LONG RIDE HOME
The geography and time lines are fudged in this story but if Laramie writers can do it so can I.
Slim Sherman leant against the corner of a mostly ruined adobe cabin near Tumavaca Mexico, one leg bent back against the wall, hands resting easily on his gun belt. His expression was grim as he surveyed the aftermath of the ride all five people present had made from Wyoming to Tumavaca. Slim the outsider of the group watched the other four people around him intently, the two men from the Diamond D ranch, Arnold DeWalt and his foreman George Tanna, DeWalt’s beautiful wife Laurel and Slim’s friend Jess Harper. They had all ridden a long way to finally understand, as they faced each other, that no-one would be returning with their dreams and plans fulfilled.
Jess Harper stood beside him, also leaning against the adobe wall, but he was nowhere as easy as Slim. Just judging from Jess’s tension, Slim knew he had reason to be concerned about how Jess would respond to the aftermath of his long ride. Because instead of finding a life with a beautiful woman whom he had had good reason to believe loved him, the ride down for Jess had led to a killing and a ride back knowing he had been taken for a fool by her.
If Jess was planning on riding back to Wyoming at all, which Slim purely doubted.
Arnold DeWalt and his foreman George Hanna were sitting on their horses, Hanna clutching the carpet bag that contained the $60,000 that Laurel DeWalt had stolen from her husband, and had cost the lives of the bounty hunters sent to retrieve her. The last killed by Jess not moments ago. Laurel DeWalt sat on her horse a little way apart from the others as defiantly she watched her husband and lover, both of them now ex, cautiously eye each other off.
DeWalt’s foreman George Hanna, appeared calm enough. He even seemed to accept Slim’s hasty intervention that he and Jess were just drifters caught up in the fight, but Slim wondered by George’s odd glance toward Laurel whether he really knew who Jess was and what had happened between Jess and Laurel.
If DeWalt himself realised what Jess and Slim were doing there, he certainly did not show it. To Slim, watching Laurel’s husband, it seemed that the man was beyond caring or perhaps no longer had the strength to make any connections between Jess’s presence and his wife.
Slim glanced toward Jess again, but Jess was watching DeWalt intently, and the expression on Jess’s face was not one to make Slim any less concerned about what Jess was feeling. Jess’s expression was disquiet, pity, guilt and perhaps some fear. Jess had told Slim that DeWalt was a hard man, a man Jess believed would kill his wife Laurel, if he caught her leaving him. Jess’s hand was twitchy, waiting for Dewalt to react, fearful Dewalt would react, Slim guessed.
DeWalt seemed to slump smaller in his saddle. Perhaps when Jess had worked at Diamond D the cattleman had been a hard man but Slim could not see any resemblance between the man Jess described and the one sitting on the horse in front of him. The man in front of him, despite his blunt dismissal of his wife seemed ….broken, as if he had lost all ability to fight. Slim with another quick glance at Jess, wondered if the fear on Jess’s face was because he realised if Laurel could break a man like DeWalt she could have broken him too.
And with just as little concern.
A frightening thought for a man like Jess, Slim realised.
The stillness was disturbed by George staring hard at Jess, then swinging his horse away. For a second DeWalt looked at Jess, with what in his eyes, Slim was not sure…sympathy, pity. Jess certainly saw something he did not like because he audibly sucked his breath, and his face went very dark as DeWalt turned to follow his foreman. Nearly beaten by the effort it had cost him to break free of Laurel, DeWalt seemed to shrink even further into the saddle, as he rode away.
Jess’s eyes followed DeWalt, seeing a man who would never again be the towering figure he had once been. A man cut down by an amoral woman who damaged and destroyed all things, all people, she touched. Jess still leaning against the adobe wall beside Slim went rigid as DeWalt slumped in the saddle. Jess’s expression changed to even deeper, dark anger. He slapped his thigh hard, then without saying anything almost ran toward his horse, which was still tied behind the house.
Jess mounted, hopping up to the stirrup and swinging the horse hard around before he had even touched the saddle. He started to move off then hauled the horse back hard, stopping for an instant to watch Laurel as she sat on her horse, staring past the space where her husband had been. Blond, indomitable, bewitching, her pouting beautiful face showing almost no emotion and yet at the same time, showing everything, anger, fear, courage, hate, passion and complete soullessness. For a second, Jess stared straight at Laurel but she looked past him, as if she was not even aware he was still there. Jess caught his breath, then his eyes narrowed, in anger, in pain, in self-disgust and his jaw tightened and he hit the bay horse with spurs, harder than was usual for him, bounding off in a thundering gallop back the way Slim and he had come.
Slim still standing by the shack where the bounty hunters body lay, shook his head, knowing for him the drama was far from over. He watched Jess gallop off then he straightened up, took his hat off, and put it back on so it sat higher on his head. He slowly walked over to where his own horse grazed, caught it, vaulted easily into the saddle then turned the direction Jess had galloped off.
For a second, or maybe an eternity, Slim did not know, Laurel still alone, still sitting on her horse, turned toward him. Her eyes narrowed sensuously, and she tossed her head, the yellow hair glinting in the sunlight.
As Slim moved past her she lifted her chin and deliberately licked her lips. Asking the question. A woman who would never be alone. Tempting him for whatever she needed in the aftermath of the long ride.
For Slim time stopped. He pulled his horse up, swallowed hard, and for another second or maybe forever, he met her knowing carnal eyes and he found himself breathing hard and shallow. Without being aware he was doing so, he moved his horse toward Laurel, mesmerised by the sheer beauty of her as she faced the world defiant. However, a sudden vision of Jess’s angry self-disgusted eyes and DeWalt’s broken figure stopped Slim in his tracks. He caught his breath, swallowed very hard and turned his horse back in the direction Jess had gone. He then tipped his hat to Laurel and rode past her, following the route that Jess took at a leisurely jog.
Laurel watched him go and then as he glanced back, she spun her horse, and to Slim’s relief, sent it off at a gallop in the opposite direction to the way Jess went. And as she galloped away, Slim almost convinced himself he would easily forget seeing her face, as she watched Jess ride, her hair blowing in the wind defiant and beautiful; almost convinced himself that he would easily forget the invitation in her soulless eyes, almost convinced himself that he had not felt what he knew he felt.
Slim jogged his horse up the hill and then turned along the foothills back toward the Mexican village where Jess and he had first seen the bounty hunter galloping away with the money Laurel had stolen from her husband.
Jess was nowhere in sight which did not surprise Slim. As Jess’s tempers went, this was one of his better ones. Slim bet himself as he rode toward the village, that the job he had set himself, to get Jess back home, was only just starting.
On the rough ride to Tumavaca from where Slim had met Jess on the trail, Jess had taken the time to ask how Slim knew he was in trouble. Slim had, and in hindsight realised foolishly, told Jess the truth of the two bounty hunters coming to the ranch.
“I had to tell them where you were” Slim explained to Jess. “I couldn’t risk them harming Andy to protect you….or her, you understand. So I figured the next best thing was to come after you.”
“No” Jess had agreed his voice rasping dry and his expression tight and painfully vulnerable, “You couldna’ put Andy at risk, just on account o’ protectin’ me.”
At which point Slim knew he had made a huge mistake, one that was going to make the job he had set himself, that of bringing Jess home, so much harder.
If Slim knew Jess and these days he thought he did, when Jess calmed down he was going to feel like a complete fool for having been taken in by Laurel. Jess was going to be embarrassed, uncomfortable, totally unwilling to face Jonsey and Andy after having made such a fool of himself. If Slim knew Jess and he did.
All of which would mean Jess would have decided he was not going back to Wyoming. Because if Slim knew Jess and he did, Jess was going to come up with any number of reasons why it was in everyone’s best interests he did not return to Wyoming. Slim conceded that some of the reasons may be good ones. He already knew what many of them would be. He had heard quite a number of them from Jess on the Lo Lo trail the last time Jess had tried to help someone who did not deserve his misguided loyalty, when he and Slim went to Canada with Jess’s gone and not lamented brother in law Gil Brady. And Slim did not have a doubt in the world that there were considerably better reasons that Jess had not felt safe enough to divulge at that point. Slim had never pressed Jess to talk about his years in the drift. What he did know was some of the things Jess had slowly trusted him enough to tell, and from reading between the lines of what Jess did not tell.
So now here they were again at the other end of the country because Jess had again misplaced his responsibilities and loyalties. And if Slim was remembering that ride to Canada he could bet that Jess was too. And if Slim knew Jess and he thought he did, Jess was already regretting letting himself get talked into returning to the Sherman ranch after the ride to Canada. Slim was certain that Jess would have convinced himself that all it had done was cause more trouble for people Jess cared about, which Slim conceded was quite possibly true. He for one was riding up and down the country when he should have been running his ranch.
Added to all those reasons Jess could find for not returning to the Sherman ranch, was the fact Jess’s goodbye to Andy before he and Laurel left had been painful for both of them. Andy had been hurting badly that Jess would walk away without a thought for those left behind, especially as Jess had all but said he was not returning to work at the ranch. Jess shrank from causing pain, especially to people he cared about. And if Slim knew Jess and he thought he did, Jess would be concluding that the best thing he could do for Andy was not put him through the pain again, not realising that the boy cared enough to worry himself sick at Jess’s absence, dreading with every stage arriving that they would hear bad news, frightened every time he saw a newspaper that it would confirm that Jess had finally got himself into trouble he could not handle.
Slim could probably have named half a dozen people around Laramie, including the odd relative such as his Aunt Ella, who would have said good riddance to the departure of Jess and his troubles. In fact Ella had visited the ranch just the day before Slim has set out and caused considerable anguish for Andy who normally adored her, when she had all but danced a jig that the no account drifter, probable killer and all around dangerous Texas trash had removed his presence from the Sherman ranch voluntarily. Ella and Jess did not get along.
But none of that mattered because Jess had promised Andy he would come back, and Andy had taken it to mean that Jess would return home. And Slim had every intention of making sure Jess kept the promise sooner rather than later, regardless of any reason that Jess came up with for not returning to work at the Wyoming ranch. As much for Jess’s sake as Andy’s.
That Jess did not seem to understand how much his presence meant to the two Sherman brothers and Jonsey certainly made him a fool Slim conceded. But then if Jess had not been a fool he would not have made the run to Tumavaca on the whim of a beautiful amoral woman who was incapable of any feeling for another human being.
So when two bounty hunters had come to the Sherman ranch seeking Laurel and the Sherman Brothers had found out just what sort of trouble Jess had got himself into this time, as Slim saw it the solution was obvious. Because Slim had a young brother whom he did not want to see in pain and a friend who could not avoid trouble and had no idea how important his presence had become to the people on the Sherman ranch, Slim decided that the best solution for all of them was to bring Jess home, regardless of what Jess said about it.
As soon as Jonsey had arrived home the morning following the bounty hunters visit, whilst Andy had poured out the whole sorry story to Jonsey, Slim had saddled up to go after Jess. Jonsey had not been as concerned as Andy that this time Jess really would not come back. He was more concerned about how difficult Jess was going to make it for Slim to get him back.
”Bad penny always turns up” Jonsey said. He packed some food for Slim “You figure that boy really needs rescuing from one little gal even if she is a bad ‘un.”
“Nope” said Slim “I figure he needs rescuin’ from his own best instincts.”
Jonsey laughed “Wal” he drawled “Figure on that one you’re right. You didn’t try and talk him out of goin’?” he asked.
“A chance she could have been what he needed. He sure wanted it” Slim explained. “Guess a man has a right to find out if what he wants is what he needs.” He smiled “Figured the more I tried to talk him out of goin’ the more likely I was to talk him out of comin’ back.”
“You’re learnin’ Slim” Jonsey said and Slim had grinned. “You know that boy Jess is goin’ to give you a hard time gettin’ him back” Jonsey warned.
Slim had nodded in no doubt about how hard his task would be.
“You know that boy Jess has figured he wants a home here,” Jonsey added “but he ain’t quite figured he’s got a home here yet, so he’s gonna be busy mournin’ what he thinks he’s lost. An’ he’s goin’ to feel awful foolish throwin’ his chances away on a bad un’ like that woman. An’ he’s goin’ to be figurin’ that he’s more trouble than he’s worth to anyone keepin’ him around. Again.”
“I know how hard it will be” said Slim with feeling “Andy reckons every time Jess has been dragged off somethin’ always brings him back. This time he’s gone off on such a fool’s errand, I reckon’ the somethin’ that drags him back is goin’ to be me.”
“Nothin’ like makin’ a fool of himself to bring out the stubborn in a fella, especially a young fella” Jonsey said.
“Reckon if nothin’ else I can out-stubborn Jess” Slim said with a grin.
“Reckon” Jonsey agreed.
“If it’s humanely possible to get Jess back I’ll get Jess back” Slim promised Andy before he left. “No promises about keepin’ him here when I get him back.” He added.
“Jess’ll figure he wants to stay home when he gets back” Andy said confidently. “He ain’t that bigger a fool.”
Jonsey snorted. “Good luck to you up till Jess figures that” he said as Slim rode off, bound for south road Jess had taken.
Slim had actually had some hope when he did meet up with Jess, and saved him from the third bounty hunter, because Jess was clearly pleased and grateful to see him, that perhaps he was mistaken. Jess would return home without an argument. The hope lasted for as long as it took Jess to get to his feet and go charging off to Mexico to fix the unfixable.
In Tumavaca, Slim reached the village still going along at an easy pace, scanning the road to see if the two men DeWalt and Hanna were there but they were not in sight.
Unfortunately neither was Jess.
Slim frowned. Jess must have been riding as hard as only Jess could when he was in a temper, and that temper was fuelled this time by embarrassment and self-disgust as the full foolishness of what he had done with Laurel hit him.
Which meant Jess was really moving.
Slim, feeling a little guiltily, wondered if he should make an effort to report the dead bounty hunter to authorities. Then decided against it. The chances were that Mexican authorities even if they were around this remote area would not be interested in Americans killing each other. But if they were interested, Slim winced at the idea of explaining to them why Jess would kill a murderer then go riding off with lightning under his tail. He wondered what the likelihood was the authorities would understand that a man was just plain embarrassed when he realised he had been used as a fool by an amoral woman. Not good he concluded.
Slim smiled to himself. At least he was not going to die wondering how Jess kept getting himself into trouble. What he did wonder was how Jess had survived this long getting himself into the trouble he did. Luck and time Slim thought. Both of which could run out at any moment. Of one thing Slim was certain. Jess had a better chance of hanging onto both luck and time at the ranch in Wyoming than he ever would on the drift and finding trouble on his own. At least at the ranch, mostly Jess got to wait until it arrived.
Slim turned onto the main road still moving at a gentle jog because he felt that the villagers had had their patience pushed enough by Americans galloping and shooting their way through the village that day. He glanced around him as he rode. Mostly the village consisted of small houses but there was a store attached to the bar which he had hardly noticed on the way in. There were quite a number of people about, and they all stopped to watch him, some with curiosity; some with suspicion.
Slim glanced at the depleted state of the canvas bag he carried over his saddle. He had coffee but not a whole lot else. Food could be a good idea he thought. Andy got a lot of his wild animals home following food, and Jess had been living off trail rations since he left the ranch.
Slim pulled up, dismounted and tied his horse to the veranda post in the front of the store. He felt in his pockets as he did. He was not exactly flush with money. He never kept that much cash at the ranch and he had to leave most of what was there in case Andy and Jonsey had some emergency, so all he had was $20 and $5 notes hidden in the safest pocket he had, some silver dollars in his pants pocket, and some loose change in his vest. Still he thought that probably made him a wealthy man in Mexico.
There was an elderly man sitting on the veranda working away at some wood carving.
“Buenas tardes, senor” Slim said to the man “Inglés?” he asked hopefully and unsuccessfully as the man shook his head, without any regret at all.
Slim frowned and nodded “Hombre?” he asked carefully. “Caballo?” He pointed at the road.
“Si Senor” said the man more interested in his work.
“How long?” Slim asked.
The man shrugged and went back to his work.
“Horas” Slim asked and held up a finger.
The man shrugged again, uninterested.“Si señor” he said then he held up a finger and bent it in half.
“Si” said Slim hoping that meant a half hour.
“Dirección” Slim asked pointing at the road.
The man thought about it then slowly pointed to the road going south. Slim’s heart sank. If Jess had gone south it was going to be a long hard ride in the wrong direction before Slim even had a chance of convincing Jess to turn around to come home. At least if Jess had turned north, Slim would have had a chance to work on him while they were riding in the right direction.
Slim went into the store. There was not much there, but they must have had some passing trade because he was able to buy fresh tacos and brown sugar cakes, as well as some apples. It cost him one of his silver dollars which was robbery and he started to argue, but then he remembered he had shot up the village that afternoon, so that robbery may have been justified and with a wry smile he paid the dollar.
He packed the food in the canvas bag and mounted, turning south. The man on the veranda had been joined by several others, who all watched him with something like amusement. Slim frowned suspiciously. He rode a few yards and stopped and just hope against hope asked “Un hombre?” and he pointed to the south road.
The man exchanged glances with the other men and said “Un hombre no señor”
“What do you mean?” Slim asked getting confused.
The man grinned, and his companions laughed. They were obviously enjoying Slim’s confusion.
“Un hombre no señor” said the man, “Dos hombres.
“No dos hombres” Slim said “Un hombre.”
The men looked at each other and the old man smiled.
The old man said “Un hombre rápido” and to Slim’s immense relief he pointed to the north road. “Horas.” The man added, enjoying having Slim at his mercy.
However Slim was so relieved, he ignored the smile around the man’s lips. He could not really blame the villagers for having their fun after the crazy rider shooting up through their village.
He tipped his hat to the man “Gracias señor” he said. Then more happily than he could have believed, turned onto the north road.
Slim jogged along. It was no use chasing Jess hard. He knew Jess and there were a few things he could rely on Jess doing, no matter how bad his temper. Jess would look after his horse so that sooner or later he would stop for the horse if not for himself.
And Jess would feel obligated to wait for Slim to give the thank you speech. Jess would not go drifting off without doing it. However much Jess had convinced himself he was the outsider again, wandering on his own, putting himself out of bounds, Jess would feel he owed Slim and himself the thank you and would not leave until he had done it.
Over the last few months Slim had gained a pretty good idea how the speech went.
Thanks for the fire and thanks for the roof, thanks for riding beside me and thanks for trusting me, thanks for coming after me, and fare thee well.
Slim also understood how much Jess would mean it and how much Jess would be hurting when he said it. And that Jess would lite out as soon as he said it.
“Which Jess, you ain’t gonna get a chance to do” Slim said out loud.
There was still no sign of Jess up ahead. So Slim mused to himself, in between admiring the spectacular openness and space around the road, how he would get Jess home. The one thing he was sure would have no effect was trying to argue Jess out of leaving. Jess had heard every argument Slim knew to convince him to stay on already…. several times. Probably on his angry ride Jess was going over each argument and losing the case to stay without any help from Slim.
So Slim decided his best chance was to avoid arguing at any cost. All he had to do was keep Jess pointed north and dodge letting him make the thank you speech long enough to get close to Laramie. The closer they were to Laramie if or when Jess realised he had been conned, the better the chances Slim could drag him back to the ranch, regardless of his objections.
As he rode on Slim found his mind drifting back to those last minutes just before Laurel had left. He could see her face, the expression, the invitation and he could almost imagine what it would fell like to have her. And just a small, small part of him regretted the loss of just knowing what it would have been like. And another part of him had not the slightest trouble understanding why Jess had thrown away everything he had built for himself, all hopes of finding a home and of belonging. When he saw Laurel DeWalt in Wyoming, Slim had just been angry with what she was doing and it had taken all his restraint not to tell Jess what a fool he was being. When Laurel had looked at him so in Tumavaca, it had taken all his restraint not to throw everything to the winds and follow her. For an instant Slim was struck by an overwhelming sense of regret that he had not accept the invitation she had offered, even knowing why it was offered. Then Slim thought about the broken figure of DeWalt and the reason he was jogging northward along a Mexican road after Jess.
“No good at all,” he thought “Just about as fool thing as I could do” he admonished himself. “Then I’d be needin’ Jess to rescue me.”
Would Jess rescue him? Slim was pretty sure that when Jess slowed down and realised Slim was missing in action he would. In an instant. Then take great pleasure in pointing out that Slim was a fool to look at the woman. A bigger fool than Jess had been because Slim knew what she was. In fact it would make Jess very happy to do it, and say it.
Slim considered the possibilities. If he played it right he could maybe keep Jess yelling at him until they hit Wyoming, maybe even the ranch road. Perhaps it was worth a try he thought, stopping and half turning around. Perhaps it would be even worth finding out what that knowing carnal look had meant. He touched his spurs to his horse and it leaped forward. Then as it plunged the vision of DeWalt’s slumped figure flashed in front of Slim and he pulled up hard. He shook his head and determinedly turned north. He realised that there were some things far too dangerous for a man to do, even for friendship. All in all, the further Jess and he got from Laurel and the closer to Wyoming the better.
Slim jogged northward. A few miles on he passed some sheep herders who confirmed they had seen a rider on a bay horse heading north….rapido.
Slim thanked them then and jogged on. He passed some more time wondering if he ought to warn Andy not to laugh at Jess for making a fool of himself. “Nah” he said out loud. “Good for Andy to know Jess could make as big a fool of himself as anyone else. Bigger” he added taking considerable pleasure in the thought.
Slim passed some more time considering even if he could keep Jess going north, how many places there were for him to veer east or more likely west, if he knew Jess and he did, if given the opportunity. The border for a start he thought. Maybe the Santa Fe trail. Maybe a few of the westward trails in the New Mexico territory. Better he decided if he could keep Jess on the east side of the mountains all the way to Wyoming. The road would be rougher, the Indians more dangerous and country more treacherous than the easier path Jess had followed down. On the other hand there would be the advantage of a mountain range between Jess and any westward plans he might have, all the way through New Mexico and Colorado. Slim knew that he would have to be careful, Jess knew the country well. Even if he foiled one opportunity to head west, Jess would be planning on the next. It was going to take some fancy work to keep Jess heading north because if he realised he was being taken north, the chances were he would get very stubborn.
“It’s going to be a long ride home from Tumavaca” Slim told his horse as he jogging on.
A little way up the road, Slim came to a small hut where some children were playing and a woman was in the front yard milking goats. She watched Slim as he rode up. He tipped his hat and asked if he could water his horse, she smiled at him and nodded and indicated a small well. While Slim drew some water he asked if she had seen a man on a bay horse. She could or would speak English and she told him a man with a bay horse had stopped to water his horse. But it was a while ago.
Jess would never water a hot horse so Slim figured he must have calmed down enough a few miles back to walk the horse and cool it down. Perhaps a good sign that Jess was going to be reasonable by the time Slim caught up with him. Perhaps in cooling his horse down Jess had cooled himself down but Slim’s hopes were dashed when the woman asked if Jess was a bad man.
“No” Slim told her shaking his hands to push his point “a good man.” He said crossing himself to demonstrate
The woman shook her head in disbelief. She narrowed her eyes and then put her fingers on either side of her mouth pulling her lips down to give a good imitation of Jess’s face when he was in a mood.
“Bad man” she said. “Better stay away.” She told Slim “That one is trouble.”
Slim tipped his hat as he mounted his horse “That senora is the pure gospel truth.” he told the woman.
Slim sighed. “It’s goin’ to be a long ride home from Tumevaca” he thought.
Slim rode on, trying to concentrate on just how he was going to get Jess home, and doing everything he could not to keep seeing the vision of Laurel DeWalt’s carnal gaze flash at him. Not entirely successfully.
He rode for some time and it was getting quite late. Slim was really wondering just how far Jess would move on, when into the distance away he heard one rifle shot. Slim touched his gun, then when the shot was not followed, he decided the one shot could be someone hunting and the most optimistic view was Jess stopping long enough to think of eating, or providing a meal to say goodbye over.
“Which isn’t goin’ to happen” Slim told his horse.