A Short Walk Up Boot Hill

 

SoiledDove1

[An unknown prostitute of Dodge City]

My reason for being on the road for so long has a great deal to do with my growing dislike of the winters of the North Country.  It also enables me to wander and explore my interests.  I love history, I am attracted to stories of the pioneer days, the cattle drives, the lives of the Native Americans and white settlers on the prairie, the exploration, the hardships and the state of life, love and death in the Old West.

I’m also fascinated with the human stories of individuals that never made the popular history books…those who came into this country with hopes and dreams and expectations.  The lives of people who live on the edges of society are compelling to me because they are so human, and therefore, so flawed and full of missteps and errors and simple bad luck.  Clearly, the life of a woman in these cattle towns is the stuff of myths and stories, real and fictional, romanticized and ugly, and sad.

Those interests brought me to Dodge City, Kansas, a legendary city that sits on the famous Santa Fe Trail.  The 1870’s were a time of cattle drives, lawlessness and violence.  The law was not a strong presence in the dirt streets or along the boardwalks.  This is the time of the development of the myths about Dodge as we know them today through films and TV shows.

That’s what took me to the Boot Hill Museum on Wyatt Earp Boulevard.  I paid my $9.00 entrance fee and found the path to the “real” Boot Hill cemetery.

I had done my homework.  I knew who I was looking for.  I wanted to lay a single flower on the graves of the three “soiled doves” who were reputed to be buried among the gamblers, killers, buffalo hunters and gamblers.

I felt like a dusty cowboy striding into the Long Branch and asking for the affections of one of the “girls upstairs”.  Instead, I was climbing a small rise, a block from the Boulevard, to find myself inside a sparse burying-ground, fenced in to hide the view from the traffic on the street.

It took a little searching.  Few of the original markers remained.

I was looking for Dora Hand.  She was the lover of the mayor of Dodge.  She was also the woman who was fancied by one “Spike” Kenedy, a cowboy.  To teach the mayor a lesson (and to ‘free’ Dora from the clutches of the old guy), this fellow rode by the house of the mayor and fired a bullet.  The slug went through the mattress of a friend of Dora who was spending the night.  The lead continued into the next room and killed poor Dora instantly.  The mayor was visiting Fort Dodge…he wasn’t even home.  She was the victim of a ride-by shooting…perhaps the first.  She died on October 4, 1878.

I was looking for Alice Chambers.  The cause of death?  I never learned that.  I don’t know what brought her to her death-bed where she uttered her last words: “Circumstances led me to this end” on May 5, 1878.

I was looking for Lizzie Palmer.  To me, hers is the saddest tale.  Apparently she loved Bat Masterson.  So did another dance hall girl.  There was a bar-room brawl.  Lizzie died a few days later from an infection that set in after she was cut on the head.  Her death date is unknown.  What is known is that Reverend Ormond Wright spoke the blessed words at her burial.  He was a second choice.  The first preacher who was approached, refused to offer his prayers for her soul.

So much for the mercy of the good Christian man of the cloth.

I bent over and placed a small wildflower at each of the graves.  At Lizzie’s marker, I ran my finger over my shoes and was amazed at the amount of dust that had collected on the tan leather.

But, it got me to reflecting on dust.  These unfortunate women, in this profession by reasons unknown to me, were by now, dust.

Maybe the dry earth and the shallow grave still holds the thin and fragile bones of these three “tainted ladies”, these “soiled doves”, these lost and lonely souls.

SoiledDove2

[Another unknown Dodge City prostitute]

[Images are mine.  I took the photos of posters on the wall in the Boot Hill Museum]

 

Honky Tonks, Bordellos And Celery

soiled dove of Cripple Creek

[This soiled dove was from Cripple Creek, CO.]

We watched January turn into February in Silver City, New Mexico.  A former mining town from the 19th Century, was a place where miners, tired and in need of a drink and a little love to purchase, would come up from the valleys and down the mountains…and find paradise amidst the prickly pear cactus.

And, the first person many of these rough and dusty men sought was Madam Millie.  I’ll get back to Miss Millie in a minute.

By association with everything about the Southwest USA and our neighbors to the south, Mexico, our 51st state, the last thing we expected was a winter storm that would freeze our water line, render us helpless in the 13 F weather, keep our inexpensive (read ‘cheap’) Wal-Mart space heater churning full-time, unable to cook (dirty dishes, remember), flush the toilet or even wash our hands, instead we resorted to pouring a noxious (and according to California Law) carcinogenic liquid, RV antifreeze, made from glycol and a few dozen chemicals down into our fragile plastic gray tank (dish water) and black tank (icky-poo stuff from the toilet) to keep them from bursting.  We seemed to be stuck inside Silver City with the Palm Springs blues again.

[That was a long run-on sentence.  Not all my fault.  It’s my inner William Faulkner trying to get out.]

So, what did these American Nomads do to pass the time?  We went to the Silver City Museum.  It was a beautiful Victorian building that was once the home of a restless guy who wanted to make a fortune in Silver.  I naturally gravitated to the shop in search of yet another Ideal Tee Shirt, a coffee mug and a book(s).  The first book I spied was titled: “Madam Millie”.  It was the story of Nellie Clark, who worked her way up from the mattress to running the most successful brothel in town.  (She died as recently as the late ’90’s, I believe).   In another book I found in the local library, “Red Light Women of the Rocky Mountains”, by Jan Mackell, I had a chance to read about the history of the girls who followed the miners, plied their trade, were murdered, died of disease, wandered off to another boom town, married clients and lived in luxury, became school teachers…or simply lived as a widow or spinster in a town that eventually mined all the silver that the hills could produce.

Millie Clark had the proverbial heart of gold…her girls would hide Easter eggs for the poor children of Silver City and Nellie was known to give away lots of money to charity and food to the needy.  I was fascinated by the book because local history, however tawdry, is what I seek to learn about when I travel.  The brothels were, without question, an important aspect of the Old West.  The “Red Light” book was researched and written by a woman historian.  I’d be reading it right now, but the $25.00 ( + tax ) price tag put me off.  I walked out with a tee-shirt, a mug, a guide to the wildflowers of the Southwest, and a mental image of working girls (some slender and beautiful and some plump and plain) and sweaty cowboys and miners drinking whiskey and beer in the saloons and honky-tonks along Bullard Street.  (I should mention at this point that there was a madam in one of towns of the west who weighed over 300 pounds!  She was extremely popular, and to this day, the town celebrates her with a festival in her honor…her name escapes me.)

old-west-brothel-tokens-3

[Brothel tokens.  Source: Google search.]

Thoughts of tight corsets, buckled shoes, flowers in the raven-hair, ribbons, rouge and lipstick and thick perfume filled my mind as I sat in a distressed leather seat of the public library to get warm and to allow Mariam a chance to answer work-related emails using a strong WiFi signal…something that was a bit dicey at our RV park.

jennie-bauters-brothel-242x300

[A popular brothel in Cripple Creek, CO.  The madam stands at the far right with her hands on her hips. Source: Google search.]

The warmth of the library made me sleepy.  I put my head back and let my mind drift into a very delicate state of half-dreaming…

I was sitting in the Buckhorn Saloon.  Sitting on my knee was Ivy…the loveliest example of womanhood one was to find west of the Pecos.  I had a sack of silver nuggets in my pocket, so her affections were assured.  I had a tumbler of whiskey on the table in front of me alongside a glass of cool beer.  It tasted nothing like Bud Lite.  Outside, on Bullard Street, the dust of a hundred horses and half as many wagons rose in the air.  I heard gun shots.  Two miners had stood in the middle of the street and were arguing over the honor of a painted lady.  When the gun smoke cleared, one guy remained standing.  He turned to look for Irene, but she had gone off with the preacher’s son.

BullardSt

[Bullard Street in Silver City, NM]

The gun shot made me jump in the library chair.  Someone had dropped a book on a table nearby.  Mariam was busy  in a quiet cubicle so I told her I was going for a walk.  I needed to clear my head.  I was confused as to what time it was, what day it was, what year it was…and what century it was.  I walked over to Bullard Street.  SUV’s and sensible KIA’s lined the curbside.  I went into the Tiny Toad saloon.  Guys with beards and laptops sat around drinking craft beer.

I went and picked up Mariam and we drove back to the RV park and sat shivering until the space heater had the inside temperature up to the mid 50’s.  We decided we’d rest a bit and, because we had no water, we decided to go listen to some music at Diane’s restaurant and bar and have dinner.

The guitarist, who had a gray beard and wore a harmonica neck brace, was playing a Jefferson Airplane song.  It was followed by Wild Horses by the Stones.  I thought it was time for Dylan, and, like he could read my mind, he played Mr. Tambourine Man.  Our waitress was a young woman who wanted to be a jazz singer.  She wore no rouge on her cheeks.

“…play a song for me.  I’m not sleepy and I have no place I’m going to.”

But, I did have someplace I was going to…back to our camper…the one with no running water.

I was confused by the old and the new in this town that capitalized on the old and the new.

“See our old houses…see our ghosts…feel the sense of history” said the pamphlets.  But, all we found were pottery shops and jewelry counters.

We went back to the Tiny Toad to have a night-cap.  This wasn’t like the saloons in the faded pictures I saw at the museum.  Miners with their boots on the foot rail, the spittoons, the foamy mugs of beer, the pretty girls of the night at the edges of the photo, standing for a moment at the center of the attention, and then off to the fringes of the picture frame.  Like they were in life, on the edges of society, young and beautiful in their youth, but often forgotten when age or disease pushed them from the parlors of velvet to the shack on the hill.

I looked at a pair of celery stalks in a jar on the bar in front of me.  The veggies got me to thinking…

“What’ll it be today, Clem? The usual red-eye whiskey and beer?”

“Naw, Frank, I’m dusty from the trail.  Think I’ll have a Bloody Mary this morning.”

At the other end was a gum-ball machine (did I miss something by not going to Bartenders School?.)  I shrugged and ordered a real man’s drink.  I motioned for the barkeeper to approach.  I cleared my throat and boldly asked for a Hot Toddy.

CeleryOnBar

[In an old-time saloon?]

GumballMachine

[In an old-time saloon?]

As I was trying to sleep that night, I kept thinking of Nellie and her girls.  I read that Nellie was buried only about five miles from our RV park.  Were there flowers on her grave?  I thought about one of the girls who was murdered (details are unclear), but unlike the death of a prostitute (then and now) that usually went unnoticed, the girl’s sister came and claimed her body and took it home for a proper burial.  Most of the girls, I suspect, drifted away when the mines began to close in Silver City.  When they died in another boom and bust town, did anyone shed a tear for them?  I recalled reading about a madam in Cripple Creek, who, when she died, was given the largest funeral the town has ever seen.  But the thousands of others?  Those females who lived by their perfume and charm…?

Did anyone say a prayer for their poor souls?  I feel a deep sorrow for those broken-spirited, homeless, drifting, nomadic restless souls…they usually die alone.  That has to be the worst way to leave this beautiful life and this unique planet.

When we drove out of Silver City the next morning, we crossed the Continental Divide just a mile or so from town, from Nellie’s house, from the museum, from the Tiny Toad Saloon.

The Continental Divide is a geographical line.  But among the lives I had been reading about, there were divides of all kinds.  When it rains, the water flows either to one ocean or to another.  People live lives like that…anything that comes down on your soul, can make you flow one way or another.

ContinentalDivide

But, in the end, we all end up in the same ocean that contains all our collected dreams and all our collected sins and all our collected virtues.

Afterword

When the town decided that one of Nellie’s brothels was to be torn down and replaced by the new Post Office, one old-timer told Nellie: “I don’t need the mail as much as I need you.”

 

Next Stop: Easy Street

RRStopInPararie

“Well, this is where I get off, Baby Blue.  I got a cozy little spread about a dozen miles out-of-town.”

“This don’t look like no town to me, Buzz.  The flies have taken over the ticket booth in the hole you say is the station.”

“I’m not a man for big words, Blue, but I can manage to ask you to stay for a spell.”

“You don’t look like the kind of guy a kind of girl like me can hold onto for much longer than the next time the whistle from the westbound blows.”

“You once said that I was the sort of guy who could leave his boots under your bed.”

“That was back in Little Rock.  You had a fresh bandanna on that night.  You looked like Mel Gibson without the attitude.”

“That’s sayin’ a lot, girlie.  You kept those cowpokes sweeping the boardwalk so you could keep your Gucci boots clean.  You traded those Gucci’s for a pair of J. C. Penney “cowgirl” shoes that were made in Sri Lanka.”

“We’ve both come a long way since then, Buzz, and almost all of it was rolling down a hill full of tumbleweeds and thistles.”

“You can’t keep looking back, Baby.  It only shows you where you’ve been and not where you’re goin'”

“And you want me to get more dust on my shoes down at your spread?  I’m thinking twice about that.”

“Well, don’t think twice, it’s alright.  Say, I never caught your last name, Sweet Cakes.”

“I didn’t throw it, Bronco Buster.  If you want to know who I really am, check the wall of the nearest Post Office.”

“Why? Are you the Post Master General?”

“Let’s just say I’m the Post Mistress of these here parts.”

“Dang.  And all these years I lived on my cozy little spread, I never ran into you.”

“That’s because nobody wrote you any letters, Larry.  Ya got to have friends to get and send letters.”

“Well, lick my stamps, Baby Blue, you sure are full of surprises.”

“I got one more surprise for you, Saddle Tramp, nobody licks stamps anymore.  They’re self-stick these days.”

“Well, I got one for you too, Blaze, nobody sends letters any more.  It’s all email.  Where have you been?  Out back of the stable braiding horse tails?”

The train lurched to a stop.

“One minute,” the station master yells.

Baby Blue pull her bonnet off and let her wild red tresses cascade over her slender tender shoulders.

Buzz broke out in a sweat.  He hooked his forefinger under his collar and tugged to let out the steam.  It was 106 in the shade.

“So, we’re both getting off.  But you’re goin’ thataway and I’m goin’ thisaway, so I guess it’s good-bye, said Blue.

“Good-bye is too good a word, Babe.  I’ll be seeing you around when my fan mail starts pouring into the Post Office.”

“What fan mail?  Did you go on The Bachelorette again?”

“No, the fan mail from my blog award.  This is just a big blog idea, Sweet Cake.  All this never really happened.”

She stared at him for a full two minutes.

“I think you’d better go saddle up Old Paint and ride off into the sunset, Buzz, you’ve had too much sun.”

“I can’t ride off into the sunset, Blue, I live north of here.  You wouldn’t understand.”

Two hours later, Baby Blue was sorting mail in the air-conditioned Post Office while Buzz was getting a sore bottom on a sour saddle.  He was lost in thought.  But Old Paint knew the way home, after, of course, the bathroom stop at the Organ Grinder Saloon.

“There got to be a better way to end this blog,” he thought.  “In just one of these stories, I should get the girl.”