Hot Time In The Old Town April 1896
Polowan, age 16, also called Polly hummed a gaslight player piano song while she ironed a heavy plaid shirt. She planned on wearing the shirt in a short while, going out into the cold April morning in the world's greatest gold camp, Cripple Creek, Colorado. At 9500 MSL the atmosphere was over two miles high. It would be crisp and cold and she looked forward to clearing her head after a raucous evening the night before, dancing at the Century Club until 11 pm and then obligingly sitting for several hours with lonely miners and other gentlemen of the area for company.
She and the other ladies who shared apartments on the second floor of the Century Club were not soiled doves, but rather paid companions who danced the night away, or joined the men for ladylike conversation and perhaps drinks. Some of the girls smoked cheroots but Polly couldn't abide the smell of smoke in her hair the next day so she avoided the smoking parlour as much as possible.
It was still so early that she knew no one would notice her slipping out in her skintight Western pants and lace up boots. An expensive Pinkerton styled hat would hide her jet black curls, and she reckoned some idjit fella had left a coat behind somewhere downstairs. They often went off befuddled by wine and song. She would have it back before anyone else at the club awoke.
The old trapper who had rescued her from her mother's Chinese laundry camp was in town to stock up after a long winter, and she looked forward to a nice ride with him out into the hills above the gold camp. Years ago, Trapper LaRue had taught her his version of patois French, and later sent her to safety at a boarding school in San Francisco. Despite her mixed heritage as half Ute Indian and half Mandarin Chinese, Polowan had been popular with the society girls of San Francisco. She lavishly embroidered their monograms and dainty dressing gowns with her mother's Chinese designs, learned in the Chinese laundry of the railroad camps. In exchange the young ladies had given her fortunes in jewel and pocket money which they were never allowed to wear or spend while at the boarding school.
Polowan had parleyed these skills into a similar scenario at the boarding house of the Century Club in Cripple Creek. Her dressmaking and embroidery skills had soon been in demand after she made friends with the Irish maids of the uphill households. She had cheerfully dressed out her dance girl room mates, in fact so well that several had been able to attend church on a Sunday and not even been noticed. Hat making, beads, silk textiles were all a source of profit for beautiful Polowan. She intended to open a milliners shop soon, and was training some of the Irish maids along those lines.
As she ironed her heavy plaid shirt she dreamed of the days to come. Thankfully the managers at the Century Club did not know of her skills with sitting room spinet. In addition, Polowan had refined her French considerably, could read, write and was fluent in Mandarin Chinese, boarding house English for parlour room visits and tea, as well as several Native American dialects. She knew many of the Plains Indians sign language gestures.
She hummed a popular Gay 90's player piano tune as she finished her ironing. "Let Me Call You Sweetheart" had become a favorite of the Cripple Creek mining population and sometimes she would sing it by request, having been favored with a high, light, soft alto voice.
Something skittered under her bed and ran off into the corner of the large room she shared with several other girls. She made a mental note to have the club's crew come and look around for mice or packrats. As she drew her shirt over her lacy camisole, a cow eyed girl yawned and fell out of her bed with a thump. She scratched her tousled hair and decided to go down the hall to the loo. As she edged around Polly she looked disdainfully at the pants and the heavy plaid shirt. Her look turned furtive for a second, and Polly wondered what that was all about. She decided to lock her trunk before going out, something she seldom did, but her favorite things were in there, and a journal she had kept since age 12. She was the only one in the room who could read and write but she also had a lovely collection of pressed flowers in the journal.
Her reticule with earnings and pin money was not even on the property but hidden away in the bartenders keep at the Cripple Creek Inn saloon not far away. The bartender had shown her his secret hideaway under the floor of the bar and let her keep whatever she wanted down there.
A nice fella had given her a locket last week and they had gone to the tintype photographer and put pictures of themselves in it. She hadn't taken it to the Cripple Creek Inn saloon since she wanted to wear it on occasions when Otto Floto was visiting the Century Club. It wasn't likely that the other girls would have found it hidden under her mattress but she decided to check on it before she left. As she was feeling around for it, the other girl came back from the loo.
"Hey slinky chinky, are you making your own bed?" she taunted. Polly frantically searched for the locket. She glanced up at the other girl and blew some hair out of her eyes. Her eyes widened in shock as she saw her locket on a ribbon around the other girl's neck.
"THAT, is my locket and I will thank you to return it," she said civilly. The furtive look came back to the girl's face and she pinked up in embarrassment that Polly had seen the locket. Jenny covered it with her hand, and said haughtily, "This is my locket. I received it from Mr. Otto Floto just last week. We went to the tin type photographer for pictures to put in it, but the man was not available, so I guess we will go again next week. This locket, IS my locket and I am right sorry you've lost yours."
"What does it look like? I will keep an eye out for it," she continued.
Polly, stung by the taunting, and the obvious lies of her room mate, jumped up and grabbed her by the hair. The ribbon of the locket broke easily under her yanking, and Jenny hissed in disbelief. They tugged on the ribbon for a minute and Jenny bumped the new parlour size gas stove. It tilted slightly, and she put her hand out to steady it, receiving a burn on her palm for her efforts. Polly triumphantly stuck the locket down into her camisole and tucked in her shirt.
At that moment, just as she had the shirt almost tucked into her tight western pants, their door was flung open and a good looking gent stepped smartly into the room. It was rather shocking as gentlemen did not call upon the girls in their rooms, but rather would send cards or a request to meet on the lower level, and then usually only in the evenings for dancing, drinks and conversation. Both women looked at him in surprise. He looked hard at Jenny La Rue.
"I believe you have something of mine," he said. "I will thank you to return it." They were almost the same words Polly had said herself just a few minutes ago. Jenny racked her mind, then remembered that he had been called away from their visit in the parlour last evening, and had left a pouch of gold dust and some money with her, saying he would return shortly. He had not returned and she had dutifully handed it in to be put in the safe in the management offices along with his name and her name.
"I am sorry, I have reposited your item with the management and it's been locked up in the safe until normal hours of business later in the day."
"Well, you'll just have to go find who's in charge, and get that safe open," he said.
"That will be quite impossible. The evenings here are quite late, and no one is about until early afternoon, soonest."
"Unacceptable," said he. "How do I even know you are telling me the truth anyway." Otto Floto didn't seem to remember Polly, with whom he had shared dances and coffee dates and a tin type photo locket just last week. He stepped over and started going through Polly's trunk which she had not locked yet. Everything in it was getting rumpled and he started tossing her things up onto the bed which was also rumpled. "What a mess," thought Polly. She crossed her arms and tapped the toe of her boot. It wouldn't do to upset a paying customer of his obvious refinement. Jenny asked Polly to go find someone to assist them, but that disgruntled person said, "Go find yourself, this your problem," Indian style, after which she flounced off across the room to the stairs leading outside.
Jenny started throwing Polly's things back into the trunk, and Otto flung a pillow against the wall and Polly's locket flew onto the floor. Jenny pounced on it and stuck it into her heaving bosom with a chortle of satisfaction.
Otto grabbed Jenny's elbow and hauled himself to his feet. He yanked at her dressing gown and shoved his hand down inside her chemise. He pulled out the locket, she grabbed it and said, "That is mine and I will thank you to keep your hands off me." He yanked her around and started to search the pockets of her dressing gown, then bethought himself to untie her slippers. "This is really getting out of hand," she thought so she gave him a very small shove with her slippered foot and he toppled over backwards, directly into the new parlour size gas stove which was already off balance from the first encounter with Polly over the other locket. He also burned his hand trying to catch it, but over it went and a whoosh of gas fueled flames went towards the ceiling.
Jenny La Rue grabbed some of Polly's bedding and tried to extinguish the flame, but it just merrily devoured the quilts and embroidered pillows. The smell of burning feathers filled the room with smoke and the other girls started to cough and wake up. The fire streaked across the room towards the wall and soon the curtains went up in fire and the windows broke from the heat.
Girls started shrieking and shouting "Fire! Fire!" They ran out of the room and were joined by other people shrieking and running. By the time the local fire department rallied to fight the fire it was jumping Myers Avenue and Jenny La Rue and the moneyless Otto were long gone.