As Carissa peeked out of the canvas-covered wagon for the first look at her new home, she asked herself for the thousandth time in four years what would become of her. Was that a pool of blood in the street?
“Here it is, Maman,” she said dully, shaking her mother gently to wake her. “Tombstone, where Miss Lucille says we’ll find our fortunes.”
“Let me know when I need to leave the wagon,” her mother mumbled, snuggling back into the thin mattress the women shared. Carissa sighed. She was not impressed with the coarse, gritty town. It was what was called a boomtown, since silver had been discovered there in 1877. When word got out, the town “boomed,” and on that September day of 1880, Tombstone was reaching its zenith. As soon as Miss Lucille had heard about the silver strike, she’d begun making plans to move herself, Carissa, three of her best girls, and her black servant, Jonah, to that spot in the Arizona desert where, it was said, silver was lying in the streets for anyone to gather up. Try as she might, Carissa could not see any. 1Carissa was included in the group only because she had made herself indispensible to Miss Lucille and her girls. She could press clothing, apply cosmetics, and dress hair better than many women twice her age. Had she not been useful, Carissa thought bitterly, Miss Lucille would not have bothered with her, Lisette’s daughter or not. They wove their way down Allen Street, choking on the dust of the passing twenty-mule teams hauling silver to the smelter just down the road. They reached Sixth Street, and Jonah, who was driving, pulled over at Miss Lucille’s command.
Immediately, Carissa was struck by how breathtakingly intense the sky seemed. She had never been under a sky so bright and so blue before. As the mountains glistened beautifully on the horizon, she thought, Things sure are crystal clear here in the desert. This opinion instantly changed as Carissa took note of her immediate surroundings. Carissa scrutinized her new Purgatory. Allen Street was filled with shops of all kinds, and it seemed that between each shop was a saloon, where crowds of rowdy men were getting drunk and playing cards. It did not look like San Francisco, but it did resemble how she had been told San Francisco looked in 1850, right after the discovery of gold at nearby Sutter’s Fort. The miners had descended in hoards once word of the strike was out. They were quickly followed by the saloon keepers and the gamblers and then the storekeepers and the prostitutes, all the latter preying on the weakness of the poor men who came west with a dream they might strike it rich. The ones who followed usually fared better than the miners. A usual phrase of the day was, “Why work the mine when you could mine the miners?”
Many of the buildings appeared to have been put up in a hurry, using whatever materials were at hand. Jonah stopped the wagon in front of a half-finished building at the end of the street. Beyond that, scattered on the hillsides, were hundreds of canvas tents that seemed to stretch for at least a mile. “Please,” Carissa prayed, “let us be in a house with a roof and a floor, and not in one of those tents!” Miss Lucille hefted her bulky body off the wagon seat, with Jonah’s assistance, and surveyed her new base of operation.
“Well, ladies, we made it,” she announced grandly. “And just look at all those miners!” she exclaimed as she gazed down the hill at one of the several silver mines that operated just blocks away.
“The place is crawling with lonely men who have silver in their pockets!” Elise, the youngest of Lucille’s “ladies,” jumped down from the wagon agilely. “I smell money,” she told Carissa, who joined her in the street, stretching her cramped legs. “I smell a lot of things,” Carissa returned, turning up her pert nose at the odor of the smelters, the unwashed bodies, and the animal offal that attacked her senses. She alone had enjoyed the wagon trip from San Francisco. She loved sleeping and cooking outdoors and being out of the crowded city. Miss Lucille told Jonah to ask around for Rose Red, and he shuffled around the corner. Elise pointed at a building across the street. At eighteen, she was only six years older than Carissa and still had some of her childish enthusiasm.
“Carissa! Look over there! See the beautiful gowns in the window of that store? It’s just like Miss Lucille promised! So elegant!”
Carissa followed her gaze to the window of a store that bore a sign “M. Calisher’s General Merchandise,” but she didn’t respond. To her, there was nothing appealing, much less elegant, about this stinky town. Yvonne, Elise’s older sister by five years, had been observing from the back of the wagon. It was obvious that the two were sisters; despite the age difference, they were nearly identical, with their high cheekbones, lush curves, and leaf-green eyes. The only difference was that Yvonne’s hair was flame-red and Elise’s was soft-blonde. Yvonne had run away from their hometown of Council Grove, Kansas three years ago with a handsome gambler who had turned out to be exactly what her father had told her he was—no good. The couple made it all the way to San Francisco, where he promptly found another woman and left Yvonne in the streets. She had wandered into the club owned by Miss Lucille’s boyfriend and had been with her ever since. Last year, Elise managed to escape their strict, overbearing father and joined her sister at Miss Lucille’s.
“Oh yes,” Yvonne said cattily, “elegant is the word. Grow up, Elise!”
Then she looked at Carissa. “Should I wake up the princess?” she asked, referring to Carissa’s mother.
“Go ahead,” Carissa told her wearily. “Give it a try.” Sometimes Carissa liked Yvonne, but sometimes she didn’t. But she always liked Elise and was sad that Yvonne had ruined her sister’s small pleasure. She attempted to make Elise feel better. “Elise, look at the store next door to the gowns. It’s a shoe shop.”
Elise’s good humor returned immediately, and they continued to point things out until Jonah returned.
“You was right, Miz Lucille. Rose Red be right down de block der, an’ she say she bin waitin’ fo’ us.”
“Excellent!” Miss Lucille said, clapping her hefty gloved hands together.
“Shall we?” Jonah helped her back up on the wagon seat.
“We’ll walk,” Elise announced, linking arms with Carissa. As the girls neared the corner, they were startled by the sound of gunshots. Carissa pulled Elise into the closest store, and through the store window they watched the drama unfold on the street. Two rough-looking men, both swaying drunkenly, stood facing each other right there on Allen Street, not twenty feet away. Both men were waving their guns. “You callin’ me a liar?” one man shouted. “No,” the other man shouted back. “I’m callin’ you a card cheat and a liar!” Suddenly the first man raised his gun and fired. His shot went wide, but the other man’s did not. The first man crumpled in the street, and crowds rushed out of saloons to see what had happened. Carissa and Elise stood in shock, as they knew that the first man was most certainly dead. “What in the world kind of place have we come to?”