What happened that made George stop playing tricks on Lennie in Of Mice and Men?

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George stopped playing tricks on the childlike Lennie after Lennie entrusted his life to George and nearly died. 

When George Milton and Lennie Small arrive at the ranch where they have been hired to work, they meet old Candy, the boss, and his son Curley. Later, they meet the skinner named Slim, who possesses great understanding because his ear "hear[s] more than [is] said to him." As they converse, Slim remarks that it is odd that George and Lennie travel together. However, George tells Slim, "It ain't so funny, him an' me goin' aroun'" with each other because he and Lennie are from the same town. George explains that Lennie's Aunt Clara took care of Lennie until she died. After his aunt's death, Lennie started to go along with George as he went "out workin'." George adds that they "got kinda used to each other after a little while."

Then, George tells Slim that he used to tease Lennie and play jokes on him because doing so made him seem very smart in comparison. He adds:

"Used to play jokes on 'im 'cause he was too dumb to take care of 'imself. But he was too dumb even to know he had a joke played on him. Why he'd do any damn thing I tol' him....If I tol' him to walk over a cliff, over he'd go."

George took advantage of this faith one day. Since he had an audience of several men, he boasted of his power over Lennie. To demonstrate this power, he told Lennie to jump into the river below where they were standing. Lennie jumped, but only then did George realize that Lennie could not swim. Lennie nearly drowned before the men could reach him. When George finally managed to get Lennie pulled out,

"...he was so...nice to me for pullin' him out. Clean forgot I told him to jump in. Well, I ain't done nothing like that no more."

George feels responsible for nearly killing Lennie, and he no longer teases the childlike man. Also, he has become "used to goin' around with a guy," so Lennie and he are now friends.

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At the beginning of chapter three of Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, Slim and George are in the bunkhouse talking. Slim comments that he rarely ever sees two men traveling together and is surprised about the friendship between George and Lennie. George tells Slim about how he and Lennie ended up together and confesses to Slim that Lennie often does "bad things" which cause them to lose jobs. 

George also confesses that he used to "play jokes" on Lennie. Lennie is mentally challenged and looks to George for just about everything. One day George told Lennie to jump in a river and Lennie almost drowned before he could be saved. George describes the scene to Slim:

“Tell you what made me stop that. One day a bunch of guys was standin’ around up on the Sacramento River. I was feelin’ pretty smart. I turns to Lennie and says, ‘Jump in.’ An’ he jumps. Couldn’t swim a stroke. He damn near drowned before we could get him. An’ he was so damn nice to me for pullin’ him out. Clean forgot I told him to jump in. Well, I ain’t done nothing like that no more.” 

Fear of causing Lennie's death made George stop playing tricks on his friend.

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In the beginning of the novella, George and Slim talk about Lennie. In one of the rare moments in the book, George and Slim connect and have a real conversation. George shares with Slim his past with Lennie.

When Lennie's aunt Clara died, Lennie stuck with George. In time they became good friends. George also explains that Lennie is a great worker, but not too bright. As an example of this, George recounts a story of when he told Lennie to jump in a river. He actually did. The problem was that Lennie did not know how to swim. Therefore, he almost drowned. When George realized that Lennie would do anything he asked him to do, he stopped playing pranks on Lennie. George did not want to take advantage of Lennie. Here is the quote:

George’s voice was taking on the tone of confession. “Tell you what made me stop that. One day a bunch of guys was standin’ around up on the Sacramento River. I was feelin’ pretty smart. I turns to Lennie and says, ‘Jump in.’ An’ he jumps. Couldn’t swim a stroke. He damn near drowned before we could get him. An’ he was so damn nice to me for pullin’ him out. Clean forgot I told him to jump in. Well, I ain’t done nothing like that no more."

“He’s a nice fella,” said Slim. “Guy don’t need no sense to be a nice fella. Seems to me sometimes it jus’ works the other way around. Take a real smart guy and he ain’t hardly ever a nice fella.”

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