Slim stopped counting the days after the seventh sunset.
He'd been out in the open for what felt like forever and a half, and knew he'd likely be out there until the end of his life, especially with the luck he'd had tracking the girl, which was next to none.
When he'd started, the days were hot and dry, the nights cold and hard. Eventually, that gave way to a never ending damp chill as he made his way through a wide mountain pass. Some mornings he wanted to just stay on his back and roast (or freeze) to death where he lay. But the memory of Jess at the bottom of that ravine being dragged off to a fate worse than death spurred Slim on. He had to find Hope. He had to find her, and get the truth from her, even if he had to strangle it out of her with his bare hands.
He was running on instinct and rage, but instinct was next to useless with a three day start and absolutely no idea what a devil woman would do. Rage fueled him, kept him moving when a sensible man would have given up, but it blinded him, befuddled him, kept him from seeing straight.
Some small part of him knew he was pushing Dawn too hard, but Slim pressed on, and she carried him with little complaint. Even when he insisted on riding deep into the velvet night, and rising before the sun, she gathered the miles under her pounding hooves, and carried him only God knew where. He promised himself every night when he slid to the ground, exhausted and despondent, that he wouldn't treat her so rough. And every morning, he’d mounted with a grunt and a growl, and pushed on, looking for anything, anything at all.
The first thing he found was a hole in the ground, buried under the wet leaves and mossy ground cover, a hole just big enough for a good sized horse to slip a foot into, just deep enough to catch and hold her foreleg mid-stride. A nasty crack splintered the muffled predawn sounds of the forest, and time seemed to stop. Then all at once, Dawn screamed, Slim flew, and a dust cloud bloomed around them, while weapons and gear, man and beast scattered everywhere.
Slim's tumble was hard and violent, and he felt bones crack and slip and grind in strange, impossible places before he finally landed on his back, the wind throughly knocked from him. If he'd had the ability to scream, he'd have cursed the still dark sun, the long gone moon, the earth, the sky and everything between, with all the power of the four winds. But all he could do was pant shallowly and think hateful thoughts about how women, human or horse, were all alike.
Before he fully caught his breath, he heard a strangled sound up above his head, and immediately took back all his mean thoughts about Dawn. He tried to twist around, onto his belly, but moving one way shot white hot fire through his shoulder, and twisting the other way made the lower ribs grind together, and his vision swam even as Dawn's cries piercing cries of distress echoed through the pass.
Slim lay there and waited for the dizziness to pass. Slowly, the world settled again and he could clearly see the patches of purple sky that filtered through the evergreens. The air was cold, and the dirt under his back was colder still, damp with dew and a general lack of sunshine. Though he'd been to Colorado, to Texas, and even further south plenty of times before, he'd never done so in such a blind, furious hurry, and he'd never strayed so far from the main road. He'd thought cutting through the pass was wise, figuring a saddle tramp with a twenty thousand dollar payroll in her hot little hands wouldn't want to travel the public roads. But as he lay in the chilly mud and listened to his horse scream in pain, he wished he'd taken the better tended roads. He wished he'd stayed home and waited for Mort Cory to come back and do the job that pissant Torch hadn't bothered to do.
He wished he'd listened to Jess in the first damned place.
The memory of Jess on his back, broken and lost, spurred Slim to try getting up again. He put his weight on the left, the side with the busted ribs, and hollered as he forced himself into a seated position. His vision grayed out at the edges, but he stayed upright, mostly, and after a few gasping minutes was able to take in the scene around him.
His gear was everywhere. Absolutely everywhere. His bedroll was unfurled and tangled in a tree above his head. His rifle was standing straight up in the mud to his right, as if some soldier had come along and dug it right in, to prematurely mark the place where Slim Sherman fell for the last time. The food stuffs were still rolling along the side of the slight slope, and he reached out to catch a can skittering by on his right. The can rolled into his hand, and he cried out in angry, pained surprise when just the touch of the can sent a spasm through his upper arm. He snatched his hand back, no longer concerned with his disappearing food supplies, and tried wiggling his fingers. They moved, but the pain in his wrist was terrible. Not as terrible as the lower left side of his chest, or his right shoulder, but worse than anything else he'd failed so far to discover.
The next pain made itself known quickly as he tried to get his legs underneath himself. His left knee was twisted, and he went down hard on the right one, which jarred everything on that side - including, apparently, a twisted right ankle. "Okay, God. I know I'm not much of a praying man, but I really need a miracle right now."
The rifle fell over, its butt just within his reach. He stared at the rifle in amazement, and reached out with his sore hand. His wrist throbbed with the effort, but he got the weapon in hand, and used it like a staff, finally getting to his very shaky feet. He nearly vomited from the pain, but he stumbled over to a tree and rested against it, grateful to be on his feet. His father once told him that if a man could get to his feet and stay there, he could make it to the next minute, and days were just made of hundreds and hundreds of minutes, all strung together. They were words that had meant the world to him as a boy, but he'd dismissed them as foolish rhetoric when he'd marched to war and watched friends and comrades struggle to their feet to no avail. After the horror of bloody boys fighting for a split nation, Slim had about forgotten that bit of Matt Sherman's simplistic wisdom.
Why the hell am I thinking about this now?
He forced himself upright again, away from the support of the tree. He had to get to Dawn, to see just how bad off she was. She sounded something awful, but he found himself hoping that maybe she was just fussy because he'd been too pushy these last days, and the indignity on top of injury was too much to take. He might be able to get her moving again, slowly, until they found civilization. He ignored the fact that he hadn't seen another living soul in the last three days. He might still be able to help her. She might be alright.
Dawn was definitely not going to be alright. Though she'd managed to get her hind quarters up, there was absolutely, positively no way in hell she was going to get those front legs to hold her weight. Her left foreleg was bent back at a horrifying angle, below the knee, and Slim could see blood and bone. The right leg pushed hard at the ground, but it wobbled and buckled every time she started to get some lift. Her head thrashed from side to side, her eyes wild, her teeth bared.
Slim reached a hand out, though it made every nerve ending in his body cry out in agony. He splayed a hand on the mare's warm, soft muzzle, and she stopped thrashing. Her protests turned to whimpers, and he could feel her quaking with the effort to stay still.
"Oh, Dawn." Anguish and bitter regret crashed down on him, and he struggled to see his sweet, faithful horse through his blinding tears. "You're a good girl. Forgive me." When he withdrew his hand, she kept quiet, and Slim knew he couldn't make her wait. He let himself drop back down to his knees in the slippery mud, and got the best he could grip on his rifle. He pushed all thoughts of sadness and guilt away, and pulled the trigger.
The gun jerked in his hands, his wrist flared with new pain, and the shot went wild. Dawn whinnied, but kept still. Slim sobbed, a good, hard heave of the chest and gasp of air, but he tucked that damned gun against his shoulder and tried again, mad as hell and hurt for himself and his horse and his man. A squeeze of the trigger, and this time the big gray horse went down hard and silent. The rifle slipped from Slim's hands, forgotten. He stared at her and watched her beautiful dark eyes cloud over with something other. He wondered if this end to her suffering was something she'd had a chance to at least feel before the end. He wondered if that kind of thing was possible for beast, or for man. He wondered if Jess had suffered long.
Slim suffered a lifetime in those few seconds. He vowed to find that woman and make her suffer ten lifetimes before he was through.
"Hey!" A voice, not to distant, snapped him out of his dark spiraling thoughts, and into a very vulnerable present. His supplies were spread all over the damned mountain, the belt with the rifle shells was nowhere to be found, and his gun hand was next to useless after putting poor Dawn out of her misery. Until he'd determined whether he was dealing with friend or foe, he had to assume the worst, and for the moment, the worst meant that he was defenseless against attack. He kept quiet, straining to hear the snap of brush under an approaching foot, or the breath of a warm horse.
"Hey there! Show yourself!" The same voice was suddenly much closer, though Slim still couldn't make anyone out. The woods and the sloping mountainside brought on an eerily early twilight, and the still steaming body of his beautiful gray mare was mostly a large dark outline against a darker dark. If he couldn't see Dawn laid out in front of him, then he had no hope of seeing this stranger, whose aggression grew with each passing second. "I said show yourself!"
"Don't shoot!" Slim held his hands up, though he wasn't entirely sure he'd be seen in the darkness. Still, he had to try, had to do everything he could to stay safe. Otherwise, Dawn's death, and Jess's too, was meaningless. "Please… I need help."