Tom held onto his father, knowing he’d be face first in the dirt without his support. It’d been only one punch, but every bone in his face hurt. Warm blood ran from his nose, over his lips, down his chin and into the front of his shirt.
“What the hell was that?” He asked. He spit blood all over the front of his father’s shirt.
“C’mon, Tom.” His father said. “Let’s get you over to the jail. Get you cleaned up.” His father said. “Can you walk?”
“Yeah, sure. Walk. I do that on my knees, right?”
Tom was suddenly reminded of what had happened and why when he heard Campbell speak up.
“You gonna just let him go?” He demanded. Tom looked over out of his one good eye to see Campbell pushing to his feet out of the dust where West had sent him. “In my town, we lock up lawbreakers.”
Still leaning against his father, Tom felt him take a deep breath, getting ready to lay into Campbell. Tom pushed himself off of his father and took an unsteady step away from him. He glared at Campbell as well as he could out of one eye.
“In this town,” his father said with obvious meaning. “So do we.”
“What are you implying?” Campbell asked, darkly. “You saw him, you saw what he did. Hellfire, man – look at what he did to your deputy.”
“What’d you do to him?” Tom asked. “What’ve you been doing to him?”
“Nothing he don’t deserve. You know about his Pa? He tell you about that?”
Tom took his own breath to answer that but his father silenced him with a gesture.
“What I know,” Sheriff Curran said. “Is that you rode into my town, telling me my business. You been hanging around ever since, sticking your nose in other folks’ business, and standing in West’s daylight every chance you get. So, you can get gone or you can get arrested.”
Tom maybe only had one good eye at the moment, but he was pretty sure he saw Campbell quaver a little bit at that threat, just before he sniffed his disdain and picked his hat up out of the dust. He started to walk toward the boardinghouse but he stopped next to Sheriff Curran.
“Don’t blame me when something bad happens.” He sneered.
“Don’t worry,” Sheriff Curran answered. “You’re the only one I will blame.”
Campbell huffed a sarcastic laugh at that and kept walking. When he was gone and out of sight, Tom let himself sag against his father again.
“What lizard nest d’you suppose he hatched out of?” Tom asked as his father caught him and held him upright.
“C’mon, let’s get you to the jail. Get you cleaned up.”
Tom let his father prop him and help him walk to the jail. They made it inside and to a chair and the Sheriff brought a basin of water and a towel to clean the blood off of his face.
“Anything broken?” he asked.
“My heart?” Tom deadpanned. “No, nothing feels broken, my nose ain’t swelled up much. Soon as the bells stop ringing in my head, I’ll be all right.”
“You going after him?”
“No. Not yet, anyway. I’d only drive him further away. Or get myself another lashing. He’s gotta calm down first.”
“You sure he ain’t headed for the next county?”
“I’m sure.” Tom pulled the towel out of his father’s hands and wiped at the blood on his shirt. “He left his saddle. It’s a good saddle. He ain’t gonna leave that behind.”
“That the only reason you think he’ll come back?”
“It’s the only reason he’ll believe.” Tom gingerly felt his nose and his cheekbones. “Josephine’s gonna have herself a fit. So, what do you think Campbell’s story is? He seems to know more than we do.”
“I’m thinking scalawags have been known to get themselves hired on as sheriff in hard towns.” His father said. “And any fool can punch himself a star out of a tin can.” He snagged the towel back from Tom and wiped at his face again a few times. “You go home and have Josie look at you proper. I’ll call on you later, see how you’re surviving.”
Tom left the jail and headed in the direction of home. Once he was out of sight of the jail, he turned down an alley and leaned back against the wall of the building.
He’d never see West that enraged. He’d never felt one blow from West before. But it wasn’t the pounding or the ferocity of it that shook Tom. It was the look in West’s eyes as he rounded on him. He’d seen West angry, he’d seen him amused, confused, aggravated, annoyed, and a few times he’d seen West happy.
This time, West had looked broken.
Whatever Campbell had been insinuating, it’d broken something in West.
Tom had to find out what it was.
(PUT THIS IN CONVERSATION WITH JOSEPHINE)
Tom left the jail and headed in the direction of home, behind and kitty-corner to the jail. Josephine was in the kitchen, slicing carrots when Tom walked in.
“Tom! What happened to you?” She dropped her work and wiped her hands on her apron and pulled a chair out for him. “Did Cooper Holtz finally wallop you?”
“No – West.”
Tom sat in the chair and leaned his head back for Josephine to have a look at his injured face.
“I surprised him. He didn’t know it was me.”
Josephine dipped a corner of her apron into the (conveniently placed pitcher of water) and gently dabbed at Tom’s face.
“I don’t know why you (hang around with) him.”
“Because he’s my friend?”
“Men like him don’t have friends. They don’t know how to have friends.”
Tom pushed her hand aside and sat up. “You’ve never (been crabby) about West before.”
“And he’s never punched you in the face before.”
“What’s really going on?”
She sniffed and grimaced and dabbed at his face again. “I got a letter from Hannah today…”
“And – we’re going to be aunt and uncle again in about six months.”
Tom winced and sighed and closed his eyes. “I’m sorry.”
“I’m going to send back all those baby things she sent to me. We’ll never need them.”
“Don’t give up, (honey). Please don’t give up.”
She shrugged and kept dabbing at his face.
“And don’t be angry with West.”
“Well, he gets no more invitations to this house for supper.”
“You forget that in two years West has yet to set foot in our house?”
“And you have yet to set foot in his.”
“Unlike West, I’ve never been invited.”
“Hmm…” Josephine poked and prodded and probed Tom’s face. “What was going on that you managed to surprise West?”
“Scared him?” Josephine asked. “Scared West?”
“This fella said something about West’s Pa and it was like somebody lit a fuse in West and it exploded over whoever was closest. I thought he was gonna beat that fellas brains into the mud and I grabbed him to stop him and he turned on me.”
Tom pushed Josephine’s hands away and sat up.
“Scared me, too, I gotta tell you, the look in his eyes. West and me argue all the time but it’s never come to blows. But the look in his eyes – I’ve seen him angry, I’ve seen him aggravated, annoyed, and a few times I guess I’ve seen him happy. This time he looked broken. Like whatever Campbell was insinuating about his Pa broke something in West.”
Josephine pulled out another chair and sat down.
“A man doesn’t get into bounty hunting for good reasons,” she said. “All we know for sure about West is where he stables his horse when he’s in this town.”
“I know.” Tom agreed. “How do I find out more about him?”
“Where’s he gone to?”
“Took his horse and gone for a ride. He’ll be back, though. He left without his saddle.”
“If you want to find out more about West, maybe you should stop waiting for that invite to his place.”