"Wes, where in the hell have you been?" The unshaven man in stained britches and ragged leather vest squatted next to the campfire pouring himself coffee. "All ya had to do was find a ranch for us. What took you so long?"
Westley Abrams swung down from his horse, helping himself to coffee before answering. "I found something even better, Abel. Take a look at this." He held his arms out to his sides. "Have you ever seen a belt as fancy as this?"
Chance Doolan, the third man was sprawled on his bedroll. He lifted the brim of his Stetson off his eyes. "Does it hold up your britches better?"
"Of course not."
"And you paid money for it?"
"Yeah, two dollars."
"Then you're a fool." Chance dropped his hat back over his eyes.
Wes grinned. "I'll get my money back when we visit the ranch where I bought this." He ran his tongue over his lips. "And, there's a good-looking woman and a fresh young filly to keep us company while we stay there."
Abel Swanson stood still holding his coffee cup. Standing, it became clear how big he was—he had to be four inches over six feet and two hundred and fifty pounds. "Menfolk?"
"That's the best part. Just one and he's a cripple."
"Then I guess you did good, after all, Wes." He looked over at the Doolan, still stretched out resting. "Let's get going. That posse won't ever quit looking for us. Not after Chance shot a U.S. Marshall."
Chance sat up. "Didn't have a choice, Abel. And you know it."
Abel, the undisputed leader of the group thought for a minute. "Okay, pack up. Let's ride. Wes, you lead."
"What about Hank?" Wes asked. "He barely made it here with that bullet in him. Maybe the ranch has a wagon or something."
Abel stood over the wounded outlaw. "Hank, think you can ride?"
"Don't think so, Abel. I hurts too bad."
The big man nodded, then drew his Colt 1860 Army, and shot the prone man through the forehead. "Got no time for wagons and such."
* * *
"Effie Springer, come here this minute!" At thirteen, my daughter had reached the age of willfulness along with the beginning signs of womanhood. She couldn't stay away from the leather shop—or the cowboys. She shuffled across the hard-packed dirt, head down and sulking badly.
"I wasn't doin' nothin' wrong. Papa's teachin' me to carve and stamp those fancy belts and such that the cowboys like." Her lower lip was stuck out like a dresser drawer.
I sighed, knowing how she felt—likely my penance for being such a stubborn and frivolous girl myself. Still, she had to learn. "I saw you makin' a fool of yourself posing and preening for that dirty cowhand. I've told you before to stay out of the shop when there are men talking with your father."
Bringing her clasped hands to her mouth and refusing to meet my eyes, she rocked back and forth. "Westley said I was pretty."
"You're thirteen years old, child. The last thing you should be thinking about is what the likes of him thinks."
"I'm not a child," she said, throwing her chest out as if her beginning to have breasts changed anything.
"You are a child," I said. "And a frivolous, disobedient one at that, the very things that lead young girls into trouble." Before she could say anything more, I cut her off. "I don't want to hear any more backtalk. Start heating water in the big pot for laundry, daughter."
"I hate laundry. Why doesn't Bart have to do it?"
"You'll hate the feel of a switch on your backside in about one minute. Everyone hates laundry." Bartholomew, my seven-year-old had his own chores, which I could have pointed out, but I wasn't about to argue with a child.
I did feel a twinge of sympathy for her. Life on the prairie was lonely but that was the price we had to pay to build a permanent home here. Malachi, my dear husband, and I had been on the move since the day we married. After I lost my first child, I couldn't face the tiny rented house near our parents in New Hampshire any longer. It was too full of hopes and dreams of a family. So, when Brother Thayer spoke of fighting the evil of Slavery at our church, I believed I'd found God's plan for me. Maybe I couldn't be a mother, but I could enter the abolitionist battle. Brother Thayer's idea was to send enough hard-headed abolitionist settlers from New England to Kansas Territory to outnumber the pro-slavery voters ahead of the vote for Kansas to enter the Union. We would prevent it from entering as a slave state.
In the spring of 1855, Malachi and I joined one of the first groups leaving for the Kansas Territory. My battle for human rights was fought trying to make some kind of home out of a filthy little cabin eight miles outside Osawatomie on the Potawatomie Creek. Five years, two children, and being burned out twice, found us still living in a tiny cabin while savagery swirled around us. They called it Bleeding Kansas. Other than my children, my sole accomplishment in those years was becoming proficient with the Sharps rifle shipped to us in crates stenciled Bibles from Henry Ward Beecher's Plymouth Church back east.
When our vicious border war spread to engulf the whole nation, Malachi volunteered to fight for the Union and packed us off to live with his sister, Bina, and her family in Nebraska.
"I have to do my part, Rebecca," he said. "We both know that Slave Power has to be destroyed forever. That's why we came out here in the first place. Anyway, this war won't last more than a few months. I'll be back by harvest time."
He returned four years later, disillusioned, dissatisfied, and missing his left leg below the knee. The boy who had such joy in life and courage to face the future came back to me a grey, stony man. My Puritan family would likely approve of him now. Except that he'd also taken up strong drink. Bina wouldn't put up with drinking or drunkenness. He stumbled home raving on a particularly bad night only to be met by his sister's fury.
"Malachi Springer, are you nothing but a common reprobate? Have you none of God's grace at all?" She demanded. "Your antics make our family the object of ridicule by even the lowest townsman."
"They can all go to hell," he slurred. "God's grace? Where was God at Chancellorsville or Spotsylvania?"
I tried to calm him. "Malachi, come away. You're not yourself."
He shook off my hand. Glaring right into Bina's face, he snarled. "I know God. I know what he loves: blood. Blood and pain and suffering. Mutilation and horror. He revels in it. We gave him what he loves. We soaked the land with it."
"You blaspheme!" Bina screeched.
We left her house the next day. Over the next month, we traveled two hundred miles by wagon to homestead a quarter section about ten miles east of Ogallala, in western Nebraska. Malachi had been an admired leather worker back in New Hampshire but was driven to own his own land. Our farm was a failure but my husband's ability to make and mend harness for local ranchers provided the income needed to keep up the family. I was afraid that our inability to prosper as farmers would push him deeper into his pit of war memories, but working with leather seemed to provide enough satisfaction to keep them at bay. His need for drink also moderated. Eventually he even built a little workshop near the road where he could work and sell his goods but still refused to move into town.
"I'll not give up my land," he said. "Without his own land, a man cannot control his own fate."
A woman certainly can't control her fate with or without land. I learned that in May of 1867.
Effie and I were hanging laundry when the three riders appeared. They were dirty and ragged which contrasted with the beautiful horses they rode.
"Howdy, ma'am," the youngest and most presentable of the three said, touching the brim of his Stetson. I recognized him as Malachi's earlier customer.
"Good afternoon. Did you bring my husband some more customers?"
He didn't answer directly but turned to my daughter. "Miss Effie, it's good to see you again so soon." He walked his horse over to Effie, smiling. I could see how that smile could sweep away a young girl. The young man, named Westley, she'd told me, dismounted.
"My husband is in his workshop," I said, my voice shaking a little. I nodded toward the shed. He ignored me.
The leader of the outlaws, a big man, dismounted and approached me. He was rank with the stink of old sweat and filthy clothes. "We're not here for your husband." His gap-toothed smile and foul breath nearly gagged me as he grabbed my arm and pushed his stubbly face into mine. "Be sweet to me and you'll enjoy it," he said, kissing and groping me.
"Effie, run get your father," I screamed struggling to get free.
"Good, you got some spirit," my assailant chuckled. "That makes it better."
I tried to knee him in the crotch but he twisted aside enough for me to miss my target.
"Not too feisty though." He slapped me hard across the face, knocking me to my knees. His kick sent me over on my back in time to see Malachi crutching his way toward us, awkwardly carrying the Sharps. He must have heard me yell to Effie as Westley held her by the waist with her feet off the ground.
The third rider calmly drew his revolver and shot my husband in the chest. Effie broke free and ran to her father. Her attacker casually followed her, his smile undimmed. He reached down to get a handful of her long hair and dragged her away from her father's body.
"No, please don't." I shrieked. "She's only a girl," I clawed at my attacker's eyes. He slapped me again, forward and backhand, leaving me dizzy and sobbing in pain.
"Shut the hell up, woman." He called out to the outlaw who'd just murdered my husband. "Chance, come here'n hold her down for me, willya?" The cowboy dismounted, knelt behind me, and pinned my arms against the hard-packed dirt.
My attacker pulled an enormous Bowie knife, letting me see the light flashing off its blade before slicing all of the buttons off the front of my dress. He pricked the fabric of my chemise with the point of his knife, tearing it open from my belly to my throat, and exposing my breasts.
His filthy, dirty-nailed hand groped and fondled me, pulling up my skirt and grinning. He stopped for a moment to address the man holding my arms.
"She'll keep us busy for a few days, Chance," he chuckled.
He leaned down and forced his mouth over mine. I allowed his slimy tongue into my mouth, then bit down until coppery-tasting blood flowed down my throat. The pain of his knife slashing down my cheek drew a scream from me, releasing my jaw. He loomed over me with his knife drawn back to finish me.
"No, Abel," Chance yelled. "She's no good if she's dead."
Abel paused. "Alright, missy, you like it rough, that's how you'll get it." He ripped away the rest of my dress and began to ram himself into me. It hurt and I cried out. He glared down at me. "This is what you want, bitch?"
As those words left his mouth, his head exploded in a pink mist of blood and gore. It was only then that I heard the rolling roar of a gunshot. Had Malachi survived after all?
My hands were freed as Chance scrambled to his feet and began firing his revolver, while I crawled toward Effie. I could hear her. "No . . . please don't . . . Mama, help me!" The scene on the porch froze me. My thirteen-year-old daughter sprawled on her back with her skirts above her waist, her attacker digging madly in the pile of trousers around his ankles for his pistol. Another roar from the fields and her rapist, the personable young Westley, was slammed back against the porch post and collapsed, screaming.
Our rescuer rode slowly into the yard keeping his Sharps rifle trained on the sole outlaw still alive. Chance stood with his hands in the air, empty revolver on the ground, pleading for his life.
"Look, mister, I didn't hurt the women. I'll just ride away. No need to kill me."
The rider stepped down. "Ma'am, take my Colt out of the holster," he said indicating the revolver on his hip without allowing the muzzle of the big Sharps to waver from the trembling outlaw.
I flipped the hammer loop off his pistol and drew it.
"You know how to shoot?"
"Yes," I answered and cocked the pistol. Holding the heavy Colt Dragoon in both hands, I shot the sonofabitch who'd held me down. His screams salved some of my outrage. I'd aimed for his heart but the gun was heavy and the bullet hit him in the belly.
The rider nodded toward Effie, who'd joined us, wiping tears from her eyes. I handed her the pistol. She held it awkwardly at first, as if she didn't know what to do with it.
"Go ahead, girl," were the first words the rider said. "Get some of your own back."
Effie looked to me then down at her torn dress. She turned to the still-writhing desperado and raised the Colt. With her smaller hands, she had to use her left hand to cock the hammer. "You filthy . . . bastard!" she screamed and shot him in the crotch. His scream was beyond anything I ever heard from a human voice. Then he was silent.
The rider held out his hand for the pistol.
"No," she said and walked over to where her attacker lay. She cocked the revolver again, stood over the outlaw, and fired the big Colt at the same target as she'd hit with Westley. "Bastard." She fired again. "Bastard" Another .44 bullet ripped apart his genitals. She kept shooting until the hammer clicked on empty chambers. She dropped the pistol and flew into my arms.
"I don't know who you are, mister, but I thank you from the bottom of my heart." I knew that my words were muddied by the knife slash on my cheek but he understood me.
"Take care of your daughter, ma'am," the rider said. "I'll see if anything can be done for your husband."
* * *
It took some time and a good dose of Malachi's whiskey to calm Effie enough that she could build up the fire. I pressed a clean towel against the knife slash on my face to stop the bleeding.
"Put water on to boil, girl. Fetch that bottle over here and my sewing kit." Now that the fear of being violated and murdered while listening to my daughter suffer the same fate had receded, I was tortured by the throbbing agony of the wound.
"Mama, I can see your teeth," Effie cried as she brought the bottle to the table.
"That's why you have to sew me up, girl. Now get out a fine needle and thread it with a good bit of silk thread."
"But, Mama, I don't think—"
"I can't stay like this, Effie, and I can't do the sewing myself," I mumbled, knowing it was a lot to ask of her. I took her trembling hands in mine. "You'll do what you have to do. Now get the needle and thread."
"Would you miss one needle, ma'am?" Our rescuer was standing just inside the open door.
"Can you stand the loss of one of your sewing needles? Once I bend it to work on that cut, it won't be much good for anything else."
"You know about such things?"
"A little, ma'am." He removed his hat but didn't come any farther into the cabin. "From the war."
"If it helps get this done, I'll sacrifice a sewing needle."
He nodded. "Clean cloth and some soap?" He threw the clean rag Effie gave him into the boiling water, then went to the pump and scrubbed his hands with soap.
"This needs to be clean. Give you mother a good shot of that whiskey." Effie, wide-eyed, scurried to pour about an inch of liquor into a glass.
Shocked, I protested. "I'm an abstainer."
"It's for pain, not fun. Drink," he ordered.
I gulped the whiskey down, coughing and gasping.
"Another," he said, nodding to Effie.
"It's vile, I can't drink—"
"Drink or I'll hold your nose and pour it down your damn throat. This'll hurt and you thrashing around will make it harder."
My head began to swim as I watched him bend the needle into semicircle. "Why . . . "
He didn't answer just carefully cleaned the wound with the boiled towel.
"This'll hurt." With one hand, he pushed my head to toward my shoulder, with the other, he poured whiskey over my cheek.
It was liquid fire. I screamed and felt tears start in my eyes. Another splash. More fire. Then he began stitching up the cut.
"The curved needle helps get the thread through both sides of the cut without squeezing it," he said as he worked. He gently pulled the slash closed, tying off each stitch.
I was thankful for the numbing effect of the whiskey I'd drunk but my tears still ran freely. When the job was finished, he and Effie helped me to bed. Where I lay, floating on whiskey fumes, listening to the rider and Effie.
From far away, I heard, "Where do you want your pa's grave?" Some mumbling from Effie. Then quiet.
When I woke, the angle of the sun told me that several hours had passed. In addition to my throbbing cheek, I had a terrible headache and was nauseous but I forced myself to sit up. Effie came to my bedside and gently pushed me back down.
"Everything's okay, Mama. You just rest now." She pulled the blanket up over me. "Mr. Mulcahy—his name was Gabriel Mulcahy—left but he told me how to take care of you." She looked away her eyes unfocused for a moment. "He wouldn't take anything in return for saving us. Said he took the belt Pa made for that killer as payment. Was that all right, Mama?"
"Of course, girl. A cheap price for being saved."
She started to cry. "But those men, and Papa . . . dead." She was wracked by sobs. "I shot those men . . . shot them . . . "
"It was the right thing to do, Effie. To defend yourself, you have to do hard things." I pulled my baby girl against me, thanking God for giving us a protector, at least for this time.