First Step (by Cheaux)
A clear blue sky, the scent of pine. Icy crystals of wind-blown snow from the mountaintops mingle with swirling red and gold leaves amid a backdrop of evergreen. The black and white foal stands out against the vibrant background and yet I would have missed him altogether if his wind-whipped mane and tail had not caught my eye.
The boss mare of the small herd sniffs the air. She decides I pose no threat and resumes grazing signaling the other mares to follow suit. Most foals stick close to their mothers. The pinto, however, is spirited and adventurous, chasing first a butterfly, then a squirrel to the outer limits of the clearing. After a while, he stops to nurse, giving me more time to study his perfect conformation. Too soon, the herd moves off over the rise and his dam nickers, but before he follows, he looks straight at me with his head up and his ears forward.
My school is located in a farming community on the California Emigrant Trail. Older students like me sit in the back of the room. Even so, sliding into my seat undetected is hard. A quick index finger to my lips silences those who turn to stare, but the new schoolmarm calls me out straight away.
The former teacher, Miss Pardee, left last summer when Brigham Young recalled the Mormons to Salt Lake City and the school closed. At 15, I figured I would be going to work full time on the Ponderosa alongside my Pa and brothers. Pa had other ideas. He set about looking for a new teacher and found Miss Abigail Jones and her mother holed up at the Hotel Nevada on Mill Street in Genoa following their harrowing journey across the 40-Mile Desert.
Convincing them to settle permanently in the valley did not take much doing–especially after he assured them he knew an architect who would be thrilled to design and build a home to their specifications. I doubt Adam shared Pa’s enthusiasm, but he did design and oversee construction of a house, and when the new term started last September, I found myself in the back row once again, much to my displeasure.
The new teacher and I got off to a rocky start. For one thing, I am not Adam. For another, Miss Jones is not Miss Pardee. Week in, week out since September my father has been called to school to straighten out some trouble. The callouses on my bottom are so thick I have had to shorten my stirrups. There is no way Hoss got tanned at my age, but because I’m the shortest in the family, Pa forgets sometimes how old I am. It really is unfair if you think about it.
Worse than being late this morning, Miss Jones catches me daydreaming—the ultimate sin in her book. The punishment involves staying after school to clean blackboards and chop wood for the stove. Tame as chores go, but listening to the accompanying lecture dulls my senses to the point where only rudimentary comments escape my lips.
“Your tardiness and lack of attention are disrespectful, not only to me but to your classmates. The one thing I cannot abide, Little Joseph, is disrespect.”
“Pa feels the same way, ma’am.”
“I am not surprised to hear your father sets high standards for you and your brothers. What is a mystery is your attitude in the classroom. Your permanent record reflects a much different student than the one before me now. Why is that?”
“I would rather be a rancher.”
“You don’t apply yourself or manage your time well. The things to be learned in my class will serve you well in this life, rancher or not. Look at your brother—refined, college-educated, a student of art and literature—as an example of what education can do for you.”
She drones on and my thoughts drift to the pinto I saw that morning. Too young now to leave his mother, by next summer he will be ready to catch and train. I begin formulating a plan and making a mental list of the gear I will need when my line of sight fixes on the big wet flakes piling up on the windowsill. My eyes widen.
“I have to go!”
“Well, I never!” Miss Jones huffs, taking offense at my rudeness.
“And I’ll never get home if it continues to snow like this.” I shove my slate and books into my saddlebag and head for the coatrack.
“I am not through with you, young man! We will continue this conversation tomorrow.”
“Begging your pardon, ma’am, but that’s unlikely.” I leave the teacher standing in the middle of the room with her mouth opening and closing like a goldfish.
Three days pass before the weather clears enough to permit travel down to the valley. Pa sends Hoss along to make sure I arrive safely or maybe to see I get there at all given my non-stop complaints about ol’ fish face. Miss Jones ignores me throughout the morning but at lunch, she asks me to stay behind when everyone else goes outside to eat. She acts all official and wastes no time getting to the point. Her left hand rests on a mountain of books and paper like it is a stack of bibles.
“The local constabulary informs me there is a high probability of your getting snowed in this winter thereby missing several weeks of school. In this stack are a number of books—math, history, literature—along with tests and essay questions, which should carry you through the winter. If you study hard, pay attention in class, when you are able to get here, and complete all assignments whether in classroom or at home, you may take the exit exam at the end of April and possibly—if you pass—graduate a year ahead of time.”
I cannot believe what I hear so I ask why.
“An inattentive and unwilling student is a drain on my limited resources. Of course, your father must agree and you must be the one to convince him of the efficacy of this option.”
Persuading my father to alter any course other than the one he has already chartered is not easy. I seek allies. Hoss is in favor. Adam is not. Pa eventually gives in, either tired of the arguments among us or happy about having all three sons working together at last on the ranch he built from scratch. My bet is on the latter because by January, he talks of nothing else but our going on the annual cattle drive at summer’s end as a family, and—surprise!—offers me a bribe.
“If you receive a grade better than a C, you may have one month off before signing on as a full-fledged ranch hand,” he says after dinner one night.
“No kidding, Pa?”
He laughs and wags a finger at me. “Chores must be done as usual, young man. Aside from that your time will be your own, as long as you let me or your brothers know where you are and what you are doing.”
Hoss gives me a big slap on the back and Adam, for once, keeps his comments to himself. I have not mentioned the pinto to anyone yet, but there will be time enough for that after the exam.
“I’d better start preparing then. Excuse me. I’ve got some reading to do.”
The homework is hard and often mind numbing. Miss Jones picked the worst books ever written. Pride and Prejudice? What a load of horse manure! At least Sense and Sensibility has a duel in it!
Snowfall in the Sierras is extremely heavy and we are housebound for weeks on end more than once during the winter of 1858. Studying at least gives me something to do. Subjects like geography and history are fun because Pa used to sail the world and he spends long days bent over an atlas showing me places and telling stories that make the dry facts come alive. Algebra is a pain, but I like geometry.
“‘Course you do, shortshanks, ’cause you’re always figurin’ out the angles for everything you do.”
“Ha ha. You’re so funny, Hoss.” However, that got me thinking as to how I could use geometry in Genoa’s billiard parlor. Of course, getting inside would involve some serious parental persuasion!
By mid-March, the trails are clear and my rear end is once again planted in that blasted last row. The difference is now there is not only an end to schooling in sight, but Marcie Grogan is sitting in front of me. Whenever she tosses her rose-scented wavy black hair over her shoulder, my stomach tightens and the base of my spine prickles. More than once I have to pull my shirttail out to hide the bulge in my pants.
The next six weeks pass quickly. I pay attention in class and turn in my daily assignments as Miss Jones requires. My enthusiasm for the end of school begins to dim the more time I spend with Marcie because I realize I will not be seeing her as often once I pass the exam. We spend our lunch periods together and she lets me carry her books when I walk her home after school. Pa gives me a hard time about being late for evening chores, but I catch Hoss and Adam exchanging smirks.
Testing day comes in early May. Marcie rewards me with a kiss behind the oak tree when the exam is over and we make plans to attend the Fourth of July barn dance at Eagle Ranch. When Miss Jones hands me the results and I read the note at the bottom, my face falls. Even the sight of the pinto grazing near Clear Creek fails to lift my spirits on the way home.
I barely get through the door when Pa rounds the corner from the kitchen and stares at my saddlebags.
“Hi, Pa!” I say in my cheeriest voice. “Do I smell roast beef? Boy, I sure am hungry!”
“Did you pass?”
“Yeah, I passed Adam on the way in. Hoss is in the ba—”
No sense in delaying. I hand over the paper.
“You got a B!” Pa’s elation fades, however, when he read the teacher’s note written on the bottom. His eyes narrow, waiting for an explanation.
“If I get the paper done by next week, she’ll pass me and I won’t have to repeat the term.”
Pa continues to stare, disappointment etched in every line of his face. Seeing his reaction is worse than hearing him yell and almost as bad as being tanned.
The front door swings open hitting me in the butt. My brothers fall silent the moment they see the two of us standing stock-still. Adam mutters something about dinner and heads for the kitchen. Hoss sticks his hands in his front pockets and follows along with his head bowed. He sure does hate when I get in trouble.
Pa has not said anything, but I know he wants more. “I started the project when Miss Jones assigned it—honest, Pa—but things didn’t work out the way I intended.”
“Joseph, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Your problem is you don’t plan ahead or manage your time.”
“Plan ahead for what?” Adam asks as he comes around the corner. “By the way, dinner’s ready.”
“Your brother neglected to turn in an assignment and received an incomplete for the term. He won’t be joining us on the cattle drive after all.” Pa moves to take his seat at the dining table next to Hoss.
A long, low whistle precedes the “Nice going, kid,” Adam whispers in my ear before sitting.
I stand still, my fists balled, and bite my tongue. Hit him or run for the stairs. I am considering both options when Pa yells.
“Joseph! Sit down.”
“I’m not hungry.”
“I didn’t ask if you were hungry. I asked you to sit down. Hop Sing is waiting to serve.”
I take my usual seat on Pa’s right and drink the glass of milk Hop Sing pours, but don’t take any food when the platter come to me which earns me another rebuke. Pa stabs a piece of beef with his fork and drops it on my plate.
“Do you expect me to cut the meat for you?”
“No, sir.” My face burns. I concentrate on slicing the meat into tiny little pieces—the better to hide under the potatoes and peas. A dog would be handy to have at a time like this.
Throughout dinner, Pa lectures on time management, planning ahead, and thinking before acting. Of course, my know-it-all, college-educated brother has to add his two cents.
“Thinking things through once isn’t enough. One should always have an alternative plan to achieve a desired outcome,” he says.
No doubt his alternative plan is filled out in triplicate, notarized, and distributed to all interested parties. Such remarks from Adam are standard, but Hoss’s next words sting.
“We’re talkin’ Little Joe here. All the thinkin’ and plannin’ in the world ain’t gonna change an outcome ‘cause he’s just a lightning rod for trouble.”
“If you all are through using me as a punching bag, I’d like to be excused.” I do not wait for an answer but pause at the top of the stairs to hear any remarks. There are none, and that makes me even angrier. My plans for writing the paper had fallen apart through no fault of my own, but did anyone care or bother to ask why? No!
From my room, the view of the pastures, trees and mountains fails to bring me any solace, and when my gaze falls on the corral by the barn, my mood darkens further. A few yearlings mingle about, but there is no pinto among them, nor would there be now. Another plan dashed to pieces.
A knock on the door interrupts my self-pity.
“It’s open,” I say, surprised when Adam enters instead of Pa. “What do you want? Come to take another pot shot?”
“No. I came to offer help with your paper if you need it.”
“I don’t.” The words tumble out without my thinking. Elder brother knows many people and maybe he could help. Not asking is foolish.
“I see. Well, I need your assistance with finishing the roof tomorrow and I thought we could help each other. Quid pro quo. Tit for tat. One hand washes the other.”
“I know what it means. I’m not stupid.”
“Never thought you were. If anything, you’re too smart for your own good.”
I turn away from the window and study him. When Adam lectures me—which is at least ten times a week—he stands tall with his arms folded across his chest. Now he is sitting at my desk, leaning forwarding with his elbows on his knees, fingers intertwined—a posture he adopts when engaged in earnest conversation with Pa as equals. Interesting. I flop on the bed opposite him and wait.
“When you sign on to the payroll full time, being a Cartwright won’t mean a damn thing. If anything, you’ll need to work harder and longer to prove yourself to the men.”
“I’m no tenderfoot!”
“No, you’re not. You know your way around a ranch and horses. Cattle are different. When you are told to do something, do it. Ask questions later, but not then—lives depend on your quick response to commands. There is no room for ego or pretense. You don’t know how to do something, say so. Ask for help when you need it. And the best way to demonstrate knowledge is to show, not tell. Your expertise, as you develop it, will speak for itself. In the long run, all a cowboy has is his reputation.”
My eyes never stray from Adam while he speaks and his gaze on me never wavers. The moment is—strangely—one of the most intimate ones we have shared since he returned from college. I acknowledge his comments with a nod, but I can tell he wants something from me in return.
“We had to write a research paper on some aspect of local history using original source materials—books, diaries, newspapers, the usual. I wanted to do something different. Tom White Feather agreed to tell me the Indian legend surrounding Pyramid Lake, but he up and died of the influenza before we could talk.” I swallowed the lump in my throat and took a deep breath. “Can you help me find someone else who knows the story?”
A mask settles over Adam’s face. He sits back in the chair and stretches his legs out, cocks his head to one side and stares at me. For a long time. I feel like a bug under glass.
“I’m impressed by your unusual approach,” he says at last. “I’ll do what I can, if you–”
“–help with the roof.”
“Quid pro quo?”
“Tit for tat?”
“One hand washes the other.” Adam stands and extends his arm. I rise to meet him and shake his hand. Working together instead of butting heads feels good.
“Why are you willing to help me, Adam? You were against my graduating at sixteen.”
“I am still philosophically opposed, but,” he raises an open hand to silence my protest, “I changed my mind for two reasons. One, Miss Jones’ rationale for broaching the idea in the first place.”
“Let me guess . . . I’m a drain on her resources.”
“Something like that. Her altruism appears focused more on herself than you. When she refused to show me your permanent record, I wrote to Miss Pardee, who surprised me by agreeing you should be given the opportunity to take the exam.”
“Yes, but for different reasons.”
“Read for yourself,” he says, and pulls a letter from his shirt pocket. I skip the pleasantries and get to the part he marked.
. . .
Although we have come a long way since Plato blamed left-handedness on inept mothers, there are still educators who equate intelligence with the dominant hand. Joe’s left-handedness affects his penmanship, not his intellect. His approach to problems is often inventive and his solutions are creative.
I found your brother to be an attentive, if somewhat boisterous, student with a quick mind and wit. He willingly participated in class projects, offering encouragement to others less skilled or knowledgeable without attempting to elevate his own status or making them feel inferior. He is exceptionally patient with younger children and will one day make a wonderful father and—dare I hope—perhaps a teacher.
If not sufficiently challenged, however, Little Joe can become bored and prone to pranks. The more often I funneled his energies and enthusiasm into productive channels, involved him in decision-making, asked for his opinion, and encouraged him to take a leadership role in the classroom, the better off we all were!
Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu said a journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. Given what you shared about the current circumstances, my recommendation is Little Joe should be afforded this opportunity to take the first step into his future.
. . .
I hand the letter back to Adam. “Earlier you said my finishing school early was a mistake.”
“I still believe it is unwise to end your formal education at sixteen, but after watching you this winter, I’m convinced Miss Jones’ classroom is not the place for you. You learned a great deal through independent study. There is no reason you cannot continue learning in the same vein as long as you live. A self-educated man is, after all, still an educated man.”
“What’s the second reason?”
“You actually passed the exam!”
A slow grin spreads across my face and I throw a pillow at him for his backhanded compliment. He leaves the room laughing. Hoss must have been listening because he sticks his head in the door and gives me a thumbs up. Pa, too, has waited in the wings and we talk for an hour. The offer for the month’s vacation stands if the paper is finished on time.
In my dreams, I ride a black and white pinto around Pyramid Lake, Marcie’s ample bosom pressed against my back, her arms held tightly around my waist.
We start roofing the next day after morning chores. Only my good mood keeps me from commenting on the second-floor addition itself. What Adam thinks we are going to do with all these extra bedrooms is beyond me. Nevertheless, I listen as he explains what he wants.
While Adam unloads stacks of shingles from the wagon and places them near the ladder, I head upstairs, easing out onto the roof through the window at the end of the hallway. My feet know the way from countless late night excursions.
“Joe? Joe! Where the devil are you?”
“Right here older brother,” I say from above, reaching out to steady him when he startles and the ladder starts rocking.
“Confound it! How did you get up there?”
“The usual way.”
“You are going to break your neck one of these days,” he says, heaving a bundle onto the roof.
“I’m not the one who almost lost his balance a moment ago.” You have to know when to joke with Adam, and from the sour look on his face, this is clearly not the time so I change the subject. “I understand what you want done. I helped you and Pa with the shed, remember?”
He watches me work with a critical eye, and makes a few suggestions, but the comments dwindle as I go along. When I finish the third course, he says, “good job,” which from him is high praise.
We continue working the same way: Adam pitching the bundles up, me nailing the overlapping shingles to the shakes, him pointing out what to look out for, and sprinkling in a few “attaboys.”
By noon, my clothes are soaked through. “Throw me the canteen would ya?” I ask.
“Sure thing. Joe, you’re almost to the ridge. When you finish this course, let’s take a lunch break. No point in you getting sunstroke up there.”
The water is sweet and cool going down and I pour the rest over my head before dropping the empty canteen to the ground. “Sounds like a plan, brother.” Standing to stretch, I reach my hands over my head and twist to the right and left to work out the kinks in my shoulders. White light surrounds me and a loud ka-boom shatters the air.
My body tingles all over when I wake in bed. I don’t know how I got here. I do remember Hoss saying “Lordy” an awful lot, and Adam beating me with his hat because I was smoldering some. I must have gotten a humdinger of a sunburn because every inch of my skin is raw.
“Stop touching me!” I protest as Hop Sing places vinegar-soaked cloths on my hot flesh.
“You’re lucky to be alive, son.” Pa’s voice catches and the sound upsets me more than laying naked on the bed.
“It’s okay, Pa. I’m fine.”
“Sure you are. Go to sleep.”
Every time my eyes open, someone new comes into focus. Hoss appears, disappears, and reappears like a magician. Same with Pa. One minute he is sitting on my left and—blink!—he is standing on my right wearing different clothes. Eventually, I can stay awake for more than a few minutes and that is when I notice funny fern-like marks on my chest. “What is this?”
“Bruising. They’re called lightning flowers,” Adam says.
“Pouring water over your head undoubtedly saved your life, Little Joe.”
When did Doc Martin get here? On the other hand, maybe he never left. I am still disoriented. “Most of the electricity passed over rather than going through you. Left you a little singed around the edges, I’m afraid.”
“We’re gonna start calling you Little Ben,” Hoss jokes, wiping a tear. “You know, for Ben Franklin.”
“I know my memory is a little fuzzy, but I don’t remember any storm.”
“Not at the ranch, son. Up at the lake. I have seen this type of lightning during my time at sea. It could strike the mast of a ship even if the storm was miles away and the sky above clear.”
Pa asks me to sit up so he can help me put on a clean nightshirt only my legs won’t move, and that causes a bit of a ruckus.
“You’ll walk again, Joe,” Doc says. “There is nothing wrong with your legs. It’s merely a matter of re-educating your brain to send the right signals to your muscles.”
“I don’t care about walking as long as I can ride.”
“No riding,” says Doc.
“I’ll put all of the tack under lock and key if I have to, young man,” Pa adds.
“Shucks, Pa, Little Joe would as soon ride bareback as not.”
Pa shudders and scowls at Hoss for putting the idea in my head. “No riding!” he repeats.
The paralysis proves temporary but muscle control is another matter. My limbs jerk and spasm when I least expect it leading to some interesting consequences, like giving myself a black eye. Pa worries about the danger a knife in my hands might present and winds up cutting my meat at meals, which makes me giggle. Hoss and Pa do not get the joke, but Adam does. He calls it gallows humor and says I am an expert at finding amusement in the darkest subjects.
“You could write for William Jernegan’s new publication, Joe,” he says when I bemoan the lack of something to do other than exercises. “Nothing wrong with your mind and you have just the sort of perverse sense of humor Bill appreciates.
“Well, let’s see.” Adam leaves my bedroom and comes back with The Scorpion, Genoa’s hand written rag sheet. “Listen to this obituary. ‘Cosmo Conklin died Saturday.’ Aside from who and what, the other basic tenets of journalism—where, when, and why—are missing. How would you tell it?”
“He got family?”
“Wouldn’t want to offend a widow or anyone.”
“Of course not, but this is hypothetical. How would you write it? Bill hopes his Territorial Enterprise will someday be known for its sharp writing and wit.”
I close my eyes and think on it a bit while Adam continues bending and stretching my legs to stimulate the nerves.
“Okay, I got it. ‘Cosmo Conklin took advantage of a full cistern on Saturday night to take a bubble bath up on the roof of the Genoa Bar and Saloon. Unfortunately, the purveyor of suds slipped on foam and, according to eyewitnesses, hopped to his death.’”
“Not bad for two minutes of thought,” he laughs. “Bill is looking for stringers.”
“Newspaper correspondents retained on a part-time basis to report on events. First issue will go to press in December if the printing press gets here on time.”
“A real printing press?”
“Second hand, but yes, a real printing press. Bill’s rented space at the Nevada Hotel.”
“Why? I’m mean, why start a paper in Genoa?”
“Lots of activity over in Gold Canyon and up Six-Mile Canyon lately. Prospectors coming in every day from California. Bill is speculating on people’s hunger for real news and not rumor, although, as I said, he’s not above ‘stimulating’ the readership from time to time.”
“You think I could be a reporter?” I am curious because it is something I never thought about. A detective, yes, but not a reporter.
“There are a lot of things you can do in this world, Little Joe,” Adam says seriously.
My leg jerks. Although he is holding my ankle, my foot strikes him full on in the chest, knocking him backwards into the wall. He thinks it is an accident. I know different.
He tries to reassure me. “I’m all right.”
“I’m not. Leave me alone.”
“It’s okay, Joe.”
The door clicks shut and I hear Adam’s boots on the wooden stairs as he trots down no doubt to find Pa and Hoss. In the silence that follows, I begin counting my losses, those over the last few weeks and those yet to come: the deadline for turning in the paper last month, the Fourth of July celebration last week; the cattle drive at the end of summer.
Muffled voices from the great room drift upstairs. I imagine Pa is saying I’m alive and that’s all that matters, and I should count my blessings. I know better. “There’s a lot of things you can do in this world, Little Joe.” Yeah. From a wheelchair. If I can’t control my legs, I can’t ride.
I stop counting. I refuse to talk or eat. I all but give up sleeping. All I do is cry. Pa thinks it’s because I’m frustrated with my lack of progress. No one knows it’s the loss of the pinto that depresses me more than anything else.
Doc Martin reasons with me, asking me to be patient, says the nerve connections will happen if I give it time. He’s seen it before. Blah, blah, blah. Pa tries lecturing, cajoling, pleading. Hoss straight out begs me to start living. Adam looks at me. The bug-under-glass feeling is back.
The next morning I wake up and see writing in Adam’s bold hand on the mirror.
A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.
Tucked into the corner of the frame is Miss Pardee’s letter. Her voice is clear, “His solutions are creative.” Adam’s words are too. “Ask for help when you need it.”
I call the family together and tell them about the day the pinto came into my life and the plans I had made.
“Will you help me round him up?”
“How do you know where the herd is, shortshanks?” Hoss asks.
“That was almost a year ago. You don’t know where they might be now.”
“I saw the pinto the day of the exam.”
“Even if Hoss and I can find the herd, there’s no guarantee we will be able to catch the horse.”
“Adam’s right, son, I’m concerned you are setting yourself up for a big disappointment.”
“Bigger than not walking?” I study their faces. Despite what the doctor has said, I can see they also have doubts I will recover. “Even if I can’t ever ride again, Pa. I need him. I can’t explain it, but we’re connected somehow.” Again, the looks pass between them. “Please, Pa.”
Therapy resumes and I try harder. I am out of bed before long, but only with assistance. My arms are better, but my legs behave like one of those jointed puppets, kicking out or buckling on their own.
One Saturday, Adam takes me in the buggy to Genoa. Although I am grateful to be getting out of the house, I do not relish going to see Doc Martin. When we drive past his office and down into town, I start to panic.
“Where are we going? I don’t want anyone to see me.” Meaning Marcie, of course. I look up and down the street hoping she is not out shopping.
“Trust me, kid. Everything will be fine.”
We pull off onto a side street in front of a very nice house. “Did you build this?”
“No, I swore off designing private residences after Miss Abigail’s house. This is William Ormsby’s home. I brought you to meet a young girl who works here. Her name is Sarah Winnemucca.”
“Winnemucca?” I gulp. “Chief Winnemucca?”
“Yes, his daughter. She is a companion to Ormsby’s daughter, Lizzie, and she speaks English very well.”
Sarah is on the porch waiting for us and she comes down to the buggy so Adam can make the introductions. Except for her facial features, Sarah does not look like a Paiute at all. Her dress is what any white girl wears and her long hair is curled. She is a little younger than I am and, while not exactly pretty, she has a great smile and a generous heart.
“Hello, Little Joe. I understand you would like to know about the Stone Mother who sits on the eastern shore of Pyramid Lake.”
“Yes, if you wouldn’t mind. I mean, if it’s all right to tell a white man.”
She has a lilting laugh. “It’s not a secret, Little Joe. But it is rare for someone your age to want to understand Paiute legends.”
“Sarah,” Adam says, “why don’t you take my place in the buggy while I go in and have a few words with Mr. Ormsby.”
When Sarah talks, her voice mesmerizes me. She relates how the Great Father and Mother had many children but the Great Father—angry with his sons for fighting all the time—separates them, sending one with a girl to the west to become the Pit River tribe and the other to the east with a girl to become the Bannocks. Distraught, the Great Father returns to his home in the sky. Many years later, the sons return bringing many warriors for battle. The Great Mother sits on a hill, her heart breaking as she watches her sons fight. She cries and cries for many moons until a lake of tears forms in the valley and she turns to stone with her basket at her side.
I still lack the fine motor skills that make holding a pencil possible, so I dictate the paper to Adam. He resists the temptation to make corrections or additions to my words as I say them. At least the penmanship will pass muster with Miss Jones even if the unconventional research does not.
The diploma is small consolation for missing the cattle drive, but means a lot to my father and, in some respects, to my brothers, too, I suppose. I am not surprised Hop Sing prepares a celebratory meal to which Doc Martin and Sarah Winnemucca are invited. He serves Mulligatawny soup, which Sarah delights in, having never before tasted curry. I suspect he chose that dish because it is easy for me to eat without parental oversight.
After dinner, Adam suggests we go out to the front porch for coffee and dessert. I am the last one out the door, concentrating so hard on moving my legs in tandem with the crutches that I bump into Pa. He turns around and grabs my arms to steady me, then steps aside.
Standing in front of me in the yard is the pinto, head high, ears forward.
I move toward him but his ears go back and he sidesteps a little. Maybe it’s the crutches he is afraid of, or all the people around me. I wave everyone off to the side and when they settle quietly on the porch, I put the crutches down. I am too afraid to move in case I jerk, so I remain still, hoping my legs do not buckle.
He moves forward and reaches out his neck, sniffing the air. I stand still. Bit by bit, he comes toward me. I follow the long lead with my eyes and see Hoss over by the corral holding the end of the rope. I start humming “Camptown Races.”
The horse takes a step back, then adjusts to this new information, and continues until he reaches me and nuzzles my shirt and all around my torso and head. When he blows in my face. I blow back into his nostrils and slowly raise my hand to stroke his neck. Long, even strokes and he sighs.
We are one.
I did not go on the cattle drive last year, but I continued working with my horse. Hoss stayed home with me and continued my therapy while Pa and Adam were on the drive. Maybe it was his stronger hands that got my muscles to work again, or all the standing, stretching and reaching to groom Cochise that helped. Whatever the cause, I started walking on my own in the spring of 1859 and was riding by summer.
The blue sludge that confounded the gold diggers turned out to be silver and a bonanza. The area north of Gold Hill became Virginia City and a destination for miners from all over the world. Bill Jergensen’s instincts proved correct and the Territorial Enterprise is still operating out of the office in Genoa.
Even Miss Jones relocated to the Comstock to teach in the new school there once “proper ladies” started arriving with their families. She has her cap set for poor Adam and he avoids her at all costs.
I finish grooming Cochise by braiding his mane and tail for the Fourth of July race. Marcie Grogan and I, and a few friends are picnicking up on Mt. Davidson to view the fireworks tonight. I am nervous about the loud ka-booms and bursts of light, but Marcie assures me she will hold me tight to her ample bosom.
The darkness that followed the white light consumed me for a time. It took a wise teacher, a loving family, and a wonder horse to help me take that first step into my future.
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