Jake catches up with them almost halfway back to Absolution.
It’s been two days since the battle, but they move slowly with too few horses, hindered by their wounded, and there isn’t a man or woman among them who isn’t absolutely exhausted. Still, there’s no hurry. No one is chasing them now, with demons dead and Apache licking their own wounds. Maybe taking their time is for the best, as a homecoming means explanations and stories and finding some way to go on.
By himself, on a fast horse, Jake has been across half the county already. But he still hasn’t found anywhere to go.
“Wondered when you’d be back.”
There’s a weary strength to Woodrow Dolarhyde that Jake has always seen as being somehow familiar. Before he regained his memories, he’d thought that they must have known each other well once. Now he understands that it’s himself he sees there, twenty or thirty years down the line. They’ve had their differences, but with that knowledge, he has to admire the Colonel just for still being alive.
Jake climbs from his horse with barely a nod. It’s early evening, and there are a few decent campfires alight, but he can hear snoring as well. “Didn’t think your sorry asses would take so long.”
It feels strange, sitting down to warm his hands without any serious worry that his companions might stab him in the back. Why had he ever sought out a life with bandits in this part of the world anyway? The details are there, somewhere, but still a little fuzzy. He wonders if they’d ever been clear.
The sheriff, Taggart, is next to him around their little fire, the boy Emmett covered in grimy coats and blissfully dead to the world by his side. “Jake…” Taggart nods.
Dolarhyde sits down with them, shoving a bottle of something into Jake’s chest. “Here. Medicinal. If that doesn’t clean you out, nothing will.”
“Clean me out?” Well, he had swallowed about enough dust and dirt and demon blood to clog up every artery… It’s as good an excuse as any. He takes a swig, and chokes, and takes another.
He wakes up sometime later, with his cheek pressed hard against someone’s shoulder. It’s still dark out, and it’s only the alcohol in him that stops his first reaction from being one of panic.
“You should get some more sleep.” It’s the sheriff again, as Jake straightens up and shakes his head clear, and the sheriff whose arm Jake’s been using as a pillow. Emmett is still asleep beside them, with no sign of Dolarhyde or any other life. Jake hopes someone’s seen enough sense to post sentries.
Jake grabs around blindly for his hat. “I should get going…”
He’d worried that Taggart and his men would try to arrest him again, despite everything, and haul him to his scheduled execution in Santa Fe. But even though there’s none of the typical abductee fog about his eyes, Taggart is only looking at him with sincere interest, and no hint of a threat.
Jake finds his hat, but his plan to get up and back on his horse seems shortsighted now, when he has nowhere to go, and the fire is invitingly warm. What harm could it do to stay here tonight, as safe as anywhere, and at least see these people home?
He puts his hat down again. “Got anymore of that liquor?”
“You’d have to ask the Colonel.” There’s a hint of a smile on Taggart’s lips. “I don’t know what you boys did together, coming to find me and the others, but it’s certainly done him a world of good. His boy, too. And Emmett.”
Jake hasn’t had a friendly conversation with a lawman in… well, since before he hit puberty. “I still wouldn’t recommend it.”
Taggart’s hand on his shoulder makes him flinch. “I’m sorry about Ella. Meacham too, and Nat, and the others. Knew most of them better than most, and that girl seemed to have a good head on her shoulders.”
Ella. He’d only known her for a few days, but he knows that, no matter how much of Dolarhyde’s bourbon he gulps down, he’ll never be able to forget one moment of his time with her. The good and the horrific.
“You remember?” he asks, searching out Taggart’s dark eyes. “She said it was different for everyone…”
“Seems like I do. Woodrow’s boy seems more like a clean slate. Problem is, it’s hard to really know what you’ve lost. I’ve about sixty years of memories. Who’s to know what might have gone missing.” And then something seems to occur to him. “I might have a bit of your past, though.”
He passes Jake a sheet of paper that’s crumpled, yet still familiar enough by firelight. His own face is staring up at him.
“It’s not me,” Jake says softly, although his own restored memories deny the words.
“Maybe not anymore. You could burn it. I know no one here cares anything about what Jake Lonergan might’ve stolen once. We know you didn’t kill that girl, and Woodrow’s found a fortune in gold.” Taggart leans in, placing a finger under the picture. “Tell me something, though… My eyes are no good in this light… What were the other charges?”
Jake looks him right in the eye. “You asking me if I can read?”
Jake crumples up the page with one hand and tosses it into the flames.
Taggart settles back with a grin. “I’ll teach you, then. You’ll need to know your letters if you’re going to be my deputy.”
“Your deputy?” It’s the best joke Jake’s heard in days.
“Lost a few good men already, and I expect a few more might not want to stick around Absolution after all this is over and done with. I know you can handle yourself. People respect you. I could do worse.”
“I’m not so sure about that.”
Taggart’s gaze is steady. “I am.”
He does his best to prove the sheriff wrong in the next few days, staying just long enough to make sure that the town is back on his feet before riding out in search of a purpose. Since he was taken by the demons, he’s had luck enough at every step of the way, and he expects it to continue, for some evildoer or young lady in distress to just run across his path and show him the way.
He’s reached the ocean before he realizes that luck has already given him everything it possibly could.
It’s night when he returns, as weary and caked in dirt as he had been the first time he had come to Absolution. Lively music is still coming from the tavern, where there’s a promise of food and lodging, but he turns to the sheriff’s office instead, rapping on the door before stepping inside.
Taggart’s alone, cleaning out rifles by lamplight. “Wondered when you’d be back,” he says without looking up.
“People have a habit of thinking that about me.”
“It’s the type of man you are.” Taggart’s smile reaches his eyes, uncommon in this sort of place. “Hand me that rag. I’ll be done in a minute, and then we’ll get started.”
“Reading. Writing. Strikes me you’ll be a quick learner.”
Once, Jake Lonergan would have had some sharp words about not being a child, and no sort of studious man either. But instead he hands Taggart the rag and hangs his hat up on a peg by the door.
“Ready if you are,” says Jake, and peels another wanted poster from the wall.