Slim looked to where Jess was working. They had been busy for days now repairing fences after the ravages of the winter. Spring was in the air, and with its arrival came longer working hours. For as long as daylight lasted, they would be out preparing the ranch for the expected cattle and horses that Slim planned to buy before the spring round-ups to increase the size of his herds and replace stock lost to Indian raids.
The Miller's ranch had some prize stock. Slim and Jeb Miller had an unwritten agreement that the Sherman relay could have first refusal on stock before the drive to market. In exchange, Slim and Jess would give their labor for free if needed.
Jeb and his brother Jake had been good friends for a while now helping out when Slim needed to drive horses to be sold to the army, in order to beat a mortgage deadline. They worked for no pay, just a promise of help with the round-up. That was how things worked around Laramie. Neighbors helped out each other as best they could because they never knew when they might need help themselves.
Slim had had to call on his neighbors quite a lot just after his father had died. It had been a real struggle even with the return from retirement of his fathers best friend Jonesy. Jonesy had a bad back. Injured years before when a horse threw him, now Jonesy was beginning to suffer the consequences, finding there were days when the pain stopped him from performing tasks needed on a working ranch.
Things had taken a turn for the better with the unexpected arrival of drifter, Jess Harper.
When they had first met, Slim took an instant dislike to Jess, his fast gun, his easy-going attitude to life and his death, his own most of all.
Jess had talked to Slim very casually of the strong possibility he would die sooner, rather than later. That, one day, he would meet someone faster on the draw. It was just a matter of time. He just seemed resigned to it, as a fact of life. Slim, raised to value life as a precious gift, found it deeply disturbing that anyone could even think like that.
Andy, Slim's younger brother, had been like a moth to a flame. He followed Jess constantly, hanging on his every word. It even got to the point where if Jess had left, Andy would have followed him over a cliff if need be. He was besotted by the dark, slim drifter.
As time went on , things settled down , and Andy's hero worship had changed to a more relaxed affection. Jess slowly had begun to make more effort to get along with Slim, and not encourage Andy with wild tales of his adventures. Slim didn't feel as anxious knowing now it was less likely he would wake up one day to find them both gone. Jess no longer seemed such a threat to the Sherman brothers' relationship. In fact, there were times he actually backed up Slim when Andy was being particularly rebellious.
Jess' help had been invaluable in catching up with the back log of repairs, and they had been able to work together for days on end without any disagreements. In fact, they were beginning to make a great team. Jonesy said it was all down to the fact they were complete opposites. Maybe he was right.
Jess and Slim were working far from the ranch up in the high country at the extreme northern borders of the Sherman property. In winter, cold and deadly, in summer, cool and with a good supply of water. It was to here that the cattle and horses would stray during the hot spells. It was essential the fences kept them from wandering off into Indian territory where they would most likely end up butchered for food.
Slim had sympathy for the Indians. They were struggling to survive on poor quality reservation land, and with the particularly bad winter, game had been short. Spring had brought little relief, but he was having a daily battle to provide for his brother and keep the ranch from the hands of the bank that still held a controlling percentage of the mortgage. A different type of battle, but just as threatening.
Jess was still busy digging out post holes, so they'd be ready for Slim to begin stringing wire. With the noon sun it was hot work.
Slim arrived back from refilling the canteens at a small stream. He dragged a hand across his brow, wiping sweat from his forehead.
"Okay, Jess, let's take a break." He hooked a leg across his saddle and looked back to where the line of neat posted wire marked out his land. It was a satisfying sight, a tribute to weeks of hard work. It had been a job that could not have been put off much longer. Now, nearly complete, he could begin to think about actually planning for a future that looked increasingly secure. Until he had Jess' help it had been a case of just patching and mending as best he could. Now they were actually renewing and improving. An extra hand around the place had made life better for all of them. Even Jess seemed content. It had been weeks since he had last considered moving on. Finally, it looked like Jess planned to settle down.
"That wind sure busted up the trees. There's enough kindlin' here to keep the whole of Wyomin' warm come next winter." Jess moaned as he pulled a particularly big branch out of his way. " Maybe you should give up ranching and take up loggin'." He straightened up and stretched his back. "You makin' coffee?"
"Sure, dig out the grub. Jonesy said he put it in your bags." Slim dismounted and began to collect up some of the smaller branches that littered the ground. The winter winds had been very bad, smashing through the tree line, scattering broken branches and twigs everywhere, providing a limitless supply of firewood. Maybe Jess wasn't too far wrong. There might be a small profit to be made from the logs. He'd have a word with Farman at the mill next time he was in town.
Jess' voice broke into his musings. "Thought he'd get me carryin' all the vittles. You'd think I'd done enough, with haulin' all the wire up here."
"Who cut the posts?" Slim asked as he began to build a fire.
Jess had no answer to that, so he rummaged in his saddlebag until he found a sack of coffee, a side of bacon, and a hunk of bread. "Where's the pot?"
"In that sack on my horn."
Jess strolled over to Slim's horse and unhooked the sack hanging from the saddle horn.
Soon they had a fire, coffee bubbling in the pot, and a fry pan full of bacon. Jess sat cutting chunks of fresh bread. The smell of bacon made both men hungry.
"We sure have done well Jess. By my reckonin' we'll be done by this evenin.'"
Jess stopped cutting and looked over to his boss. "Yeah, but then you'll just go and find somethin' else for us to do." He resumed his cutting. "You know somethin'? You are a slave to work. Why, out there," he pointed with the knife to the far horizon "are towns full of saloons, gals, … fun." He looked hard at Slim. "Fun. You have heard of fun ain't you?"
Slim smiled. "Do you think them towns of yours have bakeries?"
"Sure they do, why?"
"Cuz, I've a mind to send you over to one to get us some more bread after what you're doing to that. You're supposed to be slicin' it, not hacking it to death."
Jess looked down to the irregular slices, crumbling in his lap. He grinned. "Just you rescue that bacon before it is cremated or we're likely starve to death.. You sure make Jonesy's cookin' look good."
Slim pulled the fry pan from the flames and began to share the thick slices. "This sure is beautiful country," he said as they sat back to enjoy their meal.
Jess looked around them. "No different from other places I guess."
Slim was surprised at the casual answer. Jess had been in Laramie for nearly six months now, yet despite making little real commitment to the land or the people Slim had hoped his drifting days were over. But Jess was a hard man to read.
At times, Slim would think Jess was really settled, then something would happen, and he would be talking about moving on. But all had seemed to be going so well lately. at least on the ranch.
Jess had made no real friends in town since his arrival. He kept pretty much to himself. Slim guessed after years of being on the drift, used to no ones company but his own, Jess didn't need people like other folk did.
Jess had worked a couple of times for the sheriff, Mort Corey, as a deputy. Not because he was keen on seeing the law enforced, but more, Slim suspected, as an excuse to get away from routine work around the ranch. Jess still needed that element of risk after having lived with it for so long.
Jess did enjoy joking with the stage drivers. He often played a weird game of judging just how close the stage would get to where he stood before he or them would give way. Slim soon put an end to that after finding Andy trying to imitate Jess' daredevil game.
There had been talk around town that Jess had a relationship with Milly, the saloon's resident 'girl'. If he did, it was short lived. Jess hadn't been into town for weeks, which wouldn't have helped any budding romance as Milly wasn't exactly the loyal type.
Slim offered. "You know there's a barn dance coming up at the Richard's place. I figure on going. Want to tag along?"
"Er, think Suzie Richards said a week Saturday"
Jess pulled himself up into a sitting position from where he was lounging against a fallen tree. "You been seeing Richards' daughter?" he asked.
"Only to talk to, why? You interested in her?"
"No." Jess' head dipped so Slim couldn't see his face.
"You sure about that? She's real pretty."
Jess sprang up onto his feet. "Sure, I'm sure."
Slim smiled. "Well I was just thinking if you was, I could put a good word in for you."
"No point. I might not be here long enough," Jess replied as he began to kick out the fire.
Slim tipped the rest of the coffee away and looked hard at his companion. "Jess."
Jess turned, "What?"
"Why do you keep movin' on? Don't you ever feel like staying and settling down somewhere?"
"Sure, sometimes. But things happen, and it gets time to move on."
"What things?" Slim asked as he packed away the coffee pot in his saddlebag.
Jess turned, his blue eyes narrowed. "Just things, that's all."
Slim was tempted to pursue his question further, but Jess was already walking away.
It was obvious that now was not the right time to talk to him. Slim quietly cursed to himself. Once again Jess had planted seeds of uncertainty just as Slim was feeling more secure about the future. Slim would just have to accept that Jess would ride out one day, probably sooner than later. Trouble was, Slim was beginning to hope he wouldn't.
He wanted Jess to stay.
Jess had resumed work. Slim joined him, and they worked hard for the rest of the afternoon.
The setting sun left beautiful red streaks across the sky as Slim and Jess rode for home.
Suddenly Jess turned in his saddle and shouted "Race ya'!" Then he was speeding off down the track. It took Slim a moment to get himself in gear, then he was in hot pursuit, urging his horse to try to catch the quickly disappearing rider out in front. Jess had the advantage, not only out of the gate, but also because he rode Traveller, a real nimble little mover.
Quickly the distance between them lengthened. If Slim was to win, he would have to do something fast, and he did. He left the track and began to climb the hill to the left. It was hard going and his horse struggled to reach the top, but then they had an easy slope back down to rejoin the track. Hopefully, well ahead of Jess. Sure enough he was nowhere to be seen.
Slim dug his heels in and sent his horse in a slithering slide down to rejoin the track. Then picking up speed he made for the ranch.
As he turned into the Sherman road he turned to catch a glimpse of Jess coming full speed behind him. Even with the short cut it would be a close finish.
They came thundering into the yard. Slim dismounted first, a look of triumph all over his face. "I won!"
"You dog-on cheated!" protested Jess as he pulled Traveller up in a cloud of dust.
"All's fair in love or war Harper."
"You took a short cut," Jess accused
"So? Nothing in the rules about that," Slim grinned as they began to unsaddle. It was one of those brief moments when Jess' sense of childlike fun helped strip away all the burdens of responsibility that had weighed so heavy on Slim since his father had died. Jess like this was easy to like. A world away from the deadly fast gunman with a quick temper he could be.
Jess pulled a face. "Remind me never to play poker with you."
"Why, you're just a bad loser." Slim smiled, enjoying the banter. "And anyhow, exactly who was it taught Andy to cheat at poker?"
"I never..." The words trailed off as Jess stood staring at a spot over Slim's shoulder.
"What?" Slim turned to see what or who had taken Jess' attention.
A old man stood on the front porch dressed in a long black frock coat.
Slim looked back to Jess. "Know him Jess?"
Jess paled and nodded before saying "Yes" and handing Traveller's bridle to Slim. Without another word, he slowly walked across to where the old man stood.
"Jesse." The old man moved forward, his thin arms outstretched in welcome.
"My name's Jess" was the terse reply.
"Not your given name"
Jess was taken in a hug. A kiss planted on his cheek. "My dear boy, it's been so long. I despaired that I would never set eyes on you again."
The old man released Jess and stepped back. He wiped tears from his eyes. "I thought you were dead."
Jess replied, "Did you?" There was a hardness in his voice.
"I have searched for so long. Prayed to the good Lord for this moment, and," a sob escaped as he paused, "now it's finally arrived."
Slim strode up after releasing their horses into the corral. "Jess, are you going to introduce me?"
Jess didn't seem too keen. He frowned, then said "Slim, this is... Jack"
The old man held out his knobby hand. Slim took it. The grip was firm and stronger than Slim expected. "Pleased to meet you Jack."
"Same here Slim. You a friend of Jesse's?"
Slim said, "Oh ,you could say that, I guess," and smiled at Jess. The look he got in return froze the smile on his face. The atmosphere was thick enough to cut with a knife. It was obvious Jess wasn't too pleased at the old man's arrival.
Slim bravely continued "So, where did you two meet up?"
The question was aimed at Jess, but when he didn't answer Jack replied, "Go on Jesse. Why don't you tell Slim?"
Jess' cheek twitched. He flicked his thumb against his finger and generally looked very uncomfortable with the whole affair. Finally he muttered, "Jack is my grandpa Slim."