For the millionth time, Slim cringed at the way Chris and Emmet went running at that girl's beck and call. He often wondered if he looked as foolish as he thought they did. He didn't recall dropping everything to tend to her every need, though if he had, maybe Jess would still-
Stop, stop, stop it.
He needed to stop beating himself up, and to stop going over every little thing he could have done differently. He needed to save his energy for healing, and for figuring out how to right what was left of the situation.
Figuring out anything was damn near impossible, between Chris fawning all over the girl whenever she so much as cleared her throat, and Emmet bellyaching about all the work he wasn't getting done. Still, Slim was able to gather that the girl wasn't ready to ride yet, and that she wouldn't be going anywhere without that fop of a man.
"Here!" Emmet plopped a bowl of green beans down in Slim's lap. "I went from havin' one mouth to feed to havin' four in a matter of days, and seems to me like I'm the only one still able to do a doggone thing!"
Chris soon followed in on Emmet's heels, and gave Slim a death glare. "We could take him to the sheriff's office, let them feed him," he said. "He's well enough to ride, even if it doesn't feel too good."
Once again, Hope came instantly to Slim's rescue. "Oh, Chris, must you? You'd be gone so long... and for what? What if he's perfectly innocent?"
"What if he isn't?"
"He can still clean them beans for me," Emmet snapped. "Whiles you two is figurin on whether or not to take him off my mountain."
"Be reasonable," Hope said, and didn't she sound like the most reasonable person in the whole wide world? "If he isn't innocent, then what's to stop him from trying something with you out there alone? Yes, I know, he's hurt, but you think he's faking, and that he needs to be kept away from me, so what makes you think he'll fake all the way to a sheriff? And if he does, what's to stop him from saying that you didn't do those things to him?"
Slim began to laugh, though the movement hurt almost as much as the bone-snapping landing had.
"What's so funny, friend?"
Slim clutched his aching sides and chest, and struggled through his mirth. "It never even occurred to me to accuse you of beating me up."
"And why exactly is that funny?"
Slim shook his head, and reached slowly for the green beans. No way was he telling Chris what was really on his mind. Only a sidewinding liar would come up with a story like that. But that's fine, Hope. You keep me away from the sheriff. I'm not going to the law until I've got you in a harness and that money in my saddlebag, girl. Instead, all he said was, "It just is."
Chris walked up to Slim and stood over him like he was about to make a case out Slim's laughter, but Emmet came and shoved a basket full of potatoes in his hands. "There's plenty a work you can be doin too, Chris. And she can help. Between the four of us I might be able to get dinner on the table at a decent hour."
"Well now, she hasn't had her walk yet-"
"Take her and the taters outside, Chris. It ain't gonna kill you to do both."
Chris grumbled, but he got the girl situated outside and took his task with him. Slim didn't pretend not to watch them go while he snapped the ends off the beans. He glared at the open door, even after they moved out of sight, probably to nestle together on the bench that took up the whole porch. He could still hear them, clear as if they were still in the room with him. She was cooing over him, and after some coaxing, he was cooing back. Two turtledoves in love.
"You don't approve, young fella?"
Slim looked up in surprise, to see Emmet smirking at him while he plopped something wet and heavy in a pan of flour, and sent plumes of the stuff everywhere. "Approve?"
"Of their coupling. You look like you don't like what you see out there."
Slim forced his face to relax. "He just... needles me. He doesn't trust me, and I don't like not being trusted. And it's not too fair, I'd say. The only reason I'm here at all is because my horse threw me so hard and had to be shot. Otherwise, I'd be nowhere near here, or that girl he's trying so hard to protect."
Emmet shrugged. "Mighty funny coincidence, though, finding you only a day or so after coming up on that poor little girl. And with you able to handle a gun."
"Barely," Slim said. "I nearly fell over about ten times trying to get poor Dawn in my sight."
"My horse," Slim said, swallowing around the sudden lump in his throat. He needed to change the subject and fast. "Anyway, I'm grateful to you for your help. I just wish I could get on your friend's good side."
"Because I don't wanna fight! Even if I wasn't all busted up, I'm really not a fighting man. I'm a rancher. I only fight when I'm cornered, and I really can't see any other way out. Believe me, I'd rather be back home tending to my horses than out here..." Slim caught himself. He hadn't decided what all he was ready to really share about his search, but one thing was for sure - he wasn't about to let that Chris person know that Hope was his quarry, and that meant not letting Emmet know either.
Emmet either didn't notice the abrupt silence, or didn't care about it. Or maybe he was just in the mood for making conversation, because he asked, as natural as you please, "Which way's your ranch?"
"Just outside Laramie."
"Wyoming? That's a long way out from here..."
Slim smiled. "Not so far. I've been farther, usually at the Army's request."
Emmet chuckled, though he didn't sound too amused. "Thought you said you wasn't no fightin' man."
"I'm not. I went to war because I was young and stupid and thought it my duty to take up arms and fight my fellow Americans, and because I thought it was the best way to protect my parents and my baby brother. When I came home, though, I was an orphan, and my brother, who really wasn't so young after all, was in someone else's care, because the folks in town thought I'd abandoned the ranch. I learned the hard way that there's nothing more important to me than my family. That's why I'm a rancher. My father spent his whole life getting us out there, building that place with his bare hands. And he died protecting it, even though that's what I thought I called myself doing."
Emmet grunted. "But you ain't ranchin' now. You're out here, gettin throwed by horses on other folks land."
Slim was going to have to give him something. "I took on a partner at the ranch. Now that he's all grown up, my brother's found he likes the city life, and I needed another man to help me. That... partner... went chasing after someone who took something from us, and got himself killed in the process."
Emmet stopped slapping things in flour and stared hard at Slim. "And so you're out for vengeance? But you ain't no fightin' man?"
"No." The lie was hard to tell, and it sounded like the falsehood it was coming off his tongue. Slim couldn't leave it at that. "Not vengeance. Justice. I want to see that the killer is hanged. And hopefully to retrieve what my partner lost his life for - to show the courts, to make them see... oh, damn." The tears were coming. All this time, he'd kept them at bay, but now, in front of this suspicious old man, one of the two people on earth who were keeping him from his mission, now he was breaking down.
"He was like another brother to you, huh?"
Slim struggled for composure. "He was the best friend I ever had," he said softly. The words didn't even come close to painting the true picture of his loss, but what words could? He loved him? He wanted to grow old with him? He wanted to touch him? It all paled in comparison.
"I'm sorry for your loss," Emmet said, and by God, he sounded like he meant it. "I hope you find what you're looking for."
I already have. I just have to get her the hell away from here. Slim held his tongue and dried his tears. "Thanks," he said, and didn't care if it sounded insincere.
"How soon do you figure on heading on out after him?"
Emmet looked at Slim strangely. "The killer."
Slim cursed silently. "I... I don't know now. So much time has passed. I might as well go home as soon as I'm able to get on a horse."
"You might try now. Just so's you don't got to worry too much about Chris no more."
Slim nodded and forced a smile. "Sure. Soon. Maybe a couple of days. Right now, I feel like my whole chest is stove in like tinfoil. I wouldn't wish this kind of pain on anyone."
"Yeah, I done busted a couple ribs in my day too. Cracked my noggin once, too. I bet that poor girl don't feel so good neither, if I recall that pain rightly."
Slim raised his eyebrows. Hope was getting sophisticated in her old age. "She hit her head, huh? Say, where'd you find the lady, anyway?"
Instead of the suspicious look Slim braced himself for, Emmet let loose with a torrent of story he had to have been dying to tell someone. "Oh, I didn't find her. Chris did. He likes to come calling on me every few months or so, and it was about his time to come on in. Anyway, he comes on up like always, exceptin he's got this little girl slung over the back of his horse's rump, like she's a bundle of kindling. Now, I can't see it none, not at first, so I says to Chris, 'Chris! What's that you got there on your horse!' and he says back, 'You had any trespassers Emmet?' and I says 'I ain't shot no saddletramps if that's what you're askin!' And then I sees it was a girl all laid out, all dirtied up, dirt in her pretty little nose, all in her hair, all over her clothes, and I says, 'Where'd she come from?' and he points on over near the road. Anyway after we get her laid out in here and see she's sleepin like the dead, me and Chris, we head on out to search for her horse and to see if there's any sign of what all happened to her. Now, I seen tracks a little further up the mountain, not too far from my root cellar, and I figure that the brute that'd leave a poor little girl in the dirt that way musta ran up thataways, trying to get across the mountains faster. Course, if'n he'd a come a little closer to my home, he'd a seen the crick and knowed there's a faster way through than even over land. But Chris is pretty sure that he's still around, waiting to finish her off. But why would he do all of that? Why leave her for dead and then come back for her? No, I say Chris is barking up the wrong tree. I admit, I had my suspicions when we found you..."
Emmet kept right on talking, but Slim was stuck on the trail Hope's 'assailant' left. No doubt, if Slim tracked the horse that left that trail, he'd find a lonely, hungry horse with a Sherman brand on it. More importantly, though, was the fact that there was an extra bit of storage up there, separate from the storage shed that Hope was so determined Slim should stay away from. Maybe she was using a bit of misdirection? Get Slim focused on the wrong hiding place, and get him tossed out on his ear, empty handed?
"...last time I put rutabagas in with my whisky stash!" Emmet was cackling about something inane. Slim chuckled, and hoped he wasn't expected to answer. "Anyhow, dinner looks about ready to come together now, so you just sit there and rest right now, and we'll all eat just fine." Chris came in, hauling the potatoes in with him, and Hope came shuffling behind him, stooped and slow, but with a glow in her cheeks and a stupid smile on her face. "And here the lovers come, just in time," Emmet said, happy as a clam. "We could be a little family, the four of us - don't look that way, Chris. Every family's got a black sheep. Sometimes they's blond."