Prairie Street by A. Elizabeth Herting

Was it simply luck that had caused her to turn down this street? Or was there a deeper, more fateful meaning? She would never really know but blessed her luck all the same.

Hazel Lavinia Hamilton fussed at her parasol. She felt rather ridiculous, strolling around like a simpering debutante, withering away in the scorching heat of a Chicago summer. If truth be told, she was bored with it all. The parties, calling cards, dancing, all the things she was supposed to crave in her life had become so much frippery. “Stuff and nonsense,” as her great-uncle Horatio always said.

Hazel tried everything to get around her formidable mother, but on this subject, Amaryllis Hamilton remained resolute. Young ladies from proper, wealthy families were expected to flounce around at extravagant, dull parties like overstuffed peacocks being led to market. For that is what it surely was. A marriage market of the gilded set, designed to produce the next generation of swells.

She refused to be paraded around town like a broodmare and told her mother so, earning a swift slap across the face for her trouble. Well, you could lead a horse to water but you couldn’t make it drink strawberry punch from a crystal goblet. Hazel was every bit as stubborn as her illustrious mother and would remain firm. At the very next debutante ball, she would be sure to step on the foot of her suitor while dancing, giggle like an idiot at an inappropriate time or any of a hundred other annoyances she could possibly contrive.

As she walked farther down the street lost in thought, Hazel decided there was still one thing in her life she could control. She would never marry and that was the end of it.

#

The old woman slowly lowered herself into bed, her aching hip protesting at the effort. It’d become a chore to climb the steep, narrow staircase as of late, but leaving her childhood home for a lower elevation would never do. The ranch house had sustained her for almost the entirety of her life, well over seventy years now. She would never leave it. On her way to bed, she’d checked each room in the house, making sure all was as it should be.

Her parents may have been somewhat unconventional, but they had subscribed to the prevalent notion that the more exotic things one displayed, the higher one’s status. Traveling quite a bit in their younger years, they’d amassed an enormous collection of odds and ends from every corner of the earth.

Vases, figurines, and fans from the Orient dominated the parlor furnishings. Bright, vibrant colors enriched the room from the hand-painted tile around the fireplace to the crimson cushions on her mother’s favorite horsehair fainting couch.

She chuckled as she recalled her mother forswearing the hated whalebone corset the very moment her feet touched the dusty soil of her new Colorado home. “Lily Ann, I shall never have use of that fainting couch again! Thank the good Lord and all the saints above, you will never be so confined. Upon my word!”

Crossing over into the next room, Lily clicked on the light and smiled. This was the original one-room cabin the very first owner of the ranch had built, her parents’ using it as a touchstone while the rest of their home rose up all around it. In later years it served as a guest bedroom for her disapproving grandmother, the decor matching that great lady’s imposing standards.

A pale blue floral pattern papered the old walls, fashionable portraiture of the day hanging in perfectly placed elegance. An enormous four-poster bed with a shimmering cream canopy took up the bulk of the room, the silken cushions and coverlet still crisply made.

She carefully dusted around the ancient perfume bottles, placing each one exactly where her grandmother had left them. Lily always kept a fresh log in the ornate fireplace. It looked as if that grande dame could take up residence at a moment’s notice, if not for the fact that her grandmother had been in her grave for nigh on fifty years now.

A faint smell of lilacs bid Lily farewell as she closed the door and turned to finish her nightly duties.

#

The summer sun beat down mercilessly on Hazel’s head, breaking through her bonnet. She could feel perspiration through the volumes of satin fabric that made up her second dress of the day, the large purple bustle in the back weighing her down like a stone.

The dandies that passed by smiled her way, looking cool and confident in their light summer suits and Hazel once again cursed her fate as a member of the female sex. She would give anything to be free of her constraints, at her family’s farm on the outskirts of town.

Hazel was happiest there, free to run all around the place, feeding and tending to the many animals. The caretaker allowed her to ride her favorite horse, but only after collecting eggs and cleaning up after the goats, a delightful pair she dubbed Lord Mutton Shanks and Lady Matilda.

An unfamiliar house loomed before her. Hazel was so caught up in memory, she must have turned onto the wrong side street. Her mother would kill her if she refused to show up for the luncheon altogether, how on earth did she get so turned around? It was hard enough getting permission for even this brief taste of freedom. Hazel’s gilded cage would be permanently locked if she dared to be late.

She turned around in a panic, tripping on a stone that sent her parasol flying to the ground. Hazel bent down to retrieve it when a pair of scuffed, dark brown boots came into her view. Looking up, Hazel noticed that the man wore a tan seersucker suit with a mismatched shirt and baggy trousers. He looked completely out of place on Prairie Street, filled with nervous embarrassment.

“Pardon me, miss, would you allow me to assist you?”

Hazel bit back a retort that she was perfectly capable of retrieving her own parasol, thank you very much until she saw the intense blue of his eyes. His cravat was crooked and completely the wrong color. He towered over her, tall and lanky with a protruding Adam’s apple and for some inexplicable reason, Hazel began to giggle.

“Thank you sir, it would seem it has a mind of its own!”

He bent his long frame in half, colliding with her head as both of them reached out for the offending object. Hazel’s teeth slammed together smartly as she went down hard onto the awful bustle, and the man began to sputter in outrage. He jumped about like a chicken on a hot stove, thrusting his hand forward to help her up.

“A thousand apologies, miss! I am a clumsy oaf! Are you all right?”

Hazel was sprawled out on the ground. She was quite the spectacle with her legs askew and her bonnet floating lazily down Prairie Street. The man sprang up, frantically chasing the hat before tripping on his own enormous feet and tumbling down in a spindly heap. Laughing in pure delight, Hazel couldn’t remember a time when she’d been so happy as she watched the man sheepishly rise to his full length and hold out her bonnet like a peace offering.

“Miss, my name is Lee Hansom and I am so completely, dreadfully sorry.”

“A pleasure to meet you, Mr. Hansom. I am Hazel Hamilton.”

“Miss Hamilton, would you allow me to assist you, wherever you are going?”

“Oh hell, Lee. I am completely turned around! If you would help me find the Pullman House, I would be forever in your debt.”

Lee burst out in surprised laughter at her bold language. He was a newspaperman from Denver, sent by the Rocky Mountain News to Chicago to get his feet wet covering the wealthy set. Very few things shocked him and Hazel was definitely a tantalizing distraction.

“That is exactly where I am going. Please allow me to accompany you?”

As she placed her tiny hand in his enormous fist, Hazel felt a jolt of recognition, almost as if she knew him already.

“You are going to that dreadful luncheon as well? I am sorry. It seems we shall have to endure it together.”

“I would attend a hundred horrible luncheons, madam, if that meant we could continue our acquaintance.”

Hazel and Lee turned back down Prairie Street, arm in arm. There would be hell to pay when Amaryllis met her new companion, but somehow, Hazel knew it would be all right.

“So tell me, Mr. Hansom, where do you come from?”

“Paradise on earth, Miss Hamilton. A little place in the wilds of Colorado called Evergreen.”

#

Lily made sure every spine was legible and straight before giving the room her blessing. Father treasured every book in his library, several first editions and signed author copies were housed here. Growing up, her parents hosted many a local dignitary at the ranch, their musical voices filling the rooms and spilling out onto the front garden. In the warmer months, endless games of croquet were played on the court adjacent to the main house, a wedding present for her mother on the day they had moved here.

Lily’s father was a “newspaperman’s newspaperman,” a determined soul that drove the rugged trail to and from Denver in the first “Model A” horseless carriage in the county, winding it with a rusty old crank. It was well over a two-hour commute for him to get to Denver and his job at the News, but he did it every day, making sure to come home to his family each night.

The final room Lily entered was her proudest accomplishment. She’d never married or had children, considering the objects in this room to be her real legacy. A large and open area, western artifacts covered every inch of the walls. Tribal paintings on buffalo hides, feathered dream catchers and blankets. A picture of Buffalo Bill Cody as he was on the day he visited Prairie Street Ranch, hung next to a hand-drawn portrait of a young Ute maiden on her wedding day. Turquoise bracelets and rings, an authentic ceremonial calumet pipe and drums filled the room to capacity, all of it lovingly displayed and tended to—a tribute to the lost world of the old west.

She was in negotiations to have the ranch turned into a museum upon her death, each room was cataloged by Lily herself, down to her mother’s six full sets of patterned china. Everything in its proper place and order, she quickly scanned outside to the barn, cattery and goat house. The cattle were out in the backfield, softly lowing.

Years ago, Lily had set up a haven for the stray cats that lived at Prairie Street, giving them a safe harbor against the many bears and mountain lions that frequented the area. She heard the bleating of the fifth (or was it sixth?) pair of Lord and Lady Mutton Shanks, and bid that illustrious couple a good night.

Upon reaching her own room, Lily felt the gazes of a hundred ceramic figurines. Statues of every shape and size of cat were exhibited, a tribute to her place as a solid citizen of Evergreen. The well-known “Cat Lady of Prairie Street Ranch” received many such gifts from folks throughout the years and made sure to keep and display every single one.

As the old woman lay down to close her eyes, she offered up a small prayer of thanks that her parents had the good fortune to literally run into each other on that long-ago day. Even old Amaryllis had eventually approved, not that she would ever admit to it. It was Lily’s final, happy memory before she slept.

The ranch hand found Lily Ann Hansom there the next morning, peacefully at rest as the sun came up over Prairie Street Ranch. The locals always marveled at the novelty of a western ranch being named after a street in Chicago, but Lee and Hazel were adamant. Now it would always be so.

Lily left the earth like the lady she was, in a dignified fashion, under the watchful eyes of a hundred silent guardians and surrounded by her many treasures.

It truly was a paradise on earth.

A. Elizabeth Herting is an aspiring freelance writer and busy mother of three living in colorful Colorado. She has had over 60 short stories published and also has two collections of short stories that will be published by “Adelaide Books.” “Whistling Past the Veil” in April 2019 and “Postcards From Waupaca” which comes out in February 2020.

For more of her work/contact her at https://aeherting.weebly.comtwitter.com/AmyHerting or facebook.com/AElizabethHerting

1 thought on “Prairie Street by A. Elizabeth Herting”

  1. What a fabulous story. I love reading these short stories. You paint such detailed pictures in your stories. Good for you!

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