Maggie raised her hands to protect her face from the barrage of flying fruit heading straight for her. Jerking left to keep from being hit, she wrenched her back when a rotten tomato sailed past and splattered against the wall in a drippy glob of flesh, seeds and juice. Ignoring the pain racing up her spine, Maggie straightened and glared down at the crowd. Heart pounding, waiting for the next assault, she jerked right as an egg flew by to explode in a yellow and white oozing mass beside the tomato. Dodging left then right to avoid more airborne fruit, Maggie Douglas, born of a well-respected ranching family whose spread was located northwest of Kansas City, Missouri, tried to remember why she was standing alone in front of this hostile audience being pummeled with rotten fruit and insults. Was it because she believed so strongly in women’s rights that she was willing to risk life and limb to help gain the freedom to vote, as black men who were slaves little more than ten years ago now voted? Or was she running away from an overbearing father and brothers? Or from George, the man who, by his own misfortune, had fallen in love with her?
She lunged forward and landed on her belly as a moldy melon whizzed overhead to join the collection of fruits and vegetables decorating the wall and floor behind her. Maggie pushed to her knees, stood up, brushed off her drab dress and glowered at those laughing in front of her. In her glaring silence, she dared them to continue. She would not be easily driven away. She had something to say and she was going to say it, whether they liked it or not!
Maggie took a deep breath, pushed a stray lock of her raven hair off her heart-shaped face, squared her slender shoulders and stood her ground. Deep blue eyes gazed out from yet another little stage in another unremarkable town whose name she couldn’t even remember— one of many she’d visited in the last year after hearing Lucy Stone speak when Maggie first arrived in Boston from Kansas City. Miss Stone’s impassioned speech had caused a surge of responsibility to run through Maggie. It was time for her to do something about the ideals she’d been spouting at her father and brothers for years about her rights—about the rights of all women. After spewing those beliefs for so long, it was time to make her stand. Trained by Miss Stone, Maggie traveled from one small town to another, trying to educate its inhabitants about what women’s rights offered for both sexes, and getting nowhere fast, it seemed. On rare occasions she left town with a feeling of accomplishment, hoping she’d sparked a fire in some young woman to go out and spread the word; but most of the time, she left wondering what she was doing and why—as she did tonight. The novelty of her quest had worn off with its reality.
She continued to stare down at the crowd, daring them to continue the assault on her person. Tonight had begun the way most of her previous speaking engagements did. First came the cat calls when she walked on stage; then the whoops and hollers and fist waving when she tried to speak. Then the dirty names and assaults upon her character from the men assembled. It progressed, as usual, to the barrage of rotten fruit and vegetables hurled at the stage. The twenty or so women in the audience, a mixture of all shapes, sizes and ages, looked angry and horrified at the same time. They were in a hard place, and Maggie knew it, but by God it was time to be heard! If they ever wanted more than to suckle babies, do laundry and take care of their children, homes and men for the rest of their lives, they had to make a stand—and now was as good a time as any! If they ever wanted land, a home, or a business to call their own, they had to start someplace, and here was that place.
Maggie Douglas was fighting for them. Fighting for a woman’s right to take possession of her own home if her husband died because, right now, women had no rights to that home. Neither could she take possession of a piece of land deeded to her if her husband died on their way to claim it. Women were non-entities, faceless and kept by men to wash and clean and take care of their homes and babies. A black man could now vote, yet a woman, of any race, could not! Maggie was fighting to pull them from their lives of toil, drudgery and subservience. She was fighting for those women as much as for herself!
The ladies who’d invited her to speak had run from the stage as soon as the fruits and vegetables started to fly, but Maggie stood fast. She’d seen more than one dress ruined by worse harassment than this. She’d seen more than her share of rotten fruit and vegetables; had been on the receiving end of too many rotten eggs to count and even had manure hurled at her! She’d stood then and intended to do no less now.
A tomato hit her in the chest while she mused over her situation. The men in the crowd roared with laughter and the women cowered. She knew her face was as red as the stain spreading across the front of her dress, but she refused to back down. She ducked when another object sailed toward her head, bringing more guffaws and shouts from the crowd. Women tugged at their husband’s arms, trying to make them stop or pull them out of the hall, but they only jerked away, laughing harder.
“Why don’t you run like those spinster gals who asked you here, Miss Douglas? They haven’t got husbands so they figure to make our wives as miserable as they are,” a tall, thin man in the middle of the hall yelled.
“Go back where you belong,” shouted a rotund man in the first row.
“We don’t want you here!” a man waving his fist cried.
The crowd howled.
Maggie noticed a young woman trying to stand, but her husband kept shoving her back onto the seat, his face red, his nose flaring as he shouted at his cowering wife. Maggie could only imagine the threats he laid upon her.
“Why don’t you pull up them skirts, Miss Douglas, and show us some ankle on your way out the door?” another man yelled, followed by more whooping and laughter.
Maggie took a deep breath, dodged another projectile and another before she came to attention. “I will not leave this place!” she shouted in a deep voice that resonated throughout the hall. “I was invited by the ladies of this town to speak on an issue which has bearing on you all and I intend to have my say. You may either listen…” she looked around the hall at the men standing poised and ready to throw their next item, “or leave!”
There was a unified gasp. Eyes bulged with disbelief that she had the audacity to stand so boldly in front of these men in their town and shout orders. Maggie prayed her bold show would cow some of the lesser-spoken men, and give strength to some of the women who stood beside their husbands, backs straight and their eyes riveted on her.
“Do you men feel better now? Do you feel stronger and more superior because you’ve thrown a few rotten tomatoes—and even hit me with one?” She brushed at her soiled dress. “Because if this is what makes you feel superior to a woman…?” She let the words hang.
Grumbling, the men began to sit down, the wide-eyed women sliding down beside them. When all was quiet, their attention turned back to the stage.
“Thank you.” Maggie’s eyes searched the crowd and fell upon the three women standing at the back of the room who had invited her there. “Come now. Please return to the stage with me.” One by one the ladies returned and stood on either side of her, hands clasped together.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we stand before you, a united front,” they raised their linked hands high for all to see, “wishing for one thing and one thing only. To be recognized. To be taken seriously. Many women are uneducated and misinformed, but certainly they’re not stupid. They are uneducated because they’re not allowed to be educated and misinformed because no one informs them. We are wives, mothers, and sisters who want our voices heard. Who want to stand with our men to vote and…”
“Women are too stupid to vote!” a man shouted from the back row. “My wife is only good for two things—taking care of me and mine and, well, you all know what else.” Laughter erupted throughout the hall and Maggie’s chest tightened, but she would not be thwarted.
Maggie waited until the hall quieted once again. “And have you even tried to speak with your wife about what goes on in your town or country?”
“Why should I? She’s just a woman; the only thing she needs to worry about is me and mine. Nothing should concern her except that.” There was general agreement amongst the men in the hall, while the women openly seethed from what Maggie could see.
“That’s all your wives are good for?” she asked.
“Damn right!” someone else yelled.
“Not good for anything else,” shouted another.
It didn’t take long for the squabbling to begin between husband and wife instead of being focused on Maggie. Many a woman turned her back on her husband with arms akmibo and toes tapping, and Maggie heard more than one threat from a wife to withhold her “wifely” duties if her husband didn’t start to take her seriously. While waiting for the hall to quiet again, Maggie found herself thrown back to the day she’d made her decision to leave her home, the Lazy D Ranch outside Kansas City, on the quest that had brought her to this place.
“Damn it, George, why won’t you listen to reason?” Maggie stared at a determined George. She’d been mucking stalls for what seemed like hours, hoping to figure things out in her head and decide on a plan, before he’d tracked her down and confronted her. Maggie had things to do and George wasn’t part of those plans, but he just wouldn’t listen. She knew George cared about her, maybe even loved her, but she didn’t love him back. She couldn’t, at least not now.
Softening her tone, hoping to make it easier for him to understand, Maggie continued, “Sure, my father and brothers like you, but they wouldn’t want you for a son-in-law. They’ve made it painfully clear they won’t settle for someone like—you.”
“What the hell do you mean someone like me?” Anger swept across George’s usually calm, handsome face.
Maggie sighed when the memory of George’s appearance at her family’s ranch popped into her head. Her brother, James, had hauled George home from Fort Leavenworth after saving him from a pounding by angry soldiers. Having refused to follow an order given by his commanding officer to kill a Lakota woman and her child during a raid on their village, as well as not carrying out General George Crook’s overall order to “destroy the village, everyone and everything in it,” George had been forced to resign his commission as a cavalry lieutenant to avoid a general court martial for disobeying orders and conduct unbecoming. Relating the story behind his resignation had made Maggie’s stomach turn, and she’d felt an immediate kinship with the shy, sandy haired, principled man. He’d come to the Lazy D and worked for her father as a ranch hand and, in his shy, boyish way, had wooed Maggie until she, literally, threw herself at him. To her great disdain he rebuffed her—twice—before she was forced to let him to court her the “old-fashioned way.” During that courtship, Maggie grew quite fond of George and respected him greatly for his stand on the Indians, but not enough to give up her plans.
Maggie stared into George’s confused and angry face. She didn’t want to hurt him, but there was no other way. She straightened her back to gather the courage it would take to do just that. It was the only way she could to do the things she had to do, without his interference.
“What do you have to offer me, George Hawkins?” A home? A future? Security?” she drawled, her voice thick with sarcasm.
“We can get those together, Maggs.” He’d used her childhood nickname, the only person allowed to do so without getting a tongue-lashing to remind them she was no longer a little girl.
“I’ve saved a little money,” he continued.
She wanted to cry at the look of hope on George’s face, but she could not, would not, spend the rest of her life known only as Stuart Douglas’ daughter or the little sister of Edward and James Douglas or, worse yet, as the wife of a ranch hand with “a little money.”
She closed her eyes and took a deep breath for patience. “’A little money’ isn’t what my father has in mind for my future.” No, he intended for his only daughter to marry someone who could give her the kind of life she’d been raised with. Of course he wanted her to marry, have children and care for her husband and children, as all women were intended, but he wanted her to marry within her own station. But Maggie was meant to be more than just a wife and mother regardless of who she married, be he cowboy or rich man. She’d told her father and brothers that many times, but they wouldn’t listen. She was a woman who wanted, needed, a life of her own; one helping other women, as well as herself, to obtain a voice in this emerging country.
She looked back at George’s hopeful face and snapped, “I’ve told you time and again, we can’t tell my family.”
“Well I’m damn tired of sneaking around, stealing kisses, afraid of getting caught and having my head blown off by someone in your family. I still think you’re exaggerating.” George’s chin raised a notch, silently questioning whether she was telling him the whole truth about her father and brothers.
Her chin lifted in response. “Exaggerating, am I? Let me tell you what happened to the last man I introduced them to. He was a gentleman from St. Louis in Kansas City on business. He was refined, well-dressed and, seemingly, everything my family wanted in someone for me to marry. He came from a well-known family, but he didn’t have property. He was only beginning to establish himself. But it wasn’t good enough. They grilled him like a common criminal about his life, his family and his ambitions until the man finally tucked tail and ran like a rabbit.” She threw her hands up. “And he was someone I thought they’d find acceptable!” She was losing patience. Why couldn’t he understand?
George took a deep breath. “Then why are they always harping on you about finding a husband?”
“Oh they want me married off, sure enough. They just want to be sure it’s a man they approve of. Since the episode I just told you about, I’ve never again brought anyone home to meet my family. Never. I think they realize what they did by chasing away my last suitor, which is why they constantly remind me I need to find someone.” She looked deep into George’s eyes. “That’s why we can’t tell them.”
George stared at her a few moments before he stepped into the stall, reached over and took her hand. “Maggs...”
“What?” She snapped again. “I know that tone, George.” She couldn’t let him take her in his arms and kiss her thoughts away. She couldn’t!
“I want you to marry me.”
“Haven’t you heard a word I’ve said?” She stabbed the pitchfork into a pile of soiled hay, snatched her other hand away from him and stomped out of the stall. Her heart was pounding when she whirled back to face him and said through gritted teeth, “My father and brothers will not approve of our relationship, nor will they accept it. What do I have to do to make you understand that?”
She closed her eyes and shook her head in disbelief. “Ask them? Ask them?” She ran her fingers through her hair and spun around on her heel. “Ask them?”
“Yes. It’s as simple as that.”
“Simple as that,” she parroted. She couldn’t believe he thought it could be that simple.
“Maggs,” George tried to interrupt.
Maggie ignored him and continued her tirade.
“Maggs!” he shouted, jerking her to a halt. She stood staring, uncertain what more she could do or say to make him understand. Her family simply would not accept George Hawkins, dishonorably discharged, former U.S. Cavalry lieutenant and now an employee on their ranch, as the husband of their precious daughter and sister!
“What are you so scared of?” he finally asked. “Of what they might say? Or of me?”
She stood stock still. Her eyes bore into him. One hand eased to her hip while the other
slipped to her forehead and pushed a lock of hair back. Her right toe kicked at the hay in front of her. She looked away, unable to give him the answer he wanted.
George stepped in front of her and grabbed her shoulders. “Which is it, Maggs? I thought you loved me. Have you just been playing with me all this time? Like all the others?”
“No,” she managed, her throat tight, her heart breaking. He wasn’t like the others whom she had toyed with for one reason and one reason only—to make her father and brothers crazy and teach them a lesson for butting into her life. George was different. If she allowed him to change her mind about leaving, she might very well wind up loving him and spending her life with this simple cowhand in defiance of her father and brothers—and missing out on all she wanted for herself. She had things to do and she intended to do them, whether George, her father or her brothers approved or not. “No, George. I care about you a great deal.” But I can’t love you; I won’t love you.
His eyes went wide. “You care about me. A great deal!” he shouted.
“But I don’t love you.” There, she’d said it out loud. That should be enough to make him understand. Intent on ending this conversation she added, “At least not enough for marriage, whether they approved or not.”
“Well, thank you for telling me,” George ground out, his nose flaring his teeth gnashing.
“Please understand, George. I have things to do.” She tried one last time. She meant to strike out and help with the women’s movement. It was time men realized women had a mind— and a voice.
“Oh, yes, I remember,” he drawled. “You have to follow your precious Miss Elizabeth Stanton and Miss Susan Anthony. You have to run around the country shouting about your rights.”
Her concern about hurting his feelings dissolved like a spoonful of sugar in a hot cup of coffee. She drew up her back and stepped directly in front of him, her nose only inches from his.
“You’re damn right, George. And, as a matter of fact, I was about to tell you I’m leaving on the next train to do just that.” She hadn’t made up her mind until that moment and was as surprised as George at her revelation.
“What?” George shouted. “Next train where?”
“There’s a rally scheduled in Boston and I intend to be there to lend my support.” Her heart was pounding, but she would not back down. She’d made a decision and intended to stand by it.
“Boston! Are you crazy? That’s hundreds of miles away.”
“I know where it is, George. Remember me? This is Maggie Douglas, not some dull- witted female who doesn’t know the geography of our country. And no, I’m not crazy. It’s time I make a real stand for what I believe in. I’m going, and not you nor my brothers or my father will stop me.”
She spun on her heel and started out of the barn, needing to get away before she changed her mind, or before George changed it for her. Before she could get far enough away George grabbed her by the arm and turned her back to face him.
“And what about us? Is what we’ve got so easy to forget?”
Her heart was breaking as she looked into his pleading face and remembered all the secret times they’d shared at the pond behind the bunkhouse and other secret places around the ranch. Snuggling in the cold at the pond she’d learned how George was with Custer at the Little Bighorn. There, she’d confided in him all she’d suffered with her mother’s death and how an old Indian chief had befriended her and whose young granddaughter perished because he couldn’t get the medicine needed to help her. Sadness overwhelmed her, but she refused to give in. It was her time and she intended to take this chance. It might be her only chance.
“No, George Hawkins, it’s not easy to forget. But this is something I must do. Just like you had to do what you did at the Little Bighorn to save your friend Blue and later defying Colonel MacKenzie’s order in that Cheyenne village. You have ideals. Well I do, too, and it’s about time I put my time and effort where my mouth has been. I’ve been shouting my beliefs and now it’s time to do something about it. I have to, George. Allow me this and who knows what’ll happen when I return. Perhaps we can rekindle what we have then, but not now.”
Maggie gently removed her arm from his grip and left him standing there gaping, all hope drained from his face. She turned and strode from the barn, fearful of all she would leave behind, anxious and hopeful for what lay ahead.
Laughter and insults jerked Maggie back to the present. Everyone was on their feet. The men shuffled from the room, the women leading the way with their backs turned against their men, arms crossed over their chests and the threat to withhold their duties on their lips. Many an angry man waved his fist at Maggie to let her know how much trouble she’d caused with his now departing wife. She wanted to raise her hands high and shout at them like an impassioned preacher that someday there would be a reckoning and women would emerge to take control of their own lives! Instead she shouted, “Please! If you would just listen to what I have to say!”
The snickers and insults continued as the hall emptied. A few of the women threw Maggie apologetic glances as they passed, until she and her three companions were the only ones left in the quiet, empty room.