Western Short Story
Madame Felicia made her usual, grand entrance. All eyes zeroed in on her as if ensnared by the magical force of an invisible, magnetic field and if there had been any clocks present, their hands surely would have stopped. A tall and slim woman with an hourglass figure that defied her height, she wore her straight brown hair cropped much shorter than was the standard of beauty amongst women of the times. Her, it seemed to fit perfectly, though, accentuating the feature of her long and slender neck, an attribute which salivated the mouths of men. Her eyes were a lighter shade of brown than her hair. Large, doe like eyes adorned with long lashes and thickly applied, blue eye shadow.
Dressed in an evening gown of silvery fabric that had been hemmed up to showcase her tanned legs, she proudly walked through the great room, content in the obvious admiration she received from all. Upon a plush, high backed Victorian chair, she sat and removed her feet from a pair of sapphire heels and rested them atop a padded ottoman. As if rehearsed, three working girls hustled over to her, one holding a small pail and each with a red sponge in her hand. They gathered around to kneel at the ottoman and began to sponge wash the madame’s feet as if she were some messiah sent from heaven to forgive them of their sins.
From a table where she sat alone nearby, a porcelain doll like, beautiful woman with pale complexion and naturally pink, long and curled hair observed the strange ritual. Though long since being a new act to her, the oddity of it all was something that still baffled her to this day and she was glad that, at least on this night, she had not been hand-picked as one of the caterers. As she lifted a glass of false crystal to lips painted ruby red and had a sip of clear, sparkling wine, she recalled the first time she’d witnessed the whole foot washing display.
The experience had come in a time before Madame Felicia enjoyed the prestige of having a brothel of her own to reign over. Back then, the working girls had to dress in more conservative attire and mask their flirtations better as they mingled amongst the everyday men and women who frequented public saloons. Their attempts at espionage were futile, though, as all knew who the girls were and exactly what they represented. They wore their facial make up much thicker than the women considered to be of respectable society did and their manners toward the gentlemen left little secret as to what their intentions were.
Though the working girls’ presence was widely accepted as just another unavoidable part of the territory, there was still always a profound and unspoken divide between them and the upstanding women. Those who did not peddle their bodies to paying customers looked down upon those who did with disdain. They considered them inferior, trashy and disgraceful beings. Outwardly, the women used the girls’ reputations as whores to justify their spite. Beneath the surface, though, their opinions were fueled by a certain sense of jealousy. They saw all the special attention these working girls were so easily able to earn from the men, and they hated them for it.
On the part of the men, they too did all they could to give the impression that they found the promiscuous girls to not be anything worthwhile, and that they wished having to co-exist with them was avoidable. The truth of the matter was given away in their longing glances and the false bravado they’d attempt to display whenever a working girl should show them favor, or how they’d conveniently make it a point to flash their folds of cash when they knew a girl’s eyes to be upon them, buying drinks and tipping heavily. Admittedly or not, the men longed for and fantasized over the mystery of a private tryst with these painted ladies. Even if they’d never had the pleasure of bedding one first hand, all men had heard stories of the girls’ sexual freedom. How they did their lovemaking fully nude, just as the savage Indians were rumored to, and how they were not in any way opposed to doing all the things the men’s wives or mistresses would never consider.
In those pre-brothel days, Madame Felicia and the girls who worked under her guidance utilized a saloon called The Bazaar as their primary location for indulging in their chosen profession. An undersized bar but with full menu and a large ballroom at the back of the building, The Bazaar was a place more convenient for public, banquet type gatherings and for music and dancing than for those who were only seeking a watering hole to get drunk in, and nothing more. The environment and commodities at The Bazaar made it a place for prime pickings as far as clientele for working girls. It was there in the ballroom at The Bazaar where at not yet seventeen years of age, she’d first seen the sponge washing of Madame Felicia’s feet.
“Miss Strawberry Lane, I presume.”
Her short excursion down memory road was interrupted by the voice of a man. A somewhat timid voice with an educated and distinguished air to it. Instinctively, her demeanor of charm kicked in, with her eyes squinting slightly, the corners of her lips turning up in a subtle smile and the tops of her cheeks taking on a more defined blush. Yes, with enough practice at it, a woman learns to regulate the intensity of her natural blush. She looked up to find exactly the sort of gentleman she’d expected to find after hearing him speak. A middle-aged man with perfectly trimmed mustache, bow tie and bowler cap. Probably, an easterner.
“Can I help you?” She asked, allowing her emerald eyes to glaze as if lust filled sparks flew at the very sight of him. She hoped that this, her first approach of the evening, would not prove to be a precursor to how the rest of her night would go. Of all variety of customers, this was precisely the kind she despised. The upper class, aristocratic type who wanted to go through all the motions of an actual courtship before getting down to the real business at hand. On the upside, their pocket books were sure to have a depth allowing her to all but choose her ultimate price. The negative, their bedroom prowess was always stale.
“Forgive my forwardness but I must say, you look absolutely stunning tonight, my dear,” he complimented.
“Why, thank you,” she replied with false gratitude, fluttering her eyelashes.
“So, just like that, the game of chase and capture begins,” came the voice of another.
A young man in long and dirty, black duster and a worn, round brimmed hat to match it approached the table and rudely helped himself to a chair without so much as waiting for a casual invitation. He did nothing to hide the gun belt hanging low at his hip. He was strikingly handsome, in a roughneck sort of way, and his eyes displayed a bold confidence unlike any she’d seen before. She was intrigued by the mysterious stranger right up until the stench of his body odor reached her nose, causing her to cringe.
“The wealthy tenderfoot takes time away from his office book keeping and counting his riches to go on what he thinks is an irresistible prowl.” The stranger in black set his beer mug down on the small table and rested his elbows on each side of it. “He’ll empty his whole bag of tricks, using every flattery known to the human race as he works to cause the unsuspecting damsel to fall head over heels in love with him. Oh, she’ll act hard to get at first, like a mouse avoiding the playful swats of a kitten, making him feel he’s gaining ground and winning her over with his Casanova know how, slowly feeding his ego. Eventually, she’ll give in, allowing him to capture the prize and elevating him to iconic status when it comes to romanticizing women.”
“Would you excuse us, please?” The well-dressed gentleman in the bowler cap interjected. “The lady and I were having a conversation.”
The rude one had a drink from his beer mug, slurping at the mug’s ring in obnoxious fashion. After wiping his chin with his sleeve, he said, “Awe, come on, partner. I haven’t finished the story yet and I personally think the lady would like to hear its ending.”
The gentleman bit down in anger and gave a fuming look to the seated stranger, who took full notice of it and smiled. “There it is,” the stranger said with a humorous tone, “the ultra-manly, threatening glare. The look that needs no words, the one that the alpha male uses to show the rest of the pack he’s already laid claim to the maiden in heat.”
In a swift and unseen move beneath the round table’s surface, the stranger kicked a third chair out across from him, startling the working girl and causing the gentleman to flinch. The chair slid without toppling over and stopped at a welcoming spot just before the unexpecting gentleman.
“Please, sit down and join us, we’re open to company,” the black clad stranger offered. Then, he added, “Unless, of course, you’re feeling froggy enough to make me leave your little game alone. In which case, I’d advise you to know what you’re doing. See, it’s been a while for me and I gotta admit, my finger’s been getting itchy lately.”
He held his right index finger up and curled it a few times, as if pulling the trigger of a pistol. Reluctantly, the gentleman lowered himself into the empty chair, his eyes still glued to the one he viewed as his competition in gaining the lady’s hand for the night. In catching Strawberry also looking at him, the rugged man pushed the front of his black brimmed hat up a bit and gave her wink before he carried on as if he’d never stopped his narration.
“The womanizer will take the lady to bed where he’ll pretend that it was she who had chosen his company for the night and that any money exchanged was only a considerate act of kindness on his part. She’ll go along with it too. And now, we get to the fun part.”
The stranger stopped talking and raised his mug for a long, gulping drink. The other two just sat silent, looking at him, waiting for him to finish what he had to say. Finally, when it seemed the stranger had no intention of continuing, Strawberry spoke up. “So, what’s the fun part then?” She made her voice sound as if she were bored with the entire thing but in reality, she’d heard enough of the rude man’s talk that she couldn’t resist wanting to listen to the ending.
The man in black shrugged. “She’ll pretend to enjoy his performance with moans and sighs. He’ll pretend that he doesn’t have a faithful wife at home, taking care of his children and waiting for him to bring home the bacon while he throws away their food money just for the jollies of having a whore tickle the little, and I do stress the word little, pickle between his legs.”
Strawberry failed at stifling a short laugh, which she then tried to cover by bringing fingertips up to her lips. Embarrassed, the gentleman finally had enough. Slamming a palm onto the table top, he rose to his feet and leaned over toward the stranger, his teeth clenched and bared in an attempt at intimidation. The brash stranger only sat motionless and looked up at him. He never leaned away or made a move for the gun at his hip. The two stared at each other across the table until the gentleman’s shoulders began to slump and he put his teeth away.
The black hatted one smiled. “Be on about your business now. I’ll be sure to let the barkeep know that my next beer’s on you.” With that, he flicked his fingers toward the gentleman as if sweeping away a dust bunny. After only a second’s hesitation, the man in bow tie and bowler cap turned to saunter away, defeated.
Once the three had become two, Strawberry giggled again, causing the stranger to turn his attention back to her. “You like that?” He asked. She quickly stopped anymore laughter rising to the surface and erased her smile.
“Go on, I like to hear you laugh,” he said. She forced herself not to crack even the slightest grin.
“You like jokes?” He asked.
Shrugging, she replied, “Sure. As much as anybody else does, I suppose.”
“You like the joke I made about what he’s got between his legs?” Again, she refused to allow herself a smile. She didn’t answer either.
“You want to hear a joke about what’s between my legs?” He continued to question her. Though again, she didn’t answer, she looked at him in a manner that gave her curiosity over wanting to hear what he’d say next away.
He lowered his voice. “Never mind, it’s too long.” He sat back and folded his fingers together on the edge of the table, proud of his cleverness.
At first, she didn’t understand his words, or why he should take such pride in them. Then, the meaning behind his last punch line dawned on her and she blushed. This time, a real blush. She willed the color way and thought a moment. She smiled as her mind concocted a proper response. Recrossing her legs at the thighs, she leaned in close to his ear, avoiding his scent by trying not to breathe in through her nose.
“You want to hear a joke about what’s between my legs?” She whispered, teasingly seductive.
“Hell yeah, I do,” he replied.
“Never mind, you’ll never get it.”
Leaving her wine glass on the table, she rose, turned her back to him and walked away, exaggerating the side to side shift of her hips for effect as she went. He sat back in his chair, smiled and shook his head, laughing to himself. He raised a hand into the air in summons to a passing waitress with a round drink tray in her hand. He ordered another beer for himself and as promised, had the cost of it charged to a tab belonging to the gentleman in the bowler cap.
By now, night at the brothel was in full swing. Men who had originally sat conversing amongst themselves while building their liquid courage now began to meander throughout the great room, perusing the goods as if shopping over merchant stands filled with rare items of only the highest quality. As for the working girls, a distinct pecking order had been established. Those newer to the trade who had not yet built themselves an adventurously ill repute were the ones who made their rounds about the room, flirting excessively and initiating conversations with potential customers. The more experienced girls, on the other hand, portrayed themselves in a more lady-like fashion. They lounged at chairs or sofas, accepting drinks delivered to them on behalf of unknown buyers as they waited for men to approach them directly.
Though still not quite as rode hard as some of the others, Strawberry Lane, her desirability already long since established, was amongst the latter. Having removed herself from the presence of both the boring gentleman and the over confident stranger, she now sat on a sofa of red velvet pushed up against a far wall in a lesser lit area of the room. Observing the men throughout, she could judge their characteristics by their look and swagger alone. Unlike her peers, she searched not only for those who were likely to pay top dollar for her services, but also for those who were sure to be the most entertaining when in privacy.
“So?” The heavily drawled voice of Madame Felicia intruded on her search as the venerated woman helped herself to the other cushion of the couch Strawberry sat at. The madame handed her a filled wine glass.
“So, what?” Strawberry questioningly replied, taking the offered drink.
“So, what do you think of our lonely friend?”
Following Madame Felica’s eyes to find that she spoke in reference to the arrogant stranger with the jokes who had disrupted her talk with what might have been a night of good pay, Strawberry watched him a moment. To her, he didn’t look like a much at all. Young and rather scrawny, she considered him as just another, full of himself cowboy who thought he had the whole world by the balls. One too inexperienced to realize that he wasn’t anything special, and one not yet having been knocked into his place by a real man, something he so obviously needed.
The stranger seemed oblivious to their scrutinizing looks. He sat by himself, drinking his beer. Though every female who happened to prance by him turned his head their way, he showed no sign of making a move on any of them. He spoke to no one. Strawberry knew that if he kept it up, he’d soon be asked to leave. The girls at Madame Felicia’s Covet House were company for hire, not eye candy for window shoppers.
“I think he’s repulsive,” Strawberry said. “And he smells bad. Who is he?”
“That’s Dave Rudabaugh,” Felicia answered. “Likes to call himself Dirty Dave.”
“Dirty, I can see,” Strawberry commented, having a sip of wine.
Felicia chuckled. “Kind of cute though, ain’t he?”
Strawberry considered the man’s looks, warn and ragged attire aside. His almost boyish features contrasting the confidence he tried so hard to exude were, indeed, quite appealing in a mysterious sort of way. Like a book with a cover that gives nothing away as to what will be found inside.
“He could be, I suppose. If you like ‘em that way.” Strawberry feigned disinterest.
Madame Felicia put her hand and Strawberry’s knee. “Good,” she said. “Because he’s your client for the night, honey.” She gave the knee a light slap and stood to walk away.
“The night?” Strawberry halted the madame’s departure.
Turning back toward her, Felicia replied, “Oh yeah, the whole night. He wouldn’t have it any other way and he’s already paid in advance, generously. Trust me, honey, you won’t be disappointed.” Then, with a smile, Felicia did take her leave.
After sitting for some time longer, long enough to finish her glass of wine and pass it off to a roaming barmaid, Strawberry sighed and stood from the sofa. Either way, it was going to be an all night thing. So, she figured she might well start to get it over with. She walked toward her client, pondering over what nature of night lie ahead of her.
Dave Rudabaugh did not give notice to her close proximity as she came to the side of his table and stood silently, waiting for him to realize that his purchase was ready for him. He was intently watching a table, not too far from his own, where two men conspired amongst themselves. Strawberry cleared her throat and broke into his observation.
“You requested my company?”
“Have a seat,” he offered, without looking her way. In seeing that manners were apparently no part of his forte, she pulled her own chair out, beginning to wonder what kind of odd ball she’d have to be putting up with tonight.
When he still didn’t speak or at the very least, seem to acknowledge that she was prepared to offer herself to him, again, she tried to lure his thoughts her way. “You might find the view more appealing if you look this way instead of over there.”
“Oh, I already know how beautiful you are,” Dave replied from the corner of his mouth. “Right now, though, I’m enjoying a lesson in humanity. Care to join me?”
Strawberry now gave the table that occupied Dave’s mind her attention as well. She realized that one of the men talking there happened to be the bowler capped gentleman who’d vied for her favor earlier, only to have his attempts shunned by this Dave Rudabaugh. The gentleman was leaned in close to another individual, a large man in flannel shirt and tan hat with brim curled up at its sides, talking to him as if relaying a secret.
“What lesson is that?” Strawberry asked, entertaining her client.
“Western man’s greatest downfall,” Dave said. “You see, every man out here believes himself to be a hero. They all think they’re the best there is, was, and ever will be. They believe this so strongly that they’ll go all in on a chance to prove it at the drop of a dime, without realizing that they’re about to make a crucial mistake.”
Strawberry Lane saw that the gentleman and his new friend were now beginning to cast periodic glances over toward Dave as they continued their private talk. “Tell me,” she said, “what mistake are they about to make?”
“Well, you see the big fella that the lame lover I saved you from is talking to over there? Sure looks scary, doesn’t he?” Dave didn’t wait for any answer. “He knows he looks scary too. That’s why he’s buying into everything he’s hearing right now. He’s taking word of how I slighted his friend to heart and being the hero he is, he’s thinking that it’s time for him to step in and make things right. Only, he doesn’t realize that he’s not ready.”
Strawberry saw that the man in question was a far cry larger and meaner looking than Dave was. “What makes you guess he’s not ready?”
“Oh, it’s not a guess, darlin’,” Dave replied, with certainty. “Every holster pocket tells a story. The leather of his holster is not weathered, meaning that it’s either new or hasn’t seen much use. If it’s new, he’s not familiar with it yet, and each one grips steel differently, effecting the way a gun draws from it. If the holster just hasn’t been used much, then he only wears it for show. He also straps his gun belt around him high over the hip bone and tight. A man of his size will naturally have longer arms, which means that for him to bend his long arm enough for his hand to reach that high of a holster will take too long. He’ll lose the gunfight before he even gets the chance to shoot.”
Strawberry couldn’t tell if he was giving a truthful analysis or just speaking hogwash. Either way, he sure had a way of making himself sound convincing, at least. She watched and grew nervous as the mean looking man in flannel arose, nudged the bowler cap gentleman aside and began stepping in their direction. He had a full beard and determined eyes that bore down at Dave as he approached the table. Strawberry made herself smaller against the wooden back of her chair. Dave made no movement.
“I hear you got a problem,” the man accused, pressing his hands against the table and staring into Dave’s face.
“A problem with what?” Dave inquired. The crooked smirk on his face was one of minor amusement.
Having seen build up to the impending confrontation from afar, Madame Felicia quickly appeared at the table, a pair of goons whose duty it was to bounce those involved in any unruliness from the brothel at her sides. The goons positioned themselves, one behind where Dave remained seated and one behind the standing big man. Felicia listened in on the words being exchanged.
“A problem with keeping your nose outta other folks’ business, that’s what. Like getting in my good friend’s way when he tried to pick up the lady. You got a problem with my friend, you got a problem with me.”
Dave’s smirk had gone away. After a short, speechless moment, he slowly raised his hands with palms up, apologetically. “No, I don’t have no problem with you. I’m scared of you,” he said. Then, he added, “You can tell your friend that I’m truly sorry, and the lady is his.”
At this, Strawberry suppressed an expression of surprise and disappointment. She should have figured this Dave to be nothing but all cocky talk. Oh well, she thought. It made no difference to her in the long run as long as she earned some money tonight. Though she predicted that Dave would have been one fit for more excitement on her end, she had learned to be impartial in such matters. Uneventful affairs such as the one that she was now sure to be subjected to tonight were just one of the many necessary evils in the life of a dove such as herself.
“That’s what I thought,” the hero said, satisfied with the success of his bullying antics. He went to relay the good news to his supposed friend.
After the man had left overhearing range, Madame Felicia piped up, “Might I remind you, Dave, you’ve already paid for a night’s worth of Miss Strawberry Lane’s company.”
“I know that,” Dave said in return. “You can keep it. It’s not about the money, this is between me and him.”
“Trust me, I plan on keeping the money,” Felicia assured. “Just don’t you go killing anybody in my place, okay?” Dave said nothing.
“Okay?” She reiterated.
Finally, Dave shrugged and smiled. “Okay,” he said, as if grudgingly giving in. Felicia put her hands on her hips and raised an eyebrow in doubt.
“I promise,” Dave said.
Now, the well-dressed gentleman who’d tried to woo Strawberry earlier was coming their way, escorted by the big man who’d defended his honor for him. Dave came to his feet as if to innocently greet them and express his apology in person.
“I hear we have ourselves an understanding,” the gentleman said, smugly, his eyes shifting between his hero friend and Dave Rudabaugh.
“Absolutely!” Dave said, cheerfully.
Just as the gentleman reached out for a handshake of agreeance, with a blurring speed, Dave skinned a Colt .44 from his hip and shot the big hero in the top of his foot. Before the unsuspecting bully’s mind had time to wrap around what just happened, Dave had already returned his own weapon to leather. Reaching over, he swiftly pulled the big hero’s pistol out of its too high holster and used it to backhand a whip of solid gun barrel against the stunned gentleman’s chops.
The gentleman went down immediately, losing his fancy cap and cupping a hand beneath his chin to catch the flow of blood from his mouth as he used his other hand to fish for his teeth in a sweeping motion over the floor. Realizing his pain, the big man also fell, howling as he clutched at his torn apart foot.
Dave faced Madame Felicia and handed her his foe’s pistol, like he was presenting her with a fragile gift. “Dirty Dave always keeps his word,” he said. “No killing here.”
The two security goons looked to Felicia, awaiting their signal to jump. She gave them a quick shake of her head to the negative and they stood down. After winking at the madame, Dave turned to Strawberry, who had come to her feet in the instant of surprise gunfire. He held his arm out for her to accept, linking her own arm with his. Like that, they walked together into the direction of the staircase which would lead them up to their shared bedroom quarters for the night.