A soft breeze blew through the surrounding evergreen trees, making their lowest branches dance, and the sunlight glinted in sharp shards through the pine needles, unusually bright for this time of year in the Territory of Washington. The large crowd, in their best black mourning clothes, stood huddled around the open grave of Maggie’s fiance.
The word "Amen" filled her ears as the mourners solemnly concluded their prayer. The preacher softly closed the cover of the worn Bible he had been reading passages from and looked up, catching Maggie's eye. Compassion shone in his hooded gray eyes. Her face was scrunched against the glare of the setting sun, but no tears stained her face. She broke eye contact as the mourners began approaching her to shake her hand and offer their condolences. The typical "I'm so sorry for your loss," and "he was a good man" and "if you need anything let us know" sounded hollow to her, until she realized it was she who was hollow. The townspeople meant every good-intentioned word, but she felt nothing. Her heart and mind were completely numb. She was not devastated by grief, however, on the contrary; she felt something akin to relief as she stood over the open grave of her betrothed.
The preacher came up to her and clutched her gently by the shoulders, his bony fingers uncomfortably pressing into her skin.
"You will survive this, my child," he said tenderly. "Your heart will one day mend, and you will find love again." He kissed the top of her head like she was a young child, smiled a kind smile, and shuffled off. The mourners somberly trudged away in small groupings until only Maggie remained, as the two rough-necked gravediggers began filling their shovels with pebbly dirt and heaving it into the gaping hole. The rocky dirt clods made a jarring clattering sound as they showered down onto the simple wood casket, plummeting off the rough-hewn sides, resembling a more violent version of watering cascading off smooth boulders.
The year was 1850, and the Territory of Washington had been bought from the British four years prior, and there was talk amongst the settlers of the Territory joining the Union. The region was rugged and mostly yet untamed by white men, although natives had lived there for centuries. The settlement of Snoqualmie Valley was fertile enough to grow hops and not much else because of the rocky soil and overabundance of rain. Hops had always been a staple crop of the Settlers for its use in brewing beer, and more hops were shipped out of the Pacific Northwest than any other region in all of the Americas.
Maggie had been unceremoniously abandoned in Washington Territory by her mother when she was fifteen years old. She had stayed with her aloof aunt and uncle in town who did not have children of their own. She had worked part-time as a ranch hand at a hops farm on the outskirts of town, where she learned to plant, harvest, and care for the plants that gave a livelihood to so many folks in the area. She attended church every Sunday with her aunt and uncle who were strict Baptists, and dedicated her life to God, to hard work on a farm, and to atone for her past sins. One of her sins in particular.
She had her mother’s luscious long auburn locks and her father’s slight, strong build. And it was not long before she had male admirers. When looking at Maggie, any single man in his right mind could readily see attributes in her that would make her a fine wife. She was a hard worker, she was modest; a good, respectable Christian, strong, soft-spoken, and plain. She did not need any fancy-pancy trappings or do-dads adorning her like some silly women did. This was the frontier, where folks had to eke out a desperate living, and yet some women wanted to prance about in town wearing frilly dresses and carrying umbrellas like they were still English or something. But not Maggie. She had simple tastes; simple requirements for happiness. She just wanted to have a farm and live a quiet, productive life.
She had not wanted to marry middle-aged Edward Jameson, but her father's good influence remained in the small town of Snoqualmie Valley these many years after his death, and Edward had insisted upon courting her, a young lady from an affluent family with an impressive heritage. Maggie had always had the vague notion that Edward simply wanted an advantageous marriage that would secure his place in society. She thought him a ridiculous, obtuse man who had grasped at opportunity and fortune his entire life, and was grasping still. His first wife had died in childbirth, and he had turned his attention quickly to Maggie. She had in turn accepted his attentions with a mild aloofness that Edward somehow interpreted as affection, and could not believe he had the good fortune of marrying such a modest, honorable young lady from such a well-thought-of family. Before she knew it, Edward had written to her mother in San Francisco, where she has lived ever since the last of Maggie's sisters got married off, asking for her permission to marry her youngest daughter.
What Edward and the rest of Snoqualmie Valley were not privy to, however, was the fact that Maggie's father Jonathan had been a nasty drunkard and had gambled and squandered away whatever family money was left, and had then proceeded to blame Maggie's mother for his missteps. Jonathan made a habit of coming home drunk from a night of gambling, and the amount of money he lost that night would determine the severity of the suffering he would inflict upon Maggie's mother. He never laid hands on the children, if that can be counted in his favor, but Mother became more and more fearful with each passing day, until eventually she was fearing for her very life. The sparkle in her eyes faded, her smile dulled, and wrinkles permanently set in on her face.
She lost her once jovial personality and became sullen, withdrawn, and turned inward on herself. Maggie loved her sweet mother more than life itself, and to see her gradual destruction pained Maggie beyond words. She knew her father was to blame, and concluded that all men were bastards and life-ruiners. She vowed at that moment to never allow herself to let a man into her heart or life, or else she would share her mother's fate.
One night, after her father had lost considerably more money than usual, he came home late at night, hell-bent on taking the lost sum out of Mother's hide. Mother's muffled screams woke Maggie and she ran out into the main room of the cabin to see her father with his large hands around his mother's thin, delicate neck. Without thinking, she grabbed the gun from its rack above the fireplace mantle and leveled it at her deranged father. She knew it was loaded, and so did he, for they always kept it near, in case of a close encounter with bear or mountain lions, who liked to come onto homesteads to make an easy meal out of the domesticated livestock. Her father did not even notice at first, that his sweet, quiet little girl had leveled the large gun at his head, for he was so engulfed in delirium and rage.
"Get your hands off my mother, you son of a whore!" Maggie screamed at him, her young voice tiny and shrill. He turned to face her and loosened his grip. "Maggie? What are you doing darling?" He asked, his voice suggesting she had just walked in on him doing a menial task and not killing her mother. She repeated herself, steadying her voice this time.
"Get your hands off my mother right now." She cocked the gun for emphasis, and it clicked loudly in the stunned silence of the room.
"Okay, okay, calm down Maggie, your mother and I were just arguing, that's all, but it's okay now." He released Mother and took a couple steps toward Maggie. She held firm, aiming at his chest.
"Easy, girl." Jonathan cooed at her as he held his hands up.
"Are you okay, mother?" Maggie looked away from her father to see her mother steadying herself against the kitchen table. She seemed to be shaken but mostly alright.
Suddenly, as soon as her eyes focused on her mother, Jonathan lunged at the gun in Maggie's trembling hands. Her grip was like iron, and he could not pry it out of her grasp. She held onto the gun as if it were life itself. They struggled against each other for a moment, each trying to wrench it out of the other's grasp. Jonathan's face was beet red and he grunted like a pig as he fought.
He caught Maggie off guard as let go of the gun with his right hand and back-handed her hard across her cheekbone. She faltered and lost her footing, falling hard towards the ground. Still gripping the barrel of the gun, he was dragged to the floor with her. She hit the compacted dirt floor of their cabin on her back, knocking the wind out of her. A jolt went through her body, and her index finger squeezed the trigger. The shot rang out as her father slumped onto her. She could not breathe with his limp weight on top of her, but somehow she managed to push him off of her, letting the gun drop out of her hand in the process. She sat up and looked at her father's crumpled body, seeing a large red hole gathering blood on his torso. Her mother screamed in terror, startling Maggie anew. "You killed him, Maggie!" She screamed. "You killed your father!"
Tears of shock and fear sprung into Maggie's eyes. "I was defending you! He was about to kill you! And he tried to hurt me, too! I did it for us!" Her mother collapsed to the floor, sobbing. "Jonathan, my dear Jonathan!"
Startled awake by the gunshot, the other sisters came stampeding down the stairs. Seeing Jonathan's body bleeding out and the red-stained dirt radiating out from all around his body, they raised a cry as if one voice.
The eldest daughter, Daphne, saw Maggie sitting dazed with blood down the front of her nightshirt, the shotgun nearby. Alarmed, she ran over to her youngest sister and cradled her in her arms.
"Maggie!" She exclaimed, wrapping her arms around her quaking form. "Maggie, what happened?!? Are you all right?" Maggie nodded vigorously and managed to form quiet words. Daphne leaned closer to hear. "Father was trying to kill mother. He was strangling her, so I got the gun and pointed it at him. He hit me and knocked me to the ground. I shot him when I hit the ground." Daphne's face turned from concern to shock at her words. "It was an accident. I didn't mean to shoot him. I hit the ground so hard that it made my finger hit the trigger. I didn't mean to, but he was trying to kill mother, and he was going to hurt me, too." Daphne rose and backed away from Maggie.
"You killed father." Daphne's voice was tight with disdain.
The other sisters heard her words and looked at Maggie in shock.
"I told you that it was an accident! We fought, and he hit me!" Maggie desperately blurted.
Daphne led the other girls over to their mother and fussed over her.
"We need to call the Sheriff." Daphne said somberly, taking charge of the family.
"Okay." Mother said, rising shakily to a stand, supported by two of her daughters.
"I'll take care of it, Mother." Daphne said firmly. "You go and sit in your chair now, and I'll stoke the fire and call the Sheriff. We'll tell him exactly what happened." She shot daggers at Maggie with her last words.
The other sisters gathered around Mother near the fire, muttering soothing words, completely disregarding Maggie. Daphne swept her coat off a hook by the front door and lit a lantern. She looked at Maggie almost as an afterthought. Her words were unbelievably stern. "And you go get yourself cleaned up before the law men get here to question you about the death of our father." She walked out into the chilly night and pulled the door closed behind her, not looking back. Tears sprang into Maggie's eyes as she stumbled out of the house, heading for the water pump.
'Our father,' thought Maggie. Daphne said, "our father," not "your father", and the way she said it made Maggie think Daphne was purposely excluding her as one of Jonathan's children, and thus ostracizing her. Maggie clumsily pumped the water with one hand and grabbed the wooden bucket with the other. Most of the cool water splashed into the bucket as it shot from the spigot in bursts. Hot tears filled her eyes as she dunked an old rag into the water and quickly wiped herself down. The hard dirt around her quickly became red, and she gasped when she saw it. She knew at that moment, as her father’s blood washed off of her and stained the ground, that nothing would ever be as it was. She had thought that standing up to her abusive father was the right thing to do. She had thought that protecting her mother was a good thing. That stopping her father from hurting her mother was what she was supposed to do. But now that Father was dead and she was being blamed, she no longer knew if she had done the right thing or not. Maybe she should have let her father continue hurting her mother. Maybe she should have let him do whatever he wanted, because after all, Mother never fought back, so maybe she wanted to be beaten. Maggie’s fifteen-year-old mind reeled from these thoughts and she felt that all she had ever known about her world was upended. She sloppily threw the bloody rag back into the bucket and set it on the ground by the well, and ran back inside to change into dry clothes before she caught her death of cold.
After interviewing Maggie, the Sheriff eventually determined that Jonathan’s death was an accident; a tragic ending to their domestic altercation. Maggie, young as she was, could not be held at fault, and was thus cleared of any guilt. Her innocence proven as it was, Maggie’s mother and sisters were still so distraught at her involvement in Jonathan’s death that they had apparently wordlessly decided they could no longer bear her company. Maggie became a stranger in her own house, avoided by her sisters; ignored by her grieving mother. You’d think by the way her mother cried over Jonathan’s death that he was the world’s kindest, gentlest man. Maggie could not understand why so much fuss was being made over such a cruel man. ‘Good riddance to bad rubbish!’ was what she thought of him. After a year of tip-toeing around her family and doing everything she could think of to no avail to win back their love, she was nonetheless shocked when Daphne called her into the front room one morning. Her aunt and uncle were standing on the front stoop, and Daphne was handing them a satchel of Maggie’s belongings. Daphne turned to face Maggie as she entered. “Maggie, you are going to stay with your aunt and uncle for awhile.” Maggie tried to protest in confusion, but Daphne cut her off sternly. “Maggie! This is the way it is going to be. We cannot stand to look at you, because every time we do, we only see Father. Mother especially simply cannot take having you in the house anymore. So please, go with Aunt and Uncle. It will only be for a little while.”
Maggie wondered if the words tasted like lies to Daphne as much as they sounded like lies to her. She knew this arrangement would be permanent. Her sisters filed out on cue to stand awkwardly around the perimeter of the front room, crammed together in the cramped space. Their faces showed no signs of distress. Maggie cleared her throat. “Uh, bye then. I love you all.” Various mutterings were the reply. She stepped out onto the porch with her aunt and uncle and Daphne closed the door behind them. And that was that.
Maggie was allowed to visit once a year for Christmas, but by then she was a stranger in her own home, so the festive gatherings were always awkward. A few years after Maggie left home, she received word that her mother had relocated the family to sunny San Fransisco, California, to live with some of Jonathan’s relatives. They did not say goodbye before leaving. Maggie knew then that she was truly alone. She had no one. She was no one.