When Tom woke up the next morning, he was surprised that West was still asleep. It occurred to him that in two years, he’d never seen West asleep. Maybe he felt safer here, with his ‘family’ than anywhere else.
Tom got up quietly, picked up his boots, and walked out to the kitchen.
Dora was at the table, kneading bread dough, but no one else was there.
“Morning.” Tom said. He sat in a chair to pull his boots on.
Dora smiled at him and inclined her head to the stove where a coffee pot steeped. Tom shook his head.
“I ‘preciate it. When I come back in. I’m going out to help Tio with the chores.”
He headed out the back door, made a stop at the privy, then kept on to the barn. Lucy was at the chicken coop attached to the side of the barn, scattering feed to her multicolored flock. They exchanged smiles (Tom & Lucy, not Tom & the chickens, FYI) and Tom went into the barn where he found Tio milking the cow.
“Good morning.” Tio greeted him. “How did you sleep?”
“Just as good as I ever had at home.”
“And Chiquito? He is still asleep?”
“He is, surprisingly. I’ve never seen him sleep.”
“I haven’t seen him sleep much these past five years.” Tio said. His cow bellowed and stamped her front hoof and he patted her flank and kept milking as he talked with Tom. “Do you know about five years ago? What happened?”
“I only just found out in the last few days. I heard about the murder when it happened, of course. But I never knew West was involved. Not ‘til the other day.”
“He does keep that information close.”
Tio didn’t offer anything else and Tom was going to ask what chore he could help out with, but he found himself asking instead,
“How long have you known him?”
“Chiquito? Eight years. Eight years this early spring,” he said, and Tom couldn’t think what other information he might want from him.
“What can I help you with?” He asked then, and Tio nodded out the barn door toward the well.
“You could fetch water into the house. That would be a help to Pepina. And perhaps help Lucy with the chickens. She’s still not back to full strength.”
Tom went out to the chicken coop first. Lucy was leaning down, reaching in through the opening to retrieve the eggs. Inside the coop, the hens squawked and beat their wings in distress.
“Can I help you with that?” Tom asked.
“You should hold the basket, they scratch.”
Tom lifted the basket from the ground and held it where she could set the eggs in as she took them from the nests, ignoring the squawking hens.
“West likes you,” she said as she set two eggs into the basket that already held half a dozen.
“He doesn’t like very many people. Very many people haven’t liked him.”
“I like him,” Tom said, feeling that he needed to reassure her. “He puts up with me.”
“He puts up with people he likes. He puts up with people who like him.”
“Most people do.”
Lucy finished her hunt of eggs and took the basket from Tom. She carried it to the house and Tom pulled a bucket of water from the well and brought that into the kitchen. Pepina was at the stove and West was at the table. They were apparently arguing.
“I need to get to my chores,” West said. He said it like he’d said it at least once before.
“You need to rest.” Pepina answered without even turning from the stove and the hotcakes she had cooking there. “You were awake late last night.”
“So was Tom up late last night,” West said, and his voice had a peculiar whine of petulance to. “He had less rest, even, and he’s doing chores.”
“He is a guest,” Pepina said, as though that made any kind of sense. But she turned to West and allowed, “After you’ve eaten, you can get me some onions from the garden.”
West growled a little in his throat like that was insulting but he didn’t say anything else about it.
Tom set the water down at Pepina’s feet and was about to offer to gather the onions for her, but she turned to him.
“Gracias. Now sit, and have your breakfast with Chiquito.”
Not wanting his own argument with her, which he figured he wouldn’t win, Tom took the chair next to West. Tio came in with the milk and they all sat down to breakfast.
It seemed a normal family breakfast, if a little quieter than Tom was used to. Pepina did most of the talking. She talked with Tio about the chores that needed to be done that day and the health of their animals. She talked to Lucy about selling their extra eggs, and she talked to Dora about their sewing. She cajoled West to eat more and she asked Tom if he had everything he needed.
When breakfast was over and West stood up, muttering about picking onions, Tom thought he’d go with. But as everyone else filed out to their chores, Pepina laid a strong hand on his arm.
“Stay with me while I clean up. We can talk.”
So Tom stayed behind, not missing the look West gave him, (what look?)
When they were alone in the kitchen, Pepina asked Tom to pour the water he’d brought into the kettle on the stove and she heated the water to wash the dishes. While that heated, she poured them each more coffee and sat across from him.
“How is my Chiquito doing?”
Tom was surprised by the question. West seemed much more comfortable and open here than he ever was back in Madison.
“I’m not sure I could tell you anything you don’t already know.” He said.
“Do you know how many letters he sends in a year? Three. He sends three letters a year, he visits a few times a year, a few days at a time. He can hardly sit still long enough to eat when he’s famished, he doesn’t sit long enough to tell us how he’s doing. Has he been well?”
“Is he ever not well?” Tom asked back.
“When Padre first brought Chiquito to live with him, he said that he was as mangy and jumpy as a wild cat. Many of his scars weren’t scars yet. He was glad to be anywhere away from his father, but it was still many weeks before he began to trust Padre.”
“Yeah, I know how that can be.” Tom agreed. “Took a while for West to warm up to me.” He shrugged to himself. “Takes him a while to warm up to me nearly every time we meet up.”
Pepina smiled and got up to begin washing the dishes in the kettle of warm water on the stove.
“Did you know that ‘West’ isn’t his real name?”
Tom was surprised but he tried not to show it.
“Can’t blame him, trying to have no connection to his father.”
“Do you know what his true name is?”
She smiled again but sighed.
“No one does.”
“Not even Padre?” Tom asked.
“If he did, he brought it to Heaven with him.”
Tom thought about it a while.
“Well, ‘West’ suits him, whether he was born with it or not.”
“Does he need anything?” Pepina asked as she washed the dishes. “Does he have enough of anything he needs?”
Tom blew out a long breath.
“That’s hard to say. West don’t seem to need things that ordinary folks need. He don’t seem to eat but he don’t seem to starve, he can drink his share but he don’t drink more’n he can handle. He never complains of the cold, or the heat. He’ll sit with me if I sit down or he’ll sit by himself if I don’t. He loves that horse though more’n I loved my mother.”
“That horse saved his life.”
“To hear West tell it, that horse saved his life, set the stars in the sky, and darned his socks, all in the same morning. And I think that horse feels that same way about West.”
“That horse is the only thing Chiquito loves.” Pepina said. She sounded unruffled, not annoyed or sad. Just stating a fact.
“I’m pretty sure he loves you folks.”
“He thinks we are an obligation.” She said, shaking her head. “Mind you, his heart tries to tell him something else, but he doesn’t hear it. He won’t believe we love him. He thinks we are only kind to him, and because we are kind to him he thinks that he owes us his industry, his wages. Do you know –“
But then she caught herself and shook her head again.
“No, of course you don’t know because Chiquito would not tell you. Whenever he earns a bounty, whenever he earns any wage, he sends the money to us. Most of it. When Lucy was sick this last time, he sent us all of it. I wonder what he lives on, how he lives on it, but he doesn’t tell me. We tell him we don’t need it, we don’t need his money, we need him, but he doesn’t hear it. He doesn’t believe it. He prefers we are an obligation to each other.”
“He does seem singularly opposed to any niceness put in his path.” Tom allowed. “I think he’d show more consideration to a fella who put a knife in him than the fella who tried to pull the knife out. Unless the fella was pulling the knife out to stab him again.”
That made Pepina laugh.
“That is Chiquito. That is surely my Chiquito.”
Tom laughed at her laughter but felt that sting of jealousy again that someone else was claiming West, could claim West, had a better claim on him. He knew he should be glad that West had family as fine as these folks, but he was jealous.
Then the man himself came back into the kitchen, shouldering his way through the back door, his hands full of dust and onions. He walked up to Pepina.
He didn’t meet her eyes, only shoved his bounty towards her.
“M’sorry I yelled at you.” He said. Tom didn’t remember hearing West yell at her, but maybe it happened while he was out with Tio. Or maybe they had a different measure of what shouting was.
Pepina lifted her apron to accept the onions from him. She tilted her head down a little like she was trying to get him to look at her.
“You should go back to bed, Chiquito. Your wounds need to heal.”
“My eye’s fine.” He said.
“You have more wounds than that.”
That made West almost look up at her, but he stopped himself at the last moment.
“I’se gonna show Tom around the place.”
Pepina sighed in resignation.
“And then more sleep.”
Tom saw West consider it and then shrug one shoulder.
“I ain’t got a promise I can leave to you.” West said. “Never know what the day’s gonna bring.”
Pepina pursed her lips and shook her head but didn’t answer that.
“Go on then,” she said, but she sounded like she was having to try hard to be happy saying it. “Show your friend our homestead.”
West nodded and turned and barely lifted his eyes to Tom. He jerked his head toward the back door.
“Have a look?”
Tom followed West out of the back door and into the farm yard, West brushing the dust from his hands once he was outside again.
“They got a good place here.” Tom said.
“Ain’t much.” West said, looking out over the land. “Least ways, it ain’t as much as they ought to have. They deserve more, better. But they do pretty well. They got the sewing, and they sell butter and eggs. They got themselves a good life here.”
They walked together in silence for many minutes until they were past the barn and at the pasture where the cow and the two horses grazed.
West’s horse lifted its head with a snort and trotted right over, stretching its neck over the fence, nibbling at the air.
“Here y’go, darn plug.” West said as he produced his pouch of sugar and poured some out and offered it to the horse. “You’re spoiled rotten, you know that, don’t you?”
Tom watched the tension bleed out of West’s shoulders as the horse licked the sugar off his palm.
“What’re you gonna do now?” He asked.
“Pepina wants me back to bed.”
Tom chuckled at the obvious evasion.
“After that? And don’t say ‘eat dinner’.”
West ‘hmpfd’ and scrubbed his palm of horse spit against his trousers.
“Going after Maldad.”
“All right. You gonna let us help you, now? Me and Pa? We’ll help you bring him in.”
“I ain’t bringing him in alive. I don’t care what it takes. I don’t care what I gotta do. I ain’t bringing him in alive and nobody better get in my way.”
Tom decided to ignore that. He figured they’d deal with it when they got to it.
“You gonna let us help you?” He asked again, more firmly.
West looked like somebody had just asked him to eat nails. He heaved a sigh and nodded.
“Yeah, all right. I’ll let you help me.”