"It's a step in the right direction, Ma," Doc Morris comforted. "At least she's sleeping now, not unconscious."
Sheriff Cole leaned against the open door as Mickey O'Donohue approached. Still some fifty yards away Mickey signalled Cole to join him.
"What's up, Mick?"
The answer was pelted out rather than spoken: "Heard something stranger than a happy New Yorker this morning, Sheriff, how is she by the way, made me start wondering alot and I don't like that, shows things aint right so how she doing?"
"Doc reckons maybe she's on the right road. So what have you heard, Mick?"
"Those sheets boiling yet, Clint?"
Doc Morris shouted to Clint who was outside boiling up torn strips of blanket in a cauldron hanging over a camp fire he'd built earlier.
Clint, rubbing noonday sweat off his face, called "Yup, just put them in, Doc."
"Good boy, give 'em half hour, then hang 'em." Morris turned to Ma Cody. "We'll put 'em on her wounds, get the poisons out."
Ma Cody, making herself busy, nodded. She'd just finished preparing concoctions of wheat flour, water and heartsease.
Anna had slept most of the morning, sometimes almost waking and groaning before sleeping again.
And then I see nothing. Only blackness, on which a yellow stain glows, moving one way then another.
Guess that's the lamp. The Sheriff's still holding it, moving it when Doc Morris tells him to.
God I'm hurting real bad.
Doc's rubbing something into the back of my head.
Have I returned? Am I me now?
Who was I before?
It's whiskey, that taste, burning on my tongue. My lips feel like jagged rocks. Grandma is crying. There's a noise growing inside my burning mouth and I can tongue it out over my lips.
And listen to myself moan.
I have so much to tell you.
But where to start, how to explain? I don't know, I can't, I can't do anything, can't speak, can't move. How can I explain it all?
Mr Bowens face appears, he looks stern. I can see through his head, apart from his eyes: I can't see through them. His lips move.
"Anna Cody," the head speaks, as if they were both once more in the classroom. Oh how I miss those days, the stories, the smells, "Anna Cody, pay attention" I pay attention "describe in comprehensive detail what you have seen. Omit nothing."
See Grandma letting Doc Morris take over. The Sheriff looks half frightened, half happy. Clint's been crying. I know, because after he's been crying the vein sticks out on his forehead.
I'm ok, Clint, I say, but he can't hear.
Because I'm not, am I?
I live in a near broke wagon, nothing on it works; well, some bits do, like my hands if I try real hard.
I can squeeze Grandma's hand - tell Clint I'm going to be okay, Grandma - but she don't understand. I'll do it myself then.
I know that heat, that smell.
I've tasted it before.
By the time Doc Morris arrived, Old Ma Cody was sitting next to her granddaughter lightly smoothing a wet cloth over the girl's lips.
I have so much to tell you.
Anna's lips barely moved. There was no sound.
Sheriff Cole held a whiskey bottle out to Doc Morris, who grinned "For me or the girl?"
"Well if you or the girl don't finish it off, I will," the Sheriff responded.
Doc Morris took the bottle and delicately let two small drops fall onto Anna's lips.
I know that heat, that smell.
Her lips twitched. She sucked in air, deeply.
Sheriff Cole, eyes bright in the lamplight, stared hard. Muscles in Anna's face were twitching, the most movement he'd seen in the girl for many hours. Old Ma Cody let out a cry!
"Oh Anna! Sheriff, she squeezed my hand! Her hand - "
Cole interrupted her.
"Clint, go fetch Doc Morris quick, tell him she's coming 'round." Clint was out of the door before the Sheriff added "Maybe."
Outside, Clint's legs mocked the distance under the vast black skirt of sky. The moon was lost, though fragile starlight still shone coldly. Over on the horizon, ahead of Clint, dawn hesitated.
My scream fails. Before me lies a red lake. It's a peaceful place, a place of escape from this pain where I can sleep and it's warm and it's a safe place and happy place. It's always there and it's a long long ways away place, my place, which will heal me and I will be happy there, in my own long long ways away place.
I'm walking slowly towards it.
It's pain free.
And it's a lie.
I turn around. Walk away.
If She taught me anything, she taught me there is always a way back.
I look over my immobile body to see Clint fitfully sleeping, dreaming, mumbling, kicking out. Grandma and Cole staring at me in frightened silence, as if trying to stop the future, trying to bring back yesterday's yesterday. And my head hurts so bad, its pain is tearing me away to drown in its red waters.
Inside my head I'm yelling: Hey, I'm here! Wake up, Clint!
Hey I'm here! Hey, Clint!
But I'm not here, am I? My mouth won't move. My eyelids won't open.
Summon up one huge effort. One last scream of life against drowning!
"Jesus Christ!" Sheriff Cole's voice came out louder than he had expected and startled even himself. "Her eyes, Ma, her eyes are moving!"
The Sheriff held the lamp over Anna's face as Ma Cody rose painfully from her chair. Beneath closed eyelids the girl's pupils moved, as if she was dreaming.
The muscles on both sides of her jaw clenched, as if she was trying to speak.
Ma Cody reached out to touch the girl's hand. Could this really be happening?
"Thank God," the old woman murmured. "Thank you, God."
Clint abruptly leapt up, as if he'd never been asleep.
Gleefully, I crashed raucously through the pain, shouting and laughing and joyous, because the pain was huge and tiny and it roared its desperate anguish into the air like a fire in the forest and it wept its sadness into every dried river bed.
But it dared not stop me.
And the thin notes of a failing heartbeat became the crescendo of an orchestra as I stormed through blackness like lightning, bladed and afire, and I beat on the world like thunder and with tears and anger and love I forced open my eyes and flooded my heart with life.
And thinking of them both I felt their presence. And I knew my own face, muscles taught, mouth thin, eyes shut tight, so tight with fear and pain; and close by Clint lay asleep And Grandma and Cole silent.
All in my home.
And there was a whispering around me, gusted words from an angel's wish, and the whispering told me of something I already knew: that nothing can stop me returning, not the fear, nor the pain, nor the blackness.
Not even the spiders or the mountains could stop me.
I'm not like pain.
So I didn't sneak back.
Then mist enclosed me and the wisdom of generations shone through the eyes of a beautiful angel.
She wasn't an angel, but I like to think of her like that.
She was peace and joy and she was always there, sometimes close by and sometimes a long ways away. Sometimes a long long ways away.
And she held my heart in her hand and must have seen it still beating for she told me I could go back.
If I wanted.
I thought of Clint first. Then I thought of Grandma.
And I didn't think of the pain at all.
I knew it when I was a small child.
In those days it was always nearby. In our house. Under the floorboards. In my parent's bedroom.
It was bigger then. Blacker.
I knew it when me, Ma and Pa came to Roylsden: it followed us. It rode on the stagecoach with us, with the luggage strapped to the back. It climbed inside the stage, too, into the look between my parents' eyes.
But when we got to Roylsden it went far away. A long ways away.
Until the hooves crunched my bones.
I knew it there, close up and bad.
When pain comes it sneaks up on you, sometimes fast, sometimes slow, but always it sneaks.
There is a pain, it's always there, a ways away, a long, long ways away: it never bothered me much, it's so far away. But it's forever there, in that long long ways away place, always sneaking.
I don't like sneaking.
It's black and it's invisible. It's tiny and it's huge. And it's like a spider sometimes and sometimes it's like a mountain and its always there.
I'm not afraid of it.
I've never been afraid of it.
It's just there, and that's okay.
He looked inside himself for the courage he knew he had. Usually it took only moments to reappear, but this time - nothing. No courage. No feeling. No life. Almost as if, in this dark hiatus, this lonely moment, he too had died.
His words came out unexpectedly, repeated once more, right out of the middle of his nothingness.
"How is she, Ma?"
"She's breathing, Sheriff. That's all I'm asking Jesus for right now. Just that. Just... she stays breathing."
Clint groaned in his sleep. His arm flexed.
Almost involuntarily Cole looked over at Anna.
What he saw made him gasp.
Sheriff Cole couldn't answer, he still grappled with the fear that almost snared him outside and which now refused to let him look at the girl's face.
If you see her, you'll see her dead, you'll have to tell the old woman, the kid sleeping on the floor. Tell the town. The very act of looking will kill her.
Ridiculous, he knew, but it overpowered him, this - this what? Blame, perhaps?
And if she's not dead... how can he tell anyone she'll likely be some sort of -
no, he dare not look.
It would make it all too real.
When the knocking stopped and the door slowly opened, Ma Cody tried to scream. Her hand shot to her mouth, her body leaned forward in the chair, but the scream stuck in her throat.
Making out whether the bear was aggressive or not was difficult when everything in the room was out of focus and blurred and the light was so poor.
Abruptly, the dream changed.
The bear became Sheriff Cole.
"How is she, Ma?"
She said quietly "So, this aint dreaming no more," then looked across at Anna, "But I sure wish it still was."
Yet while she dreamed she was startled by a noise.
The door was shut and someone was knocking it, softly and gently, almost as if whoever it was didn't want to wake her, or perhaps didn't really want to come in. But, even so, they kept on knocking.
When she opened the door, the bear stood there, with Anna.
She would like to come in, the bear growled.
And Anna threw her arms around Ma Cody and the bear snarled so the old woman gently closed the door, leaving it outside.
But the bear continued to knock. Knock. Knock. Knock.
Old Ma Cody had been dreaming.
In it, a wild bear climbed out of the ground by her feet. Outside, Anna played noisily. Ma Cody rushed to the window desperately shouting "Run away!" but the window was too dirty to see through. When the child began singing, the bear lolloped outside and Ma Cody heard its hungry snarling.
Then Minister McGinley stood in her house, announcing "The girl deserves a Christian burial."
And then she couldn't hear Anna's voice, and the bear slept in the doorway.
And she was too afraid to stop dreaming, lest it not be a dream.