This story takes place approximately a year after the War of Nerves started, and shortly before Captain Scarlet and Rhapsody Angel became a couple.
A “Captain Scarlet & the Mysterons” story
By Chris Bishop
Captain Scarlet woke up with a start and was greeted by a violent headache. The pain was such that it was barely tolerable, and he had to fight desperately not to lose consciousness again. He felt hot; at the same time, a cold sweat was running down his spine. He couldn’t manage to think straight through the pain. His body didn’t seem to want to respond to him; when he tried to open his eyes, the pain seemed to increase, and it was as if his pupils were suddenly burned by a blinding white light. He quickly closed his eyes shut, and gasped, knowing a moment’s panic.
God, what is it? What is happening to me?
It took a few seconds that seemed an eternity for him, for the pain to thankfully vanish. Very carefully, he was finally able to open his eyes. The sight offering itself to him was at first blurred, but slowly, it cleared and he was able to see a low ceiling, made of wooden boards, just over him.
He was lying on his back, in a rather uncomfortable bed, his head supported by a badly filled feather pillow. He raised his head only one centimetre to let it fall again and grunted. The awful pain he had felt earlier might have been gone, but he still felt light-headed enough to be unable to rise. Yet, there wasn’t any pain in the rest of his body. Only the sensation of being damp with sweat all over…
… And naked, under a patchwork quilt that covered him from toes to neck.
Scarlet carefully turned his head at the sound of the crusty voice addressing him; there was an old man standing beside the bunk, who was looking down at him with some kind of curiosity in his eyes, while scratching his badly shaved chin in a thoughtful way. There was a faint smile upon his lips and Scarlet decided that he wasn’t threatening in any way – on the contrary, he could see there was something benevolent in his features.
However, Scarlet’s opinion of the man nearly changed, when he noticed the huge shotgun resting against the wall just within reach from the man’s hands. He felt a brief instant of concern, although he would have had difficulty in explaining exactly what he was worried about.
“That’s remarkable,” the old man continued. “I didn’t think you would be awake for a while yet. How do you feel, son?”
Scarlet tried to talk and found he couldn’t at first; his throat was so terribly dry. It felt like sandpaper. “Thirsty,” he finally managed to say, his voice almost catching. He made an attempt to clear his throat; it was painful, and there was an awful coppery taste in his mouth. “Can I have… some water, please?”
The man eyed him for a brief moment, as if he was suspicious of some kind of trick; then, as he realised there was none to expect from his guest, he nodded in agreement and took a step forward. There was an old pitcher next to the bed; he took it and poured the contents into a cup that he handed to Scarlet. The latter struggled into a more comfortable, sitting position, not without difficulty – something was holding his left leg down; he could barely move it.
He greedily drank the water from the cup, and it took three more before he felt refreshed; he indicated to the old man that he had had enough. Sighing with relief, he lowered himself down onto the bunk, closing his eyes; he still felt light-headed, especially after the efforts he had just made.
“Feeling better?” the old man asked in his gruff voice.
Scarlet slowly nodded. “Yes, better.” He opened his eyes again, and looked up at the man. “My leg… I can’t move it. What’s the matter with it?”
“Don’t you remember?” The old man pulled off the blanket from the other end of the bed, to reveal Scarlet’s left leg. It was all bandaged, from the knee down to the foot, revealing only the toes, and was supported on three sides with splints made of solid wooden boards. Midway down, blood had soaked the bandage.
“You broke it,” the man answered, as Scarlet regarded the leg fixedly. “You had an open fracture, and I had to push the bone right in, before putting a splint on it.” He pulled the blanket over Scarlet’s leg. “Lucky you were unconscious at the time, or it would have been mighty painful.”
Scarlet shook his head. “I don’t feel a thing,” he said.
“No feeling in your leg?”
“No, not that. I mean… I don’t feel any pain at all. It feels fine.”
The old man shrugged, dismissively, as Scarlet looked at him with an interrogating stare. “Probably the shock, then,” he said.
“Are you… a doctor?” Scarlet inquired with a frown.
He saw a brief flicker in the man eye, before the latter shook his head. “No, I ain’t no doctor,” he said. “Living in the bayou, I learned a few helpful tricks, that’s all. You will need to see a real doctor when you return to what you call civilisation.”
“Bayou? Civilisation?” Scarlet was puzzled. “Where am I? Who are you?”
“The name’s Joe. Joe Benson. People around simply calls me ‘Ol’ Joe’. This is my house, and we’re in the middle of Devil’s Bayou. You needed help when I found you, so I brought you here, ‘cause I might not have gotten you to town in time. I called the sheriff of ‘Les Arbrisseaux’. He should be coming over soon.” The old man looked Scarlet squarely in the eyes. “Though whether he’d be taking you to the hospital or jail, I wouldn’t like to say.”
“Jail?” Scarlet repeated with a creased brow. “Why? Have I done something wrong?”
“Well, let’s say that government officials don’t take too kindly to strangers coming around these parts and hunting protected species.”
“Sorry?” Scarlet was more and more perplexed. “Hunting protected species?”
“Alligators,” Joe specified. “You know, personally, I don’t give a fig when you do it fairly – Lord knows I kill more than one of those scaly bastards a year – but to shoot them down from a chopper… now that’s mighty unfair, if you ask me. You gotta give the beasties a chance, at the very least.”
“Choppers… alligators…” Scarlet was now totally confused. “What are you talking about?”
“You tellin’ me you’re not one of those rich strangers who come here for some ‘excitement’?” Joe asked.
“I…” Scarlet’s frown deepened. “Hunting alligators? Me? I don’t think…”
“You don’t think what?” Joe asked, seeing Scarlet’s hesitation.
“It doesn’t seem like my style… I’m not… a hunter.” Scarlet rubbed his brow. “I think.”
“You think?” the older man repeated with curiosity.
“I don’t know… I can’t remember.”
Joe rolled his eyes. “You can’t remember? Now that’s mighty useful. You mean, you don’t remember being in a chopper with your buddies and shooting down alligators from the sky?”
“No… I can’t say I do.”
“It’s not the first time rich boys like you would do that, you know?”
“What makes you think I’m rich?”
“Well… you’re not from these parts. Your accent… You’re English, right? Maybe you came all the way from your English manor to get some excitement in the American wilderness?”
“I…” Scarlet frowned again and shook his head. Joe’s words were plunging him deeper and deeper into confusion. He couldn’t understand what he was on about; more disturbingly, as he was struggling to make sense of what the old man was telling him, he was discovering, quite rapidly, that there was something vital missing that could have helped him comprehend what was happening to him.
He realised suddenly what it was, and said blankly: “I can’t remember a thing.”
Joe raised a sceptical brow. “You can’t remember a thing,” he repeated, musingly.
“I can’t recall anything,” Scarlet muttered, trying hard to remember. “But what you’re saying, somehow, it doesn’t feel right…”
“What about this?” From a basket lying on the floor nearby, Joe produced the camouflage-printed shirt he had removed from Scarlet’s body earlier. It had been torn nearly to shreds and had traces of blood in many places. “Looks like what hunters wear, ain’t it?”
“I suppose it does,” Scarlet murmured, frowning anew.
“This was yours. You remember wearing it, don’t you?”
Scarlet stared at the shirt and hesitated. Yes… that was certainly familiar…” He returned his attention to Joe. “You’re sure about that helicopter of yours?”
Joe threw the rag back into the basket. “I heard the helicopter flying over the area a good part of the day,” he explained. “Since early this morning, in fact. I saw it in the distance. And I heard the shots too, and what sounded like big explosions. What did your buddies and you do, exactly – throw dynamite into the river to get the monsters out? Seems like a good strategy,” he continued, staring at the still perplexed-looking Scarlet. “But again, you must know that’s highly illegal.”
Scarlet shook his head. “Sorry. I really don’t remember anything. But it doesn’t seem to me that I was… hunting animals. Alligators or anything else. I don’t think I’m a hunter…”
“That’s the second time you say that. You know you fell from that helicopter?”
“I did?” Now Scarlet was even more puzzled. “And I’m still alive?”
“Obviously.” Joe rolled his eyes. “Maybe you didn’t fall as high as I first thought. But still, high enough to be hurt. By the way you looked, I would say the trees broke your fall. You’re pretty cut up,” he moved on as Scarlet was looking down at his bandaged chest. “You’re lucky to be alive.”
“I don’t remember,” Scarlet repeated, his eyes glazing over as he searched his memory. As hard as he tried, he really couldn’t remember a thing. It was as if there was nothing there, in his mind. Falling from a helicopter? That seemed so odd, so improbable.
He suddenly had a flash of memory, and he moaned, as his head started hurting again. All around him seemed to fade away suddenly, to make way to a new, disturbing location. Yes, he was finally remembering something. He was falling; he could feel himself going down… There was nothing for him to hang onto. And far below, there was the ground, that he could see approaching rapidly…
He didn’t reach it and the memory disappeared as suddenly as the pain. He looked around, with a lost expression gasping; he was back on the bunk, with Joe now standing nearer to him, looking at him with concern.
“You okay, son?”
“Yes… I… I just remembered…” Scarlet looked into empty space. “Falling… Yes, I was falling… and I hurt…”
“Ah, you see I was telling the truth,” Joe said, grinning. “What else do you remember?”
“Nothing, it’s gone…” Scarlet answered. He searched his mind. There was nothing more to find. “It’s all gone. I can’t remember anything else,” he murmured.
“Nothing at all?” Joe asked, raising a brow.
“No… Nothing. Why can’t I remember?” Frustrated, Scarlet reached for his head with his hand again; the latter came into contact with another bandage. “I hit my head?” he whispered, feeling it with his fingers.
“Pretty hard, judging by all the blood there was when I found you,” Joe answered with a nod. “The wound didn’t look that bad when I treated it, though. It was barely bleeding anymore. You must have a thick skull, mister. Say, what’s your name?”
“My name?” Scarlet repeated awkwardly. “I…” He blinked, as he suddenly realised that there was something else he couldn’t remember. Something even more important than all the rest. “Who I am?” he said, frowning anew. “I… don’t know.”
He tried, harder than before, searching as deep as he could. But there seemed to be nothing to be found; that memory was gone as well. His mind was a total blank.
What is my name? Who am I? What am I? What am I doing here?
“I have to remember…” In the supreme mental effort that followed, a twinge of pain shot through his skull; he moaned, grabbing his head with both hands. Panic returned, as the sudden, awful realisation settled in, and a feeling of total loss and anguish struck him. He felt his heart beating faster. “I can’t even remember my own name!” he moaned between clenched teeth.
“Oh, amnesia, is it?” Joe said musingly. He didn’t even seem to realise the extent of his guest’s anxiety and was looking at him with what seemed to the appalled Scarlet like complete indifference. “Now that’s even better. Does that often happen to you?”
“How am I supposed to know?” Scarlet snapped in frustration. “You think I’m lying to you, don’t you? I tell you I can’t remember a thing! Nothing at all! It’s like my memory has been entirely wiped out! I don’t even know who I am and –” Lights flashed in front of his eyes and yet again, the terrible pain, reverberated through his skull. He found himself unable to talk, or even to think, although he tried very hard to. He lay back onto the bed, moaning miserably, and closed his eyes against the flashing lights.
Joe watched him closely, wondering if he wasn’t faking it.
“You’re not kidding, are you?” he finally asked, still a little gruffly.
His voice somehow reached Scarlet’s mind and he shook his head in answer; the mere movement was enough to send a new wave of pain through his head.
“Does it look like I’m kidding?” he hissed, forcing the words out. The effort seemed to cause his brain to pound against his skull. His hands were now shaking and he felt nauseous. “I can’t… think…”
“You’re just getting yourself too excited.” Joe’s voice was now softer, and he approached; he gently made Scarlet more comfortable, pulling the quilt up to his neck.
Slowly, the pain in his head started to leave Scarlet, and he looked up at the old man now tending to him.
“Lie still and calm yourself. You should get some rest. That’s a terrible fall you took, so you probably hurt yourself worse than I thought.”
“You saw me fall?” Scarlet asked in a murmur.
“Well, from a distance, yeah. I was surprised to find you alive at all, I must say. As I said, you probably didn’t fall as high as I thought.”
“Do you know why I fall from that helicopter?”
“How the hell would I know that? Maybe you weren’t securely strapped in and, in all the excitement, you simply fell out. Maybe you were drunk. Though there wasn’t any smell of alcohol on you. Who knows?” Joe looked curiously into the younger man’s face. “You really can’t remember a thing?”
“No.” The pain was dissipating, and Scarlet made a new effort to remember.
Nothing. Not a blasted thing.
He grunted with exasperation; feeling the pain slowly returning, he pinched the bridge of his nose. It started to ease again as soon as he stopped taxing his memory. “Why can’t I remember?” he moaned.
“That’ll come back with time.”
“Are you sure?”
Joe grinned. “These things usually do in the movies, don’t they?”
“I couldn’t say,” Scarlet groused. “And this is not a movie. This is happening to me.”
“Well, don’t you worry about a thing,” Joe answered almost reassuringly. “Get some sleep. Maybe you’ll feel better afterwards.”
Scarlet shook his head. “I don’t feel sleepy,” he said. He thought it strange, actually. He imagined that maybe he was too stressed out to actually feel tired. “As for not worrying,” he continued, “I find that very difficult to do right now. How can I not worry? I can’t remember anything about myself; I’m in a place I don’t know… You said, ‘Devil’s Bayou’?”
Joe nodded. “Louisiana, U.S.A. Sounds like you’re a long way from home, boy.”
“How can you tell? You said something about me being English.”
“I’m no expert, that’s for sure, but I think I can recognise an English accent when I hear one.”
“Louisiana,” Scarlet murmured thoughtfully. “And you think I came here to hunt alligators?”
“Why else would you come to this hell hole?” Joe asked with a shrug. “Around here, there ain’t nothing else that might interest tourists, rich or otherwise.”
“I’m still doubtful about that part. What if I’m not a tourist?”
“What else could you be?”
“How do you expect me to know?”
Joe sighed. “Well, whatever, the sheriff will arrive soon, and maybe he’ll sort it all out for you. I can’t hear no helicopter no more, so I’m guessing your buddies are gone away. Or maybe they’ve landed to try to find you.”
“They might have gone to the sheriff too, mightn’t they?”
Joe sniggered. “That might be, but that would be surprising, boy. As I said, hunting ‘gators ain’t legal in these parts. They’re protected beasties, Lord knows why. Your friends wouldn’t want to rub with any kind of justice around here. You might consider they have left you behind and split.”
“Very comforting,” Scarlet mumbled. “So I’m to be arrested for something I don’t remember even doing. If I did it.”
“That’s what happens when you like to live dangerously,” Joe remarked. “Hey, you might be worrying ’bout nothing. Sheriff Masters ain’t such a bad guy – might be he’ll sympathise with you, considering your… memory loss?”
“You still don’t believe me?” Scarlet asked, bristling.
“Calm down, now. I ain’t saying you’re a liar, mister. You don’t have to convince me. The sheriff’s the one that’ll need convincing.” Joe shook his head. “You should really try to relax. Maybe sleep a little.”
“I’m not sleepy,” Scarlet repeated. He rubbed his rumbling stomach, and grimaced. “I’m hungry, though. Can you spare a sandwich or two?”
Joe tilted his head to one side and stared at him with curiosity.
“You’re a strange one. Any guy in your place, having taken a dive like you did, would simply count himself lucky to be alive and would try to sleep it off, if only so not to feel the pain. You, you want to eat something”
“I don’t feel any discomfort,” Scarlet replied. “My headache is gone – mostly. There’s only a little buzzing in my head. Otherwise I feel absolutely fine.”
Joe stared at him for a moment, without saying anything. Then, he walked towards a drawer and took out a shirt and a pair of used jeans, that he tossed in his guest’s direction; they both landed on Scarlet’s face and he took the clothes in his hands to look at them with a puzzled expression.
“If you feel fine enough, put the shirt on, then,” Joe told him. “You wouldn’t want to go about stark naked when the sheriff comes to take you. You’re about my size, it should fit you okay.”
“You expect me to put the trousers on as well?” Scarlet asked with a raised brow. He motioned to his left leg. “That would be difficult, I think.”
Joe grunted. “We’ll see what we can do about that part later.”
“You’re about to hand me over to the sheriff and you worry about my dignity?”
“What can I say? I’m that kind of guy.” Joe took his gun from the wall, and that made Scarlet go rigid for a split-second; he wondered what his host intended to do with the weapon. But then he saw Joe walking towards the door. “I’ve got some wood to cut,” the older man announced.
“You’re taking your gun with you to cut wood?” Scarlet inquired. “A hatchet would seem the usual choice to me.”
Joe turned to glance almost accusingly at Scarlet. “You would expect me to leave the gun here… with you? I ain’t that gullible, boy. Besides,” he added almost thoughtfully, “these parts ain’t that safe either. A man’s got to have some protection when he goes out in the wilderness.”
“Against alligators, right?” Scarlet asked with a raised brow.
“Right… and other kinds of beast as well,” Joe muttered. He took one more step away towards the door.
“How about that sandwich?” Scarlet called after him.
“This ain’t the Ritz, boy.” Joe opened the door – it was the only door in the little cabin, and it led straight to the outdoors. He looked over his shoulder in Scarlet’s direction, as the latter was pushing himself into a sitting position. “I need kindling to heat the soup,” he answered, with a kinder tone. “I don’t think you’ll run away with that leg of yours, but…” He flippantly showed Scarlet his gun. “I wouldn’t want to look like a fool in front of the sheriff if he should come and not find you. So stay still, and I won’t be forced to use this on you.”
“I wouldn’t get far, anyway,” Scarlet admitted. “And you won’t need that gun with me, Joe. I’m grateful that you found me and helped me. Looks like you might have saved my life. I wouldn’t do you any harm.”
Joe answered with curt nod, before walking through the door, and closing it behind him.
Left alone, Scarlet pondered his situation; once again, he made an effort to remember something, but to no avail.
His mind was a blank – he couldn’t recall anything at all. No past, no name, no indication of who he was, where he was or why he was there. Nothing at all. This time around, however, he experienced no head pain from his attempts, which was fortunate. Earlier on, he nearly had passed out.
He looked around. This place certainly wasn’t familiar to him, so there was nothing to help him remember. His eyes fell on the basket into which Joe had thrown the shirt he had shown him; it was but a piece of camouflage clothing, shredded nearly to ribbons. His shirt, according to Joe. Seeing it had not jogged Scarlet’s memory. But now, as far as he could tell, this shirt might not even be his.
Maybe there’s something in the pockets? Maybe some I.D., that would tell me who I am. He chided himself for not having thought of asking Joe if he had found anything of significance in his clothes.
He stared at the basket. If only he could go over to it and check; after all, it wasn’t that far – only about six or seven feet away. Of course, there was his broken leg. Sure, he didn’t feel any pain from it, but if he were to walk on it, maybe then the pain would come back?
The wisest move would be to wait for Joe to return, and ask the old man to check his pockets – if he hadn’t done so already. But Scarlet was far too impatient.
With a decisive gesture, he pulled the blanket off and pushed himself up, swinging both his legs over the side; despite his eagerness to spring into action, he took great care not to put too much pressure on his injured leg and, biting his lower lip in apprehension, gently put the foot down onto the wooden floor.
He still could feel no pain at all; carefully, he stroked the bandage, feeling the leg underneath it. If anything, it only felt a little stiff, tightly bandaged as it was, and imprisoned between those three wooden boards; stiff, and itchy as well. He felt like scratching it, but kept himself from doing so. He wondered for a moment if Joe had not given him some painkillers, but he quickly dismissed that idea; he would feel woozy, if it was the case. But then, why wasn’t there any pain in his leg?
Or, come to think of it, why wasn’t there any pain at all in his whole body?
He looked towards the basket again; he could still see the clothes that Joe had tossed into it, hanging over the side, taunting him. He rubbed his chin, still hesitant, pondering again the wisdom of actually walking to it.
Through the window just next to him, coming from outside, he could clearly hear the chopping sound of an axe. He looked through the pane and saw Joe, busy with cutting his firewood, by a small shed at some distance from the house. Beyond the old man, there was the landscape of a deep wood with a large stretch of water running by – maybe a river. It looked peaceful enough, although visibly isolated. Scarlet wondered how many neighbours his host could have around; not many, he imagined. And if there were any, their homes were probably very far off.
He returned his attention to his leg. It’s as if there’s nothing wrong with it, he mused. But then, he had actually seen it broken – that much he could remember. That was about the only memory he could call to mind, before he woke up in this bed, in this cabin.
Was it real?
His eyes fixed on his leg, he took a sudden decision.
He started to unwrap the bandage.
He had to see for himself how bad this wound was – and why it wasn’t hurting him anymore.
* * *
A robust man, Joe Benson had cut most of what he needed for the day in just a few minutes. But since he was outside, and thought he would undoubtedly need more wood in the following days, he decided he would actually continue with his job for a while.
Stopping for rest after a moment, he thoughtfully looked towards the house; truth to tell, he wasn’t that eager to return to his ‘guest’. He had taken an immediate liking to the mysterious young man, who had, quite literally, fallen from the sky. Added to that, he couldn’t help but sympathise with his predicament – not to know where he was or who he was. Joe had no doubt he wasn’t faking it; it seemed too genuine not to be true.
Yet, even though the Englishman had expressed obvious apprehension, it was remarkable to see how he could remain in relative control of himself; quite like a man who had seen and experienced so much in his life – or who had learned early on to keep his emotions in careful check.
Maybe it’s that legendary ‘English stiff upper lip’ self-control that I heard about, Joe mused. They make such a fuss about it… Apparently, some of it must be true.
Joe shrugged inwardly. It was quite a shame, really, that Sheriff Masters would take that young man into custody on suspicion of poaching on a wild-life reserve. In regard of the wild-life preservation laws, it was a grievous offence, which could result in very serious consequences; the Englishman could be facing a few years in jail, if found guilty. It’s not like I never hunted any of those scaly monsters before, and it’s not like anyone would miss a few more of them, Joe grimly asserted. Still, maybe considering his present situation, the Englishman would get out of this jam easily enough. Joe was hoping it would be the case. They would just need to figure out who he was, and someone would come to help him. And more than probably, if he was indeed part of that gang who was flying a chopper to hunt alligators, someone amongst his friends would be able to pay off his bail to get him out of jail. For the rest, it only concerned Law and Justice.
Joe tried to dismiss it. Telling himself it was none of his business, and that he had more than enough of his own troubles, he picked up his axe to return to his work. As he was about to swing the axe down on the new log, a sound caught his ear and he raised his head to look in the direction it was coming from. He narrowed his eyes. Between the trees, down the narrow path through swamps and trees leading to his house, he could see a cloud of grey dust. The sound was increasing: engines, and many of them.
Speaking of trouble... It seemed that it was presently coming his way.
He saw the first four-wheel, off-road vehicle, and then the second one, as they emerged from behind the trees to come towards his house. The engines sounded louder now, and were mixed with sounds of whoops and laughter coming from the drivers. Three more ORVs emerged from behind the trees, and Joe, muttering under his breath, put his axe down and walked to his gun, that he had left lying on the side of the pile of logs yet to be chopped.
Jasper and his friends again… He should have known. It had been a few days since they had last visited, and presented him with their latest ultimatum. He had flatly refused it, and was expecting them to show up very soon.
Now here they were again; coming for another attempt.
* * *
Sitting on the side of the bed, Scarlet was looking down at his exposed leg with a puzzled expression on his face.
The skin was completely unmarked; he could see no visible wound on it. Under his fingers, he couldn’t even feel anything wrong that might be hidden under the skin – no torn muscles, no broken bones, nothing that seemed remotely out of the ordinary. And he could walk on it with no problem whatsoever – he had tested it a few times, walking around in the confined space of the small cabin, putting all of his weight on it.
As far as he could tell, this leg was perfectly fine and healthy.
With deep perplexity, he stroked his chin pensively. He did remember having seen a wound. A very ugly wound at that – bone sticking out through torn and bloody flesh, and he remembered it was hurting like hell. Had he dreamed all of it? It seemed unlikely – as apparently, Joe had witnessed the same, and had tended to the leg and dressed it like he would a broken limb. Scarlet looked down at the discarded bandage, now lying on the floor; it was soiled with dried blood on several layers, testimony that indeed, they had covered an open and bleeding injury very recently.
It cannot have healed that quickly, Scarlet observed, looking down at his obviously uninjured leg. That would be impossible.
Musing, he removed the bandage around his torso and threw it away onto the floor. He looked down at himself, and checked the rest of his body. Didn’t Joe tell him he had fallen from an aircraft? Considering this, he should certainly hurt all over and would have other injuries – at least minor ones: bruises, scratches, whatever. Joe did say he had been cut all over. Yet, he could see nothing obvious on any part of his body.
Except for his head, which was still buzzing from time to time, he felt perfectly fine.
He removed his last bandage – the one from around his head. Then he cautiously felt his head for any sore spot. Again, he could only make the same observation: he felt nothing but unblemished skin under his fingers. There was only that faint hum inside his head. Whatever he had, it was obviously internal – a concussion maybe?
That would certainly explain the amnesia…
He looked outside, through the window. He could still see Joe, who had just stopped chopping some wood, seemingly to take a break. Is he some kind of healer, or something of the kind? he wondered for a moment. He dismissively shrugged the thought away. No, that’s impossible… There are no such things as miraculous healers…
If it’s not him… then it must be… me?
It was all very strange. Whatever had happened, he reflected, it was indeed nothing short of miraculous, of that much he was certain.
He started putting on the clothes that Joe had left for him, lost in his thoughts, trying to comprehend exactly what had happened, how he could have healed so fast from his wounds, and, more importantly to him, why he couldn’t remember a single thing about himself. He was somehow convinced that the answer to this mysterious healing was hiding somewhere in those memories that kept evading him. But as soon as he made any kind of exertion to remember, a headache would come, almost instantly, at times so violent that he had to force himself to stop trying; it was as if something was blocking his mind from remembering – and hurting him, whenever he attempted it.
As he pulled the jeans up, he looked at the basket into which Joe had discarded the clothes he supposedly had been wearing when he had been found; he still wanted to examine them. Briskly, he walked towards them; maybe there was a clue in there, of who he was, and what he was doing in this place – what had Joe said it was called? – oh yes… Devil’s Bayou, in Louisiana. Joe thought he was some kind of hunter – or rather a poacher, just judging by the clothes he was wearing. But to Scarlet, that simply didn’t ring true at all.
Reaching the basket, he crouched in front of it and took the shirt out. It was badly damaged, torn in places, and there were stains of blood on it. It was made of a green and brown camo design; the fabric was rather sturdy, and it probably took a lot to damage it. The trousers were made of the same fabric, and what was left of the left leg was heavily stained with blood. Obviously, the man who had worn these clothes had passed a very difficult moment.
All right, it did happen, then. These clothes must be mine. But that doesn’t answer any of my questions. It doesn’t suggest I’m some kind of ‘poacher’ either. Joe is certainly mistaken.
Is there something I can learn from these clothes?
Scarlet searched the multiple pockets, hoping to find something that might inform him of his identity. Maybe there was an I.D. card, driver’s permit… anything… All he discovered, stuck deep inside one of the trousers’ pockets, was what looked like a small metallic jewellery box; he opened with curiosity, only to find it contained nothing but a tiny roundel that to his eyes seemed to be of little significance. He closed the box and threw it back into the basket. He was somehow disappointed not to find anything helpful. For a moment, he had imagined that maybe the box contained a ring, or something similar, that he was to give to a lady upon his return to civilisation. Though whatever that thing in the box could be, he had no idea.
Hunter’s clothing, Scarlet mused, turning the shirt in his hands and slowly getting to his feet. Well, sure, it does look like it. But it also looks like…
… A military uniform.
His brow furrowed. A military uniform? Could it actually be that? Could Joe have mistaken it for hunter’s dress? That was an easy enough mistake to make, after all; it did look very much the same.
Quickly, his hand reached for the two dog tags which he could feel, cool and metallic against his chest, hanging from his neck; he had awakened with them, but up until now, had not paid that much attention to them. Soldiers wore dog tags, maybe these were his… Maybe they held the secret of his identity.
Is that it? Am I something in the military? Am I a soldier?
He took the chain off his neck and held the dog tags in front of his eyes, narrowing them to read the inscription.
On each of the little metallic plates, there was the same series of numbers – along with a single word...
His frown deepened. Scarlet? Now THAT can’t be my name, he told himself. That’s a woman’s name…
He didn’t have time to give more thought to the subject, as his attention was suddenly drawn by a roaring sound coming from outside; he turned to face the window.
He could see that Joe had left his axe, to pick up his gun, before advancing in the direction of five four-wheel off-road vehicles that had emerged from the woods to come towards the house. By the old man’s attitude, Scarlet imagined that whoever was coming could only mean trouble.
Unless it’s the sheriff arriving for me…
Scarlet put the chain back around his neck; doing so, his eyes fell on a pair of dirty boots standing right next to the basket that contained the remains of the camouflage clothes. Combat boots, he thought. At least, they looked very much like it. If they were there, by the basket, with these clothes, then maybe they were his boots as well.
Makes sense, actually…
He took the boots and returned to the bunk. If it was the sheriff, then he imagined that it would be better for him not to be barefooted when they came face to face. Since he had no explanation to give as to his presence in this place, the best to hope for was to at least make a good impression, and not look like some kind of tramp.
He looked down at himself and shook his head, grunting. He already pretty much looked the part, he realised.
* * *
“That will be far enough, boys.”
Joe had patiently waited until the five vehicles had stopped in front of him, and the engines had stopped running, before calling to the drivers. Seemingly taking no notice of the warning, the first of them was casually removing his helmet, revealing a youthful face, and long locks of unruly dirty blond hair that fell freely on his shoulders. He was moving to step down from his vehicle, when Joe took a step forward and pointed his shotgun directly at him.
“I said, that will be far enough,” the old man repeated, this time in a sterner voice. “You can climb back onto that contraption of yours and go your way.”
The blond young man stopped in his movement; he rolled his eyes upwards, and sighed, before stepping down from his machine, and putting down his helmet onto the seat. “Oh, come on now, Joe, don’t tell me you don’t want to see us around anymore?” he asked with an insolent smirk.
“You ain’t welcome here,” Joe replied dryly. “And you know it, Jasper.”
“Since always. You never were welcome. You and your buddies, you just keep coming here, bugging me over and over, and I keep telling you…” Joe curled his finger around the trigger of his gun, “… Get the hell off my land.”
“Well, if that ain’t hospitality for you,” Jasper said, turning to address his companions, who were stepping down their ORVs in turn, while also removing their helmets. They, however, kept their distance. Apparently, they didn’t share his obvious confidence that Joe wouldn’t use his gun on them. Jasper didn’t step back, and stayed where he was, crossing his arms on his chest. “Enough of the sweet talk,” he said. “Time to get down to business. You reached your decision, old man?”
“I thought I couldn’t be clearer than I am right now,” Joe replied. “And I told you already: I ain’t giving up my land, Jasper.”
“I never asked you to give it,” Jasper sighed heavily. “I meant to buy it from you.”
“You don’t fool me, Jasper Holland,” Joe snapped. “You could never pay me the value of this land to begin with.”
“I’m offering you far more than this piece of mud will ever be worth.”
Joe bristled at these words. “This ain’t no ordinary ‘piece of mud’, this is my home!” he barked. “I know what you really want, you no-good little bastard… But I won’t be giving you anything. I won’t give you that satisfaction. This is where I live. I’m staying.”
Jasper narrowed his eyes. “This is your last say on the matter, old man?”
“This is my only say on the matter. Now get your butts the hell off my land.” Joe stepped forwards, and pushed Jasper with the barrel of his gun; this time, the young man stepped back a pace, raising his hands as if to show that he meant no harm. “All of you, boys, now git!”
“If you know what we’re after,” Jasper continued, “You know, we can share the dough with you, if you like. There’s plenty for all.”
“You can’t share what you don’t have! You double-crossing, good-for-nothing scum, I know what you are – you’re no different from your thieving father! I’m telling you for the last time – leave me alone! The sheriff’s coming soon, and if you’re not gone by then, I’ll make sure to tell him what you’re up to, you and your little gang of teenaged thugs!”
“You called the sheriff on us?” one of the other boys asked suspiciously.
“That ain’t very wise, old man,” Jasper added.
“Ain’t got nothing to do with you bunch!” Joe replied. “But he’s coming… and since he’ll be here anyway… Well, I’ll make sure he knows about you, and you won’t be bothering me again.”
Jasper’s eyes narrowed dangerously. “Joe, you know that if you rat on us, we can do the same to you… And you have far more to lose than us.”
“And what’s that’s supposed to mean?” Joe snapped back.
“You want me to spell it out?”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about!” Joe replied, without apparently losing any of his self-assurance. “But I’m leaving you one last chance, Holland: you and your gang, leave now, before the sheriff arrives. And don’t ever come back here again, if you know what’s good for you.
Jasper shook his head, a smirk starting to form on his lips again. “You’re bluffing, Joe. And you’re lying.”
“You callin’ me a liar, boy?” Joe barked, stepping forwards to close the new distance between them.
“The sheriff ain’t coming,” Jasper continued with assurance. “And you would never dare tell him anything, anyway.”
“Don’t dare me! I ain’t got nothing to hide… unlike you, Jasper. Or your buddies.”
“You’re sure about that?”
Jasper’s taunting was trying Joe’s patience, already stretched to the breaking point. “That’s enough! Now, go on, GIT!” Joe gestured with the barrel of his gun. “Before I lose my cool and do something you and I will regret!”
“You know what, Joe?” Jasper said. “You don’t know how to lie proper and you don’t know how to bluff. You ain’t never gonna shoot any of us. You don’t have the guts. You might have had in the past, when you were younger… But you don’t have it anymore.”
Angered by the young man’s words, Joe took another step forwards. “So help me, boy…”
Before he could even finish his line, Jasper suddenly grabbed the barrel of the shotgun, and violently twisted it up, wrenching it out of the old man’s hands. It was just at that moment that Joe realised – far too late – that he was just a little too close to Jasper. The latter now had the gun in his hands – and was pointing the barrel at its owner. The smile on Jasper’s face had become an evil one, and his eyes were turning dangerously cold.
“In fact,” Jasper continued, “I’m willing to bet this gun of yours ain’t even loaded. He took aim, nonchalantly. “Wanna check that out for me, old man?”
Joe made a step back, fearfully. He looked up at Jasper’s face, and then he saw his own death, reflected in those dark eyes…
… A fraction of a second, before the young man pulled the trigger, and the shotgun thundered loudly.
“Oops,” Jasper remarked coldly, his eyes unfeeling. “My mistake…”
Scarlet was putting his boots on when he heard the nearby thundering shot. Quickly, he rose to his full height and took a look outside, through the window. His eyes grew wide with disbelief when he saw Joe, previously standing in front of a young man who was aiming a smoking shotgun at him, suddenly falling backwards, like a cut tree. Scarlet muttered a low curse, and without even thinking about it, ran to the door, that he opened wide.
The young man who had fired on Joe and the other youngsters behind him raised their heads and looked in surprise at the unexpected newcomer. Scarlet didn’t have any hesitation as he ran towards the fallen old man; he didn’t even care about the now smoking gun – it was a single shot gun, though exactly how exactly he knew that he would be quite unable to say. The potential threat presented by this group of youngsters standing over the old man lying in the dirt wasn’t important to him either.
There was a wounded human being there, who needed help; and he wasn’t about to turn his back on him.
“Hey, who’s this dude?” Jasper suddenly said, as Scarlet arrived next to him. He glared ominously at the stranger, who ignored the five young men completely. He fell to his knees next to Joe. The old man was still alive, but he was seriously wounded; his hands were clutching his belly, and his shirt was tinted red with blood. Scarlet assessed the wound; he didn’t think Joe stood a chance of living very long.
Nevertheless, he wasn’t about to watch him die, without trying to help him.
“Joe, can you hear me?” he asked urgently, looking into the pale face, whose eyes were closed. “Hang on in there, please!”
Joe’s eyes fluttered and he opened them, tiredly. His face was a mask of pain, as he looked up at Scarlet, who was leaning over him, obviously concerned. “Hey, boy…” He coughed, then frowned, as if he suddenly realised that the Englishman’s presence there by his side should be impossible. How could he have left the house, with his broken leg? “What are you doing here? How did you –”
“Don’t talk,” Scarlet urged him. “I’ll get some help…”
“Their help?” Joe whispered. Scarlet could see that the old man’s glazed eyes were now fixed in the direction of the youngsters he knew were standing behind him, watching like silent hawks. He tried to ignore their presence.
“You’ve got to hang on, Joe,” he pleaded. “I won’t let you die. You saved my life…”
“No…” Joe put a hand on Scarlet’s shoulder, smearing his shirt with blood, and looked straight into his face. His strength was leaving him rapidly. “I’m finished… You’re a good man, I know that now. You wouldn’t try to help me if it wasn’t the case…”
“Joe, you shouldn’t tire yourself –”
“Promise me…” Joe interrupted, swallowing hard. “Promise me you won’t let them get it…”
“Get what, Joe?” Scarlet asked with a frown. “Please hang on…”
Joe shook his head and groaned feebly. “Get –Get on out of here… Run…”
“Run away… before they kill you too…” Joe’s hand slid from Scarlet’s shoulder and fell onto his bloody torso; his eyes closed and his head fell backwards to the ground. Scarlet heard but a single rasp, before the old man finally ceased to breathe.
At first, Scarlet felt desolation filling his heart, and he lowered his head, in a brief and silent prayer for Joe’s soul. Then, abruptly, a thought came to his mind: the old man had been murdered, right in front of his eyes; quite gratuitously, without any apparent reason. And he had not been able to do anything to save him.
He raised his head and looked around; the perpetrator of this brutal murder was still there, standing over him; and his four accomplices had approached as well, surrounding the stranger kneeling by their victim’s side. In truth, Scarlet should have felt threatened – or at least, intimidated by these youths’ presence. But somehow, his anger was blinding him to whatever danger he could be facing.
“You killed him,” Scarlet said between clenched teeth.
“Who are you?” Jasper asked with a frown on his face. Unconsciously, he had his gun aimed at the stranger who, slowly, rose to his feet. Jasper cautiously stepped back from him. “I’m warning you –”
“You killed that man,” Scarlet repeated, glaring ominously at the younger man. He then addressed a disgusted look at the others, who were standing around, surrounding him even closer. “And you, you just stood there and watched… and did nothing!” He turned against to Jasper. “WHY did you kill him?”
“Why not?” Jasper replied so casually that it sent a chill down Scarlet’s spine. “I don’t see why it’s any of your business, man. Now answer my question: who are you?”
“That’s none of your business,” Scarlet snapped back, his brow furrowing deeply. He narrowed his eyes, looking straight at Jasper. “Joe said not to ‘let you have it’. You wanted something from him. What was it? Is that why you killed him?”
“Never mind,” Jasper answered with a shrug. “And I don’t care who you are. You’ve seen too much already. Right, boys?” he asked, addressing his gang. Scarlet saw some of them nodding their confirmation. There was a coldness in their eyes that didn’t bode well for him.
“So now you’re planning to kill me too?” Scarlet growled between his teeth. “That won’t be as easy as killing a defenceless old man.” He had no idea where the confidence in that challenge came from. It seemed the words had just automatically come to his lips.
“Oh yeah?” one of the youths said with an evil sneer. He was a tall, thin young man who was standing very close to Scarlet’s left. “We’re five, dude… you’re alone. Seems the odds are in our favour. What d’you think?”
He was the first to receive the answer, in the form of a swift and brutal punch right into his throat, which robbed him of his breath almost instantly. Scarlet had not taken the time to think; he only reacted to the threat against him.
As the first boy started gasping, Scarlet’s left foot went backwards and caught a second one in the stomach; he then grabbed the shotgun from Jasper’s hands and violently shoved the butt into the young man’s belly. Jasper stumbled under the impact, groaning in pain. Scarlet took the gun and used it as a club against the next youth who stepped forward in an attempt to hit him; that forced the young man to back away. The last boy, obviously fearful, already was stepping out of Scarlet’s way.
Scarlet rapidly extracted himself from the midst of his adversaries. He hadn’t even had time to register the effectiveness with which he had disposed of them to get free; it was only when he turned towards them, the shotgun in hand, that he realised exactly what he had done. He could see in the faces of the young men in front of him, three still standing and two others on their knees, gasping, that they seemed as surprised as he was himself. The tall, thin boy that Scarlet had hit first now seemed determined now to avoid more of his wrath and was making a run towards the nearest ORV. Scarlet let him go.
Holding the gun aimed at the remaining boys, Scarlet wondered if any of them knew or even suspected it was now unloaded; in any case, they didn’t dare approach him. Jasper was glaring at him murderously, holding his aching belly. That one was visibly the leader – and potentially the most dangerous of the lot.
As the Spectrum officer was quickly accessing his situation, contemplating what he should do next, he heard a sudden call coming not that far from behind him. That made him turn swiftly around, the shotgun instinctively at the ready. He heard a cracking sound, and then felt a pain in his shoulder; that made him lose the gun and sent him to one knee.
He looked up in puzzlement, instantly thinking that an opponent he had not seen up until now had taken him by surprise to help his accomplices. He was surprised to see a small boat on the river, just by the wooden pier, with a tall black man standing right in the middle, legs apart, and aiming a smoking handgun in his direction. The man was in a pale grey uniform, with a flat hat, and had a star-shaped badge pinned on his chest.
“Hold it right there!” he barked at Scarlet. “Don’t make a single move or I’ll shoot!”
Scarlet inwardly groaned; he had no trouble figuring what exactly the sheriff could be imagining, finding him there, a stranger, standing with a gun in his hands, a body at his feet, and apparently threatening five frightened teenagers. However far from reality it might be, Scarlet could understand very well that he actually looked like the bad guy of the scene.
The sound of an engine starting behind him caught Scarlet’s attention and he automatically turned to look – just in time to see the boy who had apparently fled earlier on his ORV, and pushing his machine in his direction at full speed.
It was instinct born out of desperation that made Scarlet react more quickly than he could think. But even with that, it wasn’t nearly fast enough for him to completely avoid the collision. When he jumped to the side, he already knew it was too late, and he felt the front of the vehicle brutally hitting him in the back. He knew pain, as his body arched under the impact, and the momentum flung him six good meters away from where he previously stood. He hit the ground hard and felt his right arm crack on landing; the pain was excruciating and he almost lost consciousness.
Dazed, he struggled to get back up, and suddenly, his head started thumping, just like it did before, and dots of light flashed in front of his eyes. There was a flash, and suddenly, through the pain, he saw a figure suddenly coming into view, standing over him.
It was a man, looking down at him without any emotion on his face, so pale it looked like the face of a dead man, with sunken eyes, and seemingly devoid of life…
Scarlet blinked his eyes and frowned. He knew that face. He knew that man, and yet, he didn’t know who he was.
The image disappeared into a new blinding flash, and the face of the unknown man was replaced by another, younger face, looking down at him with contempt.
Jasper. And the shotgun was back in his hands.
The last sight that Scarlet saw was the butt of the shotgun, just a fraction of a second before it was brutally brought down onto his face. The new pain was sharp, but mercifully brief, and then it turned to darkness, and total oblivion.
* * *
“Stop it right there!”
Sheriff Masters jumped from his boat onto the pier, and his foot nearly slipped down into the river as he started running up to reach the bank. Jasper Holland was standing over the stranger, whom he had just clubbed violently with the butt of the shotgun he was holding. It was the sheriff’s second shout that stopped the boy from hitting the man once again; however, the stranger wasn’t moving anymore, and Masters feared the worst.
The group of boys, now surrounding the spot where the stranger was lying, made way for the sheriff when he reached them. He leaned down to check on the man at their feet. He glared furiously up at them.
“Are you out of your mind?” he barked, addressing Jasper. “Why did you have to hit him like that? He was already down!” He turned to the young man who had used his ORV to ram into the stranger. “And what got into you, Scarecrow? I had the guy in my sights… He couldn’t possibly do any harm!”
The young man scowled at the use of his nickname, well-deserved because of his skinny, raggedy appearance. From his friends, he didn’t mind that much, especially from Jasper – he was too afraid of Jasper to object anyway. But coming from the sheriff, he found it particularly distasteful.
“I thought of helping you,” he said, in way of explanation. “This guy… this guy’s a killer!”
“You don’t know how dangerous this guy is, Sheriff,” Jasper added, nodding to his friend’s statement. “I swear, if you hadn’t arrived when you did –”
“I saw what he was doing,” Masters replied. He had to admit, the way the man had dealt with the five teenagers was impressive. He could certainly understand why the boys might have been fearful of him.
The sheriff checked the stranger’s pulse at the base of his neck; it was beating feebly. There was an ugly wound on his forehead where Jasper had hit him. Masters looked around, searching with his eyes, and found the body of Joe Benson, lying only a few feet away; his chest and belly were covered with blood.
“What happened here?” Masters frowned and looked up to Jasper again. The latter didn’t hesitate one second to answer:
“Joe’s dead,” he said, stating what did seem like the obvious to Masters.
“How did this happen? Do you know?”
Jasper nodded down at Scarlet at his feet. “This guy killed him.”
“Did he?” the sheriff asked, with a renewed frown. “You actually saw him?”
“Of course we did,” Scarecrow said quickly, before Jasper could answer. “We saw it – as surely as we see you.”
The others vigorously nodded their agreement.
“He was holding the shotgun directly at Joe’s belly when we arrived,” Jasper continued. “Shot him right in front of our eyes. We saw it.”
“Why did he shoot him?” Masters asked, narrowing his eyes.
Jasper shrugged. “Hell if we know. We don’t even know who this guy is.” He paused a second. “Do you know who he is, Sheriff?”
Masters didn’t answer. His eyes had fallen on the gun Jasper was still holding. The weapon of the crime. “That’s Joe’s gun,” he said, pointing to it.
“Yeah – he probably took it from Joe… and then shot him with it,” Jasper offered.
“You stupid kid – you’re putting your fingerprints all over it!” The sheriff leapt to his feet and snatched the shotgun from Jasper’s hands. He glared ominously into the youth’s face. “This is a single-shot weapon! You’re trying to tell me that this stranger was holding you all at gunpoint with an unloaded gun, after having killed Old Joe, is that right?”
“Hey, seeing how he tore into us, I don’t think he needed no gun,” one of the other boys replied.
“Johnny’s right,” Jasper added. “We didn’t stand a chance against him…”
“Shut up. Five against one? Seems you bullies found your match, didn’t ya? And what where you doing here?”
“We were just passing by,” Jasper answered coolly. “You know, just riding our machines… We thought of stopping to ask Joe for some fresh water. We had used all ours up and –”
“All right, save the rest for later.”
Sheriff Masters leaned once again over the stranger. He was thinking that, after the beating he just had, he would probably need to see a doctor, and very soon. Earlier, his pulse was weak, and his breathing shallow; whatever the man might have done, he deserved to be helped – if only to go on trial and eventually be convicted.
Somehow, however, Sheriff Masters had his doubts about the stranger’s culpability in Joe Benson’s death. There was something in what the youths were saying that didn’t seem to add up. He also knew that these boys weren’t friendly with Old Joe; there was some bad blood between them, although Masters wouldn’t be able to say what exactly it could be.
So maybe there was more to this story here than met the eye – and maybe the stranger knew what it was.
Masters checked the man’s pulse again; but this time, he could find none. He frowned, and put his hand on the man’s chest, and then checked for any breathing.
“Do you know who this guy is, Sheriff?” Jasper asked again. “We never saw him in these parts.”
“Your guess’s as good as mine,” Masters grumbled. “Joe contacted me earlier today to tell me he had found a wounded poacher in the bayou… He wanted to hand him over to me.”
“Must be this guy, then,” Scarecrow said quickly, catching the opportunity. “That’s why he killed Joe. He didn’t want to be handed over to you and… and he wanted to escape.”
“Yeah,” Jasper agreed. “That’s right… and Joe didn’t want him to go. And the guy killed him.”
“And then we arrived,” Johnny added in turn. “It all fits, Sheriff.”
Masters sighed heavily. It fitted all right. Almost too well.
He slowly got to his feet, looking down at the stranger. “Well,” he said, “whoever this man is – and whatever the reason he might have killed Joe for – we will never truly know.”
“What do you mean?” Jasper asked with a curious frown.