Gold in California! Silver in Nevada! Gold in Montana and Idaho! Silver in Arizona and New Mexico and Utah! Gold and silver in Colorado – lots of it. They’re taking it out by the ton. Why, in the Pikes Peak country alone they’re drinking from the streams and picking riches from their teeth!
Let’s go! Let’s get up to the Victor diggings. Let’s stake out a claim in Anaconda. Let’s catch a ride to Cripple Creek, and do it now!
But it wasn’t easy. It was hard. When determined, hard-natured men moved into hard country and faced hard winters to scratch a hard living by hardrock mining, they sometimes brought along their equally hard-natured women.
But more often than not, they made do with the life-hardened women already there; the women who were always there, no matter where the gold strike happened.
Cripple Creek was booming in 1895. Squatting just inside the cone of the huge extinct volcano forming the western-facing secret side of Pikes Peak, the wealthy mining town boasted every luxury of life teams of sweaty horses could drag over the mountains from Denver, seventy-five miles to the northwest as the wind blows or a good hundred or more miles off as the rutted wagon trails lay.
Claim speculators, mineral brokers, equipment salesmen, second-hand equipment salesmen, undertakers, gamblers, lawyers and every other kind of criminal, crook and conman afoot prowled the town’s muddy streets every day the dawn broke over the Peak, while a growing army of miners, teamsters, shopkeepers, blacksmiths and dreamers of all the other trades necessary to support such a thriving mining district held onto their wallets and hoped the next big-money deal would be the score that led them back to a gentler climate somewhere at a lower altitude. To a place where the beds were clean, the whisky was not watered down, and lovers were willing for reasons other than the asking price.
Women coming to such a place wanted the same things as the men. But, while men just might see their golden dreams realized no matter how impossible the dreams might seem, for the women it would take a miracle.
And sometimes, those miracles happened.
High up near the top of the Cripple Creek tenderloin, among the filthy mine tailings and soot-belching mills where three shifts of double-jackers, powderhands and muckmen plodded past their doors in a never ending stream of grimy humanity, those brave and often aging courtesans preferring to go it alone without the protection of regular pimps, parlor houses and madams arranged their own little district into orderly rows simply called The Line.
There, a prostitute known only by the name of Hannah shared a neat three-room crib with a longtime friend and business partner known only by the name of Little Sweet Pea.
Through at least a dozen of the biggest mining booms to hit the west, and numerous smaller ones – they’d long ago lost count – Hannah and Little Sweet Pea had survived an endless succession of tent cities, roadside hovels, dancehalls, barrooms and street corners by the time the unusually harsh winter of 1895 settled so early and heavily on the always frosty shoulders of the Pikes Peak region.
The first deep snows blowing in during the middle weeks of September that year would have buried a less robust mining camp. But Cripple Creekers just shrugged into an extra set of longjohns, hitched up their britches, buttoned up their coats, and went on gouging wealth from the generous hillsides. Like everyone else, Hannah and Little Sweet Pea made do the best they knew how.
They’d already learned life’s harder lessons as those lessons applied to them.
Little Sweet Pea was a southern-born mulatto who never knew exactly which field buck sharecropping for the nearby plantation cuckolded the man she grew up calling Daddy. He must have been no more than a quadroon himself though, to account for her mild but distinctively African features – looks that made her so different from the other eight children born in her own wretched family’s crumbling sharecropper shack.
But she did know that by the time she turned fourteen, the men who came around bearing the gifts she could keep if only she’d please them in very private and often very demeaning ways were paying her shiftless father far more for her attentions than she was getting from them. Or him. As she continued to develop into a stunning high-yellow goldmine for her trashy old daddy, and the only hard-cash income for eleven hungry mouths, she began to wonder why she shouldn’t just keep all the gold for herself.
One night, promising to give herself wholly to a wealthy local banker with illegal tastes in intimate man/woman relations if only he’d take her into town, she slipped out of the tumbledown house. She robbed the banker and left him chained naked in his office; knowing he’d never admit to attempting unspeakable sexual acts with, or being robbed by, what was essentially a little girl. Especially one with black blood running in her veins.
The next morning’s sunrise found her awake, alert and taking personal inventory on a train farther away from home than she had ever been in her short life. She’d cried for awhile in the darkness, weeping bitterly over her loss of childhood, modesty, virtue and, even as bad as it was, the only life she had ever known.
But with the sun came the life-changing realization that she owned herself fully now – her mind and her hopes along with her body – and the hard determination that she would survive in the world, no matter what the uncaring world may come up with to defeat her. In that cold, gray light of dawn, she wiped her eyes for the last time and made the resolute, unshakable decision to never, ever, let herself cry again.
She left the name she was born with in the dead past, along with those who birthed her.
A portly old Louisiana judge later took to calling her Little Sweet Pea during the year he allowed her to “work off” a petty theft charge in the luxurious New Orleans apartment he kept secret from his wife, children, grandchildren, and at least one other mistress. She liked the name so much that she kept it, along with the detestable fat bastard’s massive gold watch and chain, when she boarded a northbound riverboat at the invitation of a scheming first mate who mistook an innocent-sounding alias and an even more innocent-looking face for genuine innocence.
A couple years later, she met Hannah in an upscale St. Louis brothel.
At nineteen, Hannah was new to the prostitutes’ trade when the little dab of hard cash she’d been able to steal from her wealthy family’s Boston home ran out on the west bank of the Mississippi River.
Because Hannah bore them a grandson without the blessed sanction of a showy church marriage – an unforgivable offense in that time, place and social standing – the stern old Yankee patricians who somehow became intimate with each other long enough to produce her turned her out penniless to starve or freeze; they didn’t care which after she firmly refused to quietly enter a French convent in disgrace.
But they did keep the boy. They hid his parentage as deeply and securely as they’d buried the shame-laden secret of their Black Irish lineage, and explained away his presence to friends and acquaintances as the orphan child of recently departed relatives. This was mostly the truth given the circumstances they’d forced onto Hannah and the young maritime officer she’d intended to marry before his whaling ship was last glimpsed going down during a vicious winter squall off Nova Scotia.
Little Sweet Pea had once promised herself she’d never get close to another human being again. But when Hannah showed up at the bordello hungry, exhausted and desperate, Little Sweet Pea realized she still retained more human compassion than she would have previously bet good money on.
Ordinarily, Hannah’s generous mane of dark chestnut curls, delicate alabaster skin and shocking blue eyes, along with a petite, compact body and a gracefully genteel manner, would have made her Little Sweet Pea’s business rival and instant enemy. But Little Sweet Pea was also smart enough to recognize Hannah’s potential value as an ally in the callous industry of selling carefully measured rations of feminine virtue to strangers.
Soon, to her surprise, she soon knew Hannah’s value as a genuine friend, too.
Though Little Sweet Pea was a journeyman in the flesh trade, having served out her apprenticeship as a child, Hannah was never able to distance herself – her mind and spirit – from her body in the act of earning her living. With Little Sweet Pea’s guidance, Hannah learned to please the nameless, faceless, soulless men who drifted unremembered through her life. In return, Hannah taught Little Sweet Pea how to read books and figure numbers, along with the refined, ladylike attributes of a woman born to high social standing. Little Sweet Pea admired Hannah’s quiet grace and gentility, and always worked to nurture it in her own character. Hannah admired her friend’s remarkable inner strength, but simply could not duplicate it, and tears came easily to her.
Especially after she took sick that bad winter of 1895.
“He’d be ten now,” Hannah would often say, as the snow piled ever higher on the uncaring mountainside. “Ten years old, and I wouldn’t know him if I saw him on the street.”
“Now Hannah,” Little Sweet Pea would reply, like she had so many times before, “you’ll see him again just as soon as we can get you enough money to go back home for a spell.”
Hannah usually just smiled, understanding her friend was trying to help – though both knew such a thing as going back home would never happen. Little Sweet Pea had been a strong shoulder to lean on for a long time, and Hannah was grateful; more grateful than Little Sweet Pea would ever fully realize. But, rubbing absently at the hard knot growing larger all the time just above her navel, Hannah couldn’t help crying herself to sleep more and more often after the last dirty miner paid up and departed in the wee hours.
As the gloomy winter days pressed relentlessly in, and the gnawing pain in her abdomen fanned itself into a constant burning agony, Hannah found herself crying almost all the time; disgusted with herself for showing the one weakness Little Sweet Pea detested above all other human frailties. Still, she didn’t want to let on just how severe the pain had become. Hannah knew apologies for her unusual behavior were useless, but she couldn’t stop herself from offering them.
Little Sweet Pea typically brushed aside Hannah’s concerns with her usual good cheer.
“C’mon, girl,” Little Sweet Pea said one day, taking both of Hannah’s hands into hers and grinning like an excited child, “it’s just this nasty old weather getting you down so! You know your own self that Christmas is coming. There ain’t a soul anywhere don’t like Christmastime.”
Hannah nodded and forced a smile past her tears. “You’re absolutely right,” she chimed brightly, hiding a sudden twinge of belly pain from her only friend in the world. “Christmas was made for miracles, and I sure could use a couple of them about now.”
“There you go!” Little Sweet Pea’s smile became strained as she noted the stress lines on Hannah’s face, and the way the younger woman constantly clenched her fists over her stomach. “Two miracles it is!” she exclaimed. “And besides, this is just a little winter weather we’re having. We’ve seen lots of these cold winters, and summer always comes ’round afterwards no matter how cold they get.”
“You’re right.” Hannah drew a deep breath. “It’s just the winter.”
The days dragged on toward Christmas. Hannah became so sick she could no longer help keep the fire going, or help with any of the other chores necessary to keep the drafty shack clean and livable; and presentable to the continuous string of tired miners who came knocking on the door every night. Little Sweet Pea tended the cleaning and kept food on the table while Hannah spent more and more time in her room. Taking over the extra work didn’t bother Little Sweet Pea because Hannah had done the same thing over the years when the situation was reversed and Little Sweet Pea was the one too sick to do anything but stay in bed.
But when Hannah started talking, and usually rambling on endlessly, about her son, Little Sweet Pea began to suspect that something was seriously wrong this time. Hannah was not the strongest-willed woman ever to take up the prostitutes’ occupation, but she’d never been one to just give up before. Hannah was a survivor, not a quitter.
Before long, Hannah was too weak to even feed herself. Little Sweet Pea often sat beside Hannah’s bed, spooning sips from a warm bowl of thin soup and listening patiently while Hannah talked wistfully of old times, of shared experiences, of pleasant memories.
Of her child.
“If I could just see him one more time, I could go to my grave in peace,” Hannah said one evening, as Little Sweet Pea dabbed rouge on prematurely aging cheeks and readied herself for another night’s business. “Oh, I know it’s a miracle. But surely I can have just this one? I’ve never asked for a miracle before, so I must be due.”
“I promise you you are,” Little Sweet Pea said, wriggling into the cheap but gaudy dress that was so easy to slip out of when the time came. “You most surely are. But don’t you be talking so about graves and such, Hannah! You’ll get over this little bout of …whatever is ailing you soon, and be ready to go see your boy come summertime.”
“You think so?”
“I already guaranteed you two miracles, didn’t I?”
Hannah forced a slight smile. “Yes,” she said, “you did. And I’m going to hold you to them.” She gazed thoughtfully at her friend for a long moment. “You’re so strong,” she finally said. “How do you do it? You never whimper, never complain. Never let the world make you cry.”
“Honey, that’d take a sure-nuff miracle.”
“I know. And I’m grateful.” Hannah chuckled weakly. “In fact, I’m so grateful that I’m going to give you back one of those miracles you promised to me. It’s the least I can do.”
“It’ll be my pleasure to take it, then.” Little Sweet Pea met Hannah’s smile with one of her own. Then it slipped slightly. “But you gotta try not to cry out so much tonight,” she said, hating herself and the entire situation for the need to point it out. “It runs the trade off to hear it when they knows you ain’t in here with no man.”
“I’ll try,” Hannah said. “And tomorrow night, I’ll handle the business while you rest up.”
“Sounds good to me.” It had been awhile since Hannah could stand the weight of a customer on her unnaturally swollen belly – Hannah could just barely stand the weight of the two blankets and three quilts it took to keep her warm enough in the constantly chilly hovel. But Little Sweet Pea also knew the offer was made from love more than any real possibility of it happening. “You got yourself a deal.”
Throughout the Cripple Creek Mining District, gaudy Christmas decorations went up in all the storefronts, and even gaudier decorations appeared on the fancy houses of those lucky enough to have cashed in on the gold boom.
The Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, the Ancient Order of The Knights of the Mystic Circle, on and on, all the fraternal lodge dances and dinners celebrating the season were always packed. The high society crowd attended Christmas balls at the finest hotels while the common miners and workingmen enjoyed even better times at raucous dancehall blowouts.
Day or night, brass bands would gather spontaneously on street corners and play loudly to thunderous applause, and none of the appreciative audiences seemed to notice how badly out of tune the finicky metal instruments were in the biting cold wind.
But Hannah saw none of it. Her pain-wracked body seemed to shrink in on itself as the days slowly counted down toward Christmas. Leaving the bed for even a moment’s respite from the endless monotony of constant suffering became almost impossible for her.
Sweet Pea made a point of getting a daily paper and sitting beside Hannah’s bed to read about goings on around town.
Some of the stories were tragic. Fragile human bodies were hopelessly outclassed in the frequent run-ins with heavy machinery in constant motion, and sudden and gruesome death in the mines and mills was an almost daily event on the winter-whipped backside of Pikes Peak.
Some stories were funny. Teams of miners armed with mucking scoops hiked to the cemetery at the top of Mt. Pisgah, where they shucked their clothing and, using the big shovels as sleds, raced naked through the deep snow down the grade and into the outskirts of town. The winner was awarded five free visits to Madame Pearl DeVere’s Homestead parlor house.
“I hope that uppity old cow loses a fortune on him,” Little Sweet Pea snorted. “That old bag!”
“Now Madame Pearl does good work and you know it,” Hannah pointed out, chuckling in spite of the pain. “Giving money to widows and orphans, and all.”
“Yeah, but that’s money she made from their own menfolk before they died.” Little Sweet Pea snorted contemptuously. “And you know as well as I do how she overcharged them to get it!”
That was true, Hannah reckoned. She asked what else was in the paper.
Little Sweet Pea laughed and went on reading. Every day, she tried to find something else in the paper to laugh about.
The churches, as much in a lively spirit of competition as goodwill, sent groups of carolers into the streets. Sometimes the competition got out of hand. After one particularly violent physical confrontation between a pair of boisterous protestant choirs at the corner of Masonic Avenue and Second Street, the town marshal, an old cowboy, was called on to divide the city into territories, and issue strict warnings for the various church singers to keep off the other church’s range. That’s why groups of carolers began venturing further and further into the tenderloin and eventually ended up serenading along The Line.
Lying in her bed, barely able to move, Hannah could only listen to the clear young voices through the thin walls. But she heard them, and it was enough. She remembered the sound, and joyously sang the dear old songs in her mind long after the carolers would move on.
Like he might be doing, wherever he was.
“P-Pea,” Hannah said one day, interrupting her friend’s reading in mid-sentence, “I’m so sorry I’ve let you down. I’ve been a burden to you for so long. I want you to know that I’ll appreciate that forever. I—”
Her mouth jerked into a grimace. The torture in her abdomen suddenly seemed to explode throughout her already pain-wracked body. She screamed weakly, clawing at the misshapen, swollen torment her midsection had abruptly become.
“I-I can’t bear it,” she gasped.
Little Sweet Pea shot to her feet and threw the newspaper aside.
“What can I do?”
Hannah could only struggle for air.
“Hannah, what can I do?”
One of the mine company doctors – a sad-faced little man with too strong a taste for whisky to get a better job somewhere else – was a regular customer. When Little Sweet Pea fully explained Hannah’s symptoms to him a couple of weeks before, he’d suggested regular dosing with laudanum because he knew Hannah stood no chance of surviving, even though he couldn’t bring himself to say so to Little Sweet Pea.
But Hannah had steadfastly refused to take the vile brew. She’d watched many other working women fade away into insane nothingness because of the strong opium-based elixir, and she didn’t want to become one with them. Still, Little Sweet Pea kept a small brown bottle of it out of sight near the bed just in case it was needed.
Now, she snatched up the medicine and deftly plucked out the cork, intending to pour most of it down Hannah’s throat whether the other woman objected or not.
But as Little Sweet Pea watched, the agony on Hannah’s face eased a little before the bottle was halfway to her fever-ravaged lips. Then Hannah turned ashen and gray, and her sunken eyes rolled back in her papery eyelids.
Torn between the desire to run for help and the need to stay close in case her oldest friend came around and needed her, Little Sweet Pea clutched the laudanum bottle tightly and held her breath. She stared intently into the other woman’s face, once so beautiful but now agony-ravaged almost beyond recognition, and silently willed Hannah to stay alive for just a while longer. She reached out to touch Hannah’s disheveled hair, stroking it gently while keeping her eyes on the eyelids of the other woman.
A freezing finger of bitter cold wind blew through an unseen crack in the flimsy walls to swirl briefly, cloyingly, at Little Sweet Pea’s cheek before settling where her hand rested on Hannah’s scalp.
“No you don’t!” Little Sweet Pea shouted, fanning her hand to chase away the frigid draft and coax warmer air onto her friend’s pallid face. “You’re not going to take her that easy!”
Breathing heavy, the chill gone, she became perfectly still and just watched. Oblivious of the passage of time, everything in her being fixed intently on Hannah.
Finally, she thought she heard a slight moan.
Did Hannah’s lips move?
Did her eyes twitch the least little bit?
“Hannah, did you—”
“Oh, Honey, I thought you was gone.” Little Sweet Pea dropped the bottle and held one of Hannah’s bony hands. “I thought you left me, girl.”
“It’s just a little pain,” Hannah whispered, trying to smile and failing. “It’ll go away.”
“Why, sure it will,” Little Sweet Pea lied. “Having that old pain go away is just one of those miracles you got coming.”
“Now we’ve got a miracle apiece coming,” Hannah murmured, her eyelids becoming heavy as sleep began to cloud her mind. “But only one. And I don’t intend to waste mine on a little pain.”
Thinking she’d gladly give Hannah her own lifelong share of miracles if only Hannah would get better, Little Sweet Pea sat at the bedside for a long time before answering the first knock of the evening.
Finally, Christmas came.
Little Sweet Pea was out arranging a trade for a load of coal when Hannah’s first miracle arrived at the flimsy whore shack in the heart of the Cripple Creek red light district. But when she returned, with a satisfied businessman’s promise that enough coal would be delivered before dark to get them through at least a week, Little Sweet Pea found Hannah unusually quiet in her bed.
Her friend didn’t answer. Didn’t even move. This time, there was no doubt.
Little Sweet Pea lowered her head.
A relaxed angelic smile was on Hannah’s lifeless face, and lying on her chest was a hastily opened envelope and a photograph of a bright-eyed little boy who looked just like the vivacious young Hannah that Little Sweet Pea had come to know so long ago. On the floor where it came to rest after falling from death-stiffened fingers was what looked like a hand-drawn Christmas card.
Little Sweet Pea picked up the card and read it through, then she read it again.
With the second of Hannah’s miracles flowing freely from Little Sweet Pea’s eyes and down her cheeks, she couldn’t stop reading the words scrawled on the card in a child’s exuberant hand.
“Merry Christmas to you, Mother. P.S. I love you.”
Little Sweet Pea cried and cried, while outside the blizzard howled indifferently on.