And then my mind stopped.
I couldn't think, couldn't feel. I couldn't question, couldn't reason. Somewhere deep inside me, a place faraway and dimly lit, a frail voice asked questions:
shouldn't you stroke the horse
shouldn't you be running away now
shouldn't you breathe
should you breathe
should you really just stand here
should you really be
should you really be dead
these questions whirled through a distant vacuum somewhere as far away as the stars but as close as my heartbeat, but I pretended not to hear.
I continued to exist, or not, subject to the whim of life.
It snorted at me and shook its head, wide nostrils shaking, its lips curling back from its teeth. I couldn't really tell its colour: white and brown? white and black? Swirls of mist rose around this legless vessel, making it look unreal and ethereal.
There was no sound as it moved closer to me.
I wondered why I felt no fear.
A gentle whinny answered my silent question, and as it approached me I made out leopard spots on its coat.
I knew then it was an Appaloosa. The horse favoured by Indians. The horse ridden by Taya Two Horses.
I don't know how long I stood alone, feeling closer to every living thing than I ever had amongst people until I became aware of something behind me. I turned slowly.
Whatever it was, it glided silently on top of the mist, like a boat on calm water.
Its head, like a wondrous figurehead, pointed towards me. Its wide chest, three times my girth, jutted proud and unstoppable like a prow; its body floated without a sound upon the waves of the mist, and a tail swung slowly, disturbing for small moments the calm white sea that it barely touched.
I left Roylsden a ways away and was headed... nowhere, but my legs usually took me towards the river so, without thinking, that's where I went.
The sun had climbed just above the horizon, making the air warmer, and as I walked a shallow mist rose from the river and crept along beside me. Ahead, long rushes were submerged beneath it; above it, the tops of rocks and boulders and a few trees emerged.
Everything was hushed. No bird, no insect. No distant cry of coyote or bark of dog. The whole world, and everything in it, held its breath.
Dawn crept out of an unusually icy night.
I'd been sitting on my bed looking out of the bedroom window watching the sky lighten. Grandma snored as only Grandma's do, I guess, silent for the most part but occasionally sounding like hungry pigs suddenly discovering a bucket of leftovers.
My breath clouded the window and I pulled my blanket up around me.
Outside, the ground was white with frost and the air was sharp. It looked brittle, like the whole world was a glass picture that would shatter at the slightest touch.
I desperately needed to be part of it.
His smile was almost invisible in the darkness, but the way the words came out revealed it:
"You never need anybody's help, Anna."
Guess I don't, I thought, as I dragged myself upright and staggered. Clint stopped me from falling, then I strode off.
Come on, Clint, I don't need a leathering from my grandma.
Walking beside me, his face looked to the stars.
"We got time," he said, and my hand found his as we walked in silence.
As we got to town I threw his hand off mine.
Without his touch, I felt cold. And so very alone.
I tried to kneel up, so I could be level with Clint who knelt beside me, but my legs hurt when I moved and my muscles felt like they were on fire.
"I'll carry you home," Clint said, leaning over me.
The hell you will, Clint Dempsey, I'll walk home by myself.
Clint's face fell, his eyes looked watery, shining in what little was left of the light.
I don't mean by myself, Clint, I said quickly, holding up my hands for him to help me. I mean - I mean I don't need anybody's help. But I'll walk with you.
I guess I must have slept. Leastways it was dark, inside my head and outside it, and someone was holding my hands, looking closely at them.
"They're swollen, Anna. Might be broke."
Clint's voice was gentle, his hands on mine were gentle, almost timid. He lowered my hands and looked at me.
"You okay?" he asked.
His right eye was shut, his left cheek was cut, very swollen and bruised.
I'm sorry, I said. Tears burned my eyes again. I'm so sorry.
He wiped a tear from my cheek with his thumb. Others took its place. "It's okay," he whispered.
Bewildered and panicking, I was suddenly running and the town sped past me. My legs hammered and my feet pounded, everyone hated me and now even Clint hated me and somehow the town was now far away and still I ran. Eventually I threw myself down beside a small stream where me and Clint used to meet.
Why would Clint think I killed?
Why'd he think I would believe he could kill?
Still sobbing loudly, my fists pummelled at the shallow stream. My blood and tears were quickly carried away in the flowing water, almost as if they'd never existed.
My face burned. I knew I was crying because tears blurred my eyes but I couldn't hear myself sobbing because blood thundered and thrummed in my ears.
What was going on in his head? Did he think I killed Mr Bowen? In his head, did he somehow know I'd killed Mr Bowen?
Why would he think that of me?
I wiped tears from my cheeks as my vision darkened around the edges and his accusing face suddenly sharpened into focus. Then somehow I'd hit him, my fist and wrist hurt, and he was lying on his back on the ground.
Something in Clint's words scared me. No, not his words exactly, but in the meaning his words hid.
I- I don't know, Clint. I just can't see why Mayor -
"Can't see he'd kill for land? Why not?" He pushed his face right into mine and spoke in a whisper. "Is it because you think someone else done them killings? Is that it?"
Did Clint believe I thought he'd killed them? Did he really think I'd believe that of him? Or was he hinting someone else did it? That I knew someone else did it?
That I was the someone else?
So what was that supposed to prove? Everyone knew Mayor McGinley was always on the lookout for a good deal, and was probably looking to buy up the whole town and call it McGinleyville or something. He'd already bought some empty land on the outside of town, no old woman had died there. And Mr Bowen had the schoolhouse to live in, and Mayor McGinley already owned that. Nah, I can't see any link there.
Clint jumped down off the rail and looked at me square in the face.
"So what do you know, Anna Cody? What exactly you thinking?"
So why'd Mayor McGinley want Taya Two Horses old place, I asked Clint the next day.
"Dunno, Anna, 'less he's planning on bringing in horses... or... shorthorns..." his voice trailed off: he wasn't convincing himself.
We sat on the hitching rail outside the Sheriff's office. Seemed to be where the action was - or would be, if there were any.
Suddenly Clint gasped noisily, then looked at me. He looked confused, like I'd just punched him for nothing.
"He's bought Mrs Prendergast's place."
"So he's bought a dead woman's place and now he's trying to buy another dead woman's place!"
The men watched as the horses dragged their reins down to the waters edge and began drinking.
Sheriff Cole wiped sweat off his face with his closed fist:
"You should get the Two Horses ranch for a good price," he said.
Mayor McGinley said something I couldn't quite hear then the Sheriff said
"It's poor grazing y'know, McGinley" and he grunted as he sat down.
Mayor McGinley apparently joined the Sheriff, he grunted as he sat down too.
"Back's playing up again, Sheriff, I aint as young as I used to be."
Sheriff Cole laughed. "Same here, McGinley, same here."
Sheriff Cole and Mayor McGinley were resting their horses out by the Talahoe lake.
It wasn't a proper lake, not that big, but at ten miles from town it was a good stopping place when the blazing day makes you grimace and suffer under the weight and blistering heat of a blacksmith's sky. It was plain Mayor McGinley's horse was tired, the way it's head rocked. Both men dismounted early.
I tucked myself behind some rocks. Sometimes you don't fancy talking: or listening either, being told you shouldn't be this far outa town on your own, go home young lady.
That was it. Sheriff Cole questioned Clint for ages when we got to Clint's place, but I heard the Sheriff tell Clint's ma that he knew Clint had done nothing. Sheriff Cole knew who did it. Just a matter of proving it.
After that, it was like going back awhiles. Lots of Mayor McGinley taking the boys in and out of the jailhouse; lots of Sheriff Cole riding out to the McGinley place. Lots of talking and whispering, lots of arguing, lots of everything.
Weird how everything goes round and nothing changes.
Weirder how change can be hidden.
Hate and hurt twisted Clint's face when I appeared with Sheriff Cole. He'd think I betrayed him, but so what? Clint glared at me like I was Judas and I began crying.
"Come on, kids, let's get you home." The Sheriff's voice was soft and gentle and Clint's face softened. "Clint, you first. And on the way you can tell me what you saw."
I wiped my eyes and smiled. Sheriff Cole had put the boys disappearance and the murder together - and the pieces fitted like a good jigsaw.
I grabbed Clint's hand. He was pretty much in the clear.
I told him everything.
Well, nearly everything.
I said as how Clint was scared and hiding out by the stream where I'd left him, and he'd been working on his farm all day and he'd seen something bad at the schoolhouse and it affected him something awful and he needed help.
Sheriff Cole was only gone from the jailhouse a few minutes but when he got back his face was white.
In silence, he poured himself and O'Donohue a whiskey. They ignored me.
I know what you seen, I shouted, Clint told me. Come quick, we got to help him.
Turns out, the gift was a pretty package!
I overheard Sheriff Cole and Mickey O'Donohue, the new barhelp at the nanny shop at the rough end of Roylsden, talking and Sheriff Cole was saying about them McGinley boys not going home last night and how he wasn't wasting men and time looking for them. If they be starting up with that nonsense again, Mayor McGinley could hire his own hands to chase 'em down.
I had to act now.
"Sheriff!" I shouted, running up to him, I was like a whirlwind with panic over my face.
"It's Clint! Clint Dempsey!"
I got Clint to wash the blood out of his trousers, then shove some horse shit over one knee. That way he could explain why he'd do something weird like wash his clothes.
Say 'Sorry Ma, fell into some cattle chuck, washed 'em myself though!'
Now if somebody saw him racing from the schoolroom, I guess they wouldn't get a good enough look to be sure it was Clint. The McGinley boys were his size, could easily be one of them.
Now stay here, Clint. I gotta loiter around the jailhouse. Maybe see what this downright talkative sky gifts me.