“I never meant no harm, George. Honest I never.”
“Well, you keep away from her, cause she’s a rattrap if I ever seen one. You let Curley take the rap. He let himself in for it. Glove fulla vaseline,” George said disgustedly. “An’ I bet he’s eatin’ raw eggs and writin’ to the patent medicine houses.”
Lennie cried out suddenly — “I don’t like this place, George. This ain’t no good place. I wanna get outa here.”
“We gotta keep it till we get a stake. We can’t help it, Lennie. We’ll get out jus’ as soon as we can. I don’t like it no better than you do.” He went back to the table and set out a new solitaire hand. “No, I don’t like it,” he said. “For two bits I’d shove out of here. If we can get jus’ a few dollars in the poke we’ll shove off and go up the American River and pan gold. We can make maybe a couple of dollars a day there, and we might hit a pocket.”
Lennie leaned eagerly toward him. “Le’s go, George. Le’s get outa here. It’s mean here.”
“We gotta stay,” George said shortly. “Shut up now. The guys’ll becomin’ in.”
From the washroom nearby came the sound of running water and rattling basins. George studied the cards. “Maybe we oughtta wash up,” he said. “But we ain’t done nothing to get dirty.”
A tall man stood in the doorway. He held a crushed Stetson hat under his arm while he combed his long, black, damp hair straight back. Like the others he wore blue jeans and a short denim jacket. When he had finished combing his hair he moved into the room, and he moved with a majesty achieved only by royalty and master craftsmen. He was a jerkline skinner, the prince of the ranch, capable of driving ten, sixteen, even twenty mules with a single line to the leaders. He was capable of killing a fly on the wheeler’s butt with a bull whip without touching the mule. There was a gravity in his manner and a quiet so profound that all talk stopped when he spoke. His authority was so great that his word was taken on any subject, be it politics or love. This was Slim, the jerkline skinner. His hatchet face was ageless. He might have been thirty-five or fifty. His ear heard more than was said to him, and his slow speech had overtones not of thought, but of understanding beyond thought. His hands, large and lean, were as delicate in their action as those of a temple dancer.
He smoothed out his crushed hat, creased it in the middle and put it on. He looked kindly at the two in the bunk house. “It’s brighter’n a bitch outside,” he said gently. “Can’t hardly see nothing in here. You the new guys?”
“Just come,” said George.
“Gonna buck barley?”
“That’s what the boss says.”
Slim sat down on a box across the table from George. He studied the solitaire hand that was upside down to him. “Hope you get on my team,” he said. His voice was very gentle. “I gotta pair of punks on my team that don’t know a barley bag from a blue ball. You guys ever bucked any barley?”
“Hell, yes,” said George. “I ain’t nothing to scream about, but that big bastard there can put up more grain alone than most pairs can.”
Lennie, who had been following the conversation back and forth with his eyes, smiled complacently at the compliment. Slim looked approvingly at George for having given the compliment. He leaned over the table and snapped the corner of a loose card. “You guys travel around together?” His tone was friendly. It invited confidence without demanding it.
“Sure,” said George. “We kinda look after each other.” He indicated Lennie with his thumb. “He ain’t bright. Hell of a good worker, though. Hell of a nice fella, but he ain’t bright. I’ve knew him for a long time.”