Open those doors!” A woman in the new common-sense skirt shook her umbrella at a Chicago World’s Fair guard. The motion raised her eye-poppingly short hemline another six inches and revealed a bit of stocking above her navy gaiters.
Blocking the entrance to the International Convention of Woman’s Progress, a bearded guard crossed his arms and planted his legs wide. A wave of resentment swept through the wriggling mass of females stretching clear out to the street.
Eve was not the only woman to raise Cain, Billy thought, ducking and dodging her way through the sea of bonnets.
Still, she needed immediate admittance. That guard might not unbolt the doors for an apostle of modern bloomerism, but he’d open them for her. Dr. Billy Jack Tate. She held a seat on the speaking platform and had spent untold hours writing, rewriting, and practicing the address she would present to this Woman’s Congress.
“Excuse me, sir.” She waved a handkerchief above her head. “I’m Dr. Billy Jack Tate. I’m scheduled to speak in Columbus Hall and I need entrance immediately.”
Tall and unmovable in his blue-braided uniform, he glanced in her direction, then returned his attention to the crowd at large.
She narrowed her eyes. There was no way he could have missed her. Not in this gown. For though the bright spring day offered
warmth and a promise of summer, the predominant color of gowns being worn to the Congress was drab brown. Except for hers. She’d allowed the dressmaker to talk her into a startling shade of green with vivid pink accents. A decision she’d second-guessed a thousand times.
Squeezing herself between tightly packed bodies, she pressed her way to the front like a pair of stockings in a wringer. “I say, sir. I need—”
A transom above the guard swung open and a head poked through. A head with mussed salt-and-pepper hair, a harassed-looking expression, and a body cut off from sight.
“The Hall is filled to capacity and more,” he shouted, then grabbed the windowsill, his shoulders bobbing. Taking a quick glance inside, he regained his balance on what must have been a ladder, then once again turned to them. “Admission will no longer be granted. I advise you to turn around and go home.”
Cries of protest covered Billy’s efforts to capture the man’s attention.
“Sir!” she called again. “I’m Dr. Billy Ja—”
Retreating like a frightened turtle, he slammed the transom shut. The guard widened his stance.
Another roar of disapproval rang from the women. Some raised their voices, others raised their fists.
Caught up in outrage, the dress reformer scrambled over the rope, her split skirt parting, before she started up the steps. “Move aside!”
Whipping a short broadsword from its scabbard, the guard held it in front of him.
The woman paused, her right foot on one step, her left on another. Billy tensed. The murmuring of the crowd tapered off.
The sword was supposed to be for ornamentation more than anything else, but it was well polished and, most likely, freshly sharpened.
“I’ve got a patrol wagon just beyond the copse to cart off the disorderly.” His voice was low, even, and full of conviction. “I’ve a force of guards that can be dispatched the moment I give the signal, and a swarm of the most efficient body of men ever assembled in the world will be here en masse. I strongly suggest you step down.”
A sparrow, unaware of the tension, flapped to a stop on the landing and chirped a greeting.
Billy eased her way to the front. Surely it wouldn’t come to bloodshed, but just in case . . .
“Come on, Martha,” a woman nearby coaxed. “Let’s try another entrance.”
Though the guard never took his eyes from the threat, Billy sensed he was aware of every movement around him. Chill bumps rushed up her spine. She dipped under the rope.
Crouching into a half squat, he tossed the sword to his other hand, formed a half circle with his arms, and darted his gaze between them.
“I’m Dr. Billy Jack Tate.” Her voice carried in the sudden quiet, similar to the way it traveled across the frozen pond at her sister’s place. She maintained a calm, reasonable tone. “I’m a surgeon and a speaker here at the Congress. We want no trouble.” She turned her attention to the woman called Martha. “I think we’d best do as he says. He’s given a pledge to follow orders and the orders are no one goes inside. We are not a bunch of barbaric men, but women. Women much too sensible and creative to resort to brute force.”
A long, tense moment crackled between them. Finally, the woman jerked up her chin and spun about. Again, she straddled the rope rather than ducking underneath.
The guard did not relax his posture, did not replace the sword in its scabbard, and did not remove the force of his gaze. “Step down.”
Billy offered him a calm smile. “I mean no threat. I really am a speaker and I really do need to slip inside. My address begins in”—she glanced at her watch pin—“thirty-eight minutes.”
“You’re no more a doctor than I am a housewife. Now step down.”
She bristled. “I most certainly am a doctor. I earned a medical degree from the University of Michigan, I’ve practiced in hospitals all across this country for the past seven years, I’m an expert on anatomy, and my speech is about being a woman in a man’s profession. Now, you step down or I’ll let the organizers of this Congress know just exactly who’s responsible for keeping me from addressing the thousands who are waiting to hear from me.”
With each qualification, his expression became more and more amused until, with her final threat, he emitted a short huff. At least he’d straightened and lowered his sword, though he hadn’t put it away. “I’ll hand it to you, miss. You’re quick on your feet. But you’re the one who said women were crafty, not me. Either way, I’m not one to be taken in by a pretty face.”
“Creative. I said we were creative, not crafty.”
He tucked the sword away. “Same thing. Now, go on. I’m not letting you or anybody else inside.”
She glanced at the door. “But I really am who I say I am.”
With a heavy sigh, he shooed her with his hands. “I mean it. You can either get yourself back on the other side of that rope or I’ll have Willie over there escort you to the patrol wagon. From there, you’ll go straight to the city jail. And Chicago’s is a particularly nasty one that doesn’t do a good job of separating the woman prisoners from the male ones.”
With a touch of unease, she glanced to the area he indicated with his head. Amidst millinery of all sizes and shapes, a rather burly man stood only a few steps away. He tipped his hat.
Lips tightening, she flounced back down the steps. She’d have to try another entrance. But the building was huge. By the time she shoved through the crowds and appealed to each guard, the slot for her address would be over and gone.
She should have allowed herself more time. But she hadn’t
expected so many women, and she certainly never considered a building such as this would fill to capacity.
Before slipping underneath the rope, she looked back over her shoulder. “I’ll have your name—so I can tell the officials who barred my way.”
He gave a bow. “Peter Stracke. But everybody calls me Pete.” He gave her a wink.
She ducked under the rope. The women immediately forged a path for her. Mr. Stracke might not have believed her, but they did and they had the utmost respect for her.
She’d gone no more than ten yards when an old country woman grabbed her hand. “Doc?”
“I can get ya in.” She looked both ways, then leaned closer. “But it won’t be through no doors.”
Billy wasn’t sure which was more potent, the smell of the woman’s breath or the smell of her unwashed body. It wasn’t the woman’s fault, though. The importance of good hygiene was something those in Billy’s profession were in constant argument over. And though she felt she was in the right, she was very much in the minority.
She looked at her watch. Twenty-four minutes left. “Is it fast? Does it involve any guards?”
The woman smiled, more teeth missing than present. “Jus’ follow me.”
Skirting around an enormous bronze lion flanking the entrance, the woman led her onto the grass and toward the north side of the building. The farther they walked, the less congested it was until finally they reached the fringes of the crowd.
“Quick, over here.” Ducking beside a puny bush, the woman dropped to her knees and began to jiggle a cellar window.
Billy glanced behind them. No guards within sight, but several women watched unabashedly. With a growing smile, one of them
corralled those around her, then directed them to turn their backs and form a human wall around Billy and her cohort.
The gesture warmed her heart. Women were a wonderful breed. Such a shame they didn’t run the country.
“There’s a nail loose.” The woman grunted, her entire body shaking as she continued to rattle the window.
Dropping down beside her, Billy tried not to think about the moist dirt beneath her knees. Better to arrive with a soiled skirt than not at all. Lining up her fingers along the opposite side of the frame, she pressed as hard as she could.
“That’s it.” The woman’s breath came in huffs. “I clean this place at night. I been tellin’ the menfolk about this window for months now, but they can’t be bothered with it.”
Without warning, the frame swung inward, crashing against the wall. The momentum slammed Billy into the stone wall above the opening. The rim of her hat wrenched its pins to an awkward angle and ripped the hair entwined by them.
Sucking in her breath, she pushed away. At least her hat had protected her face. If the brim hadn’t stopped her, she’d have likely broken her nose.
“Go on.” The woman waved her arm toward the window.
Ignoring the pain in her scalp, Billy considered her options. There was nothing for it but to lie full out on the ground and shimmy herself in. With a sigh, she flopped down and stretched her arms toward the opening. She was a quarter of the way through when she realized the window was level with the ceiling of the cellar.
She returned her hands to the opening and pulled herself backward. “I’m going to have to go feetfirst. It’s a good eight-foot drop to the floor.”
Entering feetfirst wasn’t nearly as easy as headfirst. The old woman grabbed Billy’s ankles and guided her feet through.
Raising up on her arms, Billy propelled herself as far toward the window as best she could, then collapsed to her tummy and lifted her
hips. Like a worm she inched backward, her body making progress, her skirts and petticoats staying where they’d started.
Without too much effort, her pantalet-clad legs made it inside and dangled against the freezing-cold stone cellar wall. But her skirts were inside out, cocooning her upper body within their folds and inhibiting all progress.
“I’m stuck,” she called, sputtering against the fabric of her skirts.
Within seconds, all hands were on deck and bodily lowering her the rest of the way in.
“Wait!” she squeaked. “Slow down! My dress—it’s going to tear. And I’m . . . I’m going to fall!”
The women clutched her arms, their grips digging into tender flesh.
Billy lifted her head, the brim of her hat hitting the edge of the window. “Easy. Go as slow as you can.”
The rough wooden frame scraped against her midsection, tearing the delicate cotton of her corset cover. Her pantalets traveled up her legs, bunching at her thighs.
In an effort to see how far she was from the floor, she wiggled her feet. Nothing but open air.
They lowered her a bit more. Pain shot through her arms at the awkward angle.
“Wait,” she breathed. “Let go of my right arm.”
They released it. The pain in her left arm increased tenfold.
She pulled her free arm inside and steadied herself against the wall. “When I count to three. Ready? One . . . two . . . three.”
They let go. She hit ground almost immediately, then her knees gave. Between her tangled skirts and the unforgiving floor, it took her a moment to orient herself.
“Doc?” It was the old woman. “You all right?”
She took a mental catalog of all extremities. Other than weak knees and throbbing arms, everything seemed to be in working order. “Yes. Yes! I’m good. Thank you so much.”
Instead of a chorus of encouragement, she heard nothing. Complete silence. Eerie silence.
A drop of moisture from the ceiling plopped to the floor. Pushing the hair from her face, she straightened her hat and looked up at her comrades. Four faces peered through the window. All attention was focused on the opposite wall.
The hairs on the back of her neck prickled. Please, don’t let it be a rat. She hated rats.
“What is it?” she hissed.
They said nothing, their eyes wide.
Careful not to make any sudden moves, she drew her legs beneath her and straightened, inch by inch by inch.
Finally, she turned, then sucked in a breath.
The silhouette of a man—no, not a man, a guard. A guard with monstrously broad shoulders, a trim waist, a scabbard, and a pair of very muscular legs stood with one shoulder against the doorframe and one ankle crossed in front of the other, exposing a pair of cowpuncher boots.
He cocked his head. “Goin’ somewhere?”