LONG RIDE HOME
They rode carefully all day. Jess seemed to have got over his introversion. He talked fairly easily, sharing parts of his past that Slim was surprised he was so open about, because they were things that were frankly disturbing, some stories of the worst places he had been and some of the worst trouble he had been in. Certainly he was sharing things that when he had come close to being asked in the last few months, he had shied away from.
Most were told with a dry disregard for offering any justification to why Jess had done what he had done and been what he had been. At first Slim was confused at why Jess had started to talk, especially as many of the stories were introduced as being something that would really shock Aunt Ella, ruin Andy’s high opinion of him or intentionally insisting that at some point Jess had kept company with or crossed every wanted man in several territories.
Slim finally realised that Jess, after spending some days riding north when he intended to ride west, had calmed down from the sheer embarrassment he was feeling at having been made such a fool by Laurel but was truly locked into separating himself from the Sherman connection. And therefore he was doing his best to ease the break. Taking the view that the worse Slim knew about him the less likely he was to argue when Jess did get around to saying goodbye.
The trouble for Jess, if only he knew it, was that the more he talked about his life on the bad side, the more Slim was hearing a story of a man who in the face of all odds had maintained a sense of decency and honesty and often misplaced loyalty. But even when Jess was misplacing that loyalty Slim found it as something to respect. Slim could easily recognise that Jess’s sense of loyalty to almost any one who had remotely offered him friendliness or assistance was easily the source of most of the concerns and troubles he brought on himself but it was also the reason Jess had not been dragged down to the level of the bad men and outlaws he was clearly trying to convince Slim had happened.
Slim recalled the old Judge Cade accusing Jess of having a nasty streak of honesty in him and he had to agree the old reprobate knew what he was talking about. Jess did have a streak of honesty in him, one that had remained in the face of almost every attempt from others and himself to get rid of it. Slim found himself wishing Jess was aware he was being taken home because he would like to have pointed out to him that his stories, far from convincing Slim to let him go off declaring good riddance, were doing the opposite.
Slim had lived through a war. A war where men had been sent to undertake fighting and face things for which most were unprepared. As a friend to some and then as an officer he was a first-hand witness to the destruction that facing the worst in themselves had led some men, too many men. Slim had never had any doubts about his role in the war but as many a soldier who returned home he had things buried inside himself that he did not want to acknowledge, let alone share. What Jess’s story was doing was offering him a sense of relief that someone could come through the carnage with a good soul battered, bruised and rough but still intact. What he was hearing from Jess was something that justified some of the worst things he himself had faced.
Not that Jess would be very thrilled to hear that at the moment.
Nor did knowing just where Jess had come from, make Slim any less concerned that Jess needed to return home. All men had a breaking point. There was a good chance that throwing a way his chance to belong on the whim of an amoral women could be Jess’s.
At which point a vision of Laurel de Wall as he had last seen her flashed in front of Slim’s eyes. He caught his breath, and cursed her for what she had done to Jess and for getting into his thoughts with simply a look and a promise, and then he cursed himself because he knew what she was, and still she was there haunting him. Slim deliberately pushed the vision of her away, tried to bury it with his worst memories of war and made every effort concentrate on the problem of Jess.
Slim did wonder if… when he got Jess home, how Jess would deal with having spilled most of what his life had been like. Resentment perhaps, or maybe finally understanding that he could trust someone.
None of which mattered if Slim could not get Jess home.
And far from getting easier, as they headed toward the Santa Fe trail, it was getting harder. As they rode along, with Jess once again lapsing into silence, presumably to give Slim time to digest the full extent of his tales, Slim considered his options. They appeared to be convincing Jess that he was needed; convincing Jess Slim would not get back without him; following Jess when he turned west until he gave up, or finally admitting that he had every intention of dragging Jess home and taking a chance Jess would see sense.
The last one being the least likely to succeed.
They stopped for the night near another water hole that had some grazing around for the horses. Slim was more than pleased when they found the remains of a recent camp fire, almost at the spot they camped. He wandered around searching for signs of Indians moving and started pushing the possibilities of danger from the Indian risk, making a fuss about how close the Indians could be, while Jess standing watching him made exasperated grunts in reply.
Jess finally went over to the old campfire and started kicking around. As Slim became more enthusiastic about the risks Jess bent down and sifted through the remains of the ashes. He finally stood up holding a burnt empty can “Bean eating Indians?” he said drily. “Hardcase what is with you runnin’ scared?” he asked suspiciously.
Slim decided any explanations were dangerous and just shrugged. “How far to the Santé Fe trail?” he asked abruptly.
“Quite a ways” said Jess his voice very dry.
“When?” Slim asked annoyed.
“Tomorrow” Jess said even drier.
Slim got some sleep that night but Jess managed to disturb him on several occasions. Jess had talked himself out and his restlessness only showed itself by wandering, and then some twisting and turning.
So much for a man who claimed he could sleep anywhere Slim thought when he was awakened for the third time. Slim wondered what was bothering Jess more, having Laurel crash his dreams or feeling he was walking out on the only chance he had to find a home. He shut his eyes and was about to curse Jess’s stupidity on both scores when a vision of Laurel DeWalt’s knowing soulless eyes flashed before him and he caught his breath.
They finally made the Santa Fe trail toward the middle of the next morning. Slim waited for Jess to start the thank you speech and when it did not happen was all for riding straight north. Jess just shrugged and said he was riding into Las Vegas, a New Mexican town that was something of a journey break for many travellers using the Santa Fe trail to move west. Slim supposed that Jess had considered the possibilities of Slim refusing to say goodbye on the trail especially as other attempts to do that had somehow been foiled. He had therefore decided that telling Slim he was staying in a town was likely to be more successful than saying he was drifting off and riding away.
Jess headed toward the town before Slim could argue and all Slim could do was follow.
Slim mused over ideas about perhaps convincing the local law that he was a bounty hunter, no…. special marshal, no rewards involved, and needed help to arrest a prisoner. He thought there was a chance that he could pull it off, depending on the size of the law enforcement in Las Vegas. Jess would howl and fight but not lethally, and these days Slim had a pretty good idea of how Jess fought. The problem was not getting Jess contained, he decided, it would be keeping him that way all the way to Wyoming. Only something to use as a last resort. He just had to be ready to take advantage of whatever opportunities arose.
As Slim pondered all the ways he could physically drag Jess back home, they rode into Las Vegas, a town established as one of the stops along the Santa Fe trail. It was a reasonable size town with porched adobe Spanish style buildings lining a couple of streets. It was not a sleepy town however, As Slim looked around, he realised there were wagons and every other conceivable form of transport were packed around the town and loose hobbled horses and bullocks were grazing in any free spaces around the town. There were some people camped near some of the wagons, and more lounging around the streets and under the Spanish archways of many of the buildings. Most gave the impression that they had been hanging around for some time.
Jess also noticed and looked at Slim with surprise then narrowed his eyes. “Busy” he muttered.
“Something goin’ on” Slim answered hoping for any excuse to keep Jess moving that just might happen.
They went to leave the horses at the livery stable but a very flustered and grumpy attendant said there was no room and then bustled off after telling them all they could do was hitch the horses to a space at the corral fence and he would provide some grain.
Jess looked at Slim “Mighty hospitable” he said sarcastically. Slim shrugged not really unhappy about it.
They unsaddled the horses, watered them, found a small space to hitch near a fence where they could be grained without some other animal stealing it and then drifted up the street.
“Beer and a steak” Jess said.
Slim nodded but it turned out to be harder to find a meal than they thought. There were quite a number of cafes and saloons in the town and all were packed.
“Somethin’s up” Jess said, and Slim noted the hint of frustration in his voice. “Town’s burstin’.”
They finally found a saloon at the end of the town that had enough space to get inside and a sign saying meals were being served.
After considerable pushing just to get near the bar a grumpy, busy and far from friendly barman took an order for meals and snapped out the cost.
Jess scrapped his pockets for money, finally pulling out a handful of change and some very crumbled dollar notes.
“That all you got?” Slim asked taking note.
Jess shrugged and ordered two beers, scowling as the busy barman sloshed beer over the counter. He picked up his beer and walked off, pushing his way through the crowded room to try and find space at a table in a far corner. A nice space to have a private conversation Slim noted, where Jess could say his farewell speech as best he could but the place was crowded enough for Slim not to make a public scene.
“Score points for you Jess” Slim thought annoyed. He wondered how much Jess was suspecting Slim was trying to foil the farewell speech.
Slim racked his brains to think of ways to stop the conversation that was inevitably going to happen if he sat down at the table with Jess. He had to break into his $5 note to pay for the meal, taking his time, slowly counted the change as Jess found a table in a rather smoky corner of the room.
As Jess sat at the table he had found tapping his fingers impatiently, Slim stayed well away. He sipped his beer and after three tries at speaking to someone in the crowd was able to get into a conversation with a bearded rather dirty young man, whose boots looked worse for wear and who was slowly sipping on his beer as if it was his last. To Slim’s amusement he spoke with a decided English accent.
Slim glanced toward where Jess was sitting at the table, showing every indication of a man who had worked himself up to a difficult conversation and was getting very frustrated when it did not happen. Slim turned his back ignoring Jess and focused his attention on the young Englishman, which as far as he was concerned was one of the best conversations he had in some time.
The young man was happy to talk. He said he was trying to make his way toward Arizona and some of the silver strikes he had heard there, which as he said was the route that most of the people in the town were doing, but nobody in the town was going anywhere.
The trail west, the young man morosely told Slim was not passable, and it didn’t look like being passable for some time. A rock slide at Glorietta had left the road completely blocked and as far as the young man was concerned people in Las Vegas were doing everything they could not to fix it until either the travellers money ran out or the food in the town did.
Slim just looked at him, a grin all over his face. “Trail west is blocked?” he asked not keeping the pleasure out of his voice.
“Been blocked for ten days” said the young man. “Stuck here. Sleeping rough, no rooms here even if I did have money. No more money nothing left. No jobs here.’ And the saloons stopped free food about a week ago. Stuck in this god forsaken country” he concluded bitterly.
“I don’t think its godforsaken” Slim told him happily.
“What evidence do you have, God even knows where this country is?” said the young man bitterly.
“There was a rock slide on the western trail” Slim answered. “Just when I was thinking I needed a miracle. Proves God is on my side.”
“The rock slide was caused by a ground tremor” the young man pointed out.
“You take your miracles your way. I’ll take mine my way.” Slim replied nodding in Jess’s direction.
“Why do you need a miracle?” asked the young man curiously.
“To move a mountain” Slim said. “A goldurn stubborn one.”
“You don’t look like a man in need of a miracle.” the young man commented looking Slim up and down.
“You don’t look like a guardian angel.” Slim replied.
The young man’s eyes narrowed suspiciously but when Slim offered to buy him another beer and lunch, he accepted thanking Slim profusely and positively beaming at Slim.
Which was not Jess’s reaction when Slim brought the young man over to the table, and Slim sat him down to tell Jess the good news that the west road was blocked.
All things considered Jess took it well. His hand cracked on the table and his eyes narrowed and there was a small tremor at his lip. He started to say about three things before he finally shook his head and asked “Is that what you was talkin’ about at the bar?”
“Mostly we were talking about God” said the young man.
Jess looked surprised “When did you get religion?” he asked Slim
“Been thinking about it recently.” Slim said drily “Where you come from?” he asked the young man, who immediately launched into an intense and homesick description of his home town of Bristol, and the horrors of a steerage class boat trip to America. Jess raised his eyes and swallowed hard and Slim leaned forward intensely interested in the young man’s story. Slim kept the young Englishman talking through the long wait for a meal and while they ate. Jess alternatively sipped at his beer and stared into it then frowned deeply.
Slim watched Jess carefully all through the meal. Mostly Jess just ate fast, raising his eyes because there was no way he could get a word in through the young Englishman’s descriptions of the food on ships from Bristol in steerage. Not that Jess was ever off his food so that was no indication of his state of mind Slim thought. Finally Jess could clearly not stand it any longer. He stood up offering to get more beer, maybe needing to get more beer, and pushed his way through to the bar. From the long conversation Jess had at the bar with a group of men who looked like miners, and the sour expression on his face, the conversation clearly confirmed the road was closed.
And to Slim’s relief it was Jess who started them moving. He finished his beer then came over and said he would get the horses. As soon as Jess left, Slim thanked the rather confused young man, telling him he may have helped save a life, and then pressed his last three loose dollars into his hand.
The young man was clearly embarrassed “I was not looking for charity” he said.
“Gratitude” Slim said as he left.
Slim decided he would leave Jess get the horses and pay for them, keeping Jess broke might just add to his cause. He went over to the general store where he bought some supplies which he was still purchasing when he saw Jess come up to the store with the horses. So he called to him to pay for the supplies which he did narrowing his eyes and scrapping a few more of his last crumbled dollars.
“How much you got left?” Jess asked.
“20 dollar note and few quarters” Slim said which was the honest truth. “You?”
“Some dollars in change,” Jess replied. “You want to get out of here” he said glancing around at the crowded street of people hanging around doing nothing.
“Sure thing” Slim said enthusiastically. He mounted and rode out of town, heading north before Jess could start arguing. “That sure was an interestin’ story from the young fella at lunch” he said.
Jess gave him a dirty look and Slim smiled to himself.
They rode on northwards. Slim thinking to keep a few fires hot started to talk about Indians.
Jess pulled up sharp. “Shut up about the cursed injuns” he said.
Slim pulled a face. “Sure” said Slim.
They moved north up the Santa Fe trail, passing few riders and wagons who were less than thrilled to hear about rock slides and finally moved off the trail as it turned east.
“You sure you don’t want to go back through Texas?” Slim asked Jess.
“No” Jess replied shortly.
“Kansas?” Slim asked
“Been there” Jess answered shortly “thought you was in a hurry to get home.”
“Just askin’ said Slim. “ See any in…”
“Shut up” said Jess.
Jess was still planning on west and feeling completely frustrated at not being able to go in that direction, Slim thought to himself. Jess had been heading west when he had first come to the Sherman ranch and never offered an explanation why.
“What is it about west?” Slim wondered. Then nodded as he knew the answer because he knew Jess. Jess was going west because it wasn’t east or south. Jess had been east and south and all he had found was trouble and there was no going back from it so he was heading west to try and avoid it, futile though the hope might be. Slim wondered why Jess had not figured all he was going to find westward was more trouble, unless he could stop being who he was and then he was lost.
They rode on northwards, with Jess fairly quiet but not making any attempt or showing any interest in leaving. Throughout the rest of the ride he made no effort to explain himself or start making speeches. Mostly he rode on with a quiet wariness that gave away nothing of what he was thinking which worried Slim. He knew Jess well enough to recognise it was one of Jess’s dangerous moods but there was nothing he could do or say that broke through his quietness, though he tried on several occasions but the only response he got was very short murmured agreement. As they came near the border between Colorado and New Mexico, Slim thought he recognised again in Jess the signs of tension that he was planning farewell speeches. Once into Colorado with a mountain range to the west, Slim thought his chances of keeping Jess northward bound were good but they still had some distance to go.
He racked his brain for anything else he could do until they were safely away from westward trails. He was contemplating the problem for quite a distance when Jess cut into his thoughts and told him sharply to pull up.
“What? Slim asked doing as he was told.
“You see that dust cloud” Jess said pointing westward.
“Maybe someone just moving” Slim answered straining his eyes “Mustangs” he suggested.
“Sure” Jess answered sarcastically.
“Okay” said Slim keeping his cool.
“Move eastways” Jess said sharply
“Sure“ said Slim heading north east before Jess had any other suggestions. As he moved on he turned back to Jess “Been tellin’ you to keep a watch out for Arapaho.” he said.
“Don’t know they is Arapaho, don’t know if they is Arapaho they is lookin’ for trouble” Jess pointed out.
“It’s Indians, like I’ve been tellin’ you.” Slim started to say.
“Sure Mr Sherman, you is right they’re around” Jess agreed sarcastically “Must make a fella feel real good about himself bein’ right so often” he said.
“ I’m bein’ careful” said Slim defensively.
“You’re lookin’ for trouble afore it happens” Jess said “Trust me trouble will find ya soon enough without lookin’ for it where it’s not.”
“Don’t hurt to be wary in this country” Slim muttered.
“Shut up” said Jess
They rode northwards veering east for quite some time. Slim kept an eye out for signs to the west, where he could see dust clouds, the occasion flying of birds high in the sky and just a hint of movement high in the ranges. All of which Slim kept pointing out to Jess who glowered every time he said something.
Slim insisted to Jess’s annoyance that they moved as fast as they could, that they kept fires low and took turns keeping watch, making sure the horses were close.
Jess became steadily more irritated. When they were still not quite at the Colorado border as the mountains and rocks started to rise above them, Jess finally lost it enough to stop and demand what was wrong with Slim, what he was trying to pull and why he was seeing Indians at every rock. Jess mockingly asking what he was so scared about.
It was with some satisfaction that Slim pointed to a tall rocky outlet where two Indians were sitting watching down the trail they rode.
Jess cursed under his breath. Slim was uncertain whether it was at the Indians or at him for being right.
“We need to move” Jess ordered. “Just play it quiet. Keep going and don’t do anything stupid.”
Slim nodded then he looked up at the highlighted against the skyline Indians.
“Thank you Lord” he said under his breath.
They rode on, harder than they had. Stopping long enough to graze and rest horses and stay out of sight. They sighted a few more Indians but managed to stay clear. Slim was more than happy to see them as long as he and Jess were not turned away from riding north.
“Should be okay when we reach Colorado” Jess said. “Just keep on going.”
Slim smiled to himself. One more territory between them and home. He looked over to his left where the Rocky mountains towered high above them covered in cloud at the top. Almost an impenetrable wall between them and the way west.
Slim smiled God and nature were on his side.
Jess for his part spent rest of the day giving Slim instructions on how to get through the territory which did nothing to ease Slim’s concerns he had an escape west route planned.
“You do know I made it down to the border without needin’ instructions on what was hidden behind every rock?” Slim was finally driven to asking.
“You followed me ….” Jess swallowed hard and his jaw sort of tremoured as if thinking about the trip down was still too painful “an’ Laurel “ he said. “Took the easy route for her. She struggled with the ride” he said, his voice rasping.
“Or said she did” Slim pointed out.
“Point is that route took us around trouble, on the other side of the mountain” Jess said “This route must be how DeWalt and his friend got down ahead I guess. This way is faster but you got to know what you’re doin’.”
“DeWalt seemed to make it no trouble” Slim commented.
“You stop to ask him?” Jess answered.
“I guess not” Slim conceded. “Still don’t figure why you are so worried about stoppin’ in those towns”
“Well just remember when you’re driftin’ through you ain’t somebody” Jess said. “And don’t think you go into some place like Cordossa and get yourself into trouble I’ll come runnin’ to get you out because I’m tellin’ you I ain’t. You been warned” he threatened.
“I reckon you would” Slim told Jess.
Jess snorted “Don’t you even think about tryin’ to prove it” he snarled.
They rode on in not companionable silence.
“Andy sure thought you were someone when you came, even if you were driftin’.” Slim said after a little while. “By the time knew you a few hours I figured that too. “
“You threatened to shoot me once and beat me up before you did, cause you figured Andy weren’t safe with me” Jess answered tersely. “Figured you was right then” he said pointedly.
“Reckon the odds were I was” Slim muttered.
“An’ I reckon if you had been right, woulda been the second time that day, you was in big trouble for bein’ right. Jess agreed.
“Reckon you could take me?” Slim asked wondering if for once he was going to get a straight answer from Jess to such a question.
Jess hesitated “Reckon” Jess muttered finally as if forced to admit something he did not want too.
“Reckon’ I’d make a good fight of it” Slim answered a touch aggressively.
“Reckon, which is why I ain’t tryin’.” Jess agreed. “Which is why bein’ right ain’t everythin’.” He shook his head. “Like you was tellin’ me about vigilanting down Kansas, with that fella Mort Corey after the war.”
“Yeah” Slim asked “What’s that got to do with Colorado trail towns?”
“You figured it was the right thing. But risky business” Jess said “Even when you is right.
“Mort is a good friend” Slim said “Nothin’ happened account of it.”
“More luck than anythin’ else” Jess said. “Chasin’ them Bannister brothers is risky work. I know.”
“You figure I shouldn’t have gone” Slim said “You wouldn’t have.”
“Figure if you figured it was right, I’d have followed with you” Jess admitted “which is why I’m sayin’ keep out of them towns.”
Slim smiled. “There are a lot of towns that don’t know me” Slim said.”Why you so worried about south Colorado ones.”
“Spent some time around them towns in south Colorado” Jess said “before I come to Wyomin’. I know how they work.”
“In Cordossa?” Slim asked.
“Nope” Jess shook his head “Others.”
“Doin’ what?” Slim asked.
“Tried homesteadin’ for about two weeks before we got run out by the fella who figured the range was his” Jess said.
Slim started to interrupt but Jess cut him short.
“Yeah if it had been you, you’d have fought it out because he wasn’t right doin’ it. Tried that too. In a court of law. Know what it got me?” he said
“I’m guessin’ not a homestead” Slim asked smiling slightly.
“Guessin’ right” Jess agreed grimly. “Spent some time gambling; around Colorado towns after that. Figured someone in Colorado owed me somethin’.One thing I seen was how bad them towns are hit in this drought” Jess said. “Hang around ‘em and you see ’em doin’ it bad. Hit pretty bad when I was around afore. Folks make do as best they can. Stranger come to take, they take first. Start figurin’ as it gets worse they take a stranger afore they know if he is gonna try taken’ ‘em.”
“They didn’t take you.” Slim pointed out.
“Don’t care so much about bein’ right or wrong.” Jess said eyeing Slim sideways to watch his reaction. “Had a pal, didn’t care so much. Supposed to watch his back. He watches mine.”
“What happened to your pal?” Slim asked curiously.
“Pete Morgan” said Jess shortly.
“You sure can pick your company” Slim said grinning.
“Your Aunt Ella’s right.” Jess said “Fella like me doesn’t get invited to polite company so much. More like to find the other kind. One’s that get a fella into trouble.”
“After that Bishop’s wife I ain’t sure the polite ones aren’t the worst trouble” Slim said with some feeling.
Jess gave him a dirty look.
“Had to bust him out of jail once when he got into an argument with a sheriff about disturbin’ the peace, when all he’d been doin’ was singin’ in a bar and the sheriff wanted to fine him 200 dollars, most of what we had won between us.”
“Wasn’t that risky” Slim asked “ Bustin’ a fella out of jail.”
“Easiest thing in the world” Jess admitted “None of them lawman got the guts to lock up any one real dangerous an’ they don’t waste money on locks.”
“mmm” said Slim “Wouldn’t pay on principal” he commented. “Even if I had it”
“You wouldn’t pay I would” said Jess. “Pete hung in to argue it with the judge. Judge wanted a cut and doubled the fine.”
“That is not right” Slim said.
“Yeah it weren’t right and it weren’t no use arguin’.” Jess said.” Pete thanked me real fine for it, next town on was …”
“When he busted you over the head and stole what you won” Slim said. “What’s it all got to do with me and keepin’ out of south Colorado trail towns?” Slim asked again.
“Don’t go rushin’ into ‘em and getting’ all het up about what’s right and what’s wrong” Jess said. “Last time I was with a fella who did that all I got out of it was a broken skull.”