Even in the dark, without the protection of the shotgun in his gnarled little hands, Slim thought his silver-haired mountainside aggressor might be about as threatening as a little raccoon cub. The memory of Andy bringing in one of those little tiny balls of striped fluff to eat them out of house and home threatened to bring a smile to Slim's face. But the snout nosed shotgun in the old man's hands kept Slim's face perfectly neutral. Only later, in the light of a fire, would Slim be able to see that the damn thing had never been loaded.
The old man got close - too close. If Slim was really bent on doing the old man harm, he'd have been able to snatch the gun from his hands. The old man said in a voice that was even less threatening than his cuddly exterior, "Just what are you doin' on my mountain, boy?"
Slim gestured towards Dawn's still steaming body. "Had an accident. Had to shoot my horse."
The man grunted. "This is private property."
"Well like I said, I had an-"
The man ratcheted the shotgun. "Like I said, this land is private. Trespassers will be shot on sight. N' you're trespasin'."
"I never saw any signs! Believe me, friend, I wouldn't have cut through your land if I'd known this was private property," Slim said, trying his best to be reasonable.
"You ain't seen no signs because you ain't been on no proper road. If'n you hada been, you'da seen the signs clear as day." He got so close, Slim could smell the cold metal of the shotgun wavering in his face. Old fool. All Slim had to do was fall one way and push the other, and he could get the thing away from the stupid old codger… "You saddle tramps is all alike. You ain't squattin' on my land, and you ain't hidin' no ill got goods in my trees! And you ain't walkin outta here without a belly full 'a buckshot!"
"That's it? You're just gonna shoot me," Slim cried. "Why even ask-"
"Because I wanted to see if you had any imaginations, that's why."
Slim grunted irritable and began to shift, but then he heard another gun cock behind him. "Stay still, friend," a second, deadlier voice said softly.
Slim went still. A part of him wondered what it would feel like to die on this cold mountain. He wondered if Jess would meet him when he crossed the veil, or if he'd have to search through angels or spirits or stars, or if there would simply be nothing at all. It was tempting, all of it, any of it. To be with Jess again for all time, to have the hope of finding him again… to not feel the ache of a Jess-shaped hole in his heart and his life.
But to give in that way, to simply lay down and die in the middle of nowhere… That would be the height of cowardice. He owed it to Jess to fight to the end, to make the people of Laramie understand that Jess Harper was exactly the man they'd grown to believe he was. He owed it to Andy and his pretty new wife and unborn children to be able to return and say for certain, Sherman is a name to bear with pride. He owed it to Mike to never give up, even if it took years - or even if it all ended suddenly, like it must have for Jess. He called out, to the man with the drop on him, "Why should I hold still? He's gonna shoot me anyway. Right?"
"He will if you give him a reason to." The voice was closer, and Slim could hear the sound of mud squelching with each approaching step. "For now, I want to know what you're running from."
"Not from," Slim said. "To."
"Go on," the voice from behind said. He sounded like he was right behind Slim. "On your feet. Keep talking."
Slim sagged a little. "Mister, I can't. I couldn't even stay on my feet to shoot my poor horse."
"Then you'll have to crawl."
"Can't do that either. My wrist is busted. Won't hold my weight."
"He might be tellin' the truth on that one, Chris," the old man said. "That glove looks like it wants to start bustin' at the seams. Bet he's gonna have a club hand by mornin'."
There was a grunt from behind, and then this Chris person said, "Well, it's your mountain, Emmet. Your call."
The old man hesitated, but he looked at Slim with the meanest look he could manage - which was about as mean as a sad kitten - and asked, "Why was you ridin' through-"
Chris cut him off. "We haven't got time for that, Emmet. We've been gone too long as it is. We need to get back - and we need to get him out of here, one way or the other. Just choose."
"Well, I'm tryin' to, Chris, but I dunno what to do with ';em! That's why I was askin' him his business."
"If you're curious about him, that means you don't want to kill him." There was a long pause. "At least, not yet."
"Sure enough," Emmet said. "So what now?"
"We could take him back..."
Emmet nodded, and Slim started to remind them that he wasn't any more capable of getting to his feet than he had been five minutes ago. But a strong hand hooked under his right arm and tried to haul him to his feet. Slim cried out, his whole body protesting the rough treatment. Rather than move up, he sagged to one side and whimpered. Again, death began to look attractive.
"I reckon he wern't foolin', Chris. I know it's dark, but a blind man in a black room can see his color ain't right."
Slim forced himself upright, to face the old man and his damnable shotgun. "No, I wasn't fooling. But... I can make it, if someone gets under the good arm, and if I can lean-"
Before Slim could finish thinking out loud about the best way to get on on his feet, a far more gentle arm slipped around his waist. "Now take my arm," the younger man said. With some more maneuvering, a bit of swearing, and a great deal of trial and error, they managed to get Slim up and moving along the side of the mountain, in the direction the old man had appeared from.
They came to what Slim thought looked like a glorified lean-to built right into the side of the mountain. It was weatherbeaten, and looked like it had been painted exactly once, about a hundred years ago, and then only for weatherproofing, not looks. The whole structure looked like it might collapse into the mountain if anyone so much as breathed in its direction. But there was a little wisp of smoke billowing up from a pipe set in the front awning, and the smell of roasting meat floated out on the evening breeze.
The men lowered Slim gingerly onto an old wicker bench on the porch. He winced first as he went down, and again as the creak of the old and dry woven straw threatened to give under his weight. Neither of his escorts seemed concerned with the seat's stability, and left him to figure out how to best hold up his own weight. The younger one took the weapons inside, while the older one stood over Slim. "Get yourself outta those boots," he said. "Matter fact, get all that stuff off. Don't need you trackin' all that crud in here. And keep quiet."
Slim struggled out of his bloody, muddy clothes, yelping once when the old man tried to rush things by pulling too hard on the wrong foot. Once he'd convinced the old man to let him be, Slim eventually was out of his ruined clothing, and given a pair of ill-fitting long johns to pull on. The legs kept rolling up to his knees, and the arms were stuck just past the elbows, as both men were much shorter than Slim. But he didn't complain - he didn't much relish being all busted up in hostile territory, but he liked it even less for the several painful minutes he was stark naked on the dark side of a cold mountain.
After he'd had a chance to catch his breath, Slim poked his head in the shack's open door. "Hello?"
"Thought I told you to keep quiet," the old man said.
"Emmet," the other man said. Then to Slim, "Come, sit by the fire so I can get a look at what all we're dealing with."
"Don't you ';Emmet' me, Christopher - you go invitin' some strange man into my home, I'm already runnin' a charity hospital in here..."
Slim chuckled quietly at the little old man's grumblings and began to gingerly pick his way into the room - but he stopped cold at the sight on the couch. A dark haired girl, dressed in rags, tossed and turned on the couch. Her face was pink and shiny with sweat, and her breaths came in sharp, ragged little pants.
The rags she wore were different, but the face, the hair, even the delirium - they were all the same.