LONG RIDE HOME
They rode into Colorado, watching the high mountains to the west and the wide grasslands to the east.
“Sure is some country here” said Slim “Even smells different to down south. Air is something.”
“Always thought so” Jess answered slowly and Slim thought hesitantly.
“‘How come you know this country so well?” Slim asked and was sure there was problem when Jess took a deep long hard breath. “Not rustlin’ cattle or horse thievin’ or such” Slim asked good humouredly determined to show Jess that none of the stories he had heard in the last few days had any effect.
Jess gave Slim an uncomfortable and pained glance, and it occurred to Slim this one must be bad. Finally Jess answered calmly “You know I rode dispatch, end of the war, General Carter. Was workin down here, afore he went north and … well you know what finished him. Massacre” Jess said “Got to see Major Prescott in action down here. Thought highly of him” he said.
Slim nodded wondering what was coming. “You never did tell me” Slim asked casually “How a Texas boy was riding dispatch for the army? When? Must have been almost before the war ended. “
“No” Jess agreed. “I didn’t.”
In fact he had been completely closemouthed about it. Even the story of his helter skelter ride to get help when Major Prescott and Slim were defending the relay station from attack from the Indian Yellow Knife, in those first weeks Jess had spent at the ranch had not inspired him to add details about his dispatch rider days. In the days after the attack Andy had asked Jess point blank and Jess had done a masterly job of avoiding explanations, covering his responses by explaining how highly he had thought of Major Prescott.
Whatever it was Slim recognised was bad.
Jess looked at Slim intently. His eyes narrowed and the jaw tremoured again, and then his free hand kneaded on his thigh. All of which Slim noted. Jess was so tight his horse feeling the tension skittered across the road. He took his time getting it settled. Slim said nothing. He knew the signs and he had heard enough bad stories from Jess’s life in the last few days to be prepared for whatever was coming, if Jess decided he wanted to answer.
Jess finally decided he would answer. He sought of half cleared his throat and coughed.
“Oh boy Jess” Slim thought to himself “You sure thinkin’ this one will get you on the road west, with me pleased as all get put to see you go.”
“Started ridin’ dispatch near enough to before war ended” Jess told him flat voiced. “Wasn’t like they expected dispatch riders would survive long, so offered it to any war prisoners who didn’t want to stay on in camps. Nothin’ was worse than that, so figured why not.”
“Looks like you survived” Slim said. He frowned slightly “You couldna ridden that long?” He took a deep breath “Wasn’t that usually a sign on for years?” he asked and for the life of him could not keep the accusation out of his voice.
“Yessir lieutenant Sheridan” Jess said nastily recognising the accusation. “I quit” he said defiantly.
“They just let you?” Slim asked and he wished he could have softened the question and couldn’t.
“Never asked them” Jess sneered. “How you feel about deserters now?” he asked.
Slim took a hard deep breath. “I figure if a man gives his word then he’s bound to keep it. Even when it gets rough.” He answered knowing even trying to lie about how he felt would give Jess every excuse to leave.
“Figured you would say that” said Jess darkly.
“Likely to be any trouble over it?’ Slim asked seriously.
“Never know” said Jess.
Jess watched, waiting for a reaction, expecting a reaction from Slim, a bad one. The sort of reaction that would give him an opening to say thanks and goodbye.
In truth, it took Slim every bit of self-control not to react. If he knew Jess, Jess knew him. Slim was keenly aware of Jess watching to see that reaction. He pulled his hat down hard on his head not looking at Jess. Jess making an audible snap of his teeth, rode forward and pushed past.
So Slim rode behind, his hat down hard over his eyes. Jess said nothing more but the hunch of his shoulders suggested to Slim who knew him well just how much he was hurting. They rode on hardly together, in fact Jess riding so far ahead, he could have easily turned west and Slim could have done nothing to stop him.
Still wouldn’t go without saying thank you Slim figured. Even when Jess had done everything he could to make sure Slim would be glad to see the back of him.
Jess was so far ahead in fact he had to yell to get Slim’s attention when he stopped and dismounted at a water hole, some hours later. As Slim rode up saying nothing because he was not sure what he could say that that would not provoke Jess into doing something he did not want to happen, Jess pointed to sure signs of unshod ponies, around a water hole and still warm fire.
“Arapaho?” Slim asked which was the first word that had past between them for quite some time.
Jess bent over and stirred the ground slightly then picked up a broken arrow shaft with some marks “Looks like it” he said shortly.
Slim got off his horse, ground hitching and started to look around.
Jess shrugged and took both horses to the water hole examining the disturbed ground around it while the horses drank. “Lot of tracks” he called to Slim.
The signs were that there were a large number of Indians who seemed to be moving north eastward.
“Could get dangerous if we run into them, reckon to many to be a huntin’ bunch.” Jess said as he brought the horses back “Like we better get movin’ north west. Ride carefully” Jess ordered.
Slim agreed hastily. He mounted up and as Jess led away Slim saluted slightly in the direction of the Arapaho tracks. At least they would still be heading north, and Jess was not likely to try and leave before he was sure the Indian signs were quiet. And the further north they got the bigger that wall of mountains between them and westward paths.
“God was still on his side,” Slim thought “And maybe the Indian nations as well.”
They rode on silently until nearly nightfall, nothing said between them and Jess as tense and tight as a rope stretched to breaking point. Jess stopped as the darkness started to fall around them, indicating by a sweep of his hand they should camp.
“Maybe better campin’ up higher” Slim said quite seriously. “See any movement eastwards.”
Jess looked at him darkly “You still want to camp with a deserter?” he said pushing hard.
Slim recognised the expression on Jess’s face, that hurt almost fragile expression, that was Jess at his most vulnerable; and toughest.
For a few minutes while Slim contemplated Jess admitting to one of the things that broke every code Slim believed in, Slim was just tempted to ride up and straight confront Jess with desertion, of everything and anyone who ever tried to help him. To demand if that was all, he ever knew how to do.
Except that is what Jess would do if Slim pushed. Mutter out thank you and farewell and leave.
Which was when Slim remembered that Jess was doing his best to make what he believed was the upcoming breakup easier. And if he knew Jess which he did, Jess knew him and could hit on probably the one sin, desertion, that just might make Slim be glad to see him go.
And yet Jess would still be bitterly hurt if it worked.
Jess not getting a reaction from Slim silently turned his horse up the trail toward a clearing he could just make out higher up the side of the rising Colorado mountains.
Slim following him considered that he should not be surprised that Jess admitted to desertion to push Slim away because if there was a man who knew just how bad a deed desertion was it would have to be Jess. If there was one thing Slim had worked out from Jess’s talking the last few days it was that Jess did have a long history of desertion; being deserted.
Jess was trouble. There was no denying it, it came with him, it followed him and anyone near him was going to be caught up in it. As a result in one way or another he had been deserted by almost everybody he cared about. Or they had not cared enough about him to make any effort to get him stay when he decided that they were safer without him.
Which was what Jess was doing now. The difference being that this time Slim had no intention of letting him go.
Slim smiled to himself wryly, deciding this was perhaps the one time that not hiding what he was feeling was a good thing. Jess finally stopped at the clearing, dismounting from his horse and with barely restrained tension yanked the cinch undone. The horse usually an even tempered animal caught his tension and pulled away slightly backing into Slim’s horse.
“Be careful” Slim snapped. “You want to get this fella kicked again.”
Jess making another audible hissing noise but pulled the saddle of his horse more gently, and patted it as he slipped a rope over its neck to tether it for the night.
Slim smiled to himself. “Figure we’re far into in Colorado?” Slim asked.
“Figure” said Jess “We’re well past the border” Jess mumbled” Slim…” he started to say.
“Well you know the country” Slim interrupted deliberately.
“Yeah” said Jess turning his back, almost rigid.
“You’re a fool Jess” muttered Slim angrily under his breath.
Slim slammed his saddle on the ground and move away to picket his horse. When he came back Jess was bending over the ground putting a fire together. He did not look up. Slim stood over him. “Okay, so you like using the word deserter. You want to push me, you know how to” he snapped not feigning anger “What do you want Jess? You want me to ask, you want to just tell me or leave it hang so you got some way out, next time you want to go wanderin’.”
Jess looked at him, relieved or annoyed or uncertain. All three.
“You don’t want to leave any more than we want you to leave” Slim thought.
But just as he was about to answer Jess seemed to remember the reason he was talking was to make Slim mad enough not to argue about him going. So he shrugged and looked away and Slim just thumped his knee and also turned away to get the coffee pot and muttered under his breath about stubborn fools who didn’t have the sense to know when they were well off.
After they set up the camp that night, Jess was still keeping himself to himself and Slim was mad enough at him to let him do it.
The only talk between then was Slim making decisions about not hunting anything because if the noise of the shot and keeping a small fire for coffee and heating beans, from which the only response he got from Jess was a muttered “Yes sir loooteneant Sherman sir.”
Which was once too much when as they were settling down to sleep, Slim said they better make sure the fire stayed low and Jess muttered again “ Yes sir loooteneant Sherman sir”
“What’s with this lieutenant thing?” Slim demanded.
“You was one of them officers, all dressed up with stripes on your pants wasn’t you?” Jess asked clearly doing his best to burn all bridges. “Givin’ orders like there was no tomorrow , ridin’ when rest of us was clawin’ through mud knee deep. Eatin’ when was nothin’ for t’others.”
“Cut it out Jess” Slim snapped. “I earned that commission and you know it.”
“Some of us just knew we had to be responsible” Slim snorted again. “Commissioned in the field. Earned the stripes, walked as much as any man.”
Jess snorted again.
“Found out pretty early in it, mud ain’t any less deep under a lieutenant’s boots, wind ain’t any less cold, rain ain’t any less wet because you’re wearing stripes.” Slim persisted.
“You had boots did you?” said Jess drily.
Slim lay awake for quite some time. He could tell by the sound of Jess’s breathing that he was not sleeping any easier than he had on the other nights of the long ride.
After a while Slim called “Hey Jess.”
Jess did not answer and Slim said “Hey Jess” again.
“What” said Jess finally.
“Can I ask you somethin’ without you getting’ real mad?” Slim asked.
“Well” said Slim.
“Guess” Jess finally conceded.
“Somethin’ you said the other day.” Slim asked. “You joined up for the war before you had to. Why?”
“Does it matter?” Jess asked his voice gruff.
“Nope. Wondered” said Slim. “You know seein’ what the war was about. It ain’t like your family had… an’ I never knew a man, north or south who cared less about what a man looked like than you.”
Jess was silent for a while “Why did you fight?” Jess asked perhaps stalling. “Not like you was from east, had to…could have stayed out west and not hardly knowed it was happenin’.”
Slim turned toward the small fire where he could see Jess leaning back against his saddle not remotely asleep. “Thought it was the right thing” Slim explained “Thought highly of Mr Lincoln. Figure when you think somethin’ was right, what ain’t right is to let other fellas do the shootin’ and dyin’ for you.”
“Okay” Jess said shortly and Slim wondered if he was avoiding answering the question.
“Figured the same” said Jess finally. “Figured sayin’ I was from Texas meant bein’ from Texas and you don’t stand back and watch while others … It was pretty wild down there when the thing started. I was ridin’ with a friend ….gambler called Dixie Howard.”
“Heard of him” Slim said darkly.
“Figures you would” Jess answered grimly. “He figured I was crazy goin’ back but sometimes when somethin’ makes you what you are you…owe.”
“Figures” said Slim thinking even if Jess could not be sure how to spell loyalty he could write the book on it.
Jess grunted and deliberately turned away.
Slim lay awake for a while thinking. “Hey Jess” he called.
“What” muttered Jess clearly not asleep.
“You ever thing maybe we were firing at each other?” he asked.
“Maybe” Jess finally replied “I was firin’ at a lot of people”.
“Me too” said Slim.
“Figured” said Jess.
Slim grunted, lay awake for a while “Hey Jess” he called some time later.
“What” muttered Jess.
“Sometimes” Slim said. “You know when Andy asks about the war I tell him about some of the wild times but there are things…. I ain’t sure I ever want to tell him…. Things I maybe only think about before I sleep.”
“You got things you remember before you sleep?” Slim asked.
After a small silence Jess said “Yeah”. He hesitated then said gruffly. “Figure only way you don’t have to think about…things before you sleep was to have run. Then you think of other things.”
Slim was silent.
“But you wouldn’t have thought of runnin’ would you?” Jess asked nastily.
Slim could hear Jess breathing deeply in the silence of the Colorado night. “I thought about it” Slim admitted finally. “Guess there ain’t one of us who was there who didn’t think about it...some time.”
“Hey Jess” Slim said after a while.
“What” muttered Jess.
“You figure when we’re old, long past we’ll still remember them things….before goin’ to sleep.”
“yeah” said Jess. “Figurin’ if you get old.”
Sometime later just as Slim was falling asleep Jess called “Hey Slim.”
“What” said Slim.
“Guess it was more they deserted me.” Jess said.
“What” said Slim
“Dispatch ridin’.” Jess said. “Guess it was more they deserted me.”
Slim took a deep breath “How?” he asked quietly.
“None of us ridin’ were supposed to make it.” Jess explained “Offered it to us because didn’t want to lose fellas from their side. Only Prescott he wasn’t so much like the others. Guess that’s why I kinda admired him. Thought of all folks under his command. Like he did at Cold Creek.” Maybe some of them others even figured it was a way of dispatchin’ a few extra Texas boys.
Slim could just about see Jess’s grim smile in the firelight.
“Way some of them fellas felt end of the war. Worked. ” Jess said. “At the end after Cold Creek. They had that court martial for Major Prescott. Only me and ol’ Tom Springer left and he got killed ridin’ just after. I took the last ride, got shot like the others. Luck I guess, crawled in a hole. Too cold to bleed to death. Didn’t send any one out lookin’. Had to walk back to the camp…crawl back an’ they was all gone. They wasn’t worrin’ about no Texas boy, not to go lookin’ for ‘im.” he said. “Stole an Indian pony, made my way back to Texas” he said. “Told you what it was like down there.”
“Maybe the officer thought it was the odds. One man against all those under him” Slim suggested grimly.
Jess snorted. “Some others wearin’ blue suits were still shootin” at Texas boys further east.” Jess said. ”Guess you still were” he added.
“Guess” Slim agreed.
“Sure Loootenant,” Jess said nastily which Slim recognised as covering a bitter memory. “Never sent no-one after the others, didn’t expect it for me. Those fellas wearin’ stripes and blue suits weren’t interested in savin’ no Texas boys.” He hesitated. Waiting for Slim’s reaction.
“Figures some would have thought that” Slim said carefully. “Feelin’s was rough then.”
“Would you?” Jess asked. “Thought no need to go lookin’ for some Texas boy?”
“Nope” said Slim without hesitation. “I figure if I was in charge, responsible I’d of gone lookin’.”
“Figured” said Jess before turning his back.