Many visitors to Denver were surprised by the sheer size of the mountains that loomed in the background. These silent, brown and gray behemoths formed a wall that threatened to topple and crush any mere prairie dweller reckless enough to deny their power. This foreboding became ecstatic claustrophobia when the realization came that these were merely foothills. Above and beyond these lower mountains were the divine giants who still wore their alabaster crowns of snow, even into early summer.
The previous summer had been warm and dry, merging gradually into autumn. The actual change of seasons was indistinguishable except for the slow transformation of the mountain forests of aspen into purest gold. The thick wet snows of November had come eventually, enshrouding the land beneath their silence, a silence that lasted into the new year. The high plains experienced a few welcome warm days early in January, and the snows began to melt. A few days later, the temperature plunged suddenly, until it ranged from twenty‑five to fifty below zero. The recent thaw became a thick icy covering beneath the sixteen inches of new snow, which fell over the next few days.
Spring came in late March, and the icy drape was pulled aside to reveal a staggering amount of destruction. Across the plains north of the Platte Rivers, thousands of people and hundreds of thousands of cattle had frozen to death, blotted from existence in a brief moment. Many people left the region in the face of such horror, to try to find a place where life was safer, or more profitable. But still, many remained to rebuild their homes and their lives.
The spring of 1887 was then, perhaps even more than usually so, a time of rebirth, of clearing away the debris of the past and rebuilding. Under the ever present watchfulness of the distant high peaks to the west, Denver had survived and was springing back in that blend of flamboyant elegance and pretentious ostentation unique to the self proclaimed "Queen of the West."
It was a cool, crisp Wednesday morning in early June, a morning that held the promise of even greater things in each wet, grass‑scented breeze. Moreover, there wasn't any sign of the usual gray soot haze that came from the coal smelters. The morning was beautiful, for those few Denverites conscious enough to appreciate it.
The young woman who stormed off the 16th St. cable car onto Blake St. didn't care in the least about the morning's splendor though. Helena McCoy was a physician, a southern woman and alone, in that order. She was five feet tall, slender, all delicate graceful lines and sharp edges, with full, rich raven hair and expressive dark emerald eyes. What blazed in those eyes this morning was anger. She was filled with a blood boiling ire that threatened all and sundry that crossed her path. She wore no coat, hat or gloves, and her ivory colored dress was covered in dried blood. Small eddies of dust swirled behind her as she strode down the street. She was physically, mentally and emotionally exhausted, but in her anger she refused to acknowledge any of these as she continued her search for Edward Chase.
Helena had already assaulted his Capitol Hill mansion this morning. Rousing the household, she had intimidated the servants into revealing that the master of the house was not at home before Mrs. Frances Minerva Chase had come to the door. Mrs. Chase explained that her husband was away. The present Mrs. Chase was the third wife of Denver's most successful gambler and saloon operator. She was young and beautiful, and had married him after prying him away from his second wife. She knew his ways and wants, and was not surprised by his absences. After hearing Helena's vitriolic explanation of the reasons for her quest, Mrs. Chase calmly directed her towards the Palace.
The Palace, at the corner of 15th and Blake, was a hotel, a theater, a saloon, and a gambling house all rolled into a single package. Owned and operated by Ed Chase, it was the foundation of his far flung financial activities. The two story building was built of brick, like the majority of the buildings in the growing city.
Helena strode up the stone steps to the entrance of the Palace's saloon, and pushed open the swinging doors. They slammed apart, then rebounded back, as if to strike her. She stuck out her fists and stopped the doors with a loud, double banging report that filled the room beyond. The windows set in the doors rattled, threatening to shatter. Helena stood in the doorway, examining the few people present. They had been stunned into momentary silence by the noise of her entrance.
To one side sat a group of four large, heavily bearded men. They were drunken and filthy. Probably miners or smelters, she thought, who had been out last night wasting their pay, and were now wanting some 'hair of the dog' to see them through the morning.
On the other side of the room, an immaculately dressed gentleman sat with the calm air of someone waiting for a train. A cup of coffee and a copy of the Rocky Mountain News lay in front of him.
Ed Gaylord, the manager of the Palace, and not coincidentally Chase's brother in law, stood before Helena, at the bar, looking over some papers with one of his bartenders. She started towards him.
"Just where the Devil is he?" she barked. Although her voice normally was much softer and rich with the elegant tones of the Deep South, currently it was hard and steady, a voice many military drill instructors would envy.
"And who might you be looking for, ma'am?" Gaylord asked innocently. Helena snarled, not being in any mood to tolerate Gaylord, or his covering for his employer. She crossed the room to stand across the bar from him, staring up at him with a gaze that promised death. Her voice was calm and low when she spoke.
"Please listen to me very carefully, Ed, and I will tell you who I'm looking for. That scrofulous, black hearted chicken's ass who owns this miserable excuse for an outhouse. Chase. Your employer."
"I am terribly sorry, Dr. McCoy, but I don't know where Ed is. I haven't seen him since last night."
"I insist that you put a stop to this charade. His wife sent me here. If you don't tell me where I can find him, I'll close you down."
"And how would you do that, little Doctor?" Gaylord was obviously patronizing what he took to be an hysterical woman.
"How would you feel about some form of plague?"
He froze and stared at her, not understanding.
"What do you mean?"
"I mean that I will have you infected with some horrible catching disease."
"Now Doctor," he said, condescending to keep his tone gentle. "You know as well as I do, you can't go around doing that sort of thing. Remember honey, doctors are supposed to cure diseases, not give them to people."
Helena smiled slowly, showing sharp white teeth.
"You know that, and I know it better. But how many of your customers know it? What if I pass a rumor that the Palace is infested with small pox? Or with the cowmen you get in here, a better idea might be anthrax. I like it, don't you?" Her angry gaze hadn't wavered a bit, and Gaylord looked like he seriously doubted her sanity. "So what will it be, Ed? Do you give me Chase, or do we see just how loyal a clientele you've actually got?"
He took a deep breath, and replied. "Look, little lady, I'm terribly sorry, but I really don't know where Mr. Chase is."
"Don't lie to me!" Helena's voice cracked slightly, her fury fast reaching her limits to control.
"Now, now, little darling ..." Helena felt a hand grab her arm. It was one of the drunks from the group of miners. "If the man says he don't know where Mr. Chase is ...."
Helena turned. She rammed her fist into his crotch. The miner stopped short. He roared in pain and swung a rock hard fist. She ducked under and behind it, and slammed her fist overhand into his neck, just below the skull. Her assailant grunted once and dropped.
Helena heard a metallic click behind her, then a loud gunshot. She whirled about on her heel as she dropped to a low crouch, in preparation of flattening fully to the floor. The scene in front of her was a tableau; two of the miners were leaning over the third. He was rolling on the floor, holding his bleeding hand. His unholstered pistol lay on the floor near him.
The gentleman across the room was holding one of the biggest, ugliest pistols that Helena knew of. She had seen one or two of the particular type before. It was a Le Mat, a double barreled hand gun, one barrel for the .44 caliber revolver, the other reserved for a shotgun shell. The weapons had originally been made for Confederate officers, but Helena understood they had never been very popular because they were difficult to use with any accuracy. He slid the weapon into a shoulder sling beneath his suit coat.
"Now boys, let's play fairly." The man's accent sounded foreign. He nodded to Helena. "I sincerely apologize for any unwarranted interference, madam." He sat back down and returned to his newspaper.
"What goes on down there?" A voice boomed from the balcony. Helena looked upwards. She smiled a grim, cold smile.
Edward Chase was a handsome man, even in a dressing gown, his prematurely white hair tousled from his having been rousted from bed. He casually held what Helena thought looked like a .44 Smith and Wesson "American" in his right hand, his arm hanging unaggresively to his side. He was nearly fifty years old with glacier blue eyes, a full moustache and large nose. He looked every inch a man who had spent the last quarter decade building his empire.
"I heard shots," Chase continued calmly. "Gaylord, what's going on?"
"Chase, I bring you good news." Helena's voice was acid. "Your son was born this morning."
Chase looked momentarily confused. "Good morning, Miss McCoy. If I may ask, what are you talking about? I don't have a son. At least, not one born recently."
"Come now, Mr. Chase." The anger in Helena's eyes shone clear. "Surely you remember the girl, Mattie Gray? She bore you a son this morning."
"If it is true that she had a child, it might well have been anyone's. Why bring this to my door?" Although his face remained impassive, Chase's eyes grew angry. "What does she want, money?"
Helena laughed up at him, a sharp bark of a laugh. Then her voice cracked as she yelled at him.
"She doesn't want anything from you, you odious piece of Excrement." Helena waved her hands at her clothes, at the dried blood covering her. "She's dead. It was birthing your child that killed her."
Chase paused as he searched for something appropriate to say. Helena continued, shaking as she struggled to regain her composure.
"You needn't worry about it though. The child died as well."
Chase sneered at her impertinence. "Gaylord, get this woman out of here." He turned and disappeared from sight.
Helena looked threateningly at Ed Gaylord and the bartender. "Don't move. I'm going."
Gaylord nodded dumbly. Helena could see from his expression that he wouldn't consider interfering with the little harridan before him. He watched with silent fear as she stalked out of the saloon.
Once outside, Helena stood with her back to the door, her fists clenched, her body trembling with rage. She barely heard the door open, then she felt a finger tapping on her shoulder. She wheeled, swinging her fists.
It was the foreign gentleman she had seen inside. She missed striking him by a fraction of an inch, but he seemed undisturbed by her attack.
"What the hell do you want?"
"I was wondering if you needed any help." His accent was obscure, akin to British, but hinting that English was not his native tongue. "You look a bit done in."
Without actually forcing her or even touching her, he led her slowly away from the Palace. She looked at him appraisingly. The stranger was taller than she by a foot or more, with a deeply tanned complexion. His build indicated what Helena's landlady would have called a 'strong' man. His face was attractive, though he was not what Helena would have called handsome; broad forehead, almost feline cheekbones and a warm, enveloping smile. He seemed to be somewhere between twenty‑five and forty years old. And, although, his rich mane of dark auburn hair held no hint of gray, he exuded an ageless elegance that bespoke a mature man. He had eyes that never did you the honor of remaining the same shade of green at any two times you looked at them. His clothes were finely made, and told of great wealth. He was dressed in black, broken only by his white boiled shirt and the small amber‑colored gemstone that served as a tie stud. He seemed huge to her, more from his presence, his attitude of magnificence and power, than from his physical size. He was appealing in some indescribable fashion that made Helena feel threatened.
"Did I hear those gentlemen correctly?" his voice had a a deeply mellow, cultured quality, like brandy aged in wood. "Are you truly a physician?"
"Yes." Helena sighed. She was too tired to contend with the usual attitudes toward her choice of profession.
"I am delighted to meet you then, Doctor," he said. "I, too, am a physician."
"You are a physician and 'delighted' to meet me?" She laughed a short, bitter laugh. She was still murderously angry and finding it difficult to even sound civil. Fatigue made her accent thicker as she spoke. "I find that damned difficult to believe."
"Believe it or not, I am most pleased to meet you." He sounded amused.
"And just where are you from? I've never heard of any one being delighted to meet a woman doctor, let alone a man doctor feeling that way."
"My passport says I'm from England." He held out his hand to her. "My name is Yuvon Arelssyn."
"Helena McCoy." She grudgingly took his hand. "Your name doesn't sound very English." She paused. "I'm very sorry Doctor, er, Arelssyn? If you are indeed a doctor, then you should understand what I mean by telling you that I have had a long night and lost the patient. And so, I am far too exhausted to be properly social."
Dr. Arelssyn sighed.
"I understand exactly what you mean. I always get testy when I lose my patients."
Helena stopped and stared angrily at him.
"Is that supposed to be some sort of humor? If so, then it was in the poorest of taste."
"I'm terribly sorry," he said softly. "That came out all wrong." He seemed sincerely sorry for his gaffe. "I suspect that some food would be best for you. Especially after a long night with a patient."
Helena peered at him though a thick veil of suspicion. She couldn't figure out what he wanted. If he was trying to seduce her, both his target and approach were all wrong.
"I'm sorry, Doctor. I'm really not interested," she told him plainly. "Besides, as you can see, I'm not really dressed for dining with a gentleman."
He looked at her bloody clothes, and shrugged.
Helena turned quickly and stepped away from him into the street. As she walked home between brick facades and beneath tangled spider webs of telephone lines, her anger slowly began to ebb, leaving her with a jagged emptiness that slowly oozed deep within her.
* * * * * *
Helena took a deep drag off of a cigarette as she lay back, submerged in the open bathtub. Steam floated from the surface of the water in vaporous tendrils that glowed as they passed through those few rays of afternoon sun that had slipped past the curtains. The tub was a short wooden trough that Helena believed had once been a fixture in a sty. The tub sat in an alcove just off the first floor kitchen of Mrs. Rachel Wild Peterson's house at 3519 Lafayette St.
Helena glanced through the doorway into the kitchen. Rachel and a colored woman named 'Sister' Evangeline were preparing the day's gruel. Helena sighed. The food wasn't pleasant, but it was filling and generally healthy. There were sounds of children playing outside.
Helena stretched under the water as she tried to ease her aching muscles. She knew she ought to have helped with that wounded miner's hand back at the Palace. It didn't matter that he had been intending to shoot her in the back. Ebin would have reminded her that she was a physician, a healer; but she hadn't been thinking like a healer at the time, and so she had left a person in pain. Helena tried to feel something more than a little sadness, but she couldn't. Her day had been exhausting, having started yesterday afternoon with Mattie's baby. A muscle in Helena's neck twinged and a fog of pain closed in on her brain.
"Goddamn it!" she winced.
"Helena, must you swear you like that?" Rachel stepped into the alcove, wiping her hands on her apron. "Must I remind you that we are trying to keep some semblance of Christian decorum here."
Helena took another long pull off her cigarette and exhaled the smoke slowly as she looked up at the other woman. Rachel was a plain woman, not a beauty; a large, sturdy woman with dark brown hair that more often than not had strands and locks shaken loose from whatever simple style that she had originally put it in. Her hands were rough and red from hard work, her face was heavily lined, and careworn. She walked with a slight limp, a souvenir of a childhood injury that hadn't been allowed to heal properly.
"I am very sorry, Ray. But there are times when these things simply must be said."
"Helena, I know that you are still distraught over that poor woman's death. But you must leave it alone now. She is with Jesus now. You mustn't torture yourself any longer. I know that you did everything that you could."
"How do you know that? You weren't there."
"I know you Helena. You couldn't do anything else."
Helena replied with silence.
Helena had been extremely low on funds ever since she had moved to Denver four years earlier. What money she had come west with had quickly gone to pay for necessities, necessities that she found were often more expensive here than they had been back East. Helena had been fresh from medical school, and forced to face the truth she had been trying to ignore: nobody wanted a doctor who was also a woman. She had hoped that in an open, frontier town such as Denver, her medical abilities would be used and appreciated. But she had quickly found that while women had a form of social power because of their relatively low numbers, and their valuable 'services' to men, most people believed the only place for working women was in domestic service, serving as a clerk, or else in the parlor and crib houses that lined `The Row' of Holladay Street. She had barely managed to make enough to get by on for a few years, but she had just about reached the ends of her reserves, frustrated at every turn, when she met Rachel Peterson, six months previously.
Helena wasn't certain that Rachel, or her husband Walter, had originally meant to open a refuge for the sick, the indigent and destitute transients, but Rachel had a serious inability to say `no' to anyone truly in need. Rachel had found religion, or to hear her tell it, God had found her. Both she and Sister Evangeline were volunteers for the People's Tabernacle, a nondenominational, though Protestant, mission and Rachel was pulling all types of needy into her caring embrace. When Helena approached her, needing an inexpensive place to live, Rachel had quickly recognized the benefits of having a resident physician, of either gender, particularly for her chronically ill daughter, Ruby. In a short time, Helena had moved into the house. In fact, only Helena's Catholicism formed any obstacle to a relationship between the two women, and that was because Mr. Peterson, a railroad foreman, hated 'Papists.' However, Rachel had been insistent, and in time, the two ladies had worked out a simple arrangement: Helena received free room and board, and any other residents of the house received free medical care. That much of Helena's meagre earnings went into the family's "kitty" to help with expenses, went unmentioned, but Helena knew Rachel appreciated the help.
After a moment's silence, Rachel turned back into the kitchen. She called over her shoulder. "Oh, and Helena, please extinguish that cigarette. You should try to remember that smoking isn't ladylike. What would Mr. Peterson say if he were to see you?"
The devil with Mr. Peterson, Helena thought wryly to herself. She suspected that he would be far too shocked by her current lack of clothing to ever notice any cigarette she might be holding. Rachel was correct though, smoking wasn't a thing that ladies did. It seemed to Helena that all of her Aunt Melissa's efforts to make a lady out of her had been for nothing. Helena never seemed to come completely to terms with the true Eleventh Commandment, `Thou shall not do those things reserved for the other gender.' She crushed out her cigarette on the edge of the tub, then flicked the butt into the kitchen.
Helena winced as her shoulder twinged again. She pulled at the hair at her temples until her headache faded into the near background. She leaned back in the tub, but found it impossible to relax. The tension of last night and this morning simply added to the mounting stresses of caring for what often seemed like thousands of needy people, not one of whom seemed to care about her. They were only interested in what she could do for them. As time passed, it seemed like it was becoming harder for her to respond to that stress.
She felt like crying, but the dry burning in her eyes went unrelieved. She had not cried since she was eight, and the skill seemed to have been lost to her.
Helena slid her head under the water, and resurfacing, began to wash her hair. As she submerged again to rinse out her hair, she wondered how easy would it be to `accidentally' drown herself. In her imagination she saw her funeral. Burial in an unmarked pauper's grave. Unconsecrated ground, of course. As a suicide her soul would go directly to Hell. As if she weren't already there, she mused starkly. What really depressed her, though, was that no one would care, no one would miss her. All they would miss would be a doctor, a slave to their health.
Then she saw the face of her foster father, Ebin McCoy, his deeply lined face and salt and peppered burnside whiskers, floating in front of her. He shook his head in sad disapproval. She knew that if he were alive, he would be telling her that self‑pity was a frivolous self indulgence, and not to be tolerated in a real physician. She resurfaced, her lungs painfully working as she gasped for breath.
She had to agree with him. She was a good doctor, or she tried hard to be. What use was that, though, when no one cared. She didn't even believe God cared about her any longer. The pain returned, threatening to split her head open.
She moaned to herself, hoping that the world and the pain it was causing her would leave her alone, let her have a little peace. She sat up abruptly and began to shake slightly.
"Is there something wrong, Helena dear?" asked Rachel, looking in from the doorway. Helena looked at the other woman's face. Every line in that tired and overworked face indicated concern. Helena thought bitterly that the other woman was simply afraid of losing her free doctor.
"No, ma'am." Helena's voice was as tired and bitter as her thoughts. "I am just fine." She rose from the tub, untroubled by her nudity before the other women. Picking up her towel, she began to dry herself before the great black iron stove in the kitchen. She saw that Rachel was still watching her carefully. "I am simply a bit overworked."
"Why don't you go and get yourself some sleep?"
"No." Helena knew that if she were to lay down, all she would see would be the faces of Mattie Gray and the dead, bloody child. She slipped on her dressing gown. "I am going back to the office for a while."
Helena dragged herself up the narrow stairs to her bedroom. The tiny room was gloomy, the shades drawn, and it had a strong sense of disorder about it. Although most of her clothes were hung up or put away, many were in piles along with old newspapers, cheap novels, dust and old cigarette butts. She opened the shade in an attempt to brighten up the room, but it was useless. The room was still dreary. The window panes were covered on the outside with the soot of an industrial city's atmosphere, and the inside by residue from the smoke of uncounted cigarettes.
She began to burrow through a large pile of dingy graying undergarments with her foot, kicking into other piles all that she knew to be undeniably filthy and setting aside those she knew to still be clean or at least clean enough to still wear. As she neared the bottom of the pile, she felt something scratch her foot. She bent down and carefully picked up a pair of filthy drawers. Beneath them she saw, nestled in the linens like some sleeping animal, the blood‑black colored beads and silver cruciform of her rosary. She tossed the cloth to one side and snatched it up.
She stood back up as she looked at the strand. She couldn't remember the last time she'd seen it. I really have to clean up this wreckage, she thought, someday. She sat down on the unmade bed, pushing aside the old battered copy of Poe's Prose Tales, lying opened to "The Fall of the House of Usher," which she had been reading the day before. The book slid onto the floor with a thwacking sound. She lay back against the cigarette‑burn‑scarred headboard and began to gently fondle the beads, one at a time.
She had been given the rosary by her Aunt Melissa the day before Helena had left for Philadelphia and medical school. It had been a warm Sunday in late summer, all butterflies and pine‑scented breezes, and the two women were alone in the family's carriage on their way home after mass.
"I want you to know, Helena dear, that we will miss you while you are gone."
"I'm not so certain about that. I am quite certain that Uncle Franklin will be glad to be rid of me."
"Stuff and nonsense." Melissa McCoy looked like an indignant pigeon in full puff. She calmed just as quickly. "You must realize that we are both concerned that we have somehow failed you. I know that your uncle and I had hoped that you would put aside these thoughts of medicine, find a nice young man and start a family."
"I know that is what you want, but I can't, at least not yet. I appreciate all that you have done for me since Ebin's death, taking me in and all, but please understand. I must do this, for myself."
"But you know that Ebin wouldn't have approved ..."
"Yes, I know. And that makes this doubly difficult. However that may be, I must try to do my best. He taught me that I should do my utmost at whatever I turn my hand to."
"Yes, I know, but ..." Melissa trailed off. This was getting to be an old and common argument with them. "Helena, your uncle and I felt that if you must go, you should take something to remember us by." Melissa had extracted a long black box from her cloak.
Helena had looked at it for quite some time before opening it. She had never been comfortable receiving gifts. Finally, she looked inside and found the rosary. It was brand new and still smelling faintly of the dried rose petals from which the beads were made. The crucifix on the end was also new and of untarnished silver. It was beautiful.
"I remember how hard you had worked to learn the prayers," Melissa continued. "I hoped that now, as a woman, you wouldn't forget them."
Helena smiled as she remember those few moments of happiness. Her smile disappeared as she remembered that her Aunt Melissa had been dead for over a year now, taken by cholera.
Helena's neck seized up and sent flames of agony searing into her head and stomach. She knew beyond a doubt what Madeline Usher had felt like, walled up alive in that tomb. She sat straight up and flung the rosary across the room. It slid down the far wall and landed atop the wash stand. It hung there for a moment before the weight of the crucifix shifted, sliding off the washstand, to disappear from sight into an open satchel wedged between the wash basin and the wall.
Helena threw off her dressing gown and quickly dressed in whatever came first to hand, not caring if it were clean or filthy. Finally, dressed in an indigo skirt and white blouse, and with her shoes only half buttoned, she stepped into the hall. She stopped a few doors down and peered in the room to check upon the woman who was sleeping within. Elizabeth Tully had badly mangled her hand in an accident recently, and Helena was trying to save the damaged member. Helena touched her patient's forehead. It seemed a trifle warm, but not feverish. Lizzie seemed to be breathing evenly, so Helena left her to head downstairs.
On her way down the front stairs, Helena heard the sound of a man shouting, and slowed her pace. There was clearly some excitement going on. She continued, stepping her way down the stairs until the front hall was in her view.
Rachel and Evangeline were confronting a grubby looking man who was waving pistol about. Helena could see that it was a Remington, probably .44 caliber. Even after many years of struggling, there had been many aspects of her earlier life that Ebin had been unable to erase. Among these was her familiarity with firearms. A familiarity she had not allowed to lapse, telling herself that such understanding helped her to repair the wounds caused by gunshots.
"If you don't give me back my Carlie, I'll shoot you, I swear I will." He flailed the pistol about for emphasis.
Rachel was calm as she replied, "Sir, Miss Wilkins isn't here. Even if she were, she came to me of her own volition. Perhaps if you hadn't beaten her or sent her out on the Row for you, she would be more amenable to you."
"Well, how else am I going to get money to live on without her?"
"Might I suggest seeking employment for yourself? You look big, strong, and healthy. Remember what it says in the Scriptures, 'the Lord helps those who help themselves.' Give up your life of sin and follow the way of the Lord. I'm certain that there are hundreds of Christian souls who would be willing to help you."
Her voice was soothing, calm and even. The man looked as if he were calming down, somewhat mesmerized by Rachel's voice. Unfortunately, he noticed Helena coming down the stairs and was startled.
"You there! You stop right where you're at."
Helena paused. Rachel gave her a pained look.
"Well, hello, my dear man." Helena put her best face on. Her voice was calm and reassuring. "You must be Carlie's 'solid man', her ponce, her minder. Now whatever did she tell me that your name was?"
He eyed her warily.
"Jack, Jack Kessel."
"Ah yes." Helena reached the bottom of the stairs, less than ten feet from Kessel. "Well, Jack Kessel, you will be pleased to know that she is healing up quite nicely." She began to move toward him. "However, the broken ribs may take a while to set."
"Stay back or I'll shoot you. I swear to God I will!" He sounded panicky, and pointed the heavy revolver at Helena. She looked at the barrel, a deep, dark eye of death.
"Go ahead, shoot me. Shoot a woman, an unarmed one at that." She reached out a hand and rested it on the body of the weapon. She pushed his hand so the barrel pressed against her left breast.
"There now, pull the trigger."
Kessel faltered, uncertain.
Helena sneered. "Give me that thing." She pulled the pistol from his hand. She pointed the weapon skyward, half cocked it, and spun the cylinder. Five unspent cartridges showered out of the loading gate, and jingled onto the hardwood floor.
Rachel stepped in. "Now, you get out of here before I summon a constable. Carlie isn't going with you."
Kessel was momentarily befuddled, then his anger returned.
"I'll be back, you count on it." He turned to go.
"No, wait one moment." Helena reached out and touched his arm. "Mr. Kessel, are you a gambling man?"
He stopped and looked at her. "Yeah, what of it?"
"I have a simple wager for you." She smiled. "The odds are even. If you win, you can take Carlie right now. If I win, you never bother her, or us, again."
"What's the wager? You goin' to flip a coin or somethin'?"
"No, something rather more exciting than that, I think." She stooped down and selected one of the cartridges from the floor; standing, she thumbed it into the Remington. "The rules are simple. We pull the trigger six times. Three each, alternating. The person who fires the cartridge loses. If one of us refuses to fire, they forfeit. If it doesn't fire at all, you win automatically. Sound simple enough?"
"Yeah. What's the trick?"
"No trick. Do you agree?"
He thought for a moment. "Fine."
"Oh my sweet Lord," Evangeline muttered hoarsely off to one side. "She's goin' to ..." Rachel shushed her.
Helena smiled. Holding the weapon level, she half cocked again, and spun the cylinder. He eyed her with suspicion. She shrugged demurely.
"Now it's really gambling."
"Helena, what are you up to?" Rachel sounded seriously worried. "You know I don't allow gambling in here."
Helena's only response was to place the cold steel of the muzzle against her temple. Staring deeply into Kessel's widening eyes. She cocked the hammer and squeezed the trigger.
"Helena!" Rachel screamed in horror. Helena ignored her.
"That's one." She then pointed the revolver between Kessel's eyes. "I think that it would be foolish to hand you a loaded weapon, don't you? You might try to shoot someone. So I think I'll pull the trigger for you."
"You are out of your mind!" he screamed as he turned. Helena called out the door as he ran down the front steps,
"Mr. Kessel! You do realize that you have lost?"
He didn't stop or even make any indication that he had even heard her.
Helena closed the door and turned to the pale and shaken women in the hall.
"If you can prove who is truly in charge to a man, you can make them do anything you want them to," she explained.
"It was unloaded," Rachel said smiling, her voice a little unsteady. "You palmed the bullet when you seemed to be loading it, is that right?"
Silently, Helena upturned the weapon once more and spun the cylinder. The cartridge rang out as it struck the floor.
"Nope." She handed the Remington to Rachel. "Now, if you will excuse me." She turned and stepped out the door.
As she thought about what had just transpired, it occurred to her that it didn't seem real. She hated gambling, but then again, it really hadn't felt like gambling to her. She'd felt no fear, no excitement, nothing. She realized that she really hadn't cared at that time if she had lived or died.
Helena walked down the front steps of the house. In the distance she could see the mountains. The sun had long since passed its zenith, and the east pointing shadows on the steep slopes had turned the entire range from north to south an unforgettable shade of rich, deep purple that Helena couldn't quite describe.
* * * * * *
Helena's office was at 408 Holladay, a mile away from the Peterson's house, by street car. It occupied the second floor over a pawn shop that was sandwiched between two parlor houses. It contained a sitting room devoid of patients, a surgery for examining the few patients who were willing to be seen patronizing the woman doctor, and an office with a single wooden desk and chair as well as a tall wooden filing cabinet. There was a wooden shingle bearing her name, hanging just outside the door. Generally speaking, Helena's patients never saw her office. When she was called, it was more often to the scene of some fight or accident, or on rare occasions to the patient's home where she could be explained away to the neighbors as a guest, a visitor, anything other than what she truly was.
Helena spent the afternoon examining her meager files, stopping occasionally to scribble comments. She was about to quit the pretense of paperwork when two people rushed into the office. A tired and harassed looking woman with stringy dishwater‑blonde hair was dragging a dirty, tough looking boy. The boy wore a bloody rag tied around his left arm, and glared at Helena with undisguised arrogant aggressiveness.
"Excuse me, miss, but are you the doctor?" the woman asked timidly.
"Yes, I am. Is there something that I may do to assist you?"
The woman looked embarrassed.
"Yes, my name is Jackson, Ethel Jackson. This is my son George. He's been injured, and we can't afford to take him to a real doctor."
Helena smiled patiently at the other woman.
"Well George, let us see what we might do for you."
George made no response. Helena went into the adjoining surgery and patted the table.
"Why don't you come in, George, and sit up here."
Mrs. Jackson dragged her son into the surgery and onto the table. Helena took his arm, and began to unwrap the wound. He made no indication that he felt anything of what she was doing.
"Well then George, how old are you?"
Silence from the boy.
"He's twelve nurse, ah, doctor."
"That's a fine age." A pause. "My, isn't that pretty," Helena said as she unveiled a huge neat slash wound along the boy's forearm. It was deep enough that in places the white of the bone shone through. Blood began pouring out of the wound. Helena decided that it had been a knife, a very large knife that had done this.
"He's been associating with one of those packs of boys that loiter about near the saloons." Mrs. Jackson sounded embarrassed as she tried to explain.
"On Blake and Wazee. Yes, I believe that I have seen him down there." Helena also knew the boy's father, Ernest, was a drunkard who supported his family by his meager gambling winnings when his luck was holding, and ignored them when it wasn't. Helena suspected that Ernest's luck was currently played out.
Helena cleaned the gash with her meager store of carbolic acid solution, and stitched up the arm with catgut thread. The boy took the whole procedure with a calm stoicism that Helena felt could have allowed him induction into any of the more barbaric African or Indian tribes. His greatest reaction to the pain was a single look of hatred directed toward Helena, followed by an arrogant look of pained tolerance at his mother.
Helena smiled. She knew all too well what living on the street was like, and the attitudes it required to survive there. George was hard enough. She knew that he would survive, at least until his life style caught up with him, or he took a long drop on a state‑owned rope. She knew his kind.
Helena finished as quickly as possible.
"That should just about do it George." Helena wrapped the arm with clean bandages. "You keep these on for a month, and you'll have a splendid scar to impress your friends with."
After the boy and his still distraught mother left, Helena went over to her filing cabinet, and pulled a half empty bottle of tequila from the bottom drawer. She had taken the bottle away from a young man after a brawl in one of the crib houses a few weeks ago, and she had neglected to return it after she had finished putting a seam in his side. She sat back at her desk, and rolled and lit a cigarette. She leaned back, her chair gently creaking, and watched the smoke curl in the shafts of late afternoon sun streaming past the shutters.
The half bottle later, Helena was walking down the street searching for a bar or saloon that was not owned by Ed Chase or any of his ilk. The air was filled with a faintly acrid‑sweet scent from the opium dens in the nearby `Hop Alley,' Denver's `Chinatown.' Helena nearly smiled as she considered her Chinese clients. Of course, the Chinese disapproved of her as a doctor as much as everyone else did, but they were often more willing to come to her. So far as she knew, she was the only physician in town who would treat the orientals. Most people placed the Chinese even further down the social scale than the coloreds, or even the Indians. Those who actually used her services were very polite and paid their bills promptly. Her somewhat sodden brain recalled another prompt bill payer, one who owned a saloon.
Helena walked towards the bridge over Cherry Creek. Jim Ryan's Saloon sat next to the bridge. Jim's place was already full when she entered, and a few people turned an eye on the woman striding purposefully towards the bar.
Helena truly liked Jim and his sister. While Helena didn't consider them close enough to be friends, as if she knew anyone who was, Jim and Annie treated her better than most of her patients. They treated her as if she were a person, and not merely a commodity.
Jim Ryan was a tall good‑natured Irishman whose six foot tall sister, Annie, ran a clean, pleasant parlor house nearby. Helena told herself that Annie wouldn't have turned a young girl out onto the streets simply because she was pregnant. "Dr. McCoy," Jim said, a broad smile illuminating his tired face. "We don't often see you in here." His smile dimmed. "Is everyone all right?"
"God bless all here, Jim," Helena replied, trying to conceal the bitter pain in her voice. "No I don't bring bad news. I just want a bottle. What do you have?"
"Well then, Doctor darling," Jim pulled a bottle from beneath the bar. "I have here a bottle of a fine American whiskey. Bottled and aged in Bourbon County, Kentucky she was."
"I'll take it. If this isn't enough money, let me know." She dropped a small pile of nickels and dimes on the counter, and took the bottle. Helena turned to go.
"And would you be wanting a glass as well?" Jim asked, chuckling and holding up a shot glass. Helena paused before taking that as well.
"If you'll be pardoning me doctor, may I ask if there's anything that's troubling you?"
"Why do you ask?"
"You're not normally one to be giving in to the creature."
"Thank you, Jim, but everything is just fine."
Helena found a small, empty table off by itself, near a rear corner. She sat down and poured herself a glass, and tossed it off, adding whiskey to the tequila already in her system. It burned going down, but came nowhere to being enough to touch Helena's pains.
Helena looked around the room after a few minutes. She saw the stranger she had met earlier in the day across the room. It took her a moment to remember his name, Dr. Yuvon Arelssyn. He sat among a loud crowd of people, most of whom were men, although there were a few women. There were miners, smelters, cowmen, kooch dancers, shopkeepers, prostitutes, and even a constable. Dr. Arelssyn was playing an odd‑looking guitar and singing some song with everyone else singing along. Helena did notice that they were mostly singing the same song, and they were all having a rousing good time.
"... I took her lily hand in mine/and threw my leg over./We rolled and tossed all over the bed,/then I lay in her lap when the jig over./Tury tink to Wiley/Dury dink and One Balled Riley."
She looked hard at Dr. Arelssyn. She had to admit that she had been correct earlier, he was an attractive man, broad shouldered and full chested. He had a way of moving that brought to Helena's mind some sensual animal, smooth and under control, perhaps something like a cat. As she watched him, a fantasy began to form in her mind. His hands were touching her, holding her, his lips caressing her. Helena shook her head sadly, and returned to her glass.
She had never spent much time in saloons. As a child she had been too poor to ever gain entry as a customer. As a young woman, she had been under Ebin's watchful eye, and he didn't feel that saloons were proper places for young women. And although she had spent some time in them as an adult, it was usually only to collect a patient. She didn't frequent them. Still, they held a strong fascination for her. She often tried to understand why people would come to places like this. Tonight she thought that she understood.
She had noticed many years earlier that at night there is often an illusion of quiet, even more so after the middle of the night. Jim's Saloon was a busy place in a rowdy section of a town that never slept. But outside, in the darkness a mist rose slowly from the Cherry Creek, and gradually engulfed the saloon and the nearby streets in a world of silence. Helena knew the fog was rising while she sat in this room of garish lights and sounds. She knew that mist, that silence, intimately. She had spent most of her nights alone in that world of foggy shadows, traveling from one rat hole of poverty and death to another.
Helena knew that the mist was rising, even from inside the building, as though some sharpened animal instinct still existed, caged in her mind. As the evening ground slowly into the ever darkening gulf of night, Jim's other patrons also seemed to feel something of the mist growing outside. The revelry took on an anxious tone that increased until shortly after midnight when, suddenly, the festive feeling died, falling into a fearful silence broken only by some sad ballad that Dr. Arelssyn was playing. Most of the people were talking quietly among themselves in small groups.
A tinny sounding piano could barely be heard from down the street, a counterpoint to Dr. Arelssyn's song. The music pierced the blanket of cold quiet, quiet as of eternal sleep, and seemed to signal the waking of the creatures of the night and soul for some macabre dance of imagination.
Helena's own nocturnal demons were clamoring for their freedom. She ached for a pair of strong warm arms around her to help contain and quell the loneliness and fear within her. She was usually more than self sufficient, but it was at times like these that she understood what Ebin had meant when he had told her, 'solitude isn't healthy for anyone, man or woman. It does things to them. People are afraid of the truths about themselves. With no one else around, there is no one to hide behind.'
Helena surveyed the tableau before her though the mist of alcoholic depression and smoke from her hand‑rolled cigarettes; the wooden floor covered with sawdust and dirt to the nicotine cloud flickering through the amber kerosene glow, a murmuring of voices with Jim's voice calling in the background. All this was a scene of some black charade, a company of strangers afraid to go home alone. People who were afraid to remove their masks of life and happiness at the end of the day, because they were afraid that beneath their masks, they did not exist. They were all alone and there was nothing inside them.
* * * * * *
Several hours and uncounted bottles after her arrival at the saloon, thinking had become more of a chore for her. Helena came to the gradual conclusion, over a period of a few minutes, that she wasn't alone. There was someone at her table with her. The more she thought about it, the more that she became convinced she was correct. There was a man next to her. A big, filthy, ugly‑looking man was sitting in the chair next to hers. He slowly put one hand around her shoulder, and was whispering in her ear. Helena wrinkled her forehead as she uselessly tried to make her brain operate clearly. The gray fog that obscured the outside of the saloon seemed to fill her mind as well.
She dimly heard the man's voice saying something about "you shouldn't be by yourself,""a good time,""seeing the goods" and "how much?" The man unbuttoned her blouse, and started to touch her linens, then her skin. Helena turned her head with some effort and looked at the man.
"Have you ever bathed?" she slurred; her accent had become more pronounced with the alcohol.
"Huh?" She decided that her visitor was definitely not an intellectual giant, even by her current, inebriated, standards. He slid his hand over her chemise.
"I asked of you, have you ever bathed? Preferably at any time in the last twenty‑five years?"
"You some kind of wiseacre?" he asked threateningly. "You ain't gonna make a sale with a mouth like that. Don't you whores know nothing?" He slapped her with his free hand. The headache that she had spent all afternoon and evening trying to wash away with alcohol returned in force.
Helena tried to think of a biting rejoinder, but nothing came to mind. All she could think was that her head hurt, and that this man's hand had somehow gotten on her bosom, more precisely around her right breast and was making her feel particularly filthy.
Then a thought slithered across her mind, what could it hurt? After all she was dirty enough as it was, both inside and out. There was little that this pig could do to degrade her that life hadn't already surpassed. Maybe the scrofulous creature could do something about the lonely ache inside her. He certainly seemed to think he could.
"Dr. McCoy?" A voice filtered into her mind through its veils of drunken self loathing.
"Huh?" She peered up at the speaker. It was Dr. Arelssyn. She wondered why he couldn't just leave her alone. Jim Ryan stood behind Dr. Arelssyn, holding a large piece of driftwood by one end.
"Please excuse me, Dr. McCoy," Dr. Arelssyn continued. He spoke slowly, his words steadily penetrating the fog around her brain. "Is this man disturbing you?"
Helena sat there confused. She wondered if maybe she had had too much to drink. Her head started to spin. When she finally replied, her voice was thick.
"Yeah, I guess so. I don't know."
"Hey fellah," Helena's companion interjected. "She's mine. I saw her first."
Dr. Arelssyn ignored the man, and continued speaking to Helena.
"Would you like me to get rid of him for you?"
"I don't care." All Helena really wanted was to cry, but she still couldn't manage it.
"Fine," Dr. Arelssyn said with a deadly finality.
"Hey you." The big ugly was angered by being ignored. "You may think you throw a wide loop, but keep away from her. If you really want to poke her, wait 'til I'm done. Then you can use her." He squeezed her breast for emphasis. Helena cried out as pain shot through her alcoholic numbness. She tried to pull away from him. Her blouse tore open completely. Helena felt absolutely useless, and she hated herself for that. She should be able to take care of this by herself, but all she could do was sit by, helplessly drunk.
Dr. Arelssyn stepped around the table. He grabbed the other man by the shoulder muscles, squeezing hard. The man bellowed in pain and rose from the table. He was obviously prepared for a fight, but no one saw the punch that made him fall.
Dr. Arelssyn leaned over Helena, straightening her blouse, and fastening her collar. He sighed at the torn material.
"You, doctor, are coming with me," he said.
"What for?" Helena was really confused. She had missed the entire fight, and was only just recognizing that the ugly bastard who had groped her was lying on the floor twitching.
"You've had far too much to drink. Whiskey and tequila?" he said with disapproval. Helena wondered how he had known about the tequila that she had drunk earlier. He continued, "You need some rest. You were up for most of last night, at the very least. I know well that births that bloody are not easy for the doctor and can take some time. When was the last time you slept?"
"I, I don't know." She tried to think. The pain and alcohol were making thinking so hard. "Two, maybe three days ago."
"I rest my case." He pulled her gently to her feet. Jim Ryan moved closer, recognizing a potential new threat to the lady doctor. Helena heard Dr. Arelssyn say something to Jim that sounded to her like "Ishlani," or something.
Whatever it was, Jim Ryan understood it. He looked surprised and lowered his club.
The two men helped Helena to her feet. Dr. Arelssyn turned at the door to Jim and said,
"Rather than try to thread this maze that you call a city to find her home, I will take her to my hotel. Hotel Windsor, room 306. Please send an appropriate message to whomever should receive it." The doctor held out a five dollar gold piece. Jim shook his head at the money. Helena heard, but didn't understand the saloonkeeper's reply.
"No money, please. Dr. McCoy's been there when we needed her. Sure and I'll trust you with her, but if I'm wrong you'll never leave the city alive."
Dr. Arelssyn nodded an acknowledgment. He half carried, half led Helena through the door into the foggy night. Not really thinking any longer, she tried to burrow into the warmth under his arm to hide from the dark chill as they moved up Holladay Street toward the cable car tracks.