A fight exploded through the jail’s front door and rolled in a bloody tangle into the hitching rail. The two horses tied there danced and snorted and pulled their reins tight trying to keep their legs clear of the two men grappling in the dirt at their feet. Deputy Tom Curran had to jump back to avoid getting knocked down as he crossed the street from livery to jail.
Instead of going inside the squat brick building he kept to the boardwalk, kept his distance from the brawl and watched the struggle kick dust and curses into the air.
A body slammed into the far side of the horse trough with the sound of a dull crack and water sloshed over the side, slapping against the dusty ground and splashing the two men grappling next to it.
The older man in the conflict, a dandy with neat-trimmed hair and waxy mustache and a suit of clothes that sure never rolled on the ground before, seemed to have the upper hand as he landed three quick blows to his opponent’s ribcage and then grabbed a handful of his hair and tried to bash his face into the trough.
But his opponent, a boy not above his early twenties, with mended clothes and worn boots, landed a hard elbow into the man’s ribs and pulled free of the grip just before he got his nose broken against the trough. He pushed to his feet, dragging the older man with him, punching him twice more when he refused to be compliant and the fight waged itself back into the jail.
Tom waited until he heard the cell door slam shut inside the jail before he followed in. The dandy was in the cell, sprawled out cold on the bunk. The younger man was at the desk, leaning his weight on one hand and pressing the other hand against his ribs, catching his breath.
“West.” Tom greeted him, evenly. “Didn’t expect you ’til tomorrow.”
“To be shed a’this fella, I didn’t spare the horses.” West answered. He grunted in pain as he pushed himself upright, then looked at Tom with narrowed eyes. “You had no notion I was on my way here.”
“You’re always on your way here.” Tom answered. He jerked his head towards the cell where the prisoner was stirring. “He need looking after?”
“Hell if I know and damned if I care.” West bent down to pull his hat from under the stove where no doubt the fight had wedged it. His face pulled tight in a grimace of pain.
“How many ribs you got stove in?” Tom asked.
“I gotta take care a’my horse.” West said, slapping his hat back into shape across his hand. “I’ll take his horse to Sam while I’m at it.”
“West – sit.” Tom said. “Catch your breath. Have some coffee.”
West looked set to protest again and Tom sweetened his offer. “Got some of Josephine’s molasses cookies there, too.”
West narrowed his eyes like he was figuring Tom for a low down bribe, but he scouted out the plate of cookies on the desk and helped himself to one before sitting stiffly in one of the barrel back chairs at the stove.
“How’s Josie doing, anyhow?” he asked. “Anything you – y’know – maybe got t’tell me?”
Tom got a cookie for himself and sat in the other chair. “Is that your way of not asking me if I’m making my Pa a grandpa?”
West shrugged. “Seemed like you had some hope of it last month, ‘fore I lit out.”
Tom sighed. “That’s all it was – hope.”
“Sorry for asking, then.” West said. He pulled the wanted poster out of his inside jacket pocket and shoved it at Tom. “Y’have ‘em wire the money to the bank here, like usual?”
Tom unfolded the wanted poster and read it out. “Philip B. Ripley, wanted for thieving and hijack. Reward fifteen dollars.” He turned to West in disbelief. “You got yourself beat to hell for fifteen dollars?”
“Well, good on you if you can spit on fifteen dollars,” West shot back. “Some of us can’t.” He finished the cookie and stood up, favoring his left side.
“I gotta take care a’my horse. Y’have them wire the money to the bank?”
“Don’t I every time?”
“Only ‘cause I remind you every time,” West said. He headed to the door of jail and Tom stood up and followed him out, sticking close behind.
“What the hell you on my shirttails for?” West asked. “We got a burr stuck between us I ain’t made out yet?”
Tom gestured his head to the hitching rail. “Taking the prisoner’s horse to the livery.”
“My legs ain’t broke, ‘case you ain’t noticed.”
Tom ignored that, ignored the annoyance in West’s tone. “I can take your horse, too. I’m thinking you might want him there before first snowfall, and the way you’re looking, that ain’t gonna happen.”
“I take care of my own,” West said. The annoyance in his tone had shifted to warning, but Tom ignored that too. He walked past West and untied both horses.
“You happen to chase Ripley through McGinty’s pigsty?” he asked. “Because – really – a bath wouldn’t hurt.”
“Neither would minding your business.”
“Why don’t you buy me dinner? You being so rich and all, now.”
West didn’t answer, only growled in his throat and followed beside Tom as he led the horses across the street to the livery.
“Fine,” Tom went on, as though West had answered. “I’ll buy you dinner. But you’re gonna have to take a bath first. My Jo don’t let just anybody sit down in her kitchen.”
“Seems she lets you in her kitchen all the time. That ain’t no recommendation.” West said. They were at the livery and Tom let West pull his horse’s reins out of his hand.
“So, is that a ‘yes’ on dinner?” he asked.
“I’ve had better offers.”
“Looking the way you do, West – take what you can get.”
West shook his head and led his horse into the livery. “Y’have them wire that money to the bank as soon as they can, I’d appreciate it.”
“Sure thing,” Tom said, but he wasn’t sure West heard him. He went to the telegraph office and had Gabriel send a wire to the sheriff in Buck Snort that one Peter B. Ripley was ready and waiting anytime he wanted to claim him. The sooner the better, he thought.
He went back to the jail and straightened up the evidence of the fight; he scooped papers back onto the desk, righted the chair behind the desk, gave the stove a shove that lined the stove pipe up proper again.
Only then did he check on the prisoner. Ripley was sitting up on the bed. His fancy clothes were in a tangle, his mustache was blood, and his left eye was purpling red.
“I’m going to get some dinner, now,” Tom told him. “You behave and I won’t starve you.”
“That lunatic ain’t coming back, is he?” Ripley asked. “That lunatic dang near killed me.”
“And I’m sure you dang well deserved it.” Tom said. “Next time you get wanted for something, make sure you don’t get West on your trail.”