Polly Nichols stood in front of the charred remains of the only home she had ever known. Tears dripped down her cheeks and off her chin, falling to the blackened dirt below. Smoke was still rising from the center of the home and she closed her eyes for a moment as a wave of dizziness fell over her. She took several slow breaths, wishing with everything inside her soul that when she opened her eyes, she would find this day had all just been a nightmare. After her third breath, she slowly blinked her eyes, unable to stop them from filling with fresh tears when she surveyed the devastation in front of her. It was all gone. Worse yet, they were all gone.
She’d headed into town earlier this morning to deliver the eggs for Pa and it had never occurred to her that she would never see him, Ma, or her siblings again. She wanted to scream at the injustice of it all, but she refused to give the mean-mouthed women from the town any more reasons to consider her unacceptable. They were standing a short distance off, having accompanied their husbands when the alarm was been raised and the volunteer fire brigade rushed to help. Unfortunately, they arrived too late to save anyone. If she’d been at home, or the horse had not been with her returning from town, she was almost certain they would have joined her folks and siblings in death.
She swayed on her feet, only to have a strong hand grab her arm, keeping her from falling over. “Miss Nichols, you shouldn’t be here,” the sheriff told her.
Polly looked at the man and shook her head. “I ate breakfast with them this morning, and Pa helped me hitch the wagon…”
“I’m sorry, miss.”
The man sounded sincere and Polly slowly shook her head as a fresh batch of tears slid down her cheeks. She looked at the sheriff imploringly, “I don’t understand how this could have happened.” Her voice caught and she used her thumbs to try and stem the flow of her tears. “I just…how?”
“No one can know for sure,” the sheriff murmured.
That was not an acceptable answer. She needed more. She thought back to earlier that afternoon. She’d still been over a mile off when she’d seen the plume of black smoke rising in the distance. Fear had gripped her heart because she knew there were no other homesteads or families living out past her folks spread. She’d slapped the reins on the horse, urging the animal to move faster.
Polly remembered her first sight of the farmhouse, resembling a log cabin, engulfed in bright orange and red flames. The enormity of the fire let her know it was bad. She’d scanned the area for signs of her family, but she’d found no one. Before the horse had even fully stopped the wagon, she’d scurried from the buckboard and raced toward the front of the house, only to stop when the heat from the flames threatened to overwhelm her. The sound of the logs crashing down as the roof caved in a few moments later had forced a scream of terror from her throat and she’d looked around wildly for her loved ones, only – they weren’t anywhere.
The sheriff had found her a moment later and escorted her a safe distance away and when she’d asked after her family, he’d only shaken his head sorrowfully. “Your Pa ran inside to try and help your Ma with the little ones. We never saw him come back out.”
“No,” she’d whispered in despair. She’d watched as the men from nearby farms and ranches, and even some of the men from town, tried to contain the fire, managing to salvage the barn, but not the house she’d called home. Now that the flames were mostly out, Polly’s mind and feelings had gone numb. How could her life have changed so drastically in just a few hours?
The sheriff wandered back to her and she gave him a questioning look. “The best as we can tell, the fire started in the back of the house. Probably in the kitchen area,” he told her softly.
Polly nodded and stared at the still smoldering remains, her mind remembering memory after memory that had been made in this house. A house that her Pa had built with his own two hands. She tried to imagine what might have occurred that had led to this horrific outcome. Maybe a coal had fallen onto the floorboards and started the fire? Maybe a candle had been left too long and caught the kitchen table on fire?
The fact that her Pa had entered the house to try and save her Ma and siblings meant he’d most likely run into the burning building to do so. He’d already been in the barn when she’d left several hours earlier.
“Miss?” the sheriff interrupted her thoughts and she turned her head and met his gaze, silently. “Miss, you should probably head into town. There’s really nothing more that can be done right now.”
Town? He expected her to go to town and…. Hysterical laughter bubbled up inside of her and she opened her eyes, staring at him incredulously. “Not be here? And where, pray tell, should I be? This was my home and my family. It’s all I have in this entire world…” The pitch of her voice steadily climbed while she was talking and she broke off, her breath coming in gasps as she struggled to hold back the screams that wanted to burst forth.
She took several deep breaths, forcing oxygen into her lungs and inwardly cringing as the acrid smell of smoke came with it. Her words replayed in her head…It’s all I have in this entire world…The sound of her own voice saying those words was more than she could handle, and she lost control of her emotions, sobbing brokenly into her dirty hands.
“Miss, I’m sorry. I know that’s probably little solace right now, but…it would be best if you headed into town and got yourself situated for the evening. A few of us will stay here to make sure the fire’s completely out.”
She didn’t see the sheriff move away, or the pitying looks several of the townsfolk gave her. She couldn’t focus on anything but that which she’d lost. She was supposed to be helping Ma finish getting the ground ready to plant their small garden. Pa had already planted the seeds in the fields, and the vegetables they were going to grow in the house garden would be canned and provide food during the long winter months to come. The garden…
What garden, Polly? There isn’t going to be any garden. You aren’t going to help the little ones…
She shook her head and forced herself to look away from the still smoking rubble. An image of Pa standing in the yard, surrounded by Ma and her little brother and sisters, brought a fresh round of tears to her already puffy and tired eyes.
Her folks had been a happy couple, farming the land and raising their small family. Polly was the oldest, born in Louisiana. Her folks decided to head West and start a fresh life when she was three years old. They arrived in Texas and after several years, they had a boy, and then a set of twin girls came along. Theo, Chloe, and Bridget were years younger than Polly, but she’d loved them anyway. They’d looked up to her and in some ways, she’d done as much as her ma to raise them. But now…
The rumble of wagons and sound of horses’ hooves caused her to turn her head and watch as the townsfolk began to head home. Polly, however, felt rooted to this spot. The giant oak tree didn’t show any signs of the disaster that had occurred that day. Its green leaves swayed in the breeze, and far overhead she could hear the sound of baby birds chirping away, but the sound didn’t bring her any joy.
Time passed and the sun began to sink lower in the sky. Polly felt like crying again, but her tears had mostly dried up. There were only a few men wandering around with shovels and pitch forks now. Occasionally they tossed something into the middle of the charred remains, but for the most part they were just standing around, quietly conversing amongst themselves.
Polly heard the words, but it took her foggy mind a moment before she turned her head. Her hair had come undone, and the dark brown strands not only smelled like smoke, but she could feel bits of ash and debris tangled in their lengths. She had braided it this morning and then wrapped it around the crown of her head before heading into town, trying to mimic the hairstyle she’d seen several of the younger women in town wearing. Her bonnet had covered most of her handiwork, and as she tucked the strands behind her ear, she realized she had also lost her bonnet somewhere.
“Miss? Miss Nichols?”
She blinked several times before she answered hoarsely, “Yes?”
“Miss, you really should come back to town with us,” the sheriff’s deputy murmured softly to her. “The sheriff says it isn’t safe for you out here and it’s going to be getting dark in a couple of hours.”
Polly nodded her head, not really hearing the man’s words. When he touched her forearm and gently led her over to the wagon that had been brought from town, she stirred enough to look around and locate Pa’s wagon and horse. “I should probably drive the wagon…”
The deputy saw where she was looking and gestured for one of the other men to assist her. “I’ll have Dave take the wagon and horse over to the livery until you decide what to do next. I’m sorry to say that the barn and house are a complete loss. Nothing could be saved.”
Polly nodded numbly and allowed the deputy to lead her over to his own wagon and assist her in climbing up onto the buckboard. It seemed the ride back into town took no time at all, and she found herself standing in front of the sheriff’s office.
“Miss Nichols is there someone you can go and stay with for a bit, until you figure out what to do next? A friend or family member?” the deputy asked.
Polly looked up and down the street and then shook her head. “Maybe the boarding house?” Mrs. Stewart might give her a bed for a night, but without any money to pay for it, she wasn’t sure how long the widow would be willing to do so.
“Can you get there by yourself or would you like an escort?” the deputy asked.
“I can get there by myself.” She turned and started down the street, only to stop and turn back around. “Thank you.”
“Just doing my job, Miss. Best of luck.”
Polly made her way down the street, but in her present state of mind, she wasn’t really paying much attention and instead of winding up on the steps of the boarding house, she mistakenly wound up on the steps of a two story house with a wide wraparound porch. She couldn’t remember having ever seen this house before, but then she’d never had occasion to visit Mrs. Stewart at her home before now.
As exhaustion pulled at her remaining store of energy, she raised her hand and knocked on the door. She was about to go back down the stairs when the sound of footsteps came toward the door. She took a step backward, an apology on her lips, when the most beautiful young woman she’d ever seen opened the door. She was dressed in a silk dressing gown that enhanced her feminine curves and Polly was sure it wasn’t an appropriate way to answer the door. Compared to the soot-covered gingham farm dress she was currently wearing, with the scuffed leather boots on her feet, lack of bonnet on her head, and no doubt smudges of dirt and soot on her face, the woman standing before her was like royalty.
“Hello?” the young woman stuck her head out of the door and looked around to see if Polly was alone. When she saw no one else, she looked Polly up and down, concern filling her gaze before she stepped back and opened the door wider. “Did you want to come inside?”
“I’m sorry…I…where…?” Polly was flustered, the events of the day finally caught up to her and she felt her vision begin to grow dark. She stumbled back another step and reached behind her for the porch railing. She gripped onto it, using it to help keep herself upright.
“Sweetie are you okay?” the woman asked, extending a hand toward her.
Polly looked back down the street, trying to remember how to get back to the boarding house from here and realized she must have taken a wrong turn. Exhaustion pulled at her, and she lightly shook her head, only to sway on her feet once again. The woman in the doorway moved forward and wrapped an arm around her waist. “I’ll take that as a no. Come inside and let’s get you cleaned up a bit.” The young woman sniffed and then wrinkled her nose. “A change of clothing is in order, as well. You smell like the inside of the chimney.”
“The house burned down,” Polly murmured as she allowed herself to be guided toward the doorway.
“Oh! That’s terrible.” The beautiful woman ushered her inside and shut the door.
“Did I hear someone at the door?” another voice came from Polly’s left. She turned her head and saw another older woman standing there, dressed in a deep red velvet dress that accentuated all of her womanly assets. She had white hair, piled elegantly atop her head, and her voice when she spoke had a strange accent that was almost like a song to Polly’s ears.
The young woman still helping to hold her upright smiled and then answered softly, “Something terrible seems to have occurred. She said her house burned down.”
“Oh, dear,” the older woman gave her a sympathetic look that seemed devoid of pity and only concern for Polly’s well-being. “Are you injured, dear? Shall I send for the doctor?”
“Take her upstairs and get her cleaned up. If you find she needs the services of the doctor, please let me know. Charles won’t mind making a house call on his way home.”
“I’ll let you know,” the young woman stated and then turned Polly so that they were facing a staircase leading up. She kept her arm around Polly as they carefully navigated the stairs, and then she took her to a small room at the end of the hallway. She retrieved a clean cloth and the basin of water from the dresser. After wetting it, she handed it to Polly. “You work on cleaning your face and I’ll go see about drawing a bath for you.”
A few days later, Polly sat in the bed, several quilts piled around her and a cup of tea in her hands. The young woman, who had finally introduced herself as Jasmine, sat in a chair next to the bed watching her. Polly had slept for almost twenty-four hours before waking in the throes of a nightmare she could still recall. The heat from the flames. The sound of the walls collapsing. Her own screams and cries for someone to please help. According to Jasmine, she had been having nightmares off and on for the last few nights.
“I’m sorry to have been such a bother,” she twisted her free hand in the quilt lying on her lap.
“Polly, you’ve been through a great tragedy. I cannot even imagine what you must be feeling. Now, there are a few things that require your attention…”
“The funeral,” Polly murmured, sadness coloring her voice. She knew she needed to see about having her family buried. Yesterday, she’d explained about the fire and how everything she knew was gone, and Jasmine had seemed very sympathetic. She’d listened as Polly cried, and now that her story was finished, she had declared that Polly needed to take control of her destiny, else she would find herself relying on the charity of others. A soft knock came on the door and then Madame Cherise entered the room, looking as elegant and refined as ever.
“How are you feeling today?” the older woman asked, giving Polly a warm smile.
“Better,” Polly replied back.
“Good. What were you ladies discussing?” she inquired.
Jasmine answered, “We were talking about some of the things that need to be handled sooner than later.”
“Ah,” Madame Cherise nodded and then added, her voice softly melodic, “I also have a few questions for you. How you answer them will help determine your future.”
“I don’t understand,” Polly told her in confusion. Madame Cherise had been very kind to her, but it was Jasmine who had been her shoulder to lean and cry on these last few days. She turned her head and silently asked her new friend to help.
Jasmine smiled and then asked her, “Does talking to strangers bother you?”
“Strangers? I don’t think so. Why?”
“Well, it seems to me that you are in need of a job and a place to live. I have a suggestion that will take care of both of those at the same time, but you might not want to consider it after I tell you what it is.” Madame Cherise answered, watching her carefully. This made Polly suddenly feel nervous and a small shiver of unease traveled down her spine.
Polly gave both women a weak smile and replied, “You’ve both helped me so much these last few days, if you have a suggestion, I’d like to hear it. Please?”
Jasmine and Madame Cherise exchanged a look before turning their attention back to her. After another moment’s pause, Jasmine nodded and asked, “Very well. Do you know where you are?”
Polly murmured, “Where I am?” Since climbing the stairs, she hadn’t left the room at the end of the hallway. The two women before her had made sure she had everything she needed, including having the doctor visit her the next morning. Jasmine made sure food was brought up to her, but Polly hadn’t really had an appetite until today. She just couldn’t seem to quit thinking about everything she’d lost and worrying about the future.
She brought her attention back to the present and gave Jasmine a wan smile. “You asked me if I knew where I was?”
Polly shrugged her shoulders. “Well, I was headed for the boarding house, but I ended up here…is this your home?”
“Not exactly, but I do live here. So does Madame Cherise. This is a brothel.” Jasmine paused a moment while Polly digested that information.
“Do you know what goes on here?” Madame Cherise inquired.
A brothel? Polly blushed and ducked her head. “I’ve heard things…”
“Most of which are probably not true. Look, we entertain lonely men here. Some of them just want to talk and maybe cuddle a little, and others…well, I won’t go into that right now,” Madame Cherise told her.
Jasmine cleared her throat. “Polly, I make a good living here and I’m in control of my own destiny.”
“What does that have to do with me?” Polly asked.
“You’ve been worried about what you were going to do, where you were going to live, and how you were going to pay for both. Madame Cherise and I have talked…we think you could stay here…”
Polly was shocked. She opened her mouth and then closed it. On the third try, she finally found her voice. “You want me to become…you…I couldn’t…” She finally gave up trying to put her jumbled thoughts into words. There was no way she could become a whore. That’s what she’d overheard folks calling women who lived and worked at brothels.
Madame Cherise gave her an encouraging smile. “What Jasmine didn’t get a chance to explain, is that this arrangement would only be for a short time. Just until June arrives, and then you could go with Jasmine to Santa Fe.”
“What’s in Santa Fe?” Polly asked, still trying to make sense of this conversation.
“Well, I’m not really going to be in Santa Fe, but a place called Rio Arriba. It’s a small town south of Santa Fe.”
“I don’t understand. You want me to stay here and entertain men…”
Madame Cherise chuckled and then shook her head. “Child, if you should decide at some point in your life that you want to do so, I would not stand in your way, but something tells me you would find it very difficult to follow in my footsteps.”
Jasmine stood up and then sat on the end of the bed. “Madame Cherise said you could help in the kitchens and…”
“Uhm…I…I’m not a very good cook. Ma was teaching me, but I…”
“We have a very nice cook. If you decide to help in the kitchens, you would just be lending an extra pair of hands. But I’m sure there are plenty of other things you could help out with. Do you have any special talents?” Madame Cherise asked in a soft voice.
“Well…I can sew and mend things,” Polly offered.
Madame Cherise beamed a smile at her and clapped her hands once. “Perfect. As you can see, the clothing we choose to wear is not something that can be purchased ready-made. I believe you could help with the mending and possibly help to complete some new dresses for the girls and myself that have been too long in the making.”
Polly nodded. “I could try.” She smiled and then paused, her smile fading as she asked quietly, “Would that mean I still have to…talk to strangers…to men?”
“No, child. This is not a life for you, or Jasmine. I chose this life because I had no other options available to me at the time. I’ve protected Jasmine as much as I can, but I now have a chance to do more.”
“Madame Cherise just acquired another building in Rio Arriba. It’s a small town and there would only be you and me there initially, but she promised to give me enough money to live for a few months while I get things situated there.”
“You’re going to start a brothel?” Polly asked in shock.
“If you come with me, we could be starting a brothel. Madame Cherise won the building in a card game and since she has no desire to leave Texas, she suggested I might like the opportunity. Just think about it. We could start over in a new place and make our own future.”
“But, if I joined you, and stayed there, that would make me a…” Polly stopped, not even able to say the word.
“Whore?” Jasmine finished her sentence.
Polly nodded her head, her mind swamped with all sorts of thoughts. She’d always been made to believe that the women who lived in a brothel were evil and sinful women, but Madame Cherise and Jasmine had been nothing but kind to her. There wasn’t anything evil about them. No one else in the town had come to Polly’s aid when she needed help. The townsfolk who had come out to the farm to see the ruins of her family home, had left after saying only a few words designed to make themselves feel better and had done nothing to help Polly figure out how to handle this tragedy.
At the age of eighteen, she should have already been married with a family and home of her own, but she’d not met any eligible young men who she wanted to spend more than a few hours with, let alone the rest of her life. With three siblings at home, and her folks working long days to keep the farm going, getting up before the sun and retiring long after it had sunk behind the horizon, Polly hadn’t minded remaining at home and helping out.
She’d had little time for going into town or attending the social gatherings designed for young people her age to make friends and develop relationships. The women who lived in town had always looked down their noses at her Ma and then her, and Polly had never really understood why they considered themselves better. It just didn’t make sense to her and every time she’d asked her ma about it, she had been told that she should never let others determine how she viewed herself. The only opinion that should matter to her was her own and that of her loved ones.
Forcing her thoughts back to the matter at hand, she told the two women, “I need…I’m not really sure…my family needs to be buried…”
Jasmine shook her head and then told her softly, “The undertaker was here yesterday, and I gave him leave to get the caskets built. He suggested holding the funeral tomorrow morning before the rain arrives.”
“Thank you, but I don’t have any idea of how to pay you…”
“Don’t worry about it. The undertaker and I worked things out. He mentioned that you had a horse and a wagon at the livery, and I gave him some money to pay the livery keeper until you can retrieve them,” Madame Cherise softly informed her.
Polly took a moment to let those words sink in. She looked between the two women, confusion filling her brain. “Why are you helping me? You don’t even know me,” Polly asked them.
Jasmine gave her a sad smile. “Because there was a time when I needed help and Madame Cherise was the only one who stepped forward to help me. I didn’t see any of those women from town who call themselves Christians chasing you down as you stood at our door. Did they not know about the fire?”
“They knew. Many of them came with their husbands to see it. My family wasn’t well-liked. Only a handful of people, along with the sheriff and his deputy, even spoke to me,” Polly murmured, grief lacing her words.
“So much for Christian charity,” Madame Cherise said with a hint of disgust in her voice.
“So, what do you think about our offer?” Jasmine asked.
Polly looked at the young woman who had befriended her in her hour of need and couldn’t even imagine trying to go forward with her life without at least one friend by her side. Madame Cherise was quietly watching her, and when their eyes met, she nodded and gave her an encouraging smile. It seemed she only had a few friends in this town, just recently acquired, even though she’d lived here for more than fifteen years. She didn’t need platitudes or sympathetic and pitying stares, she needed solutions. Madame Cherise was offering her one and a chance to start a new life in a new town. Jasmine wanted her company and help.
There was nothing for Polly here. No friends. No family. Most of the town didn’t even notice she was alive. Leaving here would be a relief and a chance to get away from the painful memories of her family’s deaths.
Before she could talk herself out of it, she nodded. “I’m in. You said we would leave in June?”
Jasmine nodded. “You really will come with me?” She smiled brightly, “Oh, that is wonderful news. I was hoping I wouldn’t have to go alone.”
“You won’t,” Polly assured her. Her face fell and then she added, “But, I don’t have a clue as to what you actually do or what I need to do…”
Madame Cherise nodded approvingly. “Don’t worry about that right now. We’ll figure it out as we go. Speaking of which, I should probably head downstairs and see if the cook needs me. Jasmine will help you get dressed and come downstairs.” She gave Polly one last smile and then quietly left the room.
Jasmine stood up and nodded toward the corner of the room. “I left a dress for you on the chair. It’s probably not what you’re used to wearing, but it will have to do for now. There’s a shawl you can use to wrap around your shoulders that will offer you a bit more modesty.”
Polly arched a brow, wondering exactly what sort of dress she’d been left. Jasmine’s own clothing was very immodest, showing a large portion of her upper chest and arms. Polly had never worn something made of satin and lace and she was slightly alarmed as she wondered what she might look like dressed thusly. She and Jasmine were of similar build and while she might wonder how she would look in a dress like Jasmine’s, she also knew there was no way she could attend her family’s funeral dressed like that.
“Don’t worry,” Jasmine told her with a soft laugh, reading the worry on her face. “I left you one from my earlier days that doesn’t show off anything.”
Polly nodded and Jasmine left the room. Thirty minutes later, Polly descended the stairs in search of Jasmine, dressed in the deep blue satin dress with the rows of black lace around the neck and cuffs. The bodice was very fitted and the skirt not as full as her usual clothing, but she was pleased to know that she wouldn’t have to wear the same dress to her family’s funeral that she’d been wearing the afternoon they died.
The next morning, with Jasmine by her side, she stood in the local cemetery and listened to the preacher recite Scriptures and words from his little black book. Madame Cherise and several of the other women from the brothel were also in attendance, but they stood back, knowing how many of the other townsfolk felt about them. Polly had understood their reasoning, even though she didn’t agree with it. So far, the women of the brothel had shown her so much more charity and friendship the women of the town would have a hard time equaling.
Five caskets were lined up in front of her, and five corresponding holes had been dug into the damp earth. The townsfolk had come out for the funeral, but no one stopped to speak to her. Several of the women glared at Jasmine, but she only smiled back at them in return.
When she heard the preacher toss a handful of dirt upon each casket and issue his final prayer, she wanted nothing more than to run and hide. Her folks had been hard-workers and hadn’t involved themselves much in the activities of the town. They’d always blamed work or chores as the reason for not attending the weekly church services, but Polly had secretly known that her parents were happier away from the gossip and judgments that seemed so prevalent in the town.
After seeing the way she was treated by the townsfolk on this sorrow-filled day, she completely understood their reasoning. As she and Jasmine made their way back to the brothel sometime later, Polly was glad that she would be leaving this town and starting a new life someplace else. There was nothing left for her here. Rio Arriba was going to be her new home and she would do whatever she needed to do to be successful and help Jasmine. Whatever was required.