“Another drink, Maureen?”
“Why not. Same as usual.” I put a coin on the bar and wait for Charlie to pour me one. It’s about three in the afternoon, there’s hardly anyone around apart from a couple of old barflies who know me well and can’t afford to buy me a drink, let alone purchase a little of my time. The four drovers who have ridden into town to collect mail and buy provisions have already bought me drinks and taken turns with me upstairs, and now they’re playing poker. Nothing else to do but sit at an empty table, look friendly and hope that new customers will turn up.
The two men sitting in the corner near me are new in town, but they aren’t prospective customers. Neither of them has approached me; they’re just sitting together, sipping their drinks, not saying much. They’re not interested in the poker game, and they’re not asking any questions about anybody, which is a relief, because what they are is obvious from the way they move, and glance around, and wear their sidearms.
The blond-haired one, slouching in his chair, occasionally rubs his thigh – old or recent gunshot? He glances at me and gives me a small grin, not lewd, kind of comradely; his eyes are blue, quick, warm. The older one, the one in black, sitting bolt upright, also looks me over and nods slightly, without smiling. I shiver a little - it feels as if he knows about me, where I grew up, the first man who took me when I was thirteen, and all the other men since. And yes, it’s as if I also knew about him, his first killing, and all the other killings since then. Both of us choosing the wrong line of work. Both of us alone.
Wrong. The younger man kicks his companion’s foot under the table, lightly, playfully. “Want to know what I heard at the store?”
“Not particularly,” the man in black says, but his mouth twitches a little.
The blond man smirks. “The stage company are looking for shotgun riders.” He stops and waits, straight-faced. The other one waits a little too, then drawls, “It’s a good, steady job,” and they both laugh briefly, it’s a private joke of some kind, they must have some sort of shared past. I glance under the table; a polished black boot is rubbing against a dusty brown boot, slowly, teasingly.
I feel myself begin to smile, one of my rare genuine smiles instead of the professional ones. I ask Charlie for another drink and lift my glass to them in a wordless toast. Good luck, whoever you are, with the stage jobs and with each other.
They get up. The younger man tips his hat at me. As the one in black walks past my table, he gives me another slight nod and lays three bills near my glass. Three dollars, three hours’ work; it’s a gift, Charlie will let me keep it. They step out into the afternoon sun, and I allow myself to envy them for a moment, for being able to choose, and for being together.
Another man walks in. I know him, he’s a travelling salesman, gents’ outfits – fairly clean, not too demanding, and a good tipper.
“Why, hello there, Maureen. You on your own?”
Yes, and all I can choose is whether I want his company or not. I give him a lovely professional smile. “Not any more, sweetheart.”