The taste of gunpowder was a sharp and bitter tang as she licked her dry lips. Cracking a single eye open, her vision was bleary past the crusted gummy blood that had caked it closed. She could see the clear cloudless sky. Overhead, dark shapes lazily circled and she could feel a solid horrid ache in her temples begin to pound. Where was she? How did she...get here?
The woman rolled onto her side and groaned roughly as her muscles complained at the movement. She hurt all over. Her skin felt tight and hot; as dry as the sand she found clenched in her gloved hand. She was thirsty and nauseous. And as she forced herself into a hunched position on all fours, she was sure she wouldn’t be able to get back onto her feet. Blinking dazedly around her, she craned her neck back as much as she dared. Bodies, she was surrounded by crumpled bodies and empty bullet casings. a few feet from her, the handle of a revolver stuck up from the sand it was half-buried in. The sand beneath her and around her was red-stained and packed hard. As if it had soaked in a lot of liquid. Blood… She realized distantly.
The body nearest to her looked like a man who was just starting to decompose. The gun in his hand and the bullet holes in his back indicated he’d been gunned down in a firefight. Another body slumped against a nearby cactus indicated much the same.Taking a breath to steady herself, the woman touched at her head gingerly. Almost immediately she regretted it. A sick wave washed over her, leaving her sputtering up bile in response. Fresh blood now coated her fingertips, and soaked down to the skin beneath. Her hair was matted with the stuff. And looking down at herself she could just see past her chin that her shirt was splattered with more ofthe same.
Not good. Her brain mumbled to her. I’m in bad shape...
Currently she could still only see from one eye, but glancing back up at the now descending buzzards she knew she couldn’t simply wait around for death’s hoofbeats to catch up to her. She needed to find civilization. Otherwise chances were good she’d end up like these men here. Crawling over to one of them, she used his body to prop herself up more. Giving a heave she shoved herself weakly to her feet….only to come crashing back onto the sands again immediately. She gave a ragged cough, her vision blacking out for a moment. As she blindly grasped about her, her hand closed around the butt of a gun. The one she’d spied earlier. Using it as a very small cane, she propped herself up again to get her sandy face back up and shuffled about awkwardly for a moment until she was hunched again. This time, she moved her feet beneath her crouched body first before shakily trying to stand again. Success, if wobbly success. She now could see about her better.
There were apparently nine bodies in total, seven men, one woman and one child. There were a couple of downed horses, and a cart on its side with broken pottery and torn canvas scattered about it. Nothing of the scene was familiar to her. Near as she could tell, these men were bandits who had attacked a traveler and his family. Perhaps a merchant or someone heading to the next town. Anything of value was already gone. Did she know any of these men? What was she doing here? Her head continued to ache, and all that seemed to be in her skull was a buzzing sound and dusty cobwebs. She didn’t recognize the ruined black coat she was in, the blue checkered shirt, or the worn-down boots. Her boots did have spurs though. Had she been riding? Was her horse one of the dead ones here or had it escaped? Too late to know. The sun was no longer high in the sky, and had begun to sink towards the horizon. If she wanted to make it to a town by nightfall, she needed to hurry.
Willing her feet to move, she found she was a bit more steady now. But she still felt incredibly weak. She didn’t find much in her pockets, a couple of empty holsters and a box of matches. No water, no food, and no money. Searching through the bodies however she was able to find a half-full canteen, a compass, a bowie knife, and a handful of bullets. Their other items and weapons were gone. She still held the gun she found, but it was crusted with sand and appeared jammed. Possibly broken. Which was no doubt why it was left behind. On a whim, she put it in her holster anyway. Taking a drink of the water, she sputter and hacked painfully. Ending up losing most of it on the ground. Her throat was like sandpaper, and burned something awful. Carefully, she tried again and was able to sip it in small mouthfuls. Mindful to leave some in the canteen, she felt a bit better. And the world at least seemed to have stopped swaying in front of her. Placing the compass in her palm and peering about her, she judged that the cart tracks had been heading north-westerly. Possibly in the direction of a settlement. Though honestly nothing was for certain. She could either die here or die out in the desert wastes. But sitting around and waiting for the carrion eaters didn’t sit well with her.
The woman took a breath and began moving. Buzzards were already flapping and hopping their way to the bodies. As eager for the foul meat as the flies that buzzed above them. She looked away as a nearby vulture went for an exposed cheek, and set her face grimly forward into the setting sun. There was no time to dwell on things. It was time to focus on survival.
So, walking as best she could, her shadow stretched long behind her like an extension of her coat, the woman doggedly moved through the wastes…
Hours passed. And through it all she kept walking. The sun was a horrid weight on her scalp and face. The desert blurred into dull hues of pale tans, greys, and browns. Her one-eyed vision was going out, the buzzing in her skull getting worse. She thought she saw a shape rising in the distance, but couldn’t make it out. The dizzy weakness was a blanket smothering her. Swaying again on her feet, the woman’s eyes rolled into the back of her head as she crumpled into a heap. Darkness swirled over her as she fell into unconsciousness...
Sometime much much later, she awoke once more. She was now on her back, and there were wooden planks high above her. Confused, aching and exhausted, the woman blinked upwards for a time trying to process what she was seeing. Coffin? No. A ceiling. It was then that she realized that she could see again from both of her eyes. Lifting her head to try and look down at herself, she had to stop as a wave of nausea hit her.
“Now hold on there, miss! Take it easy, you’re alright now. I managed to patch you up, but you still lost quite a lot of blood.”
The woman dazedly looked over as a wiry young man headed into her view, cleaning his hands on a cloth. He was pale-skinned with short blue hair, and had the look about him of a fidgety jackrabbit. Animate and in constant motion. As she watched, he brushed his hands on his immaculate apron pulled on a stethoscope from where it was hanging around his neck. He looked young, but he had a serious air about him.
“Your vitals seem to be holding steady, though we had a scare there for awhile. Frankly you’re lucky to be alive, considering your injuries. I’m Doc Kaoru.” He smiled kindly, brushing some hair from his eyes. “Do you have a name, miss?”
“Errr…” She tried to think, but her mind was blank. Who was she? She couldn’t recall. Not her name...where she came from...it was like she’d just been born yesterday. Seeming to see her mental struggles, the young man’s gaze softened.
“It’s alright if you can’t remember. Normal actually, especially considering the amount of trauma you’ve undergone. The bullet that hit your head? A few more inches to the right and you’d have been dead.” He tapped the left side of his forehead with a slender finger. She noticed his hands were in pale pair of gloves. “As it is, it just grazed you and only took out a piece of your skull. You were fortunate. The one that hit your shoulder...ah...well that one hit solidly. But I was able to dig it out of the bone.”
“I...see. Sorry...I just…can’t recall...” Her own mumbled voice sounded rough to her ears. The young doctor shook his head.
“Not to worry. It’ll come back, in time. For now you should concentrate on resting.”
“How...how long was I...?”
You’ve been out of it for several days. Nearly a week.”
“I...see.” She looked down at herself, realizing she was now in a simple white nightgown and in a bed with plain starched sheets. There was sunlight coming in from a window, catching light on the dust drifting lazily in front of it. Around her, cabinets full of bottles and books caught her eye, as did several charts on the walls showing ink illustrations of the human form.
“You’re in the town of Thornhill. We found you just outside the town limits, nearly dead. A couple of folks helped bring you back here.”
“..…” She couldn’t recall any of it. It felt surreal to be here after waking up in the desert among the dead. “Are my...things...around here?” She had to keep pausing for breath, feeling as weak as a newborn kitten.
“Hrm, actually I do have some of your personal effects here. Our local leatherworker was able to repair some of your gear. And I had a couple of the ladies in town see to getting you some new things from the general store. I’m afraid most of your old things had to be scrapped however.”
As if on cue, the distant sound of a tinkling bell and a door opening was heard. A woman’s voice floated into the room.
“Miki, where are you? Hmph, I got what you asked for. Honestly though, I’m too busy to be running errands for an unkempt bloody stranger without a penny to their name. I don’t run a charity you know. They’re probably an outlaw anyway.”
The voice got closer, and at last a woman appeared. She could have been a mirror image of Doc Kaoru. Their height, their faces, complexion, and even their eyes were identical. One of the few differences was her hair, a bit longer and a darker shade of blue that edged toward navy. She was clad in a form-fitting corset the color of a good wine, and black twill bustle skirt short enough on one side that one could just barely catch a glimpse of stocking. The woman immediately locked eyes on her and she could feel the weight of that gaze. Searching, looking her over, and seemingly surprised.
“Oh. She’s awake? Interesting. Here.” Her tone was clipped and firm, as she passed the bundle she had been carrying over to the doctor. Dr. Miki Kaoru seemed to struggle for a moment before he got a grip on it, looking annoyed.
“Yes, she is. And I’d appreciate it if you’d stop complaining. I was out of ether after the last surgery and hadn’t had a chance to get more. She’s also going to need the disinfectant when I re-dress her wounds today.” The doctor sighed looking tired, before he put on a smile and waved a hand at the woman next to him.
“My sister, Ms. Kozue Kaoru. She’s...ah. One of our business owners in town.”
“I own the parlor house. Services that many in the community appreciate, even if my brother does not.” Her gaze hadn’t shifted from the bedridden woman’s own.
“A pleasure.” she croaked back.
“And you are...?” Ms. Kaoru’s smile was a glinting of teeth behind carmine lips. Equal parts intriguing and dangerous. Like a predator eyeing her to see if she was prey or a potential threat. The injured woman, for her part, felt her face go impassive as she held the eye contact firmly. Refusing to shy away. The doctor thankfully intervened.
“I’m afraid she seems to have a case of mild amnesia at the moment. Some bed rest and healing will help, though an interrogation will not I think.” Miki seemed to be giving a warning despite the mild tone of his words. Kozue flickered her gaze briefly to him, but refused to let the matter sit.
“Oh? That so? And how do we know? She could be lying you know… You’ve always been far too trusting, brother dear. Are these her things?” Kozue drifted to one part of the room, nearer to the bed where a pile of items rested. The nameless woman recognized her leather belts and holsters. The gun was still buckled in surprisingly. She had expected it to have been confiscated. Kozue picked up a small lump of metal that dangled from a chain, inspecting it before putting it back on the pile. She then tossed a smirk over her shoulder.
“Mind if I pry?”
The woman on the bed shook her head. Wincing at the movement. All she wanted was rest and this woman was beginning to drain her. If feeding her curiosity would speed things along, it hardly mattered to her. Kozue wasted not a second more and began picking things up to inspect them more closely. Miki seemed resigned and began checking his patient’s vitals again while his sister snooped. There was a small “Hmm!” in victory. She brought over one of the holsters toward the bed, and lifted it up for them to see. On the backside, stitched into the leather were some letters
“Juri A. Is that your name? Juri?” Doc Kaoru asked, curious
Juri...yes...that does sound…. It rang a bell. Like some distant dream. She may have been called that, or it at least seemed familiar to her.
“I... think so.”
Kozue, looking smug, cast a look at her brother. “See? Not so hard.” Miki merely shook his head in bemusement.
“Yes yes, well now that we know her name it’s time she got some rest. She’s still in recovery, and I won’t have you badgering my patient.” Kozue rolled her eyes in an unladylike gesture and produced a fan from her handbag. Snapping it open she let it flutter before her face as she made to turn to leave.
“Very well, I can see that I’m no longer wanted when I’m not useful.” she batted her lashes and fluttered her fan prettily. “But...let me simply inform your oh-so-interesting patient.” She locked eyes with Juri once more. There was a sharpness to them this time that made them seem harder. Like a pair of cobalt stones.
“When we found you on the outskirts of our town you were armed, riddled with bullet holes, and dressed in quite the masculine fashion. While I’m not one to judge,I do ask that you at least consider my dear brother’s kindness and hospitality in patching you up.” Miki fidgeted a bit behind her, looking as though he wanted to interrupt. But Kozue continued, “You look to me like trouble. Women don’t often walk around deserts with bullets in them, and if you bring problems to this town or misfortune on my twin brother? I promise you...”
Her voice became a growl. “Law men will be the least of your concerns.”
With that threat hanging coldly in the air, she turned on her heel and left. Miki sighed and mopped his brow with a handkerchief he pulled from his vest pocket. “I...er, sorry about...about that. My sister, well she means well. She’s just worried I think. What with the increase in outlaw activity here out west. But, I certainly don’t expect any difficulties if you continue your treatment. And in time, your memory is sure to return. For now? Rest up and we’ll take things slow. You survived quite an ordeal.”
Juri found herself shifting uncomfortably in the face of his easy friendliness and compassion. It was rare thing to find, and it weighed on her. Guilt feeling like lead in her chest. “I’ll pay for any trouble I’ve brought you or the townsfolk. You’ll be compensated, Doc. I’m not the type to let debts go unpaid.”
Miki waved her off, scoffing. “Don’t worry about payment. Just worry about getting back on your feet. You’ll be staying with us for awhile in the meantime, and I’m sure the rest of the town will get to know you.”
“All the same, thank you for your help.” She replied, still feeling bothered. A headache was settling again in her temples.
“Here, drink this.” Doc Kaoru passed her a glass of water. In it he sprinkled a powder of some sort. “It’ll help with the pain so you can rest.”
Juri took it, feeling immensely grateful and a little lost. Drinking it down, she leaned back down on the pillow once more as her eyelids began to close. In the back of her mind, like faded echoes from the past, she could hear gunshots and the screams of horses.
“Rest well Ms. Juri. We’ll speak again once you’ve woken up.”
She fell back into unconsciousness. The darkness this time feeling restless and brooding. But soon the silhouettes and shadows blurred and became nothingness as she slept. Outside the afternoon sun eventually set, as Miki quietly cleaned his office. The dying light glinting off of the pearl handle of a revolver comfortably holstered at his back.
To Be Continued