When Cat, a former prostitute, steps off the train in Butte, Montana, she walks right into hell. The dark smoke-filled air reeks of menace. And the stares—scorning her blue jeans, cowboy hat, and empty holster—don't help put her at ease.
Still reeling from her sister's death, Cat aims to find a purpose and help those who need it find even some small measure of justice. When she reads about the mysterious death of a local prostitute, she resolves to find the truth.
But the closer Cat gets to that truth, the more she realizes Butte, Montana, harbors some very dark secrets, indeed.
A take-no-prisoners historical mystery about strong women, justice, and redemption.
Chrissy Wissler is one of my favorite writers. She loves the West, the outdoors, and history. She generally writes about women and families. It's rare to find good western novels that focus on the women of the past, so this book is a particular treat. – Kristine Kathryn Rusch
"Wonderful, wonderful book. Held me me from word one all the way to the end."– Dean Wesley Smith, USA Today Bestselling Author, on Women's Justice
Every sound imaginable filled the air: discordant keys striking hard on a piano, the shrill shriek of a violin. Yells and cheers as money was lost and won from one gambling house or dance hall or saloon; it truly didn't matter. They were all one and the same and they lit the chill, wintery night as Norma stumbled about in their shadows.
At least they would have lit the night, if not for the blackness. The smoke hanging so tight and close she could barely see one foot in front of her.
The noise throbbed against her head until it became nothing more than a dull ache no amount of alcohol could take away. Which was well enough. The noise, if not her eyes, at least told her this was the way home.
Norma accepted this small bit of comfort, for that's all it was.
That's all she had left.
That, and that light stirring bit of wind. Not enough to help her breathe or see. To push away that heavy, thick smoke hanging over Butte like a black halo, from all those smelters pourin' out their blackness, not caring a whit about the folks who lived there.
Day and night, they went on and on. Day and night, they kept on with their burning of the ore. Great heaps of it.
And the smoke, it stayed right where it was cause the wind, the little tickling thing that it was, wasn't strong enough to do much else than make her shiver. Make her wish for the coat that she'd... lost somewhere.
Which, for the moment, was no matter because the sharp sting of cold helped. It cleared her mind, just enough, anyway. The kinda cold that went straight through you. Right into your bones without so much as a by-your-leave. And it stayed there, too. Stayed in you as yet even more of it came rolling down off those far-off, snow-peaked mountains. Ones she'd never been to but had always dreamed of. She'd had many dreams as she'd gazed out the rickety door of her little one-room crib, gazing off into that distance, so close and yet so far.
A dream she'd almost had, too.
But almost didn't get you nothin' in this place, just kept on pushing you down into the muck and mud until that's all that you had left. Until it was just you stumblin' about in the blackness, stomach ready to revolt right up your throat, hopin' like hell you could actually make it home before that happened.
Not that wind cared 'bout her dreams. Or whether or not she made it home.
It didn't. It rolled straight on down the hill, laughing all the way. Taunting her with it presence.
Or perhaps the laughter was all in her head.
Laughing or not, the wind at least brought another small comfort. A small one, yes, but a comfort nonetheless: It stole away the bits of sweat lining her forehead.
Though why the sweat was there, she didn't know. And couldn't much think straight, either.
Had it been from the heat of the Lucky Horseshoe, all those hours she'd spent there, earning her coin just like the rest of them? Bodies stacked up against each other from one wall to the next, so tight, desperate, almost as if there weren't another four dozen just like it?
Her head spun. Black dots dancin' right about in that darkness.
Norma pressed one hand against a building's brick wall, which turned her fingers blacker than even this black, hell-bit of a night. Not that she could see much, eyes stinging red, burning from that sulfur-laden air. Smoke that was both bane and blessing. They and their mines, giving miners their steady stream of money, a steady need to laugh and relax, to seek comfort from any willing-enough woman they could find after trudging hours beyond imaging in that dark underground of Butte's great and rich Hill.
Norma welcomed them, as did many others.
And this time, she'd managed to claim some of that coin for herself. A decent bit, for once.
Maybe even enough to get home.
That very word... it sent a longing straight through her, seared through her. So powerful, so strong, she felt it right to her soul. The only way to keep it from burning her whole was to keep walking.
But... the word just wouldn't go away... wouldn't leave her with this small peace that she had, this little amount of coin and the chillness of the night, whether or not she could see. Home. As if such a place were still open to someone like her, her and her brother, but well, a woman could dream. Could... long for.
So, she did.
She longed, and she walked. It was the only way to survive in this town. The only way to keep head above water was to keeping pushin' forward, never pausing long enough cause if you did you'd sink right on down to that bottom and never get it. She was so close to that, too. So close to just laying down and giving in.
Because she'd been a fool.
She'd wanted it all, and what she'd really wanted, that whole time, was home.
Something she could never have again.
Norma followed along that brick building, feet thudding on the rotting, shifting, plank way. Her stomach, its ends, turning and twisting something so fierce she actually lost her grip along that brick wall a few times and nearly crashed right down.
Something... wrong. Not... not right at all.
Horses and carriages she couldn't see from beyond the blackness creaked by in the street. Except for the noise from the carriages, from the saloon whose steady beat she could nearly feel right through that blackened brick, it felt like she was completely alone.
Walking alone in that blackness.
Her other hand clung tight to her shawl, now dipping so low it'd give any passerby, if they was close enough to see in the smoky-dark, a glance at her bare shoulder. At some point while she worked the saloon, offering drinks to customers and offering a bit more to anyone with a hint of willingness, before the owner had declared her too drunk for good business and thrown her out, sometime then... her dress had caught on some piece of nail, or ripped, or...
She could no longer remember.
Something had happened.
Her mind got even more tangled. Sluggish. But she focused on that rip in her dress like it were the lifeline she needed to see her home.
It wouldn't be an easy easy thing to mend, let alone replace. And her missing coat, too.
Except... she couldn't quite understand why such worries mattered much.
Only that it hurt, this truth. As if her body alone were all the proof and reprimand she needed, that she'd never go home.
That she didn't deserve it, neither.
Once creamy smooth, her shoulder, where the fingers of the most wealthy had once caressed her, held her, devoted themselves to her, it was a changed thing, now. Smudged as it was with dirt and grease and black powder. She could even see the imprints of her last customer, the swirls of his fingertips as they'd ground down hard into her.
At least... if she could see straight, anyway.
Which she couldn't.
Norma moaned. Her stomach twistin' like it was about to knot itself good and tight and never untangle. Her head pounding, it was getting hard to think let alone breathe. She pressed a soot-smudged hand to her forehead and it felt like a fiery, hot poker was being stabbed into her, again and again. So hard and fast the rest of her was starting to go numb.
Could she have drunk more than she'd thought?
Not the opium. She knew the feeling well enough, and she hadn't had enough money to push herself into a more lengthy state of pure bliss and calm.
This, though, this was different.
Her stomach churned and burned, and she sagged against the wall. Felt like it was the only thing on this hill keeping her upright.
Something slipped into her own drink?
She... she hadn't been in her right mind tonight. Not with the pain still so fresh, and then, her final... rejection. Too good to be true. She'd taken a risk, such a foolish one thinking it'd bring her happiness, and it'd failed her. And tonight, it had felt like every man in the place knew it, too, and wanted to enjoy their good fortune while she wallowed in her own misfortune.
It hadn't taken her long to lose her last shred of decency, the desire to be the lady she'd once been known for, certainly in the face of alcohol and its promises of dulling this too-painful world. She'd easily lost count of how much she drank, of how much and what exactly, as the others, no longer her gentleman callers for sure but men all the same, men willing and men spending, as they poured whatever they had right into her cup.
And she hadn't cared.
A swirling image of another man slipped through the pain tearing into her skull. A man who'd both fit and didn't. His clothing, looking like all the others, but treating her with kindness and caring like she was still one of Grace's ladies. And oh, he'd been her heaven in that moment, that little joy, the reminder of the woman she'd been before. And then he'd given her this brilliant, promising smile, and she'd soared. The sting from earlier, gone. Rejection after rejection, and knowing too the wrath that was about to fall down on her.
But for that moment, it had been enough.
He'd been her last customer for the night and he had paid her a hefty price. He'd caressed her forearm like she was indeed the treasure and not the coins he was parting with.
It was a touch she still felt, still caused a shiver of pride. Felt even through her splitting head. Even her breasts, too, as they pushed out her too-tight, breath-stealing corset.
She stumbled at that moment, her worn shoe catching some uneven plank on the walkway. It caused the ribbing of her corset to gouge into her soft skin.
Got only a mouthful of smoke that burned.
Her pride burning, too. Silly, foolish woman she was, she'd believed him, believed this man when he said she'd been worth every coin and more.
Once, she'd been that girl.
A girl with a smile, who lived with joy and enjoyed sharing it with others. No longer.
Red—a sudden pain seared through her head. So fast, so complete, her vision turned to blackness. It came so suddenly. Violently. Nothing like before. Nothing that she could see through, see around. It was her everything. Shrinking her whole world down to that one sight, that one feeling.
She cried out. Doubled over.
From somewhere far off—or close, she couldn't tell, not around the pain, not around the red—she thought she heard the clomping of horses. Hooves smackin' into the beat-hard dirt. They came nearer. Towards her?
She was no one. A nothing.
Now, anyway. She'd long ago lost the glittering jewels and silk and dresses fashioned straight from Paris, which she'd worn like the dazzling primrose she'd been while at Gardens. A world so far gone it felt like decades rather than months.
Her own fault. Her own weakness.
The pain came again. This time it felt like it split her in two. Right from her head all the way to her groin.
She crouched on the ground. Panting, moaning, crying.
Was... was she crying? Did she truly have any tears left?
There was a shout. Feet rushed towards her. Then... hands pressed against her head as if that would make it all go away. Soft and gentle hands, of the kind she hadn't felt in many long months. Caring hands, and they were cool, too, not like the wind cold, but cool. Comforting. Though they did nothing against the fire that was on her skin.
Those hands felt her head, lifted open her eyelids. She thought maybe something cool pressed against her chest, listening to her poor, straining chest. Her lungs that desperately fought for a clean breath of air, or any breath really, through her corset, through that smoke-thick air, and each time failing a bit more than the last.
"Norma? My dear girl, how could this possibly be you? What happened?"
What happened was she'd been a fool, thinking she was in love, and turned out she was wrong.
Somehow, she opened her eyes, and at first, saw nothing but the pain and fire and darkness.
"I, I can't see."
But that wasn't fully true.
The image of the man slowly came together. Blurry and full of shadows, but enough to make out his wrinkled, bone-white skin. The long, back cloak that looked close enough to the darkness she found herself in. A man she recognized.
A tear slipped past.
The man, this doctor who'd reluctantly tended to her before she'd given up her life of glitter in hopes of a better one, a decent one with the promise of a full life that, even now, burned like a secret flower in her chest.
"You're burning up," he said. "We need to get you to a hospital. Immediately. Driver!"
Who he called to, she couldn't see. Could, in fact, barely see him and his so sad face. Even now her vision was darkening as if it was reaching right up from her soul to finally take the rest of her.
The doctor had always looked at her, at all the girls really, with such overwhelming sadness.
His hands though, they'd always been kind.
"Who did this to you?" he asked.
Her hand, black from all the soot, black as her soul, lifted. Touched his cheek.
"Doctor. Thank you."
It was all she managed.
That, and one last smile. She had no idea she still had one in her, but it was there.
And for a moment, she felt that joy again. Just like she felt his kindness, one last time.
The pain became too great then. Too great, even, for the great and kind Doctor to heal.
She would die and no one, beyond the doctor, would care. Not for her, not for any of the fallen sisters like her.