Read an Excerpt
A Bride's Portrait of Dodge City, Kansas
By Erica Vetsch
Barbour Publishing, Inc. Copyright © 2011 Erica Vetsch
All rights reserved.
June 1, 1878
Uncle Carl had taught her that the customer should be accommodated no matter what, but surely there were limitations. Addie Reid pressed her fingertips against her temple. "You want to do what?"
"I want my picture made with my horse." "Sir, this isn't a livery stable. I do serious portraiture." The cowboy—so prototypical of the breed as to be comical with his wide hat, sunburned face, and bat-wing chaps—waved a scrap of newsprint in her face. "Read this here ad. It says 'Come to Reid's Photography to get your portrait taken with your trail pards and best friends.' This is your ad, ain't it? You are Reid's Photography?"
A small pang twisted Addie's heart. She was now. What if I can't do this alone?
"Yes, that's my advertisement, and this is Reid's Photography."
"Good. Then I want my picture made with my trail pard and best friend. I've got good cash money. Trail boss paid us off an hour ago. I got spiffed up down at the barbershop and headed right here."
"But sir, a horse? The advertisement is intended for humans."
"That horse"—he pointed through the open door to a dusty animal dozing in the sun on Front Street—"is the best friend and trail pard I've ever had. He's smart and gentle and has forgotten more about cow work than I'll ever know."
Which was either an accolade for the horse or an insult to the cowboy. She blew out a breath. "I can't haul the camera out into the street." Though she wouldn't risk moving the Chevalier for a simple portrait, perhaps she could use her smaller Scovill. Though the print would be smaller, too.
"I don't want no outside picture. I want it taken in the studio with one of those fancy backdrops. And I want the picture to be about this big"—he held up his hands about a foot apart—"so it will look good in a frame on the wall."
That ruled out the Scovill. A print that size would need the bigger camera. Her mind trotted back to what he'd said, and her jaw dropped. "You intend to bring a horse inside?" Jamming her hands on her hips, she shook her head. "No. Impossible. I'll take your picture, and it will be a good one, but the animal stays outside."
He tugged the corner of his enormous moustache. "I reckoned as much. No gumption. Should've known better than to come to a woman photographer. A man would understand. Guess I'll go over to Donaldson's. He offered to do it for me, but I wanted to give you a try at it first, since you're new in town and all. He said you'd be too timid."
Stung, Addie straightened. "Wait. Don't go." Donaldson's Photography three blocks down would be her biggest competitor, and Heber Donaldson had been the most vocal about the new photography shop on Front Street stealing his customers. "We can work something out." But it would have to be worth her while. She hesitated then quoted him a price.
The cowboy grinned. "That sounds fine to me. Donaldson was almost twice that. Don't you worry. My old Mudslinger's gentle as a spring breeze, and he'll stand quiet." He removed his hat and smoothed his hair. "You got a back door or something? I can lead him in that way."
"No, he can't come in through the back. That door's blocked off." She eyed the paisley-scattered rug in her reception room. "I suppose you'll have to lead him through here." This was ridiculous. Why was she even contemplating such a crazy idea?
Money. Pure and simple. She needed customers and couldn't afford to turn one away.
The cowpoke jammed his hat back on. "I'll fetch him in." He hustled outside as if afraid she might change her mind.
Which she should do. A horse in the studio?
Old Mudslinger's hooves clomped on the boardwalk and through the doorway, muffled on the carpet. She winced to think of horseshoe-shaped marks on the pretty red and blue rug but shrugged. Worry about the bank manager. Worry about convincing him to let you assume the mortgage. And while you're at it, maybe you should worry about how you're going to get this beast to hold still long enough for the exposure.
"This way." She hurried into the studio ahead of the horse and cowboy. The animal brought with him a whiff of sweaty hair and barnyard, hay and leather. Lovely. "Don't let him near the camera." In the center of the long room, her pride and joy, a glossy new Chevalier, stood on a tripod, the black drape hanging nearly to the floor. She crossed to a bench along one wall and pulled her order book toward her. Snagging a pencil from a jar, she held it poised above the page. "Can I have your name, please?"
"Call me Cracker. Everybody does."
"Very well, Mr. Cracker." She wrote the name and the date. He guffawed. "Not mister. Just Cracker. It's a nickname I picked up because I love those little oyster crackers like they serve over at the Dakota House. Can't get enough of those tiny things. I been called Cracker for about as long as I can remember."
Cracker and Mudslinger. Fran was not going to believe this. "Cracker, I've three backgrounds you can choose from, but I would suggest the landscape." She crossed the studio and tugged on the rope that raised the canvas curtain painted to look like a drawing room and lowered the heavy drape painted to look like rolling hills.
"Say, that's dandy." Cracker rested his arm across his saddle. Mudslinger stood still, one hind leg tucked up a bit, his ears drooping. Perhaps getting him to stand still wouldn't be a problem. Might be more challenging to make him look alive. Addie wrestled a plaster pedestal and a wicker chair out of the way and quickly folded a fringed piano scarf and tucked it away on a shelf. "Just what did you have in mind for a pose?"
Cracker rubbed his chin. "I want you to get all of us in the picture. Head to tail and hat to hooves. And could you make sure you get my rifle in the picture, too?" He patted the gunstock sticking out of a scabbard on his saddle. "This picture's for my mama back in Uvalde."
Why a picture intended for his mother would need to be bristling with guns, Addie didn't know, but once again Uncle Carl's voice in her ear reminded that above all else, she must try to accommodate the customer.
"Lead him around here then, so the rifle is on the side facing the camera. Are you going to be astride?" She stepped back as Mudslinger's haunches came around. If the man wanted to be in the saddle, she'd have to move the camera back, which would reduce some of the detail ... Her mind slipped into working mode, and she began to consider the lighting and the exposure time, the focal point, and how to achieve depth of field.
"Naw, I'll just stand beside him." Cracker looped the reins over the saddle horn and placed his hand on the pommel. He lifted his chin, shoved his hat back so it wouldn't shade his face, and stared off into the distance. "Like this. Like we're standing on a hill looking over a herd and dreaming of home."
Addie hid a smile. Cowboys might like to be thought of as firebrands and fearsome, but most were just boys with romantic notions and fierce pride. "That will be fine. You wait here while I prepare a plate. It won't take me a minute."
She ducked into the darkroom at the back of the building, struck a match to light the lantern, and lowered the red glass covering. Rosy light bathed the room, the workbench, the trays, and the rows of bottles and chemicals necessary to her job. She closed the door, shutting out all sunlight, and reached for a large glass slide to begin the process. Uncorking bottles and preparing the wet-plate washes, she shook her head again. A horse in her studio. If word got out, she might have a stampede of equine customers. Would that make the bank manager more amenable to her taking over the mortgage?
Just thinking of the meeting with the bank manager this afternoon made her hands shake. In her haste, she splashed a bit of silver nitrate on her cuff and wrist. Grrr. Grabbing the ammonia bottle and a rag, she dabbed at her skin. If she didn't get it off now, it would turn blackish-blue and take ages to wear off. Twisting her lips, she scowled at the once-white cuff now blotched.
She took precious moments to roll up her sleeves like she should've done right away and donned her work apron to cover her straight, blue skirt. She wouldn't have time to go back to her boardinghouse to change before meeting the bank manager, so now, in spite of the warm day, she'd have to don the matching jacket to cover the stain on her sleeve.
Finally, she had a prepared plate in the lightproof box. Entering the studio once more, she noted that neither cowboy nor horse had stirred. "I'll just get this into the camera. You'll both have to stand completely still until the plate has been exposed for the proper length of time. If you move even a little, the picture will come out blurred." She removed the lens cover and ducked under the drape to peer through the camera. She emerged, backed the camera up about a foot, and sighted again. Perfect. After replacing the lens cap, the black drape stifled all light. Operating by feel, she slipped the glass plate into the back of the camera and closed everything up.
When she emerged from beneath the cloth, she took a moment to tighten the combs keeping her upswept hair from teasing her face and studied Cracker. She approached him for some final adjustments. "Put one foot a bit in front of the other and let your left arm hang loose. You'll look more natural that way." She smoothed his collar and tilted his hat a bit more. The sunshine from the skylight overhead should provide enough illumination that she wouldn't need any flash powder. Just as well. The pop and glare of a flash might startle even the dozy Mudslinger into bolting.
"Make sure you get my pistol and knife in the shot." Cracker patted his gun belt.
"Of course." This was for his mother, after all. "Now relax, but hold completely still until I give you the word." She stepped back, surveyed the tableau, trying to see things through the camera lens in her mind, to see the finished product and predict if it would please the customer.
Gently, she unscrewed the lens cap. "Hold it." She counted off the seconds, added two more because the horse and saddle were so dark, then replaced the cap. "There. You're done."
Cracker relaxed a fraction then grinned. "Great. When will it be ready?"
"You can pick it up tomorrow, but you'll have to pay for it today." Uncle Carl always required payment from a cowboy before developing the picture, and she intended to follow his example. If she waited until Cracker came to pick up the photo tomorrow, chances were his money would've disappeared, siphoned off in one of the saloons or gambling halls. What took the average cowboy three months to earn on the trail up from Texas could be gone in a matter of hours in a cow town like Abilene or Dodge City, Kansas.
Cracker dug into his pocket and produced a wad of bills. He peeled off a couple, grinned at her, and added a third. "There you go, lady. A little something extra for you. And I'm going to tell everybody I know to come here to get their picture made."
He grabbed Mudslinger's reins and tugged. The animal roused, shuffled his feet, and ambled toward the door. When he came abreast of her camera, he paused. Addie let out a shriek.
Cracker yanked on the reins, but it was too late. "Whoops. I sure am sorry about that. He ain't exactly housebroke, you know."
* * *
An hour later, Addie had scrubbed the studio floor and her hands several times. Praying none of the stable odor lingered on her clothes, she stepped into the Dodge City Bank. The sturdy, brick building faced Front Street, as her own shop did, the main artery into and out of town bisected by the Santa Fe Railroad tracks. North of the tracks only about half the businesses were saloons. South of the Santa Fe rails, saloons, gambling dens, dance halls, and houses of ill repute abounded.
The smells of ink and beeswax furniture polish drifted over her. Everything in this bank bespoke prosperity, from the shiny woodwork to the burgundy velvet wallpaper to the gleaming brass hardware. A row of teller windows took up the left-hand wall. Patrons stood patiently in line waiting for their turns, and Addie took her place at the tail end.
Lord, please let the bank manager understand, let him give me a chance to prove I can do this. Because, truthfully, I have no idea what I'll do if he says no.
Someone touched her arm, and she realized she was standing in the middle of the bank with her eyes closed. Warmth spread across her cheeks, and she looked up into the bank manager's stern visage. "Mr. Poulter." She forced his name past her constricted throat.
"Please come this way. I'm glad to see you believe in being prompt. I despise being kept waiting." He sounded like he had a lemon rind stuck in his throat. Sour and raspy.
She followed, her pulse beating loudly in her ears. He led her to the half-wall that separated the civilians from the cash and held open the gate. Not a squeak from the hinges. Darting a glance at his intense expression, she doubted the gate would have the nerve to sound off.
"Please be seated." He waved her to a straight-backed and uncompromising chair set square before his immense desk. Behind the nameplate and blotter, Mr. T. Archibald Poulter settled into leather luxury. "I'm afraid I'm not sure why you wished to meet with me, Miss Reid. I am sorry for your loss, but I've looked over the agreement between this establishment and your deceased uncle." He spoke slowly, as if she might have trouble keeping up with his words. "The terms are very clear. As I told you at the funeral, in the event of your uncle's death, the mortgage is due in full. If you cannot pay the loan, the collateral will be forfeit."
She hadn't forgotten how he had approached her as she walked away from her last relative's burial service and given her the news. He couldn't even wait until the next business day. Word had it that Archie Poulter had a heart of pyrite. Cold, yellow, and pretty much worthless.
Try nice first. The reminder, floating through her mind from a long-ago schoolteacher, surprised her. Trouble was, Miss Ambrose had never met this bank manager.
"I, too, have read the documents, Mr. Poulter." Though it irked her to be treated as if she had no more sense than a prairie chicken, she kept her voice reasonable and professional. "I understand the terms of that agreement. I am not here to dispute them. I'm here to negotiate a new agreement with myself as proprietor of the business. I wish to assume the loan at the current terms."
His thin brows shot down over his hawk-like nose. "Yourself as proprietor?" He shook his head. "I'm afraid that would be impossible. The bank has never loaned money to an unmarried woman to finance a business. Unless ..." He leaned back in his chair and studied her. "Unless you have a male relative or business partner who would be a cosignatory on the loan?"
Addie moistened her lips and stifled the urge to roll her eyes. "No, there's no one else. But if you call in the mortgage now, all you'll get is photographic equipment and an empty building. The studio itself is collateral for the loan. Surely it would be in your best interest to let me continue running the business and paying on the mortgage."
He steepled his fingers under his chin. "Ordinarily, I would agree with you. It would be better to have another merchant assume the note. However, Heber Donaldson was in here just this morning, and he indicated he would be interested in purchasing the repossessed equipment from the bank. And a building on Front Street is never difficult to sell or rent. The bank wouldn't lose any money by calling in the loan."
Heber Donaldson. A thorn in their flesh from the moment she and Uncle Carl had stepped off the train three months ago. She throttled her handbag in her lap, clenching her fingers to stop them from shaking. "Mr. Poulter, please. The studio is my livelihood. It's all I know how to do. Without the studio, I have no way to support myself. I assure you, I'm a very good photographer. I know the business from the ground up. Photography, developing, bookkeeping. I've helped my uncle for years. If you won't give me a new loan, will you please give me time to pay of the debt? I'm only asking for six months." She'd have to live sparingly, and the summer season would have to be better than good, but she'd scrimp and save and scratch and claw to keep the studio. Six months would be pushing it, but she could do it if he'd only give her a chance. "Six months?"
"Just until the end of this year. By January 1, I'd be loan-free, and the bank would have the entire mortgage repaid with interest."
He squared up some papers on his immaculate desk and appeared to consider her request.
Hope sprang up when he didn't automatically shoot her down, but as the minutes crawled by, worry began to blot out that feeble hope.
Excerpted from A Bride's Portrait of Dodge City, Kansas by Erica Vetsch. Copyright © 2011 Erica Vetsch. Excerpted by permission of Barbour Publishing, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.