Tom saddled up and rode with West just as easily as if there was nothing between them. For once, for the first time in two years, as they rode, they rode silently. Tom said nothing. Finally, just to know why Tom was quiet, West asked,
“Did I get struck deaf or do you only think you’re talking out loud?”
“I’m trying to think how to talk you out of this foolishness.”
“Ain’t foolishness,” West answered, trying to not show the aggravation he felt that Tom would call it foolishness.
“No.” Tom allowed with a sigh. “It ain’t foolish to avenge your Padre. It’s foolish to think it only counts if you accomplish it on your own.”
West didn’t answer that.
“So, where’re we headed?” Tom asked.
“Nobody said you had to come with.” West said testily. Then, when Tom didn’t say anything to that, he said, “Back to town. There’s somebody there might know where he’s got to.” He shrugged and allowed, “And if there’s nothing of him there, we ride back to Madison.”
They rode into Temperance when the sun was high over the town. West had gotten a few lengths ahead of Tom. He rode past the Sheriff’s office and was just turning their path to the saloon he caught sight of Tessie at the corner of the building. She beckoned him with a jerk of her head.
“Get me a beer, will you?” He asked when Tom was beside him. “There’s somebody I got to talk to.”
“Who?” Tom asked, pretty much demanded, and West gestured to Tessie (she may or may not be previously introduced in a subsequent draft) as she was disappearing around the building and into the alleyway.
West expected a smart remark, but Tom shook his head and said grimly, “Keep your gun hand clear.”
West dismounted and tied his horse to the rail. He didn’t stay to see if Tom went into the saloon, but he pulled his gun and headed right around the saloon into the alley. Tess hadn’t stopped to wait for him but was moving down the alley towards a small building that West knew to be the saloon’s junk shed.
She turned just at the end of the saloon and let West catch up with her.
“He’s in there.” She said, gesturing to the small building thirty feet farther on. “He wants to talk to you.”
West gestured to the bruises on his face. “I ain’t finished this conversation with him yet.” He grabbed her and spun her around, pressing his gun into her side and pushing her ahead of himself.
“What’re you doing?”
“What d’you think? I ain’t goin’ in there by myself this time.”
She struggled but he held tight and pushed her along.
“I’ll drag you if I have to, so move.”
“He only wants to talk to you.” She said, still struggling.
“Yeah? Then why don’t he come out here and talk? I ain’t getting my brains served to me again. Move.”
“No! No, I can’t!”
They were fifteen feet away from the shed. It had no windows, just one door in the front that was open just a crack. Shots suddenly rang out, thudding the dirt at their feet and punching splinters out of the saloon’s clapboard siding.
West threw Tess aside and dove behind a stack of junked boxes behind the saloon. They weren’t a lot of cover but it would have to do until Maldad had to stop and reload. To get to the saloon’s back door would put him right in Maldad’s line of sight. West got a spy hole between two boxes and took aim at the building but Maldad never showed himself. West’s bullets were splintering the wood door and walls but not finding their target.
Tess pulled herself up and crawled up the back steps into the saloon. As she got to the door, it burst open Tom came out, gun drawn and firing, aiming for the little building.
“I’ll cover you,” he called to West, emptying his gun into the building, causing the shots coming from there stop long enough for West to run from him hiding spot and to the saloon.
Tom reached out to grab him and shove him inside the saloon door. There was one last gunshot from the junk shed and Tom fell forward onto the saloon floor.
For a split second, West felt all the terror and panic of the night Padre was killed as he watched Tom fall, expecting to see a fast spreading stain of blood on the back of his coat. But the sound of Tess staggering through the chairs and shoving people out of her way to get out of the saloon brought West back to the present.
He had the urge to grab her and poleax her with the butt of his gun, but she wouldn’t get far so he let her run and he turned to help Tom who was trying to push himself up from the floor.
“Where y’hit?” West asked, reaching down to help Tom to his feet.
“Ahhh – I didn’t get hit. I fell trying to get out of the way.” He turned to the open door and shouted, “Y’missed me – y’piker!”
Nobody else in the meagerly populated saloon seemed to care or even notice that anything was going on. (I’ll be putting in a much more detailed description of this.)
Out in the alleyway, West heard the shed door slam open and shut and then a horse was galloping away. He ran back into the alley, but all he saw was the dust kicked up as Maldad made his escape. The dust was headed the opposite way from the old folks but he could double back where West couldn’t see it.
He hurried back into the saloon where Tom was reloading his pistol.
“He’s gone,” West said. He emptied his own pistol of the spent shells and reloaded.
“Grab the girl.” Tom said. “I got the back door.”
West pushed his way through the tables and drunken (other description) patrons and caught up with Tess just off the porch. He grabbed her arm hard enough that he knew it’d leave bruises and yanked her around to face him.
“Where’s he going?” West demanded of her, crushing her arm and shaking her roughly to punctuate each word. “Does he know the old folks are here? You tell me now or so help me I will boil your brains right outta your skull.”
“I don’t know anything about old folks.” Tess whined, clawing at West’s grip with her free hand. “He never said anything about anybody here.”
“Then where’s he headed?”
“To Madison.” Tess burst out, for a moment giving up her struggle to get free from West’s relentless. “He said he’s going to Madison. He wanted to get you to come here to get you out of the way.”
“Out of the way of what?” West demanded. He thought of everyone back in Madison who could be in danger.
“The preacher.” She said and the punch of it into West’s guts forced all the breath from his body and made him let go of her arm. “He’s gone to kill that preacher.”
West’s world narrowed to one thing – getting on his horse and riding hell for leather after Maldad. He’d catch him this time. Even an hour head start wouldn’t be enough to keep West from catching him.
He shoved Tess away hard enough to send her sprawling back inside the saloon. He pulled his gun and pointed it at her forehead.
“Tell me why I don’t kill you right now,” he demanded. “Tell me why I don’t spray your brains all over this floor.”
“I had to! He was gonna kill me!” Tess cried. She scrambled away from West, towards the door. When she had the threshold under her hands, she turned and shoved herself to her feet as she ran out the batwing doors and West fired a bullet after her just on principal.
“You shooting after women, now?” Tom asked in a tight voice.
“She deserved me to hit her.” West said. He hurried toward the door and his horse and realized that Tom was right behind him.
“Where the hell y’think you’re going?” West demanded.
“I’m going with you.”
“You go send your Pa a telegram. Tell him to get the Preacher and his family somewhere safe.”
“You’re not going after him alone. We send the telegram to Pa and he’ll be waiting for Maldad. Then we head for Madison. Both of us.”
Before West could argue again, Tom pulled himself into his saddle and gave West a look like he’d be left behind if he didn’t hurry.
“I’m not letting you go after him alone. So we get started or I’m going after him without you.”
He chucked his horse and trotted off. West sighed and started to follow Tom to the telegraph office.
As soon as he saw the dust trail dying on the road headed for Madison, though, he automatically kicked his horse into a gallop and soon had left Tom far behind.
The horse ran easily; it always seemed born to run, and no more so than when it sensed that West was in a hurry. And West was in a hurry now.
He followed the dust trail that was far enough ahead that he couldn’t see the horse and rider making it. But a mile outside of town, the dust trail abruptly disappeared and West slowed his horse to track the hard ground.
At a turn in the road, he could tell that his quarry had turned off the dirt road and rode off across the grassed land that shed no dust. That confused West – the direction didn’t lead to Madison. Maybe Maldad had something else in mind.
Whatever the reason, West urged his horse into a run as fast as he dared and still keep an eye on the vague tracks he was following. It wasn’t fast enough to satisfy West, but he didn’t want to risk losing the trail and having to double back around and find it again.
The tracks led into a stand of cottonwood trees that bordered a wide, shallow stream. Another mile beyond that stream lay the road to Madison. West urged his horse faster, into the shallow stream and up the other side, where the stones lining the edge of the stream made it impossible to see the tracks.
West slowed his horse and intensely, frustratedly scanned the ground for any sign but after a quarter mile he didn’t find anything. He turned the horse, scanning the distance, trying to figure out what had happened, what he might’ve missed.
“Where d’you think he went?” He asked his horse. “He ain’t sprouted wings, that’s for sure. Where the hell – “
It hit him just like that and he galloped back to the stream.
Maldad had escaped downstream, the water carrying any muddy trace of him away.
“Hellfire. Dadblamed Hellfire.”
West turned the horse down the stream, wanting to gallop, wanting to not kill his horse, but wanting Maldad’s vitals steaming on a pike over an open fire.
He jumped his horse back onto the shore of the stream and hurried along the edge of it, on the outside of the stand of cottonwood trees. He still scanned both edges of the stream looking for any sign that Maldad had taken to the hard ground and so towards the road again.
The horse seemed to sense West’s impatience and aggravation; it snorted and pranced at the unwanted slow pace, tugging on the bit, wanting its head.
“Not yet, not yet y’nag. We can’t chance losing him, not now, not when we’re so close…”
West could feel the anxiousness and aggravation clawing through the blood that pounded in his ears. He was so close. This was the closest he’d been to Maldad in five years, since that bloody night.
He let the horse have its head and they raced down the length of the stream until it came close enough to the road that West was sure Maldad must’ve turned off heading to Madison and they raced down that road as well.