THEN AND AGAIN by JoLynne Buehring
Leadville, Colorado July 19, 1997
Bertie and Roy left the Last Stage Saloon after their steak dinner and ambled, hip to hip and shoulder to shoulder down the boardwalk, looking into store windows and watching dudes, as the locals called tourists. They were not residents, but had lived in the West all their lives. Their apparel, worn enough to be comfortable but not shabby, showed they knew the difference between the real thing and that of flatlanders.
Two strangers passed them on the boardwalk of the old mining town, a tourist mecca and gambling hot spot in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado.
The bottle blond said, “My high heels keep getting caught in these old boards.” She minced along in tight white jeans and bright red boots no respectable cowboy or cowgirl would think of wearing. The fringe on her western style shirt was so long it looked like wings.
“Yeah, I don’t know why they don’t take up all these rotten planks and put down some decent sidewalks,” replied her companion in his brand new Levis and designer boots with gold eagles on the side. His New Yawk accent labeled him as a tourist.
“I can’t imagine why your son wants to start a restaurant in this godforsaken place. And The House of Joy, puleese?! How tacky can you get? Sounds like a whorehouse.”
“Now, babe, I agree with you, but at least Junior is doing something on his own. We have to be supportive, so don’t say anything to him. He’s trying to get this venture off the ground, and he wants my advice before he finishes renovations on the old building.”
Roy and Bertie looked at each other. “Why the hell don’t they go back where they belong if they don’t like the place?” Roy said. Bertie nodded her head in agreement.
“And what right do they have to sneer at the House of Joy, I ask you,” Bertie said, referring to one of her favorite places. She always made a point of walking by the two- story Victorian house, which had survived several incarnations and was recently sold again.
Most visitors enjoyed Leadville’s Old West atmosphere. Bertie and Roy visited as often as they could. Neither could say why, but both of them felt at home here. He enjoyed a little gambling, and she liked to people-watch.
Leadville, Colorado July 19, 1897
Slowly descending the stairs from her second-floor office, Big Bertha surveyed the parlor tables where poker games were in progress. She saw her five girls were all busy in the second parlor doing what they did best, entertaining the fellows not playing cards.
Business had been good lately. The silver mine was prospering, the conflict between the cattlemen and mine management calmed down, and men were spending money again. It wouldn’t be long until she and Rory saved enough to leave these mountains to start a new life. The two kept their relationship quiet, feeling it would be bad for business if it were common knowledge that the madam of the House of Joy and the best professional gambler in town were a couple. They were perfectly matched, both tall, dark haired, dark eyed, and success driven toward a much quieter life.
She adjusted the bodice of her gown, showing off her cleavage to better advantage. Sweeping her skirts behind her, she walked among the tables. It was her practice to speak to those she knew, calling them by name and introducing herself to men she didn’t know, offering the newcomers an on-the-house welcome drink. She hadn’t become successful by being cheap, and everyone knew she ran the finest house in town.
She paused between tables behind Todd Stuckley, the mine manager, touched her hair and adjusted a diamond earring as she gazed off toward the other parlor where Charley played the piano. She looked back at the card players and saw Rory twist the big ruby ring he always wore for luck.
“I’m folding, boys. Too rich for my blood,” Rory said, throwing his cards in the pile. Amid groans, the other men folded as well. The mine manager and Rory were always the biggest bettors and the most competitive. Stuckley didn’t take it well.
“Damn it, Bigelow, you always fold when I got a great hand,” Stuckley bellowed. “If I didn’t know better, I’d think you cheated.”
“Now, Todd, I know you don’t mean to accuse me of cheatin’. Those could be considered fightin’ words, and we’re just two good ol’ card playin’ buddies.” He believed in avoiding trouble if possible. Bertha often teased him about being a lover, not a fighter.
Stuckley muttered and grumbled his way to the door. “We’ll see about that.” He slammed out into the night.
Leadville, Colorado July 19, 1997
Roy always wanted a little exercise to settle his meal before he found a poker game. He said he could concentrate better with a little fresh air first.
“Look, Roy. The House of Joy is lit up, and the front door is open. I always wanted to see inside. Let’s go in. They can’t do any worse than tell us to leave.”
“Okay, Bertie. The game will keep for a little while.”
The exterior already showed signs of repair work. A few boards in the wide front porch and new steps replaced the rotted lumber lying on the dead lawn.
“Hello, anyone here?” Bertie called as she opened the front screen and went in. Roy followed her. There was no answer. She gave Roy a thumbs-up.
At some point in the past, a wall of the Victorian house had been removed to join the two parlors by a large archway with pocket doors.
“I can see how this would make a great restaurant, with these two rooms that can be separated,” Bertie said, as she walked toward the staircase at the back of the largest parlor. Roy trailed along behind her.
She stopped halfway up the stairs, turned, and looked down on the room. “I feel like I’ve been here before. There were velvet drapes on the windows and tables for cards. How strange.”
She continued to the second floor and wandered through empty rooms. Roy stood in the hallway, watching her. In the large corner room, she stopped, turning slowly around. “I’ve been here, I just feel it. But I don’t know when.” After two complete circles of the room, she bent down to touch a big rosette at the base of the wide walnut door frame.
Roy said, “I’m going back downstairs. I don’t want any players to wait too long to lose their money.”
Bertie ignored him. She pushed on the flower and twisted. A panel came off with a small drawer attached to it. In it was a letter addressed to a Bertha. Under it was a man’s ring set with a large ruby.
“Roy, come here.”
Her words were drowned out by shouting from the stairwell. She rushed into the hall with the letter and ring still in her hand.
“I knew you cheated, Bigelow, but you’ll never do it again,” she heard a man’s rage-filled voice. A shot echoed up the stairway. Footsteps pounded up toward her. She pressed herself against the wall and felt a rush of air, but saw no one. She dashed down the stairs, calling to Roy.
She found him at the foot of the steps. A bullet wound in his shoulder bled profusely. Bending over him and pressing a handkerchief against the wound, she cried, “What happened?”
“I don’t know. I didn’t see anyone, just heard someone shouting.” He reached for her hand. She opened it to take his. “You found my ring.” Then he passed out.
Later at the hospital, after the E.R. staff attended to Roy’s wound, and the police finally quit asking questions that couldn’t be answered about the antique slug, she read the note to him.
“Darlin’ Bertha, We both know Stuckley is a hot-headed bully and sneak. It may take him a while, but if he figures out I got your signal, he’ll come after me and then you. I’m leaving my ring. If something happens to me, take the ring and go. It should get you a long way from here. Know that I’ll always love you. Rory