Rocks, Sand and Cactus           

By Badger        

Episode: Ride or Die, missing scenes, Jess’ POV when he leaves Slim

Author’s note: I love that little scene between Slim and Jess at Sodium Wells. There’s just so much wonderful ‘pardness’ there.

Author’s note: Thanks to Hired Hand for her always excellent beta

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Jess Harper watched until Slim Sherman had disappeared from sight, riding out into the wasteland of rocks, sand and cactus. Finally, when there was no longer either sight or sound of the big man and his chestnut horse, the cowboy climbed aboard his own mount and rode away in the opposite direction, back the way they’d just ridden. He didn’t look back because if he had, he was sure he couldn’t have stopped himself from changing his mind and going after Slim. Every fiber of his being said it was wrong to let his pard continue the hunt, to let him go on alone out into that desert on the trail of a murderer. But Slim had insisted.

And the plain fact was, there hadn’t been water enough for two men.

Likely there wasn’t even enough for one.

No, he wasn’t going to let himself think about that, Jess decided, resolutely pushing his horse onward. Using the grimy sleeve of his shirt he swiped futilely at the sweat that trickled out from beneath his hat and rolled down his forehead, squinting to look at the miles of rough, arid ground that lay ahead of him.

Three days, that’s how much time he had to ride back to the nearest town, load up on water and supplies, and get back to Sodium Wells.

Not much time, to save his best friends life.

But it would have to be enough.

Dadgum fool, Slim Sherman, going off into that wasteland after a killer.

A’course, he’d been more than a bit of a dadgum fool himself, giving Slim that canteen.

Slim had asked for half his water, but Jess hadn’t done it. He’d given Slim one of his two canteens, true, but it was the one that was nearly full, keeping for himself the one that was almost empty. Slim needed it more than he did, and Jess would deny him nothing, even as he cursed the big man for being twelve kinds of a stubborn, bullheaded, knotheaded idiot.

It wasn’t without reason that he’d started calling the man Hardrock, for all the granite-for-brains stubbornness Slim had displayed time and again. Once the big man got an idea in his head, he was like a dog with a bone and wouldn’t let go of it, no matter how crazy it was to keep on. Like now.

A fool’s errand, a fool’s chance, chasing an unknown man into that desolate wasteland.

Just so long as the big guy didn’t end up a dead fool, in the graveyard next to Tom Eustis.

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Jess very nearly miscalculated.

Giving Slim the bulk of his water had been the right thing to do, Jess had no doubt of that, even if it hadn’t been the smart thing to do, not when he considered his own survival. Hours after leaving Sodium Wells behind, he’d allowed himself one small sip of the tepid liquid and used the rest to moisten the mouth of his horse. It wasn’t much for either one of them, not nearly enough to do any actual good, but it made a man feel better.

Jess rode on, oblivious to the sun, eyes slitted against the blinding glare.

Never gonna complain about winter again, he promised himself as the mid-afternoon sun beat down harshly.  To spare his horse, he got down and walked across the sand until his legs got wobbly and his knees buckled, threatening to throw him to the ground. Climbing back into the saddle was nearly beyond him; raising his foot to the stirrup took the last of his energy, leaving him barely enough strength to cling to the saddle.

Traveler plodded on, so dusty he looked more dun than bay.

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It took him all of two full days to reach a town.

Jess rode into the small hamlet on the edge of the desert, reeling in the saddle, exhausted and dehydrated.

The folks in Boscoe tried to talk him out of going back to Sodium Wells.

He was not fit to go back into the desert without giving his body days to recuperate, the doctor solemnly proclaimed.

He was surely riding to his death, insisted the shopkeeper who reluctantly sold him supplies.

He was wasting his life on a futile chase after men who were odds-on likely dead already, the sheriff told him in no-nonsense terms.

He’d kill the horse and mules he wanted to rent, declared the unhappy livery stable owner, demanding Jess pay full purchase price in advance for the animals.

Jess listened to none of them.

Slim had told him to be back at Sodium Wells with water and supplies and that was exactly what he was going to do, even if it killed him.

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Just hours after he’d ridden into Boscoe, he rode back out of town on a fresh horse with two pack mules trailing on behind. Kegs and sacks of water made up 95% of the load, water for men and horses and mules. With the fresh stock, Jess pushed on at a steady pace and even then he was late getting back to Sodium Wells — half a day after Slim’s deadline had passed.

As he neared the dry spring, Jess peered anxiously ahead, hoping to see Slim, his prisoner, and their horses. But as he drew close, there was nothing to see but the ever present rocks, sand and cactus.

No Slim.

No sign of Slim.

No tracks, except the ones they’d left three days ago.

Slim had told him not to wait, not to go looking, but Jess Harper, as stubborn in his own way as the tall man he worked for, didn’t listen.

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He hated waiting. He had no patience, never had, never would have, especially when there wasn’t anything he could do but stay quiet and conserve water. The inactivity left him too much time to think, and that was never good. Especially when all he could think of was all the things that could have happened to Slim Sherman in the desert, pursuing a killer across the wasteland, and none of them were good things, because optimism, like patience, wasn’t one of his gifts.

What would he tell Andy, or Jonesy, if Slim didn’t…. no, he wasn’t going to think about that, because he wasn’t going home without the big man.

Hours crawled by as the afternoon heat swelled and then, finally, as the sun began to sink below the horizon, the temperature eased.

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At dusk, Jess lit a fire, piling on the fuel until it blazed up high into the night sky. Not that he needed the heat, though later in the cool of the desert night its warmth would be welcome. Now it was a beacon, just in case Slim was out there.

No, he told himself sternly, it was a beacon because Slim was out there, and the fire would show him the way back to Sodium Wells.

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Jess forced himself to wait for the cool of night, pacing around the campsite while the wedge-shaped half moon climbed slowly above the mountains to the west, and then he couldn’t wait anymore and saddled his horse, riding out into the desert. The moonlight cast eerie shadows on the sand but it was adequate to see quite a distance across the flat expanse of the dry landscape.

All it revealed was rocks, sand and cactus.

Nothing moved.

“Damn you, Slim,” he muttered, “damn you and your need for justice. I told you it was a bad idea.” He recalled their last conversation and Slim talking about the choice between being buzzards or buzzard bait.

It was an image that didn’t bear thinking about.

He shivered and it wasn’t just because of the chill that had crept into the night air. Jess held his horse to a walk, going further and further out into the desert, eyes straining to see movement. Finally, when his blazing campfire was just a tiny dot barely visible in the distance, he knew he would have to turn back. He reined his horse around, pointing the grey back toward Sodium Wells. He would go back and get the mules and supplies and head out into the desert, following Slim’s tracks.

He’d search until he found the big man.

Fool’s chance, he knew, but how could he do anything else?

He had no choice, he had to know what happened to Slim, and in defiance of Slim’s orders, he would leave no stone unturned in the search.

He couldn’t go back to Laramie, couldn’t go back to Andy or Jonesy without an answer, couldn’t face that boy and that old man without having done everything possible to help the kid’s big brother.

And he was not going to even think that his pard might be beyond help.

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He’d only gone a short distance before something, he never did know what, made him spin the grey around and look out into the vast distance of the desert once more. Maybe it had been some tiny sound, like a horseshoe clinking against rock. Whatever it was, he turned for another look. The moon cast strange shadows, creating fantastical shapes out of the landscape as he studied the far horizon, searching hopefully.

And then one of the shadows moved.

Jess sat up straighter, standing in his stirrups. He rubbed a hand across his eyes and stared again and sure enough, something was moving, no, two somethings were moving, things big enough to be horses carrying riders.

He set spurs to the grey’s flanks and the horse took off through the sand at a lope, dodging rocks and cactus, the horse’s long strides quickly carrying him close to the apparitions. Despite the dim light, he could see them better now, two weary looking horses carrying even wearier looking riders.

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Jess pulled the grey down to a walk twenty feet in front of the riders. As he approached the chestnut horse with the familiar crooked marking on its forehead, the animal raised its head momentarily but resumed plodding forward wearily.

“Hey pard, it’s good to see ya’,” Jess announced nonchalantly, as if there was nothing out of the usual about this meeting.

At Jess’ words the lead rider raised his head and stared ahead out of gritty eyes. “Jess?” the voice was little more than an exhausted croak, but it was accompanied by a relieved smile.

“Yeah, it’s me.” Jess kneed his horse in next to Slim’s mount and handed over his canteen.  “Get your killer?”

Slim nodded, taking the canteen and instead of drinking from it, turned and handed it to the other rider.

Jess turned at the same time and was shocked to realize that the other rider was a woman. “She killed Tom?” he asked in disbelief as the woman drank, then handed the canteen back to the tall rancher.

“No.” Slim took a long, deep drink, then looked over at the ranch hand, exhaustion showing in his face. “Deborah and her husband had the misfortune to meet up with Tom’s killer, out there. Both the men are  dead.”

“What happened?”

“It’s a long story, Jess, and I’m way too tired to tell ya now. If you don’t mind, I’ll fill in the details later.”

“Sure, later, pard. I’ll hold you to that.” Jess turned his horse and maneuvered the grey alongside Slim’s chestnut, and joined by the woman, all three rode side by side through the rock, sand and cactus, back to Jess’ camp at Sodium Wells.

 

< ------------ > The End < ------------ >

 



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