Some years ago, in Dodge, I was a sporting woman. This was before I took up my current trade, back when the prairie ran with cattle like a river runs with fish. It’s different now, of course, but then, so am I. I didn’t mind whoring—it can be good work in the right house—but it demands a great deal of keeping still, and I’m one of those itchy, fidgety sorts who’s always looking out the window or glancing toward the door, so it was only a matter of time until I had to move on. Most rambling types like to act as if they just woke up one morning and lit out, turning their backs to all and sundry, but this is just good storytelling. The truth is that making your own way happens piecemeal, like a baby who scoots, then crawls, then eventually toddles her way right out the cabin door where she’s as likely to be snatched up by coyotes as she is to seek her fortune; either way, once she gets loose, there’ll be no getting her back. All of which is to say that though I ended up a pretty girl in boy’s clothes, mounted like a woman and armed like a man, I started much smaller and simpler, and mostly alone.
Before I was a whore in Kansas, I was a poor drunkard’s daughter in Arkansas. My pa wasn’t a bad man, but it was far too easy for circumstances to get the upper hand on him. He called himself unlucky, but the losing hands dealt him were too frequent and too numerous to be mere turns of fate. I will admit that at times, events truly were beyond his control: first Ma died having me, then came the Brothers War, then he was on the losing side, and then he lost what was left of the farm to nursing his broken heart. But there were other misadventures that showed me, if not him, that there’s more to this life than luck, even bad luck.
First there were the mustangs, which he bought cheap and wild but lacked the will to break and was forced to sell off cheaper and wilder. Then the sheep flock, whose feed he let rot so they all went mad when they ate it. When we finally had to slaughter them, the screaming clatter of blood and terror seemed to thrust him back to some Virginian hellscape, for halfway through he threw aside his knife and shot the rest as fast as he could. In between, there were crates of plow-blades that wouldn’t hold an edge, barrels of discarded horseshoes, bales of kinked wire, all manner of flotsam that somehow always cost more than it made. He told himself he was getting by on his wits, when most of the time it was my willingness to scrub linens, tote water, and muck out horse barns that kept our souls inside of our bodies.
When I wasn’t hiring myself out on odd jobs, I was usually standing in the doorway of our small cabin on the edge of Fort Smith, from whence I watched the sunsets and periodically wondered if my pa had finally gone off for good. He was a restless soul, and his absences always mixed me up bad. There was the fear that comes from being alone—I was just sixteen and getting a little too ripe to be left unguarded—the snapping awake at every shift in the wind outside only to stare into the blue-black darkness and wait with bated breath for nothing to happen. There was the righteous fury at having been forgotten, as though I, his child and only living kin, was no more memorable than a cracked jug or a harness with a broken strap. This fury would surge up unannounced: suddenly I’d find myself slamming down buckets only to slosh water over my feet, wringing wet linens like turkey necks, shoveling horse shit like I was digging one grave to hold all of my enemies. And then there was relief, the sole proprietorship over my supper, the break from caring for the one person left on this earth who should have cared for me.
We always scraped together just enough to keep us in that little house at the far reaches of the town. I would watch for Pa’s return, going about my chores with half an eye on the cabin door, propped open during the warm months to admit the evening. I couldn’t tell you what he did when he was gone; he’d just disappear, leaving me to scratch out a few pennies doing other folks’ chores, and come back whenever he’d a mind to, half singing a loop of some dirty song he’d learned long ago in the army. He’d roar for cornbread or a fire, but when I couldn’t produce them he never got rough, just sad. The cold, blue reflection of the empty hearth would pierce through the fog of liquor in some way that the sun, or I, never could, and for a moment he would understand that he was a disgrace, supported by a daughter who pitched hay and scrubbed petticoats, and greasy, overlarge tears would well up in his eyes. If I didn’t move quickly to cheer him up with a song or a joke he’d set to weeping, which only required more soothing and petting to tame down. Once he started crying I’d have to smile and lie right into his face for hours on end, until he calmed enough to pull himself up into the loft, where he’d snore like a full crew of lumberjacks, or toss and shout when his dreams grew too lifelike. Sometimes, as I lay awake after a long evening spent dabbing at his cheeks, I wished he would’ve just smacked me instead. It was an ungrateful sentiment, but a beating would have been less humiliating than pretending I didn’t mind that I’d never been to school, that all I wore were baggy hand-me-downs, that the pretty town girls wouldn’t even talk to me.
At five days and counting, this was Pa’s longest spree yet: usually his drinking spells only lasted three, four days at most, but now as the sun was easing down to kiss the tops of the pines, he was still nowhere to be seen.
The sun dipped an inch lower, and at last I heard a rattling, then a scrape and holler.
“Bridget!” His voice came from up the track. My whole back prickled like a porcupine, that strange admixture of fury and relief that, once again, he’d survived his own recklessness.
“Where’s my little red hen?” came a second shout. I’d swung the kettle out from over the fire and was poking at the contents, willing the possum I’d earned chopping firewood to turn into stew so my stomach could cease its fistlike clenching.
“Come on, Henny Penny, I’m stuck!” he called out again, tacking a hoarse laugh onto the end.
With a stick of firewood I pushed the kettle of possum back over the flames, wiped my hands on my apron, and went outside. It was that hazy, uncertain time of day when the sky can’t decide whether to keep its day clothes on, and the lowest-hung tree branches blur together like a mist. A little way down the track that led past our house I found my pa perched on the seat of a rattly little buckboard I hadn’t seen before. There were two skinny mules attached, flicking their ears and staring wall-eyed into the trees. The wagon’s rear wheel was stuck on a rock, the work of a moment for anyone remotely capable.
“Where’d you get all this?” I said, hands on hips like I was his overworked wife rather than his underfed daughter.
“That’s none of your nevermind,” he said. He swayed as he spoke, focused on some fixed point in the air. I pursed my lips and went around behind the wagon to dig out the rock, scrabbling at it with my nails while my pa kept his seat, humming that same old song, something about a lady in a red dress. I pulled the rock loose—it stuck up high but wasn’t nestled in very deep—and the wagon jolted forward into our yard, leaving me to chase after.
“Where’d you get all this?” I asked again as I caught up to them behind the cabin. He clambered down and started unhitching the mules, tying them up at an empty trough.
“Traded for ’em!” he crowed.
My heart sank, mind searching wildly for something he could have traded away, even for such a lean prize as this.
“Traded what?” I asked him, tensed all over.
“Well, the man who gave ’em to me said he was looking for a gal to care for him and his aging mother,” he said, looking up at me. I stopped breathing, staring at him with my mouth wide open. He winked like the joke was obvious. “But I told him I was too attached to my girl to give her up on such terms. So he’s taking the cabin instead.” He lifted one hand and gestured at our little house.
“You gave him our house?” I gasped. I looked at the mules again. Their hip bones stuck out and one of them still had the shaggy remains of a winter coat patchworked over his flank. “For them?”
“And this,” he said, reaching into his jacket and pulling out a folded piece of paper, worn through where it had been folded and refolded too many times. He thrust it at me and I looked at the words, but I was poorly lettered and all I could pick out before he plucked it back from me was Kansas.
“Twenty acres, plus these two fine fellows. A fresh start, Bridget! A chance to change our luck!” The dusky shadows hid his face so that he was naught but a blue-gray silhouette. Instinct told me that to be less than jubilant would bring out a storm of tears and drown us both; I smiled and must have said something pleasant, for he drew me close and ushered me inside, complimented my treatment of the stringy, obstinate-tasting possum, and fell asleep still mumbling that song about some far-off pretty girl, long since forgotten.