The Face in The Window
She wore her weariness like a shroud of bible black. The harshness of her existence had gnawed into her soul until her eyelids drooped and her thin shoulders hunched in defeat over the water boiling on the range. This was her lot; the daily grind which quashed her spirit and crushed all hope until the only light at the end of the tunnel came from the candles on the alter; not that she could afford to light a candle herself, they cost a penny for six. Sure, the Father dressed it up as a donation to make it sound all voluntary-like, but Mary had heard him grumbling about having to subsidize his flock when she was scrubbing one of the many floors which stood between her and total penury. Hadn’t they ever heard the saying ‘poor as a church mouse?’ She had seen those mice as they played and scuttled off into the safety corners and crannies while she had to carry on working. She envied them.
Mary straightened up, her reddened hands in the crook of her back as she stretched her out thin frame and stared at the dawn light creeping into through the cheap glass of the scullery window. She froze. Two men were leading horses out of the stable building at the back of the saloon looking around like hunted animals; not just any two men – they were Hannibal Heyes and Kid Curry. Her breath juddered to a halt. Had they seen her?
Mary stepped back into the shadows. For once the owner’s meanness had paid off and the lack of a lamp meant there was nothing to alert the outlaws to her presence; besides who would expect anyone to be cleaning latrines and floors in a saloon only a few hours after the drunks and gamblers corkscrewed their way home? She sidled nervously over to the door and slid over the latch as quietly as her trembling fingers would allow. What would they do if they knew the woman who had turned them in was no more than a few feet away? They knew who she was; they had seen her at the sheriff’s office when she had desperately sought an advance on the reward money.
Seven Hours Earlier:
“It’s Mary Gifford ta see ya, sheriff.”
“That old drudge from the shack at the edge of town.” The deputy looked her up and down. “The one who always wonders why her husband up and left.”
“Yeah,” the burly man behind the desk guffawed heartily. “She says he got so ding-swizzled he fell asleep in a freight car and ended up god knows where. I never believed that. He had to be stone-cold sober to walk out on her – only a man snake-bitten by the bottle’d go back to that hovel to a pinch-faced grunt and her snot-nosed fetch.”
Mary tugged at her worn shawl and tucked an unruly tendril of grey hair behind her ear. “Sir,” she darted a nervous glance at the outlaws glaring at her through the bars. “I wondered...” her voice dropped to an unintelligible whisper.
“Speak up!” the sheriff bellowed. “I ain’t got all night.”
Mary swallowed hard. “I ain’t been paid this week and things’ve been real hard. I wondered if you could see your way clear to givin’ me an advance on the reward.”
The lawman’s belly rumbled with laughter as he sat back and propped his hells on the desk. “An advance on what?”
“The reward, sir? It was me who told you about them, who they was. I was on a train they robbed. I was lookin’ for my Jim. Someone said he was in Grangeton and we was held up not three weeks ago on my way back ...”
“Reewaard,” the burly lawman rolled the word around in his mouth for comic effect. “Did you see anythin’ that gave Musty Mary a call on that reward money, John?”
The deputy placed his hands on his hips. “Nope. In fact this is the first I saw of her all day.”
Mary’s eyes widened in outrage. “You were right here. Both of ya. I came in and told ya they were in the hotel. I saw them when I was collectin’ the laundry to take home.”
The sheriff’s lips narrowed to an unsavoury smirk. “Don’t know what you’re talkin’ about, Mary. Now get outta here before I lock you up for disorderly conduct.”
“Disorderly conduct?” Mary shook her head desperately. “I never done nothin’. All I did was tell ya they were in town. I dun it because I needed the money. I was desperate.”
“You’re on your last warnin’, Mary. Now git!”
She tugged desperately against the deputy’s grasp as he manoeuvred her towards the door. “You’re nuthin’ but cheats and liars. All I want is a few dollars for some food.”
“Ya want food, Mary?” The sheriff stood, the legs of his chair scraping against the wooden floorboards, “there’s a pig bin at the back of the hotel. Stop wastin’ your money lookin’ for that husband o’ yourn. He’s gone. He ain’t comin’ back. I won’t warn ya again, git outta here, slut,” the sheriff snarled.
“I ain’t a slut,” sniffed Mary. “If’n I was I’d make more money than I do now.”
“Ya think?” the deputy laughed. “Ya’d have to pay me, Mary. You’re better off cleaning floors.”
“For cryin’ out loud, the woman’s clearly desperate,” all eyes turned to the blue eyes blazing through the bars. “Come here, I got just over a dollar, you can have it.”
“Don’t take as much as one step towards him,” the deputy threw out an arm to block her way.
The sheriff shook his head in disbelief. “Ya want to give money to the woman who turned you in?”
“Well, it’s no use to us in here. Is it?” growled Heyes.
“Ya got that right,” the sheriff stepped forward and pointed to the floor. “Toss it over here. This could be a trick to get me over to the bars.”
The Kid rolled his eyes and thrust his hand through the bars before dropping the coins on the floor with a clatter. “There, and make sure she gets it. You got enough comin’ to you.”
The sheriff paused. “Is that a threat? I ain’t scared of no Devil’s Hole Gang.”
“No? We know she really turned us in but you’re doing the dirty on her, so I guess you get to take all the credit. Remember that if you ever meet any of them.” Mean dark eyes glowered at both lawmen over a cold smile. “And you’re supposed to be the law, better than us? Don’t make me laugh.”
“So you admit that you’re Heyes and Curry,” demanded the sheriff.
“I never admit anything, it makes things more interesting,” Heyes purred. He gestured towards the money on the floor. “Give it to her.”
“I ain’t scrabblin’ around on the floor, that’s her place,” came the snorted reply. “Mary, get it if ya want it. These idiots are payin’ ya for puttin’ them behind bars.”
She edged forward nervously before her calloused hand darted up to grab the prize. She raised quizzical eyes towards the incarcerated men. “Why?”
“Why? Any man who treats a woman badly has forgotten where he came from,” the Kid gestured towards the lawmen, “either that or they grew right outta the dirt.” He smiled weakly. “Just go, ma’am. We know what happened and we ain’t got hard feelin’s. We understand.”
She dropped the coins into her saggy bosom, the metallic clanking giving away how much of the flesh had withered through years of want. “I’m sorry.”
“We know,” the smile dimpled reassuringly. “Just get outta here, huh?”
Back at the saloon : Dawn.
The gentle tap at the door made her heart judder. A voice of dark velvet drifted through to her. “Ma’am, we know you’re in there. We saw you. We need your word that you won’t do anything stupid."
“Just look down, Mary.” She did as bid and followed the sound of scrabbling at the floor beneath her feet. Cash; note after note appeared under the door. “Don’t ask where it came from and spend it carefully. Ya don’t want the Devil’s Hole Gang on your tail as well as the local law, do ya?”
The words tumbled from her lips through fear. “No...Please. I have a son. I’m sorry.”
“Good, stay there and come out when it’s fully light. You’ll find some more cash over by the horse trough. Take some good advice and don’t flash it around. Some of the local lawmen might be missin’ it.”
Mary, stood silently and watched the horses disappear from the yard before she shook herself back to reality and looked down at the cash in her hands. Eleven dollars; not enough for her to risk her job; she lifted the pan from the range and poured it over the caustic soda in the galvanised bucket. She had a floor to wash.
The saloon floor had been sluiced of all unnecessary and unmentionable waste; it was brushed, washed and fresh sawdust had been scattered for another day of indulgence before Mary made her way out to the brightening day. Most of her floors needed to be done at the end of the day, but the saloon needed to be dealt with at its quietest time, which left her the day free to take in laundry.
Birds darted through the freshness of the new morning, celebrating life and fruitfulness as Mary made her way over to the horse trough. A bandana sat exactly where she had been told to look, along with the large heavy ring bearing keys. They looked suspiciously like the set that hung on the hook on the wall in sheriff’s office.
Her fingers peeled back the bandana as she glanced around the yard nervously. Fifty dollars; a life changing amount, if she was careful; but it was obviously stolen. She thought about handing it back as she turned the keys in her hands.
A long-dead light flared in her eyes. This cash had probably come from the very lawmen who had tried to cheat her. Oh, he was as clever as she’d heard, that Hannibal Heyes. They had bought her compliance for about a dollar fifty of their own money. It wasn’t loyalty, there had still been an underlying threat, but given a choice between the Devil’s Hole Gang and the law; the outlaws had at least given her the chance of being treated with some modicum of respect.
She dangled the key ring from her fingers; she had heard the sheriff boasting about how strong his cells were and it looked like he was about to test that first-hand . Nobody could bust out of that jail and if the keys were lost the locksmith would have come from the next town to get the doors open. How long would they be in there if she didn’t raise the alarm? Twelve hours, a day or maybe more? The shadow of an unfamiliar smile twitched at her lips; it had been a very long time since she’d had any kind of buffer against life’s vicissitudes and fifty dollars would go far if she kept working hard.
The risk of alerting anyone to the outlaws’ escape had been made clear. The choice was easy. Mary strode over to the well and tossed the keys into the inky blackness below. She raised her face to feel the warmth of the morning sun and brushed back a tendril of grey hair. What was it her mother used to say? If there was enough blue in the sky to make a Dutchman a pair of trousers it would be a good drying day. Yes, today she could make some money.
Na sir 's na seachainn an cath - Neither seek nor shun the fight Old Scottish proverb