Do I get extra marks for getting, "Let it Go," in there? Many thanks to Silverkelpie who taught me a new word, "cicatricial".
She stepped down from the train and into her new life. Laramie was covered in a beautifying blanket of snow and ice, concealing the flaws and imperfections. Her disguise had been the exact opposite; gone were the mask of cosmetics and vanity, she now showed her real face, flaws and all. It was a mark of her real age and a cicatricial testament to the pain she buried in her need to survive in a hard world. Nobody knew her here; and even better than that, nobody knew her struggles and compromises. All she had to do was get on the next train taking her to her new life in Denver. The place was big enough for a woman to lose herself in a crowd and reinvent her past, especially if she looked different. She left Elk Lake as a superannuated ex-saloon girl with delusions of grandeur, but she would arrive in Denver a respectable widow, living off her ‘inheritance’ by taking in boarders. All she had to do was find the right property. She would be there in time for Christmas, the first celebration in decades where she would sedately dine in a decorous hotel instead of hooting and hollering in a bar.
She had enough money. Her years of hard work had paid well, and she had lived frugally to ensure that she could save as much as possible. A saloon girl’s working life was short, lasting only as long as her looks, so it paid to have an eye on the future; but it also paid about three times as much as the average man’s wage. A few extra years could be gained by the careful application of powder, paint, and wigs, but the onset of deep-seated flushes, sudden flashes of heat, along with a change in her skin tone told her that her time had come. The change of life meant that it was time to step back and allow the younger women to take over. She was getting too old, but the whisper of winter didn’t mean the end; it promised the life she had always dreamed of.
Her new position didn’t make her unhappy, far from it. She had been born in the 30’s and the 50’s had been her heyday. Hers was an age of grace and manners, faith, reverence, and romance; before the Victorian love of science and entrepreneurialism upset the social apple-cart. There had rules for everything and everyone knew their place, even if they weren’t happy with it, but now people could move up the social ladder by dint of money, but they brought a vulgar excess and coarseness along with them. Grand balls were at their zenith when she was a maiden, and were held everywhere, even in town halls and church associations. She had spent her younger years dancing the Mazurka, the exhilarating Polka, and the licentious Waltz; skipping and flouncing in the arms of her beloved Bertie since she had met him at a Christmas Cotillion. They were young and life promised so much. Together they could do anything.
She smiled at the memories as she climbed onto her connecting train and nestled into a window seat. Bertie had been a master carpenter in Chicago, but once they married they were tempted west by the promise of land and riches. They found neither, but were supremely happy. All the excitement and energy soon went into a life of hard work and family. They were comfortable and were still young enough to plan the house they would build for themselves and little Victoria.
That was a golden period, full of excitement and dreams. Every morning brought the joy of more time with their beautiful daughter, and she rewarded them with smiles glowing with sheer love. Those were the best days. The days before Bertie fell ill.
He had been bitten by some small animal when he was working the land, and he rapidly developed aching, fever, and fatigue. They’d all thought it had been the grippe, but when the swellings began she had called a doctor. He took one look and had insisted on complete isolation, both for the patient and another for mother and child.
Who knew that there was still Bubonic Plague? She had read about it in history books. Apparently it was carried by squirrels and prairie dogs, and was very contagious. By the time the widow and child were released from quarantine, Bertie was already dead and buried.
That had been the hardest Christmas ever. Work had been hard to come by; people had strange beliefs about catching disease and bad luck, so it was better to sell up their little plot and move on, but to where? She couldn’t afford to go back East, and there was nothing left there in any case. No, it was the next town or nothing.
She soon found that scrubbing floors and doing laundry might be more respectable than work as a saloon girl, but with a growing child to dress and feed she couldn’t afford such scruples. She wasn’t the best-looking woman in the world, but she was pretty enough; and in any case, men were more attracted in the long-term to a quit wit and a genuine interest in their stories.
She smiled discretely to herself and looked around at her fellow passengers. Yes, men were simple creatures; feed, water, and listen to them and they thought you were the best woman they had ever met. This worked in her favor when time took its toll, when her looks were replaced by a painted on smile and a powdered on sympathy. She was good with people, so the money kept rolling in.
Sure there had been compromises. Little Victoria had to go and live with her childless aunt. A girl brought up by a saloon girl would be forever tainted by the disgrace of her mother’s profession, and the unsocial hours were not good for a growing girl in any case. She sighed when she remembered how many people seemed to think that a saloon girl was the same as a prostitute. They were not. They were distinctly different and never slept with the customers. Their role was simply to sell as much alcohol as possible by keeping the men in that establishment and prompting them to become as well-oiled as required to make them part with as much of their hard-earned cash as possible. She knew she was worse in the eyes of the sisterhood than a drudge, but she was better than a whore. The distinction was subtle, but it was there. She never reached rock bottom, but she had been able to see it clearly from her precarious shelf.
Sure she’d had men slip a hand where it shouldn’t go, and listened while they used language they never use in front of their wives, sisters, or even a shop girl, but she stopped it dead as soon as they went too far. Bertie was the only man for her. He’d live in her heart until her last breath escaped to meet him in the stars.
The sound of a man clearing his throat shook her out of her reverie. “Don’t I know you?”
She blinked up at the quizzical bear of a man who stared right into her soul.
“No. I don’t think so.”
He pulled at his trousers of his black suit to prevent them bagging at the knees as he took the seat opposite, swaying drunkenly as he moved. “Maybe I know your daughter? You seem real familiar.”
She shook her head. “No, I’m sorry. We’ve never met.”
His eyes gleamed and he leaned forward. “It is! It’s you. It’s Michigan Mary. I’d know that voice anywhere.” His eyes scrunched as he examined her. “Man, you look rough. Have you been ill or somethin’?”
She gulped hard. “No, you’re mistaken. I’ve never heard of her in my life.”
“Ha, don’t give me that. You’re her. You work at the Golden Horseshoe and you’re the sauciest gal there. I’d know you anywhere. Ain’t we got drunk together more’n a dozen times?”
“No,” she replied firmly. At least this time she was able to tell the truth. He might have paid for whiskey while she kept him company but her glass contained no more than cold tea or colored water.
He scowled, the tightness in his face straightening his mustache into a thin line. “Here now, I don’t like bein’ lied to. You’re a saloon gal back at Yellow Bend and I’d know you anywhere.”
She stiffened. His voice was rising and people were starting to look; people who were also heading to Denver, people who might end up being her new neighbors or clients. “You are mistaken. I am a widow and a respectable lady. Please leave me alone.”
“I’d know you anywhere. Don’t be so uppity. You weren’t sitting like you had a broom handle up your butt the last time I saw you. What’s with the high necks and low hems? You look much better with your hair down.” He reached over and prodded her shoulder with a stubby finger. “Come on. Tell us a joke. Ain’t nobody tells a dirty joke like Michigan Mary.”
“Please, you’re mistaken…”
He leaned forward, the smell of stale whiskey drifting over her like a malignant, but all too familiar, cloud. “Stop lyin’. You’re a saloon gal and I ain’t buyin’ your airs and graces.” His irritation grew and he grabbed at her dark grey skirt. “What’s the likes of you doin’ wearin’ stuff like that? Who are you tryin’ to fool?”
She shook head hopelessly. Why were people just staring at her and not trying to help? Was it so obvious that she was cheap? Was her dream of a new future simply nonsense? In that moment she felt her whole future slipping away. “Leave me alone…”
“You heard the lady,” a rich, baritone voice came from behind her. “You don’t know her.”
She caught her breath and turned. A tall dark man stood in the aisle, staring at the intruder. His frigid smile dimpled his cheeks, but the intensity of his stare held a naked challenge. He spoke again. “I don’t see you moving.”
“Why should I? Just ‘cause you come along with your nose in the air, you think I’m gonna jump?”
The smile widened. “Sir, you are annoying this lady. She made it clear you’re mistaken, so I suggest you leave it at that and look somewhere else for your entertainment.”
“Or?” The man stood, towering over the younger man. “Just what are ya gonna do about it?”
“Me?” The young man’s voice remained even and calm. “I’m just going to ask you again, and if that doesn’t work I’ll call the conductor to get the staff to move you. The lady doesn’t want your company. My advice would be to let it go.”
“She ain’t no more’n a cheap whore.” The stranger pointed to the woman who now clutched a handkerchief to her mouth in distress. Who knew that trying to improve her lot would bring such distain? Maybe she was mad for even trying?
“That lady is my aunt, and if you say that again I’ll make sure you regret it,” another voice suddenly joined the conversation. A tall fair man with deep-blue eyes had joined the group in the aisle from the other direction.
The older man gave a snort of derision. “Your aunt. It don’t say much for your ma.”
The blond man’s eyes hardened, crystallizing into a threatening ice storm, but his voice remained calm. “It’s a brave man who insults any woman in front of me, but the man who disrespects my ma is as dumb as they come. Get off the train.”
“Huh?” snickered the large man. “Who’s gonna make me?”
The woman stood. “I’ll leave. I don’t want all this fuss.”
The dark man’s eyes warmed. “No need, ma’am. This’ll be over in a minute. The man who’s bothering you is about to leave.” He urged her back into her seat with a gentle hand on her shoulder. “It’s best you leave this to us.”
“I ain’t goin’ nowhere,” the drunk’s hand went inside his breast pocket, but he was cut off by the colt which leaped into the fair man’s hand as though by magic. The stranger’s mouth dropped open and he raised his arms. “Whoa. I ain’t takin’ you on. I was only jokin’ with her.”
“I told you to get off this train,” the fair man uttered softly. “If you’re smart you’ll do it before it starts movin’. One thing’s for sure, you’re leavin’ real soon.”
“Yessir.” The drunk stumbled passed the dark-haired man and made for the door. “I didn’t mean no harm.”
“What’s goin’ on here?” the conductor strode down the aisle as the gun was hurriedly put back in its holster. “Did I see a gun?”
“Gun?” The dimples reappeared. “No gun here. My friend here was just having a short word with a man who was bothering this lady. He decided to get a later train,”
The conductor arched a wry brow. “Yeah, well you two had better make sure you behave now he’s gone.” He turned to the woman. “Are you alright, ma’am?”
“Quite well, thank you,” she nodded. “These gentlemen have been very helpful.”
The slim man threw his baggage on the overhead rack. “No need to worry about us.” He scowled at the surrounding people, acting hard at minding their own business but failing miserably. “Maybe it might have been over sooner if more men had stood up to him.”
The fair man lifted the bags at his feet and put them beside the others in the rack. “I know it can be a problem for a woman travelling alone, ma’am. If you don’t mind, my partner and I will take these seats through to Denver.”
“Not in the least,” she smiled. “I’ll be glad of the company.”
“I’m Joshua Smith and my partner here is Thaddeus Jones,” the dark man slipped in beside the gunman. “And your name?”
“Mrs. Crystal, it’s a pleasure to meet you.”
The train started to chug slowly out of the station, leaving her old life behind and into the world of quiet domesticity she had dreamed of for so long. She smiled at her new traveling companions. Maybe there was hope for the future after all? These men had never been in her saloon. She had a wonderful memory and would certainly have remembered them in any case. These men were once seen, never forgotten. They obviously just defended a middle-aged woman being bothered by a drunk, so her new disguise was good enough after all.
She was ready to bet they would have treated her pretty decently even if she was still dressed in feathers and frills. They did when they held up the train she was on when she came back from taking Victoria to her aunt’s house. Maybe she should spend the journey giving them some advice about changing their appearance? Maybe not. If she didn’t like people reminding her of her sordid past, maybe they wouldn’t either?