Hangtown, California. 1850.
Unrest is stirring in the camps. As soon as it was in the papers, that there’s gold in Coloma, men have been pouring into the area by the hundreds and this town hardly seems big enough to hold them all. I’ve heard talk downstairs that if you stand in the middle of the tent camps, you can’t even see where it begins or ends, that it’s like a sea of sun-bleached canvas.
But I’ve never seen it myself, as I don’t hardly leave this building. Madam Clancy says it isn’t safe for us out there, that the men are gold-crazed and so long deprived of a woman, that they’ve become lawless—just grabbing women in the streets and having their way. At least in here they pay for it, and good money too. By the time I’m done with this town, these diggers, I’m going to be rich. I’ll go East and buy a house on the coast, with a big porch and blue hydrangeas. I had planned to leave last fall, but winter came swiftly, and I was forced to wait until spring.
Madam says her and Mr. Clancy are taking care of my money till the day comes when I need it. They say it’s not safe to keep your gold laying around—too many thieves in this town. But they don’t know about my own private stash, my treasure pile in the back of my wardrobe. I’ve learned to be real good with my hands, and a drunk man in the arms of a prostitute isn’t thinking about his pocket watch, or the little bag of gold dust in his trousers. One nimble twitch of the fingers and he don’t know what hit him.
The men slink out of my room, slipping into their suspenders like they’ve just come from the outhouse, while I lay there like a used handkerchief. My only consolation is when I get up to add the stolen gold dust to my pile and watch it grow. At times I feel guilty, knowing they might have had plans to send that hard-earned money back to their families, but why should I? They’re the ones shelling out a fortune for women and whiskey, what’s a little bit more? I know too well the feeling of being taken from, and sometimes they need reminded how bad it hurts.
Sometimes the words of my mama, all proper like in her calico dress, come to mind. It’s like I can hear her voice, high and quiet saying, “remember what the Good Book says, Mary Anne; thou shalt not steal.” I remember standing in the general store with Mama, I was maybe seven. She stood over me as I spilled my handful of salt taffy on the general store counter, crying, feeling like the whole world was watching. She made me fess up, give it all back. But she still bought me a piece anyway.
I haven’t tasted taffy in years.
When I go East, maybe Baltimore, I’ll eat so much taffy my insides will stick together. It’s nearly spring and soon I’ll be long gone.
It’s been raining for days now, and the streets are so thick with mud they suck your boots right in. But rain’s good for panning, so most of the men are down by the creek, praying and hoping for good luck, though the ones who find anything usually squander it all on a girl, or else get robbed in the middle of the night. Last time it rained this hard, a fellow came in here with a hefty bag of dust, spent half on whiskey and Yuliana, then left, tripped off the boardwalk, and fell face first in the mud. They found him the next morning, stiff and caked in red clay. Pockets empty, dust all gone.
Yuliana told me he’d wanted to marry her. Stupid girl. That’s what they all say. Yuliana’s new, and still too excited about silk dresses and fresh milk to see the men as the rest of us do: sunbaked, delirious fools paying a month’s earnings for half an hour with a public woman. And Madam charges more for her too, advertising that she has a compliant disposition and exotic beauty. And it seems the better Yuliana does, the worse the Clancy’s treat me, and the less satisfied the men are. I used to be the favorite, the sweetheart. They’d touch my hair and tell me I was sent from heaven; now they go to her door, bringing flowers, and ribbons, and promising her the moon. Everyone always wants the shiny new toy.
The row of costumes in my wardrobe seem to mock me, their lace-trimmed bodices gaping open like they’re wailing, wishing they could hug the curves of a more grateful patron like Yuliana. I shut the wardrobe doors, but it’s like I can still hear them chiding, with a voice like my mother’s. I remember walking through town together, past the dressmaker’s shop, with its elegant displays in the window, and the milliners, with hats so beautiful I thought if I could own one, I’d never want for anything else. I’d press my face to the glass, and Mama would tug my arm saying, “lovely, aren’t they, Mary Anne? But never forget; thou shalt not covet.”
It took her a year to save for a hat like the ones we saw in the window. A gift for my 10th birthday. The last gift she ever gave me.
I have no need to covet anymore; I wear the finest clothes a girl could desire. Yuliana will grow hardened and jaded like the rest of us; she’ll learn to put on her makeup, and put out a good show, and not let her heart get attached. She’ll figure out how it really is, how everyone acts like they love you so long as you smile pretty and do what you’re told.
When I leave this place, take the train across the hills and plains to a place where people will call me by whatever I name choose, I’ll have my own life, and nobody is going to tell me what to do.
I can hear someone at the piano downstairs, playing something new and lively. I hear chips falling, glasses clinking, men laughing. I imagine Ivan, Clancy’s right-hand man, scanning the room for trouble, which we rarely ever have. Ivan’s easily the largest man I’ve ever seen in my life, with a head that goes nearly a foot above the doorway. He has a scar that runs from eyebrow to chin, pulling his eye into a permanent squint. And he’s real quiet too. One of the girls says he’s from a place where it’s always winter, and frostbite probably got his tongue. Not much scares me anymore, but Ivan—he terrifies the living daylights out of me.
It’s getting louder, and I know Clancy will want me to come down now, to lean over the tables of drunken gamblers, offering beer and bosom to thirsty eyes. I’ll take my pick, the least filthy one at the table, and feed him sweet lies and empty flattery. “So you’re the one all the girls are talking about,” or, “I wonder if you’re as good as you look.” It makes them nicer, less heavy handed. Quicker. The gambler swallows the liquid in his glass and hooks my waist with a dusty arm.
When we ascend the stairs together, I see Mr. Clancy nodding his approval from the card table, and Ivan staring from the bar. Madam Clancy waits at the top with a set of scales to weigh the dust, and a leather-bound notebook. Until we get more girls, Mr. Clancy says we have a quota to fulfill now, and Madam logs every exchange. They get real mean when we come up short.
Once, I snuck that damned book from Madam’s room, planning to tear it to pieces and feed it to the woodstove, but she’d noticed it was missing almost immediately. So, I hid it Yuliana’s nightstand, then lied and told Madam I’d seen her take it. Yuliana might be the favorite, but that didn’t stop Mr. Clancy from tanning her hide. I may hate her, but I didn’t feel too good about that.
Yuliana’s cries reminded me of the night Papa came home to us, drunk and all scraped up. We hadn’t seen him for years, and everyone thought he was long dead. When Papa pushed his way in and saw the large boots by the door and the coat on the hook, he banged, and cursed, and demanded to know if Mama’d been whoring around with another man. My mother was no whore, but she also was no liar. She told him the truth about her beau, and he nearly killed her for it. And when he’d gone, and I had swept the glass off the floor, and cleaned the cuts on her cheek, Mama whispered, mostly to herself, “thou shalt not lie.”
But here, in this godforsaken place, lying comes as natural as breathing.
My neck is painted with bruises, and my throat feels like sandpaper; I nearly died yesterday.
A wiry man from the camps had come in for a girl, wanting Yuliana in particular, but he didn’t have enough gold and was mad as a hornet about it. He settled for me instead, but he made it clear that I wasn’t who he wanted. He was all sharp angles and ruthless force, and I screamed when he clamped his dirty fingers onto my neck. That only made him squeeze tighter. Madam Clancy heard my cry and called for Ivan, who took the stairs in three strides before rushing in and ripping the man off me. I heard later that the man couldn’t walk when he was finally thrown out.
After the incident, I had made up my mind that I was done. Rain or shine, spring or not, I was leaving. I asked Madam Clancy for my money, deciding that I couldn’t take one more day in this town. From my own records, I knew I should have had more than enough for a modest home out East and the train fare to get there, but when I asked for the total sum, she laughed in my face. She told me I’d forgotten to account for room, and board, and a year’s worth of luxuries like fine food, imported dresses, and perfume. She told me I still had months before my debts were paid.
If I hadn’t been so weak, I would have killed her, right there. Dug my nails into her fleshy neck and choked the life out of her, just like that digger choked me. But they sent me away and told me to get rested up for work tomorrow. Work.
I didn’t sleep a wink; I was too angry to sleep, too angry to cry. All I could do was think.
There’s another hanging today. Apparently, a newcomer from Arkansas struck gold, ran his trap about it all throughout camp, then woke up to a couple of muckmen poking around his tent, looking for his stash. The man started hollering and reached for his pickaxe, but they shot him down, right there in his nightshirt. The thieves had been causing trouble for months, and the marshal thought it was time to make an example of criminals.
People here get real excited about hangings; everybody crowds the streets and acts like the circus has come to town. But I can’t stand them. The last man I watched die at the end of a noose was my father. Though he never loved me, and all he ever did was cause pain for me and Mama, I didn’t enjoy watching him die. Not like that.
Its nearly sundown, and the saloon is empty—a rare sight. No one sits at the bar, the card tables are deserted, and the other girls are hanging off the front porch watching the thieves being walked up onto the rickety platform. My stomach is lurching, but not because of the hanging, but because I’m leaving. Right now. With only a day dress and my sack of stolen dust and trinkets, I fly down the stairs and turn down the shadowed hallway, ready to walk out the door and never look back. I just have to make a little visit to Mr. Clancy’s office first.
The heavy door creaks like it’s trying to betray me. I should have known that even the hinges in this establishment would be loyal to the Clancy’s. The air in the windowless room is stagnant, and warm, and smells like cigar smoke. When my eyes adjust to the dim light, I locate the black vault in the corner and quickly realize I’ve misjudged my ability as a thief. I twist the dial at random and yank the handle as panic rises in the pit of my stomach. There must be a combination somewhere, I think. Maybe in the desk.
I try every drawer, rummaging through stamps, and steel nibbed pens, and bits of paper, and merchant receipts, but none that appear to have a vault combination written on them. One thin drawer at the desk’s center is locked, but I don’t have the key. I shake, and pull, and rip at the drawer before falling in a heap on the floor. Blast it all. What a fool I am to have thought I could ever leave this place, a stupid girl for letting myself hope.
A shadow falls over the desk, and I lift my face slowly. I can feel my heartbeat in every tender bruise, like it already knows another blow is coming.
Towering over me, over the desk, and filling the entire room is Ivan, standing with arms crossed over a rippling chest. He takes in my plain clothes and my canvas sack, and I know there’s nothing I can say. All I can do is hang my head and wait for the pain.
The shadow moves and pauses by the vault, where a series of mechanical clicks fills the silence. He pulls the handle and the door swings open, its iron wall as thick as a man’s arm. In a flash, he shuts the door and returns to where I’m cowering under the desk. He bends and places a bag of gold in my hand—and not just gold dust, but I can feel whole nuggets bulging against the pouch. “Ivan?”
He helps me up and pushes me toward the back door. “Ivan why are you helping me? Clancy’s going to kill you for this.”
We spill onto the back steps and hear the whoops and cheers of the crowd in the town’s square. Someone’s been hung. Crickets chirp as the last light dips below the horizon.
His voice is deep, his accent sharp and strange—nothing like the slow drawls of folks around here. “The laborer is worthy of ‘is wages.”
And with that, he lets the screen door close and returns to the saloon.
I stand there for a moment, dumbfounded, until I hear another round of cheers from the street. The second man is dead.
And then I run. And I don’t look back.