I stepped up the creaking stairs leading to the house of evil – the saloon. It was only five minutes past two o’clock in the afternoon on a sunny day, but I felt despicable being there. I held my breath to stop the strong scents from overpowering my senses as I walked inside. There were only two men sitting down with drinks at the bar speaking with the bartender. My eyes stung as the smoke from their cigars wafted over to me.
A well-dressed man around forty years old approached me seemingly from nowhere. He was handsome, but looks never impressed me all that much. His snakelike smile made me want to turn around and leave. I swallowed hard, trying not to stare into his bright blue eyes.
“Good afternoon, Miss…?”
“McNeil. Are you Nathaniel’s daughter?”
“Yes’m,” I said.
I nearly hated him for asking me. I spent every day attempting to swallow down the grief since his passing on some distant battle field. I never had a chance to say good-bye to him or Mother.
“The war took the best men.”
“Yes, it did, Sir. I came here because I saw your ad in the paper seeking to hire girls in your saloon. Are you still lookin’?”
His eyes widened as his mouth upturned into an easy grin. “You can call me Max and I am hirin’. You’re all of what – seventeen?”
My heart raced.
“I am nearly nineteen. My baby sister is very weak from starvation because we had a bad year on the farm. I need to earn some money. Please, Sir, I will work any task that you need me to.”
“We can’t have your baby sister stave to death, can we?” he said while hiding a smirk.
I swallowed back a biting retort to his sarcasm. I already hated him.
“You are a little young. Most girls start around age twenty and they look their age, but I am certain that the fellers will love your pure type of beauty. It’s a rare thing to come by in saloons – or anywhere for that matter.”
The way that his gaze scrutinized me up and down reminded me of the devil.
“Sir, I mean, Max, the article says that hired painted ladies serve drinks and food to patrons and make them feel welcome. Is this all that I will be doing?”
Max the saloon owner cleared his throat, taking a step closer to me. His warm breath tickled my face. He stared at me as though he was contemplating breaking my neck. I looked away.
“My dear, I knew your pappy,” he said, stepping closer. “I’ll watch over you like a father while you make a living for you and your sister.”
“When may I start?” I asked quietly, hating how my voice broke.
“You can start tonight. I only have four girls working for me right now, and Tuesday nights are busy.”
I cringed inwardly at the thought of working in a saloon full of rowdy drunk men. Fear weakened my knees and had to lean against one of the chairs while I pulled myself together.
“All right. I-I won’t need to live here, will I? I have heard that some of the girls-”
“You need to live here. You can send money to your sister once monthly when you are paid. Deal?”
My stomach knotted at the idea of sleeping anywhere other than home. I expected to return to my sister and our house servant, Samantha. Well, she was more like our friend. We all became one and the same once the war began. I peered over my shoulder and out the door, longing to go back to my farm. I clenched my fists and took a deep breath.
“Deal,” I agreed. “So long as my job as a painted lady will not venture into lady of the night territory.”
My entire face flushed as Max threw his head back and laughed at me.
“My girls aren’t whores, Mary.”
I flinched at the way he used my first name, but his blunt response was the assurance that I needed to hear.
“Why don’t you start right now? I will get you acquainted with the other girls upstairs. They’ll fix you up proper for tonight.”
He reached over and took a long strand of my sun-lightened hair, gently twirling it around with his fingers.
“Um all right,” I said.
I followed him up the dusty stairs. I nearly turned around and ran out, but I knew I could not. My sister’s life depended on me.
I blinked back frightened tears and braced myself to face everything that the job would throw at me. I would only need to work there for a few months and then I would be able rework the land along with my sister and Samantha. We would rebuild the farm together and one day, my time at the saloon would be well behind me. It was only temporary.
One cold morning, I woke up before the sun rose. I had to pry myself out from the cowboy stranger’s strong grasp. He groaned and turned over to his other side. Even in his dreams, he seemed to think that he owned me.
I wrapped my shivering body with my silk robe and stood at the window. Staring out at the stars, I relaxed. It was only those quiet moments when no one else was conscious that I could truly think. I was so tired of being treated like property. I was more than tired.
It had been four long months since I discovered that Max was lying to me all along. As my sweet baby sister slowly gained her strength back on the farm, I had become a lady of the night in the saloon.
“Lady of the night,” I whispered to myself in disgust. That was no title.
The cowboy stirred in his sleep. I touched the tender bruise on my upper arm and winced at the memories of our evening. He said he liked the skinny girls because they are the easiest to toss around. A smile formed on my red lips as I glanced at his knife on the night stand.
I hesitated before taking it in my grasp. I quietly crawled back into bed with the knife still in my hand. I held the blade against his thick neck as he continued to sleep soundly. He was young like I was, but he had killed more men and beat more women than I would ever know.
Tears marred my vision of his angular face.