The Sheriff walked in. Anna Cody lay on a makeshift bed by the fireside, unmoving, a pallor of sweat making her skin glisten. A white bandage was tied around her forehead and her hair had been pushed back above it.
She looks no more than ten years old, thought Sheriff Cole. He was used to corpses looking younger than their age, and he whispered "You sure she's alive?" to Doc Morris who now stood beside him.
"For now," Doc Morris whispered.
Anna Cody's grandmother was kneeling on the floor, holding the young girl's hands. Her eyes never left her granddaughter.
Around us, the wet mist swirled. Somewhere in the distance, now nearer, now farther away, shapes formed: silhouettes of animals, elk, bears, coyote. Silhouettes of people; children hand in hand, old people bent and frail, and tall men, strong and proud. They all came and went, but none stood beside us.
"My people," she said. "They wait. For me."
And the mists swirled again.
"But before I go with them - "
Go with them? I cried aloud. You can't leave me, I-
I could hear the panic in my voice, please don't leave me here, please please don't leave, please...
"They've taken her to her home. She's breathing, Sheriff. But only just."
They raced up the main street, Sherman having trouble keeping up with the Sheriff.
"Get Doc Morris!" barked Cole.
"He's there now, Sheriff. I told him 'fore I got to you."
From the outside, the Cody place was small and tidy. A thin finger of smoke from the chimney pointed darkly into the chill air, and the windows glowed a faint lamplight yellow. Doc Morris stood at the open door, smoking a cheroot. He looked worried.
"How is she, Doc?" Sheriff Cole panted.
The Doc shook his head.
Someone bursting into the Sheriff's office woke him with a start. Outside it was light again and there was a bustle of activity. It wasn't early morning then. Shit.
"Sheriff, come quick!"
A couple more people burst in as Sheriff Cole registered it was Eddie Sherman speaking, trying to remain calm above the hubbub of noise behind him.
"It's that Cody girl!"
"She's dead?" The Sheriff didn't really want to hear the answer, so he turned his back on Sherman as he grabbed his coat.
"Come on, let's go!" he ordered, pushing everyone outside. "Where to, Sherman? Tell me everything."
"Acceptance will come," she whispered.
I shook my head, But I have so many questions and I know and understand so little, I said.
"Look often, Wonder always," she replied. "Understanding rides two horses, Knowledge and Wonder. Ride with them in your heart. Understanding will come."
Understanding rides two horses, I repeated quietly. And slowly, for that idea alone, understanding came.
Am I dead, I asked again.
"You will never die, for you will live forever in the hearts of others."
And I understood that too, and I smiled.
It doesn't matter, does it? I asked, already knowing the answer.
Overcome, I stifled sobs choking my throat, wiped tears from my face.
Sorry, I spluttered, echoing the last word I ever spoke to Mr Bowen, though this time I meant it. Her words were as rain in drought, each one soaking into the parched dust of my heart: "Never be afraid to cry. It will free your mind from sorrowful thoughts. And after, it will free you."
I felt I understood, and felt I would never understand.
"Simply accept," she said.
But I've done terrible things, I thought. Imagined worse things. I don't know why. How do I simply accept?
From her grip on my hand a warmth spreads through me. Not the warmth of heat, but the warmth of tranquillity, a warmth of peace and safety that slowly engulfs my whole body until I become serene. I recognise something from my past: a fleeting instant of this feeling, barely acknowledged at the time, when I walked with Clint through the adoration of sparkling stars. It is the warmth of love.
But it's only memory, and has no substance.
And yet it is timeless. And though it has passed it is with me now. And always will be.
I do know her.
She has seen inside my heart once before, but then I was too young to understand what I glimpsed in her heart.
Now, I am older.
Now I understand that what I see around me, the mist and the grey and the nothing, is the sorrow of her loss. Her lost people, her lost lands.
I wonder why, I wonder how she still smiles as my tears fall for her
She bids me "Cry not for my loss. Nobody loses anything. All we own is our thoughts: the rest we borrow, the rest we must return."
Sheriff Cole rocked back in his chair, feet up on the edge of his desk. His eyes were closed but he wasn't asleep.
He was thinking.
Or, more accurately, trying to think: but his thoughts kept on going around and around in circles.
He knew who didn't do it - he discounted most of Roylsden on that score.
He believed he knew who could have done it. That accounted for three people.
And he was certain he knew who had done it. "Murdered all three," he muttered, "But why? Where in hell is the motive?"
And his thoughts rolled around again.
Someone broke into Heinz Caval's Miracle Cure Apothecary Store and smashed the place up. Everyone knew Mad Jane Gooding had a major beef with Mr Caval about some failed Miracle Cure, and fingers were pointed. But this wasn't Mad Jane's doing, Sheriff Cole knew. The bitterness from Mad Jane was older than that: she and Heinz had once been lovers, but Heinz Caval had refused to wed her. Relations were cold since then; cold, but never cruel.
Which was why, when Clint ran into Sheriff Cole's office to tell them about Mr Bowen's murder, he knew Clint had done nothing.
There had been some serious horse thefts not six months ago. Charlie Austin would have fitted the bill, but Sheriff Cole knew different.
This time, Austin was innocent. Nope, this time it was an out of state gang, the Napiers or the Rogers Gang maybe. A few days staked out in the mountains and several dead horse-thieves later and the raids stopped. Obvious, really: Austin had come into money and spent his time in the Waterhole.
Which was why when Sheriff Cole and Mayor McGinley returned from Taya Two Horses ranch, he knew neither Samuel nor Zeke were involved.
Sheriff Cole was a man of instant opinion.
Whenever he walked into the Waterhole Saloon to quell a brawl, a split-second assessment of the innocent and guilty would be made well inside the time it took him to draw his Colt 1873. The innocent would be ignored while the instigators, despite their arguments and pleas, would be tucked away nicely in the jailhouse in around fifteen minutes.
And almost always, Sheriff Cole's instant opinion was proved correct.
Which was why, when Sheriff Cole had hauled Zeke from Mrs Prendergast's house, he knew he was dealing with an innocent boy.
Where are we, I ask.
The woman looks into my eyes. She is perfect. Her face is beautiful, though her eyes are the eyes of an eagle. I wonder if I have become an eagle too.
Or a rabbit.
I know you, I say. I know you, don't I?
She nods and takes my hand.
Her hand is warm, her fingers close softly yet firmly around my hand. I had expected to feel talons, even though I could see her hands and slender fingers, but they felt just like normal hands.
Am I dead, I ask.
She does not answer.
Solemn is the grey dawn in the land where there is no land. The air here is wet with mountain mist, enough to veil everything and shine my skin with moisture.
Here there is nothing: not in the distance, not nearby, not at my feet.
Until a shape emerges.
A black silhouette of an elk, slowly approaching.
The closer it gets the more the shape changes, until it becomes the outline of a young woman.
And then the young woman stands beside me. She is tall, full breasted with long black hair braided to her waist.
She wears beaded deerskin.
She's so still.
Is she breathing?
She is breathing.
That place again:
that dimly lit and faraway place that once felt so frightening now seems a sanctuary. It's a remote and inaccessible place without pain; a place that just holds voices, unrecognised voices, voices free from red razored agony. It is a place near and far, where pain is unknown.
Those voices again:
Can you feel how cold?
Rub her hands and arms.
Did the fire of Hell begin in your mouth and spread to your throat, I wondered. That's how it felt.
The voices suddenly cease.
The hammering of hooves on dirt continued, and pain sporadically but frequently wracked my body as the incessant pummelling continued. Hooves crushed my bones as I lay waiting for the angels to circle closer, to lift me up, to free me from this universe of pain.
Crack! A hoof on my thigh! Pain shot up and down, ricocheting through my body:
that's for Prendergast, I sobbed.
Crack! A hoof on my ribs! Flesh tore and ripped. All my thoughts dripped crimson:
that's for Taya Two Horses, I gurgled.
Crunch! My face! All thoughts faded, but one:
that's for Mr Bowen.
And was this Clint, come to rescue me? I heard his voice through the black-red veil of pain: you'll be okay Anna Cody, he said, you will be okay, and somehow I believed him even though I knew I was dying and I wouldn't be okay really.
But he fled, too, and the horse, who had stood motionless for those breathtaking moments while Clint spoke, reared up again and continued to rain its hooves onto both me and the innocent earth I lay upon.
I had the faintest impression, then, of angels circling above me.
And they were sobbing.
I tasted dirt and blood as hooves pummelled and pummelled. There were loud thuds as they hammered the ground beside me, and splintering, softly sickening cracks as every now and then one hit my body. Through the agony of the battering I became aware that my vision had gone and I could no longer see.
The cowardly, fugitive sun fled swiftly over the sky as the great beasts' hooves hammered into the ground and pounded into my body.
And the pain was too big, too vast and too all-pervading to allow even the smallest cry to escape my lips.
Before me the horse reared up, forelegs kicking the air above me, and neighed, raucously and incessantly. The noise shattered the silence and harmony of the earth and when one hoof came down on my head the sky split apart, turning in an instant from a crystalline blue to a red pulsing scar. Pain, like a branding iron, burned from my head through my neck and down my back.
Its other hoof came down on my shoulder and when the pain detonated, the ground became a vast black bear, its waiting jaws between my knees, mouth wide, preparing to bite.
As the horse slowly approached, shadowy legs emerged leaving impressions on the mist. The hooves barely touched the ground as it glided nearer. A curfew of silence still governed this world so there was no sound, even when the horse's head lowered and brushed mine.
I watched in awe as my small hand rose to stroke its muzzle, but its head shied away.
It's okay I heard a soothing, gentle voice say: it may have been mine, I neither knew nor cared.
Then my fingers touched its cheek and in an explosion of blinding colours, I fell to my knees.