Saloons

BLOG #3 SALOONS

This is one of those places where I tapped into my experience to help me get the setting “right”. I needed a saloon, and that saloon needed a name. When I was growing up, my hometown had four bars, The Silver Spur, The Branding Iron, The Smokehouse and The Hanging Tree. While all are terribly western sounding and could easily fit into an old West setting, I always thought the Silver Spur had the classiest name. I tweaked it a little so it wasn’t TOO obvious, and the Golden Spur was born.

To describe the interior of the Golden Spur, I used a saloon at South Pass City in Wyoming. South Pass City is a National Historic site and well worth the side trip if you are on your way to Yellowstone or Jackson. They have restored many of the old buildings and made it a living history museum. My saloon is one of those.

The most noticeable item, at least to Kate, was the picture over the bar. The real one hangs over an identical bar in South Pass City and is exactly as I describe it except for one detail that Kate wouldn’t have noticed. The style in the 1800’s was for much heftier women than are in fashion now. The two “ladies” in the paining are not only naked, they are…well…downright fat! When I took my fourth graders there on a field trip to South Pass City, they noticed the picture right away, of course, and were thoroughly grossed out! In retrospect their reactions weren’t much different than Kate’s.

Issue # 3

“This time of day, Red’s usually in the back,” Rosie said over her shoulder as she led the way through the saloon. “We better go talk to him so he don’t get his nose out of joint.”

Katharine glanced around inquisitively. She’d never been in a saloon before, and her curiosity was aroused. It was disappointingly ordinary, with a dozen tables and a long bar. Nowhere was there any sign of the decadence she had been told lurked in such places. Even the display of bottles behind the bar looked innocuous.

Katharine had just noticed a barber chair in one corner when Rosie disappeared through a door in the back. Before she could catch up, she suddenly stopped in her tracks, her eyes riveted to a picture hanging on the wall beside the door. A lovely, dark-haired woman reclined gracefully on a pale blue chaise longue while an equally beautiful blonde sat in a nearby chair playing the mandolin. The painting would have been completely unexceptional, if not for the fact that both women were stark naked.

Staring at it in wonder, Katharine was suddenly called back to reality by a strident male voice coming from the back room.

“I’m not runnin’ a home for lost souls.”

“Since when are you so all-fired stingy you can’t help out a woman in trouble?” She heard Rosie ask. “Where’s that famous Irish hospitality you’re always yapping about, or is that just blarney you save for the paying customers?”

“Damn it, Rosie, I’ve got enough problems without taking in every broke stranger who happens along. Find me somebody to replace Meg, and maybe I’ll be a little more friendly.” There was the sound of a match striking. “Damned ungrateful wench,” muttered the man. “I still can’t believe she ran off like that. Maybe this girl you found could—”

“No!” Rosie broke in. “She’s a good woman, and I ain’t about to let you change that.”

“Serving drinks and dancing with a few cowboys won’t do her any more harm than staying here.”

Suddenly, a mental inventory of her possessions flashed through Katharine’s mind. Even with the sale of her animals and the gold piece, she’d have barely enough to get to her uncle in Denver. The vision of the smug ‘I told you so’ expression he’d surely wear sent her forward into the backroom. “If you’re offering me a job, I won’t turn it down until I’ve heard what you’ve got to say.”

“This ain’t a fittin’ place for someone like you to work,” Rosie said.

“There’s no way for me to leave Horse Creek, and I don’t have much money,” Katharine said. “I need a job, and there doesn’t seem to be any place else to get one. Mrs. Cline certainly wouldn’t hire me.”

The beefy, red-haired man behind the desk raised his bushy eyebrows as he eyed her disheveled appearance. Chewing the end of an evil-smelling cigar, he leaned back in his chair and studied her with professional candor. At last, he took the cigar out of his mouth and rolled it between his fingers. “Room, board, and fifty percent of what you make on the side.”

Katharine gave him a puzzled look. “What I make on the side? You mean tips?”

“Tips?” Red gave a snort of laughter. “Where’d you find this one, Rosie, hiding behind a sagebrush?”

Rosie gave him a scornful look. “She wasn’t hiding anywhere. Don’t you recognize a decent woman when you see one?”

“And what would I be doing with a decent woman?” He looked at Katharine and shook his head. “I’m thinking Rosie’s right, though. You don’t belong here, colleen.”

Katharine couldn’t believe it. Mrs. Cline had turned her out because she wasn’t respectable, and now this man was about to do the same thing because she was. “Look, I need a job. I can do anything you want me to,” she said. “Serve drinks, dance with your customers, and…” Her voice trailed off as she finally realized what Red had been talking about earlier.

“And?” Red prodded.

“I…I…” Katharine’s face turned crimson.

“Frenchie and I can handle that part of it,” Rosie said quickly. “What we really need is a cook.”

“ A…a cook?”

“Everybody’s got to eat. Meg always did the cooking around here. Had a real knack for it. Frenchie can burn water, and I ain’t much better. You can cook, can’t you?”

“Oh, yes, and bake, too,” Katharine said.

Rosie put her hands on Red’s desk and leaned forward. “What do you say, Red? No more burned biscuits and lumpy gravy.”

Red pursed his lips. At last he gave a nod of agreement. “All right. If you can turn out a decent meal, I’ll pay you fifteen dollars a month to cook, but you’ll have to work the floor for room and board.”

Rosie gave a snort of disgust. “You’re all heart, Red.”

“It’s a deal,” Katharine said before he had a chance to change his mind. “And thank you, Mr….”

“O’Leary, but I’ll not be knowing who you’re talking to if you call me mister.” He stuck out a beefy palm. “And what might your name be?”

Bryan’s face flashed across her mind, and the enormity of what she was doing hit her full force. She might shame herself but never the man she loved. “Kate,” she said, closing the door on the life of Katharine Murphy as she shook hands with the big Irishman. “Just Kate.”

Rosie hustled her charge out the door before Red had a chance to protest. “Come on, Kate, I’ll show you your room and maybe dig up some food for you.” Rosie glanced back over her shoulder and grimaced. “If Red had his way, you’d go to work right now, even though any fool can see you’re about done in.”

Rosie led her to a small room at the top of the stairs, then disappeared down the corridor leaving Kate alone in her new home. Furnished only with a bed, washstand, and dresser, the room was far from luxurious, but after the confines of a covered wagon, it seemed almost spacious to Kate. A faint whiff of heavy perfume and a tattered bit of lace under the edge of the bed were all that remained of the former occupant. Otherwise, the room was surprisingly clean.

Wearily dropping her bundle on the dresser top, Kate caught sight of her face in the mirror and gasped. Strands of hair had worked their way free of her bun and now hung over her ear. Touching a dirty cheek with an equally grimy hand, Kate traced the track of a tear down her face. Dark smudges of fatigue under her eyes made her look years older. It was no wonder Mrs. Cline had thrown her out.

With a shake of her head, Kate poured water into the porcelain bowl and stripped down to her corset and petticoats. Five minutes of determined scrubbing washed away most of the dirt, but there was little she could do about the wan face that stared back at her from the mirror as she brushed her hair.

The familiar task reminded Kate of the man who had watched this ritual every night, his dark eyes gleaming in the candlelight. How often Bryan had pulled her down onto the bed when she’d finished, whispering sweet words of passion as they made love in the shelter of each other’s arms.

As the memories crashed in on her, Kate braided her hair, fighting the despondency that threatened to overwhelm her. With Bryan gone, she had no reason to live. He had been her whole life.

At last, unable to control the pain, Kate threw herself across the bed, sobbing her heart out into the unfamiliar pillow. Eventually exhaustion overcame her agony, and she fell into a deep sleep. Only vaguely aware of Rosie coming in and covering her with a quilt, Kate drifted along in dreamless oblivion. Even the sound of raucous laughter drifting up from the saloon below didn’t disturb her.

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