In the 1880s Lucille Martin revolts against men who will not allow women to vote or own property. In spite of all her work at home her brother inherits the family farm, so possessing a teaching degree, she finds it easy to leave her family. A tall woman, with the masculine occupation of teaching, she joins a wagon train to Wyoming, where women have the privileges she covets.
The wagon train members are captured and held prisoner. Their outlaw captors claim the property legally belonging to the members. Lucille is forced to cook in the outlaws' restaurant and watch the property meant to be hers snatched by a man named Gorman, whom she assumes is one of the outlaws.
Gorman sets out to prove his innocence, while Corey Black, outlaw and killer, gambles for the women in town. Lucille must work hard to protect her friends.
Together Lucille and Gorman fight to reclaim the valley, but he is badly wounded. He escapes with the help of friends and Lucille must decide if she will accept him if--or when--he ever returns.
"I will win the right to vote! I will win the right to have property in my own name!" Lucille stormed about the big farmhouse living room. She stopped in front of her six-foot father, who stood only two inches taller than she did. "You say I can't own property or vote here, so I will win those rights in Wyoming!"
"Wyoming? And how will you get there?" scornfully asked her petite stepmother.
No one answered her.
"You earn your keep plenty here," her father admitted. "We ain't chasin' you out. You got your teaching certificate if you don't like living on the farm."
"Why would you want such silly things? You don't need to vote or do those unladylike things. Women shouldn't control property. They haven't the ability."
"Unladylike things!" Lucille gave an unladylike snort. "I can throw hay on a wagon like a man! I'm expected to milk cows for the creamery. Who plows the garden? Me, that's who. It's all right to be unladylike for those things, but not a word about owning my own cows, or my own privilege to say what our taxes will be, even though I help earn the income."
"Why do we deserve this tirade?" Lucille's stepmother held a dainty handkerchief to her tiny mouth. Lucille considered it like her to put her own feelings first.
"Tirade?" Lucille said between long paces. "What have you done to me? I'll tell you what. Look at you. Look at Agnes and Agatha. Barely five feet tall, any of you. You make me feel like a big, clumsy old cow. And that isn't all. When I was skinny and pretty you shoved me in the kitchen so any beaus couldn't see me. You insisted the older girls needed courtship and marriage first. Look at me now. Five foot ten and four hundred pounds!"
"We didn't tell you to eat all that pie and potatoes," Ardith Andrews Martin said defensively. "And especially those chocolates. Why do you want to get away?"
To get away from the simpering, brainless females in this house. Lucille didn't want to make things worse, so she refrained from saying it.
"I'm sorry, Lucy," said her father. He, too, paced the floor. "Since you don't have a husband, you'll get a share of my estate. Your brother Horace will inherit the farm, of course. He is wanting an advance on his share when he marries Agnes so he can start farming at Hibold's place. I'm giving him cows and pigs."
"I'll take cash," Lucille said. Somewhat mollified Lucille added, "I'd appreciate cash. Women vote and own property in Wyoming. They don't here. I can teach and have my own life in Wyoming. I'm taking the train to St. Louis in the morning."
"I'll get your money and wire it to the bank in St. Louis." Her father's voice sounded weary and sad. "It will be there by the time you are. Are you sure you won't change your mind?"
"I've already contracted with a wagon train out of Council Bluffs to teach for all the children who are going to Wyoming with their parents."
Hubert Martin drew a big sigh. Lucille caught the fleeting accusation in his eyes as he glanced at his second wife of only a couple years.
"I'm sorry, Pa," Lucille said. "I just feel I'm destined to be in the forefront of this move for women's rights."
"So be it, Lucille, so be it."
Sparks flew! The big man's glinting green eyes met hers. Lucille Martin was furious! She marched forward to confront the wretched man. Too late she realized, using her five foot ten inches of height, to chastise this one would not work like encounters with smaller men. Worse yet, she'd come all these hundreds of miles, now this! She couldn't afford to back off. She resisted the urge to jump up and down in rage like one of her school pupils.
"Outlaw! Renegade! You shot at us! You put holes in my Conestoga canvas and broke the hoop. You could have killed us!" How dare the man sit on that fancy horse, big as a mountain, his curling red hair flowing in the breeze from under that monstrous hat, and stare at her like she was crazy. He acted as if they intruded on his personal territory, when the territory really belonged to her and other members of the wagon train.
"Could have, lady, could have." He nudged his Appaloosa horse back and forth before them all, ignoring her as he looked out over the Conestoga wagons as though counting them, before returning his attention to her. His beard jerked with the emphasis he put on each word. "We outnumber you folks two to one. If we wanted to kill anybody, they'd already be dead. I want you all out of this valley! I'll gladly let you go peaceably, and there will be no harm done. There are other places you can settle."
She stomped her foot and dust flew up in a choking cloud. That hulking brute put an end to all her hopes and dreams for a place of her own. One for which she had already paid good money. Words failed her, for the moment.
Banker Shafer moved up beside her, his head even with her shoulder. His jowls wobbled and his hands clenched. He shook one pudgy fist at the red haired giant. "We have legal title to land in this valley. It's registered in Cheyenne. You are the one trespassing, sir."
"Paper doesn't mean a thing if you can't hold the land. If you come any farther you will not be allowed to leave." He removed his big white hat and ran long fingers through wildly tousled hair, before replacing it on his head.
Lucille gasped incredulously. "We'd be prisoners on our own property? Prisoners? I can't believe this!"
"We'll not give up our property!" Sixty-year-old Hiram Clovine reached for his gun. A blow to the head from a gun butt promptly struck him down. Lucille rushed to his side, glaring up at his assailant.
"That red haired outlaw is on the Wanted posters," Martha Adams said softly as she too came to Clovine's side. "It's lucky Ben got away, and I think young Shafer is missing." The two of them helped Clovine to his feet.
"So is the one in the black bowler hatwanted," whispered Lucille. The man in the round hat seemed big and broad, and so serious featured he made her frown.
From beside Mr. Clovine, Lucille put shaking hands on her ample hips and stared up at the man on the horse. "You can't mean to keep us all prisoners!"
"Watch me." The big red headed outlaw dismounted from his Appaloosa horse and strode right up to her. She drew in an anxious breath, but refused to back down.
"By gosh, you are tall for a gal," he said.
How dare he look at her as if he was a starving man that had just discovered chocolate cake. The next moment his eyes narrowed and he frowned, then he gazed out over her head and shouted to his men. "Get all those workable wagons to the edge of town in a row like houses. Push the cattle on the range east and north along the river where there's grass."
"How dare you order us about like...like"
"Like so many slaves," he finished for her. "Or prisoners?" His grin infuriated her more.
"We will not be prisoners." She put all the sarcasm she could muster into her next words. "I suppose you've never heard of the 1877 Desert Land Act." Emphasizing every word clearly she continued, "We have title to this land, bought and paid for. We each have one thousand one hundred twenty acres, sir. Eight hundred of that we paid One Dollar and Twenty-Five cents per acre. Don't you dare try to keep us from our land. My house lot is all paid for, and it's in my name."
"You may have title, lady, but we're on it. I have money invested and buildings on town property. Now get your butt up on that wagon with the rest of the women and move along. You give me any more back talk, I'll personally take you across my knee and paddle your lace trimmed drawers."
With red hair and long beard rippling in the wind the man strode about shouting instructions and orders while Lucille fumed in outrage. She'd fled Wisconsin because her father and brother had denied her the right to have property in her own name. Now, this oversized galoot intended to keep her from property she bought and paid for with money her grandmother left her. It was more than a modern day woman should have to put up with.
She watched helplessly as armed men stopped by each wagon. Dust from running animals billowed about her in choking clouds. Thundering hooves of more horses deafened her as riders raced past and out of sight. With her right hand, she shaded her eyes from the noon sun. A half circle of outlaws held guns on men from the wagon train. Her own driver had disappeared to safety in the boulder field beside the trail. Thankfully, young Jodie Adams and Tom Shafer, with others on horseback rode into the boulders on the mountainside. Defiantly she lifted her skirt in front with both hands and ran to climb aboard her own wagon. Cora, her female companion, cowered on the wagon seat, right where she'd left her.
Lucille brought a Henry rifle, belonging to her driver, to her shoulder and pulled the trigger as an armed man galloped by. It snicked a disheartening click. She'd forgotten to lever a shell into the chamber.
As more shooting broke out her horses lunged in terror. To keep balanced, Lucille wildly clutched at the broken hoop of her wagon, but tumbled backward from the bench seat. Her voluminous white pantalets fluttered before her eyes as her legs tilted higher than her head. One elbow settled in the slimy contents of an upended lard bucket. The sleeve of her yellow gingham blouse got smeared as she tried to right herself and get to her feet. Her last box of chocolates were crushed.
"Oh, you wretched beasts!" Lucille shrieked. "You dirty outlaws!" Unable to sit upright she rolled to one side, further plastering lard and chocolate from shoulder to hip.
Grasping the wagon's wobbly corner support, she struggled upright and pitched forward across the seat back. With the heavy Henry in one hand, she grabbed wildly at the brake with the other hand.
"Whoa!" She shouted and shouted at the four terrified, runaway horses. One big black animal stumbled and fell in the traces, bringing others to their knees. The leader tore loose and ran, dragging broken straps.
Lucille stumbled to the ground from the joggling, stalled wagon, holding the big weapon, her only protection. Ahead of her, Reverend Bricker sat straddle-legged beside his overturned covered wagon, his hands raised above his head, facing a young gunman. His wife and daughter skittered about, wringing their hands. Bricker's young son stood beside his father, staring at the outlaw.
"Chaos," Lucille muttered despairingly as she surveyed the scene. She hitched her brown skirt from around her feet. She trudged around sagebrush, through the dust, to the wagon of her friend, Bettina Belon. A dressmaker's dummy stood incongruously intact by the seamstress's overturned wagon. Lucille found no humor in it. Bettina's driver had also disappeared.
"Lucille!" Bettina screamed as two well-armed men dismounted beside her.
"Leave her alone! How dare you!" Lucille rushed between Bettina and the two men. Lucille glared at the scrawny man and the shorter, chubby kid, daring them to advance. In one smooth, swift motion, she swung the rifle, making a satisfying thud with the barrel on Scrawny's head. Her back-armed swing knocked the kid to the ground.
Just let that big galoot try paddling me. I'll give him a knock side the head, too.
"C'mon, big gal, give up," yelled the kid on the ground. Lucille stared in dismay down his pistol's black barrel. She lowered her trembling arms as she realized what she had done. Lucille dropped the gun. Her wobbling knees could barely hold her up. Scrawny nursed a sore head but prodded Bettina over beside her.
"Boss ordered no women shot," snapped the cadaverous man with the big pistol, "or by Gawd, big gal, I'd put a bullet in thet loud mouth of yourn."
A new rider, unkempt and toothless, leered at them. He gleefully told the men, "It's over. There's a big bank safe in one wagon. Lotsa store goods. We'll eat good for awhile."
"'Bout time," the kid said. "This tall drink of water done knocked Tede in the head. He ain't feelin' none too good."
"Too bad," Toothless told them. "Get 'em to the wagons. We're takin' 'em to town. I wonder how Gorman will control all these outsiders."
Lucille and the two women stared at each other for a moment before moving toward the wagons. The thick sable brown hair she was so proud of straggled in a dusty curtain before her eyes. Stalking in stiff-legged fury, she moved along. She stopped, pinned up her hair, drew two deep breaths, and moved forward with Bettina and Cora. While trying to straighten her pink sunbonnet, Bettina stumbled, then clutched Lucille's left arm. Cora sobbed as she trudged on their right.
Lucille breathed in hurting wheezes from the high altitude, unlike her native Wisconsin. She already hated Wyoming's barren country. Besides that, she hadn't eaten today. The brown twill skirt caught under her sturdy walking shoes and her clothes were a mess. With squared shoulders, she tilted her head defiantly, refusing to let fall the tears burning behind her eyes.
"Git yerselves aboard those two wagons, ladies."
Lucille glared at the man called Tede as he spat tobacco juice to one side. She joined the other women, girls and frightened children of wagon train members.
"Come, little ones, face these ruffians like real pioneers." Lucille urged as she helped the parents calm their children. Men slashed the canvas from the wagon hoops, so they could watch the prisoners. Lucille's arm stung from being stabbed on the jagged edge of something. Crimson blood stained her yellow blouse sleeve amid the lard smears and she blotted most of it away. The broken Conestoga hoop must have snagged her arm as she climbed down from the wagon. She sat down hard on a wooden chest in the wagon as the resistive horses jerked this way and that.
When the dust settled Lucille saw the banker and Delbert Hack, the storekeeper for their planned town, held in the half circle of attackers.
Big Red rode to the wagons. His long hair and beard showed auburn and gold in the bright sunlight as he dismounted from his colorful Appaloosa horse and strode forward. He looked daring and wild, handsome and arrogant. Standing out against a backdrop of snowcapped mountains, green pines and fresh leafed scrub willows he made her pulse rate zing like bees on a flower. Lucille felt shame at her attraction to him. It had to be fear that made her heart thunder in her chest.
"I am Red Gorman of the town of Gorman. You have invaded my valley!" His shout rang out to every stalled wagon and every remaining wagon train rider. "Your leaders refuse to go back! I have no choice but to keep you here until I decide what to do about you all."
Lucille shaded her eyes to see better. She stared in fascination. His broad shoulders strained the seams of an expensive looking green silk shirt. Levi's clung to long, powerful legs and his polished boots shone black in the sunlight. Lucille gave a delicate snort in derision. One knee of those revealing pants had a fray-edged tear. An open buttonhole allowed his shirt to spread apart on his massive chest. She sobered immediately. He looked dangerous.
"These men won't hurt you if you follow orders!" He removed his big white hat and waved a signal to men scattered among the wagons. Lucille heard their shouts to drivers to move the wagons forward. The slow procession started down the slanted, sagebrush covered, grade into the valley. She looked back at her stalled wagon. The loose horse stood beside the others, waiting patiently by his familiar teammates, now that the noise and chaos had ended. Overturned wagons or those with missing horses were left behind, hers included. To Lucille the valley ahead didn't look much better than the desolate route they had just come, traveling through sagebrush and the dried grasses of a winter not yet turned to spring.
She watched Hack and Shafer, along with numerous ranch hands, being hustled afoot, like so many sheep, as the wagons were driven down into an immense valley bordered on all sides by rugged hills and snow capped mountains.
"This is supposed to be home?" Lucille said bitterly. In a hazy corner of her numbed mind, she noted the Green River really flowed in greenish cascades as it kinked and tumbled its way over and around huge boulders on its way down the valley. From the rushing current, the river formed a small lake nestled to one side. What would they do now? How could they claim their land?
Wedged together, the women sat silently until Martha Adams whispered, "My husband is missing. I wonder how he got away."
No one answered, but they gazed hopefully around them into the rugged foothills and scrubby trees along the roadside.
They rode slowly past Red Gorman as he sat astride the beautiful Appaloosa. Lucille felt his relaxed attitude could change in a split second. The green of his deep-lidded eyes met hers for a moment. His eyes crinkled at the corners as he grinned. The rascal had the nerve to wink at her! Lucille hastily averted her eyes and concentrated on scrubbing sticky goo from her fingers with a pocket-handkerchief. Her heart thundered in her chest. Like the others in her group, she was surer than ever she'd seen that face on a Wanted poster in Cheyenne.
Men swore furiously as they plodded in the trail ruts behind the wagons. She heard a commotion. "I hope more of our people escape. This is ridiculous. I haven't heard any shots, have you?" Lucille said to no one in particular.
No one had.
On a level stretch of trail Lucille stared at a crudely lettered sign reading "Gorman." The few buildings ahead looked like the usual small town.
On her right, she heard the clang, clang of a blacksmith pounding on metal. His small corral had only three animals in it. As their wagon turned right, down what must be the main street, she immediately looked left. All eyes were on the monstrosity of a house set among towering cottonwoods. Three stories high, with a huge porch on two sides, it dominated the landscape. If this was the main street, then that obscenely big structure sat right on what should have been her town lot. Lucille shuddered as they went on past. Vacant lots were interspersed with rough little buildings on the right. On the left, beyond the monstrosity, a long, low building had two big plate glass windows and a door at the far end.
A new building, long and well built, centered the block beyond a side street that boasted only one small building. This must be where they planned to take the wagonless people.
The titled lands of the Bascom wagon train people included the entire valley and several lots marked off on their map for a town. It didn't look like holding title to something meant they would get it. The two town streets were covered with businesses and houses. She again heard the blacksmith striking metal.
Miserably dejected, Lucille realized her inheritance had been stolen by Gorman's men. There would be no fine home. Nor did she see any school building.
"All out!" With crudely phrased orders, the prisoners were shoved into the long, warehouse type structure. Lucille smelled raw wood and saw that high windows lined each side of the room. Plank tables with tall, heavy legs were scattered in the long narrow room, as though ready for store goods.
Families huddled together, comforting frightened and hungry children. Lucille looked out over the crowd, but couldn't find the banker's twenty-year-old son, Tom, among the disgruntled people. She knew rancher Clem Adams, his one daughter, and several drovers were missing as well as her own driver
"What have we gotten into, Mr. Clovine?" Lucille asked the eldest man there. "That red haired man is the killer on those Wanted Posters in Cheyenne."
"Are you sure?"
"Red hair, green eyes, six-foot-four, favors green silk shirts, Appaloosa horses and is fast with a gun. He was labeled dangerous."
"Damnation, I don't know. It ain't likely he'll let anyone free to tell where he is."
"I didn't think outlaws really looked like ordinary people."
"Well, the size of him ain't ordinary. Handsome devil. I don't know anybody fast with a gun unless it's Ben." Clovine said.
"Ben isn't here."
Hiram Clovine surveyed the wagon train people beyond her shoulder. "Ben will get us out of this," he told the people calmly. "Mark my words. Ben will do it." Clovine had a bruise on his high forehead below his shock of thick white hair.
Lucille wondered if he meant to convince her, the people, or himself. She hoped Ben lived up to the sturdy old man's expectations. According to Bascom people's assumption, she and Ben were to have had the first wedding in Bascom. Now Ben was gone. He could be wounded or even dead. She clung to the hope he had escaped unscathed and would be back to rescue them.
Lucille turned wary eyes as Scrawny and a man with a big nose entered the warehouse. She was pleased to see the welt she'd put on Tede's forehead. The men threw rough blankets to the prisoners, along with brightly patterned quilts very obviously from the homesteader's own wagons. There was no sign of the red haired outlaw. She'd like to see him up closer. No doubt he had scars or warts. An outlaw should not look so handsome. The two men left as quickly as they had come.
She wiped the bloody scratch on her arm with a strip from her white petticoat. She scraped most of the thick lard from her brown skirt.
"Mr. Clovine, your head wound needs to be cleaned properly," Lucille said. He grimaced as she prodded and wiped at the big bleeding bruise with another bit of petticoat, then wrapped a clean strip around his head.
"I had to let them know I didn't like what they were doing."
"I hit that skinny one on the head, but he had a gun. I don't think they mean to kill us, do you?" Lucille finished the bandage on the old man's head.
"Hard to say," Clovine replied. "I wouldn't aggravate them right now."
Families picked their own areas of floor space and clung together. As dark descended, Lucille slipped into a fitful doze on the hard floor, using a hunk of wadded up petticoat for a thin pillow. The long, miserable night passed slowly.
In the morning's chill air, the guards hustled the prisoners outside to the privy. Lucille saw that some of Ben's stolen Morgan horses were in the town's corral. A drover she remembered as Forie Drescher, eyed the horses as well.
"You try fer them broomtails, mister, I'll shoot the next man in line," a lanky guard told him. No attempts to escape were made.
"If I have to feed you folks until your wagons are organized, you can damn well earn it." Lucille stared all around but could not locate the unmistakable owner of that deep voice. Big Red arose early.
The male prisoners were prodded across the street, and the women returned to the warehouse. Lucille watched out one window. The men were lined up, nailing boards together for a boardwalk in front of a building. Did he mean to use them as slave labor to finish the building of his town?
Their captors gave them no breakfast. At noon all prisoners were hustled out to the hard, rutted street. Lucille stared around her. To her right was the livery stable where six of Ben's horses either rolled in the dust or ate from a pile of hay. Closer, and across from the warehouse, stood a gaudy saloon with an upper full length porch, all freshly painted cream and red.
Lucille looked to her left and her heart gave a sickening thud. That monstrous house really did stand exactly where her town lot should have been, toward the edge of town. Before she could stare long at the big, gray painted building they were hustled across the portion of newly constructed boardwalk and to a much older, restaurant type building.
Two big, very dirty, plate glass windows faced the walk. They reflected Lucille's bedraggled brown hair, smudged round face and angry blue eyes, before she followed Clovine through short, flopping half doors. Inside, Lucille looked around at a small liquor bar in one corner to her right. To the left plank tables and scattered benches filled the space down the long room. In another room, behind a long, wide counter she saw the rusty pipe of a big black cook stove. Her nose crinkled at the smell of burnt and spoiled food.
Scrawny Tede, that none-too-clean oldster, wearing a perpetual scowl and a big gun weighing down his right side, stood behind the long plank counter filled with eating utensils. Thick plates, scorched biscuits, a heavy kettle, big coffee pots and cups were set out. A huge skillet held some kind of dark meat. It, too, had a burnt smell to it.
"Do you expect us to eat that horrible looking, and smelling, food?" Lucille said aloud even though guards glared in her direction. The cook glared at her from under beetling gray brows.
Guards ushered the prisoners into a line by the counter behind Red. Lucille stared at the back of the very tall, broad shouldered man at the head of the line. His brick red hair and beard curled around his face. Red Gorman. Her eyes kept returning to him like humming birds to a red flower. He took one forkful of food and bellowed, "Tede, get your scrawny arse out here! You expect us to eat this scorched, half raw, greasy slop?"
Lucille winced as the cook's face turned gray. The big man roared, "Gawdamn, I can't stand your rotten cooking." He drew his big gun and fired. Splinters flew and a big yellow gouge appeared in the square post at the end of the high counter.
Prisoners and outlaws scattered in every direction. Some went to the floor. Lucille held her breath and stood like a stone statue.
Tede, jumped ignominiously. He threw his thin arms over his head defensively, ducking flying wood splinters as Gorman fired again. "Dammit, Red," he whined, "Cut it out. Git somebody else to cook." He looked around in desperation. "Let thet fat complainin' female standin' there do it. She looks like she allus et good." He pointed a gnarled, dirty finger at Lucille.
All eyes looked at her. Her mouth turned dry. She swallowed and gritted her teeth. She stared at Scrawny, who was called Tede, and opened her mouth to protest.
"You cook?" The big man swung around to her.