Everything ached, that was the first thing West realized after he realized he was awake, but he didn’t open his eyes. Dora had laid a bread poultice on his shoulder for the infection and a vinegar and sage poultice across his eyes for the swelling. She’d covered that one with a towel and changed it whenever it cooled off. He’d fallen asleep after the second change and now he could tell the poultice was gone. He must’ve been asleep a while.
He heard the creak of the rocking chair and breathing in the room, near him. Not Lucy, the one who usually sat with him when he was laid out. Not any of the old folks. That left one choice.
“Ain’t you got nothing better to be doing, Deputy?” He asked without opening his eyes.
The rocking chair stopped. Tom was maybe surprised at West calling him that. He hadn’t called him that in twenty months. He wasn’t sure why he used it now.
“Pepina set me here.” Tom said. He sounded tired. “Didn’t think disputing her was a good idea.”
“No, it ain’t.”
West opened his eyes and looked around. The door to his room stood half open but no light from beyond shone in. A candle on the table next to his bed was the only light, and it showed him Tom in the old rocking chair, half slouched down and looking dark-eyed, even in the meager light.
“I’ll take the chair, you look like you need the bed.”
“I need some answers.”
West swallowed down his anxiety at the question and thought about pretending to be too tired and too wrecked to do much answering. But he thought maybe he owed Tom the answers.
“I ain’t answering anything lying here like a floundered fish.” He said. “Gimme a hand to the kitchen table. We can talk there.”
Tom started to say something that sounded like an argument, but then he just grumbled, “Yeah,” and gave West a hand up to his feet.
Everything hurt worse standing up, but West wasn’t about to announce that out loud. He took an inventory of himself. Nothing broken, or not totally broken. His vision was blurry out of his left eye. His feet were bare and he was in fresh long johns and trousers.
“What time is it?” he asked, as he shuffled to the kitchen.
“Ten, maybe. A little bit after.” Tom said. He took the candle to the kitchen.
“Pepina ain’t really making you sleep in that old chair, is she?”
“No. Dora made up a bed for me on the floor near yours. I just ain’t felt a need for it yet.”
West shot him a disbelieving look.
“What?” Tom asked. “I’m not tired.”
“If this is you not tired, I don’t want t’see you tired.” West said. “Y’light that lamp for me?”
Tom lit the lamp that was on the table and blew out the candle and waited, watching, as West eased himself into a chair. Probably in case West needed help. Or in case Tom thought he needed help.
“Sit down, Granny. I ain’t an invalid yet.” West said.
So Tom sat.
“Well,” West said after a few beats of silence. “Gimme your questions.”
“Why would your Pa beat you like this?”
Why wouldn’t he? West thought. He answered, “Hell if know and damned if I care.”
“That doesn’t tell me anything.”
“What the hell you want me to tell you?” West demanded. He kept his voice low to keep from bothering the old folks. “What’s it to you, anyway? What d’you care?”
He wasn’t sure what answer Tom would give him, or what kind of answer he wanted Tom to give him. But Tom only shook his head and gritted his teeth and asked again.
“Why did he beat you like that?”
“He wants me off his trail. He wants me to give up.”
“This is the closest you’ve been to him in five years?”
“Yeah.” West admitted. “And probably only on account’a he wanted me to be this close.”
“So why didn’t he kill you?”
West shook his head.
“I got no idea. I sure thought he was gonna.” He looked at his bruised and battered knuckles. “I gave him a fight but he could’ve killed me if he’d wanted to.”
The creak of floorboards announced Dora’s entrance into the kitchen. She was still dressed. Tom stood and West started to, but she waved them back down. She brought some things from the cupboard and set them on the table – the loaf of bread, the jar of preserves – then she kissed the top of West’s head and disappeared back out of the kitchen.
“Did we wake her up?” Tom asked.
“No, Dora don’t sleep much. She stays up nights sewing. Her and Pepina take in sewing. She don’t sleep much and she likes to do her fancy sewing at night when she can concentrate.”
“How come she doesn’t talk?”
West reached forward and sliced two slices of bread from the loaf and handed one to Tom.
“Same reason Lucy’s only got one eye.”
“Your Pa do it?”
West’s expression hardened.
“Maldad did it.” He said. He pulled the waxed cloth off the top of the preserves and scooped a dollop onto his bread, the pushed the jar closer to Tom. “Seems sometimes he done caused me every pain I ever had in my life.”
“I’m sorry.” Tom said. The words, the sentiment, confused West.
“Why? It ain’t your call to be sorry. You didn’t cause it. You didn’t even know me back then.”
Tom seemed surprised by the question.
“You’re my friend. I can be sorry you had a life of pain.”
West heard the words but it was like he couldn’t let them settle into his ears. Suddenly, he couldn’t stand to be sitting there. He pushed to his feet.
“I gotta check my horse. I didn’t give him his sugar today.”
“Why do you do that?” Tom asked.
“Go to your horse whenever you don’t like where the conversation is going.”
“Pfft. I don’t know what you’re talking about. I gotta take care a’my horse. I don’t take care a’my horse, I don’t ever get where I’m going.”
“Your horse is fine and you promised me answers.”
West sat back down.
“Don’t recollect using the word ‘promise’.” He said. He knew he sounded petulant and he saw Tom purse a smile out of existence on his mouth, and he sighed. “So what other questions you got?”
“Why’d you go shinning off to Temperance by your lonesome? I coulda been to Rigby in a couple hours and come with you. Why’d you go off by yourself?”
Tom sounded angry asking that question. West didn’t know if he was angry in response or just confused by Tom’s anger.
“When the hell I ever needed my nose wiped for me? Wait for you? Why? I been doing this five years all on my own. All of a sudden I need help?”
“Yeah, help. Maybe if I’d been with you, your Pa wouldn’t have had the chance to try laying your brains on a plate.”
He paused, maybe waiting for the answer that West didn’t have ready. When West didn’t say anything, Tom went on.
“Did you even think of asking for help? Because if I’d been going after a butcher like that, I’d sure have been asking your help.”
“Your Pa told me I should be asking for help.” West admitted, feeling uncomfortable admitting it.
“So why didn’t you listen to him?”
West scrubbed a hand over the back of his neck and tore a piece off of his slice of bread.
“He didn’t know what he was offering.” He said to Tom and then ate the chunk of bread and preserves.
“Why do you say that?” Tom asked. He sounded genuinely confused.
“Because he don’t know what I am. You don’t know what I really am. If you did, if you knew what’s really in me, you’d – “
He stopped there because he didn’t want to say out loud what Tom would do if knew. But Tom answered anyway.
“No. I wouldn’t.”
“You don’t even know what I was gonna say.” West said.
“It don’t matter. Whatever you think I’d do, if it’s something mean, I wouldn’t be doing it.”
“You would,” West said, bitterly. “Sooner or later, you would. Pretty much everybody does.”
“What is it you think I’d do?”
“Walk away. Fast. Wish you’d never met me. Forget you ever knew me. And them’s the nice things you could do.”
Tom was giving him a hard look. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“You don’t know what I’m talking about.” West ate another chunk of bread. “Trust me. It’s been happening my whole life. If I ever told you, if you ever found out…” He trailed off there.
“So tell me. Let’s see who’s right.”
West shook his head.
West got up and headed out to the back porch to get some air.
“Where you going?”
“I just wanna – “ But West didn’t finish the thought.
“Just want to what?” Tom asked, suspiciously. “Check on your horse? C’mon back and sit down.”
West shook his head.
“I don’t want t’talk about it. I don’t want t’tell you anymore about it.”
“We ain’t gonna talk about it. Just sit. Have another bit of bread.”
West shook his head again but didn’t sit down.
“I ain’t a threat West.” Tom said.
“Maybe you ain’t.” West agreed. “But your knowing is.”
“My ‘knowing’ ain’t so dangerous you gotta ride straight outta here and maybe get yourself another harm.”
“Ain’t gonna get myself a harm.” West said, sounding testy himself. “Just wanna head out of here.”
“Bed, then.” Tom said. “It’s as anywhere as anywhere else.” West hesitated answering that, and Tom added, “If you go anywhere tonight I’m just gonna have to go with you so’s Pepina don’t take my hide for not taking better watch on you.”
West shook his head, but it was only in defeat.