The pounding of Dawn's hooves matched the pounding beat of Slim Sherman's heart. I'm too old for this. The thought was half hearted - he wasn't old, not just yet. But the days of hard riding and wild living were long gone. Times had changed. The frontier had pushed further west, and Laramie was supposed to have law and order on its side. He'd grown soft and comfortable, happy to split his life with Jess, fifty-fifty, all the way down the line. There wasn't supposed to be any more of this chest squeezing, palm sweating, bone jarring chasing. They were supposed to be preparing for old age.
Please let me be wrong, please let me be wrong... The tracks seemed to stretch on forever. Let me be right, let me be right. There was no sign of a rider, save the fresh tracks in the supple spring earth. Please, please, please... The sun was high overhead, and it beat down on Slim's back. He should have taken his vest. The old cotton shirt he wore was threadbare, not fit for hard riding. It was a shirt for the days he had chow duty, a shirt to keep decent in and no more. The kind of shirt that kept a man from getting too sweaty over a stove, that let him greet hungry stagecoach passengers without too much fuss. It wasn't a shirt to go chasing after a crazed man with a thorn in his side and his trusted sawed off six shooter in his hand.
Why, Jess, why?
Slim knew why. In his younger days, right after the war, he might have done the same reckless, foolish thing himself. But that was before he had the weight of the world on his shoulders, a brother to protect, and then an orphan boy, and then, finally, this life he'd carved out of the Wyoming wild. And really, that life was why he was riding his beautiful gray mare down to the ground, why sweat and dirt ran in his eyes and clung to his skin, why his breath came in harsh papery rasps. This last act of wild insanity was his last bid at protecting the only thing left that mattered - bring Jess back safe. Hang the savings. Hang the bank's transfer. Hang the damned thieving girl, if that's really what she was. Hang it all, just get Jess back safe and sound.
The thought of Jess whole and warm in his arms was less a distraction than it was a beacon of hope. Better to think of him sleepy eyed and rosy cheeked, his hair sticking to moist skin as he snuffled deep in the covers, than to think even of the steel jawed, ball fisted man who'd stalked off to change the teams just before lunch.
"I don't like it, Slim. If that girl's so hurt she ain't got no business on a ranch with a couple of old cowboys."
"She's got nowhere to go, Jess - no one knows her, and she doesn't remember anything. We can't just toss her to the folks in town and expect them to care for her, not if we're the ones who found her."
"And why not? There's a doctor in town, and more important, the law! It's better for her and us!"
"Just how's she gonna pay for a room in town, Jess? Especially since there's plenty of room here with Mike g-"
"The lady should be in town - hell, I'll pay the hotel bill, if that's what it'll take-"
"We're not turning Hope out, and that's final!"
"...sure, Slim. Your sayin' somethin's final makes it so. That's always worked in the past."
"I need to cool off. And you've got some anger to work off. Change the teams yourself."
"Fine. Somebody oughta keep an eye on the girl anyway."
Jess had been right. Someone should have been watching Hope. If Slim had just humored Jess and kept his eye on her, she might not have disappeared, and Jess might not have gotten a burr in his saddle, and Slim might not be-
The sound of distant gunfire snapped Slim from his thoughts. Lord, no. He pulled up short, nearly as agitated as the horse, and forced himself to silent calm. He laid a soothing hand on her neck, and together they listened, as shots blasted through the brush.
Straight ahead. The sound was coming from straight ahead, through the brambles and the brush, along the same path that someone in an awful hurry had cut through not more than an hour past. "No..." Slim didn't know what he prayed for, but he prayed hard, and eased Dawn forward. The answers, good or bad, lay ahead.
The mare shied a bit, and Slim stopped her again. The shots had stopped, and the air seemed unpleasantly still. "It's okay, Dawn. It's alright." he said. It felt like a lie, and he hated lying to a horse - they were so much smarter than men, sometimes, and he had no doubt they always knew when their men were trying to tug their blinders too tight. But Slim made himself stay calm - as far as Dawn went, it was okay, or it would be, so long as she didn't throw him and leave him afoot. She settled down, though he could feel through his legs her reluctance to ease up. He clucked her forward, and kept tight hold of the reins and his thoughts. No more trips down memory lane. Follow the path, and then get back home.
But a plan like that only works when the answers are neat and tidy, and don't raise more questions as they come along. Slim's hopes for simple answers and a quick return died as they approached the edge of the woods. A handsome black stallion came rushing towards them, rampant and wild, and barely hanging onto a saddle that thwacked his rump with every loping step he took. The stallion nearly bowled them over, and the mare reared up herself. Time seemed to slow as the horses danced fearfully around each other, but the sinking feeling in Slim's gut wasn't for himself - it was for the blood on the black stallion's saddle, a saddle Slim knew as well as he knew the stallion itself.
Finally, Dawn shied back and the stallion returned to its hellbent path. Slim made no effort to turn and give chase. The horse knew the way home, and would be waiting for him when he returned. The new question was, would Slim be able to bring the horse's faithful rider back home with him, and what condition would Jess be in if he did.
Another shot ricocheted through the air - a single shot, one that carried the particular whistle of Jess' pearl handled sawed down six-shooter. The silence that followed was like a heavy leather cloak, stifling and hot. Slim held his breath, trying to hear something, anything, to tell him that Jess was alright and that the fight was over. Instead, the distinctive whistle of Jess' gun ripped through the air again, twice this time, threatening the last of Slim's peace of mind.
He gritted his teeth and swallowed the bile rising in his throat. This was not the time to lose composure. Things had come to a head out in that wild, unfamiliar country, and his partner, his heart, was out there alone, at the end of gunfight. Worst of all, there was no telling from where Slim sat which end of that fight he'd find Jess, save for the blood smeared in his saddle. Slim returned to the tracks, afraid of what he might find, but compelled to find it anyway.
The surrounding woods soon gave way to open meadow, which quickly turned first sandy, then dry and rocky. As the soft soil hardened under the mare's hooves, the trail disappeared almost entirely. Slim was left with a wide, brown vista that spread out in front of him like the sky. He'd never seen the ocean, but he'd read about it, plenty, and Andy had once sent word all the way from New York, telling him that yes, the ocean was everything all those writers said, and more. Andy had likened it unto the predawn sky, out in the open range, vast and dark and surprising, and too big to hold in the mind or the eye. When Slim asked how that was different from the range itself, or maybe a daytime sky, Andy's cryptic response was, "But you can see the end of the sky. It ends at the ground. And you can see the end of the range. It ends at the sky. The ocean doesn't ever end. Even when it touches the sky, it doesn't end." The answer made no sense, and Jess had decided that Andy must have been drunk when he'd written that slop.
But out here, in this particular open field, in a place unfamiliar to Slim, with his whole world at stake, he began to understand maybe just what Andy meant. The range was something known, something they'd dealt with all their lives. It was a living, breathing thing, and it was more often kind to the Shermans than it was deadly. The ocean, though, that was something else. It could pull a man down and take him from this life in an instant, if the stories were to be believed. It was too big to fight, too big to tame, too big to do anything but pray for mercy.
Mercy, mercy, mercy...
The view didn't stretch on entirely unbroken. There was the treeline behind him, which held the cool moist trails that lead to the safety of home. There were the mountain ranges in the distance, ranges that, though unfamiliar to Slim, were just distinctive enough that he knew he'd be able to make his way back, should he pass through this yawning space in the world. He'd be fine navigating his way back home. How he'd push on, with no more hoof prints to follow, was another matter.
Slim turned and looked at the treeline once more. They'd come out of the wood, thundering hooves, and made it out here somewhere before the shooting began. There were no splintered branches, no bullet holes or ricochet marks to be seen on the path, no blood anywhere. Not anywhere except the blood on Jess' saddle.
Panic surged through Slim, urgency renewed. No time to think. They'd come barreling out of the wood, full speed ahead alright, and now somewhere up there, Jess might hurt, maybe dying. Slim returned to the woods, retraced the path a few steps, and then spurred Dawn forward, into the great wide open. He had to trust that whatever force it was that brought Jess to his back door all those years ago would reunite them once more.
Though it took several minutes of hard riding, Slim's faith was rewarded - though not in the way he'd wanted. The dry, hard rock might not show a horse's heavy step, but it showed blood, clear as day. Slim dropped down from Dawn to swipe a finger through some of the drops. Mostly dry, but enough moisture to smear the larger bits. Fresh, then. Probably the shots he'd heard. Most likely Jess's blood, though there was nothing to say Hope hadn't gotten it too. Slim wasn't sure which he'd have preferred, but the memory of the blood on Jess' saddle sent a shiver down Slim's sunbaked back.
He stood back and looked at the blood splattered over the ground. Some of the drops were perfect drippings, undisturbed, while others showed clear signs of a struggle. Slim followed the drips to a larger pool of blood. There was a bloody hand print next to it, a large one. Not Hope's hand. Almost certainly Jess', probably trying to get to his feet after whatever it was that put that blood on his saddle and knocked him off his horse.
Where was he?
Slim walked a wide circle, taking in the lay of the land. They could be anywhere by now, depending on what happened to the other horse, how Jess managed to get pulled from his, and whether or not he'd gotten the damn girl to stop. "Damn it." Slim should have kept his eye on the girl. He should have put her to work in the damned kitchen, and helped Jess change the horses. He should have gone half with Jess to put the girl up in town.
Hell, maybe he should have left her where he'd found her sprawled out on the damn range. Maybe he and Jess would be sitting down together to dinner by now. But what was it that Jonesy often said (and Jess would picked the damnedest times to remember)? No good deed goes unpunished?
Slim paused just before completing his circle. The treeline that marked the wooded area between where ever the hell he was and home was far from where he stood, too far to walk comfortably in good condition in this heat, much less with a leaking bullet hole. But due west, where the sun was already beginning to slope too low in the sky to keep up the search much longer, there was a crisp edge to the land just a little ways over - the plain looked to have a drop off, some kind of cliff, maybe. And a smattering of blood seemed to trail off towards that imagined edge.
Fear and cautious hope warred for space in Slim's heart as he mounted up and followed the intermittent blood drops. They were so few, Slim wanted to believe that maybe he'd find Jess alive at the end of them. But what if there were so few because there was no blood flowing? Slim shook himself of that - there was no body anywhere out in the open range. Jess made it somewhere, somehow, under his own power. There was no one else out here, and there was simply no way another rider could have shown up to offer aid without Slim noticing. The answer had to be at the cliff line.
As he drew closer, Slim realized that the sharp edge he'd thought he'd seen wasn't exactly so. The edge dropped off at a steep angle, but the drop wasn't so far that a man couldn't make it down in one piece. There was short, scrubby brush poking out of the side of the glorified hillside, and a few scrawny trees that poked out of the smaller bushes. Through the skeletal brambles Slim could just make out the sparkle of a running stream. If Jess made it this far, and lived, he might not die of thirst.
The thought was a cold comfort to Slim - the sun was setting quickly, too quickly, and he still hadn't found any sign of Jess beyond that bloodied hand print. He'd have to give up the search soon. The evening stage would be through soon, and the teams would need changing. The drivers would probably want a meal, and that assumed there weren't any passengers to host as well. The stove was cold, the regular ranching chores were abandoned, the horses still needed to be put to pasture for the night... it was an awful lot of work for two men who were accustomed to carrying the load. Alone, Slim was going to have a hard time. Damn.
He couldn't tell which way the river flowed, but it ran perpendicular to the treeline that marked the prairie, parallel to the trail back home. He could stretch the search out just a little longer if he stayed by the cliff's edge, and followed along towards the woods, before the facing got too high, too dangerous to search along. It felt better than just turning tail and running back home to do a bunch of chores he wouldn't have the heart or stomach for anyway. Besides, he could hear dogs yipping somewhere nearby. He didn't want to leave an injured and helpless Jess at the mercy of some wolf pack after sundown.
Slim was nearly to the end of the walkable edge when he saw them: blood droplets. A winding little trail of them, snaking along as if there were boulders and trees to maneuver around on the way from the bloody fight. Slim shuddered and tried not to be discouraged by Jess' apparent inability to walk a straight line in a open plain. Instead he turned his attention to the cliff's edge, trying to find a sign of Jess' erratic path. The brush remained untouched at the cliff's edge. The blood trail ended without rhyme or reason, save a fine mist left behind on a handful of otherwise unmolested brambles. It didn't make sense, for a man to simply up and disappear - no, wait! A few feet down slope stood the remains of a broken sapling, a reedy thing that looked like it might have snapped under the pressure of a light breeze or a sneeze. Alone, it was insignificant, just more kindling for this arid hillside too high to benefit from the stream below. But the path of crushed bush that continued down the hillside, that was too much to ignore.
And then he saw it. The arms and legs all spread out, like he was set to make a snow angel in the mud. His face was obscured by one of the four hounds that nosed at the splayed out figure, but Slim didn't need to see his face. He recognized the beautiful rust red cowhide chaps, an exorbitantly expensive Christmas gift from Mike, and the old black gloves, the same gloves he'd been wearing when Slim happened upon him by the stream in his back forty. And now here he was, flat on his back, at the edge of a little running creek.
But the blood on his shirt, the blood that was dripping into the soft earth told Slim that Jess Harper wasn't gonna be riding on from this one.
Slim slid down from his mount and walked numbly to the edge of the precipice. The slope wasn't vertical, but it was too steep to get down there safely on his own. And once down there, what next? Jess wasn't a small man, and his deadweight was hard to drag on level ground. Getting him up a half mushy, half powder slope like this one would be next to impossible, and that was without the added puzzle of the dogs. Dogs that sniffed and prodded and yipped noisily at Jess, who lay there, silent and still. Too still. A dry croak scratched it's way out of Slim's mouth, and he choked on it, and tried again. "Jess?" The noise was no louder, and his chest was squeezed so tight he didn't think he could get breath enough to try again. But he did. "Jess!"
The dogs snapped to attention at Slim's cry, and immediately began to snarl and bark at him. He backed away from the edge, partly in fear for himself and his horse, but mostly afraid of what a pack of angry hounds would do to Jess's - to Jess. He needed to get down there, he needed to get Jess up the slope, needed to get him home, where he belonged, where he'd always belonged -
Just the two of them. It was supposed to be the two of them at last, until their days ran out.
The ache in his chest was blinding, and Slim went to his knees, hard. Too soon, too soon! He crawled slowly, on shaking hands and knees, back to the edge, and felt the last of his breath die in his throat at the sight. Two of the dogs had hold of Jess by the chaps and gunbelt, and they were dragging him along the stream's shore. A couple more dogs seemed to be herding them along, yipping and jumping away, then running back, a dizzying dance of encouragement. And one lone dog stood watch in the place where Jess must have landed, a place marked with his lifeblood. The sentinel dog growled low at Slim, who watched the slow progress the rest of the pack made with their prize. His lost angel.
His limbs gave way, and he collapsed. Despair was a slow poison that robbed him of his sight, his movement, his mind. All he could think of was the last thing Jess ever said to him. Someone ought to keep an eye on the girl anyway. Not See you tonight, or Keep the light on, or Okay, Pard.
Not I love you.
Someone should have kept an eye on the girl.
A soft, warm breath broke through Slim's desolation. Dawn whinnied gently and mouthed his cheek, like a sad mother. Get up now, Slim, she seemed to say. Time to go home now. The children need tending. A shaky sob rattled from his chest, just the one, and then he got stiffly to his feet. He felt like he'd aged a hundred years down there on the ground, and maybe he had. "Okay, girl," he said to the horse's warm, velvety muzzle. "We'll go now now." She was patient while he worked his way up the saddle, a task that had never seemed so impossible to him even as a small boy. But his long legs seemed too heavy to lift, his body too tired and achy to heft up into the saddle. She was a good horse, though, steady and patient, and seemed to understand that Slim needed more help than the whole territory probably had in it to give, and so she waited until he was settled before automatically turning away from the awful place that took her master to his knees and beyond, before automatically returning to her home.