Colorado Authors League finalist in Genre Fiction
“The Beaten Territory” finds Annie Ryan running a second-rate brothel in 1890s Denver with an eye toward expansion. Annie’s fortunes at the brothel turn on her niece Pearl, a pretty young girl swept up in Denver’s underworld of jealousy, booze, and vice–until murder stalks the good-time girls and puts everyone’s future in doubt.
Different Kinds of Graves
Dead people usually stayed where they were planted. Living people were not such a sure-fire proposition. And Pearl had set her hopes upon Franklin Bonnert with his soft Louisiana accent: a prospector in every sense of the word.
They had fallen into a routine—what passed as a slim, strange courtship common among the brothel types. Some of the girls had a jake they favored, and Sadie absolutely hated it. Human nature being what it was, sometimes attachments were formed. Hell, even madams sometimes supported a man on the side, but supposedly handled it better.
Tight with his money and his opinions, Frank never bought her a drink after that first time. He never brought her trinkets or candy, or anything a girl would want, other than the obvious hard-on.
And for working girls, one more prick wasn’t that much to celebrate. But Pearl kept watch on him with a jealous, possessive eye.
Not that it made the slightest difference.
Saturday night was a rollicking old time of it. No one felt well when Sunday came around, so they all just kept on going. Drinking could be a hard business—arguments and squabbles, offenses and overlooked promises. Spewing, blustering and laughing: a drunken farce was set off against an almost continuous tirade of circular piano music.
Despite ordinances against guns and firearms being discharged, pour enough whiskey and hooch into the heaving mix and things went off. Then the music might stop, might not. But it always picked up again.
And Frank started casting his eye at other girls.
“Do you ever think about me with other men?” Pearl asked, one night along the line.
Frank didn’t stop tying his boots. “Should I?”
He stood up and headed straight for the door. He opened it, allowing another jake to get a good eyeful of Pearl’s naked body.
“Franklin!” Pearl squealed, covering herself as best she could with her cast-off garments.
“Just drumming up business for you,” he replied.
Even Pearl realized there was something fundamentally wrong with his actions, if he had any feelings for her at all.
When Pearl rejoined the crowd in the saloon, Frank was back to drinking with other miners and gave her a wink.
Sadie grabbed her arm. “The old fellow with the beard is your next number.”
“What the hell does he want with me? He’s seventy if he’s a day! I doubt he could even do something if he wanted to.”
The grip tightened. “The old fella’s paid twelve dollars, and you’re going upstairs with him even if it’s to play tiddlywinks.”
Sadie’s blue eyes didn’t broker anymore back talk. “I want you to know I don’t care about your feelings. I care about running this business.”
Frank was gone when Pearl got back downstairs. As much as Pearl had tried to hurry, the old fellow hadn’t been satisfied with tiddlywinks.
Her next jake was already lined up—a tall miner with black hair and coarse tendencies. The fellow after that was one of the bankers in town, who was satisfied jerking off to a striptease. The next was a miner with dirty fingernails who kept grunting in her ear.
The last jake was a flat-ass drunk who passed out. Pearl went through his pockets and found a five-dollar coin. Smiling, she deposited it in a hiding place behind one of the wall boards. She left him with some money, tempted, sorely tempted to take more. It stood to reason that drunks lost money, or drank it and forgot.
She had never stolen before, but it gave her a thrill. And with that, she was done for the night.
After she kicked the drunk out of her room.
The jakes’ faces and their personal habits and preferences started blending together. Even her repeat jakes. The weather began to shroud the mountains, although people shrugged it off as best they could. The chill was settling into Pearl’s outlook. She tried her best to ward it off. She wasn’t successful. But then, so few were.
All the girls in the whorehouse were assembled for their midday meal in various stages of dress or undress, shawls over petticoats and bloomers to ward off the cold draft. The stove burned hot and radiated, but the heat got swallowed up in the empty expanse. Drafts still found their way in through the walls and windows with every gust of wind. The girls pretended not to notice, hardened to the conditions. Their talk centered on the jakes of the previous evening, trading stories about drunken exploits.
Laughing it all off. It beat the hell out of tears.
Pearl felt like she was sinking. She kept her face down; concentrated on worrying the food set on the plate before her.
“ . . . That fellow was special, wouldn’t you say, Pearl?” Fancy Nell Brown tried to draw her out.
Sometimes silence was a whore’s worst enemy.
Miserable, Pearl managed to catch the tail end of the conversation. “They’re all special, good God Almighty.” But what did they think of her?
And everyone at the table laughed, including Sadie, which actually made Pearl suffer even worse, although she joined in.
Then Sadie gave her a cold, clear calculating look that froze the laughter in Pearl’s throat. Dead. Sadie missed next to nothing that went on in her house, and that included ill tempers.
She knew about Frank, and wanted Pearl to stop.
Dissatisfied, Pearl returned to her room when the meal was finished. Out of sorts, she reckoned being a whore was about as low as a girl could sink—unless she had a bent toward murder. Being a murderer might have meant the end was in sight. Murderers didn’t get dismissed as easily as hookers. Pearl had already started to fear being overlooked.
Most harridans didn’t even use their own names, for pity’s sake. All those girl babies born with different names that somehow got lost along the way. And they ended up in brothels or in the cribs. At least she used her own name—her connection into the other world, such as it was, intact.
And she was popular. For the time being. But being pretty just meant she got pawed more than most. Tiring of patting hands and probing fingers, she closed her mind to it. She certainly didn’t like getting bit. She had dealt with a biter the night before.
She went over to her trunk, pulled out the bottle of laudanum. Sadie had given it to her all those nights ago—a lifetime, really. Right before her first jake. She shook it, held it up to the window and judged the level.
She just needed something to fill the empty hollow inside of her—to take the edge off.
She uncorked the bottle, knowing she shouldn’t. She took a small swig, held her breath as the liquid burned going down, before the sensation of warmth.
In a few moments, things started to brighten up a bit.
She pulled on a pair of stockings with holes and lattices that could be repaired—if she cared. Which she didn’t. The nuns would never have approved of such sloth. Sticking her feet into her worn boots, she laced them up with finality and donned her blue and black dress. The dress that was one step shy of indecent. The mirror reflected a pretty face, which she painted with angry motions. She piled up her brown hair and considered how her face had changed over time. It certainly had grown a bit thin.
The rouge might not have caused a sparkle in her eyes, but the laudanum sure hit the spot.
But it was already getting old, screwing around.
Tarrying on her way down the stairs, she paused and let the coarse laughter rise up to meet her. The noise carried and drifted, while the haze of the blue walls flowed on by. She wondered what on earth had possessed someone to paint them that color. Amidst the jangling music, she made a quiet entrance and sidled up to a jake who was wearing a suit. Without any encouragement, she ran her fingers along his lapel, tracing the outline. She didn’t give a rat’s ass about him—but the flirtation was all part of the game.
“Buy a girl a drink?” She sniffed to make sure he didn’t smell too bad, but he eyed her with disdain.
“Where’s your mother? Has she seen you like this?” He asked it as a joke, but it wasn’t funny.
“In the graveyard. Where’s yours?” She felt so damned alone in the world.
Disgusted by her, he turned his back. “Nowhere that concerns you.”
She poked him in the shoulder blade, hard. He turned again, angry.
“What’s the problem?” Sadie asked, coming up beside her and grabbing her hand so she couldn’t poke the jake again.
“This slut of yours is bothering me.” The man sounded like he had nothing to do with the situation.
Tears blurred Pearl’s vision. “That asshole asked where my mother was.”
Sadie rolled her eyes, pulled her away and sat her down at a vacant table. “Not this again. You’re being paid to show the men a good time.”
“I want to see where my mother is, Sadie.” Pearl’s bosom heaved as panic set in.
“Fine. Tomorrow.” Sadie eyed her, not altogether in a sympathetic manner. “Now, whatever you do, don’t start crying. It’s bad for business. And you had better act goddamned enthusiastic with the jakes. Got it?”
Pearl brightened a bit at the prospect of visiting her mother’s grave. “Got it,” she said, and dabbed at her eyes.
The sky was gray like the granite peaks; clouds overhead spoke of a storm gathering. The occasional beam of sunlight burst through before succumbing to shadow. The wind caught on the jagged mountain tops and was pulled down the rock slopes above the tree line, then forced through the bristlecone pines that rustled and swayed in the valley below. Forlorn in sound, the movement of the air felt clean and cold as water. Noises of the mines and dredgers at work carried, ricocheted against the mountain walls, metal scraping stone—monotonous and unremarkable. Fragrances of the extracted minerals mingled, scenting the air as the impending winter lurked, insistent.
A chill current passed over the cemetery where her mother’s body lay, cast out and coffin-less. Another winter drew near.
Pearl’s skirts whipped around her ankles and her hair streamed behind her. She had on her visiting clothes and looked respectable on purpose. She hesitated a few yards away from the mound without a headstone—the resting place of her decaying mother. Her intent was to introduce herself; she was open to signs and sought meaning. But the bone orchard only provided a pile of dirt that the mountainside had begun to reclaim. Kinnikinnick had started spreading, sending exploratory tendrils out, hugging the ground for a warmth that would soon die off, too.
Empty graves were already dug for the winter, when the ground would be frozen.
Pearl hesitated, turned toward Sadie who remained seated in the wagon, her face set toward the peaks and into the wind. She was giving Pearl privacy with the truth. It hurt. The grave felt abandoned: a pile of dirt that withered with time. Seasons when no one had cared.
“Are you sure this is her?” The toes of Pearl’s boots were at the edge of the mound.
Sadie’s answer blew away in the cold northern wind that caught in Pearl’s hair—brown ribbons of nuisance that tangled before her eyes and stuck to the corners of her mouth. It was just as well her facial expression couldn’t be read.
“Which way is her head?”
Sadie shifted in the buckboard in a way that said she didn’t know, but pointed north. “She’s facing that way.”
The cemetery was a jumble of graves, some of which were already sinking from neglect. Abandonment. “This is a shit hole of a cemetery, Sadie.”
Sadie glanced over at Pearl. “Keep a sense of perspective, girl. It’s just fine in the paying section.”
Pearl memorized the mound and its location, and then slowly turned and walked back to the buckboard. She climbed in next to Sadie, and their eyes met.
“I knew this wasn’t a good idea,” Sadie said as she flicked the reins and pulled away.
Buy “The Beaten Territory” at BookBar.
Interview: “The Beaten Territory” author Randi Samuelson-Brown.
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