Authors: Gil Adamson
Tags: #General Fiction, #FIC019000
Finally, Moreland walked out of the trees, looking in the moonlight like
some terrible, hunchbacked revenant. And indeed he was much like a ghost, carrying the
burden of his existence upon his shoulders, drawn by curiosity to the hearths of
The dwarf sat back with a thump in his chair. “Shitfire, you scared
me,” he said, a hand pressed to his chest in relief.
Moreland was grinning now to see the effect he had produced, and he
dropped the pack to the ground.
“Gentlemen,” he said, “I'm looking for a
IT WAS MARY'S
final night, past midnight. The
train was due in the early morning. She looked closely at her bleeding hands, held them
palm upward to the window, where the blood looked black in the moonlight. On the bunk
beside her was a silver dinner knife, filched from her tray and not missed by the woman
who had brought her food. The knife, too, was bloodstained from the widow's
frantic digging and chipping at the mortar around the window. She held her fists closed
and squeezed into the pain. Her breath was frozen in her chest and she fought the urge
to sob. Mere hours. That was all she had before they came to get her. The damned woman
had come twice that day and stayed longer than she usually did, to keep the doomed girl
company, worrying aloud, kindly but powerless, and ultimately impeding the widow's
work â the work of getting the bars out of the window.
For two nights she had been shaking and twisting the square of metal in
its mortar frame, tidying up the evidence before morning. And now she had the knife.
Small chunks of stone came out with dull clicks and fell away outside onto the grass or
flew up against her shoulder. She stood on her bunk and pressed the edge of the blade
into a crack and bore down on it with her weight. The old knife with its faded
family crest on the nub of the handle had snapped twice already,
little tongues of silver tumbling to the cot's blanket and the coppery base metal
inside showing at the break. She had used the sharp edges then, finding smaller fissures
and cracks to wedge the blade into. They came away in anticlimactic clicks and pops. And
now it was all gone.
the mortar had been chipped away, nothing held the
bars in place any more. And yet they would not come loose. Pacing her resilient cage,
she gave the bars a hate-filled look and held her injured hands to herself. What to do?
What to do?
She had imagined many impossible ways of escape. Over and over, someone
came to free her. Strangers. People she knew. In one fantasy, she imagined herself
looking out to see William Moreland standing on the grass in the shade of a tall tree,
looking right back at her. In this waking dream, he came up to her window, sauntering
casually with his head down and his hands in his pockets as a man might who only wished
to check the foundation for leaks. Everything was quiet, even his footfalls in the grass
came soundlessly. He went past her window, and as he did, he whispered,
pull the bars off with horses. Get ready
. In other imagined escapes, it was the
woman who released her. She would arrive at night and carry no candle. A shade among
shadows. She would slip the key into the lock and open the door and sweep in on bare
feet, pressing her mouth to the widow's ear, the words coming hot and alarmingly
loud as whispers do,
I'm letting you go.
Together they would hurry out
into the utterly dark hallway, the woman leading the girl by the wrist, pausing in the
gloom and listening before going on, step by step. Then there would come a noise she
knew well â the desk drawer being drawn open and the key touching down
on the wood bottom. Slow grinding of its closing. Finally, the
front door would open and they would go out into the bright moonlight, hunched and close
together, guilty as thieves. . . .
But these were dreams, childish wishes from what was left of the
child's mind. No one was coming to save her. And if the two brothers came in the
morning and found her still in her cage, it was the end of everything.
The widow seized the bars with wincing hands and threw herself into her
task again. Pushing and pulling, shaking wildly at the thing. Back and forth, the
grinding and scraping of some unseen but tenacious bond. Nothing held it there and yet
it would not budge! No more mortar, so perhaps metal? She stopped for a moment and bent
to peer under the metal frame. All was dark. She considered the problem in silence for a
second. Something curious about the sound it was making, the way it was loose and not
loose. As if some part of the metal frame extended deep into the wall. Then the widow
clambered onto her cot and put both hands on the left side of the bars and pushed with
all her weight. Almost without resistance the thing swung out into the night. She nearly
The widow stood back, stunned. The bars now stood at right angles to the
window frame, as if louvered there. And on both sides there was enough space for a small
body to squeeze through.
A CAREER DRUNK
sat at the edge of the boardwalk swinging
his feet, having been ejected from a sad and miscreant little bar down the street. He
was now waiting with a drunk's impatience for the worst of the black whirling in
his head to
pass so he could totter home. His hat was tilted far
back on his sweating head. To his left were the dark and motionless forms of four
horses, drowsing alongside their human companion, hitched to an old railing and standing
delicately among mounds of their own shit. The drunk sat humming, and he regarded the
dark street with some suspicion, for he was a believer in witches and haints. This
moonlight in particular seemed to impart to the hooded buildings across the street a
sinister air, a sense of waiting intelligence. For who has not wondered whether
everything in this world might be alive? Though it be made of stone or wood or metal,
there might be life in it, or opinion or, worst of all, resentment. The hewn boards of
any boardwalk, did they recall the bite of the saw? Does memory linger in them? Perhaps
the forge's fire still dreams in each nail. A building might be made entirely of
injured and brooding things. The drunk waved a dismissive hand at the shrouded brow of
the old bank across the street.
“Ah, fuck off,” he said. And then, in craven reassessment,
seeing himself surrounded by unresponding shadow, gave the night a comradely smirk that
All's fair between friends
. He went back to swinging his feet,
It was then that the widow came melting out of the dark, her long hair
hung about her shoulders and her eyes hollow in the moonlight. Seeing her, the drunk did
a comic doubletake, his head bobbling loosely on his scrawny neck. He watched the
spectre come â dressed in no kind of costume he'd ever seen before â
but she was clearly a girl, her face streaked with pale mortar dust, and there was dust
down the thighs of her deerskin pants. Like an Indian clad for battle, smeared with
frightful warpaint. There was determination
in her stride, her eyes
on the old man where he sat with his head swimming. As she grew nearer, he heard her
terrified breathing, deep and regular, like a runner coming to a stop.
“Eah!” croaked the old man.
Mary put her finger to her lips to shush him, and after a moment he nodded
in assent, tapped his nose in the shorthand of all old soaks. He kept up this sage
nodding and winking while she went quickly among the horses and chose one.
She slipped the stirrups down and unwound the reins from the hitching bar.
Then she pushed against the animal's chest and backed it into the street. It was a
calm horse, big-headed and powerful; she had chosen a good one. Though if she
hadn't done so, the sheer authority of her need to escape would have been
forcefully clear to even the most disobedient of animals. The other three horses stamped
and blew, swinging their heads around to watch this process. The widow mounted quickly
and drew the reins in, her palms stinging from the salt in the leather from someone
else's hands. She yearned to gallop, to flee the place without thinking,
clattering down the street in panic. Instead, she walked the horse up to the drunk and
gazed down upon him with eyes made feral by the terror that was running through her. He
mutely returned her gaze. She leaned out of the saddle and deftly plucked the hat from
his head and put it on her own. It was malodorous and damp.
Too late the drunk clasped a hand over his pate and then chortled in
foolish surprise, swinging his feet again. He watched the widow walk her horse quietly
up the street, heading south. “Hey,” he called, “give it back!”
Even as drunk as he was, she hoped he would remember the direction she
had been heading if he was asked later. He might point up the street and say,
“She took my hat!”
She went on, agonizingly slowly, the horse shouldering and stepping high
with anticipation, and the widow willing herself not to look back, not to crane round
and see imagined pursuers, furies, twinned shapes in the dark. Toward the end of the
block she edged the horse closer to the buildings. Knifelines of crisp shadow fell over
her, the forms of buildings looming huge and malformed on the pockmarked street. The
last store on the block was a grocery, with dried beans hung in its windows, dangling
like garlands of offal in the lightless interior. Together, horse and rider melted into
the long shadows cast by this establishment. They turned the corner and went down
another block, past long, windowless brick walls painted with ornate advertisements for
tonics and dopes, then turned again and went down a narrow alley, doubling back the way
they had come. Heading north now, the opposite direction, toward Frank.
The animal's hooves were shod and might make noise on gravel or rock
in the alley, so the widow took it in a serpentine route over grassy areas, avoiding
rain barrels and piles of lumber, past unlighted windows and locked back doors, bending
deep to avoid the jut of low roofs, clotheslines. She took off the hat and hung it on
the saddlehorn. If she dropped it in a rain barrel, as she longed to do, it might be
discovered, along with her trick of misdirection. Her heart was beating so fast she was
afraid she would become faint and fall from her mount, so she bent at the waist and
pressed her cheek to the horse's neck and whispered entreaties to it. Prayers to
the real, living ear.
She remembered pressing her lips to William Moreland's throat and
whispering. She remembered his hands on her shoulders, warm in the chilly air. For a
moment, this seemed to be the only true thing in the world. Everything else was antic
She and the horse emerged from the alleyway onto a long dirt road hemmed
by listing fences. It was the road she remembered coming in on; in fact, she had been
facing this direction all the way. No sound came from the slumbering town behind her. No
cry of alarm. No shouting. Not even a dog barking. Just the soft clop of hooves in the
dirt and her own whispers. She looked up at the sky â still mouthing incantations
against disaster, a hushed plea to the very air â and the brightness of the moon
seemed auspicious. Each step was toward freedom, and with each hooVall she felt her body
loosen and relax, felt the air enter her lungs, and the sky over her head seemed to hang
a little higher. She was following a vague thread back home, back to McEchern's
store and its vital supplies. After that, she knew not what she would do, or where she
should go. She felt the rising of exquisite gladness, a pride bursting inside her, for
with any luck, her life was now her own, no one else's. The great fortune of
All the dead who had been with her . . . inside her. All the ghosts, the
portents and omens, the mourning, the roaring darkness. She told herself:
Let it go.
All of it.
And she held instead to living, to this small twinkle of hope in
At the edge of town a silvery form darted across her path and froze
â a little grey fox. They looked at each other amicably for a moment or two. Then
the animal turned and went trotting down the road, its little haunches shaking, halting
occasionally to look over its shoulder, as if it would show her
the way. But the widow knew where she was going.
AT DAWN THERE
came an annoyance of shoes down the empty
hotel corridor, two people clip-clopping in syncopation, and then a hammering on the
door. Beyond the thin veneer, a woman's voice hissed, “They can't do
. Let them sleep a little longer!” But whoever she was
speaking to would not, and he thumped on the door again.
One of the brothers raised himself from the bed and threw the covers aside
and went across the floor to open the door. The man outside was already speaking to him,
as if the door wasn't even there.
“. . . ask me how, but she's gone! She's got out
“She's crawled out the window and lit out of here.”
His wounded brother was struggling to rise from the damp sheets, his wide,
strong torso was bound in fresh white bandages, at the edges of which bloomed an
“How the hell did she â”
“I'm telling you. Right out the goddamned window!” The
woman stood behind her husband, and there was a distinct air of glee radiating from her.
The two redheads lunged around the room snatching at clothes and boots, the sail-like
flapping of white shirts hurriedly pulled on.
The husband kept up a constant babble. “Dug out all the mortar,
pushed the bars open, and out she goes! A little girl like her, didn't look like
she could lift a cat.”
As a group they stormed from the room, thundered down the stairs to the
lobby, and rushed out into the empty street that lay washed in the weak light of dawn.
They hurried to the side of the bank where the ruined window stood ajar still, and one
twin peered through into the empty cell, then seized the window bars and slammed them
shut with a terrific whang. They went back out into the street, where they halted like
bookends, one looking down the street, the other looking up it, as if they might catch
the widow yet, see her still fleeing. They were in shirt sleeves and rumpled pants,
blinking, their identical faces bereft. And one of them was bent in pain.