I pulled out the pocket watch from its hiding place and ran my fingers over the etched silver. I flicked it open to check the time. The watch was probably the single most valuable thing I owned and for more than the obvious reason. Silver was a way to protect myself from things that go bump in the night. I didn’t mean the human variety either. After all the years of owning the watch, I was still surprised every time I noticed someone jump.
The small ticks of the second-hand vibrated in my palm as I rounded the corner of the saloon. I tucked the watch back between the fabric of my corset and the soft, supple skin of my bosom. Blue flowered carpet bag in hand, I moved as fast I as possibly could, given the circumstances. Damn. I was going to miss the train to Sheridan, and that wasn’t an option for me anymore. I was leaving Dodge City and Wyoming was calling my name. It was the opportunity to leave the stigma of the name Florence McKinney behind.
“Yoohoo!” Several voices from above the street called. I glanced up and noticed half naked soiled doves hanging out of the saloon window. Their dresses pulled down passed their waists, causing a distraction to every man that walked down the street. The doves blew kisses to any man who happened to get caught staring.
“Don’t you be going and getting too big for your britches now. We’ll miss you around here Florence.” The chorus of sweet female voices carried down the street. It had been a hard goodbye last night. Since I was sixteen, room number eight at the Tarantula Juice had been my home. I told the women I’d called my family for the last six years I was leaving and with any luck, for good. With sweaty fingers, I rubbed the stone around my neck. My racing heart slowed. I wasn’t sure who would protect them when whatever was after me, came looking for me. Hopefully, my wards would be enough but if not they all knew the power of the cross. I waved with all my might and said a little prayer to every god I could think of. It wasn’t much, but maybe one of them would listen and watch over them.
I should explain. I hadn’t been born in Dodge City. In fact, I hadn’t even been born in Kansas. I was born in New York near the Canadian border on a Native American reservation. My mother was a medicine woman. She was from one of the five tribes of the Iroquois, the Mohawk. More than a tribal healer and leader of ceremonies and rituals, my mother was also a soothsayer who had a deep connection with the great ones. That was powerful magic, and she passed it on to me.
Looking around the dusty streets of the city, I realized I wouldn’t miss this place. It was a personal hell for me and I would never be able to put that behind me. The acrid smell of burning coal stung my nostrils as I made my final right turn. It left me staring at the brick facade of the Dodge City train depot.
The bustling terminal overloaded my senses. Between the boiling, burning steam engines, the grinding gears, the pounding pistons and the noise of the shouting newsboys, I barely knew where to look first. I pushed myself through the throngs of people, trying in vain to find the right platform. I fingered the stone at my neck for reassurance. I felt a nudge and the weight of a foot on my bustle.
“Remove your grubby paws from my purse.” I reached for the smooth wood of the Derringer revolver, hidden hip pocket in my corset. “This may be a kinder, gentler Dodge City than when Mr. Earp was here but I will blow a hole in your skull.”
The weight that had been holding me in place lifted and I felt the man’s hand leave the pocket of my soft leather jacket. I glanced down at my bustle to see the dark, coal-stained footprint the stranger had left. Between the grease and soot that covered me from head to toe, I was not the image of wealth. So why he tried to relieve me of my purse was beyond me.
“You ain’t a typical lady, are you?” the stranger asked me as I turned to face him, hand still on my gun. He had dark features and a strong southern accent. The Civil War may have been done and gone by several decades, but I was still wary of any Southern man. In my line of work, a man figured that he could get away with any misdeed because they paid money for services rendered. Southern men, in particular, felt they had something to make up for. Many of the girls in the saloon were manhandled and beaten senseless for this reason.
“Sweetheart,” I said with a twinge of disgust in my voice. “When you make money the way I do, you are never what any man imagines as a typical lady.”
I shoved past the stranger and began looking for the platform. The movement around me was overwhelming. There were crowds of people coming and going all around me. Trains whistled passed as I looked for platform six. Finding it was not going to be an easy task.
“Oh, a soiled dove, are you?” He smirked as he reached for my breast. I cringed. Just because I was a dove didn’t mean I was available for hire to anyone, especially not this useless thief.
“That’s not an invitation,” I growled, pulling the revolver to his head. He slowly lowered his arm. “I’m going to let you walk away just this once. I have somewhere I need to be.” I turned to walk away. A bad habit of needing to egg people on, I swung my hips a tad too much. Several people had stopped to stare at the commotion. Shrugging, I shoved the revolver back into its place.
“Till next time, doll.”
I flushed red, I hated being called pet names. I turned to give him a what for, but he was nowhere to be seen. I spotted the platform I was looking for about ten yards away. Final boarding was being announced and I rushed toward the train. As I stepped aboard, my mechanical knee locked, and my forward motion came to a tumbling halt as I rolled up the stairs. I pulled myself to my feet, brushing off as much of the dust as I could.
“This damnable thing,” I grumbled.
I noticed all the eyes staring at me from the occupied compartments. I quickly found the grease I kept in a pocket at all times and lubricated my joint. I felt no shame in the deformity or how I had come to be this way. There was no use dwelling on what can’t be changed. Lost in my thoughts I made my way to an empty compartment.
When I was sixteen, I became another mouth to feed and a so-called burden on my family. So they threw me to the streets. A local saloon owner took a small amount of pity on me and gave me a job cleaning the rooms of the working girls, which gave me a sense of security. It didn’t last. Before long I lost my leg from the thigh down.
“Excuse me?” I heard a little mousey voice say. “Can I sit with you?”
I looked up and saw a tiny girl with huge blue eyes and blonde, almost white hair, looking back at me. It appeared as though a strong gust of wind would knock her over given the chance. There was something about her. My senses were tingling. I couldn’t explain the feeling, I had never been trained to use it.
“Of course,” I responded.
In the circle of people with whom I normally traveled, I had never experienced anyone quite like her. I averted my eyes. One thing I knew was no one liked being stared at. I focused myself. Smoke and dust swirled, people shouted and plenty of cargo was being loaded onto rail cars. The wheels of the train started moving and the train rumbled and shook. The Dodge City skyline faded behind us.
The blonde girl sat across from me, her eyes glued the glint of metal shining just below my skirt. I wasn’t dressed like a proper lady. My skirt was a bustle. It was short in the front and long in the back. The boots I wore went all the way up my calves. Instead of the normal layering of clothes, my corset was on public display, and I didn’t care. I was rough around the edges, which was one of the main reasons why my step-mother hadn’t married me off to the first suitor that looked my way. I no longer found offense in people staring at me.
“How are you?” I pryed.
“Fine and yourself?”
“Fixing to be a whole lot better once this train gets moving.”
The compartment lapsed back into silence. It was the deep, burning kind that no one enjoyed. I fidgeted in my seat, hoping that this ride didn’t stay like this. The girl’s eyes were fixated on the metal below my skirt again.
“What happened to your leg?” She asked timidly, then looked the opposite direction. Had my expression scared her from wanting the answer? I needed to work on my people skills if I was going to make a better start for myself.
“I was attacked,” I began. “Mind you this is a long story. I was working in a saloon cleaning rooms for the call girls.” Her face blanched at the mention of the call girls. “A drunkard named Cain thought I was a working girl but I was only sixteen so the madam wouldn’t let me. When I wouldn’t give him what he wanted, he took a knife to me. Cain cut across my chest, stomach and down to my leg. There was no saving my leg.” My voice trailed off as I moved the soft leather off my shoulder to reveal the scar that ran from my outer shoulder down to my breast on my left side. This was the first time, I had become emotional telling that story. “My name is Florence McKinney.” I finished. I hadn’t wanted to give the girl the fright of her life and not even introduce myself.
“I’m Polly, Polly Richmond. How did you keep going after that?” she asked. Her piercing blue eyes hit me straight down to my soul. There was something about Polly and I wasn’t sure what it was yet.
“Life goes on, I guess. You can’t let one bad experience hold you back.”
“Is that why you’re going to Sheridan?” I looked at her puzzled. I hadn’t told her I was going to Sheridan. She giggled. My face read like an open book, and I really needed to work on that. “I was taking a guess, of all places this train is going to stop it seemed like the most likely place. I’m going there too. It’s much easier to start over than in Dodge City.”
I had a feeling that it was more than a guess that made ask if I was going to Sheridan. I could feel the atmosphere building around me. The tingling hurt. It was as if she didn’t know that it was her releasing all of the extra energy. Polly was going to have to learn what she was or at least how to control it.
“I’m leaving because my name seems to leave a bad taste in almost everyone’s mouth.”
“I’ve never heard of you if that helps any.”