Finding Hope
Chapter 16 - Hope's End

Life on the mountain had become nearly unbearable, what with the girl forever pretending to be helpless as a newborn lamb, and Chris tripping over himself to tend to her every imagined need. Slim choked down whatever scraps they threw his way, and kept out of the way as much as possible. He tried to look on the bright side of things. Even if Chris occasionally fixed him with a death glare (that Slim desperately wanted to return), he'd earned Emmet's trust, and that might go some ways to helping him get this nightmare with the stage line fixed.

It was enough to get a few more nights by the hearth, at any rate.

Like every night since his capture, Slim closed his eyes and tried to close his mind to the sounds of the rest of the house settling in, but he could still hear the soft murmuring of a young couple fresh in love. He could also hear the old man giving Chris hell for tripping all over his big feet for the girl, or something to that effect, anyway. Even without hearing the particular words, Slim knew what the sounds meant. Jonesy used to give him the same kind of hell, and in her own way, so did Daisy, whenever Slim had been feeling protective of or particularly affectionate towards Jess. Hell, they'd probably tease him just the same way now that he was sleeping on a hard stone floor in a strange man's shack, waiting for his chance to clear Jess' name.

He hoped they were taking good care of Jess, now that they were all together.

Tired as Slim was, sleep remained elusive long after he closed his eyes. Even after everyone else settled down into drowsy sleep, his mind whirled with the memories of a family twice lost, and a love forever separated from him. He was all cried out, having already cracked open the deepest sorrows of his heart to Emmet, but Slim still felt the raw loneliness like an open wound. He tried to reason with himself - of course he still felt the pain, he hadn't stopped to mourn, for fear of losing Hope's trail. But he couldn't afford to lose himself in his emotions, especially not now, not when he was so close. And he couldn't afford to lose sleep either. He couldn't afford to let her slip away because he'd slept through the first rays of the morning sun.

A string of soft spoken oaths broke through Slim's whirling emotions. He cracked his eyes open just in time to catch the outline of Hope's silhouette while she struggled to get her feet into Emmet's giant mucking boots. Slim tensed. Should he call out? But what if she bolted? What if she already had the stage line money hidden in the folds of her dress? If she got away from him now, he might not be so lucky to pick up the trail again. His ribs really did still hurt, and though his leg would hold his weight, he didn't know how far he could travel on foot just yet. And even if he did cry out, the men might waste time questioning him, instead of catching her until the law could sort this whole mess out.

Reluctantly, Slim held his tongue, and waited for her to creep out of the house, dragging her feet in the too-big boots, before getting slowly uncurling from his perch by the now cold hearth. He wished he'd slept in his boots - getting them on gave Hope just enough time to get completely out of sight. But Slim thought about the rambling story the old man told a couple days back, and recalled that the root cellar was "up the mountain a ways," whatever that meant. He picked his way across the wooden floor, and stood on the porch to study the lay of the land.

Slim took one look at the footprints in the yard, and knew why Hope had stolen Emmet's boots. None of the tracks looked particularly distinguishable from any of the others at first. But Slim turned his attention to the side of the mountain itself, looking for any kind of disturbance. In the faint moonlight,made out a sort of worn path that looked like it saw more traffic than the rest of the mountain did. Slim whispered a single, breathless word of a prayer, and followed the path up the mountain.

To his surprise, he could see a small square of light set into the mountain side just a little ways up the path flicker to life. He moved off the path, out of the small beam of lantern light, and approached the well camouflaged root cellar with trepidation. He leaned against the side of the leveled out wall, and inched forward, until he could just see inside.

She was hunched over a riding purse he'd never seen before, the sort of thing a rich rancher's daughter might carry her personal effects in. She was counting money and stuffing it into the purse as fast as she could. The lamp washed her face in a ghastly glow, and she seemed almost maniacal in the small, cold, dirt packed room. Slim stared at her for a long time, mesmerized by the sheer greed that transformed her usual sweet, delicate expression into something like a demon's mask. She reached down into a box at her feet, and his attention shifted abruptly: it was a strong box, not unlike that which was often used by the stage line. Next to it, abandoned like so much garbage, lay an embroidered wallet made of soft black cowhide. The wallet had been a gift, to commemorate an anniversary of sorts: ten years gone since Jess had helped Slim capture what remained of Bud Carlin's gang, and joined the Sherman Ranch, 'just to see.'

A cold calm settled over Slim. Hope was cornered, locked in a prison of her own making, with the evidence of her undoing at her very feet. Jess would rest easy now, with his name soon to be cleared with the good people of Laramie. Justice was within Slim's reach, and all he had to do was take it. "Hello, Hope."

The girl jumped and whirled around, and the purse dropped and spilled all its contents, like a confession. There was money, alright, and what looked to Slim like a silver spoon, a fine gold chain, and, to his surprise, Chris' pocket watch. When had she performed that little sleight of hand?

Suddenly, she screamed, a blood curdling sound that seemed to stop the whole world. She ripped at her dress, and her screaming soon turned to terrified cries of "don't hurt me" and "please, I'm a virgin". Slim gaped at her, almost as impressed by her quick thinking as he was disgusted by it. He started to reach for some of the loot on the ground between them, but she kicked it just out of reach, to a corner a little further inside the cellar. She screamed even louder, and her face distorted with rage.

Slim was stuck. With the money out of reach, he couldn't simply take it and head back to Laramie now. If he got too close, she'd do an even better job of making him out to be the aggressor. If he put some space between them, she'd escape, possibly right down into the arms of her hero, and then they'd be hot on his trail, sure that he was the horrible molester and thief Chris had already branded him. He was stuck.

A rifle blast hit the side of the mountain, wide enough not to cause any real damage, but close enough to get Slim's attention. He turned, though he stayed in front of the cellar door, and showed an angry Chris and a disappointed Emmet his empty hands. "Don't shoot!"

"Shut up! Get away from her," Chris demanded.

"She's not who you think she is! Look for yourself - she's robbing you blind, just like she robbed me," Slim said. "Look, Chris, your watch - do you have it?"

"I'm not going to fall for that!"

"Emmet has me covered, Chris," Slim said, trying his best to sound reasonable and calm. "I couldn't make a single move without getting a hole through my chest.

Chris paused for a moment, but then, without taking his eyes off Slim, he patted down his vest with one hand. Confusion flitted across his face, and he looked down at himself. He opened his vest, and then looked up at Slim. "How...?"

"It's here on the ground behind me, Chris."

Chris swore violently and brought his gun up again, but Emmet said, "Wait, you'll hit the girl!" To Slim's surprise, Emmet lowered his rifle, and trudged up to Chris, and put his hand on the barrel. It was still pointed towards Slim, and could still do some serious damage in a heartbeat, but the fact that it wasn't pointed directly at his chest put Slim just a touch more at ease. "Come on out, honey," Emmet called. "Tell us your side!"

"I... I don't know what he's talking about, Chris." Slim's stomach turned at the sickeningly sweet note to her voice. She sounded like a wasps nest smothered in honey and sugar water. Slim wasn't sure what he detested more - her cloying, pathetic whine, or the fact that she simply ignored the old man's words and focused her attention completely on her mark. "I - I can't come out. My clothes... he's torn them all up -" She broke off, and delivered a dramatic sob fit for the stage.

"You vile bastard," Chris began.

"Just tell us what happened," Emmet said, hiking closer to the root cellar.

"Oh, I don't know, I don't -" Hope gasped. "You!"

Slim looked back at her, and was surprised to see that though she still had her eye on him, she was crouched by the open strongbox, rummaging around with one hand. Slim started to walk towards her, but she shrieked, and someone fired a warning shot.

"Next time I won't miss," Chris said. "Step away from her!"

"I can't let her get away-"

"It was him, Chris, it was him! It's the only thing that makes sense! Oh, you've got to shoot him, he's merciless!"

Slim's blood began to boil. "Don't you try to-"

"I was in the woods. I was on a trail, with my fiance," Hope said with quick confidence. "We were riding, and someone attacked us! Tried to take my beau's moneybag right off his horse! The thief shot him, and took off! I - I tried to help him, tried to get him back on the horse, but he told me to run, and not look back! He said -" and here, she sobbed again, even more dramatically "- he said he'd hold the brute off. He gave me - gave me his gun. For protection..."

Her voice trembled and warbled into the night, but her hand was steady as she pulled it out of the strongbox, and aimed a beautiful gun at Slim's gut. It was a sawed off six chambered revolver, with a pearl handle.

"You bitch!" Slim leapt at the girl, all semblance of sense and self preservation evaporated in the presence of Jess Harper's gun. He could hear the men crying out for the girl, arguing about being in each others way, and the sounds of their hard cork boots scrambling up the path, but Slim had one thing, and one thing only on his mind. Get. That. Gun.

He wrapped a hand around her wrist, but she was surprisingly strong. She was also massively frustrated - Jess' good gun had a hair trigger, but it also had a trick hammer, so she found she couldn't get her shot off before Slim had one hand on the barrel of the gun, and the other around her throat. "Let it go!" he roared.

Suddenly, there was a soft, but distinctive snap under his hand, and the girl went completely slack. Her eyes, which only a moment before had been richly vibrant and flashing with wild anger, were cloudy and dark. Death had come for her in a heartbeat.

Hands grabbed him from behind, and Slim let them. He let them take Jess' gun from his shaking hand. He let them pull his other shaking hand behind him. The girl dropped like a sack of old onions.

Chris sobbed once, and grabbed Slim by the throat. The irony was not lost on Slim. "Murderer," Chris said, low and dangerous. Emmet held onto all the guns with one hand, and kept a half hearted grip on Slim's arm with the other. The old man stared at the heap of broken girl-thief on the dirt floor, and softly asked, "Why? Why?"

Slim wanted to ask the same. He'd done what he'd come to do. He'd made Jess' killer pay for taking his life. But it didn't matter. Jess was still dead. Slim was still alone. And now, he'd taken, however accidentally, the law into his own hands. Even in triumph, there was bitter defeat.

The tears began to come. Slim closed his eyes, and let them fall. "Take me to the law," he said.

Chapter 15
Chapter 17

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