Pa said I could marry anybody, as long as I had permission first. Pa said I should pick a man who knows how to drive cattle but keep a gentle hand for his wife, a man who could crack the whip on stubborn rough hide but also deliver a colt with patience and tenderness. “A horse knows a man’s intentions,” Pa would say. A horse needs a gentle hand sometimes, or even whispered words. Some people think it’s superstitious to talk to animals because animals can’t understand. They think animals are stupid and can’t tell between cruelty and kindness. Some of the boys who used to work on our ranch were like that. They would knock around an animal and think it felt nothing. Pa fired a man who used to kick the turkey out of the way during feedings. The turkey would stand by the entrance all fluffed up, showing off shiny bronze tail feathers, and that man would give it a hard kick in its chest. He wanted to make it clear who was in charge.
“You kick my turkey one more time and I’ll kick you all the way to Texas,” my pa told him. “You can’t fool a turkey. You walk in there aiming to kick, it’s gonna know.”
We bought and raised that turkey to sell for meat, but Pa never told that to the turkey. He talked to it as if it were one of his cowhands. “Good morning turkey, lookin’ good this morning,” he’d say. The turkey only ever gobbled nonsense in return, but he was loved, even if he was born to be a meal.
I grew up outside Fort Collins, Colorado on a working cattle ranch. My pa grew up on that same ranch and learned how to take care of the land from his father. He knew where to take the cattle in the spring and the winter. He grazed them on golden prairie grass.
“The prairie used to hold thousands of buffalo,” he told me once. “They kept the grass short. Now we don’t have buffalo, but the cattle are doing the job.” That’s what his pa taught him anyways.
On our land we had hundreds of birds. Naturalists paid five dollars just to look at birds on our land. We used to let those people in for free, until more of them took an interest and we started seeing two or three cars out there every day. In the winter we had some white bird roosting on the horse barn. All the naturalists came out with long cameras and heavy-duty binoculars. You didn’t need those things to see that bird. It was white as snow, an owl with yellow eyes. It survived a blizzard in mid-December. Some of our cattle died that year and we found them frozen in the dry creek bed. Pa had rounded up as many as he could and some of them came home on their own, but some of them we found stiff and empty-eyed in the creek bed. The bird stayed through the storm. Ma worried it would die and even thought we could catch barn mice to feed it. Pa said snowy owls are built for blizzards. He was right. It stayed on our land the whole winter.
After that bird appeared, Pa said everyone who wanted to be out on his land needed to pay five dollars. Then the naturalists wanted to get specific: five a person or five a car? Some of them complained that land should belong to everyone, but Pa knew that if everyone started coming to see birds on his land, they would be out trampling his prairie and leaving their trash and God knows what else. Some of those men brought rifles to shoot birds to take to the museum, and Pa didn’t like that they were taking from his land and not giving anything back.
“Don’t marry one of those bird men,” Pa said. “Makes no sense, they want to waste daylight looking for birds. Don’t these people have jobs?”
“I think it’s fun to look for birds,” I said. I never noticed the birds until this man was looking for birds by our house and he said he saw one called a painted bunting down along the creek bed. He said it was red and blue and green. I must’ve been sixteen then. I thought I wanted to see that bird too.
“You marry a ranch working man, or a scientist maybe—like a doctor who makes good money and doesn’t waste his time. But no bird men,” Pa said.
I didn’t really have marriage on my mind at that time. Even when I left home for college in Greeley, I wasn’t thinking about marriage. I got a scholarship to study there and become a teacher. It would take five years to finish unless I took summer classes. I didn’t because I knew summer would be the best time to be home. It was after my freshman year that it finally hit me how lonely school was. I had some friends, but they didn’t talk to me much outside of class. It was hard to tell if I wanted a really good friend or a marriage, because I thought marriage might mean having a really good friend. My ma married my pa when she was only eighteen, and she said she did it because he was her best friend and she couldn’t stand not to have him around. They got along because they were both raised on the prairie. They both knew what it meant to work hard with the wind whipping up dust in your face. They both knew what it meant to lie still in prairie grass and listen to the sounds of nature: the whisper of grass sparrows and the howling of distant coyotes.
I came home the summer after my freshman year and met this boy Willie on the ranch. He was twenty-four years old and never went to college. After high school, he worked on a ranch in southern Colorado. He came up here because he said it was closer to his home. He grew up real close to our ranch. Pa hired him because he had experience. He knew how to drive cattle and throw rope. He even knew how to break in a horse. Pa asked him to break in the black colt my mother named Skippy. I watched Willie out there with his saddle and rope. He whispered to the horse then yelled and Skippy spooked. Skippy went bounding to the other side of the pen. It didn’t seem fair in the end, the way Willie shoved the saddle on Skippy and pulled that horse to its knees in submission. He was a powerful man, and confidant too. He saw me watching from the fence.
“A horse has got to know who’s in charge, otherwise it takes advantage,” he said to me. He walked over and put his arms on the top post of the fence. He had a lot of muscle and freckles on that arm. “A horse knows if you’ve got a weak spirit and will take advantage.”
He was real handsome, with red hair just long enough for the wind to play with. His nose was angular, bent at the top like maybe he’d broken it once. When he looked at me I didn’t dare move, like his eyes were holding me down. I saw he had a few wrinkles at the corners of his eyes, and that made me think he was a real experienced man.
“It’s good to have a gentle spirit,” I said.
“No, maybe with women, but not with animals.” He winked.
“Just don’t kick our turkeys. My pa will get rid of you if you kick the turkeys.”
He lived in the house across the field with the other summer workers. Sometimes I looked out my window to see if their lights were on. Those lights went out early except on Fridays, when I knew the boys would be drinking and playing card games and telling jokes I wouldn’t like to hear. I started wondering about Willie, if he was that kind of boy who made bad jokes about women. I wondered if he’d been with other women, because if he had I shouldn’t have been thinking about him. That’s where I went wrong, thinking about him at night.
I hung out around the horses where I knew I’d run into Willie. He cleaned the stalls and fed the horses and we talked about anything. He’d talk about growing up only five miles or so from my pa’s ranch. I asked him if any naturalists ever asked to be on his property.
“All the time. My father said no at first. But they didn’t listen and they drove around our property anyways. So my father started carrying his rifle around for show. He never intended to shoot it. If a car went blazing down the road he would go stand by the gate with his rifle out and wait for the car to come back the other way. He’d lift the rifle and pretend like he was going to shoot. People would swerve or step on the gas, but they never came back.”
“You must’ve had some good birds on your property. Did you ever have a white owl?”
“A white owl? You’re making that up. The owls on our property are dirt brown and ugly. They sound like old women hooting in the night.”
“Those are the Great Horned owls,” I said. “I’m talking about the white owl.”
“Well aren’t you a smart little lady,” he said.
I didn’t like how he didn’t believe me about the owl.
“I am in college you know,” I said.
“I know, Paula. You’re a real intelligent young woman. I know that.”
We were leaning on the swing door to Skippy’s stall. Skippy looked beaten, his head down, sheepish eyes flitting from us to the window. Skippy had a cottonwood tree outside his window and I could hear the yellow warblers. I don’t think Willie noticed them. He put his arm around me and I stepped back.
“I was just gonna kiss you,” he said. His eyes looked hurt. I wasn’t sure if he was playing or serious. He tried to put his other hand on my cheek all romantically and I turned my head away.
I tried to peel his hand off my waist but he grabbed harder and he did it right then. He put his hand over my mouth and undid his zipper and shoved me against the barn wall. I could still hear the warblers. I cried through muffled screams. I saw only his nose twitching sometimes because he was trying so hard. He smelled like horse manure. When he was done, I was just lying on the floor crying, not wanting to scream now and embarrass myself. I had been a clean girl until then. Like Pa always said, I was saving myself for marriage. I wasn’t clean anymore. Nobody could know. Willie put a finger to his lips. I never noticed before but they were skinny lips, hardly had any lips at all.
“You won’t tell a soul. Remember, it was you who came to me,” he said with a smile. He kicked up some hay in my direction and zipped himself back up. “You better put yourself back together,” he said. He nodded towards my own undone pants. I felt sore on my arm where he had held me. I should have fought harder. I did try to kick him but he had me so hard against the wall. If my pa had walked in right at that moment he could’ve stopped it. But he didn’t. There was only Skippy who didn’t know any better, watching from his stall.
After that, I thought I should marry Willie, not to make it right for God but to make it right for my father. All those things my father told me were like ghosts in my ear at night. If there was a baby, then there had to be a father to receive it. If there wasn’t a baby, then the marriage was only to settle my conscious. I was a dirty woman otherwise. No man would take a girl knowing she had already spilled her blood, and in a barn of all places. Unless he was a city man and I never liked the city or its people.
At the end of July I told Willie we should get married because I thought there was a baby. I lied. There wasn’t really a baby, I would’ve known. I would’ve been sick. He agreed we should get married, because my pa would find out anyways who the baby belonged to. Willie would lose his job and all the ranchers and farmers nearby would hear about it, and he’d have to move far away to get a job anywhere else. I told Willie we’d better ask my pa first and Willie said he’d handle it. My pa liked Willie so far because he knew how to break horses in fast. Around Pa, Willie was sweet as honey and he’d whisper to the horses that everything was alright. Pa was just too busy with the cattle in summer to keep a constant eye on every worker. He saw how Willie got the job done and trusted that he was doing everything right.
My pa didn’t notice yet how the horses were shy around Willie, waiting for his heavy hand to fall upon their skin. Sometimes it wasn’t even his heavy hand, but his heavy words, the way he shouted anger to make a horse hear him.
“You goddamned horse, you’re gonna do exactly as I say,” I heard him say to Skippy once. In that violent way he made Skippy into a broken horse for riding. I should’ve taken Skippy out for a ride. We were both dirty horses.
I didn’t go back to college. Willie said I could still go and come home for breaks and over summers, but I couldn’t be there with the other young girls knowing they still had the chance to find someone gentle in their lives. Their doors for marriage and jobs were wide open. I could still be a teacher, but I didn’t think I should be teaching little children after what Willie had done to me. I didn’t want to pass those things on to children. Children can tell when you got dark secrets to keep.
Willie built a house with some of the other workers and now we live just a mile west of my parents’. Pa gave us Skippy because Skippy was never good for much. He couldn’t be taken on cattle drives because the bucking of calves or the flinch of cow haunches would spook him into a frenzy. I rode Skippy out onto the prairie and down into the creek bed. Sometimes we meandered through the forest of Russian olive trees and I listened for the different birds I heard the naturalists talking about. There was some kind of owl with long ears that roosted in the olive grove. At night in the early spring I sometimes could hear their screams. If I didn’t know any better I would have said they were ghosts. I sometimes imagined they were the ghosts of my grandmother and great grandmother, screaming for shame and all the things the world did to them as women. I would be among them, was already among them.
There were wild turkeys out there too. I liked to see them outside of a cage. They could walk wherever they wanted and fluff up their feathers and strut. Sometimes I tied Skippy up to a tree and went and sat behind a bush just to see how close a turkey might come to me.
Now I’m sitting out on the prairie, on this bluff that overlooks the land. The cattle are spread out and feeding to the south. I can see Pa and Willie out there on their horses. They are specks. But way far out there isn’t anything but yellow grass and wind sweeping over the prairie. Sometimes it’s a gentle wind, a hopeful wind. Other times it’s rough and blows my hair all over and chaps my cheeks. I’m thinking how men are like the wind. Some of them are soft and gentle like that, and some of them wear you down and carry you away piece by piece. Some of them talk so much and so loud that you can’t hear your own voice over them, like storm wind. I married the wrong wind. I made that choice. My mother said you always have to live with your choices. You can’t put the blame on other people.
I like to forget my life after that day near Skippy’s stall. I can still remember how I felt before I met Willie, when I thought I would be a teacher and when Pa gave me advice on what to look for in a man. He doesn’t tell me things like that anymore. He says I married a fine man, but he hasn’t seen yet how Willie handles Skippy. Or maybe Pa just doesn’t care anymore now that I’m married, now that I’m not his anymore. Sometimes I think I will walk out over the prairie and keep on walking into the wind. Eventually the prairie will end and I will find something better if I keep walking.