“The Owe-Box Incident”
Judge Gibberson sat at his pine desk, shuffling through a stack of mining claims, irrigation disputes, poultry permits, and other assorted paperwork, most of which he expected to refuse to rule on. Hearing a man clear his throat, he splayed his hands like a startled cat and nearly overturned his inkwell.
Deputy Patrick Clark stood just inside the door to his office, thumbs tucked into his belt.
“You told the Sheriff you wanted to see me.” The statement sounded like it wanted to be a question, but the Deputy had denied it the proper inflection.
“Come in,” Gibberson said. He picked up the inkwell from where it had scooted.
Gibberson looked at him a moment, then set down the inkwell. “Have a seat.”
Clark stepped forward, thumbs still embedded into his waistline. The pine chair squeaked like a stepped-on mouse as the Deputy settled into it. The Judge set down the steel pen beside the inkwell, and introduced the issue at hand: “Your debt to those families whose breadwinners you shot dead.”
Clark sniffed. Gibberson looked at him a moment, realized he no longer had anything in his hands to set down. Nothing for it but to keep talking.
“Probably better those folks don’t have to lay eyes on the fellow who gunned down their husbands and fathers, so we’ll just set up a couple of lock boxes where you can drop off what you owe.”
“At the bank. There’s a box closet off the side of the lobby. They can come into town to pick up their allowances of a Sunday while you’re at church.”
“I don’t go to church.”
“Considering how put off you were to swearing on the Good Book, I just figured—”
“I don’t go to church.”
“Well, you can go wherever you want of a Sunday, but don’t go near the bank.”
Clark stared at the Stripe and Star on the wall behind Gibberson for a moment, sniffed. The star had five points in anticipation of statehood. “What if they’d come to church?”
“To get the allowance? Not sure I follow—”
“You don’t want them to see me. What if they came to church after the bank?”
Gibberson leaned back. He hadn’t figured that into his plan. “But, you don’t go to church.”
“I’ve never heard of a bank being open on Sunday.”
“Well,” Gibberson huffed, picking up the steel pen and setting it down again. “Here in Banter, a fellow by the name of Jacob Dennery owns the bank and his family are of the Elder Covenant. He keeps it open Sunday because the stages from La Guasa and Bandage Falls arrive then. Can’t do a spot a business on a Saturday, though.”
Gibberson waved at the empty air. “Ban-a-Dodge, whatever it’s called.”
“Whatever it’s called.”
Deputy Clark adjusted the thumbs, which were still thrust into his belt. Gibberson wondered for a moment if this was the gunman’s way of promising to keep his hands off his pistols, or just an uncouth habit indicative of a poor and unchurched upbringing, but in any case the conversation had fairly established the conditions of penitence. He capped the inkwell.
“So, on a Friday I expect you to take a share of your earnings, one part for each family—” doubting the Deputy’s mathematical skills, he paused. “That’s one third for yourself, and a third for each deprived family.”
“Equal shares seems fair.”
Gibberson picked up the steel pen, tapped the lid of the inkwell with it. “Well. A wolf tamed into a hound, then. Put their two shares into separate envelopes and place them into the owe-boxes each Friday. Mr. Dennery will show you where they are and provide you with keys, as he has already done for the two ladies in question. Is all of that understood?”
Clark slipped the key into the owe-box and turned. There was a click and, as promised, the metal door opened. He reached into his vest, and withdrew the two envelopes with three crisp dollar bills in each. Slipping one envelope into the box, he swung its door closed and locked it.
With the bare edge of his eye, he saw a shadow moving on the floor. Someone was approaching the corner of the box closet from the bank lobby. He eased the second envelope back into his vest.
She was like a woman pieced together from bits of desert. Her hair was gray and dry as sagebrush, with just a hint of dusty yellow to show that she wasn’t as old as her lichen-sallow face made her look. Her eyes were round and wide except for a sharp edge at the top, hawk’s eyes. And they were intense, like a coyote hungry enough to consider biting a horse just to taste some flesh before getting kicked to death. Her mouth was thin, jagged, as if her face had baked in the sun until it cracked flat-wise just below her nose.
“You’re the new Deputy.” She licked her teeth.
“I ‘spect you just put my money in that box.”
He tapped a finger against the one he had filled. She shook her head, and he was attentive to whether anything would fall out of her hair. Nothing did.
“The next one.”
He retrieved the envelope from inside his vest. “I was just about to.”
“Well, you can ‘just about to’ give it to me, then.”
Clark looked into her eyes, saw a dust storm in them. He slipped a key into the door of the empty box, opened it.
“If you’re her, you’ll have the key that gets in this owe-box.” He pushed the envelope inside, closed the door.
“Well, you’re a son of a bitch, ain’t you?”
“My apologies. I owe the woman who has that key, not the woman who says she has it.”
She made a lizardish sound and shouldered her way past Clark to the lock box. Glaring at him sideways, she jabbed a key into the lock. It opened.
“Call me a liar.”
She tore open the envelope. Pulling the cash partly out, she caressed it between finger and thumb like it was silk. Her shoulders drooped a little and the bottoms of her eyes lifted a bit.
“Thank you, Deputy.” She scanned him, smiled on one side, glanced at his guns. “May I inquire as to your name?”
“Patrick,” he said. “Joseph Clark.”
“Well, Mr. Clark,” she took a whiff of the envelope before tucking it down the front of her shabby dress. “I guess I can’t hold it against you. We always knew death was acomin’ for Danny. He’d been lynched three times already and lived. It never took. He didn’t weigh more than 100 pounds, and had a big neck and funny shaped head with no chin.”
“Huh,” he said. “I think I remember him.”
“Anyways,” she patted her chest, “this’ll go a lot farther feeding my boy and me than the pennies that fool hauled out of Chayan every once in a blue moon.”
“Well, I’m glad of it.” He tried to maneuver around her, but she edged into his path. “Sorry about your husband.”
“That fool weren’t my husband. And, he’s gone now and that’s that.”
“Well, sorry about the boy’s father, then.”
“That fool weren’t his father neither, but I ain’t ready to tell the boy that just yet.”
Clark nodded to say goodbye.
“His real Paw was a fife player in the War, went off to fight the Turncoats and swore he’d come back and marry me up proper, but did he?”
“No, he got himself killed somewhere in Hassinee and left me with a baby to raise all by myself, only he didn’t know we had a baby coming when he marched off.”
“Sorry about the boy’s father,” Clark said again, tucking his thumbs into his belt.
“Well, when I got word he got himself killed, I went straight to Hassinee to find his grave or at least the field where he lay rottin’ like a fall pear, and I fully expected when I did find his lyin’ carcass to bash that boy’s brains out right there and leave him to rot with his Paw.”
Clark cleared his throat.
“Only I found Danny in Hassinee, before I found where the boy’s Paw had died. Danny was fresh outta shackles where he’d been captured by Patriot soldiers, and he had big plans to come out West and regroup so the Turncoats could rise again, and I had the travelin’ money on me for that. Except that all he really did once we got out here was throw his lot in with some no-good outlaws in this no-good town and got himself killed, too.”
She shook her head. “Worthless sons of bitches.”
“Will you be picking up the allowance on a Friday, then?”
“That old Covie banker tells me that’s when you’ll be here to make deposit.”
“That’s the arrangement I have with Mr. Dennery and Judge Gibberson.”
She smiled wide. He saw famine and drought in it.
“Well, you have a fine Friday, ma’am.”
“It was a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Clark.” As he nodded past her, she said: “Patrick.”
From that day forth, the Deputy visited the box closet just before close of business, every Thursday afternoon.