Finding Hope
Chapter 7 - Face to Face

Emmet was too busy tending to the girl and her supposed fever to take in the look on Slim's face. But Chris, the younger one - who, in the light of the fireplace, wasn't so young after all, but looked to be maybe a couple years or so older than Slim - was looking right at Slim. The thunderous look on Chris' face spelled trouble.

Poor fools.

Chris' face was full of calculation and mistrust. Slim couldn't blame him - when he and Jess had first come across the bitch they'd foolishly called Hope, Slim would have attacked any and every suspicious tumbleweed to blow onto his front porch. He shuddered to think of what might have been - he'd killed before when he'd thought he'd had the right, and he'd certainly do it again if need be. Had things turned out differently, Slim could have easily killed a man coming to get whatever was rightly his that this thieving woman took with her feminine wiles. And now, the tables were turned, and Slim was looking at a man whose eyes burned with the same fierce protectiveness he once held. This Chris person could be deadly if Slim misstepped.

Slim hobbled further into the room, gasping with each step. When he reached the fire, he was sweating and shaking and didn't give a damn about the girl on the couch. Chris was crouched on the hearth, and had a pile of clean rags and a bottle of gin at his feet. "Take off the top," he said gruffly. "Let me wrap your ribs."

Slim did as he was told, struggling to free himself from the top half of the underwear. He didn't relish the idea of letting this angry man get too close to his busted up body, but he needed the help putting himself back together. He wondered if he could distract Chris with stupid, simple questions. "Pretty girl," he said, testing the waters. When Chris didn't immediately try to wrestle him to the ground, he decided to wade out a little further. "That his daughter or something?"

Chris gave him a look that said you know perfectly well she isn't, but all he said was "I found her." He began the wrapping, and didn't pay any attention to Slim's exclamation of pain.

"Oh," Slim wheezed. "What - hng! -what's wrong with her?"

Chris took hold of Slim's bad wrist, started manipulating his fingers. He smirked slightly at Slim's yelps of pain. "Don't know. She's not talking. Obviously." He poured a shot of gin, and thrust it at Slim. "Drink up. Quick, now."

By the time the man was done bandaging Slim up, he'd drunk nearly half the bottle, and was still feeling every sprain, strain, tear and break. He was sprawled out against the hot brick wall, almost too drunk to keep himself from falling right into the flames. He suspected that might have been Chris' plan, but he had no intention of passing out in a burning fireplace. Instead, he struggled to keep up with the conversation taking place across the room, hoping to get a better sense of who or what he was dealing with.

"I don't know, Chris. I seen the horse. Her leg was surely broke, stuck up in some gopher hole or some such."

"It's just too much of a coincidence, Emmet. We have to get him out of here, and away from the girl."

"Just on account he asked who she was?"

"Because he recognized her."

"Chris, now you're just being ridiculous."

"I was watching him when he came in. I saw his face. He's seen her before."

"And so what if he did?"

A pause in the shuffling, snuffling noises from the couch made Slim tear his attention away from the uncomfortable situation unfolding across the room, to find an even more uncomfortable situation fully formed right before his eyes. Though her face was still flushed and damp, she was perfectly still, and perfectly aware. Hope looked at Slim with big, green eyes that opened wide like saucers.

He tried to get to his feet, to see if he could get close enough to the girl to ask her about the money, but his aching body had other ideas. He knew his pain was obvious to anyone watching him, because the girl sank down into her pillows, and gave him the tiniest little smirk.

He groaned, frustrated to be so close to the mark, and to know that if she took off, there was absolutely nothing he could do about it. He scowled at her, and watched her casually pinch at her cheeks without a care in the world. The bitch. She'd been faking all along. Hell, she'd probably recognized his voice as soon as he'd come in the room, asking fool questions. Was she his daughter. Just plain stupid.

The sound of his moans stopped the men's conversation, and they hustled back to the hearth. Chris was on top of him almost instantly, and looked as if he wanted to ask what in hell he was up to. It was Slim's turn to smirk, though. He'd seen them coming, but he supposed all his grunting had masked the sound of their return, because Little Miss Know It All looked quite shocked to be staring that little old fuzzy man right in the face, her hands still at her cheeks.

But instead of questioning the girl he'd caught red handed, the old man turned to Chris with delight, and said, "She's awake, Christopher, she's awake!"

Chris forgot all about Slim and went right to the girl's side. "Can you speak? How do you feel?" He touched her hands. "She's still warm, but less so. Fever must have finally broken. Can you tell us what happened?"

The men were perched on an invisible precipice, waiting for her to break her precious silence. Slim was too, in a way. His heart was in his throat. She was going to tell them she was fine, she was going to pretend not to have ever seen him in her life, she was going to ask to buy a horse, and she was going to disappear again, and there wouldn't be a damned thing he could do to stop her. He'd found her, he'd found her, dammit, and he'd still failed.

Chapter 6
Chapter 8

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