The stagecoach came to a bumpy stop in front of the Wells Fargo and Co. Express building in Columbia, California. Winnifred, or Winnie as she was known to her friends, looked out at the brickwork building and sighed.
For the last seven months she had been tossed around on a ship, as well as fucked by the ship's captain, until she landed in San Francisco. The faded green dress she was wearing was the only dress that survived the long ordeal. Her only other dress had become damaged beyond repair during the extensive ocean voyage and had been used to keep her current dress intact.
Her long journey was far from over as she was soon on a long, bumpy two-day trip via stagecoach though the hills and mountains of the California territory. Many times she saw they were passing by active gold mines thanks to the recent gold rush. Hundreds of men flocked west to make their fortune in the quest for gold. Now she was staring at a brick building with what she assumed was Wells Fargo written on the walls. She bit her lower lip as the driver opened the door and helped her out.
"Welcome to Columbia, ma'am," he said with a gentle smile.
Winnie smiled back. "I'm really in Columbia?"
"Yes ma'am," he replied. "I'll get your bags down in just a moment."
Winnie watched the driver remove boxes and such including a large mail bag, a metal box, and her bag. A couple of men from the brick building rushed out and grabbed the metal box while a young boy took the mail bag. Winnie stepped over to her bag when the driver said, "Need some help with that ma'am?"
"Well, actually, I'm looking for the Fallon Hotel."
"I know it well," said the driver. "If you'd like, I can take you there myself."
Winnie smiled, "That would be wonderful!"
"Wait here, I'll be right back." The driver ran into the Wells Fargo building, then came back wearing a jacket and carrying a satchel.
"Sorry about that. I almost forgot to let my boss know I was leaving. He said he needs me to deliver this to Miss Lenore, the hotel manager."
"Miss Lenore is who I'm meeting," said Winnie.
"Ah, you're one of her girls," said the driver.
"Sorry ma'am," he said, "I meant no disrespect. Miss Lenore only hires the finest ladies."
Winnie sighed. "It's not your fault. This is my first real opportunity to make some real money since my husband died."
The pair began to walk down the dirt street as horses pulling buggies and men on horseback passed them along the way. "How did he die?"
"Consumption. It was shortly after we were wed. I had no money and before long I was kicked out of our home. I ended up living on the streets. It was there I met Miss Polly, a business associate of Miss Lenore's. She gave me a hot meal, a bath, and bought me this dress."
"I'm sorry to hear that. Oh, and I'm Andrew."
"Winnifred, but my friends call me Winnie."
Andrew smiled. "May I call you Winnie?"
Winnie shared that Miss Polly had taught her some about being a lady of the evening, and how she came from North Carolina to California. Andrew listened and occasionally pointed out the different buildings including the bank, the school house, the City Hotel, the firehouse, and much more. Everywhere new buildings were in different phases of construction thanks to the success of the gold mines that surrounded Columbia. Soon they approached a large, two-story brick building.
"Here we are," said Andrew.
Winnie sighed. She knew this was what this whole trip was about, her new profession as a prostitute. "Well, thank you Andrew."
"I'm not leaving you here," he said. "I want to make sure you get delivered to Miss Lenore. Trust me, it will be fine."
Winnie smiled. "Thank you again."
"I hope one day you can thank me properly."
It was the first time a man had made a suggestion to her that didn't sound like a mandate. "That would be very nice," she replied.
Andrew and Winnie entered the hotel lobby where they saw men and women sitting around talking. The women were wearing colorful dresses that barely covered their breasts and skirts that showed their legs and ankles. The men were drinking and laughing with the women. One couple stood up from a table and headed up the stairs. A tall, dark skinned man with short black hair and wearing an expensive suit stepped up and asked, "May I help you?"
Winne trembled at the sight of the man who towered over her. Even though he was wearing such a nice suit, starched white shirt, and tie, his presence was slightly intimidating. She tried to speak but no sound came out. Andrew, who was familiar with Thomas, quickly removed his hat, smiled proudly and said, "We're here to see Miss Lenore. I've got two packages for her."
Andrew pointed to the satchel and Winnie.
Thomas smiled a gleaming white smile and said, "Of course, wait here please."
Thomas walked away and Winnie whispered, "Who is that?"
"Thomas," replied Andrew in a low voice. "He works for Miss Lenore. I guess you could say he makes sure the girls are safe. Rumor has it he is a runaway slave. Others say she bought him. However, California is a free territory so he might be a free black man. Either way, no one here dares to cross him."
Thomas returned with an older woman with dark brown hair with wisps if gray in her bun wearing an elegant maroon gown that flowed as she walked. "Andrew! Good to see you again!" she exclaimed.
"And you as well Miss Lenore," said Andrew.
"And you must be Winnifred! Miss Polly wrote me all about you."
"Yes, ma'am," said Winnie, blushing slightly.
"I'm Miss Lenore and welcome to the Fallon Hotel. You've met Thomas, our doorman and head of security."
"Welcome ma'am," he said, his deep voice washing over Winnie like a warm blanket. Winnie had never had much contact with colored men, but with Thomas, she felt a sense of safety and security.
"Oh," interrupted Andrew, "Mr. Olsen asked me to give this to you," handing Miss Lenore the package inside the satchel.
Miss Lenore looked at the package a moment, then handed it to Thomas, "Would you take care of this for me so I can meet with Winnifred. And Andrew, feel free to enjoy the company of Elizabeth," Miss Lenore motioned to a young, dark haired woman. "On the house of course, for escorting our young Miss Winnifred."
Elizabeth stepped up and wrapped her arm around Andrew, smiling. "Looking for some company sir?"
"Why thank you Miss Lenore," said Andrew, nodding.
"Just keep your eye out for future girls like Winnifred," said Miss Lenore.
"Of course Miss Lenore," said Andrew.
"And Elizabeth, make sure our friend Andrew gets the House Special."
Elizabeth quickly smiled. "Of course Miss Lenore. It will be my pleasure."
Elizabeth escorted Andrew away as Miss Lenore turned to Winnie. "Now, let's you and I have a chat, shall we? Give Thomas your bag and follow me."
Thomas knelt down and grabbed her bag as Winnie began to follow Miss Lenore. Then she stopped and exclaimed, "Wait! I need something from my bag!"
"What's that child?" asked Miss Lenore.
"The letter from Miss Polly."
"Ah yes. Thomas, let her retrieve the item then take the bag to her room."
Winnie opened the bag, dove her hand inside, and removed a tattered envelope. Miss Lenore's face showed her disappointment in its condition. "Thank you, Thomas," said Winnie.
Thomas smiled, walked upstairs and disappeared. Winnie handed Miss Lenore the envelope with a nervous smile.
"Yes, follow me please," said Miss Lenore.
Miss Lenore led Winnie into what appeared to be an office area similar to the one Miss Polly had when they had met. Winnie sat in a chair and nervously fidgeted. Miss Lenore read the letter in silence, sighed, then asked, "Who else has read this letter?"
"Winnifred, let me explain something to you. I have worked hard to run a good business and the one thing I don't tolerate is liars. So, either tell me who all has read this letter or I'll have Thomas get your bag and you'll be living on the street. And trust me when I say I'm a woman of my word."
Winnie's eyes welled up with tears as she said, "Just the ship's captain, ma'am. He said the letter gave him permission to have me."
"Did he force you?"
"No, he said it was part of my job and repayment for my fare."
Miss Lenore sighed. "That bastard. You'll be the last girl he ships for me if I have anything to say about that. He lied to you. Here, read the letter for yourself."
Miss Lenore handed Winnie the letter, but Winnie just sobbed. "I can't."
"I can't read."
"Not yet you can't. I'll bet you can't write either."
"How old are you?"
"Nineteen," Winnie replied, wiping the tears from her cheeks. "I celebrated my birthday on the ship. Captain Roberts was extra nice to me that day. He had the ship's cook fix me a nice fish dinner and even a small cake that he fed to me."
"I'm sure he was," hissed Miss Lenore. "How is it you're not carrying child?"
"He'd spill his seed on my stomach or take my ass."
Miss Lenore sighted. "Let's establish some ground rules Winnifred–"
.... There is more of this story ...