By Bob McCrillis
My Model T bucked and reared over the narrow rutted track up to Mrs. Springer’s farm. I wonder how she would compare my discomfort to her wagon journey to Kansas more than eighty years ago. Maybe I could use that as an opening.
Mrs. Rebecca Springer was one of the few abolitionists still living who had made the trek from New England to Kansas Territory. That she now lived within an hour’s drive from my dormitory at Colby Junior College for Women made obtaining and recording her experiences an almost divine obligation. She had not responded directly to my letter but, through her daughter, had invited me to visit.
My stomach jumped from nerves nearly as much as the rest of me bounced in the front seat of my auto. What this woman could tell me about the years leading up to the Civil War, the conditions on the prairie, the conflicts between Free Soil and Slave State militias. I had to encourage her to share her history with me. I just had to.
A grey-haired woman in a long dress and apron looked up from feeding the chickens at her feet as I pulled into the dooryard. In the silence after I shut off the motor, I gathered myself and watched the woman stride toward me.
“You must be Miss Dodge. I’m Effie Danvers.” She brushed her hand on her apron before extending it to me. “The color of your flivver is a little unusual, isn’t it?”
“Yes, ma’am. When I complained about the dull color of Mr. Ford’s machines, my father had this one painted apple green as part of his gift to me on my eighteenth birthday.” I noticed a faint furrowing of Mrs. Danvers’ brow and explained. “My mother passed away when I was a baby. My father raised me by-himself. And, spoiled me, according to my aunts.”
“A woman who drives herself will make a positive impression on my mother, Miss Dodge. She is quite proud of her self-reliance.” She turned and led me back to the house. “You’ll find my mother to have some fixed opinions that have not softened with the years.”
Mrs. Danvers led me into a comfortable parlor and seated me on a horsehair wing chair that must have been her mother’s. Before seating herself, she suggested tea, which I accepted, taking the time she busied herself in the kitchen to replace my pigskin driving gloves with more appropriate white cotton. It was imperative that I make a good impression on Mrs. Springer and I had dressed carefully. My fitted wool suit in a muted moss-green plaid with a short jacket and ankle-length skirt shouldn’t transgress on the mores of two generations ago. My white cloche was stylish without being too avant-garde.
As Mrs. Danvers poured tea for us, she expanded on her earlier comment. “Mother was widowed shortly after Father came home from the war. Life on the prairie as well as battles with Slave Power chiseled away any softness not already removed by Calvinist sensibilities. She is a hard, just woman with complete confidence in herself. This sometimes leads her to be shockingly direct. Please don’t be offended.”
“With what, pray tell, Effie, would she find to take offense?” A tall woman with sharp angular features and a slightly uplifted pointed chin had joined us. Her brown-black bombazine dress was relieved only by a small cameo at her throat and wispy white hair.
“Mother, may I introduce Miss Sarah Dodge. She’s the young woman from Colby Junior…”
“I know who she is, Effie.” Even though she used a walking stick, the old woman seemed to stride into the room, her back straight and head erect. After settling herself into the throne-like rocking chair, she turned her fearsome gaze on me. “I heard that machine of yours when you arrived. Nasty things.”
“A carriage,” the older woman continued. “Maybe with a two-horse team. That would be a comfortable – and quiet – way to travel.”
“Certainly quieter, Mrs. Springer, but it would have taken me all day to reach here from New London. My Ford got me here in a little more than an hour.” My words had just slipped out. Now you’ve done it, Sarah, This irascible old woman will put you out for bad manners and the opportunity lost forever. “I mean…it’s just that…”
Mrs. Danvers extended her hands toward me intending to convey that there’d been no offence taken but her mother interrupted again.
“So, you college girls aren’t all whipped cream and dancing, eh?” She turned to Mrs. Danvers. “She has some spunk, Effie.”
“Yes, Mother. I agree.”
The older woman nodded and stared off into the distance for a moment. “You want to know what it was like in Kansas Territory?” The sharp planes of her face, beak-like nose, and deep set eyes examined me. I knew then what a mouse feels like under the glare of an owl. “What seems more significant to you, the murder of my husband or the rape of Effie and me?”
I spilled my tea. Mrs. Danvers rushed to fetch a cloth from the kitchen and fussed about me dabbing up the spill and muttering about stains on my skirt.
“Leave her alone, Effie,” her mother barked. “If she’s squeamish, she’ll be leaving soon. Perhaps she shouldn’t have turned over this particular rock.”
“But Mother, we weren’t…”
“All but the last part that was stopped by Harrison Mulcahy’s Sharps rifle.”
“I’d like you to start wherever you want, Mrs. Springer. I’m not in the least squeamish.”
“You’ll address me as Rebecca and my daughter as Effie. We are all three women and I understand that it is women’s life at that time and place that interests you, Sarah. Am I correct?”
“Yes…Rebecca. I know you were among the settlers sent by the New England Emigrant Society to Kansas. The Society wanted to have enough voters in the territory to make sure that Kansas entered the Union as a free state.”
“There was a little more to it than that.”
In her nasal, New England accent she explained that she married Malachi Springer, the youngest son of Jacob Springer in 1853. She was sixteen and Malachi was twenty. The couple moved into this house with the elder Springers and Jacob’s two older sisters. Malachi’s older brother, John, and his wife and children lived in a small house a little further up the road. Although the whole family worked the land, it was understood that John would inherit everything on his father’s death.
Malachi had taken up the leather-working trade against the day when he would either work for John or leave the farm. By the time he’d proposed to Rebecca, he had developed enough of a reputation to feel he could support a wife. The couple rented a small cottage and workshop in town, built a modest but profitable business in harness and other tack for draft animals. Malachi had also taken to custom- making boots and shoes on commission.
In the natural course of things, Rebecca became pregnant but miscarried. The loss of her child shattered the young woman. The bright, adventurous, hopeful girl became a grey and listless woman. While she attended to the household chores as was her duty and attended the First Congregational Church as she always had, she marched through her obligations without the slightest sign of interest or satisfaction. That is, until she came across the book.
Reverend Henry Ward Beecher’s sister, Harriet, had written a book about the abomination of human slavery. The tale inflamed and crystalized Rebecca’s diffuse abolitionist sentiment – common to most New England Puritans – into a focused commitment to the abolitionist cause. After a sermon by Reverend Beecher she attended in Portsmouth, Rebecca decided that she and Malachi would join the New England Emigrant Society’s mission to Kansas.
“I would still be sitting in the back bedroom of that little house in Londonderry if I hadn’t read that book.” She looked from her daughter to me. “Can you imagine being owned, like a mule? The thought of bringing into our Union another state polluted by Slave Power outraged me.” For an instant, I could see the fiery-eyed crusader the old lady had been.
“You mean the Kansas and Nebraska Territories?”
“Yes, dear. You’re educated. You must know that Stephen Douglas, that disciple of Satan, maneuvered the effective repeal of the Missouri Compromise that limited slavery to those territories below the 36-30 line. Malachi and I and others who moved there could vote to keep slavery out of Kansas. And you know the result.
“Right. The war over slavery didn’t start at Fort Sumter in 1861. It started on the plains in Kansas in 1855.” She sighed deeply. “My poor Malachi survived the border war but stepped on a torpedo in Yorktown. He lost half of his left leg.” Noticing my puzzlement, she explained, “They’re called land mines now.”
“Oh, my goodness. That must have been horrible. Was your husband able to farm when he came home?” I asked thinking of plow and such with only one leg.
Effie piped up, “You’d be surprised at how quickly Father could move on his crutch.” She smiled. “Fast enough to swat my bottom when he caught me rooting around in his box of treasures.”
Rebecca explained. “Malachi had a box of trinkets he’d picked up during the war, some medals, a Confederate belt buckle, spent minié balls he found on the battlefield, and a few photographs. He didn’t open it often but he would allow no one else to touch it.” She was silent for a few seconds. “He learned to drink spirits in the war. When he indulged after he came home, he sometimes looked in that box. I never knew what he saw in there.”
“Father caught Bart stealing some of his tobacco and hit him so hard on the seat of his pants with his crutch that Bart could barely sit down for a week.” Effie giggled at the memory. “We didn’t farm much, Sarah. Only for ourselves. Father did fancy leather work for the cowboys and pretty boots for the town women.” This last drew a sharp look from Rebecca.
Rebecca took up the tale. She explained that after the war there were great numbers of young men who’d gone away to war as boys and came home as men who had fighting and death seared into them. They wandered aimlessly across the frontier territories without roots or hope.
“Many of those boys came home to Missouri and found they didn’t have homes anymore. They moved westward into Kansas with nothing but a horse and a gun – and a need to get some of their pride back. The gunfights were pointless but a good many young men died. Malachi decided Nebraska would be safer for us.”
“Nebraska was much nicer,” Effie said. “Although I liked Kearny better that Ogallala.”
“Ogallala?” I asked. “Why there?”
“The Union Pacific Railroad, Sarah. That was the time of the great cattle drives up from Texas to the railheads in Kansas and Nebraska. Ogallala was the junction at the end of the Great Western Trail. That route was to Nebraska what the Chisolm Trail was to Kansas. From June to November, cowboys flooded the town and generally spent their whole pay before they headed back to Texas.”
Effie’s eyes lit up. “Oh. Father made such beautiful belts and decorated saddles. I can smell the leather in his shop and watch him carve, and burn, and punch designs into it.” She took a dreamy deep breath. “And the cowboys. Some were so handsome.”
“And one of those handsome cowboys had you pinned to the porch floor with your legs spread and your knickers down,” her mother snapped. “And you were just thirteen.”
Effie’s face fell. She looked down at her hands as they twisted in her lap. “Those were different men, Mother.”
“Not so different.” The muscles of Rebecca’s jaw bulged and her lips form a straight line. She spoke as if she were describing a scene that involved other people. “There were three of them. Rode up to the house instead of the shop. I went out to tell them where they should go but one of them dismounted and pushed his stubbly face into mine and kissed me like I was one of those women on the north side. I pushed him away but he kept kissing and touching me. Effie ran out and started screaming which drew Malachi. My husband was not even half way across the yard when one of the mounted men drew his revolver and shot him dead.” Rebecca broke down in sobs, trying to hide her tears behind a lace-edged handkerchief.
Effie took up the story. “His murderer walked over to where I was trying to help Father, grabbed my hair and dragged me toward the house. I struggled but he slapped me so hard I was dizzy. Bart tried to help me and the man hit him with his fist. Bart fell down and didn’t get up.”
Rebecca’s eyes were closed as she relived the scene. “I could hear Effie screaming for help. I fought all the harder until the third man in the group pinned my shoulders down. My attacker looked down at me and smiled, then pulled a Bowie knife from his belt and touched my throat with the cold blade before sliding the tip between the buttons of my dress and slicing it open. The cool air on my exposed breasts excited him. When he lowered his head to my bosom, I jammed my thumb in his left eye, gripping his beard and grinding my thumb deep into the socket.
The old lady rocked back and forth for a moment, taking obvious pleasure in the pain she’d inflicted on her attacker. “It didn’t save me. He reared back, blood running down his face, and slashed me with his knife. That’s how I obtained this.” She lifted her chin and turned her head to show me the long, white scar that ran across her left cheek from the hairline above her ear to her chin. “And this one.” She pushed her hair back to expose a deep, puckered scar all the way across her forehead.
“Oh, my God,” I exclaimed. “It’s a wonder that you survived.”
Her face was as still as carved stone, her narration in a monotone. “He wanted to finish his business before killing me. I could feel him trying to push himself inside me. It hurt. I must have squealed because he paused to grin down at me. Then…then…”
Sitting straight in her rocker, both feet planted on the floor, her hands gripping the arms of the chair, she whispered. “Deliverance arrived.”
She began to rock again, more slowly now.
Effie snorted and leaned sharply toward me. “Deliverance, hah! A bullet from Mr. Harrison Mulcahy’s Sharps rifle arrived.” This lovely, ineffectual-appearing, and slightly dowdy woman showed her teeth like a wolf. “I didn’t hear the first gunshot but I did hear the second. The one that drenched me in my rapist’s blood and knocked him clean off me.”
“We were both soaked with blood,” Rebecca said. “The man holding me down jumped up and started shooting his revolver – as if he could hit anything at that range. I wiggled and pushed and finally got out from under his partner’s body, ready to fight but there was no need.”
“Had Mr. Mulcahy shot him, too?”
“Oh, no. Faced by another man with a gun at even odds, the outlaw was a coward,” Effie exclaimed. “After he emptied his revolver, he threw it away and raised his hands. He kept yelling ‘don’t shoot, don’t shoot’ while Mr. Mulcahy rode up.”
“Effie and I were holding each other in the middle of the yard while the trembling outlaw stood with his hands up, still begging for his life.”
“Tell her was happened next, Mother. Tell her.” Effie’s color was up and her voice had risen in excitement. “You must finish the story.”
“Euphemia,” the older lady spoke sharply. “There is no need to relate more of the story. It is enough that Mr. Mulcahy saved us and probably Bartholomew as well. That type rarely leaves witnesses behind.”
Effie locked eyes with her mother then turned to me. “Sarah, Mr. Mulcahy pulled out his revolver and handed it to my mother. I can still hear his voice. ‘This’ll help restore you, ma’am,’ he said. Mother never wavered. She cocked that big revolver and shot the remaining outlaw.”
Her mother intervened, “There’s no need for anyone outside the family to know this, Effie. Not after all this time.”
“Yes, there is, Mother. Miss Dodge wants to know about the frontier. She should know all of it. She needs to know all of it.”
I wanted to be polite and tell Effie, or Euphemia, that there was no need to expose family matters but I was desperate to hear the end.
“Mr. Mulcahy took the pistol from Mother and handed it to me.” Effie continued. “I looked down and the man writhing on the ground – Mother’s bullet had hit him in the stomach but didn’t kill him right away. Taking aim with the pistol, just as Father had taught me, I shot the man right between the legs. While he screamed in agony, I kept shooting until the revolver was empty.”
“Effie, there was no need…” Rebecca protested.
Her head up, Effie looked straight at me. “That, Miss Dodge, was a woman’s life on the prairie in 1871.”
Bob McCrillis was born and raised in a small town in Maine. He and his wife Linda have four grown daughters and four grandsons. The couple now resides in Bucks County, Pennsylvania where they are both deeply involved in an organization that uses therapy dogs to help children cope with learning difficulties and emotional stress.