Chapter eleven

For several seconds Jess was quiet with disbelief while Slim watched him. Finally he screamed "Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh" before slamming his hand hard against the wall three times. "You stupid, stubborn…"

"You said all that before" said Slim smugly then instantly regretted it because the cell door was not locked this time and Jess stalked over and grabbed him by the vest hauling him to his feet. He tried shoving Slim to the door and Slim resisted, pulling backward and taking Jess with him.

They grabbled around the cell for a few minutes, Jess dragging Slim to the door, and Slim resisting. They were finally stopped by the sheriff appearing back at the cell.

"What in…." he demanded as the two of them struggled. He came forward and hauled Jess away from Slim, shoving him none too gently across the cell. "You want I shut the door" he yelled.

Jess on the other side of cell glared.

Slim smiled "Just discussing a day in court" he said sweetly.

"Your friend paid the fine" said the sheriff.

"Maybe I want to say my side of it" Slim said sitting down on the bunk.

Jess slammed his fist against the wall again.

"Unless you're in a hurry to get back to Wyomin'." Slim said to Jess.

"Ain't goin back to Wyomin'" Jess said his voice getting shakier to Slim's satisfaction "I can always get the $800" he said but it was bravado. The threat was gone from his voice.

Slim smiled with the satisfaction of a winner.

"Hey young fella" stuck in the sheriff. "You two maybe knowin' your games but you got three minutes to get outta here or you both face the judge."

The sheriff glowered at Jess, Jess glowered at Slim and Slim smiled then lay back on the bunk pulling his hat over his eyes. Jess finally hit the wall nearly as hard as he could three times. He pulled his hat off and nearly punched a hole through that.

"Okay young fella" said the sheriff grabbing Jess's arm,

"You stubborn, mule headed…" Jess said.

"You said that already" Slim answered pulling his hat further over his eyes.

"Young fella I just ran out of patience" snarled the sheriff

Jess made a grinding noise on his teeth. "All right" he screamed.

Slim sat up "Okay" he said.

"I'll ride back to the border with you" Jess conceded.

"Not far enough" said Slim lying back down on the bunk.

"Give you a few more miles to work on me" Jess said furious with himself for having to offer.

"Listen young fella" snarled the sheriff "I had enough from you pair of jokers. You want to go for the judge, both of you or you're outta here right now."

Slim looked at Jess who was so angry a muscle near his mouth was spasming. "Okay" he said standing up.

"Hardcase you're a pistol" Jess muttered "I only said the border" he added.

"Sure" Slim agreed smiling while Jess fumed.

He picked up his hat and pushed past the sheriff and Jess and went through the door into the sheriff's office. The brawny deputy lounged back in a chair sneering at him and carefully counting the pile of notes that Slim assumed was the fine Jess had paid.

"You going to get the horses" he said to Jess "I'm…"

"They're out front" Jess snorted. "Just walk out, get on, and get goin'."

The sheriff handed Slim his gun belt. "Do as your pal says mista" he smirked.

Slim buckled his gun on "You got a nice little game…" he started to say to the sheriff.

"Shut up" said Jess.

Slim ignored him. "I was only sayin'," he said "I've been hearin' about this town for quite some time." He said. He glanced at Jess who positively fumed at him. Slim smiled "and I just want to say there was nothin' here that disappointed me. Nothin'. Couldn't have lived up to expectations better."

Jess ground his teeth.

The sheriff looked Slim up and down "You inherited fellas" he snarled "Think bein' born with somethin' makes you better and the rest of us. Well sonny I can tell you take away what your old man left you and you got nothin' more than anyone else. You gotta stand on your own hind legs like anyone else and make it and you know most of you can't do that because it turns out without the land you're nothin'. You got no one. You're just another bum drifter."

"I wouldn't say that" Slim said pursing his lips at Jess who flushed. "Wouldn't say that at all."

The sheriff snorted. He turned to Jess "Listen to me young fella" he said "You just watch this here inherited fella. Or run. Either way because he's trouble. Gonna get you in to it, gonna drag you along and there won't be no turnin' back."

Jess went even redder. "Sure" he muttered.

Slim on the other hand openly grinned. He pulled his hat off and bowed low "Thank you sheriff" he started to say "You couldna done me a bigger favour if…"

Jess behind Slim put his hand on his shoulder and literally shoved him out of the door. The deputy snorted then stood up to follow them out, leaning against the door, hoping for another fight Slim suspected.

As Slim stood on the boardwalk watched by a number of interested citizens, he stopped and Jess bowled into him. "You got my twenty?" he asked Jess

"Get on that horse" ordered Jess, livid.

"I'm not leavin' until you hand over" Slim said planting his feet.

Jess muttered under his breath at him, but to Slim's satisfaction accepted that he was not going to win. He dug in his pockets then handed Slim over a wade of money that was considerably more than twenty dollars.

"What's that?" Slim asked suspiciously noting how much was there.

"Figured on what I owe you for body guardin'." Jess told him "Told you the next poker game. Now we're square. You don't owe me and I don't owe you."

Slim took a deep breath "Jess that isn't why I came and you know it." Slim said.

"Get on that horse" Jess ordered.

"How about a drink before we go?" Slim asked innocently.

"Shut up" said Jess shoving him toward his horse.

Slim smiled to himself taking his time before mounting and noting the more time he wasted the madder Jess became. As he swung onto his horse, before he had even put his foot in the right stirrup, Jess half shoved the animal toward the north facing road. Slim ignored Jess's pushing and stopped to glance around the town. As he eyed off the townsfolk watching him leave, Slim noticed that the blond girl from the yesterday was standing on the boardwalk outside the saloon watching him.

He moved his horse around Jess's shepherding and ignoring Jess's roared "Slim" rode over toward where she watched.

The deputy beyond him started to move and the girl shrivelled a little as he approached, and for a fleeting second Slim had to push down a vision of Laurel at Tumavaca, facing the world defiant, unlike this cowered girl.

As Slim got to her he smiled, and tipped his hat. "Thank you m'am." He said in his most gentlemanly voice "I'm in your debt" he said as Jess grabbed his rein and pulled his horse north.

After something of a tussle with Jess at the edge of the town to get back control of his horse, Slim pointed north " Wyomin' is that way" he said.

"I know where Wyomin' is" Jess snapped.

Slim jogged along happily heading north. The same could not be said for Jess. He rode silently along, lost in thought and Slim let him, deciding that there was only so much to be gained from winning. Out stubborning Jess was only a proper victory if it got him home, knowing it was really home.

Finally some hours later Jess turned to Slim and said "You did it a purpose didn't you After everythin' I said about keepin' your head down in these towns, After you promising you wouldn't think about it."

"I only promised I wouldn't think about it in town" Slim said "I didn't. I thought about it out of town."

"That splittin' the difference" Jess said angrily.

"So is tellin' Andy you'll come back and not meanin' comin' home" Slim pointed out.

Jess took a deep hard breath "So did you pull that shoe off on purpose?" Jess asked.

"No" said Slim.

"Sure about that" Jess said suspicious.

"I didn't" said Slim "But if I'd known it was one thing that would make you turn back I would have."

Jess snorted.

"Soooooooooooooooo" Slim took a hard deep breath. "Seein' I didn't do it and seein' the way things worked out you could just figure it was a message from higher up sayin' things were meant to be" he told Jess.

"So that performance in Cordossa was inspired by higher up?" asked Jess mockingly.

"Lord helps those who help themselves" said Slim.

Jess snorted "Do I have to listen to you preach all the way to the border?"

"You said you would" Slim pointed out. "Unless you want to duck that promise too."

Jess ground his teeth. "So what are you gonna try at the border?" Jess asked " because you better know if anythin' happens to a horse there you're walkin' home."

"I'm bettin' the odds are against it." Slim said. "Me walkin' home"

Jess threw his hands up in the air "You gonna keep tryin' ain't ya" he hissed. "You gonna keep pullin' and figurin' you gonna get your own way."

Slim shrugged "Lot of Colorado towns between here and the border" he pulled the money out Jess had given him."Got some dollars to spend" he said, "Figure the next one will take a promise to come home to get me out of jail."

Jess took a massive deep breath. He sat on his horse watching Slim and slowly shook his head. "Slim I been tellin' all the way from Tumavarca, an' you say you been listenin' but it ain't goin' through. There's trouble follows me, follows night and day an' sure as night and day those round me get dragged in. You might o' thought that was a real fun joke back there in Cordossa but it coulda gone bad. An' you wouldna done such a foolishness accept an' you was chasin' after me with some fool idea you was goin' to rescue me from me."

"I promised Andy I would bring you home" Slim insisted "And I ain't breakin' my word to him. And you promised him you would come home."

"Did you listen to anythin' I said comin' up here" Jess demanded. "About what I'm really talkin' about. Just what you can expect with me around."

"Yeah" said Slim. He pulled his horse up and Jess had to stop riding to face him. " I heard you talk about things that would send Aunt Ella bustin' her corsets she would be screamin' murder so hard and maybe some stagecoach guys yellin' fit to bust too. You told me and I don't care. Andy don't care, Jonsey don't care. You want to know why?"

Jess swallowed hard.

"Because all that is against the fact" Slim said "that since you come Andy and I have been makin' a home. Cause the truth is Jess that some months ago I could not have said 'Come home Jess' because there wasn't one to come too. And Andy knows it and he's as scared of losin' it as I am, and if you don't believe me ask Jonsey how things were." Slim swallowed, "The truth is if they come after you, like those bounty hunters, they'll come lookin' even after you're gone, so what is done is done and if they do come I reckon I'm better off facin' it with you behind me."

Jess shrugged awkwardly. "Sooooooo no matter what I say about trouble, no matter what I tell you I done and how its gonna come back, you gonna keep tryin' til I say I'll come home"

Slim suddenly felt a he weight leave his shoulders at the word.

Slim pulled up his horse and got off to look at the huge mountains west "Sure some country we rode through" he said.

Jess dismounted beside him and stood looking at the country around.

"Yes" said Jess. "We rode through some open spaces." Jess turned toward Slim. shook his head. "In all my days I ain't never known anyone to go to such much effort to invite trouble into their home" he said " or keep it there."

Slim shrugged. "You know it ain't much use arguin' about trouble or not" Slim said "I know most of it and you know I know it. He hesitated " If I say somethin' you gonna get mad. About Laurel, about goin' with her"

"Now he starts worryin' about getting' me mad." said Jess to a rock.

Slim smiled." I reckon" he said carefully "that not once before, what you told me, the war, your old man, no-one ever came after you until Laurel turned up. I can understand seemin' like she came after you. It was maybe the first time you figured you might just be ...wanted, find a home."

Jess winced. "Seems all kinda foolish comin' down with Laurel" he admitted. "Knowin' now. But when I knew her at the Diamond D. She was … felt just that she could've made it okay. Knew she was married but she made a man want… found myself thinkin' …about DeWalt and maybe if he wasn't there. Didn't like that, didn't like it at all. Broke away but …she wasn't easy to forget. When you try" Jess shrugged " I told you what it was like… thinkin'. Guess I let her make me act like a cursed fool. Wantin'."

Slim breathed in the crisp cold Colorado air. "Maybe not," he said "At least you won't die wondering." then wiped his hand across his eyes as a vision of Laurel DeWalt's beautiful, soulless face as she defiantly watched her husband leave her, flashed in front of him.

Jess narrowed his eyes watching Slim. " Might die wishin' " he said slowly.

Slim swallowed hard, staring out at the mountains to the west. "Jess" he said carefully almost warily, not looking. "There is somethin' I need to say, been thinkin' I should since we left Tumavaca."

Jess looked at him, eyes narrow, jaw tight hands tight waitin' for the lecture he knew he had coming and he did not need to hear, was not even sure even now he could trust himself to listen to it.

Slim noticed the reaction and ignored it "First off, I know you're feelin' foolish about… her " he said taking a hard deep breath as if to have enough air to get it out " but she only makes you a fool if you let her take what you got now away. An' as for …dreamin' maybe it's a fool thing but … But…" he swallowed hard again "You remember when we were talkin' back on the trail… about thinkin' about a woman. "

Jess eyed him suspiciously.

"You talked about maybe remembering a woman, when you turned around, when you closed your eyes. When you smelled somethin'."

"I remember" Jess said tightly.

"Mrs DeWalt." Slim's voice caught "Just so we're square on this. She looked at me. Just after you left and I saw her. Just as she was sitting on that horse, lookin' like some sort of….."

"I know how she looked' Jess's eyes became even narrower and his expression dark.

Slim nodded "She looked at me" he said " and I know she was lookin' maybe for a bed that night and I know she was …. I know how she used …anyone … but she looked at me… and I can still see it. Think it will be a long time before I don't" Slim swallowed, "Didn't say anythin' but for a seconds maybe even more I thought real hard about just what it would be like, just havin' her look at me. I knew what she was and I… thought real serious about it. Maybe not so long but it could have been forever."

Jess did not say anything.

"If you hadn't been goin' so hard in the other direction" Slim admitted "I maybe would have gone." He looked at Jess watching for a reaction "Thought you ought know. So as things is square." He shrugged ruefully "An' I know what she was. So" said Slim. "Tell me whose the bigger fool?"

Jess turned back to looking at the view. He smiled the half crooked smile and shrugged, wryly. "Takes one to know one" he said eventually.

Slim took a deep hard breath and risked it. "Jess" Slim said "I'm asking straight out. No games. Are you comin' home?"

Jess looked at him "No games. How many time you gonna chase after me when I go?"Jess asked.

"Maybe as many as you planning on goin'." Slim answered "You know if you come home, Aunt Ella will be mad as all get out. She was dancin' a jig when she thought you'd gone."

He looked at Slim "You know I'm right" Jess said. "About what trouble is going to follow."

"I know a fella" Slim answered quietly "Good friend who never cares about goin' in after me, no matter how fool he thinks I'm bein' jus' cause I think I'm right. I been lucky I had some good friends in my time, but I never had a friend who… trusted me so. Every time other folks argue with me this fella just keeps sayin' do what you want I go along either away"

Jess shrugged and smiled a little.

"Same fella though keeps tellin' me sometimes bein' right don't matter a hoot an' then he keeps comin' after me anyway. Kinda got a lot respect for the fells opinion. You comin' home Jess?"

Jess took a massively deep hard breath. He turned away then hopped on his horse and galloped off. Slim watched Jess ride off, his body tight, rigid in the saddle. Slim remounted nearly went into a gallop and then decided maybe Jess needed some space.

An hour later Slim came on Jess sitting against a rock by the side of the road.

Slim pulled up and looked at him.

"So" said Jess as Slim rode up "Ella be mad as all get out if I come…home?"

"Fair chance she won't come callin' for six months. Won't speak to me for most of it" Slim said. "You comin' home?"

"Yeah"Jess said slowly. "I give up. I ain't got that much fight in me. I ain't in my whole life known anyone to go to so much effort to keep me around, just so they can bite off more trouble." I ain't sayin' I'm stayin' forever."

Slim looked down at him and smiled. "Yeah I get it" he said.

Jess nodded then stood up hopped onto his horse and turned north.

"Thank you lord for miracles" Slim said under his breath. "And thank you Aunt Ella."

…..

They sat around a camp fire, Slim huddled under a blanket in the cold Wyoming air "We'll be home tomorrow."

" Home that's a nice word" Jess said

Slim smiled. "A little while ago you told me something you said to Mrs DeWalt about belonging and now you're moonin' over the word home. The big open has almost lost you for good."

"Yeah well I notice you still like to break away once in a while" Jess answered.

"Often enough to know it's still out there" Slim agreed

"Don't try to josh me you never completely lost that itch any more than I have or will" Jess insisted.

"Maybe that's true but for Andy I can't scratch that itch as often as you can" Slim said

Jess threw the remains of his coffee on the fire "It's not too hard to get you on the trail Slim" he said.

Slim nodded "Just you and one foot in trouble and the other in a barrel of axel grease" he nodded.

"That isn't so" Jess said indignantly.

The next day Slim and Jess finally arrived on the top of the ridge where they he could look down at the Sherman ranch in the valley below. They could see movement at the ranch as the stage pulled in, and Andy and Jonsey could just be seen waiting as the stage it pulled up.

Slim took a deep breath watching below. "Home" he said slowly.

It had been a long, long ride home from Tumavaca."

"Home" Jess said just a touch ironically. He grinned "First thing I reckon I'm gonna do is shoot that old longhorn cow" he said.

"No you're not" said Slim determined.

"Maybe shoot Ella" said Jess hopefully.

"No you're not" said Slim less determined.

Slim half smiled. As Jess started to move he said "Jess , another thing I been meanin' to say since we left Tumavaca.

Jess frowned "What" he said unhappily.

Slim smiled drily "I know you're ….concerned about Andy maybe thinkin' you made a fool of yourself, maybe thinkin' less of you."

Jess's eyes narrowed. He clearly was not interested in hearing any lectures on dealing with Andy.

" I feel, I'm obligated to tell you." Slim pushed "Don't figure you should worry."

"Why?" asked Jess so dry his voice rasped.

Slim grinned. "Cause I gotta tell you. When a grown man is screamin' so bad, that a twelve year old kid has hold onto his pants to keep him from panickin' he's gonna drown in three feet of water, it just ain't humanely possible for a man to look any more foolish."

As Jess snorted, Slim touched his spurs to his horse and took off at a gallop down the road. After half a second's indignant hesitation, Jess did the same, galloping wildly down the hill behind Slim.

Home.