What follows are select excerpts from the diary of Molly Bartlett, age 17. Molly and her cousin Mathilde(Tillie) followed the offer of seamstress work to Roscoe. Over the few weeks spent there, the two found that the position they’d been offered was nonexistant and that their employer was eager to marry them off to miners who would pay top dollar. Such “bride and switch” jobs were not uncommon in the era, but Molly and Tillie had no intention of accepting their situation.
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A crow at midnight, some thunder in a blue sky. Tillie says such things are omens. I trust her and her alone. Mrs. Mulaney is a confidence artist, a schemer and a liar. Her words are sweet as penny candy, and crumble just the same. Thank God we declined board at her house, or goodness knows what would become of our virtue! I must wait for Tillie’s special knock to take the chair from the door, and she mine. Only one of us can leave the room safely at a time, for I fear the worst in this lawless tract.
Mother, I shall be with you soon again.
Mrs. Mulaney does like to double tasks upon our head. Perhaps she feels she can brutalize us into compliance. I think she’ll find the will of the Bartlett women is up to such treatment. Oh how I laugh when Tillie makes mimic of her! She puffs out her bosom and speaks from the chest, until we quite collapse with mirth.
I have been put to hemming buttonholes, a task I hate. Tillie is allowed to work the machine, but rarely does for Mrs. Mulaney likes to hover behind and pepper her with dowry questions. I wouldn’t want a dowry of the dirty metal they dig up here!
I have distinguished two types of miners. There are the men who stick for a few months and then cleave, for they find the place as disquieting as I do. Then there are the men who stick and stay. I cannot imagine why Mrs. Mulaney would want to offer brides to them, such men have no want for anything mortal. I see them on the street, the light gone from every one of their eyes. They think only of the mine, talk only of the mine, and when they slumber I am sure they dream of it. What would such a man want with a wife? Anyway, I wouldn’t want to be stuck in a ghastly tarpaper shack while he’s off digging in the dirt.
The water they give us has a strange sheen on the surface. We drew straws, I was elected to fetch water from the town pump. It was the same sickly rainbow setting on the surface. I saw horses drinking from troughs, men supping from dip-cups, all swallowing the cursed stuff. I dumped my bucket and bargained some milk from a townie.
Mrs. Mulaney is mean with her wages, we haven’t saved up enough to buy a single return ticket, let alone two. But I know that Tillie would not return home without me, and she knows the same of me. We get out together or not at all. I’m sure Mrs. Mulaney sees that, that’s why she works us to the quick and pays starvation wages. She invents flaws in my work to pick at, and when I protest she is quick to point out I can find ready employment as a saloon girl. The very notion!
I saw a group of miners in the general store gathered around a pan of metal with the same sheen as the water, staring at it. Just staring. I’ve never seen the like.
Tillie’s taken sick, so Mrs. Mulaney cut our wages by half. She took even more than half, but I am too tasked with nursing Tillie to fight with her. Tillie’s teeth are loose in her mouth, and she cannot hold much food. I have taken to bartering with locals, as I suspect the general store is in cahoots with Mrs. Mulaney.
I nursed Tillie back to health, only to fall sick myself. Such fever, and it brought on dreams of madness. Tillie cut the locks from my head to assuage the fever and Mrs. Mulaney had a fit. For the first time she was honest about her intentions: she asked who would have me to wife with hair like that? I told her I would marry myself to the lord and take convent vows before I married in this town. She sent me away, does not want to look at me anymore. That leaves Tillie to earn our keep, thin as it is.
I suspect the hotel is in cahoots as well, sometimes we wake to find our things moved, and Tillie’s pearl locket has gone missing. There is only one other hotel in town, and they say it is the same there, too. I cling to hope, but it dwindles.
A pall has fallen over the town. A strange malady I cannot describe, it makes the place feel heavy. Tillie’s steps are stooped, Mrs. Mulaney works her to the bone. Last night the old harridan called Tillie over to look at a mistake. Tillie found the seam she had just sewn cut with a knife. Vile woman! Work is actually costing us money now, depleting our mean savings.
I hear whispers outside the door
Later: I looked through the keyhole, no one I could see. I do not trust the walls in this place. I sleep with this book in my chemise.
There is some kind of event planned in town, some famous singing or dancing girl. We have promised ourselves escape in two days time, while they are occupied with their show. I don’t care if I have to ride a mule side-saddle across the mountains, I’m leaving this place. I hold no love in my heart for this town, none at all.
A great shrieking sound arose from the mine today. The townsfolk hardly flinched, but Tillie and I had to stopper our ears with cotton. I must go out one last time for food.
Later: it is worse than we could ever have imagined.
Later: I hate this vile place, and all the people in it. It isn’t just the seamstress and the hotel, every single being in this place is part of it. The town is a web, drawing us like flies into the center. Someone found our food cache and destroyed it. Tillie placated me, said she would hunt coneys with a knife if it came to that, but I fear for our safety.
We are leaving to-day, thank God, thank God, we are leaving to-day. Tillie says we shall be boarding the 3:10 from Leadville as soon as she can collect the funds from Mrs. Mulaney. I am eager. A queer pall has fallen over the town, I feel as if I can no longer draw a deep breath no matter how I loosen my laces. I dreamed of a spider that held the stars in its web last night. All my sleeps are uneasy and I feel eyes upon me even in the privacy of the room.
Later: the air is still and full, like a bated breath. Some stand out in the streets, simply looking at nothing. I fear we may find it difficult to slip away, but Tillie has been priming for a fight since Tuesday.
I am ready. I can already feel the wind on my face, the open freedom of the flat plains. We shall creep to the depot in Leadville and depart like sneak-thieves. Freedom is ours once more.
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That was the last diary entry. Molly and Tillie Bartlett vanished along with the rest of the townsfolk on June 16th.