I have to just come out and admit it: I’m a cowboy/girl at heart. I grew up in rural Nebraska, in a large family, and each summer we kids were given the choice of a pair of sandals or sneakers. I chose cowboy boots. Inconvenient, yes. Especially running to keep up with the older kids or chase the golden retriever that escaped her pen or make my own escape from the vicious black rooster who patrolled the orchard and acre of vegetables my father grew to feed his large brood. Every birthday and Christmas I asked for a horse, but received instead a toy gun and holster, a cowboy hat, a red felt vest and skirt trimmed in white fringe. I ignored the jokes of my siblings and classmates. I befriended any person with a horse that would ride by my house and let me climb up behind the saddle, my legs pinched purple with bruises as we trotted along. I could close my eyes and see the landscape open and roll empty before me into the West!
Finally, my grandfather returned to the land and bought a farm and after much begging on my part, an old horse. Although he neglected to also buy a bridle and saddle, I managed to learn to ride bareback with a war bridle fashioned from a piece of clothes line. When he finally relented and bought a saddle and bridle, they were the oldest, most cracked, worn out pieces of leather possible. I can almost imagine they were free they were so dried and brittle, but they meant freedom, and a way to climb on the horse without having to find something tall enough. More important, it meant I could hit the road. I don’t know why my grandparents never worried when I packed a sandwich and left of a morning, returning late afternoon, making sure the horse wasn’t sweaty and blowing hard, because a cowboy/girl always treated their horse better than themselves. You see, I read nonstop too. I consumed every book about the West and horses in the Benson Public Library. I read a book a day. I couldn’t stop.
I also rode miles a day, finding worlds on the back of that old horse, a stout bay Missouri Fox Trotter. I visited all the neighboring farms. Without invitation, I would ride up their lanes and meet the women mostly. There was a farm of Swedes close to my grandfather’s, and they had two retired white workhorses and the neatest barnyard for miles. I even took a ride on the too broad back of one, and realized how lucky I was to have the sturdy bay who could stand tied for hours without trying to break away. The wife was always kind to me, giving me a chocolate bar each visit. I liked her and appreciated the thoughtfulness, but she wasn’t quite what I wanted.
As I wandered further away, I found a dilapidated farm, with chickens roosting and squawking and fighting with the ducks and cats and dogs and goats and milk cows. The house was a riot of dirty dishes and clothes flung off and more animals and flies and stacks of newspapers, and reigning over all this was a couple. She became the first genuinely independent woman of the land I would meet. Irma was tall and broad, dressed always in a dingy white man’s T-shirt and jeans, her bra-less breasts hanging like sacks of meal almost to her waist, her hair hanks of brownish gray rising over her browned, sweaty face. There was no question that she ever wore make up or cared to. She was as big as her husband and could toss bales of straw, drive a tractor, repair a manure spreader, and butcher a hog. I don’t know who if anyone ever tended that house, but it didn’t matter. She was a neutral in the division of labor. She didn’t offer me one damn thing to eat. I doubt she ever thought of it. She inspected me and the horse that first time and gave me a chance to glance around because they were baling hay that day and she didn’t have time.
Whenever I write about the West, I think of Irma. I’ve seen her kind in the Sand Hills of Nebraska, and further west too. Our Western history is full of women who worked side by side with men without getting their due. It’s taken time to recover their stories, and I believe it’s my job to bring their lives back to their rightful place. Years ago, I was out in the Hills with a young photographer who had just bought an old panorama camera, each doing our own research, when we decided to go to the Sandoz ranch to see Mari Sandoz’s grave. While Willa Cather made the early Nebraska pioneer farmers famous, Mari Sandoz wrote of Native Americans and cattlemen in the Sand Hills and it was her work I felt closest to. Her grave is at the end of a single blacktop lane winding among the hills which are utterly empty of houses, powerlines, even fences. Her sister, Flora, was still alive then, and for a time kept a wonderful apple orchard nearby as an agricultural experiment. I visited the grave site quite often to pay my respects and gain courage from the empty hills and open, endless sky. On this particular day, my young friend had climbed the windmill for a better shot of the rolling hills when an old red pickup truck came rattling over the hill and stopped next to me. Uh oh, I thought, now we’re in it.
It was Flora, Mari’s sister, who leaned out the window and asked what the sam hill we were doing. I explained about the grave and she looked up at my young friend and hollered that she’d like to hire him. She couldn’t get anyone out to climb around on her windmills anymore to grease and fix them. She was worried about fire she said, hadn’t been to town in a month with the dry heat, afraid of what would happen if she left. Finally couldn’t stand it, had to go to the beauty parlor. I looked at her hair, a wild grey and white nest. “I’m eighty,” she declared, “can’t cut my own toenails anymore. Got a girl at the beauty parlor does em for me.”
“That’s handy,” I said, hoping she’d invite us to her ranch house. But she didn’t. She just waved and told us to be careful and drove off. When I returned the next year, the apple orchard was a pile of twisted wood. The experiment was done. She was another woman of the West.
In Valentine, Nebraska in the heart of Sand Hills ranch land, the young ranch couples come to town dressed almost identically in jeans and ropers and western shirts. They’re changing the look of the West too. Economics these days require that both men and women work as hard as the first families did. My great great grandmother smoked a clay pipe and ran a farm in the Missouri Ozarks. I come from that hard scrabble stock, and I write about women who know how to survive on the land. It never occurred to me that I couldn’t do that. That’s what it means to write the West.
The Bones Of Paradise: The award-winning author of The River Wife returns with a multi-generational family saga, set in the unforgiving Nebraska Sandhills in the years following the massacre at Wounded Knee—an ambitious tale of history, vengeance, race, guilt, betrayal, family, and belonging, filled with a vivid cast of characters shaped by violence, love, and a desperate loyalty to the land.
Top photo: True Grit
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