Cassie Carmichael barged into a saloon bar — now rebranded a “Tea Shoppe” in these days of the 18th Amendment — to be greeted by the somewhat startling sight of grisly farmhands and one or two ageing gold prospectors, their leather overalls caked with generations of grime, sitting around the rough wooden tables apparently sipping tea from dainty china cups.
Who do they think they are fooling, she thought irritably as a weather-beaten Old-timer, his eyes almost sunken into a crinkled mass of leathery skin, poured from a delicate teapot.
“Good afternoon,” she said firmly to the Old-timer, who stared sullenly back. Cassie was exhausted, hot and hungry — it had been a long, bumpy, dusty cart ride to Hope, Montana, a tiny dot on the map several hours’ from Butte. She looked longingly at the cups of cool moonshine, but she had no time to stop for a drink, never mind a meal or a bath.
After two days stranded in the mining town of Butte, Cassie had finally managed to track down a farmer’s wife who was returning to Hope after visiting a friend and beg her for a lift. The woman, Virtue, was happy to share the long journey but horrified by Cassie’s bob and painted face, and wasted no time in launching into a lecture about the fact that paint was the work of the devil. Cassie cheerily responded that it was in fact the work of Miss Helena Rubenstein, whose ‘beauty box’ Cassie had splashed out on with the last of the $300 fee she had received for writing the title-cards for a series of awful Vamp melodramas at Famous Players-Lasky. Which was several months ago, and the last time Cassie had been employed. Her precious savings were hovering dangerously low, she though uncomfortably, as Virtue droned on about the horrors awaiting any women who exposed her calves.
Cassie belatedly realised that the barman — that is, Tea-man — was waiting for her to speak. He had a thick walrus moustache, and a bald head that shone in the dim glow of the gas lamps lighting the shadowy room. He reminded Cassie of a bloodhound, with his long jowls and sad eyes.
“I wonder if you might be able to help me?”
The Tea-man nodded slowly, seeming a little dazed by her sudden appearance. Cassie heaved her heavy carpet bag onto the counter and rummaged through her hastily-packed belongings. She finally found what she was looking for, and triumphantly extracted the precious, postcard she had found at a flea market in downtown Los Angeles just a few days before.
“Do you recognise this?” she asked. The Tea-man looked at the faded drawing as though it were Mr Nobel’s dynamite. Cassie gave him an encouraging smile, trying to conceal her impatience.
The drawing had been sketched in ink and with considerable skill. An enormous tree stump — gnarly and twisted with age, as wide across the diameter as a motor-car — sat by a stream in front of a dilapidated farm house. The tree had evidently once risen towards the clouds like a Manhattan skyscraper, but some storm or disease had struck it down leaving only the crumbling, resentful evidence of what once had been. It was an unusual scene, a striking scene — a scene being discussed in all the best salons from New York to London. A scene that held the keys to Cassie’s future.
“The label on the postcard says Hope, Montana,” she added, tapping the words with a daringly painted fingernail. “Do you know where it is? Do you know who owns the farmhouse?”
“We don’t serve ladies in here,” said a low voice behind her, and Cassie suppressed an urge to roll her eyes. It was 1921, after all: women were drinking at all the best speakeasies in Los Angeles, Chicago and New York. She turned to meet the wizened Old-timer, whose hand rested casually on the filthy pistol in his holster.
“I don’t wish to drink at the present time,” Cassie said with a firm smile. “I only wish to enquire as to —“
“Ladies ‘aint welcome in here,” the Old-timer repeated, taking a step closer.
“It’s okay Bert,” said the Tea-man. “She’s just gonna ask her questions and then she’ll be on her way.”
“Quite,” added Cassie. “I’m more of a coffee girl, in any case.”
A little twist in her tummy belied her words as she noted that a couple of other men had come to stand behind the Old-timer, and others were quietly watching the scene unfold. There was a palpable anticipation in the air, like in a Western picture starring Fred Thompson or William S Hart right before the shoot-out begins.
“You think because you ladies can vote now, you can do just anything a man can do?” The Old-timer looked her up and down, lasciviousness mixing with disgust as his eyes trailed over her calf-length skirt and exposed collar bone.
“Certainly not,” snapped Cassie meeting the Old-timer’s gaze head on, though her heart thudded and goosebumps prickled over her skin despite the heat. “I have no desire to pee standing up.”
The moment hung in the air for what felt like an eternity.
Then she heard it. A snigger.
A young man sitting at the bar, deep blue eyes, his leather chaps shiny with age, a bright red kerchief knotted around his deeply tanned neck, started to laugh. After a few moments, the Tea-man joined in, albeit with more than one nervy glance at the Old-timer, then some others, until finally the Old-timer’s face cracked and he threw back his head and roared.
“She don’t wanna pee standing up — I guess these modern girls have their limits after all.”
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