“I never reckoned it'd be this hard,” the new girl said. “I just didn't figure on the fellers bein' so hard. Who knew love could hurt this way?”
“You mean you ain't been knowin' it a long time already?” Misty asked. She sat with her newest whore-sister between her legs and dragged a brush through the girl's hair, busting up snarls of dried ejaculate. “Sorry, I thought you was experienced.”
“Only ever as a whiskey girl,” she lamented. “I told Madame – I had never in all my fourteen years known a man.”
“Let me offer ye some advice.” Misty was only a few years older but she had spent those years earning an education. The curriculum had been crammed inside her. She wrenched the hair-brush through a crusty tangle, leaned in sagely and whispered, “Next time you're knowin' this particular feller, you might wear a bonnet.”
“I do not possess a bonnet,” the girl said without any humor. She did not wince from the pain. Stupefied, she acquiesced while Misty jerked the brush through her mane. The girl was plum catatonic.
Misty reckoned love were that way. Knowing men was a perilous business, and sometimes it was better to drift away and let it happen.
“What's your name?” Misty asked.
“We're gonna call you Suzie from now on,” Misty said. She stroked the girl's hair to ensure its cleanliness.
“I don't care what you people call me.”
“Suzie.” Misty moved around so she could look the girl in the face. She leveled with her. “You gotta put on a smile and get back out there. A girl don't fuck – a girl don't get fed.”
All a girl really needs to know she could learn the first day.
Suzie tugged her hem down and shuffled out of the chamber. Misty reckoned she'd done the girl a favor by showing her some tough, honest love. The fact was: a girl had to eat.
For her own vittles, Misty performed a slew of duties. She was entrusted with keeping her whore-sisters comely. She accomplished this task by means of up-close inspections and vigilant combing. If a girl had mess on her face, Misty might lick her own thumb and use it to smear away said mess. She also swept up the parlor and around the stools at the bar. She knew how to sew and Madame would call on her to mend garments. Seniority had earned her these respites from the venereal trade. Of course, she still knew a great many pricks. She weren't no mere maidservant, after all.
Suzie was the last girl she had to make ready. Most nights completing that task meant it were time for Misty to powder her own nethers and get to work, but Madame was at her chamber's door with a different agenda.
“Misty, child,” Madame began. “Do please set a table for two out on the balcony. Use only the best silver and linens. When you've done that, you'll find a gown laid out for you upon my bed. Do please put it on and, perhaps, a spot of rouge. It would mean the world if you could try and be a pretty doll. Mr Westman will arrive within the hour and I'd have you alone serve our supper.”
“Color me flattered, Madame.”
Misty carried a table suited for two up from the cellar. Dragging it through the parlor meant braving a gauntlet of probing fingers. She slapped their paws from her hind the way a horse flicks its tail and evicts flies.
“Fuckin' get back with your ill-conceived, poorly-funded fuckin' affections!” she hollered and the men laughed. Up the stairs she went, hunched over with her arms spread and the table across her back like the Crucifixion. She set it down at the top and caught her breath. Then she hoisted it against her hip, went into Madame's chamber and out onto the conjoined balcony.
She dressed the table with the bordello's best cloth and laid out two sterling place-settings. The moon shone back in the silver, dancing as the bordello throbbed. The whole joint quivered. It was a big night – and it wasn't only because they were having Rex Westman for supper. Misty finished arranging the table and had a gander over the balcony's railing.
That afternoon a band of gypsies had rolled into town by the western road. They stashed their wagons in the alley abut the Bare. From places far-flung and exotic the gypsies had gathered for a limited engagement. They would perform the next night within Madame's parlor.
The carnival's coaches were packed with cruelly-caged chickens and spikes straight out of a medieval torture-chamber. The gypsies' sheer, violet scarves masqueraded as gowns. The women were wind-stirred feathers, spiriting garlands and satchels from the wagons like a sensuous breeze. The gypsy men were more varied. Misty saw strongmen and negroes among them. Two men in tandem hauled a rack of axes and claymores inside the bordello. It was something from a knight's realm. A gypsy held a crystal ball in one hand and waved up at Misty with the other. Misty waved back with her jaw open.
The wagons birthed a parade of weird performers. One man strolled about with a burlap sack over his head as if it were right fashionable. He had two holes cut for his eyes and a slit for his mouth. A woman with a beard lent the strongmen a hand. She waddled inside with a huge, heavy basket. Misty reckoned it might be a cobra coiled inside that woven vessel. A man emerged from the alley on stilts twelve-feet tall, juggling many-colored balls and wearing a sandwich board. Misty couldn't read a lick, but Madame had told her the troupe was called Guinevere Lynne's Traveling Menagerie.
“Some fucking spectacle,” she whispered. Gawkers gathered outside the bordello. The stilted juggler matriculated along, navigating the crowd without ever looking down. Misty figured he must be awful brave, because the thoroughfare was rife with rowdies who punctuated their piss-drunk exuberance by popping pistolas into the air. The bullets must have been whizzing right past that stilted feller's noggin.
She couldn't help but notice Red Junction’s lawless element was more abundant than on most nights. These were the men who couldn't get along in town on account of capital or moral destitution. Instead they stayed outside the settlement in an encampment of shanties and broken-down wagons. Every so often they'd commit a crime and gain some coins to spend at the bordello. Misty hated those cowboys, with their faces dark beneath a wide-brim's shadow and their guns butt-out in their belts. The traveling show was calling those hard-asses down from the mountain, and Misty felt sorrow for her whore-sisters. There'd be a stable of sore girls in the morning.
Absorbed by her people watching, Misty did not notice at first when Madame came alongside her at the railing. The old woman leaned forward and inhaled the road's din like a man at the end of his ether – with her nose deep inside the bottle.
“I do so adore the bouquet of cash money,” Madame said.
“I've sorted the table for you and Mr Westman's supper,” Misty added. “Just the way you asked me to.”
“Good girl.” Madame Danish did not look away from the crowded road as she spoke. “Now go on and dress in that gown upon my bed. Our guest will soon arrive.”
The gown which had been laid out for Misty was right exquisite. She tingled a while in front of the mirror, swiveling to see herself from all sides. The hem fell on her ankles and the sleeves went all the way to her wrists. The gown was adorned with lace trim but it was not the provocative sort.
This were a gown for a real fine, upstanding lady, Misty thought.
But then Madame came inside off the balcony, shaking her head. “Well,” she said, “that won't do – your already meager curves are not flattered by that dress. You have so little to offer. We'll find something other for you to wear. Something which does not make you appear so boyish.”
“Oh Madame please —”
“Try this.” Madame held a shred of fabric at arm's length. She must have had it hidden on her person all along. It was a corset and bustier and a whore-skirt whose hem was so immodest it would bare Misty's thighs clear up to her openings. Madame kept a cruel humor, and Misty should have come to know it by that juncture. That elegant gown had been nothing but a prick with which Madame had fucked Misty's mind. Still, it was less hurtful than some of those pricks down in the parlor might have been. Misty reckoned she ought to be grateful for the trade-off.
She undid the gown and let it fall on the floor. Accepting the whore-garb from Madame, Misty dressed herself. She were hardly less naked than she had been at birth. She looked at herself in the mirror. Misty was well-versed at crying on the inside only. She asked, “Does it please you?”
“Yes it's much better, Misty-child.” Madame turned her around by the hips and they both viewed her body in the mirror. Her finger-tips explored Misty and she whispered, “It lends you hips, and tit-meat – milky-pale as a doll, even without the benefit of powdering. That's a dear, sweet doll. Do go now and wait at the bar for our guest. He will be along shortly.”
Madame swatted her on the rump and Misty went downstairs to wait for Westman.
Wild outlaws, bizarre carnies, and the regular cock-draggled patronage were all mingling in the parlor. The whole joint reverberated with wet flesh smacking and headboards thudding. The reek of whiskey, cigars, and ass-sweat meant the bottom-line was being met in spades. Some men cussed at their cards while losing at faro and others chose to deplete themselves at the roulette wheel.
The rare winners found further victory in the plunder of Misty's sisters. She saw the girls filing one after the other into their chambers. Some of her sisters were entertaining several fellers at once. Misty reckoned the hot guilt inside her resonated mostly from her womb. She had to smile at the groping letches as she pressed toward the bar. She were the lucky one that night.
Say it again, girl. You are the lucky one.
She leaned against the bar, caught Isaac the tender's eye and called to him, “Would welcome whiskey when you are able.”
It weren't much effort to imagine running away. She could flee through the saloon-doors right then. Of course, they'd track her down. Hopefully before she died in the wilderness – before something et her out there in the woods or she succumbed to the cold. Still, a girl could gaze out the window and dream. Out across the way, there weren't a lamp burning at Yule's woodworks. That didn't seem right.
The saloon-doors swung inward and Rex Westman stomped in wearing the tatters of a five-hundred dollar suit. He had his Indian right beside him. It was time for Misty to perform. She rose from her stool and greeted them by curtsy and the fluttering of her lashes.
“Welcome to the Sleeping Bare, Mr Westman,” she said.
“This is some fucking joint!” Rex leaned in close to her and asked. “The exquisite chandeliers — do you find they enhance the enthusiasm of your cunt?”
He did not wait for an answer and she did not have one, anyway. Rex pushed back his jacket, hooked his thumbs through his belt-loops and strutted around the room the way a rooster ought. His knife bounced on his belt. Tom Savage attached himself to a gypsy at the bar and had her laughing in no time flat. The parlor hushed as Rex made his paces. He took stock of the whole establishment. Before long it was quiet at the tables and the sounds of fucking became even more pronounced. In Misty's ears it were a mournful inter-chorus. The gypsy laughed at another of Tom Savage's jokes and pawed at his breast. All other eyes focused on Rex Westman as he surveyed the Sleeping Bare. He scoured the room with his glare, withering the globes of any man who'd dare look back at him. Once-boisterous fellers stared down at the floor and fidgeted. Men know it when they're in the presence of a predator.
Rex smiled and announced loudly, “I'm starved! Bring on the vittles!”
The parlor began to breathe again.