I am trying to suppress my inner Halloween Grinch by writing Halloween themed posts. But I confess this story really has nothing to do with Halloween…that’s the trick. I hope you enjoy it…that would be the treat, right?
Recently I saw keychain on Etsy that said, “Please don’t annoy the writer. She might put you in a book, and kill you.” I love that. I have written four short stories now where a bad guy gets killed…It pleases me immensely….maaahhhhaahhh. The following story is one of them. And remember try not to annoy me, or you might end up in my next story.
Laughter and chatter overflowed the dressing room and spilled into the saloon. The room became still as the girls followed. Two lingered behind. With trembling hands Caroline fastened the garters for her lace stockings. Rose held out a small pistol. “Tuck it in between your breasts or into your kid boots.”
“But you said that the miners and cowboys are good to dance hall girls.”
“Honey, I said mostly good. Take the pistol. I have another one. You’ll make enough in a week to pay me back for it and then some.”
“Take it. Charlie looks out for us girls pretty good, but he can’t watch everybody every minute. And put on more lipstick.” Rose laid the pistol on the table, gave her a wink and left the room.
Caroline took the pistol and slid it into her boot. Then self-consciously, her hands pulled at her skirt, still it barely covered her knees. Next her hands touched her bare shoulders and her exposed chest. She felt only half-dressed. If Mama could see me, she would know that I didn’t come here to teach as I told her. She shook her head, and put on some lipstick, bright red like summer strawberries.
As Caroline entered the dance hall, she found it transformed. When she had seen it earlier it had been empty. Now the long bar was filled with men of various ages, like horses at a watering trough. The floor was muddied and showing evidence of men who were incapable or unwilling to use the spittoons properly. Someone was playing the piano, and the dance floor was filled with men and dance girls. The tables around the room were all occupied by men: some holding girls on their laps, some playing cards, others just talking, but all of them drinking. Sounds of music, laughter and voices intertwined. She inhaled deeply as if her breath could reach down and bring up some courage lying deep within. Then she stepped out into the saloon.
A young cowboy was at her side instantly. She could tell he was a cowboy by his smell. Cowboys smelled of sweat and horses, Rose had said, miners of sweat and dust. Her first steps on the floor felt awkward. She had danced at home, but in a more formal style. Her partner, who seemed to be losing a battle with his spurs, didn’t seem to notice. He smiled at her like she was hot supper at the end of a hard day. See Mama, this really isn’t going to be so bad. Not like things at home with…well never mind. She could never tell her mother about that.
Her next partner was a miner, musty and dusty. He was a good dancer but he held her very close and his dark eyes beneath bushy black eyebrows transformed her into the last drop of water in the canteen. After their dance concluded, he drifted off to another partner. She exhaled in relief.
After a couple more dances, Charlie asked her to sing. This was another new experience. At home she had sung to herself while doing the washing, or a lullaby for her younger brothers, and, of course, she sang in church, but she didn’t consider herself a performer. All the girls in the dance hall sang for the men, though. Any feminine voice was music to them; talent was not a prerequisite. She was grateful for the reprieve. Her new boots were not broken in yet and her feet were letting her know it. Her repertoire of songs was not many, but it didn’t matter. Mama, I think they wouldn’t mind if I sang the same song over and over, like you used to do when Papa was drunk.
On the dance floor, a girl screamed. From a nearby table, a man jumped to his feet and without waiting for an explanation, hammered his fist into the jaw of the girl’s dancing partner. The fist and the whiskey put the offending man on the floor without a rebuttal. The other stood over him, “We treat our girls right here, Mister, ya hear?” The man on the floor nodded then slowly rose. He tipped his hat to the girl, “My apologies Miss.” He looked at the other cowboy as if seeking approval, did not receive it, and left. Feeling nervous, Caroline looked through the crowd for Rose and caught her eye. Rose winked.
The swinging doors were cue enough for the piano to begin again. Caroline was whisked off the stage, by another request for a dance. This cowboy was tall and lean, with green eyes that did a dance of their own. Handsome really, she thought. When the first dance ended, he asked for another and Caroline gladly accepted. He would have asked for a third, but Charlie intervened. “Plenty of girls here, plenty of girls. Have a look around.” The cowboy smiled at Caroline once more and then moved away.
“I lose more girls to marriage than anything else,” Charlie muttered as he walked away. Imagine that Mama. You would be proud of me if I married, right? Papa said no one would want me after. . .her thoughts were interrupted by another dance request.
This one had a handle-bar mustache, and announced himself as Bill. He spoke with breath that seemed to be part whiskey and part dead skunk. As the music played, his hands with snake-like fingers attempted to travel over every inch of her small frame. His dance steps reminded her of a headless chicken running around before it realizes it’s dead. But with each step, he managed to guide her to the edge of the dance floor near the swinging doors.
“What’d ya say we take a walk,” he slurred, alcoholic skunk breath washing over her like an avalanche.
“No thank you,” she replied. Too prim? Oh well, maybe if I’m not nice he’ll go away. He reminds me of Papa.
“Think ya’s too good fer me, don’t ya?” he said loudly even though he was so close that his spongy lips touched her ear. Her heart quivered like a rattler’s tail and the walls seemed to creep closer. She was no longer a dance hall girl in a saloon, but a young girl trapped in the arms of her alcohol-addled father. His hands knew no boundaries when he was drunk. She was powerless to fight back then with her father and now with Bill. “No Papa,” she whispered, but couldn’t say more. In some distant part of her brain an alarm sounded, but she was like a wild animal whose survival instinct is to play dead. She was paralyzed.
A young man near the door stood up. “Hey, she doesn’t–“ Abruptly, two other men, apparently friends of Bill, shoved the would-be hero out the door, and followed. The saloon was alive with the sounds of music, loud laughter and drunken voices. No one seemed to notice the scene being played out near the door.
Caroline saw the doorway getting larger and larger. Her mouth was sawdust; black spots began to cloud her vision.
Then came a voice, strong and clear above the din of the saloon. “She’s not going anywhere with you.”
Bill barked out a laugh that sounded more hyena than man, “Who’s gonna stop me?”
”Me and my pistol,” said Rose as she cocked the gun.
Startled, he released Caroline who stumbled and fell to the floor. He whirled and lunged for Rose. But the hate in his eyes gave way to fear as he felt pain explode in his chest. Disbelief had barely begun to give way to understanding when his body fell near Caroline.
The dance hall was suddenly quiet. People quickly stepped aside to let Charlie pass by. He looked at the two on the floor and then at Rose. There was no need to vocalize the question that his face made clear.
Rose shrugged, “He insulted her.”
Charlie nodded as if he had suspected as much. “Alright boys, get that mess out of here. Rose help the girl. The rest of you men, watch your manners. “As he strode away, the sounds from the piano and talking sprung up again. A couple of men took Bill’s body roughly by his arms and shoulders, and dragged him out, leaving his feet trailing behind. The bartender came out with a mop to clean the floor. As Rose helped her to her feet, Caroline felt the cold metal of the pistol still in her boot.
“Helluva first night, girl.” Rose whispered. “Helluva first night.”