West Justice Chapter 5

Gray thunderclouds rolled over the town as the wind blew rain from the rooftops into the muddy, puddled street. They were low, dark, and threatening, but they were nothing compared to the look on Sheriff Curran’s face as he talked to Sheriff Campbell.

Or maybe as he listened to Sheriff Campbell was more the point, Tom thought. Campbell was doing almost all the talking, pacing the jail and looking over everything like an auction was called and he was thinking of bidding.

Tom leaned against the door frame, watching the oration and keeping clear of it.

I’m looking for this man,” Campbell said and slapped a wanted poster onto the desk. “They call him Maldad. He has a boy with him. Night before last a preacher near Deer Creek had his guts laid open to the air and they did it.”

How do you know?” Sheriff Curran asked. He picked up the wanted poster and scanned it.

You hear of that priest that was butchered just outside San Augustine five years ago?”

Who didn’t? That was news across seven counties.”

They killed him. That’s what they do.”

And you think they’re here?” Tom asked.

I think they could be anywhere. I’m going to as many towns as I can reach to warn them.”

You got a description of them?” Sheriff Curran asked. “This doesn’t.”

Campbell pulled his lips back in a grimace that showed his teeth like fangs. “Nobody’s got a clear look at Maldad. Nobody still alive. The boy was about five feet, wild, not one for talking. Some think he’s the one who did the actual killing.”

Why?”

The preacher beat him. The boy’s family sold his labor to the preacher and the preacher beat him. That’s why he went along with killing him and ran off with Maldad after it happened.”

So, where they been these past five years?” Tom asked.

Just ‘cause we ain’t heard about it, don’t mean they ain’t been killing,” Campbell answered without even turning around to look at Tom. “Deer Creek’s not that far from here. You got a preacher in this town? You’re gonna want to keep an eye on him. Keep an eye on anybody new who comes into town. Maldad knows what he’s looking for so it stands to reason he hangs around town for a while beforehand, maybe gets to know the preacher, before he gets to thieving. Maybe even sticks around a while afterward, to keep the suspicion away.”

I appreciate you telling me how to do my job.”

Campbell pulled his lips against his teeth and spit his answer through a clenched jaw.

Well, you’ll just have to excuse me for not being polite, I guess. I saw what got done to that preacher five years ago and I don’t aim to see that happen again. If you’re not going to warn your preacher, I will.”

Sheriff Curran jerked his head toward the door. .

Last house this side of the bridge. Don’t let me stop you.”

Campbell sneered and a muscle in his left cheek twitched but he didn’t say anything else. He turned on his heel and marched to the door. Not wanting to get bowled over, Tom stepped out of the way but Campbell stopped halfway throught the door and turned back.

I saw that preacher, five years ago,” he said. The arrogance was gone. He sounded calm and sorrowful. “I saw what he suffered, I was with him when he died. I did everything I could for him. I don’t want to see that happen again.”

He walked out of the jail and down the boardwalk.

Better get a wiggle on.” Tom said as he shut the door. He turned to his father. “What’s he on about? Talking like we don’t know how to protect a town.”

Let him have a go with the preacher, if he’s so all-fired up about it. Josiah can hold his own, and then some,” his father said, taking the chair at the desk. “I’ll go down in a little while and clear things up with him and Rachel. Let’s send some telegrams out, find out what’s up, if anything.” He picked up the wanted poster again and shook his head. “He’s right about one thing. I remember that priest getting butchered five years ago – we don’t want that happening here.”

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West hadn’t been near the Preacher’s house since he’d refused the job in the first place. Even if he was headed that way for some other business, he avoided their house from as big a distance as he could manage. But he headed straight to their house now. (HOW HE FEELS THE CLOSER HE GETS.)

Judging from the looks of the house, they hadn’t hired any other man to help. The windows were just as broken, the roof was just as curled, the porch was just as drunken. Mrs. Gaskell was in the yard, gathering a basketful of dried corncobs from a small shed (that might be described the first time West walks into the yard.) She smiled when West walked into the yard, avoiding the puddles and mud patches and skirting the broken-down well.

West! How nice to see you again.”

Ma’am,” West greeted her. He pulled his hat off and brushed his hair back out of his eyes. “Is Mr. – um – uh – is your husband home? I’d fancy a word with him. If – I mean, if he’d be of a mind to talk to me.”

Of course. Let me get him for you. Would you like some lemonade? I was just about to make a fresh pitcher. I’ll bring you a glass.”

And she was gone into the house before West could say yes or no.

In a minute, Preacher Gaskell came out of the house. He was bareheaded, in his shirtsleeves, wiping plaster off his hands on a rag.

West! It’s good to see you again! What can I do for you?” The Preacher asked.

I was wondering – I came to ask if you’d hired anybody else to work on your place with you.”

No, we haven’t. Not yet. You change your mind?”

He still sounded happy, even hopeful. He didn’t sound sarcastic or insulting like West was expecting. (HOW WEST THINKS GASKELL WILL REACT AS HE’S WALKING TO THE HOUSE)

I – yeah, I did. I mean – if you’d be willing to still have me on.”

The preacher tilted his head to the side in question.

I’d like to know what stuck in your craw the other day.”

West stared at the puddle at his feet and felt his shoulders inch up.

You being a preacher, riled up some memories.” (WOULD HE ANSWER THAT TRUTHFULLY THAT EASILY?)

Bad memories?”

West took a deep breath that didn’t do a thing for the knife suddenly sticking in his breastbone.

They got ‘em a sting.”

The preacher nodded.

Why’d you change your mind?”

A sharp answer flooded West’s brain about what was his business and his business alone, and if it’d been anybody else asking the question, anybody who didn’t have a job he needed, that sharp answer would’ve come flying right out into the air. (describe his reaction and then how he touches the telegram)

Instead, he shrugged a shoulder.

Got debts.”

The preacher waited a second or two, like maybe he expected more. Then he nodded.

We can get started tomorrow morning. I’ve been working on the plastering, I’m aiming to start on the roof next, if the shingles come in. Or the windows, as soon as I get the glass.”

I’ll be here early. Just – I’m still on the lookout for bounties but I’ll give you fair notice if I find one that takes me off.”

The preacher nodded but then a look passed over his face like something had just occurred to him.

Somebody special you’re looking for?”

West rubbed the edge of his hat between his fingers. He shrugged that shoulder again.

Whoever I can catch,” he said down to the ground.

Makes sense,” the preacher said after a long moment.

West was about to thank him and be on his way when Mrs. Gaskell came from the house carrying a square length of thin wood as a tray with three tin cups upon it. Their little boy followed at her side, picking crumbs off of a biscuit, eating them one by one.

Lemonade,” she announced. “Fresh made and plenty of sugar, just the way Mr. Gaskell likes it.” She smiled at her husband and he winked at her.

West changed his mind,” he told his wife. He took two cups from the tray and handed one to West. “He’s coming to work with us after all.”

That’s wonderful! I’m so glad. We need all the help we can get. Are you getting started now? You’ll stay for dinner. I won’t have you starting work for us without feeding your first.”

(WEST’S GUT REACTION TO THE INVITATION)

No, Ma’am. I couldn’t. Thank you. I just – I’m starting tomorrow. I got someplace to be right now. I appreciate it. I just – I can’t.”

Well, we’ll see you bright and early tomorrow morning, then,” she said. “Come hungry, I’ll have breakfast waiting for you.”

West thought to dispute her, but he was tired of his own cold beans and dried biscuits.

Thank you, Ma’am. Just tell me what time. I wouldn’t want you waiting on me.”

We have breakfast at six. If you have any mending, bring that with you.”

West looked at his loose button. “I got someone takes care of that for me. I’ll see you tomorrow morning.”

He headed for his shack. He was near the bank when Sheriff Campbell stepped into his path.

You know,” he started right in, not giving West a chance to say anything. “I’ve seen you before.”

Yeah, I was in the sheriff’s office this morning when Deputy Curran done run you off.”

Hmm…” Campbell looked down his nose at West, staring at him for a few long moments. “You ever been to San Augustine?”

West felt his heart jump at the name of the town, but he kept his face neutral.

I been all over,” he said easily. [why does he even answer?]

Campbell didn’t say anything, he kept staring at West.

West stared back.

You think you’re a real hard case, don’t you?” Campbell asked.

I think I’m walking past you.”

West walked on then, brushing hard against Campbell when he didn’t move out of the way.

I’m keeping my eye on you.” Campbell said.

West kept walking.