The white men walked into the brothel, and the last of their party held a rope, the end of which coiled around the neck of a colored girl. They were minors or rail workers. She was probably the daughter of a freed slave.
The first man through the door was tall, with pale skin and red hair. He took another step into the saloon, his spurs tinny.
“Five whiskeys,” he shouted to no one in particular. The words, though they lacked a direction, did not lack intention. His lips set in a grim line. One hand rested on the barrel of a gun.
Catalina was the one who stood closest to the bar. She stepped behind it and poured one drink after another until there were five glasses lined up on the counter, perfectly full.
“How can we help you, gentlemen?” Catalina asked.
“Well, we’d like to speak to the owner of this establishment.”
“You are,” Catalina began. She lifted her arms, gesturing to the room. “This here is my place.”
Another man, ruddy and round, chuckled. He looked around the room at the empty tables and sparse décor, at the wooden bar and the cottonwood tree that grew in the center of the courtyard, in the middle of the brothel. He looked at everyone in the room and his gaze passed over Hattie.
Hattie sat behind the piano with her fingers hovering over the keys, her heart hammering in her chest.
The woman reminded Hattie of her mother.
Her skin was the same deep shade of mahogany. She wore a handkerchief over her hair. Dirt and blood covered her white dress. Though her nose was bloody and her left eye was almost swollen shut, she stood proud and seemingly unafraid.
“Well, I’ll be damned. They let women own property in this state? And they call us southerners dumb,” the red-haired man drawled.
Catalina offered him a tight smile.
“You southerners are wasting some damn fine whiskey,” she said. The men turned towards each other, then walked to the bar. Each one grabbed a glass. They clinked their glasses together, then tilted their heads back and gulped down the whiskey.
Catalina looked at them from beneath long, dark lashes. She had a way with men, a fact that undoubtedly helped her to become a successful madam. One of the men, a squat, wiry man with ashen blond hair leaned across the bar and peered at Catalina.
“You got any available rooms… and girls?”
His voice was shrill. The other men chuckled, save for the man with the rope. He stared at Catalina. His eyes were the kind of dark brown that made a person’s pupil seem endless.
“Of course,” Catalina said. She turned towards Hattie. Following her gaze, the rest of the men looked at her, and she blushed under their scrutiny.
“Hattie, would you be a dear and go get the other girls?”
Hattie nodded, too afraid to speak. She did her best to smile, to seem nonchalant, but inside her heart was pounding and she was nauseous.
Could they see me for what I really am?
She walked down the steps and out the side door towards the girl’s actual quarters. Their rooms were small but manageable. There were two large rooms where the girls slept on bunk beds. The rooms opened into a great room, filled mismatched pieces of furniture, including a vanity with a large mirror mounted above the top shelf and a chaise lounge with threadbare green cushions.
The girls were all in there now. Two of them shared a couch while the other two jostled for space in front of the mirror.
“Well, look at you.”
Hattie turned to Maggie, one of the women on the couch.
“You look as if you’ve seen a ghost,” Maggie said.
Hattie didn’t doubt it. Her heart pumped like a piston and tears blurred her vision. But Hattie refused to cry. She knew the men would question her if they saw her discomfort. She saw the hatred in the men’s eyes when they looked at their prisoner, and she didn’t want them to turn that hatred towards her.
“We’ve got some… customers in there. Catalina asked me to come get you.”
The women continued primping.
“Come on, Catalina won’t like -”
“I don’t care what Catalina won’t like. I’m not going out there without looking my best. The better you look, the more money you get. Something you should think about, Hattie.” Said Agnes. She stared at Hattie through the mirror, her blue eyes full of reproach.
Hattie looked down at her plain, green dress. There was dirt under her fingernails. She brought a hand to her hair; when was the last time she styled it?
“Will… will you help me?” Hattie asked.
Agnes lifted a thick brow. She looked at Louise, who shared a bench with her.
“You can do it yourself. Last time I ran my hands through your hair it nearly stuck from your hair being so damn kinky.” Agnes said. The women laughed.
Hattie walked towards the mirror. She grabbed a brush from the vanity.
“That one’s mine,” Maggie said. “If you use it, make sure to clean your hair from it. I don’t want to catch anything from you, like head lice.”
Again the women cackled. Hattie’s cheeks burned.
She set the brush down and worked her fingers through her hair. She brushed it to the side and braided the long trusses. She reached across the vanity again and grabbed a long black ribbon and tied it around the end.
“Your hair looks nice,” Agnes said. “It’s your face that needs fixing, now.”
She stood and sauntered towards the door. Louise, Maggie, and Hazel, the youngest, followed her into the night. Hattie sighed. She dug through the makeup on the table. The powder was too light. There was only red eye shadow, and Hattie thought it made her eyes look like she was bleeding. She wiped it off.
“What’s taking you so long, Hattie? We need you in here.” Catalina called.
Hattie stood and looked back once more in the mirror. She turned and walked into the brothel and stopped by the stairs.
“Are you ready, boys?” the ruddy-faced man said.
There was such jubilation in his voice as the man with the rope secured it to the cottonwood tree in the middle of the room and pulled.
The woman’s legs kicked and her hands clawed at her throat. She bucked. Her eyes rolled back in her head.
The men howled. One of them shot his gun into the air.
“Hot damn!” said the fifth man, who was tall with a long, gray beard and leathery skin.
The woman’s movements slowed. Her eyes rolled back into her head but her eyelids remained open. Her mouth was a perfect circle. Her body swayed in the acrid California breeze.
Hattie looked at Catalina. Though she wasn’t shouting and hollering in support, like Agnes and Louise, Catalina stared at the bar top as she ran a rag across the surface.
How could she allow this to happen?
Hattie’s mouth was dry. Her body felt hollow. But what could she do? Protesting would only cause suspicion, which would lead to exposure. She couldn’t risk it, not after fighting for so long to carve out a life for herself.
“Well, this calls for a celebration!” Said the man with the rope. “Barkeep, more whiskey!”
The girls hooted. The men crowded around a table and the girls followed suit. Hazel, a petite redhead, sat on the lap of the man with the ruddy face. The man with the beard grabbed Agnes’ hand and pulled her down on his lap. He immediately began groping her breasts.
The red-haired man grabbed Louise’s dress and pulled her towards him. Maggie straddled the short, wiry man.
“Why don’t we get some music?” asked the short, wiry man.
Catalina gave Hattie a pointed stare. Hattie nodded and took her place behind the piano. Her fingers moved over the keys, playing some fast tune she didn’t remember the name of. She could hear the group over the music.
“What’d you hang her for?” Asked Hazel. She was only sixteen, but her voice was already smoky and deep.
“Don’t need a reason to hang a colored girl,” the man with the rope stated.
“She was being uppity, that’s why,” said the man with the ruddy face.
“They should have never been set free,” said Agnes. She took a luxurious drag from her cigarette.
“I’ve been saying that for four years!” Said the bearded man. “The bible says that slaves should obey their masters with fear and tremblin’. It says that right there in the scripture.”
“Believe you, me, if these coloreds start having rights, this country will go to hell in a handbasket,” the man with the rope said.
“We know you boys will protect this fine state,” Agnes said. She planted a kiss on the bearded man’s lips.
“Well, hell, I think it’s time for some action!” The bearded man said. He stood and grabbed Agnes’ wrist and lead her up the stairs.
“Would you like to make this party more private?” Hazel asked the ruddy-faced man. He grinned lasciviously.
“Well, what about Ephraim? He’s looking awfully lonely,” he said, pointing at the man who once had the rope. Ephraim smirked and stared at the women with dark eyes.
“Hattie!” Catalina called.
Hattie stopped mid-song. Her lower lip trembled. She stood and walked towards the bar.
“Why don’t you keep Ephraim company?” Catalina said.
Hattie’s knees felt weak. She smiled and turned towards Ephraim. He narrowed his eyes as he looked at her.
“What are you?” He asked. “You ain’t a half-breed, are you?”
Hattie shook her head. It wasn’t the first time she’d lied about her true nature. But like all the times before, it hurt more than she thought it would.
“I’m Italian, actually,” Hattie said.
The men looked at each other.
“Well, I don’t usually cotton to a Dago sharing my bed, but, I guess I can make an exception,” Ephraim said. His gaze lingered on her breasts. He pulled her dress, bringing her closer to him. He brought his hands to the apex of her thighs. Hattie tried not to stiffen. It wasn’t like this exact thing hadn’t happened before. She was sure most of the men she’d been with had touched her in that exact place. But she felt her body revolt under Ephraim’s touch.
“Nice and warm,” the man said. The other men at the table laughed, along with Louise. Maggie and her customer retreated upstairs.
Ephraim finished his whiskey and strode towards the stairs, running his hand over the hanged woman’s foot as he did so.
“Get over here, girl,” Ephraim said. Hattie cast one last look at Catalina before walking up the stairs.
As soon as the door closed, Ephraim pushed Hattie onto the bed, face down. He lifted her skirts and pulled down her petticoat.
He penetrated her much too soon. She winced at the pain, which only worsened with each thrust. The sounds of headboards banging against the wall nearly drowned out the grunting and moaning around them.
Hattie said nothing when the man flipped her over, or when he kissed her cheek and moaned into her ear.
She said nothing when he finished and rolled on to his back.
“You’re good, for an Italian,” Ephraim said. He chuckled. He said Italian like he meant to say “poison.”
Hattie lay there as he fell asleep, and soon the brothel grew quiet.
When Ephraim began to snore, Hattie peeled herself out of bed. She opened the door onto a darkened room. Catalina was gone, probably asleep.
Still, the woman hung from the tree. Hattie walked down the stairs and padded across the wood floor. She reached out a hand and touched the woman’s hand. It was unyielding. Like she was a doll or a piece of petrified wood.
Hattie stared up at her.
I’ve got to get you down from there.
Hattie ran behind the bar and searched for a knife. Finally, her hand closed around the handle of a knife. She grabbed a chair and lifted it, placing it beside the woman.
Hattie gripped the rope in one hand and the knife in the other. The rope wasn’t so easily broken, and it took all her strength to slice through the rope. When it gave, the woman fell to the ground with a thud.
Hattie looked up, praying no one heard her. There was only silence.
She stepped off the chair. Placing her hands beneath the woman’s arms, Hattie pulled her across the wooden floor. She pulled the woman over the threshold before she heard footsteps on the stairs.
Hattie stopped and looked up. Agnes stood by the bar, arms crossed.
“What are you doing?” She questioned.
“I had to get her out of here.”
“Why? She’s just a colored girl. And besides, those men are going to be in a hanging mood again when they find out.”
Something in Hattie broke.
“She deserves better,” Hattie said through gritted teeth.
“She’s just a colored girl. It’s sad she died, but those men are going to find out she was cut down and then they’ll start looking for answers.”
“I just couldn’t live with myself watching her hung like some animal,” Hattie spat.
“Why do you care?”
Hattie stared at her for a long while. A look of understanding passed over Agnes’ face.
“You’re one of them. You’re a mulatto,” Agnes spat.
Hattie sighed. She couldn’t deny it now. Agnes’ face was a picture of realization. She glared at Hattie. She’d disliked her before, and it was quite possible she hated her now.
“Well, I’m not about to get beat because of you. When they ask about the colored girl, you better believe I’m going to say it was you who pulled her down.”
“I don’t care. You’d better say your prayers, half-breed, because the next one who’s going to hang from that tree is you.”
Agnes turned and walked away.
Hattie stifled a sob. She looked back down at the woman. Her eyes stared straight up at the stars. Hattie grabbed her arms again and pulled her outside.
She set her body down beneath a palm tree. Hattie began to dig, her hands scraping at rocks and weeds as she dug a shallow grave. She moved the woman into the grave and covered her.
Standing up, Hattie looked back at the brothel. Any moment someone would come downstairs and realize the woman was gone. Agnes would surely come clean, and then they would come for Hattie.
“I’d better get a head start,” Hattie said. Her feet were bare. Her thin nightgown barely warmed her. Hattie walked into the inky black darkness, into the wilderness of the California mountains.