“Are you boys sure that you’re ok?” Mary asked as she tended to her sons’ wounds. “I couldn’t live with myself if I lost either of you.”
“We’re fine.” They assured her in unison.
“Please mama, go tend to father, he didn’t seem right.” Harry, her eldest son continued.
“Not right at all. If I didn’t know better, Ida sworn he tried to take a bite out of my arm!” Rory agreed wiping a stream of blood from his forehead.
“You stop that, both of you. Do you hear me?” Mary snapped. “We fought like hell, all of us to get your father out of that church. He’s home now and he is right as rain. You let me catch you talking like that about him after what he’s been through, I’ll be the one taking the bite out of your arm.”
“Sorry Moma.” The boys relented.
It wasn’t George anymore. Somewhere deep down, she knew that. The man Mary had loved for twenty-four wonderful years, was not the thing they took from the church and chained to the cellar wall that night. She knew it before they went after him.
Mary had seen what happened to folks who went missing and turned up in the church. Some that were rescued weren’t much better than brain dead, the rest were worse. The sheriff had even issued an order that anyone who went missing and turned up in the church, would need to be checked by the town physician and himself, personally before they would be permitted to return to their families. So far, the list of those approved for that privilege consisted of zero out of a possible dozen.
No, Mary knew that she had not rescued her George. Not yet at least, but she promised herself that she would never admit it. She made the boys swear too. George had never given up on her, and Mary was as loyal as she was stubborn.
George was the most wonderful man Mary had ever encountered. They day they met, he told her they would never part so long as Mary wore his favorite lavender perfume. It was not as shallow a promise as it may seem considering everyone knew that, from the time she was a little girl, Mary wore her favorite lavender perfume every day of her life. In fact, it was so well known throughout town that it earned her the name “Lavender Lauren” (Lauren borrowing Mary’s middle name).
For her part, Mary kept that promise, and George kept his. He stood like an oak by her side through severe illness, a subsequent and prolonged addiction to laudanum, and hardest of all, four miscarriages. It was Mary’s life’s calling to be a mother, and George suffered every ounce of her pain through each loss. Through her moments of despair, George would hold her close, take a deep breath of her lavender perfume, and tell her that he knew the lord would bless them with a family one day, if they had faith.
Well past the point of hope, and long after Mary had lost her faith, George’s proved enough for the both of them, and they were blessed with two sons, Harry and Rory. The boys were George’s spitting image. In fact, if she hadn’t born them herself, Mary would have sworn that George willed both into this world alone. No, George never gave up on Mary, and she would not give up on him.
Mary studied George’s face as she cleaned the bullet wound in his chest, it didn’t make sense. The shot would have killed anyone, but in that moment, running from the church, George seemed completely unfazed. Even now, he looked as though he hadn’t made it. Mary felt no breath on her face at all as she leaned into him. His chest did not rise and fall in the slightest. True that they had drugged him with enough laudanum to keep him sedated for hours so she could tend to him thoroughly and without precaution. Mary had a long history with laudanum though and she’d never known it have this sort of an effect on anyone. Of course, in the past it was always Mary who had been the one passed out on laudanum; George never touched it. Perhaps the drug had the same effect on her when she abused the narcotic so many years ago. Perhaps then George worried over her seemingly lifeless body in the same way she worried over his now.
So many thoughts raced through her mind. What had they done to him? Was her beloved George still in there at all? How would she hide him? Things hadn’t gone so well for the others who came back. Sarah Miller was hanged just the week before, could she keep her husband from the noose? She began to sob as her worries overwhelmed her.
“You OK in here mama?” Rory asked, his head peering around the corner of the narrowly cracked door.
Mary stiffened “Of course honey, of course I’m fine. Now please run along and tell Harry to help you fetch your father something to eat. He will be starving when he wakes up, and I don’t want him to have to wait.” Rory nodded and turned to find his brother.
Mary turned her attention back to her husband, just in time to notice his eyes were now wide-open staring at her. She lurched back as he did forward and swung her open hand at his chin. The wild swing was true and Mary was able to deflect his attempt to snap at her throat, but in so doing she also sacrificed her balance and crashed to the floor. “What have they done to you George!?” Mary sobbed. “In the name of God, what have they done to you!” She screamed as she folded her hands around her face, but before her fingers could fully obscure her view, Mary caught a glimpse of the bottle of laudanum lying next to her on the floor. Overwhelmed, Mary crawled to the bottle, put it to her lips, and took her first nip in over sixteen years.
The next morning Mary tip toed back to the cellar to check on her husband. She was relieved to find him resting peacefully, but concerned to see that he hadn’t taken a bite of the stew she had left for him. It wasn’t much, the cabbage had started to go bad days earlier and there wasn’t a scrap of meat in it, but as hungry as he must have been, she would have thought he’d down it anyway.
“He didn’t touch a drop mama!” Harry belted from the shadows, startling Mary half to death.
“Sweet Jesus Harry, don’t jump out at me like that!” Mary scolded “And what in the name of God are you doing back there?”
“Ius just looking at all these dead mice back here. Looks like something got to em, but none of em have more than a single bite taken from em.”
Mary joined her son and observed four dead mice, all scattered across the back wall of the cellar. As he reported, none had more than a single bite pulled from them before being left to bleed out. It was as if their predator had tasted them, but found the meal not to its liking. Mary turned to look at her husband. He was still sleeping off last night’s second dose of laudanum. She could only hope that it was sufficient to have saved him from the commotion these mice must have made while whatever fox or racoon that was responsible, tore into them.
“Run along Harry.” Mary said. “You and your brother go and get ready; we’re heading into town.
Bravado’s town center was a very short ride, but when they arrived, Mary and her sons were famished. They had had a long month looking for their George, and an even longer night. Besides, there was a puke boy at the saloon she knew she could pay two cents to run groceries back to her house while they took care of their errands.
Gregory was actually a very nice young boy that Mary doted on almost as much as she did her own two sons, but that’s what they called the boys (or girls for that matter) who cleaned up after drunkards in the saloons of Bravado. Mary and her boys could fetch her groceries easily enough themselves, but Gregory’s father owned a stagecoach and made frequent runs between town and the fort near Mary’s home for the soldiers stationed there. Sending the boy on such errands was an easy way for Mary to put a coin in his pocket.
After lunch and making her bargain with the Gregory, Mary and her sons split up. They would go to the hardware store to pick up tools and more chain to better secure their father until he recovered, and Mary would go to the pharmacy to pick up more laudanum to keep him sedated for times when they needed to interact with him more closely. Mary hated to keep him confined in this way, but she knew she couldn’t watch him swing.
When each had completed their errands, they returned to the saloon as discussed for a much-needed shot of whiskey, and to pay the Gregory for his grocery run before heading back home. They were surprised when the barkeep told them Gregory had not returned, but not terribly so. It was not unusual for Gregory’s father to drink too much with the soldiers at the fort and call it an early day as they lived nearby.
Happy to be back at home, Mary had Harry and Rory carry the supplies down to the cellar while Mary started on dinner. She made quick work in preparing the fire and was about to start cleaning the rabbit they picked up in town, when a shout came from the cellar causing her knife to slip and nearly take her small finger.
“Mama get down here!” The boys yelled.
Sure that her husband must have taken a turn for the worse, Mary flew out of the kitchen and through the adjacent cellar door. She bolted into the room where her sons would no doubt be huddled over her ailing George; sadly, what she found was much worse. Mary stopped dead in her tracks, turned and vomited all over the wall where the mice had been. Across the room, covered head to toe in blood, stood the man she had loved for twenty-four years. At his feet, lay a smashed bottle of her lavender perfume, another of laudanum that remained intact, the rest of Mary’s groceries, and what was left of the body of young Gregory.
Mary woke up in her bed with a headache worse than any she’d felt in sixteen years. She would need to go back to town, but first she had to think. If she was lucky, perhaps Gregory may not have been scheduled to work at the saloon that day. If she was very lucky, Gregory’s father may still not have slept off an evening with the soldiers from the fort. But even in the most fortunate of circumstances, Mary knew someone would come looking for young Gregory by the next evening. And Mary knew she had better have answers or her George would be the next to the gallows. She would have to come up with a plan fast.
The next evening Mary was visited as expected by the Sheriff and his deputies. They were heavily armed and not in the mood to exchange the usual pleasantries.
“We know he’s here Mary, and we know the boy is too. He went missin from the saloon yesterday and his father says he dropped him right here at your place. Now don’t bother leavin anything out, because we already spoke to Old Coffee Bob, and we know he helped you break George outa that church two nights back.” The sheriff barked.
“I wont deny it.” Mary replied. “We did break George outa that church, as you would any of your family. Coffee Bob and his big old mouth were there, and he did help us.”
“Mary you know how folks are when they come outa there, they ain’t right no more. They ain’t themselves. We need to see George Mary, you know why, and we need to see the boy.”
Mary’s eyes filled with tears “I know you’re right, but he was my husband and I wasn’t going to just leave him. You know what we went through John, and you know what he did for me. He never gave up on me, and I’m not about to give up on him.”
She wiped the tears away from her eyes and continued. “But it doesn’t matter now. You were right about the boy as well. He was here and George killed him. He killed that poor boy and when we found him, Harry and Rory killed George. Killed their own father John, they shot him square in the chest! Now you know I loved that boy. I’d put at least a nickel in his pocket every month even though my sons could have handled the work themselves, but I loved him. My heart goes out to his family and I can never shed enough tears or apologize enough to make up for their loss, but I will try every day for the rest of my life. In the meantime, let my boys burry their father. Let me burry my husband, please.”
“Now Mary you know I can’t do that. I gotta take the body, examine the wounds, and there’s a legal process to go through goddamnit!”
“John Please! We will show you the body. You can examine him here. You can confirm that he is dead and no longer a threat. We will have the funeral and burry him tomorrow. Hell, you can come if you want to, you can make sure he’s in the box. For the love of god John, please! We’ve known one another since we were children. In all those years I’ve never asked you for anything, please” She begged.
“Damnit Mary, fine. But you show me that body right now and he’d better be dead. You do that and you give me that boy’s body or what’s left of it, so his family can have the same peace you’re asking me to give you. You do that, and you do it RIGHT NOW, and I’ll let you bury your George in peace.”
“Thank you.” Mary sobbed. “Thank you, John”.
“Don’t thank me yet. I’ll be there tomorrow too.” He swore.
As she’d promised, Mary took the men to the bodies which her sons had cared for and prepared as best they could. Once they were satisfied, they piled the poor dead boy on the back of one of the deputies horses and rode back to town.
The next morning, Mary and her sons arrived at the funeral parlor early. They needed to make sure that such an important day went off without a hitch. The small handful of guests they’d invited filed in, and of course, the sheriff (who despite the deceased’s widow’s wish for the occasion to be a closed casket ceremony, insisted on a rather thorough “peek” inside). She was not exactly excited to see him there, but after all he’d done, a warm welcome and a good long hug seemed the least she could do. John returned the hug before sniffing his jacket. He complemented Mary on how lovely she smelled, calling her by a nickname she’d earned in their childhood.
The preacher quoted all of the befitting verses, and Mary’s two sons gave beautiful eulogies. They did not gloss over the loss of young Gregory either, bemoaning the grief that his family wasno doubt going through right now. They also used the occasion to curse the new congregation of the church and shared the story of how they fought, guns blazing to retrieve their father. The occasion was otherwise unremarkable, and the attendees began their goodbyes, but before they could begin to file out, a pained moan escaped the casket at the front of the funeral parlor.
It was so faint Mary thought there was a chance no one would hear it, but before she could divert anyone’s attention, another. It was barely audible too and it seemed that perhaps nobody had notice either. Mary moved quickly to usher the crowd out and start the usual post service chatter she hoped would drown out any noises coming from the front of the parlor. Then her heart sank as she noticed the sheriff move from the wall near the entrance; it was too late.
“What was that Mary? That noise caming from the coffin.”
“I didn’t hear anything John, you’re imagining it.” Mary argued.
“Step aside Mary, step aside and let me look.”
“But you’ve already looked John. You saw him, shot to the chest and lifeless, twice! Last night and then today John, you’ve confirmed an-“
“I said step aside!” The sheriff said pushing her out of his way.
George’s sons moved too, Rory to catch his mother as she reeled from the sheriff’s shove, and the other to slow his progress toward the casket, neither was successful. Mary fell into the crowd of guests and the sheriff was at George’s casket.
The sheriff reached for the latch to the door. As he did, it swung open and George flew out. In a flash, he grabbed the sheriff and bit into his neck. The sheriff let out a blood chilling scream, one you wouldn’t have thought a rugged law man of John’s demeanor was capable.
John was not the only guest to die that day. Many have gone missing since, though no one has seen George, Mary, or their sons since the funeral. Most believe Mary and her sons were among the casualties and that George fled to the woods. Others though, swear to have observed woman un black walking the streets of Bravado late at night. Those who believe her to have survived, warn that Mary is still out there looking for her husband’s next meal. They claim that today, Lavender Lauren marks all of her victims with the her husband’s favorite scent, so that her beloved George can recognize his next meal, and knows it is his Mary that still cares for him.