I expected to feel apprehensive, even frightened or anxious, my first night in that run-down cabin in the middle of a Wyoming plain with no other human beings around for miles, but I didn’t experience one troubled moment. For a woman who had been surrounded by buildings and people all her life, it seemed I would take to homesteading like a duck to water.
After boiling melted snow for tea water and opening some tins of food for supper, I lit my lamp and wearing a heavy nightshirt and Lou Davis’s coat, crawled into my bed roll to spend some time commemorating the day in my journal, blowing on my fingers to keep them warm as I did so. Then after putting out the lamp, I lay there in the cold, thick darkness for only a moment before falling soundly and dreamlessly asleep.
I woke the next morning with only the tip of my nose cold and lay there a moment, still amazed that I, Hope Birdwell, was sleeping in my own house. Maybe it had a dirt floor and maybe chinks of light shone through the walls where the logs didn’t quite touch each other and maybe there was a rustling in the chimney as if some creature had taken up housekeeping here ahead of me, but it was still my house. That reality would take some getting used to, and I thought to myself, Isn’t life something?
Outside, the morning air was cold enough to show my breath, but a bright rising sun that held the promise of coming warmth was peeking over the hilltops. At the rear of the cabin, behind the stand of trees, murmured Wildflower Creek, a convenient stream that flowed from the foothills in the distance, ran through my back yard, then meandered west until it was lost out of sight amid the tall grasses. As far as I could see were rolling hills of meadow grass merging into the high dark hills that stretched into the distance. The view took my breath away.
“Thank you.” I spoke aloud to no one in particular. Then I stopped and looked up and said it again, only louder. “Thank you, wherever you are.”
I couldn’t have said who it was I was thanking, whether God or my mother or a man I’d never met named Charlie McKinney, but someone deserved a thank you for this good fortune of mine.
After morning coffee and oatmeal, I decided my first project would be to patch up all the openings between the wall logs. They had let in too much cold air last night, and because I had a natural and plentiful supply of mud, I thought I could improve insulation easily enough.
In the middle of that chore I heard a man’s voice call, “Hello,” and thought that must be the company Lou Davis had promised. A man with a large gray moustache and curly gray hair was driving a wagon accompanied by two men on horseback. I wiped my hands on my old skirt and stepped outside to wait for them.
One of the riders dismounted and came toward me. He looked so much like a young John Davis that he had to be his son. He carried himself with the same formal dignity as his father, was about as tall with the same lean face and serious expression, only he had black hair and skin still unlined by time. His eyes were his mother’s, though, dark gray like smoke. He took off his hat when he met me, obviously surprised.
“Are you Miss Birdwell?” he asked, his tone slightly incredulous.
“Yes. I’m the only person here so I must be.” I felt suddenly self-conscious, aware that I was a mess, my hair escaping its kerchief, my smock spattered with mud, and I asked quickly, “Do I have mud on my face?”
“I thought I must have something smeared across my face the way you were staring at me. Pardon me if I do.” A small smile lit up his face.
“As a matter of fact, you do have something streaked across your forehead,”-I reached up to rub it off-“but that’s not why I seemed to be staring. My mother described you a little differently, a little-well, older, so I was just surprised. I’m John Thomas Davis.”
I reached out a hand to shake his, then drew it back apologetically.
“I’m insulating,” I said by way of explaining my dirty hands. “I had too good a view of the stars last night, so I thought I could make it a little cozier with some well applied mud. Goodness knows I have enough of that.”
He laughed as he turned to loop his reins around the saddlehorn. “It’s the season for mud, at least until the next snowfall and freeze.”
“You mean there’s a chance there’ll be more snow?”
The gray-haired man on the wagon seat gave a hoot. “There’s three seasons in Wyoming: winter, July, and August. You can count on more snow.”
“Then all the more reason for me to get snug before it comes.”
John Thomas said, “That’s Curly on the wagon and Tony behind me. My mother sent some things over for you and said you might need a little help getting settled.” I looked into the wagon and gasped.
“She must have sent over half your house. I can’t accept all this.”
He ignored my protest and reached for a box, saying as he did so, “Miss Birdwell, we’ve all learned this early on so you might as well, too, if you’re going to live in the neighborhood: Don’t argue with my mother when she sets her mind on something.”
The men unloaded a small iron bed frame with a straw-stuffed mattress, a sturdy little table with two chairs, a box of foodstuffs that included eggs, butter, and a loaf of fresh bread, a large stack of old newspapers, another box of assorted household items, and a variety of clothes, including the coat Lou Davis had promised. They unloaded firewood, too, and stacked it under the lean-to roof.
That finished, John Thomas stood back to examine the cabin from the outside carefully. “Is it just me or does the place tilt a little?”
“I’m tempted to say I don’t notice a thing just to see your expression, but I’m afraid you’re right. It does list to the south. Unless it’s the hills in the background that are crooked.”
He looked at me quickly, caught my expression, and smiled in return, the nicest smile I’d ever seen, warm and slow and reaching his eyes in a way that gave my stomach a flutter, as if I’d swallowed a butterfly.
“Well, we’ll see what we can do. We’ll tighten up the roof, put the doors on straight with good hinges and latches, and clean out the chimney so you can use your fireplace.”
“Yes, I think I had some kind of furry companion in there. I heard it rustling around during the night.”
“I hope that didn’t bother you too much.”
“I’ve learned not to let most things bother me,” I replied, “and creatures whose only fault is their desire to escape the cold are in that category.”
The three men worked all morning, eventually chasing a long, brown creature with black eyes and feet out of the chimney.
“A ferret,” remarked John Thomas with surprise. “I never knew one to be so far above ground. It wouldn’t have hurt you.”
I thought so, too, watching the poor little creature scamper away. We could have shared the warmth easily enough. It had been here first, after all, and should have some rights.
By mid-afternoon they were done. John Thomas Davis stood in front of the cabin, from his expression clearly not completely satisfied.
“The place needs more work, but I think this will get you through until summer.”
“It’s a wonderful improvement!” I exclaimed. “I don’t know how to thank you!”
The building seemed like a new cabin to me, with a fire burning in the fireplace and the little bed and table real furniture. For a moment tears of happiness pricked at the back of my eyes, and I turned away so he wouldn’t see them. All my life I’d been considered an odd girl and realizing that was so had never bothered me before, but for some reason, I didn’t want John Thomas Davis to think of me that way.
Outside Curly and Tony had already started off, but John Thomas held back for a moment.
“Please thank your mother for me and return this to her,” I requested, handing him her coat from the day before. “She was much too generous with everything. I’m very obliged. And thank you, too. This must be the western hospitality I’ve read about.”
“Do you really think you’re going to make it here all right? Wyoming’s not always bright and blue-skied like today, you know. And you ought to have a rifle with you, just to keep the coyotes away.” I looked at him in amazement.
“I wouldn’t know what to do with a rifle if I had one. I could probably figure out which end to hold and which end to aim but that’s about it. I’m not sure I could shoot anything, either.”
He adjusted his hat and pulled himself into the saddle.
“I’ll come back and show you sometime. My mother and both my sisters are good shots. It’s something you ought to know, too.” Then he gave me that surprised, quizzical look he’d had upon first meeting me. “You’re not what I expected, Miss Birdwell, I’ll say that.”
“I can’t comment since I don’t know what it was you expected, but I hope I’m not a disappointment. And please call me Hope.”
“Disappointment is the last word I’d use,” he told me seriously before he rode away.
Copyright © 2007 Karen J. Hasley.
All rights reserved.