Western Short Story
Face at the Window
Tom Sheehan

Western Short Story

Jasper Pentry cleaned the front window of Pentryville's only general store, and his only store too, as a lone cowboy, one he didn't recognize, rode past at a slow pace, thin dust rising from the main road through the heart of town, and saw the rider look overhead, to the third floor section of the store under a pitched roof that daily bounces Texas sun ... and knew a face had been seen in the top floor garret window squeezed into structural confinement.

The act didn't bother him, not any longer, because he had seen the same diversion many times over the years, from different riders on the move, some town folk too busy to worry about a face in a window, a faint face, an old face, a face unknown to all the proper folks of Pentryville.

Pentryville General StorePentryville General Store

When a cranky, irritable, unfortunately dumb and dumber old woman draws attention, it might be cause for inspection, discovery, reason or rescue ... if the observer is new to town, an old friend, or a repeat viewer, one who has seen the picture before, and they are lead astray by Jasper who has constructed a casual response, at times a repeat of, "Don't tell anybody else but now and then, and only on special occasions, I let a poor unfortunate soul spend a night up there when he or she is down on their luck and needs cover for the night. We do have these poor unfortunates who live among us, too many for us to be fully accountable for their good will, good health, and maybe all of their good nature. But I'd appreciate a bit of silence on this matter, if you'll understand, and I know you will, being you're that kind of folk, more special than usual."

He could work them to a point.

"What if there's a fire?" (Some curiosities never change their initial flavors, their possibilities.)

"That's a chance they take in accepting the small tenancy I provide. They'd have to go out the window if the place lit up because once I set them up there in the high reach, I close and lock the door behind them so they don't get tempted to rob the hell out of me and my store for my good act. You can't believe what some folks will do to break faith with all the rest of us pushing our way through the days of our lives, tough enough for a start in this great state, any day seems like it's got itself squeezed tight in between the powers that be between Mexico and Canada themselves, from border to border, from edge to edge."

He had a way with positives and negatives, old Pentry himself, working, serving, hustling the very souls off their prime legs any day of the week.

"You're so right on that account, Jasper," was often the reply; "they'd bite the hand that fed them, sort of speaking."

Another curious busybody taken care of.

Jasper lost count, perhaps because of the repetition, disdain for the "really little things in life." Let things be as quiet as could be; after all, it was his store and one he had worked on for years and years building a reputable place to do business ... and which kept store competition otherwise at a standstill, and his profits rising as well as his known good will.

A fixture he was in Pentryville, with momentary distractions, such as the one brought up here below as an example.

The good lady and widow, 70-year old Jessica Hinton, owner of the biggest ranch in that part of the country, respected beyond any question by anybody of the ranch-owner crowd, a visible forerunner of coming political structures, raised the question seemed like once every other month, not just as a matter of conversation but with the intent to get the real facts about the "sad face in the window."

She'd always part from such conversations with an adamant promise delivered with her hands on her hips and her eyes lifted to the heavens or to the third floor window, take your pick, like adding "someday I'll get to the bottom of this business if it's the last thing I do on this here good earth. Seeing will be believing."

Town folks got used to that story, too, and so treated it along with all the others as if there was nothing to be concerned about, "after all, Jasper Pentry's just about the best thing we got going for the town, knows how things ought get done."

Most folks agreed that the saloon, the general store, the bank, and the barber had the choicest spots in town; it was the same everywhere you went, as if those primary selections had been carried there high on the saddle, first in interest.

We can all imagine that the face in the window, by its nature, would come and go with Jasper's good will, with enough seekers of overnight lodging being treated to a possible square meal for starters come morning. Some seekers, of course, dispersed, disappointed, left hanging for another night of discomfort, unoffered affability. "A man can only do so much, that's probably because Jasper gets them to plain disappear once they've been lodged free for a night, like he's convinced them to whisk themselves off into anonymity."

There came the time that 70-year old Jessica Hinton sprang at Jasper in the middle of Pennsville's main road and pointed high overhead to "the window of mysterious tenants one at a time," and demanded to know why no new faces had popped up recently at the window, "like you've shut down the room free for a night mission under your roof. Have you changed your ways in the world, Jasper? Are the good times, the free nights, gone for good? Have you had a change of character, a difference in your income, Texas all over not housing any of the needy for a night?"

"No call for hand-outs, Jessica. Not a one for several weeks," he'd say. "No cowboys hung up on begging for shelter. No night ladies caught without their covers. No tramps or beggars coming into town from a camp fire dead from lack of wood for burning, for warming, for color. Perhaps I've run out of such customers like you might run out of pay-off cattle in your fields. Things happen to all of us every day of the week; to us, for us, by us, one at a time or by the bunch like a remuda getting loose on the line while sleep happens all around us at any hour of the night."

It came off like music from his mouth, in that way of his, an unmistakable delivery.

"Jasper," she responded, drawing herself to the full vertical, "you throw more hay than any farmer I've ever met. You're a grand piece of work just like my father used to say of all my courtiers if he didn't favor them from the git-go, knowing they wanted a chunk of him and might get it by nabbing me in the charm circle, all those sweet dears gone by the rails."

Mind you, Jessica didn't bring up subjects that weren't at least along for the ride with her, those springing from her high-minded civic interests, and a favored outlook of "a dollar earned is two dollars saved," a favorite twist of hers which had gathered her in its wraps.

When the latest cattle drive came to a rest spot outside town, some thirst-quenchers rode into town, heard about the face in the window, took sides on guesses as to who and what and why, they also came across several suggestions on clue and mystery residues, but no names or any links to a hidden identity. Even a few fights broadened from small arguments and assumptions until suggestions rose to dares or devil-may-care mystery solutions.

"Burn it down and watch 'em jump." (Whiskey talk.) "It's a witch, so we get a rope and hang her." (More whiskey talk, like a doubled double-shot.) "Someone rob the store while we sneak upstairs and let the Devil loose; it'd be best for the town, for the Devil itself, for us next time passing through here." (A Devil lead.) "Luck's not always on the Devil's side, but if he busted his ass, we'd soon know it." (From the sober barkeep.)

Words at such times are not worth the wind behind them, but some linger as patient as an old bull looking down at a herd of cows, time on his hands, time enough, a whole passel of time, a slow walk downhill to solid ravagery.

None of those pronouncements really gained any momentum, but a few ideas hung around for the next beer or the next whiskey to hit the bar on noisy demand, thus instantly due.

The sheriff, on his toes and best behavior, listened with interest to every word picking up a sense of wind or energy, letting evening take care of curiosity or promises lost before night was over.

He'd known Jasper from the first sale off the end of a wagon and the word circulating that he had said, "I believe this nameless town, this small spot in the wide open spaces, deserves a store of its own and I damned well promise to get it for them. They deserve it, the whole town, treating me like royalty and me working off the end of a wagon. This for me is indeed the hallelujah country. Yea, a town without a name."

That, of a certainty, took care of Pentryville almost on the spot. The high dreamer, in turn, had a following.

His mother, bedraggled, touched by harsh sickness of the mind, heard of the "new place down south of here," and made way for a new life

Once in his younger days, when his energy and push were almost visible in every act, his need for success bright as a new sun, his mother had said to him, "Jasper, if you ever let go of me, for a second, it will be the sorriest day of your life."

It was the threat of threats, and coming from one's mother about as true as Truth can get, or promises.

Now he was back in her life, and she in his ... with a promise locked away almost for good. It took a long time to make the trip, with a message delivered to Jasper beforehand, even as the store became a reality, with a second floor, and suddenly, at receipt of the dire message, a hastily-constructed third floor; Jasper heeding old warnings and new promises. "Mothers," it is often said, even preached, "always have the last word," even from the beginning, like "Hurry!" is pronounced to those in the birth whereabouts, in the know.

The fire, of course, came one night from a candle squirreled into the top floor by unknown method; and handled by the unkempt, unpracticed hand.

All went up in flames except the owner of the establishment, who was away for the evening, who said another poor and lost soul lost her life in the flames, also saying he would rebuild in a hurry, would have no more free nights for any kind of tramp or lost soul, that his life would be different from now on: and we know that last part would come true from his mother who said she would never let go of him.

What a promise that was.