Gold that Glitters by Valerie Fletcher Adolph
Dawson City, Yukon, 1898
For her debut at the Whiskey Barrel saloon Amelia chose a dress of vivid blue satin from the half dozen jewel-colored gowns on the rack. Wrinkling her nose at the aroma of stale perfume and cigar smoke that clung to it – after all, other singers had worn it before her – she sprinkled perfume into her cleavage.
Hands trembling, she descended the rickety wooden stairs to face her first audience – the rabble of gold miners crammed into a smoke-darkened saloon. She glanced over to be sure Dogface Joe was in position at the piano. He played a couple of notes and she nodded, knowing he could read the crowd better than she could. They quietened as she posed against the piano, her fingers gripping its edge, and began to sing.
Within a week this had become the best moment of her day – her sense of control over all these men, some rich, some important, some just bloody lonely. She had them all gazing, if not at her face at least at her cleavage. She had never before felt this sense of power. If she strolled toward the window the crowd looked to the window. If she leaned provocatively close to one man the others groaned. It was beyond her imagining as a girl who had sung solos at the English church in Seattle, brought north by Arnold, a young husband lured by the gold bug.
He had turned out to be a lover who knew more ways to make love than she had ever imagined (where had he spent these last five years?) Then, too, he had taught her how to pan for gold, how to haul water from the stream while watching for bears, how to kill a rat with one blow from a chunk of firewood.
It was too bad, she thought, that he never seemed to be successful panning for gold. He’d found tiny pieces – he called them ‘nuggets’ but Amelia thought that, except for one or two, they were hardly bigger than dust motes. Quickly, their supplies, carried in themselves over mosquito-infested trails, were running short - so desperately short that hunger drove her to stagger miles along the narrow tracks to Dawson City to find a way to earn money for food.
She’d found the only available job was at the Whiskey Barrel saloon. Her dress, dull grey, torn, serviceable had been against her as she had appealed to the saloon owner.
“Find something better to wear!” Fat Sam had said, his immense belly supporting the bar as he poured liquor into an endless supply of glasses.
Find? Where? She had not dared to ask. Fat Sam might as well have said “Go away.” But Dogface Joe, recognizing a rich speaking voice when he heard it above the rowdiness of the saloon, left his piano and took her up to the dressing room, bringing her back down in a tight russet-coloured gown only slightly torn at the seams.
“Doesn’t matter. I’ll catch up on the piano.”
All she could think of was “Old Rugged Cross”. Fat Sam clutched his head and groaned.
“She’ll do.” Dogface Joe’s jowls hid what was almost a smile. “Fire that Florence – her voice would scare rattlesnakes. Or let her wash dishes. I don’t care. I can work with this one – she’ll make us money.”
And work her he did on that very first afternoon. Not just teaching her songs, but how to sing them - this one while perched on a knee, that one while leaning forward, the other while guiding a hand to…
“Wait! He’ll think he can go to bed with me!”
“Only if you want to.” Dogface wasn’t looking at her. “Or if you want the money. Or the job.”
She felt so stupid. She should have known, of course she should have known. She had just never thought. She should walk out right now. Well, she should take this dress off first. Leaving was the only possible course of action. Only bad girls let men have their way before they were married.
Although, of course, she was married, just not to men in the saloon, and she was hungry. She hadn’t eaten for three days.
Perhaps Dogface was a mind reader. “There’s food in the kitchen. But it’s only for them as works here – our family, so to speak.”
“That’s soup you smell.” Sam added, “And bread fresh from the bakery.”
“It’s not like you’re a virgin.” Dogface said. “You said your husband’s panning up some creek somewhere. You could send him plenty of food, if you had the money.”
Yes, she could do that for him. Send him food so he could keep searching for gold. How happy it would make him. He loved it so much out there, every gold pan full of promise.
“If I had to, I suppose I could…” Her mind raced, searching ways to avoid the inevitable. She could tell them, “No”. A true gentleman would not force her. Yes, that would work. She could even slap his face if he insisted. Word would get around that Amelia was just a singer - no over-familiarity afterwards. If they came upstairs they could enjoy a pleasant conversation.
Her hunger persuaded her. The soup, two bowls of it, tasted delicious, along with bread, fresh bread followed by some kind of liquor that made her walk unsteadily, her head reeling. Dogface took her upstairs and showed her a room with a bed and left her. At least she thought he did; afterwards she was never quite sure.
That first night, still wobbly on her feet, Fat Sam had introduced her to the crowded saloon as a shy newcomer who would only sing one song. Of course, they wanted more. Dogface guided her to the stairs, “Turn. Face them. Tell them ‘tomorrow’. Sell it.”
Miraculously she did, leaning forward, breathy, stretching it out. The yelling and applause surprised her. Perhaps it surprised Dogface too because he patted her bottom. “Good girl.”
She quickly learned saloon songs and how to sing them so the men roared for more. She chose the best of the dresses on the rack and practised details of her act - pouts, quick twists of the hips that took her out of reach, brushing up accidentally against an arm.
However, she hadn’t practised the art of conversation. Her first visitor, a prospector by the look of his bent back and scarred hands, plunked a nugget on her bedside table and threw himself on the bed.
“Get the goddam dress off or…”
He reached over and threw her down on the thin mattress, his hands struggling with her skirt and his own clothing.
“You might help a fellow!”
He sounded so injured that in spite of herself she pulled the fabric aside. Given the opportunity he took it with a growl as he shoved away at her.
Finished, he lay back. “I’ve had worse,” he said, “But not many. Did Fat Sam teach you nothing?”
She shuddered as she shook her head, the shame of the moment and what Arnold might say overwhelming her.
With the sigh of a man burdened with other men’s worries the prospector began to demonstrate. “To start with, no talking. Men get tired of women yapping away. Then at least look as if you want me. Smile.”
He was thorough, Amelia had to give him that. She’d thought Arnold knew all about being in bed with a woman, but this… When she got back to Arnold, she had so much to show him, he’d love it. She need not tell him how she had discovered it.
The next morning she began to worry. She should never have allowed that man to come upstairs. It was wrong. But the small nugget on her bedside table reminded her of Arnold. Maybe he would appreciate a real true lump of gold so much that he wouldn’t ask how she got it.
As days, and nights, passed she began to worry less about her husband and to look forward to showing him her gold – their gold.
“Wait till Arnold sees these,” she thought proudly each day, as the size of each new nugget increased. It wasn’t too bad as a way of life, she told herself, although she did not care for the perpetual stink of stale cigar breath and sickening body odors. “They’d fell a carthorse.” she murmured as she counted nuggets.
Fat Sam and Dogface Joe expected a cut, of course, but still nuggets kept coming. One was so large she wore it as a pendant. She told Dogface it was a hint for future customers but in truth she wore it because she loved the feel of it.
One morning she was drowsing over her coffee behind the bar when Dogface said some new sheet music had arrived on the steamship.
“Come on. Let’s try this one.”
She slid on to the piano bench and hummed along. “We could pause, just here. Draw it out. Drive them crazy.”
Then that voice behind them. That familiar voice. “Drive who crazy?”
Amelia leapt to her feet, “Arnold! I’m so glad to see you.”
His face, still, cold. “This is the last place I expected to find you.”
She hardly noticed that Dogface had disappeared. Fat Sam still stood behind the bar, thoughtfully chewing a plug of tobacco, eyeing the spittoon, apparently unaware of the stranger.
“I…I had to. It’s the only job I could get. I was starving. Did you get the food I sent you?”
“I did. “
He was staring at the nugget that hung so appealingly close to her neckline. “Where did you get that?”
“Oh, this?” She covered it with her hand. “It’s just something somebody gave me.”
“It must have been a very special somebody. Who was it?”
“I don’t know, someone who hit it rich I suppose.”
“You don’t know?”
Happiness drained from her face as she tried to explain. It all depended on the nuggets. He loved them, spent his time uselessly searching for them. But she had these big ones. He could have them all. It would make him so happy that he wouldn’t care how she had got them.
“She tugged at his arm. “Come on, upstairs. I’ve something to show you.”
“I just bet you have.”
He followed her, up the stairs, into the room with the rail of shiny gowns, the cigar smell. And the bed.
“You cheap little…”.
“No, no. Look at these! Aren’t they beautiful? You can have them, all of them.”
She saw only disbelief in his face. She reached for his hand and pressed gold into it.
“Filth!” He threw the nuggets down at her feet.
“I got them for you! I knew how much you loved gold and wanted it.”
She dropped to her knees. “Arnold. Truly I did it for you. Once I knew how important gold was for you I wanted to give you it. Now you don’t have to stand in cold streams any more. You have gold, right here. It’s yours.”
“You sold yourself, for this?”
“And this.” He grabbed the necklace and tore it off. “You filthy prostitute. You dirty little slut. How could I ever have thought I loved you?”
“You did love me. You do love me. I love you!” She was on her knees, her hands clutching at him.
He shoved her hands away. “I never want to see you again. Good riddance.”
He looked back, shuddering in disgust, as he opened the door. She heard him run downstairs, stride across the saloon. She heard Fat Sam call after him.
“Good move!” Take the gold and leave the girl!”