Pearl stood in her doorway while the young man climbed off his horse. It was an awkward effort on his part. He was trying to keep the papers he clenched in one hand from flapping something fierce while the wind rushed past him to churn sand inside Pearl's cabin.
"I'm with the St. Louis Herald," he said, "and I'm writing a story about the women of the west."
Pearl figured if she were quiet, he'd explain himself. Men did that, sometimes. Not always.
"So I'm traveling around talking to women like yourself, asking them about their lives. Mind if I ask you what it's like to be a woman out west?"
Pearl scanned the horizon beyond the man's shoulders. Clouds were building up.
The young man looked ill at ease, standing there with that ridiculous tie whipping at his chin and his collar bent up on one side from the wind. She remembered men wearing that sort of thing back in Virginia, but it didn't make much sense out here. Not even a church for sixty miles.
"So can you tell me about the woman's west?" he asked again.
The woman's west is a lot like the woman's east, she thought, but with fewer trees to break the weather, fewer neighbors to complain to, fewer materials to fashion into necessities, and fewer options for surviving when your husband's plans fail. But truth to tell, I suppose life out west here looks pretty much the same for a woman as life back east did. There are children to feed and keep alive. There are clothes to mend and clean and food to put up for winter. Animals need tending—or killing—and crops need weeding. There's water to draw. Fire-fuel to gather. A man's dreams to shore up.
"About the same as back east, I guess," she said. Sheltered a little from the wind, a few flies buzzed around the table behind Pearl's back. She ignored them.
"What's the worst part of living out here?" he asked, his pencil poised above his paper, his eyes looking up at her. Sure, he was young, but still old enough to have lost that puppy-dog look of optimism in his eyes. St. Louis must be a gentler place than she'd thought. Or they just had more fools than was strictly necessary.
Pearl felt tendrils of her hair sketching against her cheek, her neck, getting in her eye. She brushed them away with one hand, but the wind kept at it, and she let them go.
It's the wind, really, that tests you, she thought. The wind comes in long and hard from Canada, sometimes, or maybe up from the south when it feels like a change. But no matter where it comes from, there's a relentless, lonesome draw to it. It has a harsh feel, the kind of wind that can strip the sap from your limbs and the sweet from a baby. It whips past with a vengeance most days, and sometimes comes back on you to get you again. Dry and hollow, it jerks the grasses around in waves, dulling their green to gray by noon.
"The wind takes some getting used to," she said. A hawk circled in the air. As she watched, it pulled in its wings and dove to the ground. In a moment, it rose again, talons empty.
The wind flies down from mountains so far away I can't see them, but I know they're there because I can taste them. It throws itself across this sun-baked prairie, and tugs hard at the roots of any bedraggled old brush in its path. And it comes all this way just so it can drag and snap at the shirts hanging on my clothesline, trying to tear them off and pull them into the far end of the country. I don't guess I'd miss them much if they were gone. But my husband would, and then where would I be? Not like I have cloth to make more, and it could be months before another trader comes along.
She kept one eye on the clothesline while she waited for the young man to ask another question.
"What's the best part of living here?" he asked.
He thinks there's a best part? What is this boy writing anyhow? Heaven help us all if he's trying to convince more Easterners to move here. The best part is when I close my eyes at night and actually fall asleep instead of lying there listening to the wind howl and the door creak and my husband snore. The best part is when I don't itch and nothing much hurts and I don't think about being hungry. The best part of living out west was thinking about it before we came.
Pearl shrugged, said, "Lots of elbow room."
"Do you have any children?"
She nodded. "My boy."
My boy that's living. Got three more out there to the south, under that old dead tree. Thank the good Lord they all died in the summer so we could bury them right away in the ground. Emily Johnson lost her husband last February. She had to keep him frozen in the rafters of the barn 'til spring, when the dirt thawed enough that she could dig a hole for him. No one knew she was out there all winter by herself, him all frozen up like that.
"Do you ever have any trouble with Indians?"
She shook her head slowly. "Had a couple ask me for some food once. Nothing I'd call trouble."
The man had been crippled—he dragged one leg behind him, and he used a stick to hold himself up. The woman was pregnant and sick as a poisoned lamb. Both were starving to death on their feet. Biscuits I gave them probably didn't keep them alive for very long, but it was all I had.
"How about wild animals? Any trouble with them?"
"Got a gun, don't I?"
The coyotes killed my chickens the first night we got to this place. I should have known better, but I was so tired I didn't pay enough attention. If there's one thing I miss about Virginia, it's going to sleep at night without hearing those blasted coyotes yelping and barking and egging each other on. I don't think the Lord had any intention of letting coyotes on the ark. I think the little beggars snuck on when Noah wasn't looking. Even their meat stinks.
The young man stood back a step or two, and folded his flapping pages as best he could. "Thank you ma'am," he said, tapping his hat, then grabbing at it as the wind took the opportunity to rip it from his head. "I sure appreciate you letting me talk to you. I admire you women and all the work you're doing taming this wild country." As he spoke, he looked around him at the rickety cabin, the dust curling in little drifts by the door, the dingy laundry fluttering on the line.
Pearl watched the young man mount his horse and head off. She shook her head, dusted off her hands, and looked again at the clouds. They were leveling off now. Soon they would spread and peter out. There wasn't even a whiff of that thunderstorm smell in the air. No chance of rain. The clothes were likely dry now, so she'd better get them down before her husband and boy came in for dinner.
Take a damned sight more than a clothesline or two to tame this country. Forgive me, Lord. I mean a blessed sight more.
In the distance a coyote yelped, just a little practice cry before nightfall.