"Dallas weaves a beguiling plot and creates engaging characters and dialogue.... The zesty, offbeat charm of life among these undesirables in the seedy West keeps this tale moving smartly."
Life may have been hard on Addie French, but when she meets friendless Emma Roby on a train, all her protective instincts emerge. Emma's brother is seeing her off to Nalgitas to marry a man she has never met. And Emma seems like a lost soul to Addie-someone who needs Addie's savvy and wary eye. It isn't often that Addie is drawn to anyone as a friend, but Emma… See more details below
Life may have been hard on Addie French, but when she meets friendless Emma Roby on a train, all her protective instincts emerge. Emma's brother is seeing her off to Nalgitas to marry a man she has never met. And Emma seems like a lost soul to Addie-someone who needs Addie's savvy and wary eye. It isn't often that Addie is drawn to anyone as a friend, but Emma seems different somehow. When Emma's prospective fails to show up at the train depot, Addie breaks all her principles to shelter the girl at her brothel, The Chili Queen. But once Emma enters Addie's life, the secrets that unfold and schemes that are hatched cause both women to question everything they thought they knew. With Sandra Dallas's trademark humor, charm, and pathos, The Chili Queen will satisfy anyone who has ever longed for happiness.
The Chili Queen is the winner of the 2003 Spur Award for Best Western Novel.
"Dallas weaves a beguiling plot and creates engaging characters and dialogue.... The zesty, offbeat charm of life among these undesirables in the seedy West keeps this tale moving smartly."
As the train pulled into the shabby station at Palestine, Kansas, the pinch-faced farmers and their wives in their rusty black-wool best lined up along the tracks like the teeth of a rake. In the Kansas heat, three boys slumped on an empty baggage cart in the shade of the depot, too listless even to tie a tin can to a cat's tail. A bitch in heat wouldn't draw a yellow dog under that sun, Addie French thought, as she shaded her eyes from the hurtful glare of the prairie, which was bleached the dirty white of worn underwear. She put a handkerchief to her nose, as if to block out the stench of sweat and barnyard and old pancakes that clung to the farmers' clothes. Although she had spent well over half her thirty-six years off the land, Addie never forgot the sour smells of the farm. She wiped her damp face and neck with a soiled handkerchief, leaving behind streaks of dirt on her wet skin.
The trip to Kansas City had been even more successful than she had hoped, financially, at any rate, and she was going home to New Mexico with enough money to buy a new cookstove and add a front porch to The Chili Queen. The gentleman friend she met there every August on his annual business trip to the city had shown her an especially good time, bought her two dresses, and paid generously for her companionship. In fact, he had been so attentive that Addie wondered if he might suggest a permanent relationship. Perhaps his wife had died at last and he was ready to propose a formal arrangement--not that she was interested, of course; still, it would do a girl good to be asked. As the week came to a close, however, he told Addie that he was moving to Montana with his wife, and he was sorry, but he wouldn't be seeing her again. He begged Addie to stay two more days; he was as hot as a billy goat in a pepper patch. As she remembered their last night, tears formed in Addie's eyes, and she swatted at them with the handkerchief. She sniffed, feeling sorry for herself that such a nice arrangement had come to an end. Feeling sorry for herself was one of the things Addie did best. She'd miss him and the yearly vacations, although she wouldn't miss Kansas. Oh my, she hated Kansas, Addie thought, catching the stink of her hot, damp body. New Mexico was hard on her hair and skin, but she'd take New Mexico's dryness over Kansas's humidity any day. She was glad to be going home.
Perhaps she should have telegraphed Welcome, telling her she'd been detained. Welcome, Addie snorted, what kind of name was that, even for a black woman? For all Addie knew, Welcome had run off with the china while she was gone--not that the china was worth anything. No sense to buy good china when the whores were likely to throw it at the customers, or each other. Addie valued Welcome more than the dishes. None of the other domestics she hired stayed for more than a few days, but Welcome had been there for four weeks, and rascally and outspoken as she was, she liked the job and planned to stay, or that was what she'd told Addie, at any rate. The first time she met her, Addie had had a feeling about Welcome, and for no reason she could put her finger on, she trusted her--trusted her enough to leave her in charge of The Chili Queen while Addie was away. She could have closed down the hookhouse, but she was afraid she'd come back and find the girls gone. So she hadn't had any choice but to trust Welcome.
The woman had shown up one morning asking for work, speaking in that funny way she had; Addie thought it was a mixture of slavery talk and high-class language Welcome had picked up somewhere. Addie was desperate for hired help. Plenty of whores came through looking for work, although not when she needed them, it seemed. But not many women looked for jobs backstairs in a parlor house, cooking and washing for as lazy and ungrateful a group of human beings as ever lived. Addie'd have given the job to a blind man, and she didn't expect much out of Welcome. But in a week, the portly, fine-looking black woman, who was big enough to go bear hunting with a switch, had taken over as if she owned the place. She cooked and cleaned and kept the girls in line. Welcome even faced down the drunks with no better weapon than a fry pan. Addie wasn't sure why Welcome had come to Nalgitas; probably, she was drifting through, just like the girls. Maybe she was tired of moving around and wanted a place to call home. Addie hadn't asked. Why question good luck? When it's raining porridge, hold up your bowl. Addie just hoped that Welcome had kept the whores in line and was still there when she got home.
As Addie tucked the handkerchief into her fine bosom, the train stopped, jerked once, then shuddered as it settled into the depot. The conductor climbed off the car, holding a metal step, and set it down. He held out his hand to a woman who struggled with a heavy satchel. A farmer came forward and took it from her, and the two walked off, the woman following a few steps behind him. None of the half-dozen passengers who got off the train was greeted with hugs or cries of welcome. It wasn't just the heat. These were dour people, Addie knew. They rarely showed emotion; maybe they didn't have any. The crowd thinned out as the last of the passengers left the train. Those who remained on the platform gathered around the steps, anxious to board.
A man who stood out because his suit was too well tailored to be home-sewn--a banker, Addie decided with interest--pushed onto the train ahead of everyone else. Hoping the man was bound for Nalgitas, Addie leaned forward in her seat as he stopped in the aisle near her, forcing the other passengers to wait behind him. "Here. Ticket to Holden," he said, holding up a twenty-dollar gold piece so that everyone could see it. "Two dollars seventy," he added, as if the conductor didn't know the fare. The conductor pocketed the coin and gave the man a ticket. He counted the thirty cents out loud, then handed over a fistful of bills. Two of the dollar bills were folded, Addie observed. The conductor had shorted the passenger by two dollars. He'd done the same thing earlier with a woman in a shapeless coat and dirty scarf tied around a face as lumpy as a potato. Two little girls had held onto her skirt as she'd shifted the baby in her arms and taken out a bill. Anyone who'd cheat a poor immigrant was mean enough to whip his own grannie, and Addie had grabbed the conductor's wrist and pinched it hard. Then she'd told him in a low voice that if he didn't give the woman the correct change, she'd announce to the entire car what he'd done. The conductor handed the woman the rest of her money, but he'd given Addie a hard time after that, opening a window to let the dust blow in on her and taking liberties when she went out on the observation deck for air. Addie's left breast was sore from where he'd grabbed it and wrenched it hard, and she wondered if he'd left a bruise.
As the banker passed Addie, he curled his lip and moved to the far side of the aisle, kicking the hem of her dress out of his way. Did he think she was contagious? The gesture cost him two dollars. He could get swindled out of the whole damn gold piece for all Addie cared. She looked the conductor full in the face, then slid her eyes to the mark, letting the conductor know that even though she kept her mouth shut, she hadn't missed the cheat.
The conductor might be good enough to fool an immigrant woman and an unctuous banker, but not Addie French, the queen of the sleight-of-hand artists--the former queen, at any rate. Nobody gave short change like she did. There wasn't a man or woman in the Southwest who was better at palming, the switch, or the thimblerig than Addie French, and she didn't cheat poor foreign women, either. She'd tricked the best in the business.
She might still be at it if she hadn't picked the wrong mark, and he'd clubbed her. Addie still had a hurting in her bones sometimes from where she'd been beaten. After she recovered, she had taken a good look at her career and decided scamming was too dangerous. She'd learned her lesson. As good as she was, there was always someone out there who was sharp enough to catch her. Whoring wasn't as chancy, and the work was steady, easier on the nerves, too. Not that men wouldn't knock you around sometimes, but they didn't try to kill you out of meanness. By now, of course, Addie wasn't a whore herself anymore, except when she chose to be. She was a businesswoman. She owned a house. If the banker had been going to Nalgitas instead of Holden, she might have slipped him her business card. Men who snubbed you in the daytime didn't mind calling after dark.
Remembering the card, Addie fished in her reticule until she found the pasteboard, pulled it out, and admired it:
THE CHILI QUEEN
MEN TAKEN IN AND DONE FOR
FOUR BOARDERS, FIRST RATE
MISS ADDIE FRENCH, PROP.
Actually, the four boarders included Addie herself, who filled in only now and then.
She had replenished her supply of cards in Kansas City and this time had added a gold border. It gave a touch of class. Addie ran her finger over the raised black letters and was about to return the card to her purse when she heard an angry male voice.
"Sit here. You shan't ride beside a man. You are foolish in the ways of the world, Emma. A traveling man isn't to be trusted, and you've not sense, but would let him start up a conversation with you. You're fool enough to talk to strangers. He won't take you if you're mauled, you know." He pushed a woman into the seat next to Addie, much to Addie's annoyance. The train was not crowded, and she'd expected to have the seat to herself.
Addie narrowed her eyes to take in the man, who wore black pants that ended above his shoe-tops and a coat that showed two inches of wrist. The coat was stretched across his broad back, and when he reached overhead to place a box on the brass rack, Addie saw the half-circles of sweat staining his underarms. Still, he was tall and lean, with thick black hair that was streaked with gray, and he was handsome, with high cheekbones and pale eyes, but his face was mean, and he snarled at the woman. "You're not to change seats. You hear me?"
"John," the woman pleaded. "Please. People are staring." She glanced at Addie, then turned her head away when she saw Addie watching her. The woman was a little younger than her husband. Under a large hat, her hair appeared to be the same glossy black. Her skin was whiter than his, and she had startling blue eyes. Addie, who was an expert in knowing what was hidden under corsets and petticoats, sized up the woman's body. She was tall and slender, girlish even, with small breasts and hips--not a body a customer would find at The Chili Queen, not a body like Addie's own generous, cottony one, with a bosom a man could sink into. But some men liked scrawny women, just as some men picked chicken wings over drumsticks.
"You're to pay mind to him. Don't sass him like you do me. If your opinion doesn't agree with his own, keep it to yourself. Don't act so pert, either."
Addie snorted and gave John the fish-eye. He sent her a hard look, then slid his eyes down to take in her silk dress, which was the shade of a brass watch--the same color as her hair. If he were as smart as he thought he was, he'd recognize her as a whore and order his wife to move, which would give Addie back the seat. Instead, he looked at Addie with such hatred as she had never seen on a man's face and told her, "Mind your business."
Addie raised an eyebrow and continued to stare.
"You know if you go, you can't come back. You wouldn't be welcome. I'd be shamed. This is your last chance," said the man in a voice so low that only the woman and Addie heard him. When the woman didn't reply, John sighed and said, "I told you already you were a fool, but you made your bed. Now you've got to sleep in it." He paused again, and his voice was even lower when he said, "Keep a sharp eye for investment. If it suits me, I'll pay him five percent. Might be he'd think better of you if you were to bring in a little money. He couldn't hardly think worse after what you've got yourself into."
"But that's our money, John. It's not just yours," the woman whispered fiercely.
"Well, I guess if it'd been meant for you, it'd been left to you, wouldn't it? 'Twas left to me to spend as I see fit."
"You know why that was."
John started to reply but when he saw Addie still watching, he pressed his lips together in a hard, straight line.
By then, the boarding passengers had found seats, and the conductor was looking up and down the tracks. "All aboard," he called.
John glanced up. "I got to git."
He took a step down the aisle, but the woman grabbed his coat. "Aren't you going to wish me luck?"
John stared at her for a long time, chewing his lip. Then without a word, he turned and left the car. As he jumped off the observation deck, the train lurched, and he landed on one leg and fell to the ground. Without looking back, he got up and limped away. Addie glanced at the woman, who leaned forward with alarm. Then a smile flickered across her face.
Neither woman spoke until the train slid away from the platform and moved onto the dry prairie. Emma--that was what the man had called her--got up and shoved a portmanteau onto the overhead rack, then pushed a hamper under the seat. The hamper interested Addie. She'd eaten the dinner she'd brought with her from Kansas City, and the only food available from the train butcher was meat sandwiches that were dotted with flyspecks.
Emma took off her bonnet, a shabby black silk that was too unattractive ever to have been fashionable, ironed the strings between two fingers, and carefully set the hat on the empty seat across the aisle. "He put my hatbox overhead, but it's already got two bonnets in it, so there's no place for this old thing," Emma told Addie.
Addie blinked and turned to her. Without the awful hat, the woman was a little prettier, although not what anybody would ever have called a beauty. She had strands of gray in her hair.
"They're stylish. One's pink. He doesn't know I have them."
"You going on a trip, are you?" was all Addie could think to say. John was right. His wife talked too much to strangers.
The woman nodded and introduced herself. "My name's Emma Roby."
"Where you going, Mrs. Roby?"
The woman laughed. "Oh, you think John's my husband. He's not. He's only my brother. I'm Miss Roby."
"Well, I'm Miss French. Miss Addie French."
"We're just like two maiden ladies on an adventure, then."
Addie thought that was an interesting way to put it.
"Do you want to see the hats?" the woman asked. Before Addie could answer, Emma jumped up and removed the hatbox from overhead. She unbuckled it and lifted the lid. "This is the pink one." Emma reached into a cloud of paper and brought out a bonnet the color of a baby's bottom, with ruffles and couching and long satin streamers, and thrust it into Addie's hands. "And there's this one, too." She removed a tiny round red hat that reminded Addie of a tin of Enameline the Modern Stove Polish that Welcome used to polish the stove at The Chili Queen. Even her girls wouldn't wear such silly bonnets. "I made them myself," the woman said shyly. "Even John says I'm an unusual smart woman with my fingers."
"Where are you going to wear a hat like that?" Addie nodded at the tin of stove polish.
"Nalgitas. It's in New Mexico."
Addie jerked up her head. "Nalgitas?"
"Hats like them wouldn't last a single dust storm. We get fierce dust."
Emma ran a deep blue ribbon on the red hat through her fingers and asked if Addie was from Nalgitas. Addie acknowledged that she was.
"Why, isn't that the best thing? You're the first person I've met who lives there. I hope we'll be friends," Emma said. She set the hat carefully into the box, then reached for the one Addie held, tucking it in beside the first and arranging the tissue paper on top. She returned the box to its place on the rack. "Isn't this a wonderful coincidence?"
Addie didn't think so. She inquired of the woman if she were visiting.
Emma flushed and looked away. "I'm going to live there. If you must know..." The pause was a little too coy, Addie thought. "I'm getting married," Emma added.
"Oh," was all Addie said. Wives weren't so good for business. Sooner or later, most of them tried to shut down a whorehouse.
"I won't actually live in Nalgitas. My husband, that is my husband-to-be, owns a ranch near there--a big one. He says it's the biggest in a hundred miles, but you know how men brag--except for John, that is." Her face turned hard.
"What's his name?"
Emma looked confused. "John."
"The rancher, I mean."
"Oh, him. It's Mr. Withers. Mr. Walter Withers."
The name was not familiar, and Addie was glad she wouldn't be losing business. Marriage didn't keep men from a whorehouse, but bridegrooms weren't such good customers. Then she wondered if Mr. Withers used another name at The Chili Queen. Men did that sometimes, although she often told them, "What I do best is forget names." She asked, "What's he look like?"
Emma looked down at her hands and muttered something.
Instead of answering, Emma reached into her bag and pulled out a tiny tintype not much bigger than Addie's thumbnail. Addie took the picture and squinted at it. The image was so dark and out of focus that she couldn't tell even if the subject were a white man. "He doesn't show much, does he?"
Emma shook her head.
"Tall or short?"
Addie snorted. "What's that? You're not sure? Sounds like you never met him." She laughed at her little joke, but when Emma looked down at her hands and began fidgeting with the strings of her bag, Addie blew out her breath. "You never met him? Are you one of those mail-order brides?"
"Certainly not," Emma said quickly, glancing around as Addie's voice rose. She snatched the picture from Addie and put it into her purse. "No, I certainly am not."
"Well, what are you then?"
"I'm not a wife you pay for like something in a wish-book. I have my pride."
Not so much, Addie thought. She studied the worn velvet on the back of the seat in front of her as she waited for the woman to explain.
In a minute, Emma cleared her throat. "We have corresponded for a long time. I believe that by doing so, we have gotten to know each other better than if he'd courted me in person."
Addie stared at the tobacco juice stains on the floor of the car and tried not to smile.
Emma explained, "We were not distracted with physical things, you might say." She cleared her throat again. "We have gotten to know each other's souls."
Addie had never known anybody's soul and wasn't much interested in hearing about Mr. Withers's. So she asked how the two of them had gotten acquainted.
"He placed an ad in the newspaper at home, saying he would be pleased to correspond with a good Christian woman, as there are none in Nalgitas." Emma thought that over and added, "I mean I'm sure there are some, such as yourself, but he said he wasn't personally acquainted with any."
"No doubt," said Addie, who wasn't acquainted with any, either. It seemed curious to her that Emma hadn't married before, and she wanted to ask about it, but that was too rude a question even for Addie, so instead, she inquired how long the two had been writing.
Six months, Emma told her. "He wrote two weeks ago and invited me for a visit and said that if I were agreeable, we should consider matrimony. But he said if I didn't like him, I was not bound. I can always leave."
"But you can't go back home, can you? Your brother said as much," Addie pointed out.
Emma frowned, thinking that over. "No, I suppose not. But it doesn't matter. I've made up my mind I'm going to like him."
"What if you don't?"
"I will, that's all," she replied so sharply that Addie felt rebuked. Emma unhooked the collar of her wool jacket and stretched her neck. "Anybody has to be more likable than John," she added more agreeably.
That one was not fit to associate with hogs, Addie thought. Then she asked, "What if he doesn't like you? Have you thought about that?"
Emma bit her lip and looked down at her hands. "I hope to be up to the mark," she said, a catch in her voice, and Addie felt a little ashamed of herself. The woman had enough trouble without borrowing more. Besides, Addie thought as she glanced at the hamper, there was no need to offend her. "Well, I'm sure he'll like you just fine. I never knew an old batch who wouldn't be happy with just about any woman. They're not too particular, you know." She thought that over. It wasn't much of a compliment, but Emma didn't seem to mind.
Emma unfastened another button, then another, and in a moment she took off the jacket. When Emma reached up to put it onto the rack, Addie noticed there were no wet spots under her arms. Maybe the woman didn't sweat. Addie felt the perspiration on her own face, and as she reached for her handkerchief, she dropped the calling card. She'd forgotten she was holding it.
Emma picked it up and read it. Well, it couldn't be helped, Addie thought. The woman would give her a horrified stare and move as far away from her as possible. Addie would lose out on the supper, but she'd get the seat back. That was some consolation.
Emma looked puzzled as she studied the piece of pasteboard. Then she smiled. "Oh, I am double-lucky." She put the card into her purse.
"What?" Addie stammered. Emma wouldn't be the first woman who was disappointed in love and decided to turn out. Still, Addie couldn't see this particular woman becoming a whore if things didn't work with the rancher. Besides, there wasn't much call for a gray-haired woman in a hookhouse. The Chili Queen was no old-ladies' rest home.
"I mean, you running a boardinghouse. If Mr. Withers doesn't want me, I can stay with you at"--she glanced down at the card--"The Chili Queen." She laughed.
She might be an unusual smart woman with her fingers, but in other ways, she was dumb as a barrel of hair. Addie was tempted to shock the silly woman into silence by telling her just what went on at The Chili Queen, but Emma might complain, and the conductor was just mean enough to put Addie off the train at the next stop. So instead, she replied, "You just do that."
After a while, Emma got up and removed a cloth workbag from the portmanteau, then took out several scraps of fabric that had been cut into shapes. She threaded a needle with cotton and began to sew the little pieces together. Addie fanned herself with her hand as she watched Emma stitch. In a few minutes, Emma snipped off the thread with a pair of scissors shaped like a crane and held up her work for Addie's inspection. The design, worked in calicoes that were bright blue and brown the color of stiff coffee, was called Double Pyramids, Emma explained.
Addie didn't understand women who named their sewing. She didn't have a hand for it herself. Besides, Addie always put store-bought spreads on her beds instead of quilts. A quilt reminded a man of home, and that was not a good thing in a whorehouse. She muttered a compliment, then turned and stared out the window.
The train passed a hardscrabble farm, the buildings plain and unpainted, the field so poor the homesteaders couldn't raise a row with a pitchfork. A woman slouched in the barnyard, shading her eyes as she watched the train. Three little girls in raggedy dresses and drooping sunbonnets stood next to the tracks, the biggest child holding a baby. One of the girls waved, the others just stared at the train, their heads turning to watch it out of sight. Without thinking, Addie waved back.
She used to be the girl with the baby--the oldest one, who'd had to mind the others when they came. She'd known all about babies. Her mother had one every year--except in the year after her father died, before her mother remarried--and Addie had helped deliver them. She'd known from an early age how a baby got started, too. There was only one bedroom in the house, and it was partitioned off with rough boards that had big cracks between them. Addie'd lain awake at night, listening to her step-paw root around in the bed, grunting like a pig in slops. Addie cringed when her mother begged her husband to keep away from her, then gave into him. Addie half-pitied her and half-hated her for satisfying the old man. Finally, the worn-out woman with skin the color of smoked ham slid an old bureau in front of the bedroom door at night to keep him out, and he slept on the floor in front of the fireplace, wrapped in a blanket.
But then he had come for Addie, a great big half-grown girl. She kicked him pretty hard the first time, and the next day, he cowhided her. But he didn't stop pawing her, and her mother didn't seem to mind. So Addie took the money her step-paw kept hidden in her mother's scrapbag--not all of it, just enough to buy a ticket and a little more for expenses. Then she flagged down the train and told the conductor she wanted to go to San Antonio. It was the farthest place she'd ever heard of. When she got there, she changed her name from Adeline Foss to Addie French, because that sounded like a long way from the farm, too. Sometimes Addie felt guilty about leaving her sisters behind and wondered if the old man had gone after them after she left. Maybe they'd run off and turned into whores, too. Addie thought about them whenever a girl turned up at The Chili Queen asking for work, a girl who looked as if she'd come from soul-stomping poverty. Addie hardly ever turned away a girl with a sad story.
She stared back at the brown-yellow farm long after the girls had become specks and then nothing at all. The train passed another farm. A boy rushed to the tracks, a dog at his heels. Addie waved at him, too, but he stared at her with a hostile face and didn't wave back.
"It's a cruel life," Emma said, startling Addie, who hadn't realized she was looking out the window, too. "They're worn out from being poor."
"Sand on one side of the house, clay on the other," Addie replied. "It reminds me of home. We were turkey poor--poor enough to eat wallpaper, if we'd had wallpaper." Addie stopped herself. She didn't much talk about her childhood. She turned to Emma, who had a look of hate on her face, as if she were remembering something unpleasant. "You come from such, do you?"
"Oh, no," Emma said quickly. "Oh, no. But I've known men bereft of human decency, men every bit as mean as those farms. Oh, yes." Her face twisted then turned stony, and Addie stared at her, wondering what had brought on the outburst. But in a minute, Emma got control of herself and gave an embarrassed smile. "I mean, I've heard of men like that. I don't know any personally, of course. We have a very prosperous farm. John's a good farmer. I have to say that for him. And our folks had money. But I could have been a poor farm woman, I suppose. There but for the grace of God..."
"But for the grace of God what?" Addie asked.
"Oh, it's just an expression. It means the luck of the draw."
"There but for the grace of God," Addie repeated. She'd always been drawn to fancy words.
"My mother was from New Jersey. She was quite refined," Emma continued, running her fingers over her stitching. "She taught me to do hand sewing. Mother studied at Elizabeth T. Stephens's school in New Jersey."
"Did your mother read? Myself, I can read, you know."
"Oh my, yes Mother could read. She read French, too. Miss Stephens ran a finishing school. Mother made a beautiful sampler there when she was very young. I even remember the verse:
"Now while my hands are thus employ'd
May I set out to serve the Lord
While I am blesst with health and youth
Help me O Lord to Obey the Truth
"Isn't that lovely?" Emma asked.
Addie didn't care about obeying the truth. "There but for the grace of God...," she said.
Emma looked puzzled as she returned to her sewing. She worked the needle up and down, taking half a dozen stitches before she used a silver thimble on her finger to push the needle all the way through the fabric. She straightened the seam so that it didn't pucker, and examined the patchwork. "I probably shouldn't have stitched it in black. They say if you sew a quilt-top with black thread, you'll never sleep under it with your intended. But I don't believe in such things. Do you?"
Addie knew better than to tempt fate, but she didn't care to talk about sewing, so she shrugged and said, "I guess you're so prosperous you've got money in the bank." A mosquito landed on her arm, and she flattened the pest, but not before it drew blood. Addie flicked away the dead insect and licked her finger, placing it on the welt. "We got mosquitoes in Nalgitas the size of grasshoppers and grasshoppers the size of chickens," she said with a touch of pride.
"And how big are your chickens?" Emma asked.
Addie frowned. "They're the size of chickens, same as any place. Don't you know that?" She wondered if Emma would think her nosy if she asked about the bank again, but she didn't care. She considered other people's money her business. "You got money in the bank, do you?"
Emma didn't seem to mind the question. "John does. I don't have a pin. I suppose you heard what he said, that it's all his money."
"Most times that's the way of it, leastways with man and wife, but you being brother and sister, I thought you might own something yourself."
Emma turned the stitching right side up and smoothed it with her hand, then she examined the corner where three pieces came together. One was off just a fraction of an inch, and she pulled out the thread. Then she set the quilting in her lap and leaned back and closed her eyes, pressing her fingers to them. Addie stared at her. She'd never before spent this much time with a good Christian woman. Her mother was a Bible reader, but Addie had decided a long time back that she hadn't been much of a Christian if she'd let her husband have his way with her own daughter. It was pie-crust religion, all crust and no filling.
"Half is mine. Half is rightly mine," Emma said, her eyes still closed. "Father meant for the farm and the land--we have a good deal of it--to go to both of us. He trusted me. He said I had a better head for investment than John, who is too greedy for his own good. But Father didn't think so highly of my ability to attract an acceptable husband, and he feared I'd marry a man who was after the money. So he left everything to John, with the understanding John would share with me. Of course, John didn't, and there was nothing I could do because Father hadn't put it in writing. It's not that I have been hard used. I don't want for anything, but John begrudges spending money on me. John's stingy, except when it comes to spending money to make more money, but that's greed, not good investment. The thing of it is, John doesn't believe he's cheated me. He thinks he has treated me fairly. You heard him: He even wants me to look for a New Mexico investment for him."
Emma paused, but Addie didn't say anything, hoping the woman would continue, and she did. There was a catch in Emma's voice when she said, "To tell you the truth, I think John's glad to see me go. Now he can do as he pleases with the inheritance and not have me there to reproach him. Well, I'm glad to be gone, too. We never had much use for each other, and toward the end, we came mighty close to hate. He has ten thousand dollars in the bank, and half is rightly mine, all of it, really, for John has the farm, too." She gave a dry laugh. "All I got out of it was the makings for two bonnets and a one-way ticket to Nalgitas."
Emma was indeed foolish in the ways of the world and much too talky. Addie leaned close to her and said, "You ought'n to tell people things like that. There's men who'd kill you for less."
"Well, it's not what I've got that I'm talking about. It's what I haven't got, so it doesn't matter."
"Still, I wouldn't tell it about in Nalgitas. There are are bad men there. Buck Sorrell for one."
Emma opened her eyes wide. "Oh!"
"Well, not anymore," Addie admitted. "But there are others. Ever heard of Butch Scanga?"
Emma sat up straight.
"And Ned Partner?"
"Ned who?" Emma asked.
"Partner. Ned Partner."
Emma shook her head. "I guess not. Is he anybody?"
"Anybody?" Addie snorted. "Ned Partner's the smartest outlaw in New Mexico is all. He robbed a bank in Santa Fe of five thousand dollars, they say, and the posse went after him with dogs. Those dogs, they picked up a scent, and they followed it to a line shack. They shoved in the door and commenced to howl in the worst way. The sheriff and his deputies drew their guns and surrounded the place and called out to Ned to surrender. When there wasn't any answer, they shot their guns into the place, then ran up close and looked inside. But all they found was those dogs fighting over the leavings in a scrap bucket. Ned Partner wasn't there, and the bank never got the five thousand dollars back. I guess Ned made fools of them. Everybody in New Mexico talks about it." Addie shook with laughter, then daubed at her eyes with the handkerchief. "Oh, he's the best there is, I tell you."
"He got away with five thousand dollars?"
Addie started to nod, then stopped. She'd become as loose with her talk as Emma. "It might have been four thousand or maybe two thousand. Maybe there wasn't any money in the bank at all. How would I know?" She shrugged and waved her hand, dismissing the subject of Ned Partner. "There's outlaws all over New Mexico and Colorado and Arizona, too. Why, some of 'em are women. Did you know that?"
Emma looked alarmed.
Addie chuckled. She was enjoying herself. "There's Ma Sarpy, only she's in the Breckenridge jail up in Colorado, and Cross-Eyed Mary Foster, and Little Bit, and Anna Pink." The last three actually were prostitutes since Addie couldn't think of any more female outlaws. "I can't remember every and all of them."
"Why, that's so--depraved," Emma said. She put her hand to her throat and fingered a brooch pinned to her collar.
Addie felt a twinge of guilt at having alarmed Emma and said, "Oh, I shouldn't worry if I was you. I never personally saw a woman outlaw in Nalgitas, and the men, when they come into town, they keep to the saloons and hook--" She stopped, searching for a better word than hookhouse.
"Other dens of iniquity," Emma finished for her. "I suppose it wouldn't hurt to see an outlaw, but I wouldn't care to be acquainted with one." She threaded her needle and picked up the sewing in her lap. "Would you?"
Addie cast a sideways glance at Emma, who was restitching the plucked-out seam and didn't look up. "I would like a bath," Addie said. "My bones need easing. The first thing I'll do when I get home is tell the servant woman to heat water on the cookstove and fill up my bathtub." She leaned back in the seat, thinking about lying in her tin tub filled with hot water.
Emma seemed surprised that there were servants in New Mexico.
"Oh, I've got just one. Tomorrow, when I get home, I'll have her to cook me up a big beefsteak and bake a custard pie."
Emma said a custard pie sounded mightily good, then reached for her jacket and opened the little watch pinned to it. "It's past suppertime. When does the dinner car open for business?"
Addie snorted and told Emma there wasn't any dinner car on the train. Passengers brought their own or bought from the train butcher. "But it looks like you brought yours with you." Addie pointed to the hamper and restrained herself from licking her lips.
"Oh, that's not supper," Emma laughed. "Those are my cinnamon-rose starts. I was known all over the county for my cinnamon roses." She lifted the lid and showed Addie the wilted clippings wrapped in damp rags and newspaper. Then Emma offered to give her one, since Addie had been so friendly.
"Oh no. Thanks to you anyway," Addie said. "Land in Nalgitas is so poor it won't sprout peas."
Emma insisted and even offered to plant it for her.
Addie waved her hand. "I'm not much at tending things."
Emma put away the clipping and asked if the train stopped for supper, then.
"Where would we stop in the middle of Kansas?"
"Well, we have to eat something. I was so nervous about missing the train that I could not eat a morsel from the time I got out of bed this morning. I surely would like fried chicken and gravy or maybe a chop. And a slice of peach pie. Now that's eating."
"Go 'way! It makes me hungry just to hear you talk about it," said Addie. "You won't find any of that here. You'll have to make do with what you can buy, and you can't be too particular about it. The food'll keep you from starving is about all I can say for it. I guess I could see what he's got." She straightened her dress and stood up, as Emma turned aside so that Addie could squeeze past her. "I feel the need for some air anyway."
Emma returned to her sewing, as Addie moved up the aisle, her silk skirt rustling. A man got up and followed her out of the car. He returned in a minute, his face red. After a while, Addie came back, giving the man a contemptuous glance as she passed him. She had made up her mind to act the lady for the rest of the trip and didn't welcome the advances of a traveling man. Addie handed Emma a pork sandwich wrapped in newspaper and a piece of gray cake, saying supper was her treat. The two women chewed silently until Emma gave up and wrapped the remains of her sandwich with the cake and put it under her seat.
"It's not much, is it?" Addie asked. "I'll tell you what I'd like is a nice bowl of chili."
"Chili?" Emma asked. "It's too hot for chili."
"Not San Antonio chili, not the chili they sell from the stands in the Plaza de Armas. There's nothing in the world that satisfies so good. If you'd ever had a bowl of that, you wouldn't say no."
Addie finished the sandwich and turned away from Emma to stare out the window at the sky, which was ruffled with pink and black and purple. The sky reminded her of San Antonio, too, the soft darkening evenings when the scents of coffee and chocolate, chili and sizzling fat filled the air. Addie had loved the peppery smell of the chili as she scooped the beans and meat and gravy into dishes and handed them to her customers. Some of the men refused to buy from any other vendor, giving their business only to her. Other chili queens worked there, too, selling tamales and enchiladas, tacos, menudo, and chili, but Addie was the favorite and best. Her customers stood shyly under the trees, smoking cornshuck cigarettes as they watched her work in the smoky lantern light, or sat on benches at plank tables, staring boldly at her as they ate. Sometimes they brushed their hands against her big breasts as they took the bowls or touched the ribbons in her hair. White men were rough with her, as though they were entitled to rub against her, but the others, the men whose skin was the dusky color of the night itself, had hands that were soft and gentle. Their touch made Addie's insides feel warm and liquid, like lard on a hot stove. They were generous, those brown and black men, handing her dimes and quarters and sometimes even bills and never asking for change.
She loved the life of a chili queen and considered herself fortunate that one of the vendors had employed her, since the girls were almost always Mexicans. She could have stayed there forever, but a gambler who saw how quick she was with her hands taught her card tricks and told her she could make as much in a day as a chili queen did in a month. She was ambitious, so she went with him. The two had worked the sleight-of-hand games together, until he'd left her for another woman. But he had taught her well, and she could make the pass, force a card, palm, ruffle, and slip the cards. She could make a card vanish from the table and be found in a man's pocket or under his handkerchief or hat. There was little she couldn't do with a deck of cards, until that night she was found out and beaten.
When she healed, she gave up card games and turned out, walking the streets by herself and picking up men. After her experience with the gambler who had clubbed her, she was a little scared of men, however, so she accepted the protection of a fancy man. But he was the worst man there was for taking her money, and when she held back, he threw her out, and she drifted through Texas and into New Mexico. She worked at houses then, because even though the madams took half her earnings, Addie felt safe. She liked Nalgitas right off because it was filled with miners and cowboys and railroad workers, few of them with wives, and they were generous. When the madam she worked for decided to move on, Addie bought the house. She'd run it for eight years.
That was too long, Addie thought, staring out into the darkness. It was time for her, too, to move on, maybe go back to San Antonio, perhaps even get married. She could buy a stand and hire girls to work for her, then expand into the other plazas. She'd serve first-rate chili, all beef, no pigeons or dogs or horse meat. Perhaps she'd even open a restaurant and become the queen of the chili queens. That was her dream, anyway, but it would take money. All of Addie's money was in The Chili Queen, and where was a buyer for a whorehouse in Nalgitas?
The train rounded a curve, and Addie made out a horse beside the tracks--a black horse. She shuddered as she leaned against the window and watched the animal fade into the darkness. She'd been uneasy around black horses ever since a chili queen in San Antonio had sworn to her that seeing a black horse meant death.
When Addie turned away from the window, Emma was still sewing, squinting in the dim glow from the kerosene lamps on the ceiling of the car. "You'll waste your eyes. You'll go blind as a mole," Addie told her.
Emma took a few more stitches then pulled the needle through the fabric and straightened the seam. She anchored the needle in her sewing and put it away in her bag. "Sewing calms me. I guess I've quilted a hundred miles of thread in my life and could quilt another mile or two before we reach Nalgitas."
"You don't look nervous," Addie told her. In fact, Emma was calmer than Addie. Her back was straight and her face serene. Addie curled up against the window, and when she awoke several hours later, Emma looked as if she hadn't moved. She sat bolt upright with her hands folded in her lap, as she stared out the window into the darkness. Addie reached over and patted her hand and muttered, "You might could sleep. I never saw a thing that was improved by worrying about it." Emma turned to her and nodded once, then looked out the window again. Addie didn't know if Emma followed her advice, because she was looking out at the countryside when Addie woke up in the morning. The train was at a standstill.
"Breakdown," Emma told her. "We've been here"--she opened the watch pinned to the jacket she had put back on to ward off the prairie cold and peered at it--"two hours and twenty-seven minutes."
"Oh, hell-damn!" Addie said, then glanced at Emma to see if she'd heard, but Emma was watching a workman walk down the track, swinging his lunch bucket.
"I wanted a bath and a good supper before I opened up tonight. If this train doesn't hurry, I won't have time for even a quick wash," Addie complained. She straightened up and smoothed the golden dress, rubbing a soot stain on her satin sleeve where it had brushed against the window. The stain turned blacker. "I should have worn black. Who cares if I look like a farmer?"
Emma chuckled. "There's something to be said for ugly," she replied, smoothing her own skirt.
"Oh, I didn't mean--"
"It's all right. I never paid much attention to clothes before. Perhaps I will now. Is there a dress store in Nalgitas?"
Addie snorted. "No dress store, no bonnet shop, just a general store with a shelf of calico, red mostly. I myself shop in Kansas City." Addie liked the way that came out. It made her sound cosmopolitan, and she repeated it. "I buy in Kansas City. They got nice stores."
Emma stretched her arms then stood up and said it was her turn to forage for food. As Emma walked down the aisle, Addie took in the woman's slim waist and hips, wishing she herself weren't spread out in back like a cold supper. Emma returned in a few minutes with two apples and a handful of walnuts.
Addie hadn't seen them at the train butcher's the night before and asked where Emma had acquired them.
"Off a track worker. They were in his dinner pail. He wouldn't sell his sandwiches or the pie but said he'd take a dollar for the rest. They'll have to last us to Nalgitas, I guess, since the train butcher's out of food," Emma said. She took the scissors from her bag and gave one of the walnuts such a sharp crack with the handle that Addie's head jerked back. The nutmeat inside was withered. "Well, damn!" Emma said.
Addie smiled at the swear word, but Emma didn't notice because at that moment the train jerked, then jerked again and began to creep down the tracks. Addie ate her apple, then fell asleep again against the window. She slept most of the day until, in the late afternoon, Emma nudged her to say the train was approaching Nalgitas--six hours late.
Addie squirmed, then stretched, letting her arms hang in midair when she saw Emma. The woman sat rigidly in the buttoned-up black suit. The brooch was pinned to the neck of her shirtwaist, the watch secured to the jacket. She looked just as she had when Addie first saw her--except for the pink hat on top of her head. Addie stared as she slowly lowered her arms.
Emma's face turned the color of the hat. "Do I look too bold?" Emma asked.
"Oh, no." Foolish, addle-brained, Addie thought, but not bold.
"I'm a plain woman, as plain as homemade soap. I wanted to make a good first impression."
"It's a nice touch," Addie told her. She was too good-hearted to tell the woman how silly she looked. Instead, Addie retied the bonnet strings so the bow was on the side of Emma's face, not under her chin. And she adjusted the hat to sit on the back of Emma's head.
By the time Addie was finished, the train was slowing. Addie tried to see the town through Emma's eyes. It was mud brown, dusty--the streets, the storefronts, the houses. Even the cottonwoods seemed dirty, their leaves listless in the still air. The two blocks of false-front buildings that made up the main street needed paint. Several structures were boarded up, a few ready to fall down. Spread out from the street were blocks of squat houses, many of them made of adobe bricks and plastered with dirt. Addie found them homey, but she thought Emma would not be impressed. She'd prefer the frame houses with curlicues of sawn lumber for trim, although they were shabby, their paint peeling from the sand that blew against them. Addie looked for The Chili Queen and felt such a touch of pride when she spotted it, off by itself, close to the railroad station, that she pointed it out to Emma. But Emma was distracted, scanning the faces in the depot, as the train slid to a stop.
"You see him?" Addie asked.
Emma shook her head. "All I have is the picture. But he'll recognize me. My photograph is a better likeness than his."
"Maybe that one." Addie pointed to a man who stood off on one side. "Kind of short, isn't he? Is your gentleman short?"
Emma looked startled. "I don't know."
Addie rolled her eyes, and Emma blushed. "I guess you'll find out soon enough," Addie said.
She stood up, but Emma touched her arm and nodded at a man leaning against the depot. "Do you think he's Mr. Withers?"
Addie squinted at the big man who stood with one foot braced against the wall. "Not likely. That's Charley Pea. He's the blacksmith. He's got him a wife. I know it for a fact. Mayme's her name." Charley had taken a trip to Texas the year before and had returned with a bride, who'd put on airs, pretending to be a lady. But Addie had told it around town that Mayme was a whore from Ft. Worth, a hussy so depraved she'd been thrown out of the whorehouse where Addie'd worked--for corrupting the other girls. Mayme had picked a fight with her once and had broken Addie's nose and pulled out a chunk of Addie's hair. Although the fight wasn't Addie's fault, she'd been docked by the madam. So Addie had been all too happy to expose Mayme, although Addie had paid for it. Now she had to take her horses twenty miles away to be shoed. The blacksmith still fairly hated her. In fact, when Addie passed him on the street not long before she went to Kansas City, he had spit tobacco juice on her skirt. And he was the one who'd thrown two kittens down her well. Addie was sure of it.
Addie and Emma made their way down the aisle and onto the platform, which was crowded with men dressed mostly in rough clothes. Ranchers and miners stood beside the freight cars, waiting for shipments. Mexicans silently moved around them as they unloaded barrels and boxes. Men and a few women milled about the tracks waiting for passengers or just watching the train to see who got off. Addie knew some of them, but it wasn't wise to greet customers in public, so she merely looked them over, raised an eyebrow at one, smiled at another. She touched Emma's elbow and pointed her head at a neatly dressed man holding a hat in his hand and smiling in their direction. But just then, a woman made her way past them and joined him.
Emma's eyes darted about, and she seemed to lose her composure. "He's not here," she whispered.
"Oh, you don't know that. Maybe he's inside, waiting for folks to leave. He might be shy," Addie replied. "Or he went to the saloon for his dinner. Train's awful late, you know. Now, you go sit on the bench in the shade and wait for him. He'll be along directly." If Emma was sitting in the shadows of the depot, the man might not see right off how old she was.
"Will you wait with me?" Emma asked.
Addie was tempted, since she was curious to see this Mr. Withers. But she didn't fancy having the man recognize her and explain to Emma that she'd been keeping company all night and day with a whore. That wouldn't bother Addie so much, but she didn't see any reason to turn the woman into an enemy. And if Mr. Withers were as upright as Emma believed, he wasn't likely to approach Emma with Addie sitting beside her. Besides, it was late--and a Saturday night, Addie realized with a start. She had to find out what had gone on at The Chili Queen since she'd left. She wanted a tub and her supper before customers arrived. So she shook her head. She tipped the stationmaster to store her trunk until one of the Mexicans could deliver it to The Chili Queen, then picked up her valise. "Luck to you," she told Emma.
Emma was too distracted to reply. Addie squeezed her arm. Then she started down the road to The Chili Queen. When she looked back, Emma was sitting on the bench beside the depot, the pink hat in her lap. Except for Charley Pea, who was still watching the train, she was alone. There but for the grace of God, Addie thought.
THE CHILI QUEEN Copyright © 2002 by Sandra Dallas.
Excerpted from The Chili Queen by Sandra Dallas Copyright © 2003 by Sandra Dallas. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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