Cramped quarters greeted him when he opened his eyes. If he stretched his arms out, he'd meet walls on both sides. A sliver of light crept beneath the curtains of the four-paned window in the room. Rain pelted against the glass, pushing a gust of wind through a small opening near the sash. Inching his body to the edge of the bed, a jaw-clenching pain from his ankle shot up his right leg. Two straight branches ran the length of his leg from instep to mid-calf, held in place by leather thongs crisscrossing the entire length. He put his fingers to his forehead and rubbed his temples, hoping to ease the pulsating throb.
Lifting the thin blanket, he looked down at the gray woolen drawers covering his body. What happened to his clothes and who undressed him? He dropped his head to the pillow. Whenever he moved, the room spun like a kid's top.
His throat burned with thirst. Perhaps I'm in a desert and swallowed a bucket of sand. The legs of a chair scraped against a floorboard and his body tensed. He held his breath when footsteps from a nearby room approached.
The stranger walked to the window and closed it. "Welcome back to the world, son." He carried a tin cup in his work-hardened hand, offered it to him and moved closer to the bed. "One sip at a time, been a while since you had liquid or food."
Grimacing from the pain, he rose to an elbow and downed the cool water. And asked for more.
The man nodded and returned moments later with a full cup. "Remember to go slow until you're sure you can hold it down."
He drained the second cup, handed it back to the man, and dropped his head to the pillow again. "Where am I?"
"Iowa? You mean the state of Iowa?"
"Don't know of any city named Iowa." The man chuckled. "Course, maybe I just ain't heard of it yet."
"Who are you?"
"Ignatius, Ignatius Blue Moon."
He narrowed his eyes, trying to recollect if he'd seen Ignatius before. When nothing came to mind, he closed them and drew a long, deep breath. Tall and muscular, harsh elements had creviced the man's tanned face. His thick, dark hair bore a streak of white, an inch wide from forehead to nape. A bushy brown mustache lined his upper lip. His eyes were blue, the same color of an aqua stone someone once wore on a pendant. Strange he remembered a woman who took a fancy to an aquamarine gem but couldn't place her. He thought about Ignatius' eyes; not a fleck of evil resided in their depths. A silent breath of relief slipped from his lips. He didn't relish the idea of being as helpless as a newborn at the mercy of a mad man.
A mean-spirited person wouldn't possess compassionate eyes, would they? Wouldn't that be a twist of nature or a joke from God? Hell, seems like he had a run of bad luck and it must have expired now…after whatever had happened.
A pleasant grin curled Ignatius' mouth. "I bet you got a lot of questions rattling around your head?"
"Reckon I do. Let's start with my ankle before we move on to the pain in my head."
"I can't say what happened to you, but here's what I know. I found you along the Blue Earth River about a mile from here. You were clinging to a thick cottonwood branch."
"I came out of the river?"
"I don't see it any other way. Weren't no tracks around you and with that broken ankle, you weren't out for a stroll." Ignatius emitted a laugh. "Don't reckon you could have found your way out of the woods with that head wound."
"How did you happen to find me?"
"My mare broke through the north fence and headed for the river to drink. I came across her tracks and followed them. I spied this red bulk near the bank. Thought the person dead until I got closer and rolled you over. You moaned." Another chuckle. "Reminded me of a woman who shared my bed for a time."
"Thanks for sharing that with me." Ignatius, whoever he is, sure has a sense of humor. "You have anything for pain, laudanum or opium?"
"Reckon I can scare up some laudanum. Don't go anywhere." A devilish grin changed the hard contours of his face. "Be right back."
"That's funny," he said with a pained frown. "Happy to be your source of entertainment."
The man returned, poured a small amount of dark liquid into the cup and handed it to him. The bitter taste sparked another cough and a sharp pain in his chest. He poked about his ribs for damage.
"Two broken on the left, one on the right." Ignatius shook his head. "Took some time to get that arrowhead out of your leg. The shaft was snapped off clear down to the skin. Someone clubbed you with an axe or maybe a tomahawk. I been tending your wounds for five days, asking myself every day what the other man looked like after this fight."
He had trouble keeping his eyes open after the laudanum. "What kind of arrowhead?"
"Sioux, I reckon."
Long seconds lapsed while the unanswered questions scrambled his brain.
"Think you can eat?"
The words came out slurred. "Thought I was hungry, but I best wait."
"No hurry. Venison, potatoes and carrots in the cook pot will wait till you're feeling better."
"Sleep. You're safe here. If you need me, give a holler."
His thoughts drifted between dreams and lucidity. Loud voices and rapid gunfire echoed in his ears. Flashbacks of a frantic struggle and dark, muscular arms floated behind his droopy lids. The distinct smell of dirt returned and then another memory invaded his meandering mind. He crawled along the earth until the blessed relief of cool water washed over him. A twisted branch floated by. Grabbing the end, he allowed the sturdy life raft to pull him into the ashen depths. He clung to it with one thought in mind; he'd rather drown than return to the hell he escaped.
He heard Ignatius rise from the chair and shuffle from the room. Before he allowed sleep to claim him, he tried to remember his name. When nothing came to mind, he surrendered to blessed forgetfulness.
* * *
Ignatius Moon returned to the room a short time later to check on his patient. He placed a chair beside the bed, eased down and studied the young man while he slept. Over six feet tall, the injured man was a mass of muscle and strength. His vivid blue eyes reminded him of a Montana sky on a cloudless day—a nice contrast to his dark brown hair. The kid couldn't be more than twenty-five, perhaps even younger, and after a hot bath and a shave, he'd be right handsome.
He watched him breathe, the steady, shallow respirations assuring him the man would live. Before long, the wounded man in his bed would enter a world where ghouls and demons dwelt. He'd thrash about the bed like an enraged beast, shout nonsensical words and garbled names. Try as he might, Ignatius couldn't make sense of them. A woman was involved; his expression would soften when he called out her name. It wasn't a name Ignatius had heard before.
With his hand holding up his chin, he thought about the flow and size of the Blue Earth. A hundred and thirty miles long, the water ran north to south. The man could have floated into Iowa from Minnesota. Hell, he could have come from just about anywhere. He wasn't from these parts. Ignatius knew everyone in this neck of the woods. That's why he'd chosen this uninhabited locale. In the winter, months would pass without conversation with another human, and that suited him fine. He had no way of knowing what happened to the young man, but sensed the hand-to-hand combat had been fierce—a fight to the death—and he'd almost lost.
Ignatius wasn't a betting man, but when he'd scooped him up from the bank and tossed him across the rump of Boaz, he didn't think the kid would make it to his cabin alive. Once he carried him into his home and laid him on the bed, he took a good look at the wounds. An ankle bone had popped through the skin, and on closer examination, the head wound wasn't as severe as it looked. With a steady hand and calm nerve he'd set the ankle and stitched up his skull, then went to work on the broken ribs. Not much he could do for that injury excerpt bind his torso with gauze strips and hope one of the bones hadn't punctured a lung.
Several deep gashes about his chest and arms required stitches, knife wounds he thought. The man had fought for his life with Indians but he didn't know why.
Fifteen minutes had passed since he'd pulled the chair next to the bed and predictably, the nightmares began. The kid's arms flailed in the air. His head thrashed about the pillow, and jumbled words fell from his lips. His voice grew desperate, pleading. Damn, if the man wasn't searching for a child. Ignatius turned an ear to his voice, closed his eyes and concentrated. "What are you saying, boy, Sven? Flynn?"
He'd seen a lot of strange things in his fifty years but this beat all. He never imagined he'd stumble across an injured man lying on the banks of the river, close to the place he called home. The injured lad was here all right, wrangling with the sheets. Ignatius would do whatever he could to see he lived through the gruesome ordeal that placed him here. He pulled the blanket up to the man's chin and clucked his tongue, hoping to soothe his troubled spirit. The frantic motion ceased and he settled into a peaceful sleep. Ignatius rose from the chair and walked toward the door. He turned for a last look before heading back into the kitchen. His food would be cold, but no matter. He'd eat when the young man felt well enough to join him. He lowered his head to the table and drifted off to the drone of night crickets outside his door.