When Tom saw West ride off without him, he couldn’t think of enough curses to do the moment justice. He hurried to the telegraph office and sent a terse note to his Pa,
“M- heading your way. West close behind. Warn preacher. Tom”
Then he followed out after West at a gallop.
The dust trail had died out but Tom followed the road, knowing it led to Madison. He wondered if he had a chance of catching up to West – he knew how fast that nag could fly, even when West wasn’t chasing the devil. He only hoped he’d catch up with West before West caught up with Maldad.
All the while he raced after West, Tom worried about and prayed for and cursed him for being such a fool as to go out by himself after Maldad when Tom was not ten feet away and all they had to wait was five minutes before they could’ve set off together.
After maybe twenty minutes of determined galloping, Tom was surprised to see West in the not-too-distant-distance. He gave a passing thought to wondering if something had happened to make him that slow. He urged his horse faster and got in front of West, turning his abruptly to the side to make West stop.
West pulled his gun out of its holster as he pulled his horse aside to keep from running Tom over. He pulled his gun and aimed it at Tom and for a scary minute, Tom wasn’t sure West even realized who he was.
“Hold up, hold up,” Tom found himself barking. “It’s only me. Don’t go blowing my head off.”
He watched the anger and hatred and death bleed out of West’s eyes and it was a scary thing.
“What the hell?” West seethed. He reholstered his gun and gathered his reins, clearly intending to race off again around Tom. “I coulda blown your fool head off. What the hell are you playing at?”
Tom nudged his horse to be blocking West’s way again, ignoring the growl of aggravation West sent his way.
“What the hell are you doing? What the hell are you doing going off on your own like that? You want to get yourself killed?”
“Get outta my way, Tom. Get the hell outta my way. I’m going to catch him. I’m going to kill him. Once and for all I’m gonna finally kill him.”
He tried to move around Tom again and Tom reached out and grabbed his arm. West pulled away from him. Their horses danced and West’s horse tried to pull away, and with Tom holding on to West and West trying to get loose, they both toppled off their horses onto the hard ground.
“Get. Out. Of. My. Way.” West growled as he jumped to his feet and grabbed for his horse’s reins. “I don’t aim to let anybody get in my way.”
Tom could see the anger and hatred still boiling in West’s eyes. He wasn’t sure yet that West wouldn’t plug him just to have done with it.
“Y’damn fool.” Tom growled back. “Since when is a friend trying to help you ‘getting in the way’? You might not care about your neck but what about the rest of us that do? Never mind that I don’t want to have to tell Pa or Josephine I let you get killed – you want me to have to tell Pepina and Dora and Lucy that you ain’t ever coming home? Ain’t they lost enough?”
That made some change in West, not much, he was still angry, still seething, but he pulled his hat off and scrubbed his arm across his forehead. He seemed less deadly, anyway.
“Yeah, well, I don’t aim to let you get killed on my account,” he said. He took his canteen and had a good swallow, then poured some into his hat and let his horse have a drink.
Tom stood and brushed himself off, and grabbed the reins of his horse.
“I think I’m more likely to die having to make do some rescue of your sorry hide on the fly rather than having us a plan together beforehand.”
“I can get to him before he gets to Madison.” West insisted.
“Yeah, and kill your horse while you’re at it. I sent the telegram. Pa knows he’s on his way. He’ll be ready. We need to go in calm and steady and clear-eyed. Not like a ricocheting bullet. Not – not precipitous.”
West rolled his eyes and snarled, “Not now. Don’t be using them words on me now. I ain’t playing at this.”
“Neither am I.” Tom said. “We’ll ride fast. We rest the horses and then we ride fast – but we ride smart and come at it with a plan. I got an idea what Pa’ll do when he gets the telegram. We’ll work with that and not go running in with some makeshift plan. All right?”
West didn’t answer, Tom could see his eyes on the horizon and Madison and revenge beyond.
“All right?” He asked again.
West signed and turned his head back, closing his eyes against the sun and Tom’s words. Finally, he nodded.
“All right. All right. We go in with a plan.”
“And we go in with your word not to leave me behind anytime you feel like it and go charging in all by your lonesome.”
“I said we go in together, didn’t I?” West countered, testily.
“Your word.” Tom repeated.
Through gritted teeth, West agreed. “I give you my word. Now – can we go?”
Wondering what reaction he was going to get, Tom said, “We let the horses rest first. Then go.”
West growled low in his throat and yanked his hat back on but didn’t argue that. Both their horses were breathing hard and Tom knew that West couldn’t ignore it.
“The creek turns in close to the road up yonder, not a quarter mile.” West said, like the fact annoyed him. “We can water them there.”
He turned without waiting for any answer from Tom and led his horse on foot toward the stand of trees not much farther on. Tom shook his head and silently led his horse on as well.
There was a pool at the turn of the creek deep enough for the horses to drink and the two men to refill their canteens.
Tom could tell that West was still keyed up to be on his way and he thought the best way to keep West calm and focused was to start discussing the plan.
“When Pa gets the telegram, he’ll get the Preacher and his family to safety. He’ll likely take them to the jail and get some men of town to guard with him. Sam’ll take a post. Norstrom, Novak, hell, even Josie’s likely to take up a gun if Pa’ll let her. And the Preacher don’t strike me as a fella’d hang back when his family is in danger. If Maldad’s going in by himself, he’s coming up against an army.”
“It don’t matter.” West growled. “I’m gonna catch him, I’m gonna rip his throat out.”
“And say Pa catches him, and locks him up, and doesn’t let you rip his throat out – what then?”
“No – he can’t – “ West started and abruptly stopped. Tom guessed what he was about right away.
“Is it more important that he get caught?” He asked. “Or more important that he get caught by you?”
West growled deep in his throat again but didn’t answer that. He stepped closer to his horse and wrapped his arm over the horse’s withers. His back was to Tom.
He twice started to say something and then stopped.
Then, “It’s me made it hell – it’s me gotta make it better.”
“How?” Tom asked, surprised. “How did you make it hell?”
West shook his head and didn’t answer. He patted his horse’s neck and the horse lifted its dripping muzzle from the creek and turned to nibble the brim of West’s hat.
“We should get going,” he said instead of answering the question. “The horses are rested. We should get going.”
West shook his head and dragged a hand over his face.
“There’s no plan can best Maldad. He ain’t been caught yet. He ain’t been caught ever.”
“Then what were you planning, riding hell for leather into town after him?”
“I was planning to – to just – kill him.” West stuttered out.
“So – no plan.” Tom said.
“You don’t understand,” West said. His voice was soft. “You don’t know – he ain’t just – Maldad ain’t a man. He’s every dream and every nightmare I’ve had every night for the past five years.”
“He’s still just a man, West. Don’t think of him as Maldad, just think of him as one more bounty.”
“There ain’t ever been a bounty like him. He’s big as a mountain and silent as death.”
“And if we can make him bleed, we can make him dead.”
West thought about that and finally nodded. “So – what’s your plan?”
“He’s not gonna march right in, plain as day, is he? He’ll wait for nightfall?”
“I reckon. That’s when he came to our place.”
“And as far as we know, he prefers to attack up close and personal, not long distance.”
“So – first we get to Pa, we get to the jail. We make sure the Preacher and his family are safe. Then we try to draw him out.”
“That don’t sound like much of a plan to kill Maldad.” West complained.
“That’s ‘cause it’s a plan to keep us alive more than anything else.”
West ground his teeth and looked to the sky like he was importuning God.
“Fine.” He spat out between clenched teeth. “Can we go now? I don’t know about your nag, but mine’s rested as he needs to be.”
“A few more minutes.”
West growled (AGAIN) but didn’t dispute Tom. He checked his tack and gave a thorough look to his horse and his horse’s feet and his horse’s eyes and he did it all silently and not even looking at Tom.
“What is it we’re really waiting on?” He finally asked, getting the idea that it wasn’t just resting his horse that was on Tom’s mind.
“Waiting for you to get death out of your blood.”
“Huh…” West swung up onto his horse. “Say howdy to your grandchildren for me then, ‘cause that’s about how long it’s gonna take, less’n I catch Maldad before that.”
Tom sighed and swung up onto his own horse.
“Stubborn,” he spat out. It wasn’t often West saw him genuinely angry, but now was one of those times.
“Y’say it like it’s a bad thing.” West tried, not exactly comfortable with Tom angry at him, and not comfortable with not being comfortable.
“If you get yourself killed, I swear I will hunt you into hell and drag you back.”
“Don’t gotta worry, I reckon.” West said. “Even hell ain’t gonna want me.”
He chucked his horse on then, not wanting to hear Tom’s answer or see his face.
Tom followed behind, not trying to make any more conversation with West. Maybe he was just that angry. Maybe he was just piecing together a fancier trace of words to tangle West in.
It didn’t matter. If he died, if he didn’t, as long as Maldad died a slow, lingering death, watching his own blood bubble up through the holes in his gut, that’s all West wanted out of eternity.