In Prairie Gulch, Texas, guarded secrets are told, legends are whispered, buried lies are uncovered, and hidden identities aren't hidden for long. For residents of this rough-and-tumble town tucked away on the fringes of the civilized world, any change of pace is a welcome one. When a company of four lovely young dancers and singers rolls into town, all sorts of unexpected adventures ensue. But even their sworn protector, the stalwart Ralph Waldo Horowitz, can't prevent their first night in Prairie Gulch from becoming one they'll never forget. Luckily, the town's sheriff takes the ladies under his protection.
Soon enough, the ladies of the Miss Lilliforth Dance League will learn that nothing sings quite like the song of the Red Sparrow.
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Song of the Red SparrowBook One: On Angels' Wings
By Rory Shane Riggs
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2011 Rory Shane Riggs
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe year was 1885.
There were fifteen years before the turn of the new century.
It was a gilded age for those who lived it and yet still the dark ages for those who yearned for a more peaceful and industrial existence.
It was the decade of last chance for those capitalists wishing to make their fortunes in such ventures as wheat, textiles, and railroad. It was the last gasp of an age where horse and buggy were still the desired mode of transportation, when ocean travel took weeks if not months, and where letter writing was an art form.
It was near the dawn of the last decade of the nineteenth century. It was a time of fear, independence, rebellion and oddly—a sense of station and purpose. It was a strange decade when the spirit of one half of the nation remained wild while the spirit of the other half was on the mend from being broken.
And even though Grover Cleveland's administration had officially proclaimed a more virile and rational United States of America, the west was still believed to be very much wild, wicked, and unsettled territory.
The south was still feeling the ill effects of the War Between the States. And the north, where the nation's capital was debated among many to be, was the only place in the young nation with the reputation of containing all the industrial fineries and modern facilities of a postwar civilization.
New York City had its theatres, shopping stores, and the new Brooklyn Bridge and the grandeur that was becoming an island known as Manhattan.
Philadelphia had its colonial homes and its old world charm that the "city of brotherly love" would need to have.
Washington, D.C. had its pageantry and power. President Lincoln had ordered the completion of the magnificent capital dome twenty years prior. It still stood as a testament to a nation's ability to heal.
How quickly that wound was scabbing, however, was still the subject of national questioning and heated parlor conversation.
So it was a little more than odd that instead of the traveling company of the Miss Lilliforth Dance League heading north to savor the finer luxuries of life, or east to soak in some political exposure, the troupe was heading west to a town no one had ever heard of, much less locate on a map.
It was a town called Prairie Gulch, allegedly found somewhere in the tiniest cracks in the obscenely large state of Texas.
The Miss Lilliforth Dance League was comprised of four attractive females accompanied for their journey by an aging, rickety stout man with a nervous trigger finger and a habit of placing his chubby hands on a lady where male hands need not go without prior permission.
And it was no surprise that Miss Donna Lilliforth herself, owner and manager of the song and dance entertainment company, was sitting out this particular trip.
"My health," she had said, with a dramatic cough from her still relatively young lungs added for punctuation. "It's not what it used to be."
Truth be told by any of them, Miss Lilliforth's voice and figure weren't what they used to be either but that didn't stop her from insisting on solo numbers in the more "civilized" venues, places with black ties and red velvet balconies.
Miss Lilliforth told them, as she convinced all four of the young women to sign on for the duration of the month long trip, that "the good people of the state of Texas need a healthy dose of culture just like anyone else and we are making history by bringing it to them."
In short, the ladies believed, they had been sold out.
None of the women were sure who had done the buying or what the total bill of sale had been but there was someone, they knew, in a place called Prairie Gulch with more money than he knew what to do with.
Miss Lilliforth's Dance League.
Four very attractive and young women.
All of them, save one, fresh from high school studies. The other member was attending a finishing school of charm for girls. The Academy of Social Refinery for Properly Educated Ladies of the Reconstructed South. It had been upon her father's insistence and her father's money that she attend. But this was summer and school was in recess and she was ready to taste independence – a flavor she had savored only a few years prior before a series of unfortunate events made her father a bit more possessive of his only child than need be.
The four of them nonetheless had always been and felt safe before. They had never ventured more than two or three hundred miles away from home. They were never gone more than a summer's week.
This appointment, in Texas, however, would be strikingly different. It was a contract with a period to be no less than four weeks. That would mean six weeks away from home this time. A week of traveling to get there, a week to get back home, and the four-week engagement at the location Miss Lilliforth and her mysterious client had already pre arranged.
First, it had been a rickety train on newly laid rails that would take them nearer their destination. A privately hired coach and driver would service the rest of the way into town.
The four women tried to fall asleep on the last night of the rail excursion in a series of bunk beds in a private car. The beds more resembled shelves with thick burlap curtains drawn around each weak cot. Sleep was a difficult task that evening, however. Perhaps it was the anticipation of the arrival in town or perhaps it was merely the constant shimmy and shake of the train beating to and fro on the tracks.
As they reclined in the dark, Ellen, one of the dancers and singers belonging to the entertainment organization, threw open the curtain that surrounded her bunk and called out in disgust to her colleagues.
"That's it," she announced in defeat. "I can't take this thing any more. Who can be expected to get her beauty sleep in this? Does its engine contain coal car parts? I thought we were supposed to be traveling in the lap of luxury."
Ellen was the youngest of the four. She was dark eyed, raven-haired and olive skinned. Her appearance was almost exotic. It was rumored that her father was half Cherokee who kidnapped her mother from a settlement and forced her to become his bride. Of course, that rumor was rumored to have been started by Miss Lilliforth who not only believed in raw talent but also in promotion and free publicity. Ellen's smile was as big as her heart. Her waist was as small as her patience.
"Apparently, the lap of luxury has bony knees," called another voice from behind a faded curtain with holes burned in from previous patrons who had obviously found it necessarily to smoke tobacco while lying in bed. "And there's no windows in here. I can't even see the light of the moon. It's like riding in a funeral train to my own service."
That voice belonged to Laura, an often naïve but always optimistic and bright girl. Laura's skin was the complexion of fine imported porcelain. Her hair was so blonde it was almost white. Everything about her was genteel and the picture of Southern beauty except for her laugh. Her spirited guffaw was said to scare small ponies and shake flocks of migrating birds from moss-covered braches.
Laura swung her thin white legs over the side of the bed and blew a hot breath up into her forehead, sending a lock of hair bouncing against her face. As she did so, her limbs thumped an object in the bed below her.
"Ouch!" moaned another female orator, a voice that had been disturbingly silent thus far, which seemed a bit out of character for the personality. Then, another set of curtains flew open, so fast in fact that they nearly fell from their rings. "What in the devil do you have up there? Legs or tree trunks?"
It was Mertyl, probably the most opinionated and therefore often the most vocal member of the group. Her hair was almost too short for a feminine style and was always tussled in a wisp of dark blonde. Her eyes danced in two pools of liquid blue. She was beautiful in her own right but her beauty was only noticed once a person could get beyond her mouth, which always seemed contorted in a sentence containing at least one or two profanities. Mertyl found her vocabulary – or lack of it – to be her defense mechanism and she defended herself quite regularly, even when the moment did not call for it.
"Does anybody know where in the blessed hell we even are?" Mertyl asked.
The fourth and final voice spoke.
The voice belonging to Jessica.
For her first uttered sentence, the curtain that surrounded her reclining place was closed.
"We should be somewhere in Mississippi or Arkansas by now depending on the train route," she replied, in a honey dripping Kentuckian accent. "And Mertyl, just so you know, I doubt it very much if there is such a thing as a blessed hell. I'm sure that if there was, my father would be telling his congregation how to avoid going there."
Mertyl laughed at Jessica's correction and pulled back the drape to reveal the cubbyhole with the bunk and the last member of the group who was lying on top of it.
Jessica's arms were folded across her bosom; her eyes wide open, revealing she too had not been sleeping. At least not much. She looked over at her friends and journey companions. Jessica, or Jessie, as her friends called her, was truly the most captivating member of the troupe. Her two years spent in the grooming academy, paid for by her father and even by money donated for the cause by his church, was beginning to show in abundance. It was for that reason that Miss Lilliforth had made the decision to appoint Jessica the unofficial peer leader and spokesperson of sorts for the group in her absence. As well as being older and arguably more culturally astute, Jessie could carry the solo numbers that Miss Lilliforth usually performed in the civilized establishments.
Jessie had long and nearly wild fire red hair. Her complexion was pale but clean. Her eyes were green emeralds placed against her face of ivory flesh. At first, she pursed her lips like a discarded doll in a child's toy box and then she laughed out loud, with nearly every tooth showing, and rose from the bunk.
"I can't sleep either," she said, as she gained her balance and joined her friends who now were perched on the edges of their own selected shelves. "Every time I close my eyes, I dream someone is rearranging my bedroom, with me still in it."
Ellen jumped down from her cot with a thud to the floor she did not intend to make. She sat on the bed next to Jessie.
"Does anyone have any idea why Miss Lilliforth would send us out in the middle of God knows where?"
"We're not God knows where, Ellen," Mertyl answered with an edge of sarcasm. Mertyl was nearly famous for her dry wit. "We're in Mississippi or Arkansas, depending on the train route, wherever in the hell those places are."
"She's trying to kill us. That's the only explanation for it I can come up with," Laura said. "She wants us dead so she can replace us with a more talented troupe."
"Yes," Mertyl added, tossing her bed pillow up to Laura playfully. "That may be true in your case, darling. And for once and for all, get those tree trunks of yours off of my head." Mertyl gently slapped at Laura's legs and with a disingenuous huff, the girl obliged.
"You heard that explanation she gave us about bringing culture to the masses that need it. But does anyone buy that?" Jessie asked. She searched the three faces of her fellow employees and friends. They were all still and silent. Mertyl bit her upper lip, afraid of the damning message she wanted to convey about Miss Lilliforth and her inability to travel with them.
Ellen stared at the cuticles on her left hand.
"I do," Jessie continued. She lifted herself from her bed and stood in the middle of the aisle to address the three of them better. She had to hold on to the bunks at either side of her to keep from falling one way or the other as the car rocked beneath her. "We all joined this group voluntarily for one thing – to entertain. We are not pioneering women. We are not some martyrs for some great cause that actresses will ever study. No books or great plays will be written about our journey. In short, my friends, we are nothing more than musical prostitutes."
Then Jessie laughed for a moment because her soliloquy had gathered a captive and quiet audience. She rather enjoyed honing her acting skills on her friends.
"For whatever we are getting paid for this trip," Mertyl exclaimed over her own rising laughter. "We're musical whores."
"Just call me Diamond Lil," Laura giggled, her voice rolling in her throat so at any moment her boisterous laugh could spring forward and cause the train to derail under the weighty vibration.
"Nickel Lil is more like it for me," added Ellen.
The troupe laughed together then, allowing for a moment the stress and worry of the trip to be released after nearly a full week of weary strenuous travel. They kept up their happy noise until the door to their tiny room in the private car came open and a short fat man with whiskers too long for his jaw and pajamas too short for his waist made an appearance.
He was their chaperone, a man by the full name of Ralph Waldo Horowitz, a sixty three year old Jewish gentleman who had been with the troupe in an official escort capacity since Miss Lilliforth founded it. Apparently, Ralph Waldo had been a fiancée's father. This particular fiancée – one of four belonging to Miss Lilliforth in the span of her lifetime - was tragically killed in the War Between the States. He died at the tail end. Actually, truth be told, when the man heard the news that the war had ended, he yelled in jubilation so loud that the horse he was riding on bucked. He fell from the saddle and the horse came down on his skull. Miss Lilliforth felt a sense of duty to help out the man who would have been her father in law and so she placed him on her payroll. And then she placed him on a train.
"What's going on in here?" Ralph Waldo Horowitz asked with a grin that revealed a few missing teeth. "You sound like a bunch of hens laying eggs."
"And I suppose you'd like to campaign for the position of the rooster," Mertyl snapped and the women laughed again.
"I am afraid I would be out voted, ladies," he said with his heavy almost permanent panting breath. He had grown used to their ribbing and teasing. He knew they meant no real harm and they knew he was in their company to keep them from harm's way, or at least give that appearance. "Now try and get some sleep. We'll be catching the stage in Texas in the morning when the train stops."
Then Ralph Waldo Horowitz squeezed the shoulder of Jessica and the knee of Ellen simultaneously with the fat digits he called fingers. "The people in town will be expecting all of you to be bright eyed and bushy tailed for your first show tomorrow night."
When he hit the word "tailed," Horowitz put extra emphasis on it and tightened his squeeze. He winked and removed his hands from the bodies of the women. Then, just as he had entered, Ralph Waldo Horowitz was gone and the door behind him was shut. His residue, a mixture of the smell of gin and talcum powder, lingered.
Ellen scrubbed at her knee. "One of these days, I'm going to cut that thing off," she said.
"His hand?" Jessie asked, entering her bunk again and attempting to recline.
"That too," Ellen replied.
The next day provided a bit of a much desired breather for the young women as the coach they were scheduled to catch just inside the state of Texas – the one that would take them on the last six hours of what had already been a very taxing excursion – was running late.
A telegram had arrived in Horowitz's name moments before the troupe's train pulled up to the platform of the station.
"Dear Mr. Horowitz and Company. Prairie Gulch eagerly anticipates your arrival. Unfortunately, the stage to meet you has been inadvertently delayed. Please expect a wait of no more than four hours. There are two rooms in your name already paid for at the Wrigley Hotel. Sincere apologies."
The telegram's message nearly filled the entire yellow slip of paper on which it was written. Initials only signed it. "L.C."
"L.C.?" Mertyl cried aloud, snapping the paper from their chaperone's thick hands. "Who is L.C.? Is he the bastard who paid for this trip?"
"Mertyl," Jessie flushed and then scolded flatly. "We are in public."
"So what?" Mertyl Cooper responded in kind. She was not one to be reprimanded. Or criticized for that matter. "Here we are for four whole hours. Stranded in some god damned Texas cow town like one of those picture postcards you see in the five and dime. Hell, where are the tumbleweeds I have read about? I demand that a tumbleweed come blowing along. The experience is not worth writing home about without a tumbleweed."
Excerpted from Song of the Red Sparrow by Rory Shane Riggs Copyright © 2011 by Rory Shane Riggs. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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