West only slept half the night before the heat and the dampness from the still-falling rain made his room unbearable. His shoulder ached and burned, his head still throbbed, and his body felt exactly like he’d been thrown off a horse onto a hard road. He got dressed and heeled and walked down the boardwalk under the full moon and pouring rain and ended up in one of the wooden chairs outside the Sheriff’s office. Even this late, the town wasn’t still. Light and shouts and Doctor Bill half-seas-over spilled out of the saloon and into the street.
After a while sitting there, Sheriff Curran came walking down the boardwalk and took the other chair on the jail porch.
“Hot night.” He said.
“Even with the rain.” West answered.
They sat there not saying anything. The Sheriff didn’t need the sound of his own voice to keep himself interested in life, the way Tom did. The way a lot of folks did. Sheriff Curran was one of the few people West didn’t mind sharing the same corner of a room with.
“Campbell’s still in town.” The Sheriff said, after maybe two bits of an hour. “I’m gonna be glad to see the tail end of his horse.”
And then they were silent again as they listened to four drunken mule drivers weave their way down the middle of the street, heading from the saloon to the boarding house most likely, staggering and laughing and splitting the night with some tortured song they each seemed to know a different melody to.
Shots rang out from down the street, the mule drivers probably, and then nothing. The Sheriff stayed in his chair. Without turning back to West, he said,
“Campbell’s full of a lot of blow. He’s spending so much time here, wherever he came from must not be missing him.”
He turned back then and asked casually,
“You ever have any truck with him?”
West didn’t know the Sheriff the way he knew Tom. He’d know if Tom was asking a purposeful question. He didn’t know about this question.
“I don’t recollect our shadows ever touching,” he said. “He seems to think so, but I got no memory of him.”
More gunshots sounded from down the street and then nothing.
“Things have been too quiet the past month,” the Sheriff said. “Makes my skin itch.”
“I been thinking the self-same thing.”
There were no more gunshots or unexpected sounds. The mule drivers must’ve found their beds.
After a few more minutes, the Sheriff stood up. Before he stepped down the boardwalk he turned one last time to West.
“You let me know if he tries to bulldoze you. I’m waiting on an excuse to ride him outta town and I don’t cotton to anybody trying to euchre my townsfolk. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
He didn’t wait for an answer from West. He turned to start down the boardwalk.
West stayed in his chair for a while longer. The street stayed quiet, but West couldn’t find any sleep in himself. There was too much on his mind.
He stood up and walked down the dripping boardwalk. Out of habit, he cast a sharp eye up and down each alleyway he passed.
In a few minutes, he came to the preacher’s house. No lamps burned in the windows. In the moonlight, West could see curtains fluttered where a window was open, not where any were broken, not anymore.
Some slight movement or odd sound or some mix of the two made West stop and peer into the darkness of the preacher’s yard.
He pulled his sidearm and headed for the house. He walked carefully, avoiding the abandoned well and the pile of lumber. He kept his eyes on the darkness and his ears on the silence. The only thing he was following was the sense that something wasn’t right.
Suddenly, a large body charged him. West only had time to register that is was a man. He would’ve knocked West down but West grabbed hold of a beefy arm and put a foot out to trip him up.
The man stumbled but kept his feet. He put up a fight. He was bigger but West was a scrapper and for a minute it could’ve gone either way. But the man twisted West’s right arm and a pain in his shoulder exploded down his arm and across his back and he lost his grip on the man, who shoved West hard against the side of the house and delivered a numbing blow into West’s midsection. He dropped into the mud, unable to pull any air into his lungs. He heard the man run away and then the sound of a horse galloping away.
Finally, just when it felt like he was about to pass out, he was able to pull an aching breath into his lungs. It felt good, but it made him cough.
He pushed to his feet and felt someone put their hands on his shoulder. West reacted, quick and violent, lashing out at whoever was near him.
“Take it easy, West.” He heard the sheriff say. “It’s me. It’s only me. Try to breathe. Try to get some air.”
Well what exactly did the sheriff think he was doing? Trying to hold his breath?
“I’m fine.” He said and coughed again several times. “Just – just let me catch my breath. I’m fine. Just need a minute is all. I’m fine. Where is he?”
“He got away.” The Sheriff said.
“You didn’t go after him?” West demanded.
[when do Tom & preacher get there? Why is Tom there? Preacher came out from the noise. Somebody had to wake Tom up.]
“He got away while we were dragging your scrawny carcass out of the mud.” Tom said, pointedly and West swallowed the rest of his angry remarks.
“Where’d you find this fella, anyway?” Preacher Gaskell asked.
Sheriff Curran pointed around the back of the house and the four of them walked that way.
“The nighttime’s not doing us any favors, is it?” The preacher said. “What’s that?”
West looked where he was pointing and saw something glinting near the far corner of the house. He puzzled what it might be as they walked closer. When he realized what it was, he froze in fear and apprehension.
“Good Lord, that’s a whopper of knife.” The Preacher said.
Sheriff Curran walked forward and picked it up. He looked at it in the torchlight. It was a good fifteen inches long or better, with a wood grip and a clipped point. But what caught West’s eye and drove the breath from his lungs was the chunk broken out of the blade, right near the tip of the knife. It hadn’t been ground down.
Five years later and the damage still hadn’t been ground down.
Filled with a hot, bloody, dread and fighting back a wave of nausea, West ran to the street and over the bridge to the far side, listening for hoof beats. He’d had the bastard practically in his hands and he let him get away.
He turned back, intending to get his horse and get on the trail. Tom caught up with him as he passed the house, intent on the livery.
“You don’t think you’re going after him now, are you?” Tom asked. He got an eyeful of the broad red stain over West’s shoulder.
“Hell, West – why didn’t say you’d been hurt?”
West shrugged. “I’m fine. I’m – fine.”
“Oh, I can tell. Fine as creamy gravy. Raining red out where you were, was it?”
“I have to go after him.” West said. He pushed past Tom and barely slowed down. “He can’t be far. My horse is fast. I can catch him. I have to.”
“West,” the preacher said. “You’re hurt. It’s not worth risking your neck tonight, riding fast in the dark.”
“I have to.” West said. “I can’t let him get away again.”
The words practically vibrated in the air around them. West knew there was no way of taking them back.
“What do you mean, ‘again’?” The sheriff asked. His voice was calm. He almost didn’t sound surprised.
“I mean I had him at the back of the house, but he got away from me. I aim to go get him.”
He turned away again, aiming for the livery. He heard the preacher say, “I’ll let you get to it,” talking to the sheriff. So he wasn’t surprised when Tom and Sheriff Curran got in step beside him.
“Riding off half-cocked and bleeding at midnight isn’t the way to catch this fella.” Curran said. “If you know him, then we can send telegrams out to more towns in an hour than we can reach on horseback in a week.”
West didn’t answer that. Telegrams were fast, sure, but nowhere near as satisfying as personally nailing that bastard’s hide on a barn wall.
“I don’t know him.” He admitted. “I know the knife, that’s all. I seen that knife before. Don’t know as I could identify the hand that held it.”
“All right.” Curran said. “Right now, I’m more worried about you. We get that shoulder looked at first and then we’ll get this sorted out.”
“No, I’m going after him.”
Curran stopped walking and West and Tom stopped too.
“West, I can’t stop you riding out tonight, but if we work this out between us, we can wake Benny up and send those telegrams out before dawn.”
West couldn’t stop a huff of frustration. He wanted to ride out, he needed to ride out after that butchering monster and lay his guts open to the wind.
“West,” Tom finally said. “Pa’s right. If you can’t identify the man in daylight, you’re gonna have no luck in the dark. Let’s send the telegrams. Wherever he turns up, we ride out together. And then I don’t have to carry your scrawny carcass home when you collapse from blood loss.”
“All right.” West said. He hated saying it. He felt like he was failing Padre again. “All right, I’ll wait. I’m going t’my room. I’ll be back.” He walked around Tom and headed for his shack.