West knew the broken-down house; he passed it whenever he came into town from that road. It’d been empty since he’d been coming to this town, since long before that to hear Tom tell it. He always thought the house looked weary, like it was tired of waiting there all alone. Maybe now that a family was moved in and showing it some attention, maybe now it would lose that air of sorrow.
He wasn’t cheered much, if at all, when the house came into view. The clapboards were as gray and peeling as he’d ever known them to be, the wood shingle roofing was curling, the front porch leaned like it was going down on one knee, and the well that stood just off of the porch was a dusty tumble of rocks and rotted timbers.
The only change that West could see was curtains at all the windows. The broken windows.
He carried the box towards the porch and the front door, but a voice from around the side of the house stopped him.
“Hello there, can I help you?”
West turned and saw an older man coming towards him. Gray hair, gray mustache, a solid build that reminded him too much of –
“Mr. Gaskell?” West asked, before he could let himself do any more remembering. “I got a box for you from the dry goods store.”
“I thought Tom was gonna bring that down. Thanks.” Mr. Gaskell said. He reached for the box and West eased it into his arms.
“Um…Tom said you might be looking for someone to help you fix up your house?”
Mr. Gaskell’s eyebrows went up in surprise. “You’re West?”
“He told you ‘bout me?”
“I mentioned I was looking for help, he mentioned he knew a fella good with a hammer,” Mr. Gaskell said. Then he added, “You’re a bounty hunter?”
“Yeah, that make a difference?”
“I thought you’d be older.”
“How old I gotta be?” West shot back. He expected maybe they’d come to a dispute or that Mr. Gaskell would have a smart answer like Tom could be expected to give, but he only shrugged.
“If you can keep yourself alive, that’s old enough, I reckon.” He gestured with his head to the back of the house. “Y’like to come in? Front door’s not to be trusted right now, we use the door around back. You can have a look at the house and hear what I can offer you. The rain’s coming and I’d like to have a reliable roof before that happens.”
West followed him around the back where a woman labored over a wash pail. In the only shade in the yard, formed by tacking a sheet over a low clothesline, a small child slept on a nest of blankets. A stack of lumber waited next to the back door.
“Rachel? This is West, the fella that Tom told me about. West – my wife, Rachel. I’m going to take this inside.” He carried the box into the house.
Mrs. Gaskell turned, smiling. She was plainly with child and it plainly wouldn’t be long before the young’un napping in the shade had some company.
She dried her hands on her apron and held one out to him in greeting. “West, it’s nice to meet you.”
It took a moment, but West remembered to pull off his hat and take her hand. “Ma’am.”
“I hope we can convince you to work with us. As much as Mr. Gaskell doesn’t agree, he can’t do all the work by himself .”
“Well, I don’t claim to be a carpenter. You might want t’see my handiwork before you decide to have me on.”
“We have a month’s worth of work you can try your hand at, if you think you need to show us first. Why don’t you go in, you can talk with Mr. Gaskell about it.”
West went to the back door and hesitated. The door was half open and Mr. Gaskell was at the table using a pry bar to open his box, but West hesitated, giving a good look to how big the room was, how many ways out there were, how close he could stand away from Mr. Gaskell.
When he knew there was nothing left but to do it, he knocked on the door.
“C’mon in,” Mr. Gaskell said. He set the pry bar down and left the box unopened. “Let me show you around, give you an idea what I’m looking for.”
It was a small house, two rooms downstairs, two rooms up the steep, narrow staircase. The look around didn’t take very long.
“Mostly, it’s windows need replacing, plaster needs patching, missing stair treads. I’m still studying what I want to do with the porch. Either prop it up or tear it down. The roof of course is the most important thing. And the windows. And I’m digging a new well…” Mr. Gaskell sighed and it ended on a laugh. “I guess it’s all important.”
They were back in the kitchen. The stove was burning and the room was hot and it grated on West. Just as he was thinking how to ask to go outside without being rude, Mr. Gaskell suggested it.
“Why don’t we go back outside? Even with all these broken windows, the breeze don’t ever seem to come inside.”
West gladly followed him out. Mrs. Gaskell was hanging her laundry on the line. The sleeping child slept on.
“I can pay you six dollars a week. I know that’s not what the work is worth.” Mr. Gaskell told him. “We can feed you, mending and laundry. But cash money is kinda stretched right now.”
West nodded, looking the house over, considering what he needed, and what he was willing to do to get it. He hated the heat, and the roof of a house in the summer in the Texas sun was a poor way to get away from it, but he needed the money.
“I gotta tell you – y’know already I’m a bounty hunter, if a good bounty comes up, I’ll go after it. If that don’t throw you off, I’ll work for you while I’m around. Just can’t promise how long or how often that’ll be.”
“Well, I guarantee I won’t run out of things for you to do. Once the house is done, or near enough, I’ll want to get started on the church.”
“Church?” West asked. He felt like he hadn’t heard that right. He couldn’t have heard that right.
“Didn’t Tom tell you? I’m the new preacher. Or – considering how long it’s been since there’s been a preacher here – not new, just the preacher. You didn’t know?”
The breath stuck in West’s throat; it felt like a fist in his throat that made it hard for him to shake his head.
“Does that make a difference?” Mr. Gaskell – Preacher Gaskell – asked. He asked it mildly, confused not angry. Mrs. Gaskell too had stopped her laundry and was looking at West kindly.
“I – just – I’m sorry – I – yeah. Yeah, it makes a difference. I can’t – I’m sorry – I can’t.”
West turned and hurried away, trying not to run but desperately feeling the need to run, from the Gaskells, from town, from everything. He’d go to the jail and find another bounty to scout out and then he could be on the road again.
As the jail came in sight though, he saw Tom sitting in a chair on the porch of the jail, reading that dime novel. He must’ve heard West coming and he looked up. West was too angry even to tell Tom how angry he was, so he only threw him an angry look then stomped off across the street toward the livery.
Tom couldn’t miss that something was wrong, no flies on him, and he left his book into the chair and caught up with West at the livery.
“How’d it go?”
“You didn’t tell me he was a preacher.” West said, not hiding how angry he was.
“He’s a preacher,” Tom said and West couldn’t take his sense of humor right now. He threw him a look that was so enraged, Tom was instantly holding his hands up in front of himself, like maybe West was gonna throw a punch. “I didn’t know I needed to tell you or I would have. All right? I didn’t know you don’t like preachers.”
“I didn’t say that.” West snarled again. He felt his anger fade away. “I just – it ain’t I don’t like ‘em. I got nothing against preachers. I just – steer clear of ‘em is all.”
“So, you’re not taking the job?”
“Hell, no, I ain’t taking the job, what d’you think?” West snapped. Then he let out a long breath and looked around, wishing he could be somewhere else and fast.
“I ‘preciate you putting a word in for me, I do. Hope I didn’t make trouble for you with Mr. – or – uh – “ he stumbled over the words, stumbled over what to call him. “- with the preacher.”
Tom didn’t make any funny remarks like West expected him to.
“No, ‘course not,” he said. “I’m sorry it didn’t work out for you.”
“Y’hear of anything else that don’t answer to a preacher, you let me know?”
Now Tom gave in to his humor again. He winked at West and gave a knowing look.
“I know a lot of things that don’t answer to a preacher.”
West groaned an aggravated sigh. “Like you ever visited any of the fancy ladies in town. Like Josephine wouldn’t knock you dead just for thinking about it. But you go on and get yourself some then, if you think she ain’t gonna find out about it.” He pulled his hat off and wiped sweat from his face. “I’m gonna go find me a cool spot to spend the afternoon.”
He went to the saloon. His favorite table was empty, the one in the corner where he could keep his back to the wall and his eyes on the door for any trouble.
He sat himself behind the table and nodded up to Molly, one of the fancy girls who served liquor at the Antelope.
“Whiskey?” She asked. She always had a smile for West, she always had a smile for anybody really.
“Beer for now, thanks.”
She nodded and smiled and walked to the bar to get his liquor. West watched her. Molly was an obliging girl, at least whenever Cooper Holtz wasn’t in town. West thought maybe he’d find out where Cooper was just now and strike a deal with Molly if it was practical.
After Molly had set his beer on the table, West brought the brown paper wrapped package out of his jacket pocket and unwrapped it to find biscuits and ham and a molasses cookie. He shook his head at how someone as annoying as Tom was could have a wife so thoughtful.
While he ate his food and drank his beer, he took out the little notebook and pencil he carried and tried to make sure of his money, again.
Even without the fifteen he should have coming in now, he had enough in the bank for his room and the livery and for his board for a month, or longer if he was careful. It wasn’t that the folks in Temperance were running dry but he liked to keep ahead of things.
The job with the Gaskells would’ve been nice for the money and from the looks of the house and what the church probably looked like too, it most likely would’ve been a long term job. But –
He broke off the thought. He swallowed a bite of his biscuit that was too big and washed it down with beer but the thought refused to go away.
Mr. Gaskell looked near like Padre and West got reminded too much of Padre anyway every day. Spending so much time with a man who bore a near resemblance to him and was a preacher to boot would be too much. There was a lot of things unbearable that West could bear, but he couldn’t bear that.
He finished the food and wrapped the cookie up for later and headed out for the jail. Maybe the mail had brought new wanted posters he could look at. Maybe Tom had a new word he could devil West with. Either way, it was something to do and something that would keep his mind off of everything.
Tom was behind the desk.
“Just couldn’t stay away, could you?” he asked, grinning.
West rolled his eyes and heaved a sigh but didn’t say anything. Tom laughed and brought a sheaf of wanted posters out of the top drawer of the desk.
“They came in today’s mail.”
“How’d you know I came for them?”
Tom shook his head but smiled.
“We known each other how long? I know you’re not in here ‘cause you missed me.”
West grumbled but took the offered posters.
“I’d miss you more often if ever you’d give me the chance.”