It didn't take long for the stranger to develop a routine: dust the church at sunup, spend the day in town asking for odd jobs, return to the church for a second wipe down, eat dinner, sleep. It was similar to life with the Wards, but no one expected the stranger to clean the Cady house from top to bottom, and instead of a pack of mangy dogs and rawboned horses, there were three friendly children underfoot. With routine came comfort. After just a day with the children, the stranger realized he was almost comfortable with the idea of settling in with the Cadys forever, if they'd have him.
He'd grown so comfortable with the preacher's family, and they with him, that he'd taken to spending more time checking for minor (mostly unnecessary) repairs at the church and helping Mrs. Cady corral the kids than he did looking for work that no one was willing to offer. The smallest child, a little yellow headed, buck toothed boy, tugged at the stranger's heartstrings so, and he found he was willing stay unarmed and just underfed for the chance to listen to the little boy's bubbling laughter.
If not for the dreams, he might have asked the Cadys to let him stay on forever. He could plant a garden, a nice big one, and between that and rabbit hunting, there'd be enough food for him to get by just fine, and he'd be available for any small tasks they needed. He could be helpful with the shopping, carrying parcels for Mrs. Cady and the girls, and he could teach the boy how to hunt - just for food, not for the sake of being a gunslinging saddle tramp. He knew he could be indispensable to the Cadys, if he really wanted to be. But come nightfall, the shadowworld with the tall man like the sun would call him, using a name the stranger could never hear. Come home, the man said. Come back home.
He longed for a drink to dampen the memory, but Reverend Cady believed the only good use for anything stronger than a cup of coffee was medicinal. Even the wildberry wine Mrs. Cady siphoned off into tiny glass bottles was kept under lock and key in the back of the house, and only doled out as part of her care packages she made special for the sickly shut-ins. She'd caught the stranger watching her bottle the sweet wine, and smiled gently, almost pityingly at him. "This won't bring your memory back any sooner, friend. And if you aim to use it to push away memories you'd as soon forget, then you'll never heal." She did give him a bowl of crushed, unfermented berries for his trouble though, all run through with day old cream from town, like he was a child. He didn't know whether to hate the gentle woman for her patronizing, or bless her for at least acknowledging the ghosts he thought no one else saw haunting him.
After that one offer of berries and cream, the stranger's escape to the town square was as much from Mrs. Cady's tender gaze as the dreams that plagued him. He sometimes wished he could bring himself to beg one of the children for a couple of coins, for just one drink, but he'd rather be labeled a thief a thousand times over than be reduced to begging from sweet faced babies. Instead, he comforted himself by sitting on the edge of the boardwalk, and watching the men come and go from the big saloon across from the stage stop. Sometimes, he watched the stage as well. At first, he watched because he was afraid of the possibility of some lawman deciding they weren't quite done with him after all. After he began to feel comfortable with the Cady family, he watched because he could live vicariously through the people stepping on and off the coach.
The women and their rustling skirts and the giant boxes they couldn't do without made for good entertainment. He sometimes would hear local cowpokes mumble about how he had the best seat in the house, and he laughed with them. But the ladies didn't stir the kind of excitement in his belly that the dusty boys from the range were surely feeling. They were just pretty colors. They held no more enticement for the stranger than a patch of wildflowers, or the little glass balls of swirling color inside the Cady boy's marble jar. Nice to look at, but best handled by someone who'd really appreciate them.
What did sometimes get his heart pounding was the cowboys themselves. Dusty, sweaty, smelling of horse and cow and man, chins covered in days old growth, they were the kind of men that made those same ladies go scurrying down to the hotel like their skirts were on fire. But the stranger found himself wanting to lean in close and breathe it all in. Maybe it meant something. Maybe he was a cowboy himself. He certainly had a way with horses, after all.
Maybe he'd find the man he dreamed of in the group of dirty, foul mouthed, foul minded cowpokes that drifted through town.
He didn't really expect to find his mystery man conveniently wandering the streets of Cheyenne. How could he? There was no face, nothing solid to identify him with. There was just the feeling of being home, a feeling of belonging. A feeling that dissipated each morning, along with all the other details of his dream. And he knew better than too look to hard at these men with that kind of longing. This wasn't the open range, not a wide expanse of land and sky, with only your horse and cattle for company, where the nearest human contact was clear across the other side of your world, and no one else would happen upon you for weeks. And even then, the stranger wouldn't take for granted that another lonely range hand would appreciate that kind of appreciation.
So the stranger kept his eyes firmly off the ragtag men that cheered him on, and settled for the tame entertainment of watching the people on the early morning stage. He thought about what it might be like to get all duded up to take the stage on out of town, with money in his pocket, and a sleek, clean chin, freshly shorn of all his salt speckled whiskers. Maybe he'd chat with one of those silly, colorful little ladies while the stage bounced and shuddered over the dusty trail, until he was far from Cheyenne, far from Laramie, far from Buckeye, far from it all.
Sometimes after a few hours of talking to the shopkeepers (and getting gently but firmly shooed away from their storefronts), he'd return to watch the midday coaches come tearing into town. He didn't do it often - he didn't want the law to come fussing at him about vagrancy - but sometimes he couldn't keep smiling through the again friendly rejections, and he couldn't face the long walk back to the church.
He was having one such day when the southbound midday stage pulled up, kicking up traildust all the way. It didn't stop in the usual spot right in front of the ticket booth, but slid on a couple doors down, closer to the bank. The man riding shotgun stood up and held his gun at the ready, like he was expecting trouble. The stranger settled back, not wanting to give the man with the gun any reason to single him out, and froze slightly. The driver hadn't released the reins, hadn't jumped down to help anyone out of the coach, hadn't moved at all. He was twisted slightly in his seat, his brow furrowed in what looked like deep concentration.
And he was staring right at the stranger.
A southbound stage. Out of Laramie.
The sands of time kept right on slipping, while he'd been playing nursemaid and caretaker to a fool preacherman. Or maybe the stranger was the fool - maybe he should have spent time trying to make that garden, and kept far away from the stageline.
At any rate, he knew he couldn't stay where he was. He got to his feet, aware that the movement caught the eye of the stage guard, and deliberately turned his back on the stage. He headed north, away from the bank, the staring stage line employees, an old robbery charge that might or might not stick to his back, all of it. The first thing he saw was a saloon, a little bigger than the one he'd sometimes watch with such longing. He'd seen it plenty of times before, but he'd only set foot inside it once. Where the rest of the town seemed pretty friendly like, this one barkeep snapped at the stranger like a wild dog, and sent him out with his tail between his legs. The stranger hesitated, but the soft thud of someone hitting the packed dirt on the street from a height made him just brave enough to head for the door.
The same ornery cuss stood behind the crowded bar, shining a mug with a dirty towel. The stranger ducked his head and pushed his way into the rowdy crowd, hoping that if he just didn't pay the barkeep no mind, he'd be left alone.
No such luck. "Hey," the barkeep barked. "Ain't no work here!"
"Just want to get out of the sun for a spell," the stranger muttered, and tried to head for the back.
"I ain't babysittin' nobody that ain't payin'!"
The stranger hunkered down further, and made his way towards the handful of empty tables in the very back. He didn't want to stay long. If he could just stay out of sight of the driver, long enough for the stage to leave, he could get away. Maybe see if one of the cowboys that passed through town would give him a hand, at least long enough to get some miles between himself and Cheyenne.
He kept his head down, and picked at the skin peeling around his fingernails. They were getting thin and brittle - sort of like he was, he supposed. He snorted. It wasn't funny, but it was. Maybe he could just keep peeling until there wasn't nothing left to peel anymore. Then he could finally rest.
"Here you go. Need anything else?"
The stranger froze. A tall, cold mug of beer sat on the table in front of him, and a tired looking saloon girl stood next to him, looking for all the world like the last thing she wanted to do was take an order from him. He shook his head, and pushed at the mug. "I... I can't pay for that. But don't make me go, at least tell me when the-"
The saloon girl snorted. "We know you ain't got no money, sugar."
"Well, then, I don't understand."
The woman rolled her eyes and pointed. "That fella over there bought it." The stranger followed the line of her finger, to an older man standing a little separate from the crowd. "You want anything else, or not?"
"No, ma'am," the stranger said. His heart began to pound, hard. The man across the room was staring at him, just as hard as the stage driver had been. Maybe it was too late to make his escape. His mouth went dry as the girl spun on her heel and swished away from him, back into the thick of the crowd, leaving him alone and cornered.
He glanced at his drink again, as someone in the room called out, "Jess Harper!" The stranger jumped a little, and the crowd hushed a bit, and turned to stare at the man who'd bought the stranger his drink. "Jess Harper," the new man said again, breathlessly this time.
The stranger scanned the crowd, wondering if maybe someone was going to answer the man, but no one did. The man came slowly to the stranger's table, eyes wide as saucers. "Jess Harper," he said a third time, as he put his hand on the back of the chair across from the stranger. "Jess...? Is it... is it really you? Joey said he thought he saw you come in here, but... I can't believe it."
The stranger kept his mouth shut, and watched warily while the strange man sat down across from him. A flash of silver caught the stranger's eye as the new man settled in his seat. Under his coat was a badge. Another lawman.
"Jess... why are you hiding here in Cheyenne, anyway? Why haven't you come home? We miss you!"
The stranger sat, frozen. Who the hell was Jess? And what happened if this man realized he wasn't Jess? Or, what if it was all a test, and the best thing to do was to play along? What if this lawman was on his way through Cheyenne to talk to the law in Buckeye - what if there really was something that could be pinned to his hide?
The stranger opened his mouth, but he couldn't make any sound come out. All he could seem to do was shake his head haltingly, back and forth, like one of those European string puppets.
"Are you in pain, Jess?"
More head shaking.
"You act like you don't know me, Jess." The man's wide eyed stare was turning melancholy.
"I don't," the stranger finally choked out. "I think you have the wrong man."
"No," the lawman said. "No, I do believe I have the right man. But... you don't know me, Jess...?"
"I don't know you, I don't know any Jess Harper, and as kind as your offer was for the drink, I'm obliged to turn you down, sir." He hated the way his voice shook, but there was nothing for it.
Instead of excusing himself and letting the stranger be, the lawman smiled sadly. "You're thinner," he said. "And you've got lines around your mouth that didn't used to be there, and you've got some sliver in your chin whiskers. But I'd know your voice, anywhere, Jess Harper. I'd know your voice, and the way you flex your fingers when you're uncomfortable, and I know you've got an appetite like a twenty mule team. You look hungry, Jess, let -"
"I don't know who Jess Harper is," the stranger said again, straining to get the words out of his quickly closing throat. "All I want is to be left in peace! Please."
The lawman put his hands on the table, and smiled widely. "I'm your friend, Jess. We all thought you were dead. You don't know how good it is to see you."
"I don't want to go to jail."
That stopped the overly friendly lawman for a moment. "No one is going to put you in jail, Jess," he said slowly.
"I don't know who Jess Harper is, I say!"
"Yes," the man said, still speaking slowly, as if to a small, stupid child. "Yes, you did say that. You also said you don't know me, and that you don't want to go to jail. I heard you. But, listen to me," he said, slowly pulling his jacket open to reveal the star the stranger had already seen. "I'm the sheriff of Laram-"
The stranger jumped up and reached for an iron he still didn't have, and froze with his hand clutching at his empty hip.
The sheriff's face was just like Mrs. Ward's had been when he'd drawn on her: shock, fear, disappointment. The emotions flashed by, lighting quick, but the stranger caught them. A small part of him was sad to have made the man feel unhappy, but the rest of him screamed run, run, run!
He couldn't make his feet move.
The seconds ticked by, and finally, a new expression settled on the sheriff's face. Understanding. "Sit down, son. Everything's alright." He raised his hands, slow, palms open. "I told you, I'm your - I'm Jess Harper's friend. If I seem pushy, it's because the last I heard, Jess Harper died trying to stop a robbery, and a witness said his body was dragged away by a pack of dogs.
The stranger blinked. "Dogs?"
The stranger sat down, slowly. "Trying to stop a robbery."
"That's right," the sheriff said again.
"So... no one is hunting for this Jess Harper."
The sheriff hesitated a little too long for the stranger's comfort. "Some folks wanted to hang the robbery on Jess. On his dear friend, Slim Sherman, too. Slim's the one who reported Jess' death. But now Slim's in jail for apparently killing the person he claims to be the real thief. Only, now he's being held responsible for the whole thing start to finish, and it's one hell of a mess."
None of that meant a thing to the stranger. "Is this Jess still in trouble, then?"
The sheriff smiled a little. "Not with me, and I'm the law in Laramie."
The stranger could feel the trap closing around him. "And you think I'm Jess."
"I don't know who I am."
The sheriff nodded. "I know you don't. I can see that. But I know who you are, and Slim will know you, too. You're Jess Harper, and you're one half of the Sherman ranch, which is both a small but important cow and horse ranch just outside the Laramie city limits, and a relay station for the Overland Stage Line. You're a cantankerous but loving character, and we all miss the absolute hell out of you, boy." The sheriff's voice cracked, just a little.
The stranger looked hard at the sheriff, whose eyes were filling with unshed tears. It made him uncomfortable, to watch this stranger cry for him so easily. He didn't know what to do with so much sympathy and affection so freely given. The last time he'd trusted someone who offered him such kindness, he found himself locked away for her crimes. How did he know he could trust this man any better?
The sheriff wiped unashamedly at his eyes. "Come with me, Jess. Come with me to help Slim - let him see you! He's lost without you, he always is. And I'll bet you're just as lost without him. You two were so damned... fond of each other. You'll remember him once you see him, I know it. He's a great big oak of a man, six foot four, got to be more than two hundred pounds, all muscle, and a halo of golden hair piled on his head - they don't grow his kind just any old where, Jess."
The stranger found himself sitting up straighter. Tall, broad, golden halo. Could it be? But... "What happens if he doesn't know me? If he's not as sure of my identity as you are?"
The sheriff frowned a little. "He will be... but if he says you aren't Jess, then... I suppose I can buy you a ticket back here?"
"East," the stranger said. "Not here. I want to get out of here. I want to leave the west, and put this nightmare behind me."
The sheriff looked dubious, but he said, "Well, alright."
Too easy. There was definitely a trap in the works. "So... where is this Slim?"
"In Buckeye, Colorado."
The stranger jumped up again. "I'm not going back there! Forget it!"
The sheriff narrowed his eyes. "Going back... were you in Buckeye?"
"I tell you, I'm not going back there! They tried to frame me! They set me up, they wanted to lock me away for something I didn't do!"
Again, the sheriff's words were slow. "I can understand why you wouldn't want to go back there. But Slim Sherman has been accused of killing a woman, and a man she was traveling with. Right now, he thinks he has nothing to lose. If you're Jess -"
"If I'm Jess Harper, that won't matter to the Buckeye law, they'll just find another reason to lock me away the minute they see me, and this time they'll throw away the key!"
The sheriff sighed. "Okay. What did they accuse you of?"
The stranger struggled to calm himself. "Theft."
"And for that they wanted to lock you up for a long time."
"Yes," the stranger growled.
"What kind of evidence did they have?"
"I walked unknowingly into a room full of stolen goods."
"And that's why you want to go east, isn't it?"
The stranger looked away. "Easy to see why they made you sheriff. You're smart."
The sheriff ignored his dig. "I can see why you want to run. I would too, especially if I didn't know who my friends were, or what kind of help I had access to.
"These people who locked you away, unjustly it sounds like to me, are holding a good friend of mine on the suspicion of murder. If these people are willing to lock you up, and throw away the key, just because you happened to be standing near the evidence, what do you think they're going to do to my friend? My friend, who has two eyewitnesses to testify against him, my friend whose story to his defense lawyer matches the story he told my pea-brained deputy before heading out to clear your name - and don't you try to tell me you aren't Jess Harper. You're a quick draw, and Jess Harper had the fastest hand in Laramie. You've got a little scar on your chin. That came from a particularly rowdy Fourth of July celebration, when you got caught in a barroom brawl and went sailing through a window. You have another, longer scar on your left arm, where you sliced yourself up something fierce in some fight in the city of Ironwood. And there's an old bullet hole in your upper left chest, from chasing a pack of wild gunmen who were determined to try a jailbreak on a paddy wagon. You love strawberries, but they make you break out in a rash if you eat too many of them at once, and you can't stand the smell of cooked broccoli. I know exactly who you are, Jess."
The stranger's knees gave out, and he dropped dizzily into his seat. Though he had no idea how he'd gotten them, the list of scars was completely accurate, even to the one the man couldn't see on his chest. He certainly didn't like Mrs. Cady's attempt to make him eat the mushy, stinking vegetable that she apparently thought the sun and moon rose and set on. He hadn't had a chance to settle in for a good bunch of strawberries, but he found himself idly scratching at a phantom itchy patch on his arm. The sheriff smiled indulgently at the action, and the stranger growled and yanked his hand down like he'd touched hot iron.
The sheriff just smiled harder. "I'm Mort Cory, Jess. And Slim needs you."
The names meant nothing to the stranger. Mort, Slim, Jess. Just letters strung together. But, apparently, Mort knew him, and the man Mort was going to save sounded an awful lot like the man haunting the stranger's dreams night after night. And this man, this figment of his imagination, had gone out and gotten himself well and truly tangled in that very real hellhole of Buckeye.
The stranger sighed, and took one long pull from his no longer cold beer. Then he got to his feet, and offered the sheriff his hand. "Okay, Sheriff. Okay."