Growing up without roots, you never fully bloom. You may find the sun, rain, or wind on your face, but it only burns, wets, and batters. Nothing takes hold, burrows into a community, or blossoms out of purpose.
That’s how I came to be here. I’m no more than a dandelion seed, standing in the middle of the road in a small town in South Dakota, ready to blow away on the next breeze.
It doesn’t matter. Not a bit. One town looks the same as another after a while. There’s always the sheriff’s office, a saloon, boarding house, and mercantile. The roads are rutted and muddy. It’s what’s behind the walls, the swinging doors, and the metal bars that make the difference.
I was born in the back of a painted wagon. My parents were actors in a traveling show. They placed me backstage in a wooden box with a sugar teat to suck on, the noise of the crowds my lullaby. After the show, they left me to sleep in their dressing room or wagon while they visited restaurants and saloons, rubbing up against the locals, pitching the next play.
Father was classically trained, a vagabond from London who came to America on a whim, or so he said. I think a constable invited him to leave England, and the next ship was sailing to New York.
My mother came from a good family in Philadelphia. Mother went to college, and along the way fell in with the actors and artists who filled the hallways of higher learning with lofty ideals. She met Father when he performed in a play in New York, and the rest, as they say, was history. Mother was beautiful. People said I looked just like her. We shared the same bright red hair and deep green eyes.
It was exciting when our wagon rolled into town. People were eager for laughter and drama. They paid to sit on wooden benches in makeshift theaters or saloons. The shows were colorful and filled with music. I joined Mother and Father on the stage from the time I was very young. The crowds loved the little red-headed girl who sang and danced.
I can’t describe what it felt like to lose both my parents to the Russian Flu that swept through America in 1890. I survived with nothing more than a raspy throat, only eighteen years old and orphaned. After I buried them, there was not a penny left over. All that remained was the show wagon and a sorrel horse named Clyde. In the wagon were trunks of costumes, a few pots and pans, and boxes of sheet music.
There was nothing to do but keep moving, so I did. In each town, I looked for a saloon or small theater to perform my one-woman show. I played the piano, sang tunes, danced a little, and hoped to earn enough money to feed myself and Clyde. Acting was easy. Becoming real was not. One day stepped on the heels of the next until eight years had gone by. No longer was I the frightened girl kneeling by two ragged crosses in a potter’s field on a hill in Kansas. Things had changed.
I stood outside the doors of the Sleeping Lady Saloon in Webster, South Dakota. It was early yet, not quite noon. All was quiet in the bar, but the doors swung open, so I stepped inside with a smile on my face. It was important to make a good first impression. Convince the bartender or owner that putting on a show in his saloon for a night or two was a good idea. I tossed my head, squared my shoulders, and strolled across the floor in my finest green wool coat.
In the light of day, the saloon looked weary. Shafts of sunlight poured over the swinging doors and stirred up dust motes that swirled in the air. A long wooden bar was chipped and notched, rubbed smooth from the elbows of many strangers.
An old man was sweeping the scuffed floor in lazy circles with a broom. I asked him to point out the boss, and he jutted his chin towards a table where a dark-haired man sat.
The bartender raised his head, rose from a table scattered with paperwork, and smiled. When he took my hand in his and felt my soft palm draped in a delicate lace glove, I knew I had his attention. I dimpled and introduced myself as Molly Blake. We spoke of a one-woman show. His dark eyes followed me as I wandered around the saloon, then pointed towards an old upright piano.
“I can perform right there in the corner by the piano. I won’t charge the saloon, not even one cent for my services, Sir. The customers will pay for the entertainment.”
I explained. “After the show, I pass a hat and ask for contributions. What goes into the hat is mine. Everything you make at the bar is yours.”
I gestured around the empty room. “People love entertainment. They buy more drinks, stay later, and if I may say so, they are generous in their donations.”
He seemed interested, so I touched his arm, stepped in closer. His skin smelled of fresh soap, his collar clean but frayed. He had not shaved, and dark stubble bristled on his jaw. Dark eyes stared deep into mine. Encouraged, I placed my hand back on his arm, let it linger, and gazed up at him.
“My show lasts an hour or two. I have a few playbills we can post outside to draw in the customers.”
The bartender bobbed his head up and down like my old horse Clyde when flies pester him. He held my hand a little longer than was necessary and caressed my palm.
“You’ve got the job, Miss Blake,” he said. “The saloon is open for customers after six o’clock, but I would suggest you start a little later.”
“Yes. Maybe around seven or eight? I’ll set a few things up now, then return this evening. I won’t be any bother. It’ll just take me a few minutes.”
He nodded and stepped back to the table. “Well then, we’ll be seeing you tonight.” He hesitated, those stormy eyes lingering on my face. “Might I ask where you are staying during your time here in Webster, should we need to contact you?”
“Right down the street, Sir, at Sarah’s Boardinghouse, in room four.”
I tacked a mural of a mountain scene on the wall and smoothed out the canvas. Covered the top of the piano with a red velvet runner, along with a large brass candlestick. Then I placed posters by the swinging doors outside, and up and down the main street. After that, I headed toward the boardinghouse, removed my clothes, and crawled under the sheets in my camisole and petticoat to rest until evening.
It wasn’t long before I heard steps on the stairs and down the hall. There was a light tap on the door. I rose with the sheet bunched around me and turned the knob. The bartender fell inside with eager hands, smothering my mouth with kisses. I hadn’t expected such impatience, and pretended to resist a little, then let him walk me to the bed. He lowered me to the mattress, covered my neck and breasts with kisses. I spread my legs, and he entered with a sigh. I moved with his grunts, and arched my back as he poured himself into me. After one final thrust, he rolled off and collapsed on the mattress. My chest was damp with his sweat, a male scent.
I cried, like I always do. Silent little hiccups. He sat up, alarmed. I put my head in my hands and gave in to pitiful sobs. This was the part I liked the most. How I played off of him. How he appeared to believe my act.
He said he felt terrible. Forgive him, he begged, for he’d misread me and my intentions in the saloon earlier. He took advantage of my gentle nature, and mistook my innocent flirtation, he confessed. What could he do to make it right? I sniffled as he tucked a lock of red hair behind my ear, wiped my tears away with his thumb.
I hesitated, then looked up at him as he stood and fumbled with his trousers and pulled on his boots. In a soft voice, I asked if he could lend a few dollars until after the show, then I would pay him back. There were things I needed before the play started tonight, I explained, clutching the sheet against my neck.
He hung his head as though in shame. Reached into his pockets and gave me a fistful of money. Sometimes, the largesse was so good that long before the show was to start that evening, I was already miles down the road, old Clyde pulling the wagon onto the next town.
I counted the money after he left. It wasn’t as much as I’d been given in other towns, so I decided to stay in Webster and do the show, pass the hat, and hope to earn a little more.
At sunset that evening, I stowed the cash in my satchel and hid it under the bed. I walked into the Sleeping Lady, dragging a small costume trunk and a valise bulging with sheet music. A few customers had already trickled in. A woman sat at the piano pounding out a tune. The man behind the bar was not the same one I had spoken with this morning. He was older with a handlebar mustache that moved up and down when he talked.
“Can I help you, Miss?”
“Yes, Sir, I’m Molly Blake. I’m performing tonight. Where’s a good place to unpack the props and stow my costumes?”
He stopped polishing a glass, set it down, and cocked his head.
“I don’t understand, Miss. What play?”
I explained that earlier that day, a young bartender had hired me to put on a show that night. Courtesy of paying guests, not a penny paid by the saloon owner.
“I’m the owner,” he said. “Jim Bridgeforth. This is the first I’ve heard of it. Joseph had no authority to hire you, or anyone else.”
I stepped back, confused, and set the trunk down hard on the floor. “What? But he said I could perform tonight!”
He looked worried then. “I just hired that young man last week. I never told him he could do anything like this.”
“Joseph!” he hollered.
There was no answer.
“What the hell?” He excused himself, walked behind the bar and out through a door into the back room. Then I heard him swear. He came storming back, a shotgun in his hand.
I cowered and ducked my head. The piano player stopped, all eyes turned towards the gun, then at me. The saloon went silent.
Mr. Bridgeforth waved the shotgun in front of him, back and forth, his face red. “That son of a bitch cleaned out my safe! He must have taken off! I can’t believe it!”
He glared at me. “When did you speak with Joseph?”
“Sometime before noon. He gave me permission to set up the mural over there.” I pointed a shaky finger towards the piano in the corner. He looked shocked, said he hadn’t noticed it earlier. He pulled at his ears, bared his teeth in anger. Kicked at a table.
“Shit,” he muttered. “Where’d he go?” he looked up at the ceiling as though a voice would tell him.
“What am I supposed to do now?” I asked, wringing my hands. “I need the work, and if I can’t perform tonight, I must be off to the next town. I was counting on this.”
He pointed at a chair, scowling at me. “Stay right here, Miss Blake. Don’t go anywhere. I’m getting the sheriff.” He pushed through the swinging doors, and out into the night.
I sat down at a table and chewed on the side of my fingernail until the sheriff burst back through the doors with the saloon keeper. Mr. Bridgeforth and the sheriff went behind the bar into the back room, then emerged a short while later. The sheriff had a frown on his face. They both walked over to my table and looked down at me.
I answered their questions, listened to them as they talked about Joseph, the safe, and the money. Then I cried. I needed the work, I said. My words fell like bees buzzing around their heads as they talked about the robbery.
Finally, they seemed to notice me. Mr. Bridgeforth shook his head and walked back over to the table. He put his hand on my shoulder.
“I’m sorry, Miss Blake. Looks like you were swindled too. I guess you wasted your time here in Webster.”
I thought of Joseph between my legs, the bed bouncing up and down on the second floor of that boarding house and sobbed harder into my handkerchief.
The sheriff left, off to find Joseph. Outside, the sky opened with rain, spattering against the wooden walkway and leaking in under the swinging doors. The piano player struck up a spirited rendition of “Golden Slippers” and the customers resumed their drinking and laughing.
I convinced Mr. Bridgeforth to let me perform that night. I told him the show might bring in more money this evening to offset his losses, and I wouldn’t charge him a penny. He agreed, I think, out of pity.
That night, curious townspeople crowded the saloon. Word had gotten around about the robbery, and the young actress putting on a show. I recited poetry, played the piano and sang. The customers loved it. They were mostly men, so I remembered to flash my ankles, holding my skirt higher when I danced, my frothy petticoat rising and falling to the songs I sang. When I passed the hat, people filled it to the brim with coin. Mr. Bridgeforth convinced me to stay for two more nights. Each night I sang different songs and recited new poetry. I tried to make it as special as I could.
“Any luck finding Joseph, Mr. Bridgeforth?” I asked after the last performance. He helped me take the mural off the wall and pack it away with the candelabra and velvet runner.
He shook his head and pulled at his mustache. “That bastard was gone for hours before I checked the safe. The sheriff’s still out lookin’ for him, but he probably got away clean. There wasn’t much money in the safe because I had gone to the bank two days before. A day earlier and he would have run off with a lot more.” He slammed his fist down on the bar, rattled a bottle of whiskey. “If I ever find him, I’ll kill him, that’s for sure.”
I nodded, and thanked him for the opportunity to put on my show. As I turned to leave, Mr. Bridgeforth called out.
“Wait, Miss Blake.”
I stopped and turned around. He took my hand in his, opened my palm, and placed several dollars in it.
“The Sleeping Lady did well the past couple of nights, thanks to you. Almost makes up for the money I lost. You deserve a bonus.” He steered me to the door, swung it aside with a flourish, and I stepped out into the night.
“Thank you, Mr. Bridgeforth. I’ll never forget your kindness. I’ll come back this way again, if you’ll have me.”
He bowed, walked back into the saloon and shut it down for the evening.
When I left the next morning, my satchel was bulging with money. I hid it in the false bottom of a trunk filled with petticoats and corsets. Then I slipped a Derringer into my pocket for protection against highwaymen.
A few of the ladies in town packed a basket of cold chicken with fresh bread and cheese. They said it was the least they could do since I was gracious enough to continue with my show, despite the robbery and upheaval in Webster. They said my act was the best they had seen in years, and asked me to return someday. I thanked them from the bottom of my heart, climbed up in the wagon, and gnawed on a drumstick as Clyde made his way out of town.
A month later, I stepped into a bar in Bismarck, North Dakota. It took me a while to find just the right saloon, but this was the place for me. The gentleman behind the bar lifted his head, took off his glasses and peered at me.
“Can I help you, Miss?”
I walked over, hips swaying, and told him I was looking for work, and it wouldn’t cost the saloon a penny. I stepped closer, twisted a lock of red hair around my finger and patted his arm. When I finished the pitch, he hired me on the spot. Told me to show up after seven that evening.
“If I might ask, Miss Blake, where are you staying should we need to contact you?”
“The boarding house right next door, Sir. Room 10.”
Joseph gazed at me with his dark eyes, winked and smiled, the sweetest smile he had given me in years. He kissed my hand, bobbing his head up and down, just like old Clyde.
Award winning author Sharon Frame Gay has been published in such literary magazines and anthologies as Lowestoft Chronicle, Chicken Soup For The Soul, Thrice Fiction, Saddlebag Dispatches, and others. She was awarded the Will Rogers Medallion for excellence in Western writing as well as several Pushcart Prize nominations and other awards.