Belonging       

By Badgergater                       

Missing Scenes from the season 1 Laramie episode: The Road to Tumavaca (after DeWalt gets his money, and before the closing tag scene at the campfire) Slim and Jess had things to talk about, on that long ride home

Author's Note: Thanks as always to the best of the betas, Hired Hand

<~~~~~~><~~~~~~><~~~~~~>

 

Sometimes, you have to throw a thing away, ride out and leave it behind, to know just how much it means to you. If you’re lucky, if it was meant to be, you just might get that thing back, understanding and appreciating it more because you came that close to losing it.

 

Sometimes.

 

And sometimes, if it’s the right thing, it’s just so important that when you do go, it rides with you anyway, refusing to let go, and calling you back where you belong.

 

<~~~~~~><~~~~~~>

 

Tumavaca wasn’t much of a place, and not one either one of us was going to remember fondly.

 

Arnold DeWalt and his foreman George Hanna took their money and rode away and then it was just me and Jess and Mrs. DeWalt.  Jess, grim faced and refusing to look at her, stalked back to his horse, mounting up awkwardly and favoring his shoulder. Not waiting for me, he set spurs to his bay and galloped away up the hill before I’d even gotten a boot into my stirrup.

 

I spared a quick look over at Mrs. DeWalt -- she was sitting motionless on her horse, plainly stunned at the turn of events, just staring off into the distance as if she couldn’t believe that all of the men were so suddenly deserting her. Me, I didn’t feel a bit sorry for her -- she’d used her husband, and Jess and Montero Rios, playing them all one against another, and in doing so had burned all of her bridges behind her. I’d like to think she’d learned a lesson, but I doubt it. People like her, selfish and greedy, all too rarely do.

 

With a shake of my head I turned away, swung aboard my horse, and sent the chestnut up the hill after Jess. He didn’t look at me as I caught up with him but at the crest of the hill he pulled up and looked back, peering down at the still motionless woman. I didn’t look at her, but kept my eye on him, watching the conflicting emotions. race across his face like storm clouds across a summer sky. I was relieved to see that none of them, as far as I could tell, were regret at leaving her there.

 

Plain as day, I could see him shaking off the hold she had on him, the guilt she’d put on him, too, the way Buttons steps out of the pond back home and shakes off the water in one long, full-bodied twitch.. Jess stared at Mrs. DeWalt for a long moment, as if mentally shutting and locking all the doors around himself, putting her outside of his life. Finally, he turned his gaze away from her and toward me but he wasn’t looking me in the eye. “Let’s go, Slim,” he said very softly, pointing his horse north.

 

He was done with her, that was certain. And a good thing, too.

 

We rode away then, silently, side by side, mile after mile. I couldn’t miss the faraway expression on Jess’ face, the stiff set to his shoulders, and the way his hand gripped the reins too tight. It made Traveler, tired as the horse was, sidle sideways and prance impatiently.

 

“You might ease up on those reins a bit, give your horse a break,” I suggested softly.

 

Jess’ head snapped around, startled, and then he looked down at his white-knuckled grip on the leather. A sheepish expression flitted across his face, and he relaxed his hand, his horse immediately dropping his head and quieting. Jess leaned forward slightly, reaching out with his right hand to stroke the sleek bay neck in silent apology, and I saw him grimace sharply as he straightened.

 

“How’s the shoulder?”

 

“It’ll do,” Jess answered gruffly.

 

“I should take another look at it.” I had, after all, only taken a couple of quick minutes to slap a makeshift bandage on his wound before Jess had gone charging off after that bounty hunter, over my protests.

 

“Naw.  Hurt’s some but it’s fine.”

 

He had that look on his face, the one that I already knew meant that no one was going to force him to do anything he didn’t want to do, no matter how right or practical or downright important a thing it might be.. I sighed and let it slide for the moment, deciding it could wait a bit. Just not too long.

 

We rode quietly for a real long spell again, and this time, finally, it was Jess who broke the silence. “Slim, would you do me a favor?” he asked seriously.

 

“Sure. Long as it’s not riding headlong after some gunman,” I chided him. That had been a dang fool stunt he’d pulled, and one neither one of us should be doing again anytime soon. If ever.

 

He ignored my comment. “If I ever so much as look at another woman, just kick my tail feathers all the way back to Laramie, would ya?”

 

“I can do that, but I think you’ve been kickin’ your own plenty enough.”

 

Jess flicked a look over at me and nodded grudgingly. “Maybe.”

 

“It’s done now, Jess. DeWalt has his money back, Mrs. DeWalt is gone, and you’re goin’ home,” I smiled, keeping a light tone.

 

His face was still dark and troubled, his voice uncertain. “I don’t understand why you keep takin’ me back,” Jess admitted, sounding genuinely puzzled.

 

“Andy wouldn’t let me do otherwise.” I grinned. “Besides, where else would I get so much excitement in my life, eh?”

 

He threw me a glowering look, not yet ready to see beyond the hurt of what she’d done to him. And hurt him plenty she had, I could see that. I knew him well enough by then to pick up on the little cues: the restless hands, the tense shoulders, the downward looks, and the refusal to look at me straight on. It showed in his voice, too. She’d shaken him clear to his bones.

 

It was a good time, I figured, to reassure him that he had people who, unlike her, really did care about him, care enough to stand by him. “Andy sure will be glad to see you. He figured you weren’t comin’ back this time.”

 

“And what did you think?” Jess asked softly, staring at the bay’s ears like he’d never seen such things sticking out of a horse’s head before.

 

I looked down at my hands and admitted, “I guess I was kinda thinkin’ along those same lines. You’ve gone off and come back before, Jess, but goin’ off with a woman’s different.” I’d seen how he was around Laurel. He’d fought against it, fought hard, but she’d held every bit of his attention; it showed in how he walked around her, stood close to her, the tone of his voice, and the way he looked at her. She’d had him hooked, hooked deep as any fish on the line, but that look was gone now, and I was danged glad to see its departure.

 

“I guess we were all wrong then,” he said softly.

 

I grinned. “Guess we were. Good thing, huh?” and left it at that.

 

<~~~~~~>

 

We rode steadily all the rest of that day, putting hot, dry miles behind us as we crossed the border out of Mexico and back into the U.S., traveling easier than Jess had done on the way down, with the bounty hunters and me all hot on his trail.

 

By mid-afternoon we were passing along the edge of a series of hills when over to my left I spotted a patch of good grass along a little creek that wandered down out of a fold in the hills. It wasn’t even close to sunset yet, but I’d noticed Jess’ shoulders drooping,. He was clearly tired, and I really wanted to take another good look at that wound. Much as he plainly needed the rest, I knew he wouldn’t take kindly to me suggesting we quit riding so early. All that idea would yield would be a stubborn storm of protest, so I’d have to bring it up real easy.

 

“Hey, Jess, that looks like a good place to camp.” I pointed up along the creek where there was a small grove of gnarled, stunted pines tucked up into a draw.

 

He looked up for the first time in hours, checked that the sun was still well above the horizon, then peered over at me with a bit of his usual spark flashing in his eyes. “We’ve got too many miles to ride to be wastin’ so many hours of good daylight,” he pointed out.

 

Good, an emotion other than anger at himself. Anger at me was just fine-- I could handle that. “Thought we could use a break….”

 

“If you’re doin’ this on my account….”

 

Okay, try the direct route first; just state the obvious. “I can see that shoulder’s painin’ ya.”

 

“Ain’t,” he insisted, straightening up real quick, but the effort betrayed him, pain flashing across his face before he could cover it with a scowl that didn’t hide anything.

 

“Jess, I’ve been shot myself. I know what it feels like, so you got nothin’ to prove to me,” I said softly. “Pushin’ on with a fresh wound like that ain’t smart.”

 

“Never said I was smart.”

 

“I noticed that.” I could see him tensing up for a fight and realized I had to find another reason and right quick. “So sure, you feel fine, and you want to keep ridin’, but it looks like there’s some good graze up there for the horses, hard to find in this rough country,” I pointed out amiably. “They need it. They’re tired.”

 

“My horse is fine,” he disagreed.

 

I kept my tone easy but insistent. “Well, maybe yours is, but mine isn’t. I had to push him pretty hard to catch up to you.”

 

He was all set to answer me back and then I saw it hit him all of a sudden, the realization that I’d ridden all that way after him. Distracted as he’d been, he hadn’t thought about the why or the how of my showing up so far from home. A whole range of emotions flickered across his face as he threw me a quick look, gratitude and guilt plain among them, and I could see that he was worrying again that he was stretching his welcome to and maybe beyond the breaking point. “I didn’t mean t’be draggin’ you away from the ranch.”

 

“There wasn’t any draggin’, Jess. I decided to come all on my own,” I kept my voice light. “You know that every now and again I gotta give Jonesy the chance to be boss a’ the place for a few days, just to keep the peace. Especially when he’s got Andy and Bill Bates to order around.”

 

Jess considered a moment, then shook his head, frowning. “Bates is helpin’ out? He don’t work for free.”

 

“No, he doesn’t.” I chuckled. “Don’t worry. I’ll take his wages outta your pay.”

 

“Do that,” Jess answered seriously. “I reckon I’m gonna hafta’ be stickin’ around all summer just to break even.”

 

“Now that would be one way to keep ya’ from strayin’ off,” I mused.

 

He looked over at me then, his gaze meeting mine for the first time, his brows knitted, and I couldn’t miss the worry plain on his face. “I don’t aim to be costin’ you more than I’m worth.”

 

“Jess, if you were that, I’d have sent you packin’ months ago.” I could see the relief on his face and reminded myself that he had been on the drift a long time, that he still carried doubts about his own worth. I was pretty sure part of his moodiness during our ride was that he was sorting through just how important his job at the ranch and our friendship had become to him, and how he’d come so close to letting it all slip through his fingers.

 

“We rest the horses good tonight, let ‘em fill up on that grass, and we’ll make good time the rest of the way home.” I made sure to emphasize the words we and home so that he wouldn’t miss my meaning. I wanted him to know up front that, even if I wasn’t always pleased with the things he did, I wasn’t about to give up on him the way I reckoned people had done in the past.

 

Jess still didn’t look me in the eye but he nodded. Wordlessly he turned his bay, guiding the horse up into the trees, picking a spot to dismount near a jumble of rocks that would make a good windbreak for our fire. He eased down off his saddle slow and careful, not like his usual effortless

 way of moving, and let out a tired sigh when his boots hit the ground.

 

Soon as I stepped off my own mount I turned to him, taking his horse’s reins from his hands. “Let me take care of the horses. You can fill our canteens and get a fire started.”

 

He nodded without objecting, which meant he really was worn down. He reached up to unhook his canteen from the saddle horn, and I handed him mine before he walked off toward the stream.

 

Quick as I could, I pulled the gear from the horses and picketed them. The minute I gave them their heads, they buried their noses in that grass, tearing at it hungrily. I carried our bedrolls, saddlebags, and the near empty sack of provisions back to the rocks while Jess splashed water from the small stream onto his face and chest before filling the canteens and bringing them to our camp. I’d already gathered up a few rocks for a fire ring as he came back.

 

“Let’s take a look at that shoulder.”

 

He waved me away. “Later.”

 

“Now,” I insisted, and he looked at me briefly before letting his eyes slide away, but he nodded.

I grabbed his bedroll and opened it up, pointing to it, and he sat down heavily, weariness and something more, something heavier, lining his face.

 

I unbuttoned his shirt and untied the bandanna I’d used for a bandage. His shoulder had bled a little, staining the cloth, but the wound looked clean enough. He flinched when I touched the skin around it, and I worried about the risk of infection –– you can’t ever take a gunshot wound lightly.

 

Stepping over to my gear, I rummaged around in my saddlebags and found what I was looking for in the bottom-- a roll of bandages and a small flask. I’d lit out from home real fast after my confrontation with those bounty hunters, barely taking time to grab some grub and my blankets. I did recall, though, real clear, Andy’s face as he’d handed me those two things. He was trying so hard to look grown up and brave, declaring ‘You might need ta’ doctor a horse or somethin’,’ as he gave me the bandage and then wordlessly put the whiskey flask into my hand.

 

With a wry smile at the memory, I held them up for Jess to see. “Got just what you need.”

 

He scowled. “I told ya’ it was nothin’.”

 

“Still needs to be cleaned up proper. Dirty wound’s an invitation for infection.”

 

“Jonesy tell you that?”

 

I nodded.

 

Jess harrumphed sourly but sat still and let me work. I uncapped the flask, filled from Jonesy’s medicinal stash of whiskey, and handed it to him.  He took a good pull on it, and then another before wiping his mouth with his sleeve, and handing it back to me.

 

Putting whiskey on an open wound is nasty business; from personal experience I can tell you that it hurts like all get out. I put one hand on his shoulder to steady him, and when he nodded, poured a generous dose straight into the bullet hole in his shoulder. Jess jumped, throwing his head back, his eyes watering and his teeth grinding before he finally sucked in a deep breath and relaxed a bit, muttering curses. I sat back on my heels and regarded him seriously, relieved as his breathing slowly evened out. He was still way too pale for my liking but pain will do that to a man.

 

He was quiet while I put a fresh bandage on his shoulder, and when I was done, he laid down on his bedroll, leaning back against his saddle. I let him be while I dug through what little grub we had left. We were going to need to make a stop for supplies, and soon.

 

I gathered up some wood and by the time I got the fire going good, Jess was asleep. Good. Rest was what he needed.

 

<~~~~~~>

 

I suppose it was the smell of supper cooking that woke him up -- Jess is never one to miss a chance to eat, even with the misfortune of me doing the cooking. He looked better for the nap, though he was still unusually quiet and his movements slow and deliberate. He got up, his first step a bit shaky, but steadied himself and walked over to check the horses. I could hear him out there, talking low and gentle to his bay. When he came back to the fire, he picked a spot to sit, easing himself down stiffly but he ate his meal, most of it at least. Done, he sat back, staring silently into the dancing flames, the only noise the popping and hissing of the fire and the slight sounds of horses’ teeth tearing at the grass.

 

After a bit, when the fire was burning down to embers, he finally asked, “So really, why’d you come after me, Slim?”

 

“I told ya’, Jess. Good hands are hard to find.”

 

He rolled his eyes, his expression making it clear he didn’t believe a word of it. “I know I ain’t that good of a ranch hand.”

 

Jess actually is a pretty good hand, but I knew he didn’t want to hear that right then, any more than I wanted to tell him what I’d done, though I reckoned he’d understand my need to protect Andy. I took a deep breath and told him what had happened after he left. “Not long after you rode out, two of those men deWalt hired to track down his wife showed up at the ranch, looking for her. It was the two whose bodies I found back on the trail.”  I’m not usually one to think ill of the dead, but after the way they’d threatened my kid brother, I wasn’t about to spare any pity for them.

 

“I wasn’t the one that killed ‘em,” he answered quickly, defensively.

 

“Didn’t think you did. They came bustin’ in….”

 

His head snapped up at my words, real concern in his voice. “They cause you trouble?”

 

“A little,” I downplayed.

 

He sat up straighter, grimacing. “Andy’s all right?” Jess does think a lot of my little brother.

 

“He’s fine.”

 

“That how you got that bruise on your hand then, from them?” Jess does notice things, too.

 

I nodded, then told him the rest, the part I wasn’t proud of. “They threatened Andy, so I told them about Mrs. DeWalt leavin’ with you.” I didn’t feel good about what I’d done, settin’ those men on Jess’ trail, but what choice did I have? Jess knew I had to think of my little brother first. Yet, if something had happened to Jess, a man who was becoming a better friend to me every day, it would have been on my head, and I didn’t like the thought of that one bit.

 

He nodded, not judging me but immediately understanding. “Your first thought had t’be protectin’ Andy.”

 

I sighed, relieved that he understood, because I’d felt real bad about spilling what I knew to those two no-goods. “I’m glad you see it that way.”

 

“Course I do,” his answer was gruff. “There ain’t no other way to see it. My trouble showed up on your doorstep; you ain’t got no stock in that.”

 

It was my turn to snort derisively. “Shhhure. Just like you got no stake in mine.”

 

He looked up at me then, his eyes meeting mine briefly before veering away just as quickly, but I’d seen the uneasiness still lurking there.

 

“You aren’t still brooding over Mrs. DeWalt are you?” I asked him bluntly.

 

“No,” he snapped.

 

“I was surprised you wanted to go with her.”

 

“Yeah, well,” His words faded away and then he added, so soft I could barely hear, like he was talking to himself, not me. “I had to leave, that ain’t sayin’ I wanted to.”

 

“The place has come to mean a lot to you, hasn’t it?” I said equally soft, letting him decide whether to answer or not.

 

He was looking into the fire, and I didn’t expect to hear any more from him, so he surprised me when he answered, “Funny, she said near the same thing to me, asked me why it meant so much to me to be leaving the ranch. I told her she wouldn’t understand but she did, sorta. She said it was all about wantin’ to belong somewhere.” His mouth hinted at a crooked smile. “Turned out it was the only thing she was right about, about how belongin’s important.” He sighed and shifted uncomfortably on his bedroll, then went on, his voice low and raw. “Once, I’d thought maybe I belonged with her, or at least, that’s what I told myself. She made me feel like I’d never felt before; like I was somebody special, like she needed me and only me.” His face twisted again, but it wasn’t his shoulder hurting this time, and his voice held a bitter edge. “Oh, she suckered me in good, real good.”

 

“A woman like her can do that to a man.”

 

“I should have known better.”

 

“It’s a rare man who does.”

 

He looked at me, his eyes blazing. “That ain’t no excuse, Slim, and you know it.”

 

I wasn’t going to argue with him about it, so I just nodded, waiting for him to go on, knowing the anger wasn’t directed at me, but still aimed at himself. I hoped that if he kept talking, he’d work it all out of his system, see that the important thing wasn’t that he’d let her use him but that he’d made his way out of the snares she’d so deftly set for him.

 

“From the day I rode into the Diamond D, she kept throwin’ those looks at me, makin’ eyes at me, makin’ up excuses to come out to the barn n’ corral to talk to me, until she had me all twisted up inside, wantin’ her like I’d never wanted anything before. Even knowin’ how wrong it was, I couldn’t stop myself from feelin’ that way.”

 

There was real hurt in his voice, and he sounded lost in a way I’d never heard from him. “Finally one day I just couldn’t live with it anymore, with the wrongness of what I was doin’. So I left, just got my gear and rode out without a word, didn’t even draw my pay. Felt like I couldn’t take money from the hand of a man whose wife I’d….”

 

He stopped and looked away before going on. “I put her out of my mind, told myself it was done, and I’d never see her again, and that was a good thing.  I told myself I was over her, said it so many times I convinced myself that I believed it. And I did, until the other day when she stepped outta’ that stage. One look into those eyes and hearin’ her say my name all soft and low, like a cat purrin’, an’ I was pulled back in again. It was like bein’ swept downstream in a flood. I knew I shouldn’t be any where near her, but I couldn’t stop myself.”

 

I could see the tightness in his face, the muscles along his jaw jumping.

 

“Part of me wanted to believe her, part of me kept shoutin’ at myself that I was actin’ the fool, and another part of me didn’t care how she treated me as long as I could be with her.”  He paused, shifting uncomfortably. “I wanted her to need me like I needed her, but she ain’t ever needed nothin’ but money.” He kicked at a clump of rock near his foot. “All the while I danced to her tune, I never meant nothin’ to her, nothin’ at all. She was like a cat playin’ with a mouse.”

 

I swung my own thoughts away from my memories of Abby O’Neill. Maybe I’d tell Jess about her someday, but this didn’t seem to be the time. “You ain’t the first man whose head’s been turned by a pretty woman. And you won’t be the last,” I reminded him.

 

But that didn’t seem to settle him. He kept staring into the fire, his face still dark and closed, and I thought he was done talking until, in a very quiet voice, and without ever looking at me, he spoke up again. “Once, I belonged in Texas, but that got taken away from me. And then I belonged in the army, not because of the South or the Cause, but because of the men I fought with, all of us needin’ each other if we was to have any hope t’survive. And when that ended, I belonged nowhere for a long time, for a real long time, until I rode into your ranch, an’ I felt...,” he paused, couldn’t find the words, gave up and shrugged carefully, moving his right shoulder only. “You know,” he said, and looked over at me.

 

I knew. Jess did belong now, and it was good to see that he was finally coming to understand that for himself. He still wasn’t sure he could make it work, that he could settle down and make himself fit in without losing the freedom he had to have, but at least he understood that belonging was something that he needed deep inside. Tonight was a start, and a good one, and I was proud of him for seeing it.

 

Jess tried once more to explain to me, and even more to himself. “I thought I owed her. I couldn’t say no to her, even when I could see what it was costing me.”

 

“You know now.” I chuckled. “And it hasn’t cost you a thing except for a long ride.”

 

“And a bullet hole in my shoulder.”

 

“Small price to pay for belonging.” I grinned at him and saw a shadow of a smile cross his face in return, and right then I knew he was going to be fine.

 

It wasn’t until later, when I was snuggled into my blankets and near asleep, mulling over our conversation, that I realized Jess had never once called her by name.

 

<~~~~~~>

 

Somewhere late in the night, I woke, unsure of what had drawn my attention. Keeping still in my blankets, listening, I noted Jess turning restlessly, but there were no other sounds. The picketed horses were quiet; no noises disturbed the night. Just about to fall back to sleep, reckoning it was a false alarm, I heard Jess rustling around again. Moving slow and quiet, I pushed back my blanket and slid on my boots, moving cat-footed over to check on our mounts. They were fine, standing hipshot and half asleep as I circled around the quiet camp. Satisfied, I moved back toward the fire, which had burned down to barely glowing embers.

 

“Slim? What’s up?” came Jess’ soft question.

 

“Thought I heard somethin’, but everything’s fine.” I stirred the fire and tossed more wood on it, then turned round for a good look at him. He’d untangled himself from his blanket and struggled to a sitting position before reaching out a hand for his canteen and taking a long, deep drink.

 

Something struck me as odd and I stepped round the fire, worry flaring. “You feeling all right?”

 

 “Just thirsty.” He drank again and drained the container. “It’s hot tonight.”

 

Not that hot, I thought, worried. In fact, it was chilly and pushing on darn near cold. And I’d filled the canteens to the brim before turning in.  I knelt to take a good look at him. It was hard to tell by firelight, but Jess’ face seemed flushed. Placing one hand on his forehead, I couldn’t miss the heat radiating off of it. “You’re runnin’ a fever.”

 

“Maybe a little,” he admitted, pulling back.

 

I threw more wood on the fire, giving it a moment to blaze up before turning back to him and ordering, “Let me take a look at that shoulder.”

 

Jess didn’t protest and that sparked my growing concern. I helped him sit up more, resting against his saddle, then unbuttoned his shirt and pulled back the cloth. There was some fresh blood on the bandage, but not much. The skin around the deceptively small hole seemed red and tight. “Looks swollen. Could be the start of an infection,” I decided, sitting back on my heels and running a hand through my hair. “We should have a doctor look at this.”

 

“What doctor?” Jess eased back, lips tight, leaning hard against his saddle.

 

“In whatever’s the next town. Rio Ocho, isn’t it?” Slim asked.

 

“Ain’t one there. The place ain’t nothin’ more than a run-down cantina that serves bad whiskey and worse food, and a blacksmith/livery stable that’ll charge twice what the work is worth, “Jess grumbled. “If they’ve got a doc, he’s probably a horse doctor, an’ a bad one at that.”

 

“Know the place then?”

 

“We rode through it on the way down.” Jess closed his eyes wearily, his right hand straying up to rub at his left shoulder.

 

I took note of the gesture. “Well, there’s no worryin’ over it now. You get some sleep. We’ll see how you feel in the morning.”

 

He didn’t sleep much. Feverish, he tossed restlessly and woke often, cold and huddling in his bedroll between bouts of throwing off his blankets and complaining about the heat. I refilled his canteen and got him to drink as much and as often as I could, rewrapped him in the blankets every time he cast them off, and kept the fire stoked.

 

Toward dawn, finally, Jess grew calmer, his fever eased, and he slept.

 

<~~~~~~>

 

I was up at dawn, moving about quiet so I wouldn’t wake Jess, who was still rolled up tight in his blankets. I took care of the camp chores, watering the horses and finding fresh grass to picket them on.  He slept through it all, not even the smell of coffee rousing him.

 

It was hours after sunrise when he finally raised his head from his blankets and looked fuzzily around, suddenly realizing how late it was. One-armed, Jess pushed himself to a sitting position, then ran a hand across his stubbly jaw. “What ‘r we still doin’ here?”

 

“Well, you were sleepin’.”

 

“Ya’ could’a woke me.”

 

I chuckled. “I’ll remember that when we got work to do.” I stirred the fire, setting the coffee on it once more. “I thought the horses could use a day’s rest. They were pushed hard, gettin’ here.”

 

Jess threw me a look that stated clearly he saw through my excuse, but he didn’t argue. “Reckon they could.” He took the coffee cup I handed him, mumbled a “thanks,” and drained it quickly, then made a move to get up. He got his legs under him and stood, wobbling alarmingly, and only my quick grab latching onto his good arm kept him upright.

 

“You look a little pale there, cowboy,” I told him.

 

“Jus’ need to get my legs under me.”

 

“Sure. But maybe you should just sit back down until you do.”

 

Jess didn’t fuss, but he did sit back down.

 

“I found some decent graze for the horses, further up along the creek. We’ll give them today to eat their fill, then move on tomorrow.”

 

I waited out the day while Jess crawled back into his blankets and slept. I tended to the camp chores and fussed over the horses, who really were more than a bit worn down from the hard and fast ride south. I heated up the last of our trail supplies, waking Jess to eat and after lunch, tried to take a nap myself.

 

It didn’t work. My brain wouldn’t shut down, but instead began to worry about the ranch and the relay station. I’d been gone too many days already, and it was a long, and it looked like a slow, ride back to Laramie. If things ran smoothly at home, it wasn’t too bad to leave the work to Jonesy, Andy, and Bill Bates, who’d filled in on occasion before. But things almost never run smooth, my worry reminded me. There was always some kind of trouble -- breakdowns, sick horses, extra runs or late runs or Indians or outlaws or a hundred other things that could go wrong.

 

Well, nothing to be done about it now. It would all have to wait until I got home.

 

I looked over at my ranch hand and wondered, once again, what I’d seen in Jess, and what Jess had seen in me, that had created this bond we were building; this sense of one man’s troubles belonging equally to the other; rancher and drifter, boss and hired hand, Yank and Reb. I had just ridden hundreds of miles to help him, compelled by something that I couldn’t name.

 

Well, sure, I’d felt guilty about what I’d told to those two no goods. And yeah, there was a bit of wanderlust involved, too, an all too rare chance for me to throw off the yoke and ride free for a few days, but it was more than that. I’d feared that this time, Jess wouldn’t come back, even though it had been plain that he really hadn’t wanted to go with Mrs. DeWalt. Anyone with eyes could have seen that, but the way that woman had had him snared, well, a woman like that was trouble, mile wide and ten-foot-deep trouble.

 

I called myself twelve kinds of a fool for getting involved in someone else’s problems, knowing that I had more than enough of my own, and finally, all that thinking leaving me wide awake, gave up on trying to sleep. Instead, I got up quietly, once again moved the horses to fresh grass, and gathered wood for that night’s fire.

 

Jess had a better night, less feverish, and both of us got some sleep. I figured the worst was past.

 

<~~~~~~>

 

I let Jess sleep late that next morning to build up his strength a bit, moving around camp quietly and waiting patiently until he finally woke up. He groused a bit at me for not waking him sooner, but I figured the rest could only have done him good. He did look some better, with a bit of color in his face and less darkness in his voice, though his forehead still felt a bit warm. By my reckoning, we’d hit Rio Ocho before nightfall, and whether Jess liked the place or not, I was finding him a doc.

 

Jess ate his breakfast and sat drinking his coffee, without argument letting me do the work of breaking camp and saddling up the horses, well, without argument after I’d ordered him to stay put or I’d hogtie him.

 

Finally, when we were ready to leave, I handed him Traveler’s reins and he looked up at me, his face serious and intense.

 

He stepped to his horse’s shoulder, ready to mount up, and then he paused and turned back to me. “Slim, I, you know, I didn’t expect… ” he met my gaze, still searching for the words, and I let him off the hook. I nodded and he nodded, and neither one of us needed to say any more because we both understood.

 

See, I knew he was trying to thank me for something a lot bigger than the camp chores I’d done for him that morning— tacking up his horse, fixing his breakfast, and tending his wound. His words, or the lack of them, didn’t matter. It was the understanding I could see in his eyes, the way I knew now that he realized things had changed. I owned the ranch and I was his boss, but somewhere in these past few months, I’d become his friend, too, and friends don’t need to say the words. Sometimes, the silence says a whole lot more.

 

Jess had learned a lot on the run to Tumavaca, and he’d learned a lot more on the ride home; he’d learned where he did indeed belong.

 

------------ The End ------------



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