LONG RIDE HOME
Slim rode along keeping just behind Jess watching for any signs that the farewell speech was coming, at the same time scanning the route ahead for a sighting of the west trail. Up ahead everything seemed similar open path followed by long open ground to the right and a mountain range to their left.
Midway into the afternoon Slim’s watch was rewarded by Jess showing distinct signs of agitation. For about half an hour Jess fidgeted looked around and kept glancing at Slim then scanning the distance mostly to the left.
Jess finally became quiet after scanning the horizon and Slim straining to see what Jess was seeing, recognised what could have been a trail going off to the left some distance up ahead. There was nothing between the trail and the road they were on except open plain and Slim decided his best bet was to start as soon as Jess gave him an opening.
A little further on Jess pulled up and Slim moved past him. Jess had taken on the rigid stance of someone who had made up their mind to so something very hard.
“Slim” Jess said his voice tight.
“Yeah I know” Slim said his voice taking on careful note of worry.
“You do?” said Jess.
“Been feelin” something ain’t right for an hour or so” Slim said.
“You have” said Jess clearly concerned.
“Yeah” said Slim who to Jess’s confusion dismounted to run his hand down his horse’s left shoulder “Doggone it, this is a good horse.”
“What” said Jess now thoroughly confused.
“Horse seem lame to you?” Slim asked trying to sound as worried as possible.
“No” Jess answered shortly.
“Figure it’s in his right shoulder’ Slim said reaching his hand down his horses shoulder. “That what you figure.”
“Slim that is not…” Jess pushed in.
“Where you figure it?” Slim asked all concern for his horse. “We’re a long way from anywhere” he said worried.
“What” said Jess.
“We’re a long way from anywhere” Slim said frowning hard. “Sure hate to be stuck out here”. He moved the horse forward, and as Jess looked away toward the Socorro trail, giving it a good hard thump with his shoulder, so it skittered away.
“That does not look good” he said as Jess eyed him extremely suspiciously. “Maybe just move on see if it loosens up.”
Jess narrowed his eyes and glanced at the west trail.
Slim remounted. Jess moved cautiously along behind him then Slim stopped again in five minutes. “Somethin’s wrong” Slim said frowning even more deeply.
“What” said Jess getting tense. “Cain’t see anything wrong with your horse.”
“Just watch” Slim said “He’s droppin’ that right shoulder .”
“Trot him on” Jess finally ordered suspiciously.
Slim trotted the horse quite a few yards by this time on the other side of where the trail went west. Jess stopping almost at the crossroads watched carefully.
“Don’t see nothin’.” Jess said tersely.
“I still feel it” Slim carefully watched Jess still sitting on his horse at the trail turn and frowning.
“Slim” Jess said staring hard at the west trail.
“You check him, see if you can feel anything” Slim said.
Jess hesitated for several moments which seemed like hours to Slim, before irritation written all over him, he rode up to where Slim was waiting, putting the trail turnoff behind him.
Jess in total annoyance dismounted and went up to Slim’s horse. He took his gloves off and started to run his hand down the horse’s right shoulder. As he did so Slim touched it with his left spur and the horse went sideways almost slamming into Jess who had to jump back hard out of the way.
“Sure don’t like being touched” Slim said.
“Get off” Jess ordered, eyes narrowed.
Slim got off and held the horse’s head. As Jess touched the horse again, Slim put his hand around and stuck his thumb into the horse’s shoulder. The horse shot sideways nearly jumping on top of Jess again. Jess looked up suspiciously to see Slim patting the horse on its nose and looking concerned.
“I don’t feel anythin’ wrong” Jess said through his teeth.
“Maybe just move on and see if it settles” Slim said, all concern “How far away are we from a town?” he deliberately looked eastwards.
“Quite a ways in any direction” Jess muttered nastily.
“Bad place to be stuck with a lame horse” Slim commented innocently “Seen any Indian signs?”
“No” said Jess shortly.
“Just going to trot a ways again” Slim said “See if anything gets better.”
Jess narrowed his eyes and frowned but said nothing. He glanced back toward the trail and Slim held his breath for what seemed forever before Jess nodded curtly “Sure” he said.
Slim moved on at a steady trot for quite some distance, glancing over his shoulder to see the Socorro trail turn off retreating into the distance.
Finally Jess moved up beside him and said quite tersely “There ain’t nothin’ wrong with that horse.”
Slim caught his breath as Jess started to pull up and look backwards, so making sure that Jess could not see him do it, Slim tickled his horse up with a spur then held back, the horse tossed his head and dropped slightly on his right front leg. Slim managed to keep it up for about five strides.
Jess frowned but finally said “Maybe nodding his head. Right side.”
“Nodding head usually means shoulder” Slim said.
“Could be foot” Jess said. “Coulda stood on a stone. Shoes are all on.”
“I reckon it’s in his shoulder” Slim said quickly, figuring he could keep a fake shoulder injury going far longer than a fake foot one “seems okay when we move, stiffens when we don’t.”
“Movin’ okay now, ain’t noddin’ his head at all” Jess said through his teeth. He started to pull up again and fell behind Slim.
“I reckon he got a kick yesterday when you stomped into him down near the border” Slim said just stopping short of accusing.
“I-didn’t-touch-your-cursed-horse” Jess muttered pushing up beside Slim.
“Sure you did” said Slim figuring guilt had worked before “Felt him buckle down when you crashed him, heard the thud.”
“It ain’t so” Jess said through his teeth as Slim gave him a very well feigned look of total disbelief.
Slim managed to keep the trotting and stopping game up until the Socorro trail was out of sight while Jess followed along behind, his expression becoming more and more sour. Slim kept watching carefully for any signs that Jess was working out that he was being literally taken for a ride. Jess was showing signs of considerable annoyance and even suspicion and may even have connected that Slim had foiled him going west but as he did not stop in his tracks and point blank refuse to move on it did not appear he had worked out it was intentional.
And while determinedly pushing north, Slim became quite irrationally annoyed by the fact that Jess still had not worked out he was being taken back to Wyoming because he was wanted there. Jess’s arrival may have only been months in terms of time, but in terms of impact on the people at the relay station it was a lifetime. Jess should have realised that his presence at the Sherman ranch was important to the people who had lived there and that he was not going to be let ride off without an argument.
Andy clearly loved Jess, was even willing to take on Aunt Ella for Jess. Jonsey kept calling him that boy, a sure sign of affection, and Jess knew full well Slim had gone rushing up to Canada after him, for friendship’s sake, even when he knew what Slim thought about his motives for going. Then Slim had risked his own life, and made some hard choices to keep Jess alive from Sam Prado.
In the months since he had come to work at the Sherman ranch, Jess had also apprehensively returned twice, once in the early days when he left after the visit from his crazy friend Roney and from when he went to Rock Springs. Both times he had been welcomed back, ecstatically by Andy, with warm and slightly sarcastic affection from Jonsey and without even a question from Slim and he still did not seem to understand that he had become important to them.
That Jess cared himself so much in a short time should have made it clear to him that it went both ways but Jess was not good at understanding such things. He said himself that since the war he had never stayed in one spot for even two months. Never stayed long enough to understand what roots really meant.
Slim glanced at Jess grim faced jogging along beside him and regretfully decided thumping would not help. Sooner or later Jess was going to have to figure it out himself. So he contented himself to say nothing and push as hard as he could to put sufficient distance between them and the Socorro trail. Jess apparently learnt by the experience of trying to get a word in when Slim was mad or distracted because he kept quiet this time.
Quite some distance along Slim finally asked again “How far we from a town?”
“Quite a ways” said Jess again “Socorro turn off is back further. Can still go back. Las Vegas Santa Fe trail up ahead. Some ranches maybe eastwards if you want to try trading horses.”
“Good horse” Slim said hastily “Sure hate to trade him off.”
Jess narrowed his eyes but as they rode Slim caught him keeping a fairly close look at the horse’s pace as they moved on. He jogged the horse ahead jiggling the animal around when he could get a chance without Jess noticing so it skipped a pace.
“Still think it’s in his shoulder.” Slim said, sounding as worried as he could. “Sure glad I ain’t alone out here.” He said “A long ways from nowhere to be with a lame horse.
“Stop nigglin’ at him” Jess ordered. “Let him move on.”
Slim glanced sideways and pushed the horse forward for a while, then pulled up. “Still seems sore in the shoulder” he said.
Jess gave Slim a really dirty look. “Think so” he said.
“Reckon” said Slim as Jess’s eyes narrowed suspiciously. Slim decided he needed to push his point. He pulled up, dismounted then stripped the saddle, making a big point of running his hand all over the animal’s back and both shoulders and front legs. “Hope you didn’t do anything worse than ripe up a muscle” he told Jess “ when you collected him yesterday.”
“I-didn’t-hit-him. I-didn’t-get-him-kicked” Jess answered through his teeth. He sat on his horse for a while Slim fussed and then conceding that Slim was not going to move dismounted and loosened the cinch on his own horse.
“That shoulder is sure stiff” Slim told Jess and spent a continuous half hour or more carefully rubbing and massaging his horses shoulder while Jess found a rock to lean against, sitting back with his hat over his eyes.
Slim figured Jess was already planning where the next road west was. “You know any water around here?” he called
Jess did not appear to hear him.
Slim called “Jess” he yelled, “water.”
“What” Jess said.
“Water” said Slim.
“None around here” Jess answered from under the hat “Some up ahead some miles, at a waterhole, used to be. Should be right.”
“What about Indians?” Slim asked trying to make sure he sounded worried.
“What about ‘em”. Jess took a deep breath. “Slim” he started to say.
Slim decided that Jess was again working up to a dangerous conversation. “If you’ve lamed this horse could be a long way home” he interrupted before Jess could start any speeches. “Sure glad he didn’t get sore comin’ down. Would hate to be stuck out in this open with a lame horse.”
Jess sat up and pushed his hat back. He gave him a dirty look. “I-didn’t-lame-your-horse” he said. “But...”
“We need to move. Keep this shoulder loose” Slim said quickly, turning his back to resaddle the horse.
Jess took a deep breath. “Sure” he said.
They found the water hole and decided, at least Slim decided, Jess went along with it, that they should rest there that night. He sent Jess off hunting, making a fuss that he was going to look around for Indian signs.
“Ain’t any” said Jess shortly.
“It’s Arapaho country from here up to the Colorado border ain’t it” Slim asked. “See somethin’ around a water hole if they were in the area.” he said.
“Ain’t any” said Jess even shorter as he went off to hunt supper.
“Jess I tell you, I’ve sure ridden with some easier tempered fellas in my time” Slim commented.
Jess stopped cold, stood for about a second, then kept on walking. Slim smiled to himself.
Jess ate without talking much and then seemed reasonable easy. For the most part he lay back with his hat over his eyes, uninterested in talking. Apart from becoming very terse with Slim when he suggested that maybe they should keep the fire low in case Indians were around.
“What are you runnin’ scared about?” he asked and then pulled the hat down even further.
Slim would have liked to believe that it was because a few days past Laurel’s departure, Jess had calmed down enough to just decide to go home. But if he knew Jess and he did, it was more likely that Jess’s temper had been replaced by a steely determination not to be the cause of any more trouble or put at risk people he cared about.
This was more or less confirmed by Jess getting very restless after Slim settled down. He kept Slim awake by getting up every few minutes, checking the fire and the picketed horses. Once when he thought Slim was asleep he went over to Slim’s horse and carefully ran his hand down its shoulders and legs and muttered to himself.
He came back to sit at the fire and smiled sheepishly when he realised that Slim was awake and watching.
“Just checkin’ to see if he could make it up to Colorado” Jess said.
Slim pushed himself up to sitting position “Need him to make it up to Wyomin’ he said. “ How far to Colorado?”
“Quite a ways” Jess said. He took a deep breath. “You need to be careful around them Colorado towns. Once you get north of Cordossa, it ain’t so bad.” He said “Cordossa’s the worst of ‘em. Knew a fella who got himself shot up, near killed in Cordossa for askin’ the time o’day. Only thing that saved him was the sheriff up there hadn’t figured on killin’ anyone early in the day, and he ain’t that good a shot with a colt. Been that much later and the sherrif was carryin’ a rifle, fella wouldna made it.”
“You don’t say” Slim said drily. “What’s all the preachin’ for. I ain’t no greenhorn kid.. You know I made it down to Mexico without any help. You know I was a lieutenant in the war. Kinda got used to makin’ out for myself.”
“That’s what I mean” said Jess with a very forced patience. “You’re used to bein’ someone. I bet even when you was drivin’ cattle a few years ago, even into Colorado everybody knew who you was. And if they didn’t you only had to say you was Sherman from Laramie way an’ they sure knew you. Down in them southern towns, won’t know you. Makes a difference how things happen when they don’t know you.”
“Natural folk’s know me, family been around a while” Slim said, his patience far less forced than Jess. “Pa used to be quite a hand. Happens when family and you been in one place a while.”
“That’s what I mean. Know you for bein’ somebody when you got roots.” Jess said. “First time I went up to Cheyenne with the stage said I was working for the Sherman place. Knew you. Asked how I got on with you. Got told you had a point of view about things. Same up on the Casper end. Or if they didn’t know you, knew your Pa or your family.”
“So” said Slim with a small smile “How do you get on with me?”
Jess allowed himself a wry smile in return. “Different when you’re driftin’ particular down south parts of the territory. Like in Cordossa” Jess said. “Get known for t’other reasons when you don’t stay in one place for a while. Don’t take kindly to drifters havin’ a point of view.”
“So “ said Slim “ what’s that got to do with you worrin’ about me in Colorado towns, like Cordossa.”
Jess was silent for a while.
“So” said Slim.
“Don’t take this wrong” said Jess warily.
“Sure” said Slim drily.
“Like talkin’ last night” Jess said warily “You got a powerful sense of right and wrong Slim an’ I seen you act up somethin’ bad when maybe you think somethin’ ain’t right. Kinda admire it” he admitted. “Kinda like following you in when you figure somethin’ ain’t right, saves me the trouble of workin’ out why.”
“So” said Slim tersely not letting the conversation get side-tracked into anything that could end up with the words thank you.
Jess grimaced at being cut short. He took a deep breath as if to try again. “What you ain’t so good at knowin’,” Jess said “Is sometimes bein’ right don’t matter a hoot. Like when you’re driftin’ or when you’re movin’ around and folks don’t know you’re someone.”
“So” said Slim.
Jess’s eyes narrowed but he opted for preaching over farewells to Slim’s relief. “Like not so long ago I was just ridin’ down the street in a town, no-one knew me. Mindin’ my own business and sheriff starts shootin’ at me. Near enough took my head off.”
Slim smiled. “It was a bad time” Slim said “Carlin.”
“I know why now” Jess said “Point is no-one asked me if I was anythin’ to do with him. Just started shootin’. Easiest thing was to turn and get. Easy for me” he said “Reckon you’d o’wanted to talk. Figured shootin’ at a man for ridin’ down the street wasn’t right. Maybe knowin’ you was Slim Sherman they’d o’talked but not knowin’, right or wrong they’d shoot and knowin’ you, you’d shoot back”
“How often is that goin’ to happen?” Slim asked derisively.
“Pretty regular” Jess answered easily. “You know just that same day I was lyin’ in the sun watchin’ a bird fly over and some fella stuck a gun at my head.”
“You were trespassin’.” Slim told him amused at the memory.
“You were right” Jess agreed “Would’na done you much good if I’d figured to shoot back, bein’ right though. Course if I’d knowed then you was Mr Sherman of Sherman Ranch well maybe I’d have been more respectful.”
“I don’t think so” said Slim
“You’re right” said Jess grinning.
They rode on from first light next morning. Jess seemed to spend a large part of the night moving around, waking Slim quite a bit when he did it. Neither was in a particularly good mood the next morning. Jess complained of no food but a few apples and what was left from the night before’s hunting. Slim suggested they could stock up in Colorado trail towns and got a very testy response.
Jess was even more testy as he asked about Slim’s horse and Slim decided pushing it was not a good idea so he said that the horse seemed fine.
“Must have been all that rubbin’ fixed him” Slim said.
“Must a been” Jess agreed dryly.
They rode on northwards, with Slim realising that the Santa Fe trail was coming up and wondering what he could do to stop Jess going west again. After that it was a fairly clear run to Colorado where there was another large mountain range between Jess and westward but he was pretty sure that Jess calmer than he had been was not going to fall for any temper, or risks to his horse.
So Slim was going to have to fall back on the one thing he knew for certain. That he knew Jess and Jess would not desert in the face of danger. All he had to do was find a danger that would convince Jess he needed to keep going north.
Jess was not too convinced about Indians but it was Slim’s best bet for the moment.
Well into the morning they stopped at one of the few water holes. Slim was not unhappy to see that the water hole was surrounded by hoof marks from unshod horses.
“Recent.” he said bending over to examine the tracks. “Best we don’t hang around. Never know.”
“If it is Indians we don’t bother them, no reason to bother us” Jess said even more testily than before.
“Less someone else has been botherin’ ‘em and they’re mad” Slim argued. “Best get movin’.”
“You’re getting’ awful nervous” Jess commented doubtfully and although Slim made efforts to move fast, Jess contented himself to remain at steady jog.
Slim tried three times to suggest there could be a problem and three times Jess narrowed his eyes and asked Slim why he was getting edgy.
Finally they saw a cloud of dust at some distance and Slim was just congratulating himself that something was going right, and it was Indians when Jess pulled up and pointed. Through the dust there were about seven horses, coming from the general direction of the water hole, loose.
“Mustangs” said Jess amused.
“Mustangs” agreed Slim far from it.