The Angels of Cascade

Submitted into Contest #204 in response to: Write a story about someone undertaking a long, dangerous journey.... view prompt



It was high noon, and Sister Cadence walked toward the bat wing doors of hell.

At least that was what the Reverend Mother usually called saloon doors. But that morning, after chapel, she had dismissed that reference as she handed Sister Cadence a thick envelope and package.

“I need you to deliver these to Miss Pearl Arquette, the owner of the Brass Rail in Cascade. And yes, before you raise your eyebrows at me, I realize what I have called such establishments in the past. But Miss Pearl is doing God’s work and I do not believe the Lord cares where she does it.”

Sister Cadence, as was always her inclination, started to ask questions. But Mother Amadeus held up her hand.

“No questions today, Sister. I trust you to make this delivery and you need to trust me. Miss Pearl will explain. Whatever she asks of you today, you have my blessing. Now hurry. Stagecoach Mary is waiting to take you to town.”

Mary Fields had been waiting with her horses and mail wagon outside the Mission gate. Over six feet tall and a cigar smoker, she was an imposing figure and the subject of many wild stories at St. Peter’s, including one claiming she had wrestled a wolf to death after it attacked her during a blizzard. Many of the locals were scared of her, but the Reverend Mother had known Mary for many years and said such tales were nonsense. In actuality, Mary had been born into slavery and moved to Ohio after the Civil War ended, taking a job in the home of Judge Dunne, Mother Amadeus’s father. After moving to Montana, the Reverend Mother had become seriously ill, and Mary had come west to nurse her back to health. They had stayed good friends, much to the Bishop’s dismay.

On the road to Cascade, Stagecoach Mary hadn’t been much of a talker, which suited Sister Cadence just fine. The steady clip-clop of the horses had lulled the nun into a prayerful reverie. She always felt closer to God on the road to town, winding toward the powerful Missouri River, the Big Snowy Mountains ahead in the distance and the magnificent Rockies behind her. She had rolled her rosary beads between her fingers, thinking of Psalm 121: “I have lifted up my eyes to the mountains, from whence help shall come to me.”

Now, as she walked into a saloon for the first time in her life, Sister Cadence wondered if she was going to need that divine assistance.


It was only midday, but the Brass Rail saloon was already crowded. She recognized Miss Pearl right away. Standing behind the mahogany and gold bar, she was a vision of color: flaming red hair, kohl-smudged eyes, and lips that matched her fuchsia silk gown. Miss Pearl came toward her in a cloud of lilac perfume.

“Sister Cadence? Mother Amadeus sent word you would be coming today.”

Noting customers staring, trying to figure out what a nun and saloon madam had in common, she quickly added, “Let’s go to my office, shall we?”

As Miss Pearl closed the office door, Sister Cadence gazed at the luxurious room – the gold silk fringe on the lamp, gleaming bookcases, plush Persian rugs, gas lanterns flickering shadows on ornate wallpaper. It was beautiful. So different than her room at the Mission.

She put the package on the floor and handed Miss Pearl the envelope, who ripped it open and pulled out a stack of bills. Quickly reading through the enclosed papers, Pearl wondered if this shy looking nun sitting across from her could do what was needed. But Mother Amadeus had said Sister Cadence had a passion for justice and was tougher than she looked.

“The Reverend Mother is most generous,” said Miss Pearl. “Did she tell you what the money is for?”

“No, and I didn’t ask.”

Sister Cadence looked uncomfortable as she continued. “But I heard some of the nuns say that you and she are helping women escape a life of…I mean, the business of...”

“Ah, you’re referring perhaps to our ‘daughters of sin’? What you good church folk call our ‘fallen angels’?”

“Well, yes. Though that rumor seemed peculiar since, well, you – your, um, saloon – does employ such women, right?”

Miss Pearl frowned. “Come with me,” she said, “and bring the Reverend Mother’s package.”

She crossed the room to the bookshelves, removing a large King James Bible and revealing an iron lever. She pushed it and, after tugging at the edge of the shelf, the bookcase swung out, revealing a dim passageway. Taking the lantern off the back wall, the two women headed into the darkness.

Sister Cadence had heard about underground tunnels in Missoula – secret passageways that allowed men to sneak in and out of brothels. But she did not know there were any in Cascade. They went down a crumbling flight of stairs and Miss Pearl knocked on the first door they came to. Old Mr. Chen, the saloon’s cook, opened it to reveal a cot, a small table with a candle and, wrapped in a blanket, a trembling Chinese girl eating soup.

Miss Pearl introduced Sister Cadence to Mr. Chen, who then spoke to the child in what the nun assumed was a Chinese dialect. The girl mumbled something.

“She is still very scared of the bad men,” said Mr. Chen.

“Please tell her we will protect her,” Pearl said. Then, turning to Sister Cadence, “This is Lian. I wanted you to meet her before we continued our conversation. She was stolen from her family in China so she could be sold into prostitution.”

"But she's a child!"

"That she is. Mr. Chen tells me she is just 13 years old. Apparently the younger the virgin, the higher the price. Trust me, the men who sold Lian will pay for their sins. But our goal now is getting her to safety. I have a contact in Seattle's Chinatown who will arrange for her to live with a Chinese family and go to school. But getting her there will be difficult and we need your help.”

"I don't understand," said Sister Cadence.

“I’ll explain upstairs. But first Lian must get her new clothes.”

Miss Pearl pulled the paper off Mother Amadeus’ package. To Sister Cadence’s surprise, it contained five complete habits, including rosaries and shoes.

"The shoes are too big, but the habit will work if we cinch the belt. Mr. Chen, after she finishes eating, please explain that she must wear these clothes for the trip we talked about. And tell her she will soon be safe.”

After he spoke to Lian, she stood and bowed, quietly speaking words that Sister Cadence did not understand. But she could see gratitude in the girl’s eyes.


“As you might guess, I don’t object to men paying for a woman’s company,” Miss Pearl said, once they were back in her office. “I decided years ago no man would dictate how I lived my life, which meant I needed my own money. I chose this occupation and this business. But let’s be clear: I hire women to work at the Brass Rail – not girls. Women who choose to work for me and who can take care of themselves. I do not employ children. However, others manage their business differently. There is an outlaw, name of Buck Richards, who came to me several weeks ago with a proposition. He purchased a dozen girls in San Francisco and offered to sell them to me, one at a time over, over the next few months. I said yes. Anything to get these poor things out of Buck’s hands. He brought me Lian two days ago and I paid him handsomely. He’ll keep the girls coming to me. But the Reverend Mother and I will then deliver them to safety in Seattle.”

“I appreciate you explaining,” said Sister Cadence, “but I’m still not sure what this has to do with me. I’m happy to come back if Mother Amadeus wants me to bring more packages or money. But right now, I should be heading back to the Mission if I’m to be in time for vespers.”

“The Reverend Mother isn’t expecting you back today,” said Miss Pearl, “because you and Stagecoach Mary will be taking Lian to the train depot in Helena. One of the sisters from the House of the Good Shepherd will then accompany her to Seattle.”

“You need me to help take Lian to Helena?”

“Yes. Yes, we do. A stagecoach with only one passenger, a Chinese girl, would attract attention. But one nun escorting another nun to the convent in Helena will not raise suspicions. Mind you, it will be a challenging journey, particularly without a translator. But the Reverend Mother and I believe in you – and in this.” 

Miss Pearl reached under the desk and pulled out a small silver pistol.

“It’s a Ladies Companion. A five shot, .22-caliber pepperbox. You can holster it under your tunic or put it in your pocket. Mary is a crack shot but if Buck’s men get wind that we’re helping Lian leave Montana, you’ll need more than Mary to protect you.”

Sister Cadence flinched at seeing the gun. “But you paid for Lian. Why would Buck Richards care what happens to her next?”

"I received a telegram from a saloon owner in Billings saying she bought a girl from Buck a few weeks ago. The next day, his men kidnapped her so they could sell her again. The child was so distraught she stabbed herself. She died.”

Sister Cadence gasped.

“Buck is the worst kind of evil,” said Miss Pearl as she slid the gun across her desk. “Now, have you shot a gun before?”

“Years ago, target shooting with my uncle. But I’ve never shot at a person.”

“It works the same way. And if you’re transporting Lian, you must take the gun. If you’re not taking Lian, you need to head back to the Mission.”

“I want to help, Miss Pearl. I do. But to take a life? No matter how sinful the sinner, I am not sure I could.”

“Didn’t God anoint individuals in the Old Testament to deliver His people from slavery? Is this not the same?”

Sister Cadence nodded. “I see your point, but…”

“Take the gun.”

She reluctantly picked the gun up, then slipped it into her tunic pocket.

“I must say,” Miss Pearl said, “I like the idea of God anointing our holy trio – a saloon madam, former slave, and nun.” She gave a wry laugh before continuing. “Mr. Chen is taking Lian to the tunnel’s exit, near the blacksmith’s stable on the outskirts of town. One of my girls pulled together provisions and blankets and, as we speak, Mary is loading them into the wagon.”

“Mary knew about all of this? She didn’t say a word this morning.”

“The Reverend Mother and I told her not to, in case you were not suited to the task at hand. But I know now that you are.”


Lian climbed into the wagon, looking like the youngest nun in the history of the Catholic Church. Sister Cadence gently touched her arm, repeating that she would be safe, in what she hoped was a comforting tone. She could not imagine being taken from your family and shipped off to a strange country, surrounded by people speaking a different language. She wondered about the Catholic Church basically doing the same thing to the young Blackfeet girls they plucked from their families and enrolled in the Mission’s school. But she could not think about that right now.

Mary flicked the reins and clucked to the horses, heading the wagon south along the river to Helena, closely watching the countryside for signs of Buck’s men. They traveled for over an hour before she spoke again.

“Can’t say I ever imagined the Reverend Mother and Miss Pearl would partner up. Though they have more in common than a person’d think.” Mary looked at Sister Cadence and chuckled. “And you’re cut from the same cloth, even though you look like you’d be afeared of your own shadow.”

“As are you, Miss Mary. Cut from the same cloth that is. Independent, with no man telling you what to do.”

“Damn right,” said Mary. “Built a good life here in Montana, on my own. I make an honest living, got my own house, and come and go as I please.”

“I’ve heard about some of that coming and going!”

“I’m sure you have. It’s why the Bishop doesn’t want me around the Mission. I have a tough time keeping my mouth shut, my shot glass dry, and my gun holstered. But I like driving this old mail wagon. And delivering this little Chinese girl to freedom.”

The sun began to set as Lian sang softly in the back of the wagon. The air was still and there was no other sound until Mary spoke again.

“So, why’d you want to go and be a nun?”

“Truth is, I am just a novice. A nun in training. I take my permanent vows in two months.”

“What if you change your mind?”

“I won’t,” Sister Cadence said. “This is God’s plan for me.”

But was it? A few weeks ago, Sister Margaret had complained about her continuously questioning whether Blackfeet families genuinely wanted their children to completely forsake their own language and culture while at the Mission school. When Sister Cadence heatedly tried to explain her concern, she was brought before Mother Amadeus, who questioned whether she had the necessary temperament to be a nun.

“What’s your real name Sister?” Mary abruptly asked, interrupting her thoughts. “I know you nuns usually change your names because the Mission has a whole lot of Sister Marys.”   

"All novitiates take new names as a sign of our new lives and yes, mine is Mary Agnes – Mary, as in Christ’s mother, and Agnes meaning holy. But one of the sisters started calling me Cadence because I sing a lot around the Mission, and it stuck.”

“Well now, that’s another thing you, me, and Miss Pearl have in common,” Mary said. “None of us have the names we were born with.”

“Pearl Arquette isn’t her real name?”

“Nope. Born Helga Arbogast. Go figure. Story goes that in 1869, when she was crossing over into the Montana Territory, the wagons stopped at the Yellowstone River to rest the horses. Stripping off every stitch of clothing, our Miss Helga jumped in the river and christened herself Pearlie Rose Arquette. Perfect name for her.”

“And you? Your parents didn’t name you Mary Fields?”

“My mama’s master picked my birth name. Told her she had no say.” Mary’s tone was brittle. “And my last name was his instead of my daddy’s. After the war, I buried that old name and made me a new one. A preacher once told me Mary also means bitter and rebellious. And that I am. ‘Fields’ was so I wouldn’t forget what my ancestors went through to get me here.”

She swept her arm toward the sky, where the sun was a magnificent panorama of reds and golds.

“And here I am happy to be.”


They set up camp, feeding the horses and building a campfire. Lian enthusiastically ate their simple meal of hardtack and beans, before laying down on the pallet and promptly falling asleep. The night air was chilly, and Sister Cadence gently pulled another blanket over the girl before sitting down by the fire. Reaching for the pot of coffee, she felt the gun poking her in the leg. She pulled it out, setting it close by on the ground.

“You have a gun.”

It was a statement, not a question.

“Miss Pearl gave it to me in case we have trouble.”

Mary pulled out a small flask of whiskey and took a swig before lighting up a cigar. “Buck Richards for sure ain’t someone to mess with.”

“Aren’t you scared of him and his men?”

“Nope. All I been through, not scared of nothing. What about you? Aren’t you worried about breaking some commandment if you use that thing?”

“Miss Pearl told me Buck Richards and his men beat most of the girls they take. And worse. Given that, I would say Leviticus 24 provides good guidance: ‘And he who injures another…as he has done, so it shall be done to him: fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth.’”

Mary took another long drink from her flask. “So Sister, does that mean if you have to, you’ll pull the trigger on that thing?” 

The nun didn’t answer. To be honest, she was not sure.

Suddenly Mary’s face tensed, and her hand flew to her pistol as she quickly turned around and looked at a distant stand of trees. Then she relaxed.

“Sorry. Thought I heard something. We had best get to sleep. One of us anyway.”

“I’ll stay up for now,” Sister Cadence said.

“Wake me in a few hours then.”

Mary lay down and Sister Cadence leaned against a boulder, watching the clouds roll over the stars. Could she shoot a man? Was preventing a sin still a sin? Her eyelids started to get heavy but then she heard rustling in the brush. A shadowy figure appeared from behind the bluffs, barely visible in the faint glow of the embers. But then a sliver of moon poked out from the clouds, and she could see a man moving toward the sleeping Lian.

Sister Cadence mentally recited a passage from Psalm 94: “Who rises up against the wicked? Who stands up against the evildoers?”

I do, she thought. I do. And then she picked up the gun.

July 01, 2023 03:06

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Sarafina Hamer
00:27 Aug 23, 2023

This had me tense the entire time! And I instantly recognized Stagecoach Mary's name. Love historical references. Great story.


Julie Clark
03:13 Aug 23, 2023

Thanks so much! When I learned about Mary Fields I knew I had to work her into a story. :) She and the nuns and madams out West at the time were some strong, fascinating women!


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