LONG RIDE HOME
They mounted up again, pushing northwards, the companionship of the early part of the day diminished as Jess, Slim presumed, contemplated his lost chances to say goodbye. However after some hours of silence, Jess must eventually have decided his best way into the conversation he wanted to have was any conversation because he started to talk.
“You never did tell me how you settled in Wyomin’?” Jess asked. The question was awkward forced and totally uncomfortable. “I mean you got kin around still” he added.
Slim was tempted to challenge Jess about why he asked but thought keeping him talking was safe for a day. Besides having the chance to stir Jess about Slim’s only remaining kin around Laramie. Jess must have been desperate to bring the subject up.
Andy and Slim were very proud of Aunt Ella who was a tough ornary woman who took nothing from no one. She also smoked a pipe. Both Sherman brothers had long since discovered that if they avoided taking offence at anything she said, Aunt Ella could be as kind as she was ornary. She was eccentric, opinionated and very clannish about being a Sherman even though she was only a Sherman by marriage. Andy and Slim like to speculate why she never mentioned her own family. Slim was inclined to believe she eloped with Uncle Jack and was disinherited by her own relatives but Andy pointed out Uncle Jack and Aunt Ella never spoke to each other and it was more likely she had a much darker past than she let or on or as he asked Slim “Do you think Aunt Ella wasn’t always a lady?”
“From the mouths of babes” said Jonsey.
Ella liked to make a fuss of family. Andy occasionally stayed with her when neither Slim nor Jonsey had been able to be home. Staying with Aunt Ella, Andy got to be the man of the house, given his due by being seated at the head of the table and then was completely manipulated, like every other male who came near Ella.
Both Andy and Slim adored her, not the least because she could out-cook any-one else in the territory and an invitation to dinner was something to keep them talking for a month. Even Jonsey adored her, whitening his collar and polishing his boots when the invitation to dinner came. She lived in a large house some miles up in the hill country on the other side of Laramie. The house thanks to what Slim suspected were less than honest dealings from his deceased Uncle Jack, was furnished with every comfort she could get into it.
Aunt Ella and Jess did not get on. Ella was frankly suspicious of him. He was not kin, and yet there he was a hired hand, living in “the” house, like a bunkhouse was not good enough for a no-account drifter. Their first introduction had not been good and relations had fallen steadily downhill from there.
Ella had driven over to the relay station to issue a dinner invitation to her family, and check out the new hired hand. Unfortunately in the middle of a best manners cup of coffee with Andy, Jonsey and Slim fussing Ella, Jess had burst into the house, covered in dust, filthy dirty from riding drag when moving cattle. He had seriously ripped shirt and pants, revealing underwear up past his knees, also ripped. Jess was roaring mad and cursing Slim as the cattle had gotten out following an old longhorn cow that Jess wanted to shoot because she was dangerous and useless. However Slim had a sentimental attachment to the cow. She represented the last of the Texas cattle his father had brought in before the war, and had somehow avoided any attempts to include her in roundups and trail herds. Now she was ancient and as ornery as Aunt Ella but Slim always found a reason not to shoot her. The cow had an uncanny knack of causing Jess difficulties, getting bogged when he was on his own, breaking down fences and straying off with a group of yearlings, then turning and charging, horns lowered wickedly when he had to move her. Every time he avoided another skewering on her horns, Jess laid into Slim about getting rid of her.
The sight and sound of a ragged dirty hired hand laying into a Sherman was nearly too much for Ella. She subjected Jess to her best look down the nose expression, and made some cutting remarks on how it would break Matthew’s heart if he knew just what hard times his boys had fallen on so they had to take in any murdering range riff raff. Jess, not unsurprisingly, had taken offence, retreating to his surly best because he could not punch her out, which led, from Ella’s point of view, to a very unsatisfying stand-off, while Andy and Slim exchanged glances and Jonsey shook his head.
Ella had however deigned to include Jess in the Sunday dinner invitation and despite all warnings from Andy and Slim not to let Ella get under his skin, things between Ella and Jess had gone badly. Even Ella’s cooking had not eased the situation. Jess had not reacted kindly to a sit down Sunday dinner where everyone was supposed to be on their best behaviour except the hostess. Ella, determined to put Jess in his place as the hired hand, thought nothing of quizzing him on everything including his intentions, his honesty and his reliability, asking questions right down to how often he washed his underwear, and how many men he had gunned down that year. All of which got a very terse and surly response.
As dinner progressed, Jess had shown his displeasure more and more, and Andy and Slim exchanged glances, amused on Slim’s part, concerned on Andy’s. Jess finally jumped to his feet when Ella asked Jess point blank how much jail time he had served. Leaving an almost uneaten piece of strawberry pie on his plate he had thrown down the napkin that Ella had fussed about being used in a man’s lap, not stuffed into his shirt. Slim who would have liked to have got a straight answer to that question himself, but knew that the answer would only come when Jess felt he belonged enough to share it, managed to stare Jess down before he let fly with the expletives that were on his tongue. Slim also managed to get a hard hand on Andy’s shoulder as he showed every intention of jumping up to defend Jess. Jess finally mumbled something about how he thought he heard a horse making a noise, and stalked outside. Jonsey made some comment that Jess still learning about polite society to excuse him and Ella gawfed that unless there was a polite way to kill someone, Jess would never be ready. Which he heard.
Jess had spent the rest of the visit prowling round outside, while the other three enjoyed more pie and cake, Andy listening to Slim’s whispered advice that Jess and Aunt Ella would work things out much faster if no-one else got involved. However thereafter whenever Ella saw Slim or Andy in town and Jess was with them she would offer an invitation for dinner, suggesting they also brought the hired man to hold the horses.
“By how kin got to Wyomin’ you mean you wonderin’ how Aunt Ella came into Wyomin’?” Slim asked Jess as they rode along.
“I know how she got to Wyomin’.” Jess said with feeling.
“You do?” Slim asked trying not to laugh.
“Flew on her broomstick” Jess answered.
“That’s my favourite Aunt you’re talking about” Slim said mildly. “She came with Uncle Jack in the early days. Couple of pa’s brothers first come. They were tradin’ over in Nebraska with some of the mountain guys working over here and thought they would do better on the other end. Granpa kept the store and Jonathon and Jack moved into Wyoming. Pa was trail herdin’ but visited and saw the land. Decided it was what he was lookin’ for, so Jonsey and Ma and me all moved here. Jonsey used to be his trail cook.”
“How come Ella is the only one left?” Jess asked.
“Indians”’ Slim said “and fever. Had a few cousins but they never made it, so far” he said not offering a reason why and Jess frowned curiously but did not push. “Pa has another brother livin’ down Texas, and Ella’s got two daughters in Denver. Got some kin in Nebraska. Aunt Ella writes. She likes to tell me how well they are doin’ from Grandpa’s store. How much land they are buyin’ up. Ella figures land means you’re somebody.” Slim grinned.
“Your Pa picked good land” Jess said carefully avoiding making a comment about Ella.
“Its …. roots” Slim explained trying to finds words for his connection to the land his father left him. “Nothin’ left in Nebraska. Got family buried there but no real roots. Wyomin’ is ….mine. Mine and Andy’s. Its feelin’ you belong. Even if Ella is the only kin left. That land has got Pa’s sweat and blood on it, and it’s got mine” Slim shook his head. “Figure that is how you get roots, workin’ it, watchin’ it reward you if you work it right. Fightin’ for it, even when we ain’t had no real proper rain for betterin’ a year.”
Jess nodded understanding. “I got family buried in the Panhandle and I don’t belong there. No roots” he mumbled. He took a deep breath. “Talked about belongin’ to Laurel a couple of days ago” he said after a few minutes. “She didn’t think to highly of it.”
“Figure’” Slim said. “Figure she wouldn’t know a cursed thing about leavin’ somethin’ better’n when you came.”
Jess half nodded became silent and rode on for a while, while Slim pushed away that his last vision of Laurel, beautiful and defiant, as it once again flashed in front of him.
When Jess made no attempt to keep talking Slim suggested “One Sunday after we get home, at dinner over Aunt Ella’s if we can get her on the plumb brandy, she can tell you some stories about the old days. Raise your hair.” He watched Jess’s reaction.
“I didn’t reckon it’s likely I’d be doin’ that” Jess finally answered clearly finding an advantage to not going back. “What did Jack die of? Rapid dog bite?”
“That’s my favourite aunt you’re talking about. Ella’s a pistol” Slim said proudly.
“Ella’s a pistol all right” Jess said. “A loaded one. When she start on with the pipe?”
“She doesn’t think its lady like to smoke cigars” Slim explained. “Ma always reckoned she took up the pipe cause Uncle Jack couldn’t stand the smell and she couldn’t stand the smell of him and furs and such so they built a large house and sort of stood each other off.
“I’d of built another house if I’d been married to her” Jess said with feeling “opposite end of the territory, maybe the country. Don’t know how you can stand her.”
“Belongin’ with folks means you have to get used to folks bein’ who they are” Slim said.
Jess snorted and thought about “Ella had a point though about trouble following me” he said to Slim.
“I know” Slim said mildly, thinking almost any conversation with Jess was heading for dangerous territory that could end in the words thanks and goodbye. “Sure is some country around here.”
“Yeah” said Jess.
Slim decided that trouble and Jess was far too dangerous a topic of conversation and started talking of plans to get by in the drought, while Jess disappeared into his own thoughts, grunting every now and again when it got through to him that Slim needed a response.
They rode on for the rest of the day stopping to rest and picket the horses after Slim picked off a jack rabbit
Jess had another night when sleep did not come easily, which meant Slim did not sleep that easily either worrying that Jess might just spit out the words and leave while he was half asleep.
So when Jess asked him if he was awake he, more or less, was. They were lying either side of the fire. Slim turned over to see Jess sitting up, holding a cup of coffee. Without asking Jess poured Slim a cup, stood up and took it to him.
“Been thinkin’,” Jess said as Slim sat up.
“What” Slim asked taking the cup. “Laurel?” he guessed as Jess went back to sit opposite him.
“Kinda” Jess admitted “Been thinkin’ about Troy Hatch sheriff up Rock Springs. Told you about him when I come back from deputyin’.”
“Told me some” Slim agreed.
Jess nodded “Good man and he threw it all away over a no good woman. He … just couldn’t help himself. Threw it all away over a woman who wasn’t worth even a dollar of his time.” Jess took a deep breath. “I lied about what he done, inquest an’ all.” He confessed. “Figured all that was left was his name, and what folks thought of him. She wasn’t gettin’ that.”
“You did what you thought was right” Slim said carefully.
“No I didn’t” Jess bit out. “Did what was wrong and I knowed it but he didn’t deserve that a woman like that should …”
“Destroy him” Slim interrupted.
“They’ll do it to you” Jess said. “Don’t reckon you’d a perjured yourself for such a reason would you?”
“Can’t think I would, but I guess you never know until you face it yourself.” Slim answered carefully. “Jess he had a choice” Slim said seriously. “A woman like that is what she is, he could have not done it, he could have just quit dreamin’. He knew what he was doin’ was wrong.”
Jess stared into the fire for some minutes twisting his cup in his hands. He finally looked up a small twisted smile on his lips showing in the firelight. “Kinda understand why he did it” Jess said “Kinda understand when just dreamin’ about a woman can make nothin’ else matter. Make it so you would do anythin’ just to have her.”
“Until you figure what you were dreamin’ about was only that. A dream, and wantin’ won’t make a woman into what you’re dreamin’.” Slim replied then deliberately added “No matter how much you won’t see what’s goin’ on under your nose. Like DeWalt.”
Jess was quiet for a while before he finally asked “Have you ever wanted a woman so bad you cain’t breath? And nothing fixes it not even havin’ her. Havin’ her makes it… worse. Maybe because you know havin’ her is wrong, and even that don’t matter. Even when you walk away, and you tell yourself you forget, sometimes just when you ain’t ready for it, just fallin’ asleep and you see her face, or smell somethin’ maybe flower or soap in a store and you turn around expectin’ her there. An’ just for second you think there is nothing’ you wouldn’t do, just to have her.”
“I’ve had my share of girlfriends” Slim said carefully “But if you’re askin’ have I ever ... wanted someone so bad right or wrong, I wouldn’t care how wrong it was. If it’s wrong, it’s wrong. That sheriff Hatch shouldn’t have done it.”
“That isn’t what I was askin” Jess said “Maybe if you’d been the one to see what wantin’ so hard can do to a good man, a real fine man you’d figure it different.”
“It was wrong” Slim said certain. “And I guess Hatch knew, and I guess she destroyed him… because he let her do it.”
“Ever figure maybe right and wrong sometimes ain’t everythin’ Slim?” Jess asked.
“I figure doin’ what was wrong, is because it’s the easy way out” Slim explained “And easy way out is blamin’ her because it was too hard to do what’s right.”
“Well you won’t mind so much if I ain’t to kindly when it does happen to you?” Jess asked after a while.
“Figure if I start actin’ so foolish, you’ll have the right” Slim agreed and Jess snorted.
Sometime later Jess asked “You know what Laurel would have done if I hadn’t gone with her. To Tumavaca?”
“Found someone else to do it” Slim answered brutally.
Jess was quiet. “I reckon I remember DeWalt bein’ taller” he said finally.
“You walked away from her once before Jess” Slim bit out not pretending he did not know what Jess was talking about. “She can only cut you down if you let her.”
Jess grunted and Slim wondering whether he had said too much, turned over and shut his eyes and just for a second had to push away a vision of Laurel DeWalt’s beautiful soulless face.
The next morning they saddled up at first light, riding along in reasonably companionable silence, which worried Slim more than any arguments. Some time that day they would get to the Socorro trail and somehow or other he had to get Jess past it, and then past the numerous other trails heading west toward Santa Fe before they got to Colorado. Slim was starting to feel if he could get Jess into Colorado his chances of getting Jess home were very good. Jess’s carping about the trouble you could get into in some of those pass through towns was not unfounded. Slim had done enough wild riding after the war to have experienced some of the problems himself, and if he knew Jess and he did, Jess would not leave him stranded so if he could play Jess along things might go his way.
But they were still some way from Colorado.
It was unlikely that Jess would fall for a flat refusal to talk this time. If Slim knew Jess and he did, Jess would be figuring that given Slim’s current moodiness, he was not going to get a chance for a friendly farewell, so somewhere very close to Socorro trail Jess would simply yell it out the farewell and move on, deeply regretting that the two of them would part on bad terms.
Slim could follow Jess west but sooner or later, more sooner than later if Jess really believed he was doing the right thing by leaving, which Slim figured he did or he would not be trying, Jess would find a way of leaving Slim behind. So keeping Jess moving north was the best choice as long, as Jess did not work out he was being taken.
Slim contemplated the problem for some part of the morning. The food plan might have worked, if he had managed to have a chuck wagon along. Perhaps it was worth another try to veer eastwards. Slim tried a suggestion about veering eastward toward Texas.
“Thought you wanted to get home?” Jess asked tersely.
“You ain’t not goin’ back to Texas ‘cause you wanted or anythin’ are you?” Slim asked opting for keeping Jess talking.
“I told you why I ain’t goin’ back” Jess snapped.
“Okay” Slim answered a touch defensively. “You tell me you were never in trouble in Texas and I’ll believe you.”
Jess rode on in guilty silence while Slim followed. Finally Jess laughed. “Had some trouble” he admitted finally. “Sherriff down in Laredo got anythin’ about me pulled, some years ago.”
“Nice to have a friend” Slim commented drily.
“Wasn’t a friend” Jess answered carefully. When Slim did not respond, he sighed “Sherriff felt guilty for tryin’ to hang me for somethin’ I didn’t do, second time someone near hung me” he said “so he thought getting’ anythin’ else pulled made up.”
“Did it?” Slim asked casually.’
Jess shrugged” I’m alive” he said.
“Why they try to hang you?” Slim asked still keeping it as casual as he could.
Jess thought hard before he answered. “Figured I was guilty of robbin’ and murder. Shootin’ the place up after an express office robbery. Knew a girl” he finally told Slim and watched carefully for any reaction from Slim who carefully avoided showing any. “She had some mighty rough kinfolk and well she was…”
“Really something?” asked Slim with a grin “so doggone attractive, you just got dragged along.”
“Wasn’t that attractive” Jess replied “But yeah she was really somethin’.”
Slim pulled a face that was not quite sympathetic “How close they get to hangin’ you?” he asked casually.
“Gallows” Jess answered, not quite casually “Rope around my neck.”
“Lucky you got a reprieve” Slim answered.
“Didn’t” Jess muttered as Slim looked at him “Not then any way. Had to shoot my way out.”
Slim shook his head. “How do you shoot your way out of your own hangin’ party?” he asked curiously.
“Undertaker was a pal” Jess said as if that explained “Cost me though” he added.
“Yeah” said Slim.
“Yeah” said Jess “had to get him a new undertaker’s hat. You got any idea how much those things cost” he said “Took every cent I had and more.”
“Never figured they were that expensive” Slim said
“They are” Jess said with feeling.
“How did you near get hung the first time?” Slim asked figuring if Jess was talking, he was listening.
“Wrong place wrong time” Jess answered “fellas got mean about a girl gettin’ hurt, out to lynch someone. Just happened to be in the way.”
“Shoot your way out of that one” Slim asked
“Nope” said Jess. “Fella helped me out. Never did get to say thanks” he said.
Slim caught his breath at the word thanks.
“Slim” Jess started to say.
“So it was a girl both times you near got hung” Slim interrupted as Jess started to bristle and forgot what he was about to say thanks and farewell. “You ever figured Jess that you got an invite to trouble stamped on your forehead.”
Jess became indignant “It ain’t so” he declared “I never do invite it.” He thought about it and smiled slightly. “Comes along without no invitation” he said. “Ella’s right. It ain’t healthy sometime around me” he watched Slim carefully. “So Slim” he started to say.
“I noticed” Slim interrupted. “Getting quite a passing acquaintance with trouble since you come home.” He added deliberately testing Jess’s reaction to the word. “How many posters that sheriff have to pull?” he asked.
“Quite a few” Jess admitted. “But it wasn’t all the posters. Some trouble you can’t pull with a poster.”
When Slim frowned, Jess said “Roney.”
“Fella was stark ravin’ crazy” Slim said emphatically.
“I know” said Jess with feeling. “Roney ain’t the only crazy fool I ever knew neither.” He watched Slim carefully for a reaction.
“Course Roney wasn’t the only crazy fool to come by the door since started with the relay station” Slim said before Jess came up with an explanation he was leaving so crazy fools did not come visiting the relay station.
“Mmm” said Jess lapsing into his own thoughts, clearly listing in his head the trouble that had not yet arrived at the Sherman Ranch.
“Reckon Mose can tell you about the Bishop’s wife” Slim said watching Jess out of the corner of his eye. He would have liked to have known what was in that list but knew that was something Jess would only talk about when he was ready. “I reckon it must have only been second or third time stage came through though.”
“mmm” said Jess.
“So” Said Slim and started talking, watching Jess carefully for any signs of the thank you speech. This time Jess did not pretend to listen enough to get the mm’s in the right place. Slim talked on and Jess became more and more distracted.
“So” said Slim finally “When Mose comes down the hill, the stage is runnin’ so fast, and the women screamin’ fit to bust. The Bishop’s wife is yellin’ louder than the dance hall girl. Course that was all we thought she was. Didn’t know she was one of them Younger boy’s girlfriend at the time. Mose may have been a might more careful. And if he had known the other one was the Bishop’s wife, and the same woman they knew from the old fort then I reckon he would have been downright careful.”
“What Bishop’s wife?” said Jess coming out of his reverie.
“The one I just told you about” said Slim innocently “Were you listenin’ to me?”
“Sure” said Jess looking confused.
“So I figured with the way those women were carryin’ on, it was just the start of it and just had to be doggone careful about folks gettin’ off the stage. Stage is just a natural means of trouble and crazy folk. But I won’t forget that Bishop’s wife in a hurry.”
“Figures” said Jess clearly bewildered and was fortunately far enough ahead of Slim not to see him smiling to himself.
“How far to the Socorro turn off?” Slim asked.
Jess shifted in his saddle nervously. “Quite a ways” he said and lapsed into silence again.
Slim wondered how long before the trail Jess would start the speech. Jess would have leaned from his thwarted attempt at the border not to try to early. Right on the turn off was Slim’s rbest guess. As in thank you and fare thee well and turn away no extra words said.