They walked to the jail. Tom built up the fire in the stove and the Sheriff waved West to the chair in front of the desk. (HE ASKS WEST HOW HE IS) The knife was on the top of the desk and West stared at it. He felt the nausea crawling up his throat again.
“Can you – “ he started, but his voice was dry. “Can you put that somewheres I don’t gotta look at it? Please?”
The sheriff didn’t blink. “Sure thing.” He pulled open the top middle drawer of the desk. He pulled out a sheet of paper and a pencil, then laid the knife inside and shut the drawer again.
West pulled his chair another couple of inches away from the desk and that knife and sat down.
“Okay.” The sheriff said, taking his chair behind the desk. “Let’s figure this out. Where have you seen that knife before?”
“Uh – it was – it was – “ West hadn’t said the words out loud in five years and he wasn’t sure he could do it now. “I was wrangling some goats and chickens on a little bit of land for these folks. These fellas came one night and – and – they was set on robbing us. We barely had spit between us but they – it made no never mind to them what we had. They took it all. What they didn’t take they – they – they…”
West stopped talking. He couldn’t stop staring at the top of the desk, he couldn’t stop thinking about that knife and the last time he’d seen it before tonight. Where he’d seen it used. What he’d seen it do.
He felt familiar dread filling back the back of his throat as he thought about it. Images from his childhood sprang up in his mind, sparking and exploding like firecrackers. It was over, it was long over but still the freshened memories choked him. His breathing picked up, short, sharp pants, and he suddenly felt as hot as if he was standing at a fire.
He was trapped, he was threatened, he was alone.
“West?” The sheriff asked. “What? What was it? Where did you see this knife?”
“Five years ago.” West forced out. “It was San Augustine, five years ago. I saw it used to kill – that’s what they used to kill – ”
That was all West could say and he rushed outside and threw up into the street.
“I’m going to wake Gabriel, start sending out telegrams.” The Sheriff said to Tom. “You see what you can find out from West.” He went out the back door and Tom went out the front.
Tom didn’t feel any better when West came into view on the porch of the jail. He was sitting on the low step at the street and not in the chair next to the window. He had his hat in his hands and was worrying the brim. He didn’t look up as Tom approached.
Not wanting to talk to West’s back, Tom stepped down into the muddy street. The rain had slowed to a lazy misting. Tom considered West. He looked spooked, more spooked than Tom had ever seen him.
“So – you seen that knife before.”
At first, West put one shoulder up like he was afraid of being hit, then he shook his head. He pulled his hat on and stood up.
“Yeah, I seen it before. I seen it –“ But that seemed to be as much as he could say. “I seen it.”
“In a murder,” Tom prompted. “You saw that priest get murdered.”
“Wasn’t a murder, it was a slaughter,” West said. “They just slaughtered him. It was – it was – “
He started swallowing hard like he was going to be sick again and Tom decided to back off and find another way of finding out what West was talking about. Or – more specifically – what he wasn’t talking about.
“C’mon – what d’you say we get that drink? This sounds like a hard tale, I think a drink or two first might help.”
West gave him a strange look, squinting like he had a sudden headache or was trying to remember who Tom was. He didn’t nod or say anything, he just started walking towards the saloon. Tom walked beside him, trying to think how to get West to tell him that hard tale.
They got a table and a couple of beers at the saloon. Tom tried to figure the best way to get West to open up to him. The fact that West had agreed to come with him at all was something at least.
“West, if you can tell me all you know about that knife, we’ll have a better chance of catching the man who was carrying it.”
“Gets stuck in my throat even just thinking about it,” West said. It sounded like that was something painful for him to admit. “Talking about it, it’s – it’s –“
“It’s necessary,” Tom said, and he hated saying it.
But West nodded, and started talking.
“Lived with Padre for a while, he was a missionary? Came from Baltimore I think. I stayed with him from when I’se a squirt. Started out just tendin’ his chickens and goats and such. Worked my way up to wrangling the mule and hunting game…”
“And he’s the priest who was butchered five years ago?”
Tom tried three times to ask his next question but his throat suddenly had a dryness that no amount of beer was going to wash away.
“And that’s the knife they used? The one we found behind the Preacher’s house?”
“That chunk out of the tip? Near the tip? That happened when they – “
“What about the men who did it?” Tom asked, interrupting what West was having trouble saying. He didn’t need to be told that a knife would chunk out when it got hit against something hard. Like bone. “Can you remember anything about them? Height? Age? Clothes? Were they Mexican or Indians?”
“No, no they were white. I could tell, but they blacked out their faces with ashes and – and – blood. In the dark and the firelight they looked like demons straight out of hell. The only thing I can remember for sure is the one fella had a gray streak in his hair. I tried to memorize everything I could about ‘em but it all just kinda blurred together. And all I can see when I try to think about it is Padre all cut up and cut apart and his blood shining in puddles before it soaked into the ground.”
He emptied his glass and didn’t quite look into Tom’s eyes.
After a few beats, he added, “I got ‘em when I was a squirt.” He didn’t say what he was referring to and Tom didn’t need him to. “Most of ‘em, anyhow. Some are just from living rough these last years. But some – most – ain’t.”
Tom nodded. He wanted to ask more, was it West’s folks, did he even have folks? Tom didn’t know most of what there was to be known about West and seeing those scars opened up a whole new chapter of blank pages. But he could tell that West wanted to be done with the questions, that he was actually afraid of more questions.
“Pa’s waking Gabriel up and he’s gonna send telegrams to all the towns east of us that the fella might make in the next few days,” Tom said. “I’ll let him know what you just told me and we’ll add that to the information. You gotta be mighty dragged out. You go back to your room and see what sleep you might still get tonight. I’ll let you know the second we hear anything.”
It took a long, heavy moment, but West finally nodded.
“Yeah. Might be there’s another hour or two of sleep in my pillows.”
Tom left the saloon, but West stayed at the table a few minutes longer. He was so tired and sore and shaken, he wasn’t sure his legs would hold him. But he forced himself to his feet and left the saloon. The rain hadn’t let up. He didn’t feel sick but he wanted to be sick. (YOU SICK? I’D LIKE TO BE) Maybe then the knot of anguish in his chest would go away. Tomorrow, Tom and the Sheriff would get some answers to their telegrams. There’d be somewhere to ride, someone to hunt, something to do.
Getting to his room didn’t make him feel any better, but at least he was alone. Nobody would come to his door and even if they did, he didn’t have to answer them.
He slung his holster over the bedstead and set his hat and coat over the chair. He wanted to lie down and fall asleep and not think about the memories. A dozen voices clamored in his head but the one he could hear most clearly if only he listened to it was the one he ignored; the one that would comfort him the most was the one he shut out.
Finally, he did lay down on the bed and listened to the rain battering the roof. West felt completely empty and exhausted. He lay down on the bed, turned on his side to keep from aggravating the scratches on his back. Sleep would make it better. He’d go to sleep and wake up and the voices and the sharpened memories would be gone and he wouldn’t feel so strongly that he was going to be sick.
Sleep would make it better.
“I miss you.” He whispered into the dark cabin.