You were only a babe at the time. You couldn’t even speak so of course I didn’t mind when your mother would slip away upstairs and leave me to mind the bar by myself. You were teething, she’d say. You had an upset stomach or bad dreams. And up the stairs she would go and I wouldn’t see her again until long after closing time, when I would fall into our bed. Often, she wouldn’t be there and I’d think she was tending to you. I didn’t know what it took to bring up a baby; I left all that to her and was happy whenever she could put you down and help me out, serving drinks, tidying up, for an hour or so whenever her maternal duties allowed.
Truth of it was, I was happy she was out of the bar. Our customers were not the cream of society, if you catch my drift. Low, coarse fellows who would ignore the wedding band on her finger and make all sorts of improper suggestions – well, I won’t go into details; your ears may yet be too young.
They were wilder times back then. Nobody was safe on the roads. Oh, how they’d boast of it, these ruffians, especially when they were in their cups! The tales I heard would be enough to see the whole pack of them hanged at Tyburn and me along with them just for overhearing. They seemed to think it was a kind of sport and not the brutality and felony it really was. It was kind of the fad to appear as genteel as possible with one’s victims. The more gracious the robber, the more he was lauded among his peers. The fancier his clothes, the more eloquent his speech, the better – these were the badges of a gentleman of the road. Never mind that he’d shoot you in the face as soon as look at you if you didn’t give him what he wanted.
Of course, I took most of their tales with a pinch of salt; beer brings out the exaggerator in us all – but then stories began to circulate of a new peril on the highway. Not a gentleman robber this one, but a lady! Imagine that! Dressed in men’s apparel, to be sure, but that was only for the convenience of riding her horse. The novelty of it must have worked in her favour because it was soon reported she was the most successful bandit in the county. What is the world coming to, we wondered, when even the fairer sex is taking to crime?
Of course, the other robbers, the men who’d been working this patch for years, didn’t take handsomely to this newcomer, encroaching on their territory, harvesting all the best pickings. Unnatural, they called it. It was no way for a woman to behave. Well, they were all bachelors, of course, with nothing to tie them to hearth and home, and I always chuckled to myself, knowing my good lady was upstairs, looking after our beautiful wee baby.
Then, one night, about an hour after she excused herself to put you to bed, it was quiet in the bar. The regulars had got wind of something and were about their business. The word was that this lady robber was going to be hunted down and cornered and put in her place. I was glad of it; the fewer robbers on the roads the better, and if they had taken to policing themselves, well, it saved our Constable a lot of bother. I was enjoying the peace and quiet when I heard the back door bang against the wall. I was sure I’d locked it – I tend to keep it locked so no bugger sneaks in and helps himself from the cellar – so I went to check.
The back door was wide open and the wind was blowing the rain in. I closed the door and was debating mopping the floor when I noticed footprints leading from the wet floor and up the stairs. The further up they went, the redder these footprints became. This wasn’t rain; it was blood!
I found her then, your mother, collapsed near the top of the stairs. There was a long smear of blood on the handrail and another where she’d fell against the wall. I bounded to her, three steps at a time. Her face was already pale from the blood loss. I tried to cradle her in my arms, but I didn’t like to move her. There was a gaping wound in her bodice where a bullet had gone clean through. Her eyelids fluttered and she looked at me.
“Must look after our daughter…” she gasped, and then she breathed no more.
I kissed her face and I kissed her hands, sobbing, begging her not to leave us.
In one hand was an eye mask of black leather. It was that that told me the truth of it and damned me for a fool.
Since then, it’s just been me and you, my girl. And sometimes when the candlelight catches you right, I see your mother’s face in yours and I wonder if I’ll ever know what you’re truly thinking.