Finding Hope
Chapter 9 - Waiting Game

The bitch had nerves of steel.

Hope could have been the toast of Paris, what with all the acting she was doing. From the moment Emmet and Chris discovered her miraculous 'recovery', she'd shifted into a high falutin' version of the same stunt she'd pulled on Slim and Jess.

For the first couple of weeks after 'waking', she didn't move from her place on the couch, not even to relieve herself. Chris assisted her with tender, quiet efficiency, while Emmet turned away in embarrassment. (Slim refused to look away. The woman had no shame, and even if she had, he'd tended to her the same way the first few hours after she'd taken residence on his own couch. It was nothing he hadn't seen already.)

She coughed a lot - not a whooping hack or even a wheeze, but little insipid dainty puffs of air, over and over. The sound irritated Slim whenever he was set up by the hearth, which was most of the time. But it seemed to ignite a blaze of worry and fear in her caretakers, who would come running whenever she started, even if one of them was already by her side.

There had been no doubt that the men were her caretakers, too - not Slim's. The old man gave him a walking stick when the sudden appearance of cold weather made it too hard for Slim to get around on his own, but that was the most acknowledgment of his injuries. Chris sometimes made comments to Emmet about thinking Slim was a put on. Slim might have punched his lights out, except he wasn't putting anyone on, and he could barely get himself out to the porch for his own dose of sun.

Hope would pantomime for sips of water or broth, and pant heavily after the supreme effort of moving her limbs about. Slim watched in disgust as the men cradled her head and cooed over her, the poor frail little bird. It never seemed to occur to the two fools that she might not look so frail if she'd eat something besides hot chicken water. But they were probably too busy worrying about whether or not she was going to ever recover. After all, she'd had a bad fall, and had (according to Chris' eventual descriptions of how he'd found the girl) likely been out on the mountain side all night, and who knew what else had happened to her? This sentiment was often punctuated by a dirty look from Chris.

Slim ignored it. He had to, if he was to keep his mouth shut all while they begged her to try to remember who'd attacked her on the road. He'd done all that, too, though he liked to think he had a bit more dignity about the whole thing - after all, he wasn't so susceptible to a woman's charms, not with the kind of charm Jess... well, at any rate, the girl had only been of interest to him as a human being who possibly needed a helping hand. She wasn't a delicate little waif to nurse back to health in the hopes of wedding and bedding her, as Chris clearly wanted, or to become the strapping young (grand)daughter Emmet likely never had. Slim had simply meant to let the girl rest up, and send her on her way with well wishes.

He still wanted that, in a way. He wished her straight to Hell, and he was going to make sure he was present for the send-off.

That meant taking a page from Hope's book - he kept quiet about his own injuries, and the degree to which he was healing. He knew that as soon as he was well enough to walk off that mountain, he'd be sent packing. He was determined not to go unless it was in the little lady's company, and if he succeeded, he hoped sincerely to make it a secret when they left together. The last thing he needed was Emmet following them down, empty shotgun in hand. Or worse yet, that knight in shining velvet and leather, come to rescue the bitch from the mean, mean man with the busted ribs.

Slim knew his hatred of Chris was irrational - the fool was a victim, just as he'd been. But Chris was the girl's gatekeeper, and that made Chris the enemy. Emmet, on the other hand, was simply a busybody ignorant little old man who'd been stuck up on the mountainside too long. Slim could spare a moment of pity for him - about a moment a day, it seemed. The pity usually came after watching Emmet try to cheer the girl up with a story, or offer her some of his awful stony biscuits to gnaw on. She was sweet and polite to the old man, the way she had been with the stage line drivers (because she'd been trying to learn their routines, Slim realized), but she always swept him out of focus whenever Chris came in the room. In fact, she swept everything out of focus whenever Chris came about, and seemed to pine for him like a child weeping for her lost daddy, or maybe a jilted lover. And Chris, of course, took it as his due.

Slim thought it was just her youth that made her gravitate towards Chris. After all, he was still young enough to do the kind of heavy lifting a young woman needs done right after childbirth. But then, when Chris was tending the fire and not paying any mind to the dozing brute on the hearth, Slim noticed the watch Chris kept in his vest, and he knew that Hope had to have seen it while he was tending to her every aching need.

Before long, Slim found his suspicions confirmed. The girl had her hands all over Chris, even while pretending to be oh-so-very weak. But Slim could see what she was doing - she was feeling the fine velvet shirt, the stitching on his new leather vest, the weight of the gold chain he wore around his neck. She'd pegged him for a man with far more wealth than the old buzzard had on display, and she was trying to figure out how to get her hands on it.

And then she'd begun asking Chris if he'd help her find her way home.

Slim could feel the end approaching, and he wasn't ready for a long, hard chase. He tried not to panic, tried to just keep quiet watch, and hope and pray that Chris' obvious protectiveness extended to making her wait until he was satisfied with her recuperation.

The men, clueless as they were, didn't see Slim's panic. (Or maybe they were shrewder than Slim gave them credit for, and never let him see they noticed his discomfort about the girl.) Hope, on the other hand, made it clear that she knew exactly what he was thinking. One rare morning when Chris was out hunting for one half of breakfast, while Emmet was milking the other, the girl raised herself up on her elbows and sneered right at Slim.

"Hello, Slim," she said in a quiet, serpentine voice.

He kept his face perfectly neutral, and, though it burned him through and through, held his tongue.

"Did it hurt?" She nodded in the direction of his borrowed staff. "Your fall?"

He closed his eyes, and gingerly touched the cloth that kept his ribs bound tight together.

"Lucky for us, we found these nice men to take us in. Charity is such a beautiful thing, isn't it?"

Slim almost asked her what she wanted from him, almost asked her where she'd taken his money, almost asked her why she had to kill a man when she could have had anything she wanted just by asking. But he didn't trust himself to stay quiet, and if the men came tearing in here to rescue her from his rage, he'd never get another chance at his answers. So he bit the inside of his cheek until he could taste blood, and stared dully at a point above her head. She let him burn for a few hours, and then the next time they were alone, she started in on him again. And so it went, for a few days.

Just when Slim thought he'd reached his breaking point, and would surely smash the girl's head against the stone hearth if she said one more insipid thing, Chris demanded Slim get to his feet. "You're well enough to stay outside now, friend." The way Chris said 'friend' sounded like the bitterest curse ever to pass a man's lips. "C'mon. You can bed down in the storage shed until you're able to ride."

Slim frowned - why the sudden animosity? "Do I have to?"

"Yes," Chris said crisply.

Slim looked around the room quickly, desperate for any excuse to stay. His eyes landed on the staff propped against the mantle, and he blurted, "Can I build a fire in there?"

"Don't be ridiculous boy," Emmet said, coming to his other side. "Course you can't build a fire in a storage shed. Now come on, let's get you up."

"But, why?"

Chris smiled humorlessly. "Because she still can't tell us what happened to her out there, but she's afraid of everything - she's afraid to be left alone. And because I've seen you watching her when you think no one is looking."

Slim tried to ignore the panic fluttering in his gut and the pain flaring through his heaving chest. "I've just been staring into space. I'm bored here. I'm used to doing a lot of work, seeing some faces pass through my land on their journeys, having a family to entertain me. And I'd stare somewhere else, but this seat here is the best place for my aches and pains, and my eyes just naturally fall on the young lady. But I'm not watching her."

"You ought to be getting better by now," Emmet said. "Well enough to get off your roost here by the fire."

"Oh, he's fine - he's just trying to keep an eye on the girl," Chris said, and made a grab for Slim's bad arm. Slim yelped and swore, but Chris kept trying to haul him up.

"Chris!" Hope's shrill voice cut through the fight, and Chris practically dropped Slim to run to her side. "Chris, no," she said breathlessly. "Don't."

Slim glared at her suspiciously while he cradled his aggravated arm. What the hell was she playing at now?

"But he doesn't need to stay here, darling," Chris was saying, as if the girl was his true betrothed.

"Oh, Chris. I'd feel so guilty, sending that poor man out into the cold that way, away from the warm fire, when I'm here on this couch. Bad enough he spends all his time on the floor there while I'm up here. Don't send him out there, Chris. I - I just couldn't bear it!"

Emmet looked confused. Chris looked back with an equally bewildered look on his face. But no one was as confused as Slim. Why on earth would she help him stay where he could spy on her?

"What do you think, Emmet?" Chris asked. " It's your place."

Slim looked at Emmet, and rubbed at his shoulder, hoping to get the old man to feel sorry for him. "Well... since the lady don't mind... I suppose I don't feel right about sending him away from the fire neither," Emmet said finally.

Chris sighed and nodded. He fixed Slim with a look. "Alright. But if she gives the slightest hint she has reason to regret her charity, I'll make sure you pay, friend."

Slim glanced down at Hope, whose sweet smile turned positively nasty when Emmet bustled back to his animals. Slim looked back up at Chris, before closing his eyes. Chris could make all the threats he wanted, and Hope could think she'd outsmarted everyone in the territory. Slim was still in the game, and that was all that mattered.

Chapter 8
Chapter 10

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