West walked his horse to its stall, the farthest in the back of the livery. The horse took a deep drink from the wooden bucket in the corner while West took off the tack and hung it over the stall wall.
Sam came down the aisleway, leading Ripley’s horse. “Y’want me to take care of that stallion for ya?” he asked, and West let out a laugh that hurt his bruised ribs.
“Don’t be saying that so loud. He might wonder what it is and how come he ain’t one.”
Sam chuckled and urged the horse he led into the stall opposite. He turned to West. “I can take care of him for ya. You’re looking a mite stove in.”
“Tacking him makes me feel stove out again. I ‘preciate it, but no.”
“You bring in a hard bounty this time?”
“No, not this one.”
“Well, give a shout if you need anything.”
West took a piece of old toweling from its hook high on the stall wall and started rubbing his horse down. Done with its long drink of water, the horse turned its head and snuffled West’s shirt pocket.
“You scouting out some sugar, y’crowbait? Think y’deserve that, do you? All right. Soon’s I got you brushed out, you can have it.”
The horse whickered and shoved West’s arm with its head and turned its interest to the feed crib that hung on the wall.
West let out a long breath and let the motion of brushing the horse drain the tension out of his bones. He was good at his work, but it always wore him down. Not his body, Ripley had been a lively bounty to bring in, if easy to mark and find, but it was never the physical toll that took the most out of him on a hunt. It was never this hunt that dragged him down, but that hunt. The one he hadn’t realized yet.
He rubbed his horse down, fed it a palm’s worth of sugar, made sure there was enough feed and water, then he slid his saddlebags over his shoulder and let himself out the back livery door that opened onto the alley.
From there he tracked a quarter mile away from the town to the woods and the path that led into a shallow ravine where a clear, deep stream ran. He’d found the stream on one of his early explorations of the town and what lay around it. It was out of the way and inconvenient to get to so no one else was usually around whenever West made his way there.
Tom’s friendly chides aside, West wanted a bath, and a deep pool in a sheltered gap suited him better than a rented tub in a busy bathhouse.
He took fresh clothes out of his saddlebags and set them on the grass. He took out the towel and the hunk of soap that’d been serving him most of a year, shed his clothes and eased his broken-down body into the water.
The scratches and welts of hauling Ripley into town and fighting him into the cell for that paltry bounty stung when the water raced over them but West was used to those kinds of stings and didn’t spare himself as he scrubbed soap over the dirt that seemed permanently fixed to his skin. He knew that the deeper scratches would scar, adding to the white scars already webbed over his body, but he’d long ago given up wishing he could scrub his skin clean of its weathermarks.
When he was washed and dressed, h washed his dirty clothes, rolled them in the towel, packed everything up and headed back up the path to town and to his room.
Not really a room; more of a shack he supposed, not that it mattered. Room or shack, after two years of haunting this town, it was the place that kept West off the ground, out of the weather, and out of other people’s way. It was tacked onto the back of an abandoned barn that nobody had thought to tear down yet. Mr. Novak owned the barn and the room and he let West stay there for little more than a handshake.
West unlocked the low door. That lock was one of the reasons he preferred this room to the boarding house or any plain rented room. He never left anything in the room worth taking, anything he owned worth taking was little enough to keep in his pockets, but he liked a locked door.
The room was nearly empty – bed, basin, and bureau sat squarely and singly on the rough–hewn floor. It was big enough to move around in, but West could only spend a little while in the room each time before the walls started pressing in on him.
He stayed this time long enough to hang his wet laundry over the string that he’d stretched corner to corner for that purpose, and hide his saddlebag under the floorboards under the bureau.
When that was done, he locked the room up again and headed for the saloon. A drink, maybe two, then he’d stop back by the sheriff’s office to look over the wanted posters. Fifteen dollars was nothing to sneeze at, but it wouldn’t last forever. It would hardly last two weeks taking care of the folks over in Temperance. Maybe some bigger bounties had come in.
Maybe there’d be a wanted poster for Maldad, even though in five years he’d never seen so much as a shadow.
That thought depressed West.
Maybe he’d have three drinks.
He made his way toward the saloon. The sun was high overhead and he kept as much as he could to the shade under the porches on the boardwalk. The street was busy, but no one greeted him until Tom fell in step beside him.
“You never showed up for dinner.” Tom carried a brown paper package in his hand. “I saved you some.” He held it out, but West didn’t take it.
“Don’t take charity.”
“Ain’t charity, it’s a bribe. There’s a box at the dry goods store, needs to get carried to a house down at the end of the street. I was gonna tote it down, but then I thought you’d do me the favor.”
West eyed the package of food that Tom still held out to him. He knew it was a dinner baked and bundled by Tom’s Josephine, and it’d been over a fortnight since he’d eaten anything but his own poor cooking, but he didn’t take it.
“Why don’t they tote it theirselves?”
“They’re looking to hire somebody to help get their house patched up. I thought you might be interested.” Tom offered the food again.
“Reckon I’m a mite tired a’hard beans and stringy hares,” West said. He took the package and tucked it into his jacket pocket as they walked on together. “How’d a grouse like you ever married a girl as sweet as Josephine?”
“Ah, she won me in a poker game. Hey, I learned a new word.”
“What is it with you all the time shoving new words at me?” West asked.
“My Ma like learning new words.” Tom said, and that silenced West. He knew Tom’s Ma was dead a couple years and he knew Tom still carried that pain on him. So he held his peace, even as Tom pulled a dime novel from his back pocket and flipped through it. When he found the page he was looking for, he held it toward West, pointing to a word.
West tried to ignore him, but Tom wasn’t good at being ignored.
“Pray-sippy-tay-tus.” Tom said. He looked closer at the word. “Pray-sit-puss. Press-sup-it-“
With a growl of aggravation, West pulled the book from him and found the word. “Preh-sip-it-tuss.” He sounded it out. “Precipitous.” He shoved the book back at Tom. “Good on you.”
Tom chuckled and tucked the book back into his pocket but didn’t say anything else.
“So – what’s it mean?” West finally asked.
“Precipitous? It means to do something fast, before you think about it. Maybe something you ought not to be doing.”
West snorted. “You mean like every time you think to start a conversation with me?”
Tom only laughed again.
“So, what box do I need to be toting down?” West asked as they neared the dry goods store.
“You should eat that food first. Don’t want it getting crushed.”
“I think I can be trusted to tote a box without crushing anything,” West pointed out testily.
Tom shook his head and led the way into the store. Mr. Collins, the store owner, was behind the counter.
“Box for the Gaskells?” Tom asked and Mr. Collins lifted a large wooden box to the counter. West hefted it into his arms and turned to the door.
“Y’gonna point me the house, or is that all on me, too?” He asked Tom.
“Y’eat that food, you might be less cantankerous.” Tom said but he held the door for West and pointed the way down the boardwalk.
“They make any kinda food that makes you less annoying, I’ll take me a baker’s dozen. Who is it I’m looking for?”
“Gaskell. Josiah Gaskell or his wife Rachel. Last house on the left, nearest the bridge. Look for a door that can’t be closed and a roof that can’t be trusted, and you’re there.”