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The Grass Widow

The Grass Widow

Book excerpt

Chapter 1 - Callie’s Fall

What, in the name of God, did I do to deserve this shame and humiliation? 

Callie Jamison sat stiff-backed, wearing her best black suit and bonnet, her mourning garb. She brushed aside tears of rage and shame. She sat in her husband’s one-horse buggy, trotting down Front Street in Ellsworth, Kansas. They were coming from the courthouse on the sunny June morning where a judge had just dissolved her ten-year marriage to Evan Jamison.

I was a good wife.

Tears of shame stained Callie’s tanned cheek, and she refused to look at Evan. How could he have done this to her? She was now a divorced woman—a grass widow. How would she ever bear the shame and ridicule? Divorced women were to be shunned.

“Here you go, Callie,” Evan sneered as he brought the buggy to a halt in front of The Ellsworth House, “your new home.”

“You can’t be serious,” Callie gasped as she stared up at the three-story wood-framed building with Ellsworth House stenciled in gold on the big front window. “I can’t stay in this place it’s … it’s disreputable.”

“The judge said I had to pay for your room and board in a suitable residence,” Evan sneered. “You’re a disreputable woman now, Callie, so this is plenty suitable for you as far as I can reckon.” Evan began to chuckle as he lifted her three carpet bags from the back of the buggy.

“Come on, woman,” Evan snapped as he carried her bags toward the door of the boarding house, “I don’t have all day. I’ve got a ranch to run.”

And I suppose you’re going to be moving that little girl into my house as soon as you can.

Evan had made no secret of his affair with Polly Hardin, the nineteen-year-old daughter of a neighbor and one of Callie’s former students at the school, where she’d taught Ellsworth’s children for the last seven years.

Callie took a deep breath, hitched up her skirts and stepped down from the buggy. A warm, dry breeze blew a loose strand of auburn hair into her tear-filled blue eyes and Callie brushed it back into place with her gloved hand. She held her head high, straightened her jacket, and stepped up onto the dusty boardwalk.

She struggled to put one foot in front of the other as she followed Evan into the gaudy lobby of the town boarding house, and brothel if the rumors were correct. Young women in loose-fitting, lacy dressing gowns sat on settees covered in red velvet upholstery. Callie needed no more evidence to know the rumors were correct. The Ellsworth House was, indeed, a brothel.

I’m going to petition the judge. This is anything but suitable for a schoolteacher and churchgoing woman. Evan can’t possibly be serious.

“What can I do for you folks?” the tall scar-faced man behind the counter asked, eyeing the bags Evan carried and Callie. The man’s deep-set dark eyes sent a shiver down Callie’s spine as he stood leering down at her.

“Do you have that room ready I talked to you about, Caine?” Evan asked with a satisfied grin at Callie.

“I know you wanted her on the third floor,” Matthew Caine said with his eyes on Callie. He licked his thin lips and grinned, “but I’ve had to put her downstairs with the girls until something opens up there. I have a full house just now.”

“Ain’t she a bit old to be down with us, Matt?” one of the young women called out. “She looks to be as old as my ma, and just as prudish with her high collar and pinned up hair under that matron’s bonnet.” The other women laughed, and Callie felt her cheeks flush with embarrassment as her eyes stung with fresh tears.

I’m going to petition that judge if I must crawl to the courthouse on my knees. I can’t stay in this horrid place with these women.

“I don’t care where the hell you put her,” Evan snapped and dropped Callie’s bags on the polished wood floor. “She’s no never-mind of mine now.” He threw his hands into the air, turned, and stormed out of the lobby.

“Well, ain’t he a sweetheart,” one of the young women hissed as she came to stand beside Callie. “Where do you want her, Matt?” she asked the tall man. “Ruthie’s old room?”

The tall man nodded without taking his eyes off Callie’s bosoms.

I’d swear he’s measuring me for a dress.

“Come on, honey,” the girl said and bent to pick up two of Callie’s discarded bags, “I’ll show ya to your room.”

Callie stooped, picked up her other bag, and followed the slender redhead past the counter and down a narrow, dark hall papered with the same gaudy flocked wallpaper as the lobby.

“We girls use these rooms,” the girl explained, “because there’s a door to the outside at the end of the hall so our clients don’t have to leave through the lobby,” she said pointing to a hazy light at the far end of the hall, “and so that nosy fuck, Caine, don’t know our comings and goings,” she added as she opened a door near the lobby end of the hall.

“There’s no key?” Callie asked as she flinched at the young woman’s use of the vulgarity, wide-eyed and appalled.

The redhead carried Callie’s bags into a room where a big brass-framed bed sat as the central feature and a tall wardrobe with a cracked oval mirror in one door stood on the opposite wall. She saw a washstand with an enameled pitcher and bowl. A matching chamber pot sat on the floor beside the bed. A small vanity stood beside the window with an oval mirror on the wall above it. The room smelled as though the former resident had left the chamber pot full upon departing and nobody had bothered to empty it.

“My name is Maisie,” the girl said, offering her petite, freckled hand, “but most of the girls just call me Ruby for my hair.”

“Which do you prefer?” Callie asked and took the girl’s warm hand.

Maisie gave her a perplexed look as if nobody had ever asked the question before. “Ma and my granny always called me Mae,” the girl whispered, “You can call me Mae if you want.”

“I’m Callie,” she said as she shook Mae’s hand. “Thanks for the help with the bags, Mae.”

“No, bother,” the pretty girl said with a grin that pushed the freckled balls of her cheeks up beneath her bright, green eyes. “Matt is a terrible bother,” she said, “and a lazy ass. He sends us clients, takes the pay, and keeps more than his ten percent, we’re all fairly certain,” Mae said with narrowed eyes. “Be careful of him,” she warned. “I don’t like the way he was ogling ya out there.”

At least I’m not the only one who noticed.

 “You’ll have to get your own water from the pump out back and carry your chamber pot to the outhouse. It’s out back too, but you can get to it easy from the door at the end of the hall.”

Her eyes darted around the room and stopped at the bed with its thin ticking mattress without a pillow. “You’ll have to supply your own bedding, I’m afraid,” Mae sighed. “Most of us carry ours with us in our trunks as we travel from town to town, but you can get new at the mercantile down the street.”

“Thanks,” Callie said with a frown. She hadn’t considered the need for bedding when she’d hurriedly packed her things that morning. She’d assumed Evan would take her to the hotel and not drop her into this whorehouse.

Callie had been sure of what the outcome at the courthouse would be, however. Evan and Judge Sterling were poker-buddies and Callie had known the man would grant Evan the divorce he wanted.

“Do you have money?” the girl asked meekly. “If you don’t, I can front you a few dollars until you do.”

“I have a little,” Callie said with a weak grin, “but thank you, kindly for the offer.”

“It’s not easy being a woman on your own,” Mae sighed. “You have to pay for everything. Most of us take our meals at the Flat Iron Café across the street. Old man Jenkins trades off meals for a suck in the kitchen every now and again when his wife ain’t there,” she said with her cheeks turning red.

Callie knew Hiram Jenkins and grinned. “I think I can afford the few cents for a meal.”

“Oh,” the girl added as she went to the door, “here’s your key,” she said, taking the key from the lock, and handing it to Callie. “We all keep ours with us,” Mae added with a shake of her curly red head. “We never leave them with Caine at the desk when we go out like at a hotel.”

“Thank you, Mae,” Callie said. “I guess I’d better put my things away and make a list of what I’m going to need from the mercantile.”

“Oh, yes, ma’am,” Mae said and opened the door. The jovial high-pitched laughter of young women came drifting in and Mae rolled her eyes. “Tabby must have told another one of her silly jokes. She’s your neighbor, by the way, and I’ll warn ya now,” Mae said, nodding to the wall separating Callie’s from the room next door. The redhead grinned and winked. “Tabby enjoys her work and can get right loud when she’s at it.”

When the girl closed the door, Callie hurried to lock it and tested it with a twist of the knob and a hard tug. Convinced the door was secure, Callie took a minute to study her new abode. The plaster walls had been painted a pale, muted green, but cracks scarred the plaster in places. Callie wrinkled her nose and didn’t want to consider what had made the stains running down the wall beside the dulled, brass headboard.

I suppose I could paint to freshen things up. No, I refuse to consider this place my permanent residence.

The single window had no curtain and when Callie pushed aside the drawn canvas shade, she noted prints on the outside of the glass that looked as though a face had been pressed against it, trying to get a look inside.

Perhaps the former resident liked to put on shows for prospective clients.

Callie lifted her bags onto the bed and took out her clothes.

No sense letting them wrinkle. I have no iron or any way to heat one.

 She shook each garment out before hanging it on one of the wooden hangers in the narrow wardrobe. When she’d finished, she studied the meager wardrobe of six skirts, six blouses, and jackets she’d made of coordinating fabrics she could mix and match to expand her ensembles from six to several dozen.

At the washbasin, Callie arranged her comb and brush along with a few pins and ribbons for her hair. She took her bonnets from a bag and set them on the shelf in the wardrobe along with the few sewing things she’d stuffed in at the last minute.

How do you go about stuffing ten years of marriage into three little bags? I had to leave so much behind.

Callie dropped onto the thin, bare mattress again and tears washed down her face.

What did I do to deserve this? Get old? Become barren when I gave birth to my baby and then lose her to a fever? How is that all my fault? I took vows that said for better or for worse until death do us part. I thought Evan did as well.

When the tears had run their course, Callie wiped her eyes, took the filthy chamber pot along with the pitcher from her room, and went out the back door to find the water pump. As she walked down the hall, Callie heard the noises of girls entertaining clients in their rooms. Raucous laughter, grunts, groans, and the pounding of headboards filtered out into the hall.

Callie hurried along with the pitcher of cold water sloshing in her arms and the freshly cleaned pot. Her breath caught in her throat as she pushed the door to her room open and found Matthew Caine standing at her wardrobe, fingering the lace of a dressing gown she’d hung on a hook in the wardrobe.

“What are you doing in my room?” Callie gasped as she stepped to the washstand to set the pitcher into the bowl.

“Well,” the tall man said with a grin as he put the frill of lace to his nose, “this is actually one of my rooms and I thought the two of us should have a little talk about the house rules and such.” Caine smiled and Callie noticed the long, puckered scar on his right cheek draw up his mouth as he leered down at her.

“House rules?” Callie asked uneasily.

This should be interesting.

Caine moved around the bed and reached Callie’s side in two quick strides of his long legs. “Let me have a look at you,” he said and pulled the combs from Callie’s hair. Her thick chestnut waves cascaded down past her shoulders. Caine fluffed them a bit as she stood stiff with shock and surprise. He stepped back to leer down at Callie, a good foot shorter than Caine’s six-feet six-inch height with his boots on.

I’ve never been treated so rudely. What does he think gives him the right to come into my room uninvited?

“I’d appreciate you taking your hands off me and leaving my room,” Callie demanded and tried to jerk her hand from his grasp.

The giant of a man grinned and continued to hold her arm. “That’s just what I thought when I first saw you come in. You could still be a money-maker here, even though you have a few years on you.” He let his hand slide down over her blouse to caress one of Callie’s bosoms. She cringed at his touch and tried to step away.

“You have no right,” Callie gasped and drew back her hand to deliver a slap.

“Now, now,” Caine said with a chuckle as he grabbed Callie’s other slender wrist. “If you’re gonna be one of my girls, you’re going to need to learn some manners.” He dropped one of her arms and twisted the other arm painfully behind Callie’s back.

“Evan says you’re an average fuck,” Caine said, leering into Callie’s tear-filled eyes, “but I bet I can train you up to be much better than average.” He began fumbling with the buttons on her white cotton blouse. “Now, let’s see what we have to work with here.” He pulled open the garment and tugged at the ribbon to untie her camisole. The tiny buttons flustered his big fingers and he yanked the camisole open to expose Callie’s heavy bosoms. “Yah, those are nice,” he said as he caressed one of her nipples with the tip of his finger, causing it to stiffen.

How am I going to get myself out of this mess?

“Let go of me, you beast,” Callie screamed and clawed at Caine’s big hand. She let out a bloodcurdling scream, but the big man simply grinned down at her.

“That ain’t gonna do nothin’ for ya, sweetheart,” he said with a chuckle and pinched her nipple harder as Callie struggled in his grasp.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing, Matthew Caine?” Mae yelled as she came flying through the door with another of the girls from the lobby.

Caine released Callie to glare at Mae. “What I’m doing is none of your damned business, Ruby, so get the hell out and let me finish with her.” He glared down at Callie who fumbled to get her blouse rebuttoned.

“You’re more than finished, big man,” the other girl said and tugged on Caine’s sleeve until he followed her out of Callie’s room.

Mae closed the brown six-panel door and turned the key in the lock. “I told you Caine was an ass,” Mae snapped. “Why did you let him in your room?”

“I didn’t,” Callie protested and pushed her hair out of her face. “I went out for water and he was in my room when I got back.”

Mae rolled her big green eyes. “That’s why I told you to lock your room and take your key with you when you went out,” she said. “If you don’t, the big ass will go through your things and wait to pounce on you when you get back. He thinks he owns us all and can have a poke whenever the mood strikes.”

“Oh, my lord,” Callie said and heaved a sigh. “How can you all put up with that?” Callie slipped into her jacket and pulled down her sleeves, rubbing her arm where Caine had twisted it. “If you and your friend hadn’t come in, I think he would have …” Callie’s eyes filled with tears again as she glanced at the bed.

“Yes,” Mae confirmed, “I’m sure that’s exactly what he intended. “Don’t worry none on that account, though,” she said with a grin, “I’m sure Trudy is setting him straight right about now.”

“Trudy?”

“The blonde girl who was with me,” she said.   “When we came in and saw Caine wasn’t lazin’ in his chair at the counter, I had a feelin’ he might be in here harassing you,” Mae continued as she stood at Callie’s washstand examining one of her pewter hairpins. “I dragged Trudy along because she fancies Caine her intended and wouldn’t put up with any bullshit from him.”

“Oh, my word,” Callie sighed, picturing the slim, blue-eyed young woman who’d tugged Caine from the room.

“I was comin’ in to see if you wanted to go with me back up to the mercantile,” Mae said as she ran her fingers over the stiff bristles of Callie’s hairbrush. “Martin has a new order of fabric in that would be perfect for bed linens and curtains for your room, if you’re staying here, that is.”

Callie eyed the empty mattress and sighed, “I don’t know if I’m staying, but I guess I’m gonna have to do something if I want to have something to sleep on tonight.”

Unflinching

Unflinching

Pirates And Pickled Heads

Pirates And Pickled Heads