The deep green pool of the Salinas River was still in the late afternoon. Already the sun had left the valley to go climbing up the slopes of the Gabilan Mountains, and the hilltops were rosy in the sun. But by the pool among the mottled sycamores, a pleasant shade had fallen.
A watersnake glided smoothly up the pool, twisting its periscope head from side to side; and it swam the length of the pool and came to the legs of a motionless heron that stood in the shallows. A silent head and beak lanced down and plucked it out by the head, and the beak swallowed the little snake while its tail waved frantically.
A fair rush of wind sounded and a gust drove through the tops of the trees like a wave. They sycamore leaves turned up their silver sides, the brown, dry leaves on the ground scudded a few feet. And row on row of the tiny wind waves flowed up the pool's green surface.
As quickly as it had come, the wind died, and the clearing was quiet again. The heron stood in the shallows, motionless and waiting. Another little watersnake swam up the pool, turning its periscope head from side to side.
Suddenly, Lennie appeared out of the brush, and he came as silently as a creeping bear moves. The heron pounded the air with its wings, jacked itself clear of the water and flew off down-river. The little snake slid in among the reeds at the pool's side.
Lennie came quietly to the pool's edge. He knelt down and drank, barely touching his lips to the water. When a little bird skittered over the dry leaves behind him, his head jerked up and he strained toward the sound with his eyes and ears until he saw the bird, and then he dropped his head and drank again.
When he was finished, he sat down on the bank, with his side to the pool, so that he could watch the trail's entrance. He embraced his knees and laid his chin down on his knees.
The light climbed on out of the valley and, as it went, the tops of the mountains seemed to blaze with increasing brightness.
Lennie said softly, "I di'n't forget, you bet, god damn. Hide in the brush an' wait for George." He pulled his hat down low over his eyes. "George gonna give me hell," he said. "George gonna wish he was alone an' not have me botherin' him." He turned his head and looked at the bright mountain tops. "I can go right off there an' find a cave," he said. And he continued sadly, " -- an' never have no ketchup -- but I won't care. If George don't want me .... I'll go away. I'll go away."
And then from out of Lennie's head there came a little fat old woman. She wore thick bull's eye glasses and she wore a huge gingham apron with pockets, and she was starched and clean. She stood in front of Lennie and put her hands on her hips, and she frowned disapprovingly at him.
And when she spoke, it was in Lennie's voice. "I tol' you an' I tol' you," she said. "I tol' you, 'Min' George because he's such a nice fella an' good to you.' But you don't never take no care. You do bad things."
And Lennie answered her, "I tried, Aunt Clara, ma'am. I tried and tried. I couldn't help it."
"You never give a thought to George," she went on in Lennie's voice. "He been doin' nice things for you alla time. When he got a piece of pie you always got half or more'n half. An' if they was any ketchup, why, he'd give it all to you."
"I know," said Lennie miserably. "I tried, Aunt Clara, ma'am. I tried and tried."
She interrupted him. "All the time he coulda had such a good time if it wasn't for you. He woulda took his pay an' raised hell in a whorehouse, and he coulda set in a pool-room an' played snooker. But he got to take care of you."
Lennie moaned with grief. "I know, Aunt Clara, ma'am. I'll go right off in the hills an' I'll fin' a cave an' I'll live there so I won't be no more trouble to George."
"You jus' say that," she said sharply. "You're always sayin' that, an' you know son-of-a-bitching well you ain't never gonna do it. You'll jus' stick around an' stew the b'Jesus outa George all the time."
Lennie said, "I might jus' as well go away. George ain't gonna let me tend no rabbits now."
Aunt Clara was gone, and from out of Lennie's head there came a gigantic rabbit. It sat on its haunches in front of him, and it waggled its ears and crinkled its nose at him. And it spoke in Lennie's voice too.
"Tend rabbits," it said scornfully. "You crazy bastard. You ain't fit to lick the boots of no rabbit. You'd forget 'em and let 'em go hungry. That's what you'd do. An' then what would George think?"
"I would not forget," Lennie said loudly.
"The hell you wouldn'," said the rabbit. "You ain't worth a greased jackpin to ram you into hell. Christ knows George done ever'thing he could to jack you outa the sewer, but it don't do no good. If you think George gonna let you tend rabbits, you're even crazier'n usual. He ain't. He's gonna beat hell outa you with a stick, that's what he's gonna do."
Now Lennie roared belligerently, "He ain't neither. George won't do nothing like that. I've knew George since --- I forget when --- and he ain't never raised his han' to me with a stick. He's nice to me. He ain't gonna be mean."
"Well, he's sick of you," said the rabbit. "He's gonna beat hell outa you an' then go away an' leave you."
"He won't," Lennie cried frantically. "He won't do nothing like that. I know George. Me and him travels together."
But the rabbit repeated softly over and over, "He gonna leave you, ya crazy bastard. He gonna leave ya, all alone. He gonna leave ya, crazy bastard."
Lennie put his hands over his ears. "He ain't, I tell ya he ain't." And he cried, "Oh! George -- George --- George!"
George came quietly out of the brush and the rabbit scuttled back into Lennie's brain.
George said quietly, "What the hell you yellin' about?"
Lennie got up on his knees. "You ain't gonna leave me, are ya, George? I know you ain't."
George came stiffly near and sat down beside him. "No."
"I knowed it," Lennie cried. "You ain't that kind."
George was silent.
Lennie said, "George."
"I done another bad thing."
"It don't make no difference," George said, and he fell silent again.
Only the topmost ridges were in the sun now. The shadow in the valley was blue and soft. From the distance came the sound of men shouting to one another. George turned his head and listened to the shouts.
Lennie said, "George."
"Ain't you gonna give me hell?"
"Give ya hell?"
"Sure, like you always done before. Like: 'If I di'n't have you I'd take my fifty bucks ---"
"Jesus Christ, Lennie! You can't remember nothing that happens, but you remember ever' word I say."
"Well, ain't you gonna say it?"
George shook himself. He said woodenly, "If I was alone I could live so easy." His voice was monotonous, had no emphasis. "I could get a job an' not have no mess." He stopped.
"Go on," said Lennie. "An' when the enda the month come ---"
"An' when the end of the month come I could take my fifty bucks an' go to a ...... cat-house.... " He stopped again.
Lennie looked eagerly at him. "Go on, George. Ain't you gonna give me no more hell?"
"No," said George.
"Well, I can go away," said Lennie. "I'll go right off in the hills an' find a cave if you don' want me."
George shook himself again. "No," he said. "I want you to stay with me here."
Lennie said craftily, "Tell me like you done before."
"Tell you what?"
"'Bout the other guys an' about us."
George said, "Guys like us go no fambly. They make a little stake an' then they blow it in. They ain't got nobody in the worl' that gives a hoot in hell about 'em ---"
"But not us," Lennie cried happily. "Tell about us, now."
George was quiet for a moment. "But not us," he said.
"Because I got you an' ---------"
"An' I got you. We got each other, that's what, that gives a hoot in hell about us." Lennie cried in triumph.
The little evening breeze blew over the clearing and the leaves rustled and the wind waves flowed up the green pool. And the shouts of men sounded again, this time much closer than before.
George took off his hat. He said shakily, "Take off your hat, Lennie. The air feels fine."
Lennie removed his hat dutifully and laid it on the ground in front of him. The shadow in the valley was bluer and the evening came fast. On the wind the sound of crashing in the brush came to them.
Lennie said, "Tell how it's gonna be."
George had been listening to the distant sounds. For a moment he was business-like. "Look acrost the river, Lennie, an' I'll tell you so you can almost see it."
Lennie turned his head and looked off across the pool and up the darkening slopes of the Gabilans. "We gonna get a little place," George began. He reached in his side pocket and brought out Carlson's Luger; he snapped off the safety, and the hand and gun lay on the ground behind Lennie's back. He looked at the back of Lennie's head, at the place where the spine and skull were joined.
A man's voice called from up the river, and another man answered.
"Go on," said Lennie.
George raised the gun and his hand shook, and he dropped the gun to the ground again.
"Go on," said Lennie. "How's it gonna be. We gonna get a little place."
"We'll have a cow," said George. "An' we'll have maybe a pig an' chickens.... an' down the flat we'll have a ..... little piece alfalfa----"
"For the rabbits," Lennie shouted.
"For the rabbits," George repeated.
"An' I get to tend the rabbits."
"An' you get to tend the rabbits."
Lennie giggled with happiness. "An' live on the fatta the lan'."
Lennie turned his head.
"No, Lennie. Look down there acrost the river, like you can almost see the place."
Lennie obeyed him. George looked down at the gun.
There were crashing footsteps in the brush now. George turned and looked toward them.
"Go on George. When we gonna do it?"
"Gonna do it, soon."
"Me an' you."
"You... an' me. Ever'body gonna be nice to you. Ain't gonna be no more trouble. Nobody gonna hurt nobody nor steal from 'em."
Lennie said, "I thought you was mad at me, George."
"No," said George. "No, Lennie, I ain't mad. I never been mad, an' I ain't mad now. That's a thing I want ya to know."
The voices came close now. George raised the gun and listened to the voices.
Lennie begged, "Le's do it now. Le's get that place now."
"Sure, right now. I gotta. We gotta."
And George raised the gun, and steadied it, and he brought the muzzle of it close to the back of Lennie's head. The hand shook violently, but his face set and his hand steadied. He pulled the trigger. The crash of the shot rolled up the hills and rolled down again. Lennie jarred, and then settled slowly forward to the sand, and he lay without quivering.
George shivered and looked at the gun, and then he threw if from him, back up on the bank, near the pile of old ashes.
The brush seemed filled with cries and with the sound of running feet. Slim's voice shouted, "George. Where you at, George?"
But George sat stiffly on the bank and looked at his right hand that had thrown the gun away. The group burst into the clearing, and Curley was ahead. He saw Lennie lying on the sand. "Got him, by God." He went over and looked down at Lennie, and then he looked back at George. "Right in the back of the head," he said softly.
Slim came directly to George and sat down beside him, sat very close to him. "Never you mind," said Slim. "A guy got to sometimes."
But Carlson was standing over George. "How'd you do it?" he asked.
"I just done it," George said tiredly.
"Did he have my gun?"
"Yeah. He had your gun."
"An' you got it away from him and you took it an' you killed him?"
"Yeah. Tha's how." George's voice was almost a whisper. He looked steadily at his right hand that had held the gun.
Slim twitched George's elbow. "Come on, George. Me an' you'll go in an' get a drink."
George let himself be helped to his feet. "Yeah, a drink."
Slim said, "You hadda, George. I swear you hadda. Come on with me." He led George into the entrance of the trail and up toward the highway.
Curley and Carlson looked after them. And Carlson said, "Now what the hell ya suppose is eatin' them two guys?"