LONG RIDE HOME
They rode all the next day, getting well into Colorado, where to Slim’s satisfaction the wall of mountains on the west side was towering higher and higher, like an impenetrable wall blocking all trail west.
Slim smiled to himself as Jess rode on, sometimes talking but certainly seeming more at ease than he had been. Slim mentally listed off to himself all the places he thought he would have to watch for danger signals but it did not seem there was anything closer than a good day’s ride so he could relax for a little while.
Even the fact that they failed to see any more signs that they were in danger of accidently meeting wandering Arapahos, did not dually alarm him. The further they rode into Colorado the happier Slim got.
He looked up at the towering mountains and smiled.
“Sure is some country” Slim said to Jess.
Jess glanced to the high mountain range.
“Rough country to cross” he said.
“Sure is” said Slim making sure Jess could not see how happy that made him.
God and nature was on his side.
Jess seemed to be riding easily, certainly he was over the temper and anger of the last few days. Slim hoped that maybe he had just decided to come home but he doubted it. He reminded himself to be careful.
Jess was a little quiet when they camped but nothing that was of too much concern.
They camped near a small stream that trickled down from the mountains. “You know where we are?” Slim asked as he unsaddled.
“Twenty miles or so north o’ Cordossa I reckon” Jess said. “Quite aways.”
They picketed the horses then Jess picked up his rifle and walked off. A few minutes and a shot later, he appeared with a rabbit which he sat down and gutted and skinned.
While Slim cooked over the fire, they both drank coffee. Jess was reasonably attentive as Slim talked about the time they were making and plans for catching up with chores when they got home. The only sign of restlessness he showed was as Slim banked the fire he wandered over to the horses and checked them then stood for a while staring at the moving stream.
So Slim was not prepared when Jess finally turned around grim faced as Slim stood up.
“There is somethin’ I been tryin’ to tell you since we left Mexico, before” Jess said slowly.
Slim froze, then deliberately turned his back.
“Slim you’re gonna have to listen to me” Jess said quietly.
Slim frantically searched his brain for anything he could think of to stop this conversation and came up short.
Slim watched Jess for a second “Just supposin’ I don’t want to?” he asked as casually as he could.
“You’re gonna have to” Jess told him grimly.
Slim shrugged turned away and made a point of going to the horses.
Jess called “Slim just whoa back” Slim ignored him and Jess strode after him catching his arm to spin him around” I said whoa back” he ordered.
Slim looked down at Jess, glaring at the hand still holding him. “What" he snarled.
Jess took a deep hard breath “I gotta tell you I ain’t goin’ back” he said and his voice caught slightly.
Which Slim noted.
“I ain’t goin’ back to Wyomin’ Jess said in a rush “to the ranch. Decided back in Mexico. Figured, you’re right. Figured Ella’s right. Figured trouble comes after me. Figured it’s safer for you, for Andy if it goes lookin’ somewhere else for me. Than the ranch.”
Jess watched Slim warily judging his reaction.
Slim said nothing. He just looked at Jess who finally was pushed into asking “Well?”
Slim shrugged. “Figured as much” he said eventually.
“I see” said Jess and Slim noticed his eyes narrow and his hand tighten a sure sign that Jess was not far off an explosion. “So when was you gonna tell me you’d figured I wasn’t going back?” Jess asked quietly.
Slim decided there was no help but the truth. “Didn’t figure that.” Slim said “No way” he added determined.
“What do you mean?” Jess demanded clearly uncertain where this was going. “You just said….”
Slim eyed him watching ruefully “Said I figured you was goin’ to tell me you wasn’t goin’ back. Haven’t figured you ain’t goin’ back yet” he added. “Wasn’t figurin’ on that happenin’ at all.”
Jess opened his mouth to say something, clearly unable to find the words. He turned around with his back to Slim, stood thinking for some time, and then spun back as he realised what was behind Slim’s moods and actions for the last few days. He lifted his hands in the air in disgust.
Slim watched Jess carefully looking for any signs that Jess was going to react badly. He backed off a few strides as Jess stepped toward him, trying to work out a safe distance from Jess. Too far to hit, to close to shoot.
Jess took another step toward him and Slim backed off another two “Hardcase why you son of a…..” he exploded
“Watch it” interrupted Slim.
“Yeah I know” muttered Jess “Ya ma was a right lady, but she raised a …” Jess hit his hands to his side in frustrated anger.
Slim watched carefully for any hard signs that Jess was thinking of hitting or shooting.
“I oughta…” Jess roared. “ I oughta…” He sighed and to Slim’s relief a smile twitched. “The lame horse?” He asked “The English fella in Las Vegas? Worryin’ about them Indians? Gettin’ bit by my horse?”
Slim reluctantly nodded.
“Hardcase you son of a….” Jess bit out
“Watch it” said Slim.
“If you ain’t the mother and father of all two faced, double crossin’…..” Jess bit out.
“I ain’t the double crossin’… Seems to me, I’m just makin’ sure you ain’t” Slim interrupted. “You promised Andy you would come home. I promised him you would keep your promise.”
“That’s not what I promised him” Jess said tersely.
“It’s what he thinks you promised him” Slim snapped.
“Maybe more important I keep what I promised him” Jess said making it clear he had thought it out. “You really figured you could keep it goin’, to Laramie?” Jess asked more amused than anything as he thought over all the games of the last few days.
“Figured close enough” Slim admitted. “Figured when you got close enough to home you’d maybe start thinkin’ a bit straighter or maybe figure stayin’ ain’t so bad, that walkin’ out, runnin’ away from home ‘cause you made a fool over yourself over a woman, who ain’t worth it, is plain adding foolishness to foolishness.”
Slim took a relieved breath as he realised far from being mad, Jess was actually fighting not to smile.
“Hard case you’re a pistol” Jess told him. “You ever figured you maybe ain’t right about everythin’. That just sometimes you don’t know a horse from a goat.”
“Nope” Slim said smiling “want to explain it to me on the way home.”
Jess shook his head regret all over his face. “I ain’t goin’ back….home. To your home.” He said slowly.
The smile fell from Slim’s face “Jess it’s your home too” he said. “Just figured you needed to do some thinkin’, to work it out.”
“Nope” Jess answered in a sharp hard voice. He smiled just a flicker on the side of the mouth and Slim noticed his hand moving tensely again. “Yep. I did some thinkin’. I worked it out. I worked it out its better for everyone I don’t go back.”
“You want to walk out because you made a fool of yourself over a woman. Not the first time, from what you told me about that woman in Laredo” Slim snapped. Jess’s mouth flickered half a smile again, “Won’t be the last. Don’t be a cursed fool over somethin’ that just don’t matter.” He added.
“Nope” said Jess. “Well mostly not that anyway” he said. “You know I told Laurel about settlin’ down” he said. “And I told her what it meant and she said….. well she was right about me.” Jess explained “What you been offerin’ me Slim means… I’m beholden to you. So beholden to you I ain’t sure that I could ever repay you but she was right.”
“I knew I should have shot that woman….. while I had the chance” Slim said angrily.
“Would have saved a whole lotta fellas a heap a pain” Jess agreed. “I’m trouble and when I asked you said you aren’t you tired of pulling me out of scrapes but the truth is the time will come when maybe you can’t pull me out” Jess said. “Slim I am what I am” he looked at Slim “I told you what I am the other day.”
“I know” said Slim “You ever figure bein’ who you are is why Andy wants you to stay around” Slim demanded “why Jonsey does, why I do.”
“Maybe that’s the best case you make for me goin’.” Jess said. “I’m beholden Slim I truly am and if I could repay you I would, and maybe the best way of repayin’ you is to keep you from the trouble I cause from walkin’ out after me. Or getting’ killed or getting Andy killed by someone like them bounty hunters, or worse.”
“Maybe I like the idea that just sometimes I got a reason to walk out for a while” Slim said.
Jess smiled reluctantly. “You got a heap of respons-ibility Slim” Jess said “But I ain’t asked any-one t’be responsible for me since my old man got drunk and tried shootin’ it out with old man Tyler an’ I had to carry him home when I was ten year old. Figured’ I out grew any one bein’ responsible for me that day.”
“You’re a fool” said Slim. He turned away then turned back “So” he said.
“So” said Jess taking a deep breath “So” he said working up to it. “I’d have gone earlier but I wanted t’say, what you done for me….”
“You say thank you so help me I’ll hit you so hard you won’t know what side of next month you’re on.” Slim yelled at him.
“Reckon you could?” Jess asked stopped in his tracks.
“Reckon I could. Right now I’m so mad at you I don’t care if I knock your head off” Slim said “and I’m figurin’ you do, care if you knock mine off.”
“You sure don’t take it good when things go agin you” Jess said wryly “Never knew that” he started to say, then ducked hard as Slim’s fist came past his head. “Cut it out” he yelled moving backward as Slim took another swing. “Get it through your head” he yelled at Slim backing away as Slim came at him. “Since I come, there ain’t been nothin’ but trouble. Those bounty hunters coulda killed Andy ‘cause of me.”
“Sure could, ‘cause you weren’t there” Slim spat out taking another swing, as Jess backed away further. “Wouldn’t have even threatened him if you’d been there.”
Jess had finally backed off, until he was almost at the water’s edge. “Would you cut it out” he yelled at Slim.
“You goin’ to come home?” Slim demanded swinging again as Jess stepped back into the water and was stopped from moving further away by a log.
As Jess could no longer back off, Slim swung at Jess as hard as he could. Jess with not many choices ducked under the punch and hit him in the belly so hard Slim went down with a very loud oooof, lying back on the cold wet grass of the stream bank, gasping for breath.
“You dirty, double fisted….” Slim finally breathed out.
“You’re lucky I didn’t bend a pistol over your head” Jess told him standing over him. “Iffen it wasn’t that no-one ever made such a show for keepin’ me around afore I woulda.”
Slim started to snarl again and struggle to his feet, fists still ready. Jess put a spurred boot near his face forcing him back down. “You stay there until I’m sure you’re comin’ up with your fists beside you” Jess growled.
“You’re a fool” Slim yelled at him from the ground.
“Ain’t arguin’.” said Jess “But I ain’t gonna hang around to kill you and Andy over trouble that comes after me. I been with ya maybe a few months, he said “and since then Roney you remember, and Gill Brady and Hatch. It ain’t gonna end and Laurel made me know that.”
“Should have shot her while I had the chance” Slim hissed still on the ground.
Jess half smiled “Woulda saved some fellas a heap of trouble” he agreed.
“The trouble ain’t all yours” Slim snarled Jess’s boot almost at his throat “You kill Yellow Knife’s’s kid, Ed Caulder come after you.” He demanded. “You hadn’t been around maybe would have gone different. You figure that” Slim yelled. “You know what I figure “Slim yelled trying to push Jess’s boot away and not succeeding. “I figure that blond was the first person who ever came after you, and it went wrong so you’re blamin’ me.”
“Nope” said Jess “ I’m figurin’ she showed comin’ after me can get someone killed.”
“Should a killed that blond when I had the chance” Slim growled.
“Woulda saved a few fellas a heap of trouble if you had” Jess agreed.
“Let me up” Slim ordered.
Jess frowned at him. “You gonna show some sense?” he asked suspiciously.
“Sure” said Slim glaring up at him from the ground.
Jess pulled his foot away and Slim put up his hand so Jess could help him to his feet. Jess went to take it but must have caught something in the way Slim moved that made him realise Slim had every intention of swinging him straight into the water.
Jess pulled his hand back and stepped out of hitting distance. “You’re a pistol” he said as Slim pulled himself to his feet, without help. Then Jess had to move further back as Slim stepped toward him.
“Don’t you never give up?” Jess demanded.
“Not when I’m right “Slim yelled.
“Get it through your thick head Slim” Jess roared “You ain’t right this time.”
Slim started to lift his fists.
“And cut it out.” Jess snarled. “I can take ya. Don’t make me prove it. ” Jess half lifted his fists and Slim decided Jess winning a fight of words or fists wasn’t going to help his cause, so with a wry grin, he lowered his fists.
“You’re a pistol” Jess said exasperated. “Bout time you listen to sense. Slim there ain’t nothin’ you can say that is gonna take away from me bein’ trouble and any-one near me is gonna carry that trouble.”
“You don’t recognise sense when it hits you in the head” Slim said nastily. “So how about sayin’ I don’t care” Slim said “Andy wants you to come home. Jonsey wants you to come home. I want you to come home.”
“I’m headin’ west “ in the mornin’.” said Jess “You got enough to get … home.”
“You’re a fool Jess” Slim told him “You’re throwin’ away maybe the only chance you got. You want to end like them Ed Caulder, like Carlin or maybe Sam Prado.”
“Maybe better than the other” Jess said, turning his back on Slim and walking away. For a second Slim thought he was leaving then and there, and wondered if he could spook the horses before Jess saddled. Except Jess’s horse was easy to catch and wouldn’t spook that far.
Jess turned around, read what Slim was thinking. “Don’t think about nothin’.” he ordered more amused than angry. “I’m leavin’ in the morning. An’ I’m beholden a fella would try so hard to keep me and trouble around” he added.
“I ain’t finished tryin’.” Slim muttered.
Jess smiled then turned to gather wood for the fire while Slim glowered at him. “You know you could a saved yourself all the worryin’ about Indians and such” Jess told Slim.
“Why?” Slim demanded belligerently.
“Because after we left Las Vegas, kinda figured you’d pull somethin’, argue about me leavin’.” Jess said “Maybe even do what I tell you not to. Wasn’t gonna say farewell until after we passed Cordossa.” Jess told him.
“You two timing, double crossing…” Slim exploded.
Jess just looked at him.
They barely talked for some time, all though neither man made an effort to go to sleep.
Slim sat staring at the fire while Jess restlessly fidgeted, stood up, wandered to check one of the horses, checked his supplies and came back and sat by the fire. He poured himself a cup of coffee and one for Slim who took it without looking up.
“Up around the ranch” Slim said finally “it’s quiet.”
“Figure it is at this time of the year” Jess said
“You’re a fool” Slim snapped irritated.
“What” said Jess confused.
“When you’re not there its quiet” Slim said into his coffee.
Jess looked at him, in the firelight and frowned.
“You’ll figure I’m right soon enough” he said.
“Soon as we see the first wanted poster” Slim sneered. He looked up “Folks notice” Slim explained “First thing Mose said after you left. ‘Looks kinda quiet around here. Where’s Jess?’. Aunt Ella noticed. First thing she said was the place was all quiet again now that no-account drifter has gone.”
“Glad to keep Ella happy. Should make it kinda peaceful when I ain’t there” Jess answered trying hard “You always complainin’ I make too much noise, especially in the mornin’.”
“You grunt around like a bear with a sore head in the morning” Slim said brutally.
“Ain’t complainin’.” Slim said.
Jess looked at him.
“Commentin’.” Slim said. “Not complainin’.” He looked up “The peace was drivin’ me to feelin’ I could maybe not stick it before you came. That it was all responsibility and nothin’ else.”
Jess shrugged “Stayin’ around to make some noise is a fool reason to stay” he said.
“Best one I know” Slim muttered angrily refusing to look at Jess who shrugged again.
Slim did not sleep. He was so mad at Jess that it was all he could not to get up and kick him. He was made even madder by the fact that Jess having got it out that he was leaving and let Slim get his arguments out seemed to be sleeping for the first time on the whole long ride. And Slim was mad at himself because he had done everything from every trick he knew to outright honesty and he still could not get Jess home.
But then apparently Jess was not quite at ease about the thing as he said because as Slim finally did fall into a sort of sleep he heard Jess moving round making coffee. He turned over grunting.
Jess seeing him move asked “You awake?”
“No” Slim muttered.
“Okay” Jess said. He made coffee and then took a cup to Slim, who accepted it ungraciously.
Jess was more or less quiet for a while until he finally said “Slim there’s somethin’. I always been meanin’ to ask you.”
Slim made an angry noise.
“Now that answer don’t matter so much” Jess said “so I figure I can ask.”
“What” said Slim.
“When I come” Jess said “that first night, how come you and Jonsey asked me to stay in the house not the bunk house?”
“Easier than fixin’ the bunkhouse” Slim said a little too quickly.
“Fella before me stayed in the bunkhouse” Jess answered. “You started to tell Jonsey somethin’ about it and Jonsey pushed you outside. After supper. I remember clear.”
Slim was silent.
‘I’m leavin’ Slim” Jess said “It cain’t get me that mad.”
“Would you have preferred to stay out in the bunkhouse?” Slim demanded.
Jess was silent for a while. “No” he said finally “Stayin’ in the house, meant didn’t have to knock on the door to come in, meant didn’t have to ask permission for a cup of coffee, or wait for an invitation to sit in front of the fire. Meant I belonged. And you could not have figured on that, not the first night. So why’d you ask?”
Slim took a deep breath “Andy” he said.
“I” Jess asked
“Andy and I weren’t doing so well together” Slim said “Jonsey figured he was so excited havin’ you around, to be around with you, if you weren’t around where I was, Andy wouldn’t be either.”
“I wasn’t fixin’ to make trouble” Jess said.
“I know that” Slim snapped. He shrugged. “Jonsey figured. It wasn’t anythin’ to do with you. It was about me and Andy. About givin’ us a chance, to …. talk without makin’ a fight over you. So if you stayed in the house, in front of the fire at night, where I was” Slim hesitated “so did Andy. You talked to me, so did Andy.”
“Andy talks about you all the time” Jess told Slim “He don’t have no problem at all. Thinks real high of you. Exceptin’ he don’t figure you ease off enough. Worry too much about workin’. Reckons you’re easier than you was though.” he added “Figured you and Andy get on fine. Have since I been around” he finished.
“I know we do” Slim said so dry that even Jess got it. “You asked” he added.
When Jess said nothing. Slim said” You promised Andy you would come back.”
“I will” he said “ when it ain’t so dangerous I do.”
“When?” Slim said reflecting Andy’s last question to Jess.
“Sometime” Jess mumbled.
“How?” Slim demanded.
‘”What do you mean?” Jess asked.
“In a box” Slim bit out “Is that how you come back? Want us to clear a spot beside Ma and Pa? At least Andy won’t have to worry that way where you are.”
“Slim” Jess started to say
“Just go to sleep” Slim told him angrily. He finished the coffee and threw the cup down. It rattled around in the quiet night. He was just drifting asleep when Jess called out.
“Hey Slim” Jess asked “Why didn’t you lite out when I told you I was a deserter?”
“Because I want you to come home” Slim said through his teeth.
The next morning things weren’t much better between them. They ate without speaking with Slim all but refusing to look at Jess.
Jess threw his things into his saddle bag and tied up his bed roll, all the time Slim refusing to say anything.
He walked over to where Slim was sitting in a log and looked down at him.
“I’m goin’” he said awkwardly. “Don’t get any smart ideas about followin’ me or talkin’ me out of it. You figurin’ something” he said and it wasn’t a question. “Whatever it is don’t” Jess ordered “Because this time it’s me whose right.”
Slim reluctantly smiled “Was thinkin’ about it” he agreed.
Jess half smiled. “You’re a pistol” he said and turned toward his horse
Slim stood up frowning and started to put his gear together. “You got any money?” he asked Jess. “I didn’t pay you.” He started fishing for the $20 dollar note he had, and held it out to Jess.
“I got some” Jess said “I’ll come pick up them wages some time. Tell Andy.”
“Keep the money” Jess told Slim “We’re past Cordossa but don’t get smart. I ain’t comin’ back for you. I ain’t followin’ you in. Just head north. Home.”
“Okay I get it” Slim said nastily “Places you go ain’t okay for me.”
“Well I ain’t a concerned about threatenin’ to blow a fella’s head off if they crowd me” Jess answered with a shrug “ Right or wrong.”
“Or do it” said Slim bitterly.
“Maybe” said Jess “and I ain’t holdin’ anythin’ so dear that I cain’t lite out and leave it behind.”
“I noticed that” said Slim even more bitterly.
“Slim” Jess started to say but gave up as Slim snorted.
Jess was already saddling as Slim retrieved his picketed horse. As was his habit Slim ran his hand over the animal’s back checking for any pressure or soreness from the long ride and then ran his hand down its legs to check for any bumps or sprains.
And moaned out loud as he checked the front leg.
Just to be sure he picked the leg up but a shoe was clearly missing. He winced. He then began to carefully check the length of ground where the horse was tethered but hard as he searched he could not find the shoe. All he could think of was that it must have got sucked off in the stream when he watered the horse the night before because he was sure the shoe was there when they camped. He went down to the water but there was no sign of it. He waded in, searching everywhere the horse had stood. Then went back and searched the picketed area again.
Jess was standing by his horse watching Slim hunt around. Slim groaned. There was no way Jess was going to believe him the shoe was lost. Then he smiled to himself. He ought to be pleased. Maybe God was on his side.
Jess had mounted by the time Slim came back from the stream. He rode over and put his hand out. “Slim” he said awkwardly as Slim just as awkwardly took his hand.
Jess sighed. He put his hand up to pull his hat in hard and wheeled around. He stopped and turned “I’m beholden to you” he said his voice tight.
Slim stood there as Jess looked at him, awkward uncomfortable. Slim frowned and Jess with a pained shrug started to ride away.
Slim took a breath “Jess” he called.
Jess ignored the call. He just seemed to slump over in the saddle.
“Jess” Slim roared.
Jess pulled up “What” he said not looking around.
Slim took a deep breath. No matter how mad Jess got he could still figure God was on his side.
“Horse has pulled a shoe” Slim said uncomfortable “I got nails, I ain’t got a shoe. And we’re what, I reckon twenty miles from Cordossa. Unless you got one.”
Jess’s whole body went rigid. He finally turned back with grin “Hardcase you’re a pistol” he said. “Don’t you never give up.”
“I’m not lying Jess” Slim insisted.
“So you figure you need help “Jess said. He lifted his hat up and started to move out as Slim called “Jess” and then stopped “More ‘an twenty miles to Cordossa I reckon.” He told Slim. “Nice walk if you want to get there that bad after all I told you.”
“How much more than twenty?” Slim asked apprehensively.
“Quite aways” said Jess totally angry. He frowned “Would you really walk that far?” he asked curiously “Just to prove a point.”
Slim kicked at the stony ground “Rough goin’ on an unshod horse” he said. “ Wouldn’t last maybe a few miles.”
Slim glared at Jess who sat on his horse for a while before with an angry sigh turning back. He stepped off his horse as it stopped and threw the rein at Slim who shifted his weight uncomfortably as Jess glowered.
Jess walked around Slim’s horse finally picking up the leg without the shoe. “Its missin’.” he said dropping the leg and straightening up.
“I know” Slim said.
“When did you pull it?” Jess asked mean. “I watched you all night.”
“I-didn’t-pull-it. Nearest I can figure he lost it in the stream” Slim said through his teeth. “ I’m tellin’ the truth, Jess.” He frowned “What do you mean you watched?”
“Figured you hadn’t given up tryin’ tricks.” Jess asked even meaner. “When did you loosen that shoe.”
“I-didn’t-loosen- it” Slim bit out.
Jess laughed nastily “Sound like you mean it” Jess said in Slim’s face “You surely are a better liar than me.”
Slim raised his hands and let them fall because he remembered that God was on his side.
“No shoe uh” said Jess. He walked over to Slim’s saddle and bags deliberately emptying both the food bag and Slim’s saddle bag in a mess on the ground. He held up a small bag of horse nails.” Throw the spare shoes away did you?” he asked. “You’re a pistol. Don’t you understand I’m goin’. ”
“I didn’t throw anythin’ away. I didn’t bring any. Figured he had new shoes on, just brought nails.” Slim insisted “Go if you don’t believe me.” He offered.
“Since when did you start comin’ into the big open without spare shoe?” Jess asked. “Mr ready for anythin’ himself.”
“Since I was ridin’ light tryin’ to catch up with you” Slim said between his teeth “You got spare shoe?”
“No” said Jess “I only took food when I left, which you know it” he said angrily “I ought cursed well leave ya to walk to Cordossa” Jess growled.
“It’s twenty miles” said Slim.
“More like twenty-five” said Jess snarling. “You plannin’ to cause trouble in Cordossa just ‘cause I told you to keep away?” Jess demanded.
“I need you to get me to a blacksmith” Slim insisted. “I ride him barefoot in this country, he’s gone and so am I.”
“I know” said Jess furious. “Real funny Slim” he yelled. “Just a barrel o’ laughs.”
“Jess I didn’t do it on purpose” Slim said “It happens, accident.”
“You gonna tell me you never thought about goin’ into Cordossa after what I told you?” Jess demanded.
Slim swallowed hard.
“It was an accident” Slim insisted.
“I didn’t hear nothing click loose yesterday” Jess said.
“You were to busy bein’….” Slim hesitated.
“Bein’ what?” Jess asked nasty.
“A fool” Slim said just as nasty.
“So you wasn’t goin’ to try nothin’ when I left?” Jess asked.
Slim took a deep breath “I was but it wasn’t goin’ to be loosenin’ a shoe.”
“What were you goin’ to do?” Jess demanded.
Slim smiled and Jess threw his hands in the air.
“You’re a pistol, Hardcase” Jess snapped.
Slim waved toward the food bag and everything thrown saddle bags “You gonna pick those up?” he asked his temper going.
“No Mr Sherman” Jess hopped up and onto his horse. “I don’t work for you no more. Pick ‘em up yourself” Jess snorted.
“Jess” Slim pushed “I didn’t’…”
“One more word out o’ you Mr Sherman Suh” Jess hissed “and you can walk the whole thirty miles into Cordossa.”
“Twenty five” said Slim.
Jess looked down at him and without a word saying anything rode off.
“Jess how far is it into Cordossa?” Slim yelled.
Jess pulled up a few yards. “Quite a ways” he yelled without turning around.
Slim just threw his hands up in the air, and slowly and methodically repacked his saddle bags and the food bag. He glanced back down the road where Jess waited with his horse feeling the tension sidling. Slim was almost certain he could hear teeth grinding.
Slim slowly put his gear together, then saddled his horse and took the time to check carefully once more for the lost shoe. The longer he took the madder Jess got. He finally led the horse toward Jess who restlessly moved around, looking down at Slim with eyes still narrow and expression sour before he pulled his foot out of the stirrup so Slim could mount up behind hi m.
Slim was barely up behind him when Jess hit the horse with his spurs so it bounded forward. The led horse was not ready for the bound, and sucked back and Slim holding its reins was all but pulled backward from Jess’s horse. Slim had to put his arm around Jess to grab the horn, almost pulling Jess back with him.
“Wher’d you learn to ride?” Jess snarled.
“Calm down” Slim roared at Jess.
“Shut up” said Jess.
Jess moved on fast. At least until Slim finally put his hand around caught the reins and eased the animal himself.
“What you doin’?” snarled Jess.
“Horse has to make it thirty miles with both of us” Slim hissed.
“More like twenty” said Jess angrily.
“Just how far is it?” Slim asked nastily shifting uncomfortably on the back of the horse.
“Quite a ways” Jess snarled back.
They rode on for some time, Jess calming down to a jog and grinding his teeth some more as Slim reminded him the other horse was barefoot and they needed to keep to the soft edges of the trail.
“I don’t work for you no more Mr Sherman” Jess muttered. “So don’t figure I got any responsibility to take you into Cordossa. You want to walk fine with me.”
“Sure your responsible” Slim said. “I been thinkin’ about just how much you owe me.”
Jess pulled up hard and tried to turn around to face Slim, which as Slim was right behind him was impossible. He swung his leg over the horn and slide to the ground, turned look up seriously “Slim I said I was beholden to you. I know it and maybe you don’t think I’m payin you what I owe you by goin’ but you got to believe me. There are things I done since… I’m doin the best thing I can by goin’.”
“Lite out then too did you?” Slim asked nastily “Well, if you’re so cursed beholden to me, why don’t you start payin’ some of it back. Like maybe what its costin’ me chasin’ down here or maybe work it off.”
“Good try” said Jess.
“You owe me Jess” Slim shrugged. “I was thinkin’ in terms of cash money” he said quickly when Jess started to get the hurt puppy dog look on his face. “Figured the goin’ rate for good hired gun for protection is about 10 dollars a day. Seein’ it involves riskin’ your life. Keepin’ a fellow out of trouble, reasonable fee.”
“You ain’t that good a gun” Jess snapped.
“You’re alive” Slim said. “Let’s say. $5 a day double when there’s shootin; and doctorin’.” he said looking down at Jess. “which I reckon is most days.”
“You’re a pistol” Jess said throwing his arms in the air. “Take it out of the money you owe me. Or I’ll send it to you next time I win anythin’ at cards.”
“What wages I owe won’t even cover getting’ down to Tumavaca” Slim said.
“You sure weren’t lyin’ when you told me the pay weren’t much when I first come?” Jess muttered.
“Not lyin’ about anythin’.” Slim said.
“How lame was your horse?” Jess demanded “And what did you do with the shoe?”
“It was an accident” Slim insisted. “ Honest.”
“Shut up” Jess snarled.
Slim grinned as Jess went to pick up the horn of the saddle to mount. He slide forward into the saddle so that Jess half crashed into him as he tried to mount
“You need a hand to get up behind?” Slim asked offering his arm.
Jess looked at him narrowed eyed and then smiled “Sure” he said reaching up to take Slim’s hand and with a swift movement started to yank Slim from the saddle. Slim ready for it spurred the horse forward. It bounded away and Jess was left sitting on his behind in the middle of the road.
He sat on the road watching as Slim went a couple of hundred yards before pulling up and waiting.
“They hang horse thieves in this part of the country” Jess yelled at him but straightened his hat and started to walk to where Slim waited.
“Can I have my horse back?” he asked sarcastically but his eyes were laughing.
“Nope” said Slim “Figure it’s about worth to me what you owe me. Offer you a ride into Cordossa.” he said and started to laugh.
“Give me a hand up” Jess said also trying not to laugh.
“Nope” said Slim.
Jess vaulted up behind him. And Slim pushed the horse forward so Jess had to grab the horn to stay on.
“Where’d you learn to ride?” Slim said slowing down.
Jess was silent for some time into the ride. Finally he said “You could hurt that horse pulling the shoe off.”
“I didn’t pull it off on purpose” Slim insisted.
“You sure goin’ to a lotta trouble to keep me around so you can all get killed when some fella I once knew comes lookin’ for me shootin’.” Jess mused.
“No women come lookin” for you shootin’?” Slim asked interested.
“Maybe” Jess said grinning.
“You sure goin’ to a lot a trouble to walk away from people who want you to stay” Slim told Jess.
“Want me to stay for the wrong reasons” Jess said,
“Andy loves you” Slim insisted. “That’s a good reason.” He half turned around.
“You want to get off and talk about it?” Jess asked.
“Take a real fool to get off a horse just for a conversation” Slim murmured.
“Jonsey likes havin” someone around who appreciates his cookin” Slim pushed.
“I don’t appreciate his cookin” Jess muttered “ Nothin else to eat.”
“Go back and tell him” Slim suggested.
“Not that big a fool “ said Jess
“Wanna bet” said Slim.
“And you want me to stay because good hands are hard to get.” Jess said.
Slim pulled the horse up hard “I want you to stay” he said “we want you... we care about you.”
Jess was silent.
“And” Slim pushed. “You care about us and it’s why you feel you gotta go and it’s a fool reason” he said.
Jess drew a hard breath “Best reason to go” he said. ”Sooner or later Andy will have to say good bye anyway. How many times can I look at him like when I left? Put him through it?”
“You figure havin” him worry sick about where you are is any better. He won’t stop carin’ just because you go” Slim pushed. “Just mean he won’t know.”
“Maybe that’s better” said Jess.
“You’re a fool” said Slim
Slim pulled the horse up and did manage to turn around almost in Jess’s face which made Jess slide back. “Jess come home” he said.
“Wyomin’s your home Slim” Jess said quietly.
“It’s your home if you let it” Slim told him “Jess you’re offered a home, all you got to do is come back” Slim said “Lettin’ go what I know you want. Then that’s as big a fool as man can be” Slim said.
Jess lapsed into a morose silence.
“Aunt Ella will be mad as hellfire if you came back” Slim said over his shoulder eventually.
“That could almost be a good reason to go back” Jess said trying to be funny and Slim caught his breath wondering if it was the first crack in the wall. “Thank you Aunt Ella” he thought.
“How far is in to Cordossa?” Slim asked.
“Quite a way” Jess answered then lapsed into silence until sometime later he ordered Slim to stop and slide off the horse to look at Slim.