After more than half a day of hard riding, the stranger happened upon another small town called Buckeye, in the newly unionized state of Colorado. This one was much busier, and felt soothing and familiar, though he couldn't say why. He rode all the way through, real slow, taking everything in, and then hitched the horse up at the far end of town.
He soon found a fancy looking hotel and saloon that towered over much of the town - at three stories high, it was as impressive as any rock face he half remembered in the fog between sleep and wakefulness. The only building that was at least as impressive was the Town Hall, whatever that meant, with its red, white and blue banners and fancy white pillars, set almost exactly across the street from the saloon. The stranger gave the Town Hall a quick glance, but exhaustion and hunger dulled his sense of curiosity. Whatever mysteries the Town Hall held, they didn't guarantee a quick solution to the problem of food and rest. A hotel, however, certainly did.
He got a room and then poked his head into the saloon for food. More than a saloon, the place was a real card house, complete with dealers. He might stick around, get a job dealing - nice, safe money playing cards with men that wouldn't necessarily assume he was a cheat. And if they did assume, well, he'd be a cheat following house rules.
Future plans all set, he ordered a drink from a glittering, yellow-headed working girl, and began to relax. The girl gave him a smile - a look sweeter than wild honeycomb - and sashayed away to place his order. When she returned, she draped herself right across the tabletop, and plucked his hat from his head. "Oh, honey. You look like a man with a story to tell." She settled the hat on her head and began tangling her fingernails through his shaggy, wavy hair. "Tell Bonnie all about it, sugar."
"Not much to tell, Bonnie. Been shot at, cussed at, run off. I'm hungry, I'm tired, I need money."
Bonnie raised an eyebrow. "Well, it's a good start anyway. How about I get you a plate of the house special - you get yourself a room yet?"
"Well, ain't it your lucky night - the house special is half off for anybody with a room key, honey. I'll put it in for you, and then when you're all done, you go get some rest, and come see me tomorrow, okay?" She smiled just as big and bright as the sun, and sauntered off, his hat still on her head.
When she returned with his plate, she hovered and tried flirting a little more, but he ignored her, more interested in the chicken and dumplings in front of him than the gorgeous yellow rose floating all around him. Once he was done, he got up, silently took his hat from her head, and stalked up to his room to crash.
The man was back. The beautiful, faceless, golden haired man. It was as if he'd never left.
But he was leaving again.
The light was dying, and taking the golden man with it. He was swallowed by a darkness that fell so quickly, it left a mind searing hole where sight once was.
Sound soon followed.
Everything was muffled, the way life sounded under the surface of a cold, still lake. Silent. Distant. Untouchable.
He can't breathe.
He can't breathe!
He can't move.
He's trapped in a dead body, and all around him life moves on. Something hard and heavy landed on his gut, and sent burning pain through him. Though he couldn't lift his head to look, he saw it as landed, the beautiful pearl handled gun, the one that always brought the cascading blood. He vaguely heard a preacher's words - ashes to ashes. Something soft batted at his face, then his belly. He can't see it, but he knows it's dirt. They've put him in the ground, and there's nothing he can do about it. He's dead.
The stranger came to all at once, sitting up slow and smooth and thoroughly confused. It took him several minutes to realize he was in a hotel room, above a busy saloon, in a bustling little town, with a stolen horse fairly abandoned at the other end of the town. He was alive and well. Well, he was alive, anyway.
He went down to settle up his bill, and hopefully see about hiring on as a dealer, but he was stopped just steps away from the desk by an even frillier, shinier Bonnie. "Well, well, well, good morning, sugar! Sleep okay? Feeling a little better?"
The stranger smiled coolly. "'Scuse me, ma'am." He tried to slide around her, but she grabbed hold of his elbow and fell into step with him as he made his way to the front desk. She hung onto his arm like she was his girl, he was her escort, and that was that. He ignored her and paid up, and asked the desk clerk, who was even chillier than the night clerk who'd checked him in, if he knew whether or not the saloon was hiring any dealers. The morning clerk looked down his nose at the stranger. "I don't know. I'm not sure how they feel about strangers handling the cards. Maybe try in a few weeks, once we get to know you."
The girl, who was already overly friendly, suddenly wrapped herself bodily around the stranger. "Hey, listen, sugar - you got a name?"
The stranger sighed, and offered a name that didn't quite roll off the tongue. "I've been called James."
"James, huh? Not Jimmy?"
He narrowed his eyes at her. "Jesse, actually."
She froze, and he could hear the desk clerk skitter away. "Jesse James?" Her voice was no longer honey sweet, but cold and skeptical.
He smirked. "Not the."
She giggled in obvious relief. "Good lord, you gave us a start! So which is it? Jesse or James?"
The stranger shrugged. "Pick one. Someone else did. Say it loud enough in my direction, I'll know you're talking to me."
She her next laugh was a sensual purr. "Well, I'm fond of Jimmy, myself. Jimmy and Bonnie."
"You fixin to get hitched? Because you're much better off right here as a saloon girl than attaching yourself to a saddle tramp like me, ma'am."
She cooed and giggled again, and led him away from the saloon entrance and the front desk, over to the staircase where they could talk in relative privacy. "You're certainly a good looking man, and I don't think any woman with half a brain or one eye would give a damn whether or not you could provide for her, so long as she could go on lookin at you, Jimmy Sugar, but, no, I ain't lookin to get hitched. Not just yet, anyway."
"Okay, then what can I do for you?"
Her smile was as wide and innocent as the open plains of the west. "Well, it's more a matter of, what can we do for each other. You see, I don't exactly have work for you, but I do have a clean room here, and a little bit of a problem, and maybe you could help me with that problem, in exchange for access to that room whenever you need it - you know, a roof over your head - and maybe some good saloon food?"
"And what exactly is your problem?"
Bonnie fluttered her eyelashes. "Well, you see, Jimmy, I want someone to protect me."
"Mmhm. I get nervous doing the kind of work I do. Most menfolk, they get kinda... rowdy. They aren't like you. And I know I come on strong, but I have to - it's the only way I've got to provide for myself. But that doesn't mean I want to get manhandled all over creation, you know?"
The stranger narrowed his eyes at her. "A saloon girl with a personal bodyguard?"
Bonnie finally looked unsure of herself. "You make it sound so..."
"Sorry. I don't mean to make light of you. But... I think I'll pass, ma'am. The kind of work you're asking me to do is the kind of work a lady should have to ask for." He turned away, and headed for the front door, and pretended not to hear her complain that she wasn't considered a lady.
One step towards the open door, and he didn't hear anything anyone else was saying anywhere. His whole being, heart, body and soul, were focused on the scene unfolding in the street. A group of men were gathered in front of the Town Hall, men with shotguns, men with badges, men with a horse. A friendly, spotted horse, one that had been tied to a post on the far end of town. Damn. How in the hell did they find him so fast?
Well, now he had an idea of what kinds of things happened in the Town Hall.
He turned and looked at the crest fallen Bonnie. A bodyguard for a saloon girl. Not his first choice for a job, but with his horse in the hands of the law, the stranger was stuck in Buckeye, and needed to be able to shelter and feed himself, at least long enough to get another mount. He ignored the hint of alarm that shivered up and down his back and cleared his throat. "Bonnie."
She looked up at him with wide eyed hope, and went skittering towards him. "Yes?"
"You serious about needing protection?"
"Oh, yes! Why, Jimmy? Are you going to help me?" She took his hand in both of hers. "Oh I'd be ever so grateful if you said yes! Are you, Jimmy?"
The stranger grit his teeth, and told himself to stop being so yellow. "I suppose I am."