The gentle sway of Jess’ horse as he plod along the dirt track lulled him into a late-afternoon doze. His eyes drifted shut, only to pop back open again as a bird screeched overhead, or his horse kicked a rock. He headed west into the setting sun, and the effort to keep the sun out of his eyes had forced him to draw his hat low and squint. He heaved a great sigh, yawned and continued on, determined to cover another few miles before he stopped for the night. Finally he dozed lightly.
Jess had ridden since sun up with only a short break at a stream for water and some jerky. His volatile anger had dissipated and been replaced by an oppressive sense of loss and loneliness.
He had left the Sherman place this morning after a sleepless night. He and Slim had argued. They had argued before, hell, Jess had even left before, but this time was different.
He knew he needn’t have let it get that far. If he had only apologized and dropped it, things would’ve blown over, but no, he had to get on his indignant high horse. It went south from there, and Slim had stomped off to bed, and slammed the door. Andy and Jonesy had scurried for cover long before, leaving Jess standing in the living room at a loss for what to do. He decided to sleep in the bunkhouse. Over the long, sleepless night, he had decided that he‘d best go.
He turned it over in his mind, over and over. He couldn’t not think about it. The more he thought about Slim’s accusation, the more it got under his skin. Slim was angry. It was about his brother, Andy, and where Andy was concerned, Slim was ornerier than a mother grizzly. The thing was, Jess didn’t do what he was accused of. Andy told him, Jess told him, even Jonesy had stuck up for him. The fact that Andy was protecting whoever did teach him didn’t help matters.
Jess had taken Andy into town with him when he went for supplies; that in it self was a rare occurrence. Slim almost never let Andy go to town, and he’d never let him go with Jess before.
Andy, being a boy and being won’t to a little mischief, had decided it would be fun to use his five-finger discount at the general store. He had helped himself to some small, but not inexpensive items, just testing to see if he could get away with it. He told himself, and Slim of course, that he had every intention of putting them back. It was a game and nothing more.
He didn’t get away with it. Jess had been in the bank when Mister Barton caught him and hauled Andy by his ear over to the sheriff’s office, but he sure heard about it from Mort later. Andy was mortified and clammed up, terror written on his face. Slim assumed the worst, not yet trusting Jess with his brother, he assumed that Jess put him up to it and it escalated from there.
Jess at first didn’t deny anything, hoping that Andy would step forward and set the record straight. That may have made things worse. Jess said nothing in his own defense until it had built to Dickinsonian proportions with Andy as The Artful Dodger and Jess as Fagin.
It had taken a little while, but Andy worked up his courage and told his brother it was his idea and Jess had nothing to do with it. By that time, Slim was livid and didn’t listen. Or didn’t want to listen, more likely, Jess thought. Andy’s confession was too little, too late.
Oh Slim punished Andy all right. The boy would be doing extra chores for a couple of months to come, he’d be working for Mister Barton after school every day until school was out, and all summer, and he’d be sitting on the front row at church every Sunday for both the morning and evening services, but Slim reserved his special venom for Jess. He blamed Jess for not watching the boy, accused him of teaching him bad “tricks” as he called them. Jess got angry, spit venom back, it got personal, and finally, Slim just stalked off.
Jess was sorry. He was real sorry. He wanted to tell Slim, but couldn’t. He’d let himself get up on that high horse and was so high up he couldn’t see bottom. Slim was somewhere else, indulging in his desire to blame someone, anyone, and Jess was handy.
It’s not like Jess hadn’t given ample reasons for Slim to blow up at him, he thought. Sure, he’d shirked work for a half-day of fishing with Andy. Or he’d gone swimming at the swimming hole with Andy when they both should have been tending the stock. Or taught Andy how to deal off the bottom of the deck, for his own good of course. So he’d recognize it when it was being done to him.
Yeah, things had been a bit rocky from the start. Jess wasn’t used to toeing someone else’s line. He wasn’t used to a schedule and he certainly wasn’t used to the responsibility of setting a good example for a boy. Slim had been unfair, but so had he.
Jess startled awake when something ran across the trail in front of him, causing Traveler to stop and nervously back up. He pushed his hat back on his head and wiped a hand across his face. It was just a deer bounding off through the brush. Jess looked at the sun. It was almost below the horizon and the shadows were getting deep. He started looking in earnest for a place to camp for the night. He finally pulled up in a small clearing about a hundred feet off the trail. It had some large boulders and some scrubby trees, enough to block the wind.
As he methodically made camp for the night, gathering firewood, rolling out his bedroll, he began to mentally make some plans. When he’d left this morning, he had no plan whatsoever. He started heading west only because it was one direction he hadn’t been, beyond the borders of Wyoming. He had vague thoughts of heading to California. Hadn’t been there. Always wanted to. A new place with a fresh change of scenery might be just the thing.
He’d been a drifter for five years before he came to Laramie. He’d stayed longer there than he had anywhere since he left Texas, but it was bound to not last. He reasoned he’d never make a go of ranching, being stuck in one place day after day. At first, Slim had him convinced he could change, he could put down roots, but now he realized roots wasn’t for him. He needed to go and this was as good a time as any; cut away clean. No looking back. No sir, no ropes holding him to Laramie, or to anywhere.
A pang of loss skittered through his chest. He’d grown attached to Andy. He liked Jonesy, and he liked Slim too. Liked them all enough to think for a while that he could settle down and be a part of that mis-matched family. Jess set his jaw and ground his teeth together unconsciously. It never worked. Just like all the other times in his life, he had to move on either on his own, or someone else made the decision for him. He was used to it. This one just lasted a little longer, is all.
He set the battered coffeepot on the fire and settled back on his bedroll to wait for it. The beans were already heating, sending up plumes of sweet smelling steam and the occasional blurp of a bubble. He had brought some of Jonesy’s molasses beans. Just enough for a day or two, then he’d be on his own to find food.
He reached in his inside vest pocket and pulled out his wallet. Thumbing through the bills, he figured he had enough to get him by for a few weeks if he was careful. Maybe he could find a good poker game and run it up a little.
Slim had tried to get him to put some money in the bank, but Jess never did it. Couldn’t bring himself to settle that much. Besides, he never knew a bank that couldn’t be robbed. Now he was glad he’d followed his instincts. He was glad he didn’t have to ride into town to get his money out before he left. Being able to pick up and go was valuable. A real valuable skill, one he was determined to never lose.
After eating his beans and drinking the strong black coffee, he lay in his bedroll and looked up at the stars. He sighed in contentment, but his brow was wrinkled, unable to totally relax into his new freedom. His thoughts would inevitably stray back to the little house by the hill where the stage coaches stopped, bringing the travelers that passed through, bringing the news, the gossip, and sometimes, the danger.
They’d get along just fine without him. Hell, they did fine before he got there, they’d do fine now. Probably wouldn’t even miss him. After all, he was just no more than another in a long line of hired hands, hired on for a spell, only to move on.
He would miss Andy, though. He was too mad at Slim to miss him right now, but that boy had got under his skin. Almost like having a little brother again. Andy’d be upset, but he’d get over it. He had a real brother, he didn’t need no drifter that brought trouble at every turn. As the night grew chillier, Jess wrapped himself up in his blanket and finally drifted off to sleep.
“Dammit, Johnny! No! You are not going and that’s final!” Scott enunciated clearly, and loudly.
“Scott, I’m going, so shut up and come on if you’re going with me,” Johnny retorted in his quiet drawl, not raising his voice to the level of his brother’s. He grabbed his hat off the back of the sofa and ambled slowly toward the front door, tossing the hat over his head to hang down his back on its leather strap. Without looking back to see if his brother was following, he reached for the heavy front door and opened it, leaving it open behind him as he left.
Murdoch watched his two sons sparring, loath to interfere, amused all the same. He grinned and shook his head, but quickly stopped when Scott shot him with a glare that could bend metal. “I’m sorry, son. It just slipped out,” he said contritely.
Scott glared a moment longer, then his face relaxed into a half grin. He dipped his head, shaking it back and forth. “I should’ve known better than to say anything to anybody. I shoulda just gotten a hammer and taken care of it myself. “ His hand absently moved to cup the left side of his swollen jaw.
Grabbing his own hat off the rack by the door, Scott settled it on his head and exited the same door through which Johnny had disappeared, and quietly pulled it closed behind him.
Outside, Johnny was already mounted and waiting patiently. He held the reins of Scott’s horse and offered them silently as Scott approached. Sometimes Johnny’s cool, patient persona grated on him. This was one of those times.
Maybe it was a holdover from his days as a gunfighter who had to project an air of intimidating calm. Johnny could still pull out that persona when he wanted to. Scott spared another glare for his younger brother as he reached for the reins. “You’re enjoying this, aren’t you,” he mumbled, his jaw painful and swollen.
“Enjoying?” Johnny rubbed his chin, maintaining the irritating calm. “Now why would you think I would enjoy your pain, brother?” His calm face turned to a hurt face instantly. “I can’t believe you’d think that of your own brother.”
Ignoring Johnny’s over-done hurt feelings, he retorted with, “I don’t need a babysitter.”
Johnny turned Barranca and nudged him to slowly walk out of the courtyard to the road. “Well apparently you do. If you’d done this a week ago when you should have, we wouldn’t have to be doing this now, and you’re face wouldn’t look like a squirrel storin’ up nuts for the winter.” Johnny grinned, his back to Scott.
Without turning he could hear Scott’s snort of disgust and his horse turning to follow Barranca.
It was early. The sun hadn’t reached its zenith as yet so it wasn’t as hot as it was going to get. Johnny set a moderate loping pace and Scott’s horse matched it beside him. Johnny would steal a glance in Scott’s direction every few minutes, amused to see Scott staring straight ahead, his jaw set. Finally, needing a little diversion, he decided to try to lighten things up a bit.
“C’mon, Scott, it’s not that bad.” He reached over and snagged Scott’s jacket to get his attention. “We’ll get to Everafter in a few hours, get that ol’ nasty tooth outta there and then relax with some beers and have some fun. It’ll be over b’fore you know it.”
Scott glowered at him. “I don’t see why we have to go all the way to Everafter. There’s a dentist in Morro Coyo,” he said petulantly.
“You know why. I ain’t lettin’ you or anyone else I…anybody I know go to that quack in Morro Coyo. If he ain’t drunk, he’s wantin’ to be and that makes him shaky and mean. Believe me, brother, you don’t want that man’s hands inside your mouth. Val told me about this guy in Everafter and we’re goin’ so shut up about it.”
Scott’s hand cupped his jaw again. Johnny slightly quickened his pace. The amusement value was beginning to seep out of the situation. It was gonna be a long day.
Slim slept in that morning. Actually, sleeping was the last thing he had been doing, but he stayed in bed and stared at the ceiling. He was wrong. He knew it now. Why couldn’t he see it last night? Jess wasn’t to blame; he was just a convenient punching bag. Slim was disappointed in Andy. Very disappointed, and Andy found out just how disappointed right up front, but he’d let that spill over onto Jess and he knew now that was wrong. He’d have to go find him and make amends.
He couldn’t understand what it was about himself that made him want to jump on Jess immediately about everything. Sure, Jess could be exasperating, irresponsible even, but he was a good hand, and had proven to be a good friend. Andy hero-worshipped him and even crusty ol’ Jonesy took a liking to him once he got to know him a little. Maybe it was the part about Andy. Maybe he resented having his own brother look at Jess and see a fun, adventurous kid who was more like himself than his own brother was. Maybe that’s what was eating at him. Could he be that shallow?
Slim had been resistant to Andy going with Jess to Laramie to begin with, not yet willing to loosen the protective hold he had around his brother since their parents died. In his fourteen years, Andy had never been to town except in the company of his father, Slim or Jonesy.
Slim liked Jess, but had not yet grown to trust him with his little brother. Ranch work and horses, yes; brothers, no.
He hadn’t decided yet if Jess was deserving. Wasn’t quite sure if Jess was one that he wanted his little brother looking up to. He had to admit that over the last two months Jess had proven to be a valuable asset. He was smart, he was fast and he had been loyal.
Sure, he’d goofed off some, but he was young and he wasn’t used to keeping to a time clock. He also had a tendency to ride off and not come back for days. Whenever someone needed help, Jess took off. Slim had always made sure that Jess knew the door was open to come back and he grudgingly admired that Jess’ heart always seemed to be in the right place. Slim grinned wryly. The pros outweighed the cons so far. Until Jess proved otherwise.
He swung is long legs over the bunk and reached for his boots. He’d go find Jess right now, apologize and get to work. They had a full day ahead of them. He’d have a talk with Andy too. He’d been hard on him. He wasn’t going to back down on the punishment, but he wanted Andy to know he forgave him.
He glanced out the window as he grabbed his vest to see where the sun was. It was further up in the sky than usual when he was getting up. He musta laid there for quite a spell. He moved quickly to the door, anxious to get moving. His mood was remarkably changed from last night.
As he exited the bedroom, two faces turned from the dining room table and looked at him; two sad faces. Slim stopped in mid-stride, his vest halfway over one shoulder. “What’s wrong with you two?”
Neither Jonesy nor Andy said a word. Jonesy stood and took his coffee cup back to the kitchen sink and dropped it in loudly. Andy’s face was a mask of despair, tears welling up in his brown eyes, threatening to spill over. Andy rose quickly from his chair, pushing it roughly back. “He’s gone! And it’s all your fault!” He quickly ran into his bedroom and slammed the door behind him.
Slim strode over to Andy’s door, raising his hand to go in, but stopped himself. He turned back to Jonesy. “What?” His head was shaking back and forth, not understanding.
“Jess took off sometime last night or this morning. Horse, saddle…gun.” He gestured to the loose stones on the fireplace where Jess had stored his “gunfighter’s gun”.
Slim slowly walked over and lifted the loosened stone running a hand through the empty space. He solemnly laid the stone back in place and dropped his head, his jaw muscles working furiously. He slowly turned and went to the table, sinking down into the nearest chair. “Well, I guess it was bound to happen sooner or later.”
Jonesy stood his ground as he wiped his hands on the rag in his hand. “I reckon you’re right, Slim. Too bad though.” He lifted his hat and scratched his head. “That boy sure got mighty attached.”
“Well, maybe he shouldn’t have. Maybe it was a mistake to let him spend so much time with Jess. How do we know what ideas he put into Andy’s head?” Slim was grasping, angry, more at himself than anyone else.
“Aw, Slim, now you know better’n that. Jess was a hothead, but he was decent, and he woulda done anything for that boy. “ He pulled off his apron and came around the table to sit facing Slim. “Mebbe he taught him a few tricks, but he meant no harm.” Jonesy leaned back in the chair and examined Slim. “I think you know that don’t’cha, Slim?”
Slim picked at a loose thread on the tablecloth. “Yeah, I guess I do, Jonesy.” He slammed his open palm down on the table, making the cups bounce, “But dammit! Why’d he up an’ leave like that? Why couldn’t he stay around an’ work things out?”
“Mebbe he just got tired of provin’ himself.” Jonesy looked hard at Slim. Then, giving a quick nod, he got up and busied himself at the stove dishing up Slim’s breakfast.