by M.K. Hutchins
Sometimes, seems like my clothes are just mud. Cracked mud, wet clumpy mud, fine dusty mud.
Underneath it, there's cloth somewhere, but it don't show on the outside much.
I slouch out back of the saloon, under a lip of roof. Didn't have the money to be inside, and I'd
already managed to steal a shot of whisky tonight. Barkeep said he'd cut my tongue out if I try
That still made the saloon the safest place to steal from. Brothel, apothecary, and the main
general store? They've got a sniper on their roof to shoot anyone who runs out suspicious-like
-- two dead miners this week alone.
The longer the rain drips down the roof, the more the ground I stand on turns to mud. Maybe
Miss Annie will let me sit in her shop awhile. Unnerving woman, but her gaze won't kill me
faster than the freezing rain.
I churn my feet through the street. A few of the brothel girls dance at the window. They'd be on
the balcony, except for the rain. It'd rust their gears, those wind-up girls. No women actually
come this far west, except Miss Annie. I pat my coat pocket for the money I know isn't there.
The brothel girls might only be warm due to the gears whirring inside their chests, but they're
warmer than whiskey.
Something shifts in the rain. Likely the sniper. After the saloon threw me out, he knows I
haven't got nothing to spend. I tip the hat I don't have and shuffle by. Miss Annie's light glows
stronger, the closer I get.
I step inside and a tiny silver bell chimes above the door.
"Wipe your feet off, please," she says, voice clear and clean. I can see her one good eye and her
eyepatch, but the rest of her face looks like a blob of color to me. Digging up old Indian bones
will do that to a man.
Usually I'd stomp mud all over the place and spit in anyone's face who told me to clean off.
Usually I'd grab the silver bell and the jar of penny candy and run fast as I could. But stealing
never felt sporting with Miss Annie -- she won't try to stop you, and I'm not sure she even owns
She looks up from her ledger at the counter. "How may I help you?"
I feel like my mother's staring down at me, even though Miss Annie's a young thing. Her
eyepatch looks pretty as a cushion with lace around the edges and an embroidered flower on the
top. How she keeps the lace white in this town, I don't know, but it only makes her dark skin
look darker. Most folks say she's a runaway slave. Probably the truth.
"I was just looking to browse a bit," I say, tipping the hat I don't have again.
Her voice sounds pleased, as if I'd invited her to tea, and her eye crinkles like she's smiling,
though of course I can't see her mouth. "Very good. Do let me know if you need help with
And just like that, she looks back down at her numbers. Doesn't even try to watch me, doesn't
jangle a drawer to let me hear the pistol inside. The pistol-jangling would have been familiar,
comfortable. I know those rules: if you're caught stealing, you'll get shot.
What Miss Annie's rules are, I don't know. I wipe my feet on the rug and wander the few
shelves. Some cloth, sugar, flour. Shiny boots. Every time I look at Miss Annie, she's not
looking at me. What's worse, I don't even feel like she's trying -- stealing glances or such. Just
working on her ledgers. She must've lived on a beautiful plantation, been some important
woman's personal slave to know manners and numbers and stitches.
I stay until the rain lets up, then grab my mining pan and head out to the river. A friend of mine
joins me, name of Jeb. Maybe it was an experiment, maybe it's a punishment, but one of his
arms is gear-work, just like those brothel girls. We make a wild onion stew in his mining pan for
lunch and try to steal bites while the other isn't watching.
"Miss Annie's an unnerving one, isn't she?" I say.
"Can't steal from her, can you?"
I keep my eyes on him, and he keeps his spoon near the pot to steal an extra bite, in case I look
away. Of course, it's hard to read his expression, only being able to see his eyes. But Jed's dug
the bones, too, so he has the same disadvantage as me.
"Think it's magic?" I ask. Gold's not the only thing that gets mined out here. The bones of dead
Indians are worth more. The gear-men out East stick them inside the wind-ups and say a spell.
Makes them move human-like.
"I ain't seen no gear-people hiding in her store."
I narrow my eyes on Jeb. He waves his hand, trying to get my eyes to follow, but I'm smart
enough to ignore it. "Not gear-people. Those bones are cursed. Makes our vision of faces go.
Maybe she knows curses."
"Moonshine. It's probably something on the bones what ruins the eyes. Preacher-man said
digging up them bones makes us hate and steal too, 'fore we ran him out of town. But we'd do
that anyway." Jeb slaps a bug on his neck, and I steal a spoonful from his bowl before he can
see. "People steal because it's like a game. Who'll beat who?"
"Except Miss Annie don't play."
Jeb wiped his gearwork arm down with a rag. "Maybe that's why no one takes from her. It's
plain not fun. She acts like we're all gentlemen. Maybe her good eye ain't so good, either."
Next week, I find a flake of gold and spend it all at the other general store, getting myself some
food. The store owner -- he's got green eyes stuck in a dun-colored oval -- jangles the gun
drawer, pulls out the scales, and inspects my treasure with a fancy eye-glass twice. That all feels
But I have to pass Miss Annie's on the way back to my prospecting cave, bag of flour on my
shoulder. She's out sweeping her porch. She curtsies, pretty as a painting. Except I haven't
seen any paintings of slaves, let alone ones with lace eye-patches. Maybe it's because we don't
have much in the way of paintings around here.
"Good day to you," she says in her lovely little accent. She even sweeps with lace gloves on.
Can't she see I've just been to somebody else's shop, after she let me stay warm and dry in hers
last week? Maybe under that eyepatch there's something magic, something evil, and she's trying
to steal my soul and shove it into gearwork.
"Why you always trying to be nice all the time? Curtseying like it matters!"
She holds up sweeping and her tone's more polite than before. One finger touches her eyepatch.
"There's been enough ugliness in this world, sir, without me adding a drop more to it."
I glare, but can't think of anything to say. I shuffle past, muttering. Strange, though -- the
snipers on the roofs of other buildings shift, rifles glinting in the high sun, like they'd actually
shoot me if I so much as spat at her. As if they'd waste good powder on someone else's
World's an ugly place. Miss Annie's words roll around my head as I pan. If I were in town, I'd
march into her store, spit in her one good eye, and tell her so.
Jeb gives a low whistle. I jerk up. "Whatcha got?"
Jeb realizes his mistake too late. He shoves something into his jacket. "Nothing."
"Not going to tell?"
"I told! I got nothing!"
I shrug and say, "All right. Calm down. Won't your arm rust if you get excitable?"
"Don't work like that," he mutters.
That night, I wait till he's asleep. I creep up. I slide my hand into his jacket, grinning like a
Then his mechanical fist crunches around mine -- snaps my thumb like a twig. I scream.
"Why bother stealing if you're so bad at it?"
I roll away, clutching my hand and swearing. Jeb kicks me. Twice.
"Stop!" I shout.
"Why should I? I could kill you here. I'm stronger than you, 'specially with my arm." The
coals from our fire glow in his eyes. It turns the rest of his blank face the color of ash.
"You wouldn't kill me."
"I dream about killing men all the time."
I grab a bit of dirt with my good hand, ready to fling it and run, but Jeb kicks me in the head,
When I wake up, he's gone. So are the buttons from my coat - sliced clean off. He left my
clothes, boots, and mining pan, though. Too decrepit to sell.
I beg the other general store owner to loan me some bandages. He turns me out. I make do with
a sock, but after a day, it reeks. I try to pan, but it slips from my hand and bangs my shins when
I try. Tried to pawn the pan, but no one wants it.
After three days, my stomach feels like jerky. Every time I get close to a store, the snipers sight
down their rifles. All right, they do that for most people to let them know they're there, but I
think they'd actually shoot me if I took another step. They know I'm broke.
My head reels like I'm drunk, except I haven't had the money for that in months. I need food
and the only place I can steal from is high-and-mighty Miss Annie's. She probably does have
something under that patch -- bones and gears or something worse. But I've got to eat.
I stroll in. There're two other men, chatting with her and buying boots, but she still curtsies at
me. I don't bow in return. Curtsies aren't worth a sniff. The two men actually glare at me, like
they're gentlemen. One of them spends every night at the brothel and the other steals horses
when he can. They're not better than me and they're not gentlemen just because Miss Annie
talks to them like they are. I glare back then slip between the shelves.
I slug a small bag of corn against my side with my good hand and cover it up with my coat.
Miss Annie really wasn't watching. No one shouts as I stride out the front door.
Then there's a gunshot and a hot searing pain in my side. I slump to the ground. The sniper
over the other general store, his rifle trails smoke and he's loading another shot. I'm too
shocked-stupid to do anything but stare. He wasted a bullet on me!
It must have grazed the bag before hitting my ribs because corn spills around me as I fall to the
ground. Shouting, now, and Miss Annie's two friends run out and kick me, cussing up a storm
about how stealing's wrong. Even though they steal all the time.
Miss Annie runs after, skirts fluttering. She holds a hand to the sniper, and nice as if tea time
had just ended, she asks the men to leave. They tip their real hats at her and shuffle off.
I sneer up at her, excited to see the hate in her one eye, her perfect composure spoiled.
Instead, she turns inside. Maybe she'll politely bury my corpse when I'm dead. I try to stand,
but my legs feel tingly.
Miss Annie comes back in a moment with linens and alcohol. She rips off my shirt and cleans
"I think you've cracked some ribs, but I daresay you'll live."
Corn grates into my back. "Are you blind? I just stole from you! I'm not sorry, either."
Miss Annie's one eye seems sad. "And kicking and cussing at you will make it less stolen?"
She's an idiot and she should hire a sniper, like the rest of the sensible folk in town. Instead, she
helps me into a cot in a back room. Maybe when she lost her eye, she lost her brains, too.
"You're supposed to be upset."
She clucks at me, like she's my mother and has a right to as she pulls a blanket over me. "If you
think stealing a bag of corn is the worst thing a man's ever done to me, you're more naïve than I
thought. Now lay still and rest up."
Oddest thing. I wake up in clean clothes -- my own were ruined. And I can see again. Real
faces. Miss Annie's got a scar the eyepatch can't cover. Looks like a lash. A whip's what took
out her eye. "Why . . . can I see?"
"No bone money bought those clothes." Then she spoons me broth. Feeds me for weeks, until
I'm fit to mine again. Never lectures me, just left a Bible on the bedside table, as if it'd
somehow creep into my head in the middle of the night. Fixed my thumb, too.
When I'm up and ready to prospect again, she doesn't ask for an ounce. But here's the oddest
thing: seeing her smile, I want to pay her back. Not because she's pretty. But because if anyone
deserves to be paid, it's Miss Annie.
I head out to my old panning spot. First thing that turns up is a bone.
I stare at it, all old and chipped. It's a big one, too. Probably a piece of someone's leg.
Maybe Miss Annie wouldn't like this, exactly, but I can change it for gold at the assay office.
I'd be able to pay her back right.
I pocket the bone. At the assay office, though, the man's face doesn't look right. His eyes are
clear, but his nose, his mouth, it's melting away. I've gotten along just fine without seeing faces,
though. I trade the bone in for the gold, and keep down the street.
The sniper's faces are blank. The pair reeling out of the salon, they're just eyes and a patch of
color. The gold hangs heavy in my pocket. Why should I give it to Miss Annie? Being a fool
and wasting her time on folks gives her a right to my earnings?
I buy my food at the other general store, then walk around hers with it on my back. She had to
see it. I strode all around her store, then left without buying so much as a penny candy. But she
doesn't say anything. Even when I leave, she just waves and smiles, nice and sincere.
I'm too mad to sleep that night. In the morning, I march through her store to the front counter.
"What's wrong with you? Was it cheaper to patch me up than pay someone to haul my body
into the desert?"
"Cheaper?" Miss Annie shook her head.
"You got some crazy bone-and-gear brain behind that patch?"
"I don't traffic in anything bone-animated." She polishes the counter. I'm glad I can't see the
expression on her self-righteous face. "I don't traffic in anything human."
Now I've found her weak spot. "Slavery left it's mark, eh?"
But Miss Annie don't crumple to my jibe. She don't cry or hit me. She stops polishing and her
eye crinkles with the smile I can't see. "I have a soul. I'd like to keep it that way."
I spit in her eye. She wipes it away with her rag, eye still smiling.
I can't stand to look at what of her I can see. I stomp outside. Everyone else in town knows how
things work. No one else prattles like she does. Anyone else would've left me to die on their
porch, then checked my pockets for change.
Miss Annie don't belong.
I still have a bit of flint and the steel edge of my pan. I sneak around back. My sparks catch and
run along a dusty piece of tumbleweed, and from there, lick up Miss Annie's store. I sneak to
the other side of town and watch. Wood's good and dry. Already, the shop sends up billows of
smoke. Any time now, Miss Annie'll stomp out, cursing and swearing.
Except I can't help but think she might come out, calm and polite as a tea party. She never did
manage to get the least bit proper mad that I stole from her. Why would this be any different?
No, I'd bet every ounce of my bone money that she'll walk out, eyes crinkled at the corners, with
nothing harsher to say that "good afternoon."
I think that would drive me mad.
So I skip town.
There are plenty of towns, but there's only one Miss Annie.