Matthias watched the old woman walk toward him, her hands full as she slogged in the mud. He stood tall on the jailhouse porch and held his rifle comfortably at his waist. He felt like he had a star on his chest even if he didn't. His uncle, Sheriff James Whitlock, had deputized him that same morning, not ten hours ago. "Youngest deputy in Nevada history," he'd reckoned.
Now the sun hung low in the sky and its rays snuck under his hat brim and his eyes narrowed as he watched her. The old woman walked to a spot about ten feet from the porch steps and stopped. She wore a knee-length floral dress and a bonnet and she held a pie and a pitcher of lemonade. Her short heels sank into the mud in front of the porch and the fat of her calves billowed out over their edges. She looked familiar.
"Aren't you going to help me with these, boy?" she said.
"What are they?"
"Lemonade and huckleberry pie. For the prisoner."
"My pa says your teeth will rot out from too much pie."
"Won't matter for him none, will it?" She nodded over Matthias's shoulder at the jail cell.
"You can't come in here. No visitors. The prisoner is in isolation, by order of the sheriff."
"I understand. And you're the one standing guard?"
"You know I am. I'm the deputy."
"The deputy. Making sure he stays isolated, right?" she said. "You're doing an excellent job of it. I don't really need to visit him, all right? I just need to deliver him his last meal. You understand. Prisoners sentenced to die always get a last meal. I just won't feel like I've succeeded as a mother, unless he gets his last meal."
"Oh. You're Owen's mother."
"That's right. Ellen McGregor. All you got to do is make sure he gets this pie and lemonade. I'll wait outside. And you can stand watch over him while he eats it, make sure there's no funny business happening. I'll wait here. You return my pitcher and my pie dish after he's finished."
Matthias narrowed his eyes at her. "You can leave those here. Maybe he'll get them. Maybe he won't." He hated the McGregors, every last one of them. Leastways, his family did, and that was good enough for him.
"If you won't do this for me," she said, "I'll sit here and wait with you till they take him out to the gallows in the morning, and I'll pour this lemonade right in his mouth. If his hands are bound, I'll feed him from my hands. I swear I'll do it. I'll just sit here with you the whole night through. And I am not the most pleasant nighttime company, I'll tell you that much right now."
There was something not right with the woman. She was up to something. Perhaps a weapon baked into the pie, or some lockpicking device to help her son escape. Matthias could hear his uncle now. I put you in charge for one day, and you let some old lady with a pie and pitcher of lemonade pull the wool over your eyes?
He stood taller still. "No, Ma'am. The prisoner will not be permitted a last meal. Please turn around and go back where you come from."
She rocked side to side on her feet. The ice in the pitcher tinkled against the glass as her hands trembled. The pitcher was sweating, the ice melting. The sun must have been hot on her back because it was hot on Matthias's face. She looked up into his squinting eyes. "Have you ever made an exception before? In your guard duties."
"Hell no. What kind of deputy would I be then?" He didn't tell her it was his first day on the job.
"Don't you cuss in front of me, boy. I may be a McGregor but I'm still a woman and your elder."
"I'm sorry, Ma'am."
"If it was me here standing guard, I would feel the exact same way. I understand the job."
She took several steps forward as she spoke and he took a step back. Turned his gun a hair toward her. But she just set down the pie and the pitcher on the porch near his feet.
"You're Doc Müller's son, ain't you?"
"What's your sister's name?"
"That's right. Beautiful name. Beautiful. And your mother is Charlotte, the sheriff's sister, ain't that right?"
"You know that's right. Same as I know who you are."
"As I said, Matthias, I understand. But let me ask you: do you really think the sheriff's sister would mind if I just give a little something to a dying boy? You think your pa would mind? Or the sheriff? Imagine if it was you fixing to die tomorrow. What's your favorite meal? Tell me."
She was looking right in his eyes. He looked at his shoes. He made up his mind not to tell her his favorite meal, but he thought about his ma's fried chicken and cornbread, and then he thought about the pies she used to make too. Maybe the smell of the huckleberry pie at his feet reminded him of those pies.
"I see you admiring the pie. Owen won't be able to eat the whole thing anyway. Why don't you have a piece? It's the best huckleberry pie in Nevada. Maybe in the whole United States of America."
"No, it ain't. You try my ma's some time." He realized he was smiling and quickly flattened his expression. A deputy doesn't fraternize.
"Listen, Matthias. How long have you been standing here? You must be tired. I'm tired too. Came all this way in my Sunday best, just to see my poor son off to the gallows. We're both tired. Won't you put down the gun and share a slice and a glass with me? Please."
What was her plan? No McGregor would come here unarmed without a plan. Maybe all along her plan was to make Matthias drink. Maybe the last meal bit was a decoy, and the lemonade was always meant for the deputy—poison. She was fixing to poison the sheriff, or Deputy Donne, but they just didn't happen to be here today. Instead she got Deputy Matthias. Uncle James had always taught him to be suspicious of things too good to be true, just as he'd told Matthias to be careful when he had held one hand on the Bible that morning.
The old woman reached out and put her hand on his wrist. Her grip was strong. He flinched, tensed, and his finger slid off the trigger guard and onto the trigger where it held.
"The gallows stink with last year's corpses." She spat the word stink like a taste of stale tobacco. "Horse thieves, murderers, rapists. My son is accused. There's no proof. It's often the innocent that are punished for the crimes of the wicked. It will be a shame tomorrow when he dangles, more than a shame: a travesty. All I'm asking is for you to let me give my boy his favorite drink, his favorite food. He's been drinking my lemonade and eating my huckleberry pie since he was a boy." She let go of his wrist. Her voice took a gentler tone. "Well, until he left home, he had been. I regret things we've done, now, and I regret the times we spent apart, when we didn't share a roof."
Matthias tightened his grip on his rifle. He wouldn't let her honey-dipped words sway him. "It don't matter to me what you and your son do. I'm the deputy, and I was told by the sheriff—"
"I know what you're gonna say. You were told no visitors. You're just doing your job. Far as you know, he is guilty." She squirmed under the sun. "When I was your age, I stood guard a time or two myself. Believe it or not, I held a rifle not unlike yours, and stood on these two feet until sunrise.
"That's what we do. Guardsmen stand guard over prisoners. I can tell you're a skilled guardsman. You won't let him escape. You'll stand tall. True. But can't you allow him a nice, cold glass of lemonade? A warm slice of pie? You're the best jailer in town. But the best jailers keep their prisoners happy. A happy prisoner ain't one who will try to escape and get you killed. No. A content prisoner eats his last meal and resigns himself to the gallows. Don't you think so?
"Have a glass. I boil water and sugar together into a thick syrup and I store the lemon juice overnight in the icebox. Makes it extra tart. Have a slice. Owen picked the huckleberries himself, back before all this business with the dead men in that abandoned mine. Ironic, ain't it? He picked the berries that went in his own last meal. Think how good it will taste. You skipped breakfast, didn't you? Doing the sheriff's bidding is tiring, hungry work. Why don't you share the meal with Owen, and when your uncle returns, he'll congratulate you on a job well done. You watched the prisoner, just as you were told. No visitors. You just gave him his last meal.
"That's all I'm asking. Please. Take this pie and this lemonade and slide it through them bars to my poor Owen. That's all I'm asking."
Matthias hesitated. With the sun beating down, the lemonade did sound mighty good, as long as it wasn't poisoned. But above all, he wanted her to stop talking. "You leave it here and I'll make sure he gets it."
"I'd like to wait here and make sure. You take this to him, and I'll wait here on the porch." When she stooped to pick up the pie from the porch, he saw her dress was stuck to her back. She held the pie up to him, trembling.
He leaned his rifle in the crook of the porch railing and took the pie. It was still warm. It warmed him from its insides to his hands and up to his chest. Its smell made him smile. He couldn't help it. It reminded him of his mother's pies at home, how she always baked apple pies and peach pies to cover the formaldehyde smell from Pa's basement operating room.
"Well, go ahead. Bring it to him."
"Let me think." He tried to imagine what the sheriff would say. He tried to imagine what would be the right thing to do. The old woman in the sun fanned herself with short fingers. He said, "You come up here on the porch while you're waiting."
He set the pie on the rail and leaned against the rail next to his gun. She picked up the pitcher and walked up the stairs and leaned on the rail next to him. They both looked at the door into the jailhouse. It was closed but they both knew who was in the cell on the other side of it. Nobody spoke. Her face was beaded with sweat but she didn't take a sip. She put the pitcher on the floorboards. Then she looked across his chest at the rifle.
"How does that rifle work? When I was your age, we had the pump kind."
He picked it up and held it loose and upright between them, balancing on its stock. "Well, it's this new kind. It holds four cartridges instead of just two."
"I remember when I was hunting squirrels, I only had two shots and then I had to run all the way home to get more rounds for the shotgun," she laughed. She didn't smile when she laughed. She was looking through the solid door.
"Look, ma'am. I don't know when my uncle's coming back. I don't want him to see me sitting with you."
"I understand. I don't want to be seen with you either. A McGregor settin' with a Whitlock. Imagine what the people will say."
"Well, I ain't a Whitlock."
"But your Ma is one."
She looked him in the eye. He looked at the floorboards of the porch. She said, "Neither of us ought to be seen with the other. Why don't you just go bring Owen his meal. I'll wait here."
"I just don't know."
"You'll still be the best deputy in town. You're the man for this job, Matthias. Your uncles and your Pa have their own worries, what with the abandoned mine and the sickness around camp. They put you in charge of this thing here because they believe in you. So do I. Now just go in there and give my boy his pie and his lemonade and I'll be on my way. Everyone will know how strong you were and what a good job you done."
"I just don't know."
She reached for the gun and Matthias darted up. They both grabbed it at the same time. Her grip was strong. She was saying something about how she just wanted to see how it worked. They held the rifle with all four hands between them. She stopped smiling. He alternated pushing and pulling but still she held on. They kicked over the lemonade and it poured through the floorboards onto the dirt below. Then he pushed, knocking her off balance, and whipped the rifle out of her grip, but still she held on, and the whipping hurled her off the steps onto the ground.
She landed in the mud, on her side, one arm trapped under her. Her dress was hiked up high on her hips, exposing her pale fat thigh. Her legs were splayed out. One shoe was still on the porch next to the upended lemonade pitcher. She moaned every few seconds like a songbird returning to an empty nest.
Matthias looked up and down the deserted street. He crouched next to the old woman and put his hand on her shoulder but she only moaned louder. A horrible, deep, throaty sound. He stood up. He couldn't help her, nor could he leave his post. He climbed the steps and leaned his rifle against the rail again and he stooped and righted the pitcher. Just the dregs of the lemonade left inside, more moisture outside the pitcher than inside. The wooden planks were stained with lemonade. He went to the pie on the railing and smelled it. Then he dug through the pie with his hands. There was nothing inside but pie filling. He dropped handfuls of pie filling into the mud. Still she moaned as he wiped his hands against each other and then against his trousers. He would have to stand guard until the sheriff got back. With wet boots and a dry tongue and huckleberry-stained hands, he stood tall.