The Chili Queen
BY SANDRA DALLAS
Even though life has been hard on Addie French, all her protective instincts emerge when she meets a friendless young woman on a train from Kansas to New Mexico. Emma Roby’s brother is seeing her off to marry a man she has never met. And Emma seems like a lost soul to Addie—someone who needs Addie’s savvy and wary eye. It isn’t often that Addie is drawn to anyone as a friend, but Emma seems different somehow. When Emma’s prospective groom fails to show up at the train depot, Addie breaks all her principles to shelter the girl at the Chili Queen, a place where men are “taken in and done for.” But once Emma enters Addie’s life, the secrets that unfold and schemes that are hatched cause both women to question everything they thought they knew. With Sandra Dallas’s trademark humor, charm, and pathos, The Chili Queen is both heartbreaking and funny, unpredictable and satisfying.
“As satisfying as a John Ford movie, with just the right touches of humor and period detail.”
I wrote the first draft of The Chili Queen nearly thirty years before it was published. After I finished it, I stuck it in a drawer, convinced that I couldn’t write novels. When I eventually turned to fiction, I pulled out the manuscript, rewrote it, and sent it to my agent, who liked it but said it was not publishable. I always liked The Chili Queen, however, so I never gave up on it, rewriting once more. It still didn’t work. Finally, I realized the problem was that all the characters were unpleasant people. Readers wouldn’t identify with a single one of them. So I rewrote The Chili Queen a final time, making the characters likable (and giving the ending a final twist,) and the book was published.
AN EXCERPT FROM
The Chili Queen
As the train pulled into the shabby station at Palestine, Kansas, the pinch-faced farmers and their wives in their rusty black-wool best lined up along the tracks like the teeth of a rake. In the Kansas heat, three boys slumped on an empty baggage cart in the shade of the depot, too listless even to tie a tin can to a cat’s tail. A bitch in heat wouldn’t draw a yellow dog under that sun, Addie French thought, as she shaded her eyes from the hurtful glare of the prairie, which was bleached the dirty white of worn underwear. She put a handkerchief to her nose, as if to block out the stench of sweat and barnyard and old pancakes that clung to the farmers’ clothes. Although she had spent well over half her thirty-six years off the land, Addie never forgot the sour smells of the farm. She wiped her damp face and neck with a soiled handkerchief, leaving behind streaks of dirt on her wet skin.
The trip to Kansas City had been even more successful than she had hoped, financially, at any rate, and she was going home to New Mexico with enough money to buy a new cookstove and add a front porch to The Chili Queen. The gentleman friend she met there every August on his annual business trip to the city had shown her an especially good time, bought her two dresses, and paid generously for her companionship. In fact, he had been so attentive that Addie wondered if he might suggest a permanent relationship. Perhaps his wife had died at last and he was ready to propose a formal arrangement – not that she was interested, of course; still, it would do a girl good to be asked. As the week came to a close, however, he told Addie that he was moving to Montana with his wife, and he was sorry, but he wouldn’t be seeing her again. He begged Addie to stay two more days; he was a hot as a billy goat in the pepper patch. As she remembered their last night, tears formed in Addie’s eyes, and she swatted at them with the handkerchief. She sniffed, feeling sorry for herself that such a nice arrangement had come to an end. Feeling sorry for herself was one of the things Addie did best, She’d miss him and the yearly vacations, although she wouldn’t miss Kansas. Oh my, she hated Kansas, Addie thought, catching the stink of her hot, damp body. New Mexico was hard on her hair and skin, but she’d take New Mexico’s dryness over Kansas’s humidity any day. She was glad to be going home.
Perhaps she should have telegraphed Welcome, telling her she’d been detained. Welcome, Addie snorted, what kind of name was that, even for a black woman? For all Addie knew, Welcome had run off with the china while she was gone – not that the china was worth anything. No sense to buy good china when the whores were likely to throw it at the customers, or each other. Addie valued Welcome more than the dishes. None of the other domestics she hired stayed for more than a few days, but Welcome had been there for four weeks, and rascally and outspoken as she was, she liked the job and planned to stay, or that was what she’d told Addie, at any rate. The first time she met her, Addie had had a feeling about Welcome, and for no reason she could put her finger on, she trusted her—trusted her enough to leave her in charge of The Chili Queen while Addie was away. She could have closed down the hookhouse, but she was afraid she’d come back and find the girls gone. So she hadn’t had any choice but to trust Welcome.
The woman had shown up one morning asking for work, speaking in that funny way she had; Addie thought it was a mixture of slavery talk and high-class language Welcome had picked up somewhere. Addie was desperate for hired help. Plenty of whores came through looking for work, although not when she needed them, it seemed. But not many women looked for jobs backstairs in a parlor house, cooking and washing for as lazy and ungrateful a group of human beings as ever lived. Addie’d have given the job to a blind man, and she didn’t expect much out of Welcome. But in a week, the portly, fine-looking black woman, who was big enough to go bear hunting with a switch, had taken over as if she owned the place. She cooked and cleaned and kept the girls in line. Welcome even faced down the drunks with no better weapon than a fry pan. Addie wasn’t sure why Welcome had come to Nalgitas; probably, she was drifting through, just like the girls. Maybe she was tired of moving around and wanted a place to call home. Addie hadn’t asked. Why question good luck? When it’s raining porridge, hold up your bowl. Addie just hoped that Welcome had kept the whores in line and was still there when she got home.
As Addie tucked the handkerchief into her fine bosom, the train stopped, jerked once, then shuddered as it settled into the depot. The conductor climbed off the car, holding a metal step, and set it down. He held out his hand to a woman who struggled with a heavy satchel. A farmer came forward and took it from her, and the two walked off, the woman following a few steps behind him. None of the half-dozen passengers who got off the train was greeted with hugs or cries of welcome. It wasn’t just the heat. These were dour people, Addie knew. They rarely showed emotion; maybe they didn’t have any. The crowd thinned out as the last of the passengers left the train. Those who remained on the platform gathered around the steps, anxious to board.
A man who stood out because his suit was too well tailored to be home-sewn—a banker, Addie decided with interest—pushed onto the train ahead of everyone else. Hoping the man was bound for Nalgitas, Addie leaned forward in her seat as he stopped in the aisle near her, forcing the other passengers to wait behind him. “Here. Ticket to Holden,” he said, holding up a twenty-dollar gold piece so that everyone could see it. “Two dollars seventy,” he added, as if the conductor didn’t know the fare. The conductor pocketed the coin and gave the man a ticket. He counted the thirty cents out loud, then handed over a fistful of bills. Two of the dollar bills were folded, Addie observed. The conductor had shorted the passenger by two dollars. He’d done the same thing earlier with a woman in a shapeless coat and dirty scarf tied around a face as lumpy as a potato. Two little girls had held onto her skirt as she’d shifted the baby in her arms and taken out a bill. Anyone who’d cheat a poor immigrant was mean enough to whip his own grannie, and Addie had grabbed the conductor’s wrist and pinched it hard. Then she’d told him in a low voice that if he didn’t give the woman the correct change, she’d announce to the entire car what he’d done. The conductor handed the woman the rest of her money, but he’d given Addie a hard time after that, opening a window to let the dust blow in on her and taking liberties when she went out on the observation deck for air. Addie’s left breast was sore from where he’d grabbed it and wrenched it hard, and she wondered if he’d left a bruise.
As the banker passed Addie, he curled his lip and moved to the far side of the aisle, kicking the hem of her dress out of his way. Did he think she was contagious? The gesture cost him two dollars. He could get swindled out of the whole damn gold piece for all Addie cared. She looked the conductor full in the face, then slid her eyes to the mark, letting the conductor know that even though she kept her mouth shut, she hadn’t missed the cheat.
The conductor might be good enough to fool an immigrant woman and an unctuous banker, but not Addie French, the queen of the sleight-of-hand artists – the former queen, at any rate. Nobody gave short change like she did. There wasn’t a man or woman in the Southwest who was better at palming, the switch, or the thimblerig than Addie French, and she didn’t cheat poor foreign women, either. She’d tricked the best in the business.
She might still be at it if she hadn’t picked the wrong mark, and he’d clubbed her. Addie still had a hurting in her bones sometimes from where she’d been beaten. After she recovered, she had taken a good look at her career and decided scamming was too dangerous. She’d learned her lesson. As good as she was, there was always someone out there who was sharp enough to catch her. Whoring wasn’t as chancy, and the work was steady, easier on the nerves, too. Not that men wouldn’t knock you around sometimes, but they didn’t try to kill you out of meanness. By now, of course, Addie wasn’t a whore herself anymore, except when she chose to be. She was a business woman. She owned a house. If the banker had been going to Nalgitas instead of Holden, she might have slipped him her business card. Men who snubbed you in the daytime didn’t mind calling after dark.
Remembering the card, Addie fished in her reticule until she found the pasteboard, pulled it out, and admired it:
THE CHILI QUEEN
MEN TAKEN IN AND DONE FOR
FOUR BOARDERS, FIRST RATE
MISS ADDIE FRENCH, PROP.
Actually, the four boarders included Addie herself, who filled in only now and then.
She had replenished her supply of cards in Kansas City and this time had added a gold border. It gave a touch of class. Addie ran her finger over the raised black letters and was about to return the card to her purse when she heard an angry male voice.
“Sit here. You shan’t ride beside a man. You are foolish in the ways of the world, Emma. A traveling man isn’t to be trusted and you’ve not sense, but would let him start up a conversation with you. You’re fool enough to talk to strangers. He won’t take you if you’re mauled, you know.” He pushed a woman into the seat next to Addie, much to Addie’s annoyance. The train was not crowded, and she’d expected to have the seat to herself.
Addie narrowed her eyes to take in the man, who wore black pants that ended above his shoe-tops and a coat that showed two inches of wrist. The coat was stretched across his broad back, and when he reached overhead to place a box on the brass rack, Addie saw the half-circles of sweat staining his underarms. Still, he was tall and lean, with thick black hair that was streaked with gray, and he was handsome, with high cheekbones and pale eyes, but his face was mean, and he snarled at the woman. “You’re not to change seats. You hear me?”
“John,” the woman pleaded. “Please. People are staring.” She glanced at Addie, then turned her head away when she saw Addie watching her. The woman was a little younger than her husband. Under a large hat, her hair appeared to be the same glossy black. Her skin was whiter than his, and she had startling blue eyes. Addie, who was an expert in knowing what was hidden under corsets and petticoats, sized up the woman’s body. She was tall and slender, girlish even, with small breasts and hips – not a body a customer would find at The Chili Queen, not a body like Addie’s own generous, cottony one, with a bosom a man could sink into. But some men like scrawny women, just as some men picked chicken wings over drumsticks.
“You’re to pay mind to him. Don’t sass him like you do me. If your opinion doesn’t agree with his own, keep it to yourself. Don’t act so pert, either.”
Addie snorted and gave John the fish-eye. He sent her a hard look, then slid his eyes down to take in her silk dress, which was the shade of a brass watch—the same color as her hair. If he were as smart as he thought he was, he’d recognize her as a whore and order his wife to move, which would give Addie back the seat. Instead, he looked at Addie with such hatred as she had never seen on a man’s face and told her, “Mind your business.”
Addie raised an eyebrow and continued to stare.
“You know if you go, you can’t come back. You wouldn’t be welcome. I’d be shamed. This is your last chance,” said the man in a voice so low that only the woman and Addie heard him. When the woman didn’t reply, John sighed and said, “I told you already you were a fool, but you made your bed. Now you’ve got to sleep in it.” He paused again, and his voice was even lower when he said, “Keep a sharp eye for investment. If it suits me, I’ll pay him five percent. Might be he’d think better of you if you were to bring in a little money. He couldn’t hardly think worse after what you’ve got yourself into.”
“But that’s our money, John. It’s not just yours,” the woman whispered fiercely.
“Well, I guess if it’d been meant for you, it’d been left to you, wouldn’t it? ‘Twas left to me to spend as I see fit.”
“You know why that was.”
John started to reply but when he saw Addie still watching, he pressed his lips together in a hard, straight line.
By then, the boarding passengers had found seats, and the conductor was looking up and down the tracks. “All aboard,” he called.
John glanced up. “I got to git.”
He took a step down the aisle, but the woman grabbed his coat. “Aren’t you going to wish me luck?”
John stared at her for a long time, chewing his lip. Then without a word, he turned and left the car. As he jumped off the observation deck, the train lurched, and he landed on one leg and fell to the ground. Without looking back, he got up and limped away. Addie glanced at the woman, who leaned forward with alarm. Then a smile flickered across her face.