When Eliza Jane Carter stepped down from the stagecoach, every man, woman and child on the street stopped to stare.
It wasn’t only her incredible height of almost six feet that drew their attention. It wasn’t only the combination of coal-black hair, ice blue eyes and a fine porcelain complexion. It wasn’t even her lush figure, clad in a long, black skirt and severe, unadorned white blouse.
It was all of those things combined with a piercing, go-to-hell look that seemed to bore into the very soul of the town. With her back ramrod straight and her chin held high, she looked around the main street of Gardiner, Texas, just one more dingy cow town like the dozens she had visited before.
Her gaze lit on a woman in a worn calico dress with five children in tow. There was a woman standing silently in the hot sun while her husband conversed with a group of men. And there was a woman, her belly swollen with child, with an infant about a year old on her hip and a toddler clinging to her skirt.
Eliza Jane took a deep breath and gripped the handle of her valise. The women of Gardiner, Texas were about to be set free, and Eliza Jane Carter would be their George Washington, their Abraham Lincoln. She was a one woman revolution.
“Perhaps we could travel on just a little further?” Edgar whined at her side, dragging her away from her majestic musings.
Eliza Jane looked down at Edgar Whittemore, the man who was a constant thorn in her side. He was short, stout and possessed of a nasally voice and spectacles that refused to stay perched in their proper place, both of which drove her quite mad. But even worse was the circumstance under which he’d become her traveling companion. The insufferable horse’s hind quarters of an attorney whose job it was to oversee her trust fund would only allow her access to those funds for her campaign if she remained chaperoned by a man of his choosing—to protect her from her own foolish feminine folly, of course. And that man was Edgar Whittemore.
“This is where Mr. Millar is sending the money, Edgar, so this is where we shall stay.” Arrangements were made in advance according to a predetermined schedule, a fact he well knew. Edgar simply never passed up an opportunity to grate on her nerves.
Her mind made up, Eliza Jane squared her shoulders and hefted her bag, knowing Edgar would meekly follow suit. The arid inferno that was Gardiner was already draining her of energy and she wanted to find the hotel and soak in a cool, scented tub.
She made her way up the plank sidewalk lining the main street, keeping close to the buildings for shelter from the sun and wind. Noise assaulted her from every direction. Jingling harnesses, creaking wagons and the shouts of working men were nearly drowned out by the hot wind scraping across the town. The buildings seemed to groan as shutters banged and signs slapped against clapboards. And the sand… She could already feel it sifting through her hair to her scalp.
It was a far cry from green and lush Philadelphia, but Eliza Jane considered herself a soldier in the war to better the lives of her fellow women, and she’d trod many a battlefield as filthy and noisy as this. It would take more than an inhospitable environment to sway her from her chosen path.
She was a soldier who chose her own battles, and she chose to fight them in towns such as Gardiner. While many women, as well as men sympathetic to the cause, fought valiantly for some semblance of equality in the world of men—voting, for example—Eliza Jane fought smaller skirmishes on the home front, urging women to fight for respect in their own worlds.
She believed women had a fundamental right to accept or refuse intimate relations with their husbands, to bear children or not. She believed a woman should control her own money, lest she be forced to give herself to another man merely for survival should she become widowed or cast aside.
Standing on makeshift stages, spewing rhetoric to the uneducated masses accomplished little, in her opinion. Rather than trying to change life for the many by giving speeches to the few, Eliza Jane traveled, trying to teach small groups of women to enact changes for themselves.
But her cause was not free of personal peril. Men naturally did not care for their lives being disrupted. When their wives—little more than domestic and sexual slaves—began demanding respect, their anger invariably turned on the catalyst for the change, Eliza Jane.
Still, she wouldn’t give up the fight. Couldn’t, really, because it was all she had. With no desire for another husband and no hope of children, the fight for women’s rights not only gave her life purpose, but kept the days from yawning endlessly in front of her.
So she tolerated the staring, whether they were looks of curiosity or hostility. She tolerated Edgar’s whining. It’s why she tolerated sweat running down her back and sand in her scalp—maybe a few less women would suffer her fate.
Edgar cleared his throat, and she realized they had reached their destination. The Gardiner Hotel was a plain two-story building with a false front and a small, unadorned sign announcing itself.
A brass bell heralded their entrance, and the skinny, red-headed clerk behind the desk didn’t hide his surprise well at all. Clearly very few people stayed voluntarily in Gardiner, Texas.
“Help you?” the clerk asked, fully meeting her expectations by addressing the question to Edgar.
“We will require two rooms,” Eliza Jane responded, perhaps a trifle too loudly, as she stepped in front of her chaperone. “Our date of departure is as yet unknown, but I am awaiting a delivery. As the next stage will not arrive for ten days, that will be our minimum length of stay.”
The clerk blinked, then dropped his gaze to the register. “Yes’m. I’ll just need your names.”
“I am Mrs. Eliza Jane Carter of Philadelphia, and my traveling companion is Mr. Edgar Whittemore, also of Philadelphia.”
The clerk’s Adam’s apple bobbed as he swallowed nervously. “I see. I…uh…”
Eliza Jane raised a questioning eyebrow at the man. Usually she didn’t encounter resistance until she began her work in the town. Checking into a hotel was rarely a stumbling block unless the clerk or the owner was particularly fanatic in his or her faith. “Is there a problem, Mr.—?”
“Uh…Dan. Would you be a widow, then, Mrs. Carter?”
She felt embarrassment staining her cheeks, but she only lifted her chin, hoping he would mistake the blush for righteous anger. “As I requested separate rooms for Mr. Whittemore and myself, I cannot see how my marital status is at all your concern.”
How she wished she didn’t abhor lying. It would be so easy to simply proclaim herself a widow and be about her business.
“My apologies.” Dan’s face was nearly as red as his hair, and she felt a pang of sympathy for the man. She knew she was intimidating—it was a persona she had perfected as well as a stage actress perfected the role of Desdemona. “I’ll just go get your keys, ma’am.”
Relief tempered the sense of humiliation. She despised telling people the insufferable Augustus Carter had divorced her. Divorced! Cast out like trash because she failed to bear him a child. He had publicly declared her a failure not only as a wife, but as a woman, and the shame burned just slightly stronger than the flames of her convictions.
And the horrible, odious Mr. Millar, who controlled her dead mother’s money and therefore Eliza Jane’s purse strings, knew it. He delighted in the appointment of Edgar as her chaperone rather than the customary matronly female precisely because it put her in these awkward situations.
Widowhood would smooth her way slightly, but dishonesty would only undermine her personal sense of integrity. With her dignity stripped away, integrity and her cause were all she had left from which to draw strength.
The irony of doing her work while under the boots of two men made her very nearly want to spit, but as long as she could change the lives of even a few women for the better, she would accept the legal strictures of a society slow to change.
But change would come. The war would be won in the small battlefields of small towns like this one. When she left Gardiner, it would be a better place and Eliza Jane would get on that stagecoach with her chin held high. And the women she left behind would hold their heads a little higher, as well.