Too Soon a Woman
Dorothy M. Johnson
We left the home place behind, mile by slow mile, heading for the mountains, across the prairie where the wind blew forever.
At first there were four of us with the one-horse wagon and its skimpy load. Pa and I walked, because I was a big boy of eleven. My two little sisters romped and trotted until they got tired and had to be boosted up into the wagon bed.
That was no covered Conestoga, like Pa’s folks came West in, but just an old farm wagon, drawn by one weary horse, creaking and rumbling westward to the mountains, toward the little woods town where Pa thought he had an old uncle who owned a little two-bit sawmill.
Two weeks we had been moving when we picked up Mary, who had run away from somewhere that she wouldn’t tell. Pa didn’t want her along, but she stood up to him with no fear in her voice.
“I’d rather go with a family and look after kids,” she said, “but I ain’t going back. If you won’t take me, I’ll travel with any wagon that will.”
Pa scowled at her, and her wide blue eyes stared back.
“How old are you?” he demanded.
“Eighteen,” she said. “There’s teamsters come this way sometimes. I’d rather go with you folks. But I won’t go back.”
“We’re prid’near out of grub,” my father told her. “We’re clean out of money. I got all I can handle without taking anybody else.” He turned away as if he hated the sight of her. “You’ll have to walk,” he said.
So she went along with us and looked after the little girls, but Pa wouldn’t talk to her.
On the prairie, the wind blew. But in the mountains, there was rain. When we stopped at little timber claims along the way, the homesteaders said it had rained all summer. Crops among the blackened stumps were rotted and spoiled. There was no cheer anywhere, and little hospitality. The people we talked to were past worrying. They were scared and desperate.
So was Pa. He traveled twice as far each day as the wagon, ranging through the woods with his rifle, but he never saw game. He had been depending on venison, but we never got any except as a grudging gift from the homesteaders.
He brought in a porcupine once, and that was fat meat and good. Mary roasted it in chunks over the fire, half crying with the smoke. Pa and I rigged up the tarp sheet for shelter to keep the rain from putting the fire clean out.
The porcupine was long gone, except for some of the tried-out fat that Mary had saved, when we came to an old, empty cabin. Pa said we’d have to stop. The horse was wore out, couldn’t pull anymore up those grades on the deep-rutted roads in the mountains.
At the cabin, at least there was shelter. We had a few potatoes left and some cornmeal. There was a creek that probably had fish in it, if a person could catch them. Pa tried it for half a day before he gave up. To this day I don’t care for fishing. I remember my father’s sunken eyes in his gaunt, grim face.
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