October 15, 1866
Mary Colter wiped the sweat from her forehead onto the rolled up sleeve of her dress. The hot water in the wash basin made the small laundry building into a steamy sauna. Her mother would have said it was good for her skin. She would argue against the notion, for once she left the steamy room, her skin dried out terribly from the harsh lye she used to scour the townsfolk’s laundry clean.
A bell rang from the front of the building. Mary dropped the shirt she was scrubbing into the basin and dried her hands on her apron.
“Ma’am,” Enoch Fowler greeted her.
She frowned in response, never trusting his motives. He had no need of laundry services as he was employed by Hiram Norton and all of his clothing was cared for by Norton’s staff.
“They think they found yer man’s—um—remains.”
Mary bit back a snort of disgust. She couldn’t count the number of times someone came into her business with similar claims in the past two years since Reuben’s disappearance.
“The sheriff said you should stop by the mortuary. See if you can identify…”
She nodded, keeping a tight lid on the small hope that perhaps she would know once and for all if she was free.
“Iffen it is, boss says he’ll come see ya in a few days.”
“Tell Mr. Norton that my answer is still no.”
“Ma’am.” Mr. Fowler narrowed his eyes before exiting the building.
Mary made her way back to the steam room. She leaned against the wall and closed her eyes. Frustration and fear fought in her heart.
Two years ago, almost to the day, Reuben disappeared. Her husband. Her provider. Her abuser.
While it had been hard to find a way to support herself and her two children, she managed to scrounge together enough money to rent out this old dilapidated building and start offering laundry services. It was a tough job that left her back aching and her hands roughened. But, it put food on the table, a roof over their heads, and clothes on their backs.
And, it came with freedom she hadn’t known in twelve years of marriage to Reuben.
No longer did she fear the sound of footfalls entering her bedroom chamber in the middle of the night. He wasn’t there to take whatever he wanted from her however harshly he wanted it. She didn’t have to worry about burning dinner and receiving a beating for it later. No. She was free—even if that freedom could still be taken away.
Two years ago, Reuben got himself into serious debt with Hiram Norton. One afternoon in the middle of October, Reuben disappeared. A few days later, Hiram showed up on her doorstep giving her a choice—marry him or be evicted. When she asked if he could produce her husband’s dead body, Norton shook his head. It was the only indication she had that Norton didn’t know Reuben’s whereabouts either.
Since then, every few months her husband’s “remains” were found. She made each trip to the mortuary with the same conflicted feelings—hope that it really was him and that she was permanently free, combined with dread that it was not him and she would forever be looking over her shoulder in fear wondering if he would show up alive to reclaim her. Each time, Hiram Norton would show up within a few days to discover if she was finally free to be his wife.
She knew why he pursued her. For Norton, it was a matter of conquering the great Colter family. She was attractive enough—not that it mattered to Norton. Her looks were secondary to winning his ultimate goal.
Mary sighed. Why would she give up freedom from Reuben’s abuse only to be chained under Hiram’s? Nothing on this earth could force her to willingly accept that choice.
She moved back to the wash basin and hurried through the remaining clothing. If she moved fast enough, she would have time to go to the mortuary to identify the remains before Eddie and Beth returned from school.
Hanging the last item on the line, she wiped her hands on her apron and removed it. She pulled down her sleeves. If this had been her first trip, she might have taken the time to freshen up. She felt no need to do so now.
Grabbing her reticule, she walked down the board sidewalk to the mortuary, only a few doors down.
“Mr. Cawley,” she greeted him emotionlessly. “I understand I am expected to identify someone in your care.”
“Mrs. Colter. Yes. This way.”
She held her handkerchief to her nose, prepared for any gruesome sight. She had witnessed all manner of men in all states of decay. Sometimes the images woke her at night. She prayed this would be more palatable than the last.
As Mr. Cawley pulled back the cover, Mary held her tongue. The skeletal remains of a man lay in a decaying sun-bleached suit that looked as if it might have been black at one time.
“How tall would you say this man was?” she asked.
“Probably between five foot eight and five foot ten.”
Mary frowned. “Why do you insist on wasting my time? Reuben was well over six feet tall. You know this!”
“Ma’am. ‘Twas the sheriff’s request.” Mr. Cawley’s soft voice soothed some of the rawness from her anger.
“I know it’s a difficult thing, Mrs. Colter, to come here so often. But, I must ask, do any of the personal affects look familiar?”
She allowed her eyes to roam over the dead man’s clothing. The watch was not the same as Reuben’s. The man wore a simple gold band on his left hand, as Reuben should, but neither ring was distinctive enough to say it was him. The height was most definitely wrong. Besides, Reuben had all his teeth, the last she saw him. This man looked as if he’d lost several.
“It is not him,” she said the words with resignation. The little hope she tried not to let grow now vanished. She still didn’t know if her husband was dead or alive.
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