in their stalls. "I'm coming, I'm coming." The throbbing in his belly meant this would be a hard day. He wasn't going to get to the mucking before the old man was up. He'd be lucky to finish with the horses feed and watering before taking to bed again. Maybe he could rest in the barn - there had to be at least an hour before dawn, so no one would be up looking for him.
In the end, even after napping in the barn between chores, he wound up in bed even earlier than usual. Eunice tried tempting him with hot griddle cakes, which smelled so good when he dragged himself in to rest, and tasted even better. But his belly wouldn't hold them - two bites of the second little sweet flat bread, and it emptied all over the table. The old man hollered and raved, but the old woman just cleared the table and banished the stranger back to bed with a basin to catch any more sick.
Boredom was a special kind of hell. There were no books in the house, no newspaper - only a tattered old Bible, and he'd already thumbed through it a million times once he was strong enough to hold it. The walls in the room they'd stuffed him into were bare, and the window faced a rocky slope whose view never varied from his position in the bed. He'd have taken a seat next to the window, so he could at least catch a glimpse of sky or maybe see a critter somewhere down below, but his gut wasn't interested in being upright, or forward locomotion, or even laying perfectly still. He was stuck. He hunkered down in the bed, angry to be so weak, and wished for a distraction from his pain and humiliation.
His wish was soon granted - he could hear voices in the parlor, which surprised him. If the the last few days were any indication, his keepers weren't the entertaining kind. He wondered if he'd be expected to show his face, or if he was going to be some dirty secret - the half dead saddle tramp ranch serf. He strained to hear some clue as to who exactly was out there, but all he could make out was a low rumble, and the soft but distinctive harrumph that was so uniquely Eunice.
Though he was loathe to change position and invite more nausea or ache, the stranger was desperate for any entertainment at all. He carefully slid his feet to the floor and forced himself up. Pain flared though his center, but he ignored it and shuffled to the shut door, and cracked it open.
"Thank you kindly, Missus Ward."
"I done told you, Sheriff, I don't stand on no ceremony. Just Eunice'll do."
The stranger stiffened - the sheriff? Damn the old man, had he gone into town and badgered the law into finally coming to haul him away?
"-for my visit, Missus - 'scuse me, Miss Eunice, heh - is we got us a bulletin goin' around a little ways outta here. Just got it couple days back, but to my understanding it's been passed around the whole territory already, close to a month got to be. Now, I don't reckon we got us anything to worry about, this bein such a backwater little town and all, but I said I'd check all my-"
The stranger leaned heavily against the wall, suddenly dizzy. Relief wanted to bubble up in him - he had no idea how many days he'd passed in Old Eunice's care, but it was enough for him to go from flat on his back barely able to sip a couple spoons of lukewarm bone broth to mucking a horse stall. He had to have been with them before whatever made that bulletin a worry of the law.
But relief was something that was always just a hairs breadth out of reach, and this time was no different. He didn't know how long he'd been with them, and that was the tall and short of it. For all he knew, he could very well be what the lawman wanted.
Noise erupted in the parlor. Clyde was in the house, and though the stranger couldn't understand a damned thing being said, it was clear the old man was kissing the sheriff's ass. The sheriff was a lot less polite to the old man, which amused the stranger. His amusement died quickly though, when, after hearing the sheriff's business, the old man began ranting about the foolishness of young folks who never wanted to listen to their elders.
He knew he had to go out there and face the lawman. Fear turned his blood to ice, and for just the faintest moment he thought he'd hide in the storage chest at the end of the bed. But of all the insults the old man had hurled at him for day on end - saddle tramp, gun slinger, outlaw, card sharp - one the stranger wouldn't let take hold was coward. He screwed up his courage, and stepped out of the bedroom.
The front room grew quiet when the stranger shuffled in and sat down heavily. He picked a seat across from the sheriff, partly to show that he wasn't afraid of a challenge (though he exactly who he was trying to show was beyond him), and partly to get a good look at the man who kept the peace around these parts. What he saw didn't make much impression on him either way. The sheriff seemed awful young to be wearing any body's tinfoil badge, much less the sheriff's badge.
The smile on the sheriff's face slowly faded as he took stock of the stranger himself. Apparently, he didn't like what he saw, as his gun hand dropped down to his lap. "Afternoon," the sheriff said lightly. He kept a hawk eye on the stranger's hands where they rested over his incisions. "I'm Sheriff Turner."
The stranger gulped and nodded. "Howdy."
Sheriff Turner's eyes narrowed. "Ain't got a name, friend?"
The stranger looked helplessly at the old couple. Clyde shrugged and turned away. Wasn't his problem. Eunice set a cup of warm water and some lemons down in front of the stranger. "His memory ain't too good, Sheriff."
"Least ways, that's what he says," Clyde said roughly. "Don't say much else, neither."
"That so." Sheriff Turner leaned forward. "Don't remember your name?"
The stranger shook his head. "No, sir," he said, or tried to. He felt like he couldn't catch his breath, and the words came out like little puffs.
Turner glanced up at the old folks again, and pulled an envelope out of his vest pocket. "I suppose that means you don't remember what all you were doing before you came to work for the Wards, then?"
The stranger could feel his teeth beginning to chatter. He'd tried, several times, to remember how he'd gotten in his predicament. All he could ever come up with was fear... and rage. The fear, he supposed, was natural. After all, his belly had been ripped open by a bullet - and maybe more, to listen to Miss Eunice - what man wouldn't be afraid of something like that? But the rage, the rage gave him pause. Violent impotence draped over him like a heavy blanket, and filled him up with a need to smash and crush - but there was no focus, no place for him to turn his anger, so it gathered up inside him until he collapsed in unexpressed pain. He'd given up trying to remember after the third time he'd drawn blood in his palms, from clenching his fists too tight.
Now he forced his hands to open and relax, and opened his mouth wide. He wouldn't let the anger tie him up, not in front of this strange lawman who looked at him with growing suspicion. "No, sir. I don't remember. I can't." He glanced up at the old woman, and took strength from the calm, open expression on her face. "Nothing real, anyway. I just know I was hurt something terrible, and Miss Eunice here saved me. But first, Mister Clyde's dogs must have done their part - that's what they say, anyway. I don't remember that either. I remember... waking up in the barn. Covered in blood. I think... I think I was already dying." He trailed off and stared at his hands. They were shaking.
"Fix your tea now, James, it's gonna get cold, and then the honey won't melt." The old woman began fussing nervously with the lemons and water.
The sheriff stood up, hand on his holster. "Thought you said he didn't have no name."
"Now, now, Sheriff, sir, don't go gettin' your tail all in a dander now," Clyde said, like he was talking to a cantankerous old mule liable to kick to kingdom come.
Eunice was, again, far less interested in standing on ceremony. "Oh, pipe down, Sheriff. We had to call the man something. The name was Clyde's idea - said he was like to be a train robber or the like, and with that southern twang... well, we been callin him Jesse James."
The sheriff looked doubtful, but he relaxed his stance, and opened up the envelope. "You two named him."
"Like I said, we got to call him something," Eunice snapped. "Two menfolk in the house now. They got to know which one I'm talkin to." She deliberately turned away from the sheriff and began squeezing lemon into the cup. Over her shoulder, she said, "You've seen him, Sheriff. He's had a terrible morning. Couldn't keep his hot cakes down. He's been up too long as it is now, Sheriff, so I'm gonna get him back into bed before he keels over on us."
The stranger, who certainly answered to James on Eunice's account, but couldn't honestly think of himself as anyone with a name, stared at the the sheet of paper in the sheriff's youthful hands. He'd seen a sheet like that before. He had no idea what was on it, but he recognized it all the same. There was some kind of heavy block printing on it, something that spelled bad news. He just didn't know what the news could possibly be.
"Now, just a minute, ma'am." The solicitous tone was gone from the sheriff's voice. Eunice had the good sense to look worried before she turned to face the lawman. "I wanted to get a look at him on your husband's say. And now that I've seen him, I want to ask a couple questions - seeing as how he looks a lot the description listed on this here sheet."
And there it was. A wanted poster. The picture was hand drawn, badly. Eyes too far apart to be human. Mouth too far from the nose. Big, flat forehead, like the side of a damn barn. The face on the poster could be any walleyed fool, it was so far from what people really looked like. But once you got past the awful hand work, the resemblance was interesting. More interesting, though, were the words. Six feet. Slim build. Dark hair. Blue eyes. Quick draw. Excepting that last detail, that description fit the stranger nicely.
"So, James. Do you mind if I just ask you a couple more things?"
Hell yes, he minded. The smell of the damn lemon water was turning the stranger's stomach. He was sore and tired and afraid of his own damned shadow. But, without knowing how or why, he knew how the law worked. Saying no meant he had something to hide. Having something to hide meant the law would be back through, only with reinforcements, and bigger guns. "Alright," he stranger sighed.
"Good. You ever been to Laramie?"
"I don't know."
The sheriff grimaced. "Think, James."
"Sheriff, he don-"
"Mrs. Ward, would you kindly bring me another cup of coffee, ma'am? Make it good and hot, now. More biscuits too, if you got 'em." The sheriff stared hard at the old woman, who looked for a moment like she wouldn't go. But she deflated and patted the stranger's shoulder as she left his side. Sheriff Turner looked towards the old man, but Clyde just sat down at the far end of the couch and stared at the stranger's tea cup. Turner pinned the stranger with a look. "You still thinkin' James?"
The stranger sunk even further down in his seat. "I don't remember, Sheriff."
Turner looked doubtful. "You know, that's real convenient, James. Can't remember your name, can't remember where you've been, can't remember past a couple weeks gone. Real convenient."
The stranger's trembling worsened. "But I can't..."
"The U.S. Marshalls been covering half the nation, trying to find a good chunk of cash from a stage line robbery, but here we have you showing up not one hundred miles of the heist, inside the window the thief made off with the goods. But you don't remember. Real convenient."
"Sheriff Turner?" Clyde was back on his feet. "Now, I understand, you got a job to do. And I don't know what all this saddle tramp's been up to in his life. But, well, when this old boy showed up here, he ain't had nothing like no money on him. He'd been shot at and stabbed - but that was in front, sir, not back. I ain't sayin' he's a angel, because he's got a mouth on him, and the things he knows how to do... I know he's been places I for one ain't never had to go. But he don't rightly fit the bill any better than, well, you do. No disrespect, now, Sheriff Turner, I know you're a good sheriff, I remember you from when you was in your ma's skirts and all, but..."
To the stranger's surprise, the sheriff began to smile. "I thought you didn't trust him as far as you could throw him, Clyde. Isn't this the man you wanted me to come take off your hands?"
"Yes, well, that was before he almost died, and anyway Eunice is real fond of him. And we ain't found no money on him. No gun neither. Had a gunbelt, but none of the bullets was used, and the gun's gone. So whatever happened to him, I doubt he was much of a stage line robber. And my dogs found him back yonder-" the old man pointed to the back of the property, where the stream curved slightly towards their little scrubby patch of land " -so even if he'd tried to hide the loot before he'd collapsed, I ain't seen too much disturbance out that way that couldn't be explained by a simple bushwhack in the desert."
Turner raised an eyebrow and waited. "That all, Mr. Ward?"
Turner sighed. "Can I see the gunbelt?"
Clyde hesitated. "Uh, okay... I was gonna... sure."
The stranger frowned, but he filed away the old man's reticence for another time. Instead, he forced himself to concentrate on the matter at hand. "Am I in trouble, Sheriff?"
Turner looked at him, and a slow, sly smile spread across his smooth features. "Do you think you should be in trouble?"
The stranger thought. "I think... I think I was in some kind of trouble when I got here. But I don't know that what's on that paper has anything to do with the trouble I was in. Money don't interest me. I'm more interested in freedom. I ain't got that right now - too hurt to move. But I can get out on the porch after dinner and sit with the old woman and her man, and I can get out to feed the hens in the morning, and that's more freedom than I had when I first got here, and couldn't get up to see to my bodily needs."
The sheriff shrugged. "That's an awful lot of double-talk, friend."
The stranger scowled. "Ain't no double-talk. Just trying to answer the question as best I can."
"I found it," the old man called from somewhere in the back of the house.
Turner ignored Clyde's announcement. "These the clothes they found you in, James?"
"Where'd they come from?"
"They were my son's," Eunice said sharply. She had a steaming coffee pot in one hand and a platter of biscuits in the other. "And before you ask, yes, we still have James old clothes, and no, there was nothing interesting in any of them, save maybe that gunbelt, and yes, you can look at them if you want. Just look down, in that basket to your left."
In the basket to his left was a pile of scraps, and a half finished braided rug. Sheriff Turner looked at Eunice darkly. She smiled sweetly. "They were all torn up and bloody, so I took the good bits for my rug, and the not so good bits are rags for scrubbing. He's wearing Gus' clothes now, God rest him."
Clyde appeared with the belt in hand, but he looked reluctant to part with it. "Here it is, Sheriff."
Turner took the belt and examined it carefully, though the stranger didn't think there was a damn thing he could tell by looking at it. He felt like it was mostly a ploy to make him nervous. All it was doing was making him tired and irritable - he wanted to get back in the damned bed. He resisted the urge to stretch out on the couch, but he couldn't stop himself from leaning back, or the whimpering little breath of a sigh that escaped his lips.
Clyde cleared his throat. "Sheriff. The man's tired. And we had one hell of a time moving him into the bed when he couldn't move under his own power. He can walk now, so I'd just as soon not tire him out to where I got to pick him up and put him right again. Now if you're planning on taking him, then take him! Go on and get him out of my hair!" Eunice squawked, and the stranger gasped, but Clyde went right on. "If you do, though, make sure you got the right to do so! He's innocent until a jury proves otherwise, and I won't have blood on my hands that shouldn't be there.
"And now it's close to supper time, Sheriff, and my wife's been running around making you coffee instead of preparing the evening meal. And I still got chores to do - chores I got to do by myself today, because he ain't had his proper midday rest. Now, you're welcome to stay for dinner, but we all got to get on with the rest of our day!" And with that, Clyde snatched the belt from the sheriff's hands, and stormed back to the back of the house, grumbling about the impertinence of young folks.
"Well," Eunice said, "are you staying?"
The sheriff did stay for a simple meal of biscuits and gravy, and then went on his way without another word about the wanted poster. The stranger turned away from the meal and the company, and settled himself by the window to watch for the sheriff's departure. Only after he was sure the lawman was gone did he lay back to try and rest. He was asleep before his head hit the pillow.