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Mayan Ruins                                  S.D. Matley

         

     Mamie MacPherson did not approve of drinking alcohol under any circumstances, and even if she did, Prohibition was the law. And laws, she felt, were mostly meant to be obeyed, especially when a pair of government agents was nosing around town, asking questions at the boarding houses and the pool hall, the dry goods, and the mercantile.
     Yet someone had dared to stow a dozen bottles of whiskey under Mamie MacPherson’s bed. She’d discovered a crude wooden crate filled with the stuff when she’d knelt on the floor this morning to retrieve a fallen hair pin. At first she’d been stunned, as any woman who chaired the local temperance league would be. She made herself a cup of tea to settle her nerves and paced the kitchen floor as she drank. Someone had come into her house and stashed their contraband. The question was, who?
     No one in Border, Washington, locked their doors. Someone could have entered any time she was away from the house or when she’d been working out back in the vegetable patch. She tried to turn her thoughts away from the most obvious candidate; her future son-in-law, Dennis Kildare.
Dennis was a light-hearted lad, always the first to crack a joke, the first to set off a firecracker behind a politician making a long-winded speech, the first to take a tipple behind the community hall. Mamie didn’t condone her prospective son-in-law’s drinking, but she’d seen enough of life to know it was the way of men in frontier towns, especially the fellows who worked in the gold and silver mines. One bottle she might have persuaded herself to overlook, but a full dozen? A sickening knot twisted in her stomach. Could it be that Dennis was in league with the bootleggers?
     She remembered a pie was baking and pulled it from the oven just before the golden brown crust began to scorch. What was she to do with the hootch? Mamie opened the kitchen window and set the pie to cool on the sill in the May morning breeze. No one she could think of could be trusted to help her without telling tales. She didn’t dare dump out the bottles. If Dennis Kildare was running liquor across the Canadian border or hiding it for someone who did, losing the whiskey could easily earn him a black eye, a broken arm, or worse. The best choice was to hide the stuff until she knew more; that, and give young Kildare a taste of his own medicine.
     It was Wednesday, the day Mamie’s daughter Mary worked the early shift at the telephone company switchboard as well as the day Dennis habitually joined the MacPherson household for supper. Mamie, returning from the task of hiding the liquor, brushed the dirt and leaves from her long skirt and tidied her graying hair into a knot at the nape of her neck. The vigorous work had cleared her mind and she’d rallied the wit to form a plan. She’d try an experiment in the hope of extracting a confession from Dennis this evening.
     By the time Mary’s footsteps tapped on the front porch the sun had passed noon and projected short shadows from the apple trees visible through the kitchen window.
     “Mother, I’m home,” she called, the screen door banging behind her.
     Mamie hustled from the Kitchen Queen where she’d been measuring out flour for tonight’s biscuits and grasped the black candlestick telephone, raising the earpiece with a flour-dusted hand.
     “I tell you, Hazel, he got away so quickly I didn’t see his face,” she rattled into the dead line. “Not that my eyes are what they used to be, but in a town this size you’d think I’d recognize—”
     Mary sauntered into the kitchen, her cardigan tied around her waist, a dreamy expression softening the dark line of her rouged lips.
     “I must go now, Hazel,” said Mamie, bobbing her head up and down to get Mary’s attention. “Mary’s home, and I have to tell her what happened. I’ll see you at the Temperance League meeting tomorrow afternoon.” She clicked the earpiece into the bracket and thumped the telephone onto the small table just inside the kitchen doorway.
     “Thank goodness you’re here, child! There’s been an intruder in the house—in my bedroom!”
     “Mother!” Mary clapped her hands on Mamie’s shoulders and searched her mother’s eyes. “Are you all right? Did he hurt you?”
     “I don’t think he knew anyone was home. I was in the kitchen measuring flour for the biscuits when I heard him—terrible crash he made, he must have tripped on his way out.” She took Mary by the elbow and led her down the hallway to the first room on the right. The wedding-ring patterned quilt that always lay as smooth as a pond on a windless day was rumpled toward the middle of the bed. “It looks like he was searching for something, but I can’t imagine what,” Mamie said, waving toward the mussed bed as she strode to the open window and rested her hands on the sill. “He ran that way, toward town,” she said, raising one hand to point, “in the direction of the hotel. I couldn’t see who it was he got away so fast, but he was a tall man with broad shoulders, like the prize fighter who came to town last year, but this one was dressed like a proper Christian.”
     “Oh Mother!” Mary said with a gasp. Every woman in Border had noticed the muscular build of one of the government agents who’d been in town since Monday; it was the whispered topic of choice amongst housewives meeting at the mercantile. And every woman in Border knew the agents were staying at the Lone Pine Hotel.
     “Whoever it was, he got clean away. I’d better call the sheriff.” Mamie turned on her heel and made a bee-line for the telephone.
     “Mother, no, wait!” Mary slid in front of her and clutched the flour-flecked telephone to her breast. “Those government agents were grilling Gladys when I came in this morning, asking her if she’d heard anything unusual over the switchboard. Then they started in on me. You have no idea how hard they’re digging to find even a hint of . . . .” Mamie supplied the word “bootlegging” in her mind. “Anything out of the ordinary might make them suspicious.” A wild gleam lit Mary’s eyes. She slammed the telephone back on its table and glared at her mother. “And you’ve told Hazel! We’ll be lucky if it isn’t all over town by now!”
     Mary paced the kitchen floor, the short hem of her low-waisted dress swishing.
     “Don’t fret so, Mary.” Mamie reclaimed the telephone. “No one’s going to take an interest in my reporting a prowler to the sheriff.”
     “Mother, you don’t know what these agents are like!” Mary stopped abruptly in front of Mamie. “Why risk being overheard? Why not go to the sheriff’s office and report this in private?”
     “That’s a good idea.” Mamie turned toward the hall. “I’ll get my hat.”
     Mary laid a hand on Mamie’s shoulder. “Let me, Mother, I insist. You don’t want the arthritis in your hip to start acting up again.” Mary untied her sweater from around her waist and threw it over her shoulders on her way to the door.
     Mamie peered through the fronds of the fern hanging in the parlor window and watched Mary bustle from the house. She passed beyond the lilac hedge and into the street, looked over her shoulder, then darted not to the right toward the sheriff’s office but to the left, toward the Kerry Mine.
     Mamie sank onto the horsehair loveseat and held her breath, studying the toes of her lace-up boots. Mary was in on the scheme, too, and whatever it involved. Mamie forced herself to start breathing again and struggled to pull her thoughts back from the precipice of panic. The last three years had been the hardest of her life. Since the summer of 1925 when her husband had died she’d practiced every kind of thrift she could think of to make ends meet and provide for Mary. Thankful she was that her two older girls had teaching positions and could send some money from time to time, and Mary gave half of her earnings to the household. But there wasn’t enough to enroll Mary in Normal School to earn her own teaching certificate. She didn’t have the chance to make a life away from Border, although more than one young man had proposed to her. Dennis Kildare had seemed a good choice when he’d first captured Mary’s attention shortly before she’d graduated from high school last spring. He was a hard worker and Mamie liked the lad, but now—a bootlegger was no husband for her daughter.
     She brewed a weak cup of tea from the morning’s leaves and steeled herself for a difficult conversation at supper.
     The German clock above the parlor fireplace chimed the hour and the half hour twice before Mary returned. She staggered into the kitchen winded and flushed, her bobbed hair ruffled.
     “Heavens, what kept you?” Mamie asked, noting Mary’s sweater was once more tied around her waist and a splotch of mud smeared her left elbow. Mary slumped into a chair at the kitchen table.
     “You wouldn’t believe it, Mother, I practically ruined my shoes rushing all over town to find the sheriff. I even looked in the pool hall!”
     “Mary Grace, you didn’t!”
     “That’s where they sent me when I asked for him at the dry goods, Mother.” Her lips formed a defensive pout. “Honestly, do you think I’d look there because it was my idea? I’ve been absolutely everywhere, and I never did find him.”
     Mamie recognized the mud on Mary’s arm as a color peculiar to the soil at the Kerry Mine; she’d seen it on Dennis’ work togs when he’d stopped by one evening last week to tell Mary he was working an extra shift and wouldn’t be free to take her to the new Buster Keaton moving picture.
     “No time to worry about it now,” Mamie said. “Your fiancé is expected in half an hour, and you look like you’ve been running a foot race. Tidy up and come back to help me with supper.”
     The mud splotch had vanished and the bob was smoothed to perfection when Mary returned to the kitchen. She wore her second-best dress, one that Mamie particularly disliked as its hemline was the highest of all. Mary tied on a well-worn apron made from a flour sack and set to the task of scrubbing potatoes at the enameled kitchen sink.
     Mamie sat at the table shelling peas. She studied her daughter’s back, wondering if tears would fly tonight or whether she could make the two of them understand the sense in what she must say.
     “I’ll get it,” Mamie said when Dennis’ familiar “shave and a haircut” knock sounded on the front door.
     Dennis Kildare stood on the opposite side of the screen, looking dapper in his Sunday suit. His smile was present, but it didn’t go deep, didn’t crinkle the corners of his pale, blue eyes. As she showed him in he handed her a bouquet of white double-lilacs tied with a ribbon.
     “Mother sends her regards,” he said, his charming lilt sounding oddly flat.
     Mamie had butchered a chicken and roasted it whole, reserving the drippings for gravy to go over the biscuits. Boiled potatoes from the root cellar and peas fresh from the garden completed the meal. As they ate they exchanged whatever news had passed since the previous Wednesday. Dennis, though attentive, fiddled with his fork, and for the first time Mamie could recall he didn’t ask for seconds. When the conversation drifted toward the mystery of today’s break-in, he feigned ignorance.
     “You don’t seem in much of a lather about it, Mrs. MacPherson,” he said, setting his knife and fork on his empty plate. “If someone had tried to steal something from me, I’d be bursting to tell you. And you’ve told my Aunt Hazel. She’ll have it spread all over town by now!” He leaned across the table, gazing at her with great concern. “Aren’t you fearful the man will come back, Mrs. MacPherson? Two ladies, home alone?” He grinned half-heartedly. “Perhaps I’d best stand guard for you tonight. I could sit up in the parlor.”
     Mary’s cheeks turned crimson.
     “The very idea!” said Mamie. “Dennis Kildare, what kind of gossip do you suppose would start if you did just that, and with the wedding set for next month?” She folded her napkin and set it on the table. “Besides, I don’t believe the prowler will come back. It’s clear he was looking for something,” she noticed Dennis twitch ever-so-slightly, “but I’m thinking since he went so far as to search under my bed, he’s learned there isn’t anything to take!”
Dennis’ brow wrinkled, and he flattened his hand against his stomach.
     “Mary,” said Mamie, rising, “clear away the dishes and I’ll serve the pie. Perhaps that’s what the man was after.”
     Though Dennis protested he couldn’t eat another bite, Mamie cut three pieces of apple pie (marked with a “D” on the top crust) and transferred them to her best cut glass dessert plates. Her back shielded her activity as she ladled cinnamon sauce onto two pieces, then poured a small amount of something of a similar color but of a thinner consistency over the third.
     When Dennis tasted his first bite his eyes rolled to the ceiling. The faintest trace of a relieved smile warmed his lips but it vanished when his eyes met Mamie’s.
     “I can explain, Mrs. MacPherson,” Dennis blurted. “It’s not what you think. I’m not running for those fellows anymore.”
     “Be quiet, you fool!” Mary hissed.
     “This is just an investment, Mrs. MacPherson, a little nest egg for Mary and me. Just a little speculating we’re doing.”
     Mamie spun a quizzical look from Dennis to Mary and back again.
     “She only loaned me some money, Mrs. MacPherson,” Dennis said, “She didn’t have anything to do with the bootleggers or—”
     “Have you both lost your minds?” Mamie rose from her chair so quickly its legs gouged the wooden floor. Standing every bit of her four-foot nine-inches she paced back and forth along the side of the table opposite the young couple, turning sharp on her heel and never taking her eyes from them. “Mary Grace, even if you had the money to spare I’d not know what to say to you. As for you, Mr. Kildare,” she said, wheeling on Dennis, “I’ve made my feelings about liquor quite plain to everyone in town. How dare you hide your, your—” a long-unused curse word nearly escaped, “your inventory in my home? And under my very bed!”
     “Honestly, Mother,” said Mary, “No one would ever think of looking there!”
     “Never mind that I abhor liquor,” said Mamie, the reminder that her bed was a lonely one adding a harsh edge to her tone. “This is not mere foolishness, you’ve put us all in danger. Children, you know full well there are federal agents in town!”
     Mary’s eyes looked down at the table, her shoulders stiff and square, a signal that she was biting back her own temper. There was a long silence.
     “Mrs. MacPherson, what have you done with the whiskey?”
     Dennis’ eyes held the hopeful expression of a mongrel at a picnic. Mamie rested her fists on her hips and made a clucking noise with her tongue.
     “I didn’t know how deep you were in with the bootleggers so I didn’t dispose of it, save what went on your pie.”
     Dennis let out a sigh and slouched in his chair.
     “It’s hidden, Dennis, and I won’t tell you where so don’t ask.”
     Mary’s head shot up. “But Mother, we need to sell it so we’ll have money to—”
     “There’s no such thing as easy money, daughter. And after a caper like this I’m not sure you’re ready for marriage.”
     Kildare went home early that night, leaving Mamie and Mary to row. The nest egg, as it turned out, was to pay for the honeymoon, but Mamie’s resolve to keep the whiskey hidden stayed firm in spite of this revelation.
     “We’ll elope!” Mary shouted before she stormed upstairs and slammed her bedroom door. But it didn’t happen that night, or the next. By the following Wednesday Dennis had arranged to borrow a tent and some camping gear from a friend and persuaded Mary to honeymoon at Curlew Lake instead of living high for a few days at the Davenport Hotel in Spokane.
     It was a brief ceremony in the Catholic rectory, early on the morning of June thirtieth, 1928. The new Mr. and Mrs. Dennis Kildare were cheered by family and friends at a wedding breakfast provided by Mamie, who’d been taking in ironing since the fall to pay for the celebration. The scent of whiskey wafted from Dennis when he returned from behind the barn with two of his brothers and the mine foreman, but Mamie made no comment, even though the smell burnt her nostrils when Dennis kissed her on the cheek and helped Mary into the passenger side of his Model T.
     The marriage lasted, but Prohibition didn’t. On Christmas Day 1933 Mamie presented her son-in-law (who was now the father of her first two grandchildren) with a well-aged bottle of whiskey. Overcome by sentiment, he raised a small glass to her with a tear in his eye as she toasted him with her tea.  And so they did for many years until her supply, the location of which she never divulged, ran out.
 

 


 

 

 

His Own Medicine