LONG RIDE HOME
They rode on together with neither saying anything. Slim deciding not to push and Jess lost in his thoughts. Slim indulged a small hope that Jess would take being foiled about going west at the border as sign that he should just ride back to Wyoming, but knowing Jess and he did, it was more likely that Jess was just plain miserable he and Slim were going to be parting on bad terms.
Which Jess confirmed when some time later he asked again. “You mad about riding down after me?”
“Nope” said Slim.
“What are you mad about?” Jess asked seriously.
“You’re a fool” Slim answered honestly.
Jess gaped at him, shook his head and rode on probably so unsure at what was wrong with Slim that Slim guessed he was thinking more of what was wrong with Slim than what had happened with Laurel. Not a bad thing.
However both Jess and Slim were reminded why they were making the long ride back when they came to the place where Laurel had tried to shoot Jess and he had been shot by the bounty hunter before she could do it.
They both stopped looking around and Jess’s expression became grimmer and grimmer as he remembered the day before, whilst Slim watching him felt an anger toward Laurel DeWalt that was not usual for him.
She had used and all but destroyed her husband, broken him. And she had tried to do the same to Jess, on a whim. She had done her best to destroy the hopes he had of finding a place where he belonged. If Jess went drifting off, she would have succeeded and whatever chances Jess had had of not being killed or turned into something less than he was now were destroyed with those hopes. They would be lost when time and luck ran out or Jess’s own best instincts led him down a path from which he could not turn back, or had nowhere to turn back to. If Jess did not go back to Wyoming, Laurel would have succeeded in destroying him and one day a stagecoach would bring the news Andy did not want to know, or one of the newspapers would report on things no-one at the relay station wanted to read about.
As Slim sat silently cursing Laurel, Jess let his breath out. His face was expressionless but Slim could not miss that his left hand was tapping erratically on his thigh.
“She was..” Jess finally said to Slim.
“Yeah” said Slim. “She was..”
“Yesterday when she was done, yesterday she spoke like ... she cut a man down to maybe a foot tall” Jess said, his voice slightly cracking with the pain of admission. “And the night before she made a man feel…”
“Did you?” Slim asked as casually as he could.
“Yep” Jess said shortly.
“Was it..?” Slim asked and had to fight back a small pang of roaring jealousy as well as an almost obsessive curiosity. He swallowed hard, if a look and a question in her eyes could keep sending his thoughts back to Laurel DeWalt, it was no small wonder that she could nearly destroy someone as fragile and vulnerable as Jess.
“Yep” Jess answered just as short. He was silent for a while. “You think” he asked “that’s what she did to DeWalt? Cut him down so often he couldn’t stand tall, ‘cept when she …let him feel tall.”
“Yep” said Slim.
“Destroyed him” Jess said.
“Cut him down some” Slim agreed. “He seemed to have a good friend in that foreman fella. Maybe get a hand to stand up again.”
“Pitiful thing to see a man you knew to walk tall and know he’ll never walk that tall again” Jess said. “DeWalt was someone” Jess said “when I worked for him.”
“Maybe DeWalt wasn’t as tough as you thought” Slim said slowly. “Maybe his friend knew it anyway” he added. “Got the feelin’ they’d seen each other through some tough times” he said.
Jess gave Slim a small half smile. “Man would be lucky to have a friend who knew him so well” he murmured.
Slim watched Jess carefully and quietly saying nothing. There was nothing he could say that Jess did not know. Finally after sitting staring at the spot where Slim had found him, Jess nodded and nudged his horse forward.
Slim took another look around the clearing and was about to follow Jess when he noticed something dark lodged in a small crevice in the rocks. He dismounted and walked over to it as Jess stopped to look back and see what he was doing. Slim reached into the crevice and pulled out a soggy and bent out of shape black hat. He held it up to Jess who just for a second grinned.
Slim vaulted into his horse and moved up beside Jess, handing the hat over with a wry smile.
Jess accepted it with a ghost of a smile “Thanks” he said awkwardly then took a deep breath. “Slim….” he started to say.
Slim realising he was getting on dangerous ground with just one word interrupted “You see any vultures over where those bounty hunters died?” he asked.
“Nope” Jess said sharply, put out because he was cut off “Been looking. Someone maybe...”
“Yeah “ said Slim “ I wouldn’t normally…”:
“Me neither” Jess answered looking at the sky “But…”
“Yeah” Said Slim “Maybe better not stick around to have to explain” he added.
“That sounds more like me than you” Jess said with a small smile.
“Been keepin’ bad company lately” Slim answered as Jess, after jamming the soggy hat on his head moved off.
As they rode off, Slim looked back at the clearing, shaking his head that an amoral woman could have made a place seem so evil.
A short while later they came to where the road moved to the long trail. Jess hesitated, looking at back at Slim to see what he wanted.
Slim told Jess “Should brought her. Might not had any Indian trouble for some time to come after they got her.”
“Or maybe mighta had more trouble than we could manage after they got her” Jess said with a ghost of a smile. He turned westward “Might still be easier to go the other way” Jess said eying the west trail “Weren’t bothered that way, comin’ down.”
“DeWalt and that foreman fella must have come the other” Slim interrupted quickly “and they seemed okay.”
“Don’t hurt to be careful” Jess said. “Don’t mean there won’t be trouble now.”
“Don’t mean there won’t be trouble on the other one” Slim said thinking anything that worried Jess, about leaving him alone, like Indians, could be useful.
“Whatever you want” said Jess giving in a touch to easily.
“East trail” said Slim determined.
They changed direction slightly to where a trail moved eastward around the San Andre Mountains which as far as Slim was concerned was a safe direction because it put a very large mountain range and some very rough country between Jess and heading west. The trail went around the edge of the mountains. Far to the west they could see a high hill rise but northwards as far as the horizon was open land. Mostly Jess rode along locked in his own thoughts and wary of Slim’s mood. Jess did not even seem angry any more, more lost than anything, and more determined than ever not to go back if Slim knew Jess and he did.
“Big land. Open” Slim finally said to Jess. “Goes on forever.”
“Not quite” Jess replied flat voiced very carefully suspicious of Slim’s mood change.
“Know it well?” Slim asked conversationally.
“Well enough” Jess answered still wary.
“Nothin’ much around here” Slim pushed and waited. “No roads, people.”
“Not this trail” Jess agreed finally feeling he had to say something “Long one goes near Los Cruces and gets more traffic goin’ to the border.”
“This one doesn’t?” Slim asked normal easily and watching Jess carefully out of the corner of his eye.
“Nope” Jess answered.
“Goes north for quite away” Jess finally told him. Then pushed hard because the silence between them was eating at him he added “We should meet up with the Socorro road tomorrow. Later if we don’t want to ride hard.”
“We should?” Slim asked carefully.
“Yeah said Jess “Trail more than a road” he added then gave what his plans away. “Goes all the way west to Arizona.” Then he shut up suddenly pushing ahead so Slim could not see his face.
“No point riding hard, horses could do with a quiet ride” Slim answered smiling wryly which fortunately as Jess was staring straight ahead he did not see. Inwardly Slim was smiling a great deal more. With the border a way behind them, and a mountain range to the west he figured Jess would put off his riding west, and his farewell speech plans until he reached the Socorro trail tomorrow. Jess would know that if he made the speech to far away from the turnoff, he was in for a long drawn out argument with Slim he did not want to have.
As long as Slim did nothing that would push Jess into getting into a temper and taking off cross country it would likely be late tomorrow before Jess started trying any thank yous and fare thee wells, so at least for a day Slim could afford to be friendly.
“Texas over east” Slim said friendly, casual.
“Yeah” Jess agreed clearly suspicious of the change in tone.
“Gettin’ nearer to the Panhandle” Slim commented.
“Yeah” said Jess warily.
“Ever think of going back?” Slim asked easily. “Ridin’ through because we’re close.”
Jess narrowed his eyes and frowned at Slim but then must have decided talking about going east would be a safe conversation because he answered. “Thought about going back fairly recent” which was a statement that Slim bet himself was the honest truth.
“Decided no” Jess added which Slim also bet himself was the honest truth. “Nothin’ there for me now’ Jess said almost talking to himself.
Slim wondered if Jess was saying out loud the reasons he had decided to head west.
“Nothin’ to hold onto. Just memories. Not so good ones” Jess explained. “Makes no sense stirring things up, goin’ back. You know” he added. “Found out after the war you can’t go back.” he said. “Need to keep movin’ on.”
“One place you can go back is home” Slim told him “Just means it wasn’t home. If you can’t go back.”
Jess turned to look at him.
“But even goin’ back home ain’t so easy” Slim told Jess “even when there are good memories. Things change. Even when its home. Wasn’t so easy goin’ home after the war” he said “Even when it was home.”
“Wouldn’t know” Jess replied shortly.
“Pa was dead and things weren’t the same” Slim explained “Had to ranch but felt… sorta locked in. Needed something” he swung his arm. “Open maybe like this. Started trailin’ cattle rather than just ranchin’. Got me out” he added. “Probably still would be if Ma hadn’t died and Andy was needin’ me home.”
Jess shrugged “Never figured you wouldn’t do what was right” he said.
Slim shook his head. “I was real tempted to just say it wasn’t home no more after Ma died” he admitted “But I had a home. Ma and Pa made sure of that for me. Owed it to Andy to make sure he has one.”
“You was lucky, havin’ a ma and pa who did right by you” Jess said. “Made a home. Didn’t happen so much for me.”
“Figured that some time ago” Slim said.
Jess started to drift into his own thoughts again which Slim decided was not a good place for him to be…alone. “Just how long you been driftin’?” he asked wondering how dangerous the question was because Jess had never given anyone a straight answer to it. “You keep sayin’ you can never remember a time when you wasn’t. But if you were with your folks on the Panhandle, wasn’t always.”
Jess looked up and around him, taking in the long dark mountains and endless view of dirt and shrub stretching all the way to the horizon.
“Worth driftin’ to see places like this” Jess said. He rode on for while not saying anything while Slim silently cursed both himself for asking and Jess for not trusting him enough to answer. He started to wonder what could prod Jess into talking about things that would not lead to thank you and farewell.
While Slim was still thinking Jess suddenly said “Younger than Andy.”
“What?” said Slim.
“Driftin’.” Jess explained. “Old man was workin’ on over the Panhandle, workin’ shares on Chavez place. Only one out there lookin’ after 2000 head, and the deal was one beef a month for keep. Not enough meat on them longhorns to feed one a month let alone five kids and Ma. And Chavez was mean. Would have hung the old man if he thought one of them cursed longhorns was missin’. So Ma and the old man and 5 of us livin’ in an adobe hut. Livin’ off what Ma could grow and the old man could shoot. I was younger than Andy when the old man told me one day he didn’t have enough to feed all of us. Said I’d best be on my way.” Jess glanced defiantly at Slim to see how he reacted.
“Rough” Slim said very carefully not reacting at all. “Couldn’t see Andy makin’ it on his own.”
“He would.” Jess said shortly “Think you can’t. Learn you can.”
“Wouldn’t want him too” Slim said.
“Me neither” said Jess.
Wondering how dangerous a place Jess was heading but deciding if Jess was talking he was listening, Slim asked casually “Ever go back?”
“So often” Jess said as if he didn’t matter. “Figured early it wasn’t home though.”
“No one laid out the fatted calf” Slim asked trying not to sound like it was important.
“All that ever happened was the old man complainin’ about feedin’ me when I went back” Jess said. “Went back one time when I was 15 once, had some money for ma. Old man wasn’t pleased to see me but sure took the money. Shoulda left straight off. Hung round and we was arguin’ about me still bein’ around when some fellas come up, pretending they was lookin’ for water. Pa was so busy arguin’ with me he was outa reach for his gun.”
“They weren’t after water?” Slim asked.
“Yeah and cattle “ Jess said “Outlaw Frank Bannister, you heard of him.”
“Helped send his brother to prison” said Slim with a dryness that made Jess blink “Me and Mort Corey and a few others went after him some time ago.”
“Mort Corey the fella who keeps talkin’ about runnin’ for sherrif?” Jess asked.
“That’s him” said Slim. “Bannister I knew was a piece of work.”
“So’s his brother” said Jess “Forty of ‘em, waitin’ over the rise. Must have figured one fella out there, get rid of him and it was easy pickins on Chavez cattle. Burnt the place with us in it. Ever see adobe in a fire”
Slim shook his head.
“Explodes” Jess said flat voiced. “Three of us got out, watched the others die through the window” Jess said “Ma, the old man and the others.” He lapsed into silence.
“Bad” Slim said.
“Wondered sometimes if I hadn’t been arguin’ with the old man. He might have stood a chance against Bannister” Jess said. “He was a good shot. “
“Runs in the family” Slim commented and Jess made a tight smile acknowledging it. “Doubt it, would have made much difference from what I heard of Bannister. With forty guns” Slim added. “Just would have killed you anyway.”
“Guess. Didn’t get a chance to find out” Jess agreed, but Slim made some mental notes about dealing with Jess’s belief he was better off leaving when he cared about someone. “I’d have killed Bannister if I could have, tried to get him” Jess acknowledged “but he got caught up in Wyomin’, just after the war. Talked his way out of a hangin’. Outa reach. Still would kill him if I got a chance” he added watching for Slim’s reaction.
“Not so I’d blame you” Slim said. “Felt that way myself. Wanted to get someone bad when my folks died. Never did find out who killed Pa and ma just got sick. Ain’t a whole lot you can do about some cursed disease.”
“No” Jess agreed.
“What did you do afterward?” Slim asked.
“Tried to find Bannister. Drifted some, met up with a gamblin’ fella taught me some tricks” Jess said. “Then the war. Joined before they made me. 17” Jess took a deep hard breath. “So now you know why there’s nothin’ back in the Panhandle for me. Not like you. You got roots, family.”
“Yeah” Slim agreed deciding the last thing Jess needed at that point was a homily on family. “My pa was a good man, but I always figured that was fathers did. Didn’t think it was so special then. Know better now” he said “Why I want to make it okay for Andy. He didn’t get so much time with pa. Like me.”
“He’s doin’ okay” Jess said “ Better’n okay” he added. You got a right to be proud.” He looked around, taking a deep hard breath “Sure is some country out here.”
“Doin’ my best “ said Slim “ Sure is some country out here. “ he said. “Open.”
“Open gets in your blood” Jess agreed “Worth driftin’ to say you seen something like this” he said stopping his horse to look all the way around him at the vast open space around and mountains beyond.
“Worth just ridin” Slim acknowledged.
They pushed along easily making good time without overly exerting the horses with a more companionable silence than they had earlier in the morning. They took a break at about noon near a small spring where they could water the horses and let them graze for an hour.
Slim decided if Jess was being not difficult he could reward him. He reached into the canvas bag and pulled out a couple of apples one to Jess who caught it. In surprise. It was also a mistake.
“You holdin’ out on me. What else you got in that bag” Jess demanded. He pulled the bag away before Slim could stop him and dug in out the tacos and cakes. “You cheatin’…” Jess exclaimed “You got real food in there, and you weren’t gonna tell me. Don’t you trust me?” he demanded.
Slim reached Jess and after a short tug of war managed to get the bag back, with only apples and a few cakes left in it.
“Figured if I told you I had it I wouldn’t have it tomorrow” he grinned as Jess looked disgusted. He glared at the empty bag “Figurin’ I’m right.”
“Don’t you trust me?” Jess demanded again, stuffing down tacos.
“Not so much when it comes to bein’ sensible ” Slim answered totally truthfully. “Not when you get a chance to act on what you feel instead of use your head. Like being hungry.”
Jess snorted, then started to smile “It ain’t so” he said then suddenly flushed red.
“Got a few dollars on me” Slim said as he double the knotted the sack “Can pick up somethin’ up through Colorado” he suggested mildly but watching Jess’s reaction.
Jess sucked his lip, guilt all over his face which made Slim more certain than ever about his westward plans. “You take some advice from someone who has been called no account drifter more often than you had dinners” Jess said seriously. “Keep outta them Colorado pass through towns. Most of ‘em make a good livin’ griftin’ off fellas passin’ through. If you get out only bein’ triple charged for feedin’ your horse and buyin’ a plate of beans, count yourself lucky. Mostly it’s worse. Place up there I heard. Cordossa. Whole town run a game to see who can cadge the most. Force a fella into gettin’ mad, then by the time the law has fined ‘em everythin’ they own, they’re lucky if they still have boots to walk out in.”
“You told me.” Slim said carefully watching Jess’s reaction. “Two of us should be able to watch out. Cordossa” he mused.
Jess flushed even more guiltily. “Slim” Jess started to say “ “I’ve been thinkin’.’’
“Liable to die of old age before we get there if we don’t get movin’.” Slim interrupted.
“Slim….” Jess started again.
Slim turned his back shoving coffee and shoved the remaining food back in the canvas bag then stood up and walked off to retrieve the horses.
Jess let his hands go and fall down “We need to talk about some stuff” Jess yelled at him.
“Thought that was what we had done all mornin’.” Slim muttered. He caught both horses “What do you want to talk about?” he asked genially leading them back toward Jess.
Jess flushed, even more guilty, but faced Slim. “I’ve been thinkin’ since yesterday, maybe since I come down here” he said seriously working himself up to it. He took a deep breath.
Slim decided that a sacrifice of the innocent was necessary, if he was going to avoid the conversation he did not want to have. While Jess was working himself up to the farewell speech he slipped the rope from Jess’s horse’s neck.
“Since yesterday I been thinkin’.” Jess started to say again. “You been real good to me…”
“Ooooooooooooouch” Slim yelled as Jess looked at him in surprise. “You son of … cursed brute” he yelled.
As Jess stared at him confused, Slim stood back and thumped Jess’s bay horse as hard as he could on the rump. With no rope to restrain it, the horse jumped sideways and took off, galloping a hundred and fifty yards or more, before stopping and turning, eyeing the two men with a mighty offended expression.
“What you do that for?” Jess spat out surprised.
Slim grabbed his right arm.
“Brute bit me” Slim said.
“Never bit anyone in his life” Jess snarled as Slim made a big fuss of rubbing his arms. “Didn’t even tear your shirt” Jess said suspiciously.
“Can feel it bruisin’.” Slim insisted. He rubbed his arm. “Hurts like sin” he growled.
“Let me see” Jess demanded stepping forward to check Slim’s arm
“Don’t touch it” Slim snapped.
Jess gave Slim a dirty look, and picked up his bridle.
“I’ll get him” Slim offered.
“Keep your hands off ‘im” Jess hissed.
He stalked off the hundred and fifty to catch his still indignant horse, which suspiciously skittered away for a few minutes, before consenting to stand still. Jess brought the horse back and spent some time going over him carefully, while muttering comments how the horse was safe with a baby and how Slim couldn’t tell a horse from a horse fly. “Your shirt ain’t even torn” he said as he finally finished saddling then mounted, and rode straight past Slim.
Slim made one last effort to clutch his arm as Jess rode by then smiled to himself and followed on.
For the next few hours Jess was so busy defending his precious horse’s good name, that all thoughts of what he wanted to talk about disappeared, to Slim’s relief. They rode on in a less than friendly fashion with Jess still angry for a few hours, when they stopped to water the horses again. Jess without asking removed the canvas bag from Slim’s saddle and took the remaining cakes from it, his expression daring Slim to argue. Slim raised his eyebrows but said nothing, pulling an apple from the bag and easing his conscience by sneaking Jess’s horse half of it when Jess was not looking.
“Watch you don’t get bit” Jess snarled sarcastically when he turned around to see Slim near his horse.