Finding Hope
Chapter 8 - Alone

Long after the sheriff's visit, the stranger jumped at his own shadow. He couldn't settle, couldn't shake the feeling that the sheriff was astride his steed, watching from the top of the steep slope that hid the Ward's land from the rest of the world. He told himself to settle down, that soon enough the sheriff would be through with word that the bandit had been caught, or the money found, or that there was more important business at hand and that was the end of the poster from Laramie. But no one came, and the days turned into weeks, and the stranger was doing stupid things like knocking over coffee cups and dropping whole buckets of feed at the drop of a hat.

The dirty looks the old man gave him weren't doing a thing to calm the stranger's nerves. It seemed like every time the stranger knocked something out of place, there the old man was, burning hatred into the stranger's skin with the force of his glare. The scrutiny made the stranger all the more nervous, which naturally lead to more accidents. He was tempted to leave, to take a horse and head for the hills, but he knew his body was still too weak for that kind of riding. He sometimes thought of simply walking away, too, but he didn't know the country well enough to try. He didn't know how far they were from town, didn't know if he'd find a place to lay his head or anything. He considered using the wagon to make his way into town, where maybe he could get work serving whiskey to bad men, but his desire to leave must have been too obvious, or he must have stared at the wagon too hard. Clyde cornered him one afternoon. "You so much as breathe on that wagon, boy, and I'll have the law on you so fast it'll turn your hair white!" Not the most sensical statement, but it got the message across. The stranger kept his eyes down after that.

The warning did something else, too. It made the stranger wonder just what in hell Clyde was playing at. Was there something to the reward? Had the old man changed his mind? Was he just trying to keep the peace in the house, trying to pretend to protect a stray in front of his wife? Did he intend to eventually go into town to see if there was a reward on the poster? Or was it simpler than that? After all, the Wards had to be in their sixties, at the very least. The stranger was young enough to be their son, maybe Eunice's grandson, if she'd had a daughter early on, and that daughter had had him early on. Maybe the idea was to keep him on the land, to make him a servant until the end of their days.

A part of him liked the idea, actually, that there was some cranky old man who expected him to do all the heavy lifting, and some mothering, snappy old woman who insisted on feeding him every night. But if he examined the thought too closely, something inside him twisted, and the pain of blank memory came down and washed all his efforts away, leaving him with awful knowledge that this was wrong. This wasn't the order of things.

Still, he worried at the thought of some nameless old pair, and a warm wooden house filled with laughter and some other unnamed thing, in the mostly fruitless effort to keep his fear of the sheriff's return at bay. There were times when he'd be so engrossed in his wishings that the snuffle of a horse or the flutter of a chicken wing against his leg would make him jump and holler and swear like some old fool who'd spent too long at the long end of a saloon.

"James, when you come in from the-"

The stranger dropped the saddle he was polishing and whirled around, gun hand at his hip in the blink of an eye - and then he gasped, as startled by his own reaction to Eunice's voice as by the power of her shriek. "I - I - Miss Eunice -"

She took off out of the barn as fast as her feet would carry her, which was a hell of a lot faster than the stranger would have expected, given her usual slow, careful movement. He went tripping after her, desperate to apologize. He would never have drawn on her, not really. Not really.

He went in through the side door, shoving past the table and chairs to try to get to the back room where the old folks slept. He half expected to find her cowered under her quilts. "Miss Eunice? Please, I'm so sor-" The stranger drew up short as the business end of a rifle suddenly appeared at the kitchen doorway, with a red faced old lady behind it. She was shaking so hard the rifle was making little figure eights right around his collar bone, but that didn't matter none to the stranger. At this range, she could point the damn thing at the wall behind her, and he'd still be killed. He slowly raised his hands, and said in a soft, easy voice. "I am so sorry, Miss Eunice. I would never hurt you."

"That so?" Her voice shook harder than the gun, and the stranger's shame doubled. He'd never seen her so frightened in the long weeks that he'd been there. More than that, there was pain in her eyes, in the set of her mouth, the trembling hands. "And what if you'da had your gun? What then, Jesse James?"

He wanted to say he wouldn't have fired, wanted to say that arming one's self didn't make a man a murderer. But he couldn't. He honestly didn't know. Up until that moment, he hadn't thought he'd have ever drawn on an unarmed man, or any woman. Obviously, the peaceful man he'd fancied himself was just a figment of a tired and wishful imagination. "I don't know, Miss Eunice."

The pain gave way to anger, pure and simple. "You don't know. Tell me, James, what makes an innocent man automatically reach for a gun in the home of the simple, good people who rescued him? What innocent man tries to shoot a harmless old woman down in her twilight? And for what? For not stepping heavy enough?"

The stranger winced. "I... I don't know who I am. The law says a man is innocent until proven guilty. But that doesn't make him a good man, and it doesn't mean he ain't done the things he's been accused of doing, whatever they are. You've been trying to convince everyone - the sheriff, your husband, even me - that I'm an innocent man. But maybe that's not true. Maybe whatever it is that won't come back to me is something better left behind. Maybe I'm not such an innocent man. I want to be. But what I want and what I do aren't always the same thing, and for that, I'm sorry."

His gut didn't want any more strife or strain, and made itself known. Pain lanced through him, sharp and hot, as it still did from time to time, but he ignored it. He knew she could see the sudden pain. He saw her eyes flash down to where his shirt - her son's shirt - hid the scars of his unknown battle. But she didn't lower the gun. If anything, her hold on the weapon became steadier, her face calmer.

He breathed through the pain, and forced himself to ask the words he didn't want answered: "Do you want me to go?" She looked at him suspiciously. "I will, if it's what you want. I... Your husband warned me not to go. He said he'd set the sheriff on me if I did. But I'll go, if you want."

Finally, she lowered the gun. "I'll pack you some food." She didn't make a move, though. She just stood there, staring at him.

He finally turned away and went to the room he'd slept in for a season and a half, and shrugged into his borrowed coat and hat. He returned to the kitchen, to ask if it was alright to take the coat, and was surprised to see his gunbelt on the table. Still no gun, but that was alright. Maybe he could trade the belt in some town somewhere. There was a package of hard biscuits, a small sack of coffee grounds, a canteen, and another package of jerky, all next to a little burlap bag just big enough to hold the lot. The stranger packed his food - meager portions for a man who was getting ready to walk into the unknown - pulled on his gun belt, and left in heavy silence.

As he stepped out into the midday warmth, he saw her standing by the barn, the rifle resting peacefully in her hand, not ready for firing, but near to hand all the same. He waved. She didn't wave back. He hadn't expected her to. He turned away, and wondered why an image of trampled daisies lingered in his mind's eye.

Chapter 7
Chapter 9

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