He staggered, confused, disoriented, trying to recall where he was going.
Possibly, north. Or east. If he could just get his bearings, he was sure he could figure it out.
He’d awoken to rain and darkness, his head pounding and his eyesight blurred. Somewhere nearby, a horse had whinnied, plaintive. He’d tried to find it, but his blindness had caused him to turn an ankle, and then stumble down some sort of hill. Before he understood what was happening, he’d slipped and started to roll, colliding with trees and rocks that seemed hell-bent on breaking his back or his arms and legs. When he had finally slid to a stop on a muddy incline, he couldn’t hear the horse anymore.
He’d lain there for god knows how long before getting up again, knowing that it was too dangerous to stay like that.
Still unable to see clearly, he tried to climb up the hill he’d come down, moving from tree to tree, trying to find his way back to the horse. It couldn’t be far. He just had to remember where he’d been.
Where had he been?
Then, without warning, the hill vanished beneath his feet. He’d stepped into thin air—a cliff, a hole, he didn’t know. He’d had just enough time to panic when the ground stopped him hard and fast, and that was all he knew.
Western Union Telegram
Received at: Four Corners, AZ October 12, 1874 10:23 am
Larabee. Prisoner expected this morning not arrived. No sign of your men. Sheriff Donnelly.
Dawn was long broken when he woke the second time, chasing away some of the shadows in his eyes. His vision was spotty, but he could make out trees and a stream—he was at the bottom of some sort of ravine. Every bruise and strain made itself known as he slowly gathered himself up. He cried out when his wrist spasmed and collapsed, his fingers suddenly refusing to work. More by feel than by sight, he knew it was swollen—broken or sprained, he didn’t know. He cradled it for a while, rubbing at the ache while he tried to get his bearings.
The ravine was cool, wet, and empty of horses or explanation.
Kneeling again, he washed his face, scraping dried, caked blood off his skin, and it helped some with his eyesight. On his feet, he wobbled a little before choosing a direction. Downhill this time, he chose, following the flow of the water. He couldn’t take another bad fall; dumb luck was all that had kept him alive and intact this far.
Over time, the headache receded and his vision cleared up. The ravine faded, revealing arid fields of long grass and low cacti. The rocky brook he’d been following leveled out, moving steadily westward.
He followed the stream for a while, appreciative of the water. When he came across a dirt road rutted with wagon tracks and horse hooves, though, he stopped. It seemed vaguely familiar, but he couldn’t put his finger on why. What was obvious, though, was that civilization existed somewhere along it.
He decided south was the way to go, towards the warmer fields rather than the cooler woods of the northerly direction. It felt right to him. But then the road had turned east and started to rise again, and he felt less confident. He'd stopped and turned around, heading back the way he'd come.
Minutes, possibly hours, had passed since then, and he was still following the road, knowing that he’d seen it before, believing he was heading in the right direction, but still unclear as to where it was he was going. He ached for a sign, some sort of landmark, something that could help him understand where he was.
Another stream crossed the road and he decided to stop. His head felt heavy, his wrist was numb, and his ankle was aching. A short nap and he’d be on his way again.
Western Union Telegram
Received at Four Corners, AZ October 13, 1874 8:25 am
Larabee. Still no sign of prisoner or your men. Search party ready to move out. Sheriff Donnelly.
Somehow, he’d lost time. He wasn’t sure how, but it was morning again. Was this the same place where he’d stopped? It didn’t look the same. Hadn’t there been a stream? He got to his feet again, swaying, and looked at the empty road, empty land, empty everything. Where the hell was he?
He felt a rumble below his feet and looked down at the ground. He understood the sensation for what it was—horses were coming—but was that bad? He backed up to one side and tried to decide if he should hide. Something inside screamed for him to run, but his feet didn’t move.
Instead, he waited.
Three horses charged up the road towards him. In the lead, a white man on a big black horse pulled hard on the reins in front of him, fighting against his large mount as they skidded to a stop. The other two stopped in kind; the black man in the rear leapt off a still dancing dark sorrel horse to jog towards him.
“Ezra! What the hell!” the white man on the black horse yelled, not dismounting, sounding angry and worried simultaneously. How peculiar. “What the hell happened to you? Where are the others?”
The black man, meanwhile, was suddenly right in front of him. “Are you alright?” he asked, reaching to take an arm. “Let me see.”
Instinct finally won over, and he stepped back, his good hand weakly going for a gun that wasn’t there. The black man stopped his actions, brow furrowing in confusion.
“What’s the matter?” the stranger asked. “You know I ain’t gonna hurt ya.”
The other two had dismounted now, walking up to him, and he continued to back away. He didn’t know who they were or what they wanted. He lifted a hand, wanting them to stop.
“Stay back,” he whispered hoarsely, his voice unfamiliar to his ears.
“Son,” the largest of the three said as he stopped, his voice low and quiet, “what’s going on?”
“Ezra,” the blond white man said the name authoritatively like it should mean something. “Quit playing. Where are Buck, Vin and the prisoner?”
“I…” He swallowed, his voice coarse as sandpaper. “I don’t know.”
“How can you not…?” The man frowned. “Then where did you leave them? How far away?”
He just blinked, feeling even more confused. “What?”
“Ezra,” the black man called, and he frowned at him, confused as to this man’s closeness. “Can you tell me what’s wrong with you?”
He ignored the question, choosing to stumble backwards another few steps to get more distance, and asked, “Why…why do you want to know?”
That earned an arched brow from the black stranger. “Because you’re hurt, why else?”
“You’re covered in blood, Ez. Plus you’ve no hat, that coat’s barely holding together, and, no joke, but you look like something the cat dragged in. So, how about you let me look you over.”
He just frowned more as the world swayed slightly. “I said, I’m fine.”
At that, the blond man made started towards him again, looking angry, but the black man shot out an arm, stopping him.
“Wait. Something’s off with him.”
“You think so?” the blond asked sarcastically. Still, he didn’t move as the black man took a couple cautious steps forward, wearing a small smile, his arm outstretched, palm up.
“Your arm,” the stranger said, “the one you’re holding to your chest, it’s hurting, right?”
“It’s just bruised,” he replied warily, not wanting to give up how bad it was.
“No, that’s no bruise, now. Come on, let me see.”
A flash came to him then, the words triggering something, and he saw this man smiling at him in a tent, kindly and almost warmly. “That’s no bruise, now…" Pain, he’d been in pain, radiating down his arm in waves, and he couldn’t move it. This man had taken his arm, and with a quick, fast pull, had fixed it. And then he'd smiled. “Just like I thought, you dislocated it. Might be sore for a little while, but at least you have two hands to cheat at cards with.”
He shook his head, the memory fleeting but leaving a sense of well-being. When the man finally reached him, to gently take the arm he’d been holding to his chest—the one with the broken wrist—he let him. Soon, the same man was grimacing in sympathy.
“Ya broke it, alright. We’ll need to set it.”
He felt the fight drain out of him then, and he conceded. “Okay.”
After he said that, the black man gestured at the older of the two white men, and called for his bag. It all seemed very familiar.
“I know you, don’t I?” he asked then, trying to break through the gray in his mind and to still the trembling nerves running through his body.
The black man looked up from his wrist, eyes wide. He covered quickly with a gentle smile, that same as the one in the memory.
“You do,” he said carefully. “You know all of us.”
He just stared, trying to comprehend that.
The kind man frowned then. “You don’t remember?”
“What do you remember?”
“Um…” He considered that for a moment, then answered, “Falling down a hill?”
The black man simply smiled, like one would at a child. He let go the wrist and stepped back.
“That’s not really what I meant.” He hesitated, then asked, “I…what I meant was, do you know who you are?”
He frowned at that. What a stupid question. “Of course, I’m....I’m….”
But nothing came to mind.
“Oh god,” he said. “Oh my god.” He looked at each of them, wanting to recognize them, knowing they recognized him. “This is not possible…” Panic swelled inside like a tidal wave. He pulled away, staggering away from the three men, tripping over a rock and feeling the pain in his damaged ankle like it was on fire. It seemed to cause his whole body to break out in sweat and nausea, fueling the panic to even greater heights. “I don’t know my name. Why don’t I know my name?” His breath quickened inside his bruised frame.
“Ezra, calm down,” the black man said, raising his hands in an obvious attempt to seem harmless. “Your name is Ezra. You’ve just hit your head. It’s okay. It’s going to be okay.”
Meaningless. Those words were meaningless. He didn’t know who he was! He didn’t know what was happening or why. The black man and the large white man continued to stalk him, and he continued to avoid them. The third man, the blond who’d spoken first, had turned away, as if too sickened to look upon him. He was glaring up the road that he had stumbled down. Ezra followed his gaze, and something flashed in his mind, a glimpse of a man with long, light brown hair laughing astride a horse, a campsite, an argument…
The answers had to be back up the road he’d come down! “I have to go,” he said, turning to stumble in that direction.
“Wait, don’t,” the black man called, reaching to grab him, but he jumped back with a yell and tried to get back to the road, to go back the way he’d come. The large man circled him, and Ezra tripped and skirted around them, trying to find escape.
“Leave me alone!” he begged, desperate now. “Go away!” They’d stop him from going up back up the road. He had to go back! The horse—wherever that horse was that he’d first heard. The answers had to be there. He just had to--
“Ezra, look out!”
He tripped over a tree-branch as thick as his leg, fire burst up his leg from his hurt ankle, and his legs stopped working. Only the incredibly fast reflexes of the black man stopped him from hitting the ground, but as soon as the man’s arms gripped his aching ribs, setting his chest afire with even more pain, he screamed as the world went black.
Western Union Telegram
Received at Blue River, AZ October 13, 1874 9:15 am
Sheriff Donnelly. Larabee, Jackson and Sanchez are already searching. We will be in touch. Sheriff Dunne.