This novel excerpt was written by Claudia Cravens in Lynn Steger Strong’s 12-Month Novel Generator
In the summer of 1877, sixteen-year-old Bridget arrives in Dodge City a penniless orphan. Recruited for work at the Buffalo Queen brothel, Bridget befriends her bookish mentor Constance and earns enough to satisfy the madam, Lila. As winter creeps in from the plains, female gunfighter Spartan Lee rides into town, and Bridget falls in love with her the moment their paths cross. Their affair threatens the balance of power at the Queen, but is interrupted when an old flame returns to the brothel, setting off a series of double-crosses that result in the destruction of the Buffalo Queen and a searing heartbreak for Bridget. Their lives in ruins, Bridget, Constance, and Lila ride out together over the snow-covered prairie to take revenge on those that wronged them.
In the excerpt below, Bridget witnesses Spartan Lee’s arrival in Dodge City.
Everyone knew it was going to storm again, and it wouldn’t be long before the Queen was packed with men who wanted to shelter from the night surrounded by warm and smiling company. It was the same every storm: Roscoe would bang away at his favorites and every few minutes the door would swing open, gusts of wind blowing in some fellow who’d stand there stamping and blowing like a steer, looking astonished that he wasn’t the only one who’d had the idea that a saloon was a better place to hide from a storm than a tent or a damned sod house. They all complained relentlessly about the cold and damp while they steamed in their coats and Bart ladled out his Sunday Brew, the noxious mix of odds and ends that he stirred together each sabbath and served cheap all week. Knowing it would be a long and repetitive evening, I slipped out the door to take a breath and watch the storm come in.
The wind snatched my breath right out of me, but I didn’t care. I’d come to love the cold, the way it sliced right through my clothes to prickle at my skin, the way it rushed past me, incapable of caring. Back in Fort Smith, there’d been a woman who’d steal anything she came across: the postmaster’s pencil, buttons on a shop counter, worn-out horseshoes; they just jumped into her hand as if pulled by a magnet. Everyone knew it was a kind of madness, as she’d had four boys, a husband, and two brothers go off with General Lee and not a one come home, and the townfolk tried to be patient with her. All the same, it was aggravating, and so every now and then someone would call the sheriff and she’d get drug off to jail for a few days, where she’d cry until that too became aggravating and the deputy would let her out with a stern warning. I thought of her sometimes in Dodge, where the wind was the same as she had been: unthinking, unwanting, just snatching at everything, wailing at nothing. It was movement that could not be stopped because it had no goal and neither ending nor beginning.
The changes that the wind brought to the sky were some of the most beautiful things I’d ever seen. Great billowing clouds that seemed as though nothing could ever induce them to move would be suddenly swept aside, pulled carelessly across the sky like a gambler raking in his winnings. Then out of nowhere the reeling, endless blue would be scudded up with high wisps that threw the heavens’ depth into terrifying relief. But the storms, those were truly magnificent, the sky’s color changing to iron gray for thunder, pearly, translucent white for snow, or feverish, frog-belly green before a twister—though I’d only seen that one time. It had gone white in the afternoon, which was how we knew a blizzard was coming—first of the year, and early—but now the clouds were finally gathering, piling up stern and sharp-edged just outside of town. I’ve never felt more sure of the existence of God than I did in those moments, watching Him prepare the sky to deliver some fresh chaos into our lives.
I shivered where I stood. From the far end of the street came a train whistle, no doubt telling anyone still working to hurry it up and finish loading so the cargo could get to Chicago and the loaders to the saloons before the sky broke open. I looked up instinctively—I don’t think there’s anyone on this earth who can ignore a train whistle—and that’s when I saw them.
Astride a big, bay mare came a rider in a heavy canvas coat buttoned up high to the collar, hat pulled low against the wind so that no face was visible. There was a rope tied around the saddle horn, the other end wrapped around the wrists of a man tied into his seat on a dun gelding. The man and his horse both looked defeated, the man hunkered into himself as far as he could get, and when a fresh blast of wind came barreling down the street he scrunched up tighter. I’d seen plenty of marshals, posses, and even a few enterprising citizens bringing bandits into town before, and they usually weren’t worth much interest until they chose an establishment in which to dispose of their reward money. But something about his captor caught my attention and I could not look away. Maybe it was the ease with which such a small person—for the lead rider looked fairly light-boned under all those layers—rode such a large horse, or that the quarry looked so thoroughly licked. Or maybe I just knew, from all the way down the street, that in a town full of novelties, this really was something new.
The rider passed me by without stopping, but the captive looked up for a moment as the door of the Queen opened, spilling music and golden lamplight out onto the sidewalk, to admit some new shelter-seeker. Through a veil of scraggly hair, two small glittering eyes picked me out as he spat into the mud between us. Behind the angry gesture, there was a hunger in that gaze that frightened me, some emptiness that was unfillable and struck an echo in me like a hammer to a bell. I’d seen it before—if he were a horse he’d be a ruined horse, fit only for soap. Then the door behind me fell shut and I was thrown into darkness again; the sky had gone leaden and the first flakes were blowing sideways up the street as though they too would like to stop somewhere for a drink and some merry conversation. The two riders blurred into the gloom, so I turned and slipped back inside, chilled to the bone.
Claudia Cravens grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area. She has a BA in Literature from Bard College, and lives in New York City with her parrot, Sharkey.