LONG RIDE HOME
Slim rode on until it was nearly dusk. He was very close to the border and starting to strain his eyes to see. He kept wondering just how far Jess had ridden and was trying hard to push down any concerns that Laurel’s evil would have worked on Jess to such an extent that he would just leave and forgo the farewell speech. Because if Jess was willing to leave without doing it, Slim had no way of getting him back to Wyoming. Laurel had already destroyed any chances he had of making a home.
Finally, as the dark was closing around him and Slim was starting to wonder if Laurel had indeed won, his horse let out a whinny which was answered by the familiar one of friend. And to his overwhelming relief a short distance away, Slim could just make out Jess’s horse picketed a little way from the road. Then in a sheltered spot near some bushes and trees Slim could finally see Jess. He was leaning over quite a good fire cooking a bird. Slim had to restrain himself from letting out a defiant yahoo that Laurel had not won. He took a hard deep breath, pulled his hat down low, and as casually as he could rode over to where Jess was turning a makeshift spit absentmindedly.
“Howdy” he said casually, looking down on Jess from quite a height.
“Howdy” Jess replied apprehension making his voice rasp. In the firelight Slim could see Jess’s right hand was twitching quite violently.
“Duck?” Slim asked completely friendly, ignoring Jess’s tension which far from reassuring Jess seemed to add to his apprehension.
Jess took a deep breath and nodded, failing miserably at an attempt to be casual. “Water hole yonder, plenty of birds on it.” he gushed pointing. “Figured we could take the time to eat. Talk” he added with just a flicker of a smile, his eyes narrowing and muscle tremouring near his jaw.
“Fine” Slim said so dry that Jess swallowed hard, then swallowed again.
“Slim” Jess started to say but faltered when by the fire light he saw, that despite the friendly tone, just how dark Slim’s expression was.
“I’ll fix the horse” Slim said.
“Fine “ said Jess turning the spit to fast.
“Steady with that bird” Slim warned.
Slim deliberately moved the horse away, turning his back on Jess and then he allowed himself a small smile. He dismounted, unsaddled his horse and took his time rubbing it down before leading it to water hole for a drink, fully aware that Jess kneeling by the fire was watching him intently. As his horse drank, Slim glanced behind him. He could feel the tension coming from Jess.
Slim lead the horse back and still moving slowly picketed it fairly close to Jess’s. As he turned back Jess stood up, getting ready to say something. Slim turned his back on Jess again, and went over to Jess’s horse, running his hand down its back and legs.
“You run him hard today” he said conversationally to Jess.
“He’s used to it” Jess replied a touch defensively “Slim…”
Slim turned his back and went over to where he had left his saddle. He carried it to near the fire then still with his back to a very tense Jess, dug around in the provision bag while Jess watched him. He pulled the coffee pot and makings out, then put the provision bag back on the saddle on the opposite side to the fire, as a clear don’t touch message which Jess noted. He swallowed but did not say anything.
Slim started to make coffee, making himself so busy Jess gave up trying to talk and concentrated on cooking.
Later that night, they both lay back against their saddles on opposite sides of the fire. Slim realised after days looking after the ranch in his own, a long ride with almost no break trying to catch Jess, and then all the dramas of the day he was exhausted and all he wanted to do was sleep. Jess on the other hand even if he was tired, was far too caught up in his own thoughts to sleep. He kept moving about, getting up kicking the fire, or restlessly shifting position. He and Slim had barely spoken whilst they ate, and it was not a comfortable silence, at least on Jess’s part. Slim was fairly happy with the way the conversation was not going.
Finally as Slim was congratulating himself on getting through the first night and was just dosing off Jess asked “You awake?”
“No” Slim muttered considerably annoyed.
“Pretty close to the border” Jess said, and then far too casually he added. “Been thinkin’ how it wasn’t more than a few months ago we was on the other border.”
Slim froze “I’ll just bet you have” he thought, wondering how he could stop Jess talking. “Since you been around I sure been seeing more of the big open than I have for some time” Slim said carefully.
“I know” Jess answered. “We’re near the border” he said again.
“I know” said Slim uncommunicatively.
“See any Indian signs on the way down” Jess asked building up to something else.
“Nope” said Slim.
“Yeah” Said Jess. “Looks like it will be quiet when you ….goin’ back”
“Could be” Slim agreed more sure than ever that Jess was going to say farewell at the border.
“I been thinkin’….” Jess said.
Slim decided saying the about time that was on his lips was probably a bad move.
“I been thinkin’ “ Jess said “ You didn’t stop in them Colorado pass through towns on the way down.”
“Nope” said Slim. “Came the way you did.”
“Not so good an idea to do it on the way back” Jess said. “Maybe go back the long way and miss ‘em.”
“Know how rough those towns are. Been shiftin’ cattle down to mining towns there since I got home from the war” Slim said the word deliberately but got no response. “Know how to be careful” he added wondering how this was going to lead to why Jess was not going back to Wyoming.
“Driftin’ through is different” Jess said seriously. “Better not to hit them alone” he added. “Go straight back” he said. “Slim…” he stopped clearly wondering whether Slim had taken note of the word alone.
Slim decided he was better off pretending he had not heard the word. He took a deep annoyed breath, which he did not have to feign, because as Jess stuttered around for words to say farewell, annoyed was the mildest description for what Slim was feeling.
“Jess I’m tired. I been riding for days, barely slept catchin’ up with you. Nothin’ you can say that can’t wait.” Slim snapped and turned away. Jess was so planning on riding off at the border.
“I appreciate you comin’.” Jess said trying again.
“Appreciate it tomorrow. Or appreciate it now by shuttin’ up and lettin’ me sleep” Slim told him from the depth of his blanket and he was tired enough to mean it.
“Yeah” Jess agreed. He was silent for a while. Then asked “Slim?”
“Shut up” snarled Slim really meaning it.
“What happened to Laurel?” Jess asked, his voice hard.
Slim turned over to face Jess “Rode off southward” he said.
“She didn’t ask for help” Jess asked carefully “or anythin’?”
Slim hesitated “Nope” he said eventually. “Figure she’d find… shelter before night fall” Slim said.
“Figure” said Jess his voice cracking slightly. “Slim…..”
“Put your hat down and shut up and let me sleep” snapped Slim and turned over.
“Ain’t got my hat” Jess snarled.
The next morning they arrived at the border fairly early. Since they had woken at dawn Jess had been trying to start a conversation. But as Slim was fairly certain that any conversation he had with Jess that morning was going to end up with thank you and fare thee well he had flatly refused to say anything more than one word answers if he was forced into saying anything.
While Slim made coffee, Jess offered to take both horses to the water hole, and Slim just grunted instead of saying his usual thanks. Because that was a word he was not going to use near Jess any time on the long ride home. No sense giving him chances to start saying what Slim did not want to hear.
Jess to his credit was trying hard “Look Slim……” he said after untying the horses.
Slim grunted even louder and turned his back kicking at the fire. He knelt down to get the coffee going and Jess took a hard deep breath, giving up trying to start a conversation and led the horses down to the water hole.
After a totally silent breakfast of coffee and the last of Jess’s cornballs, Jess tried again as they saddled their horses “Slim” he started to say “There’s somethin’……..”
But he got no further because Slim found it necessary to thump his horse hard to make him let go his breath in order to tighten the cinch. The horse objected and slammed sideways into Jess who was nearly knocked over. Jess forgot he was anxiously trying to say thank you and good bye for long enough to yell at Slim for being a fool and Slim managed to take offence for long enough not to say anything to Jess until they were almost at the border. But he could not avoid being aware that all the way to the border Jess was restless, and glancing uncomfortably sideways at Slim who ignored him.
Slim was still pondering the best way he could get Jess past the cross roads on the other side of the border, when just before they crossed Jess spurred his horse slightly ahead and grabbed the bridle of Slim’s horse pulling both animals up.
“Hey” Slim roared.
Jess swung his horse to face Slim but still held Slim’s rein “Slim, we gotta talk” he said. He gave the small half smile that Slim recognised as Jess really worried.
“Why?” Slim asked with a deep and totally uncommunicative sigh.
“Before we get to the border. I gotta say somethin’.” Jess said.
“Why?” Slim asked again even more uncommunicative.
But Jess was not going to be put off. He kept a firm hold of Slim’s rein and launched into what was clearly a planned speech. “I know you’re mad at me about yesterday. I know you thought I coulda got both of us killed. But I had to…” he started to say.
“I’m not mad at you” Slim interrupted, snarling through his teeth. “And I only figured you’d get one of us shot. Just didn’t know which one. Let go my horse” he ordered harshly. Not needing to play act because as they approached the border and he knew Jess was about to try to go, he had worked himself up to being furious with him.
“Slim” Jess said not be dissuaded. He rushed into the speech. “I gotta tell you… I appreciate what you did comin’ after me, and I appreciate you not sayin’ anythin’ about Laurel. A man can feel foolish enough without…” He took a deep breath.
“Right now I ain’t interested in anything you gotta tell me” Slim snapped and he was telling the truth. “Let go my horse” he ordered.
Jess tried to make eye contact. Slim ignored it and in the face of Slim’s clear anger, Jess apparently decided Slim would not understand how much he meant the farewell speech. He let go the bridle on Slim’s horse, spun his own around and rode harder than he needed to up the road. Slim watched Jess go for second or two, pushed his hat further back on his head and then he spurred his own horse beside Jess and they both moved fast until they crossed the border. Slim did not know whether to be amused because he was right that Jess was planning the farewell speech or angry because he was right that Jess was planning the farewell speech.
Jess was by this time so angry at being thwarted in his good intentions that he appeared to almost forget the reason he had them, at least until he slowed down as they crossed the border and asked Slim if he was regretting coming down to Mexico.
“Nope” Slim said honestly, then decided guilt was as good a weapon as he could use. “I got nothin’ better to do than chase border to border after you.”
The guilt worked until a mile or so on the other side of the border where the road became a clear cross road going north south east and west. Jess pulled his horse up hard.
Slim stopped beside him and from under his hat watched to see what Jess was going to do. Jess glanced to-ward the east road but then spun his horse left, to face the west direction almost crashing it into Slim.
“Well at least I know he’s planning on going west” Slim thought “Don’t have to worry about east roads.”
Jess’s horse sidled hard into Slim’s which half reared and began spinning on the road. He met Slim’s eyes and started to say something. Slim decided he was not waiting to hear it. He touched spurs to his plunging horse and moved hard down the road, leaving Jess at the cross roads, nearly unseated from the suddenness of the crashing horses as Slim rode away.
Jess yelled out “Slim” but Slim paid him no attention.
Slim dared not look back. He kept riding on the north road waiting, hoping to hear hoof beats behind him. He heard nothing but at a slight bend in the road he got enough of a glimpse to see Jess still at the cross roads, his horse swinging and plunging. At least he had not turned west.
Slim held his breath as Jess let the horse swing west then ran his hand through his hair and spun the horse north, with a sharp angry pull on the reins. Slim let his breath out with a long whew, understanding how much Jess cared that he would not just give up and go without saying what he felt he had to say.
“It’s a shameful thing” Slim told his horse “To take advantage of a man’s decency.” Then he remembered that he would not have to take advantage of Jess’s decency if Jess was not also acting such a fool. And there was no shame in taking advantage of a man who was acting a fool.
Slim slowed down around the bend enough to let Jess keep him in sight but figured he needed to be some distance from the border before easing up. Jess neither attempted to call him back nor speak. Already working out where the next road west was Slim guessed, if he knew Jess and he did.
Jess caught up and rode slightly behind but not saying anything until Slim stopped near a rise and started to walk and Jess moved beside him. Jess eyed Slim sideways and waited for Slim to say something, by this time as mad at Slim as Slim was at him.
“Soooooooooooooo” Slim said finally.
“Yeah” muttered Jess.
“Short way back or long way?” Slim asked testing the waters.
Jess hesitated far too long in answering “Long way” he answered finally his voice very tight.
“Short way is faster” Slim said thinking on the short way there was a mountain range between Jess and the route west.
Jess shrugged “You want to risk Indians?”
“Why not?” said Slim. “Not like you got a woman to…. protect goin’ back.”
Jess shrugged and then seemed to make a choice and rode on ahead. His body was tense as Slim watched him and considered how much pushing Jess would take before he would force the issue. The leaving without the thank you was not likely but at least he was over the first hurdle. Jess had not gone west at the border.
It was going to be a long way home from Tumavaca