“Yes, Papa.” Martha couldn’t get away with her lollygagging anymore. She put the sack of dried beans in the covered wagon and smiled nervously at her brother Mathias, who’d looked a little green in the gills ever since Papa made the announcement yesterday. A man down in Ephraim was willing to take Martha on as his third wife. Papa told him she was a workhorse. Sure she wasn’t much to look at, but she was a big-boned girl, good for baling hay and birthing babies.
Martha didn’t see why she needed a husband. She wanted to stay on her family farm near Salt Lake City. No shortage of work. But she was nearly 20. The Elders told Papa that most good Mormon girls were married off long before then. A good Mormon girl would want her own family.
No stopping it now. The man in Ephraim was 30 years older than her. All she could hope was that he wasn’t cruel.
A few hours later they were kicking up dust on the road by the Sevier River. The ridge towered over them, red rock glowing in the morning sun. Martha loved a journey so she put the destination out of her mind. She loved the smell of the horses mingled with the river reeds. Loved the sound of falling hooves, the creaking wagon, and the wind howling through the canyons. She looked up at the ridge. She bet she could climb up there. She was the best climber in her family, better than all five of her brothers. They always gave up when things got scary. Not Martha. If she wanted to get to the top, she got there.
As she dreamed about conquering that ridge, she thought she saw a man sitting tall on a piebald horse. A broad-chested Ute warrior, his long black hair bound with hawk feathers. Then he was gone. She blinked. Must be the sun in her eyes. No one would ride a horse up there, she thought, laughing at herself. Once, she’d spied a Ute warrior at the trading post. She thought he was just about the most marvelous thing she’d ever seen. Made up stories about him for a solid week. Still did sometimes.
No, none of Mathias’ ghost stories that night. After Martha cleaned the pots in the river they sat on rocks, gazing into the crackling fire. When Martha heard the snap of a twig she thought it was the burning wood. Two men came out of the shadows.
“Hello, there,” said a gaunt man. He pointed a pistol at them. He smelled like a hog that had broken into a whiskey barrel. “You stay put, now, while my friend here makes sure you don’t do nothin foolish.” The other man, who also stank, tied their hands and took their rifles. He went to their wagon.
“You were right, Jeb. All kinds of booty in here.”
“Yup,” Jeb said. “I could see that wagon was ridin heavy.
The other man returned to Papa and Mathias. He tied their feet as well as their hands so they couldn’t do much more than writhe on the ground. Then he went to get the horse while Jeb kept the gun on Martha. She figured they meant to make off with the whole wagon. Martha knew she should be desperate mad and fearful, but all she could think was that with her dowry gone, she wouldn’t have to get married.
When the horse was in the hitches, both men faced Martha.
“This one looks like she has some fight in her, Wilsey. You hold her while I get me some.” Both men snickered. Wilsey bent, put his arms through the crook of her elbows and pulled. His knee dug into her back.
Mathias and Papa begged the thieves to take the wagon but leave her be. For a second, Martha was confused. But only for a second. She didn’t know much about the ways of evil men but she knew enough. And she was strong. She grew up tussling with her brothers. No man that smelled like a damn hog in a distillery was going to take her virtue.
Martha waited until Jeb’s filthy self moved over her, his gun back in its holster. She whimpered. Let them think she was more scared than she was. When Jeb grabbed her skirts she scissored his legs between her own and brought him to the ground. A split-second later she lurched sideways, pulling Wilsey with her. He went down. She scrambled to Jeb, got his gun out of the holster. She couldn’t work the weapon with her hands tied but she clambered onto his prone frame and brought it down on his head, hard. She heard a crack.
Jeb was out but Wilsey tackled her. She kneed him in the groin, recovered the gun and ran to hide behind the wagon, trying to get the pistol steady with her bound hands. When Wilsey came for her she took a deep breath and shot him right in the chest. He thudded to the ground like a sack of grain.
“Oh sweet Jesus, thank you,” Martha said. “I thought I was ruined for sure. Papa, where’s your knife?”
Papa and Mathias had been hollering during the whole thing, but now they just stared up at her with big, wide eyes.
“Papa! Your knife!”
“Uh, under the seat.”
Lucky for Martha, it was a good, sharp knife. She got the ropes off and untied the others.
“Honest, Martha,” Mathias said. “Too bad girls can’t be soldiers.” He ran over and tried to lift her in a bear hug. He always tried that. Never could do it.
Papa had risen to check on smelly Jeb. “This man is dead,” he said.
“Oh Lord, help me. I didn’t mean to kill him, but I wasn’t going to let him do that to me.”
“It’s all right, Martha. The Lord allows us to defend ourselves.” Papa’s voice had a funny warble. He walked over and hugged her, too. She couldn’t remember Papa ever hugging her.
Owing to Papa being a good Christian man, he said they needed to bury those two in the morning. He and Mathias dragged them off to a copse of trees. They didn’t want bears invading their camp.
Martha settled down to sleep. She hoped Papa was right about the Lord forgiving her. She didn’t feel good now, in the dark, thinking how she killed two men. When she finally drifted off her dreams were troubled until the warrior came, the one she’d seen on the ridge. He was tall, strong and regal, with a broad face, a heavy brow and black eyes with the luster of a moonless night sky. He smelled wonderful, like fresh-cut cedar. Martha got a queer hot feeling in her belly. He nodded, then disappeared in a whiff of wind. She woke with a start. A sound came from the copse of trees. She saw a flash of white, heard the snap of a rein. And the scent! Fresh-cut cedar.
She chided herself for being a fool, then chided herself for chiding. Something terrible had happened. She was allowed to dream of her warrior, even if he made her see things that weren’t there. She lay back down hoping he’d come to her again.
A little past sunrise, Papa and Mathias came back from the copse where they had stashed the bodies, Mathias talking a blue streak. The bodies were gone, he said. Martha said a bear must’ve come. Papa said more than likely, but there was no sign of them being dragged off, no tracks.
“Damndest thing,” he said.
They ate hardtack and slurped coffee, then there was nothing left but to get on the road. Martha climbed up next to Papa and Mathias with heavy limbs. She really had to go be some old whiskered fella’s wife. Papa could at least tell her a little more.
“What’s this man like, Papa. This Jeremiah?”
“He’s a good provider. Three hundred head of cattle.”
Papa was so poor coming up that it seemed being a good provider was nearly all he thought about. He’d grown sickly since last year’s crop failed, chewing himself up from the inside out. Had to sell off the goats to make Martha’s dowry. She didn’t want to press him, but the closer they got to Ephraim the more nervous she became.
“But does he laugh, Papa? Does he wonder what the birds are saying to each other?”
“Well now, Martha, I’m sure he's too busy for frivolous things. But he’s a solid man. The Elders think highly of him.”
Martha almost snorted, which would have been disrespectful. All the Elders cared about were their damn tithes. As long as this man gave money to the church, they wouldn’t notice if he was a miserable cuss. Or worse.
“What about his other wives?”
Papa shifted uncomfortably, stared at the horse’s moving feet for a few seconds. Papa only had one wife. Martha wasn’t sure if it was because they were poor, or because he didn’t want another.
“His first wife is older. She can’t have babies no more. His second wife is young, but she has nervous fits. Stays indoors most of the time and never had a baby. He needs a good strong woman, Martha. You can have your own little baby to love.”
And there it was. Papa thought that’s all she wanted. All any girl wanted. Martha didn’t tell him she never thought about babies. She thought about warriors and journeys and the mysteries of nature. She dreamed of seeing the Pacific Ocean. Slim chance she had of doing that now. She’d probably be working from the crack of dawn until she fell exhausted in bed, only to have her new husband come to give her a baby she didn’t want. Mama had warned her that sometimes wifely duty was unpleasant. She said it might get better after she got to know the man.
“I never understood that, Mama.” Martha had said. “Why can’t we ever choose? We’re the ones who grow the babies in our wombs. I don’t see why we can’t choose.”
Mama only smoothed her hair. She smiled, but it didn’t reach her tired eyes.
Martha figured she’d bothered Papa enough. He didn’t know what to say. This was the way of the world and it wasn’t his fault. Mathias took her hand and said they should see how many birds they could name. If she named more, he’d do all the cleaning in camp that night.
Of course, Martha won the game. She loved the birds and the elk and the mountain goats and the long-horned sheep. Hell, she even loved what Papa called vermin. She was a little sad when the barn cats got them, though she admired those cats for being good at their job. She giggled at the sight of Mathias scrubbing the pots. When he was done she asked him to tell one of his stories. Told him she was nervous and it would help her settle down.
“Tell me that story about the Ute, Mathias. About how Sinawav the Creator and Coyote made the people out of sticks.”
“Martha, you best not reveal your fondness for heathen stories to your new husband,” Papa said. “Not for a while at least.” He winked.
“I hear you loud and clear, Papa.”
These were the best moments, them happy and enjoying each other. She wondered how much she would see them after she was a wife. She doubted it would be much.
After Mathias kept them laughing with stories about Coyote they bedded down, but Martha couldn’t sleep. When Papa and her brother were snoring, she got up and walked along a bluff where the river narrowed, moving fast. The moon was out and the water curled in silver ruffles as it flowed around rocks or driftwood. Martha thought about jumping. She’d survive the plunge. The river would carry her away. When it saw fit to land her someplace, she’d tell the people there that she could work for her supper. Tell them that she could churn butter and knit stockings and birth calves. She could set up jam and plant beans and build a fence. So much she could do.
She cried then. Martha didn’t cry much. Seemed like a good time for it.
As her tears sank into the thirsty ground, she heard a bird cry. Damn if it wasn’t the dawn song of a bluebird sounding in the middle of the night. She followed the song until the camp was out of sight. The notes were coming from a stand of junipers, their knobby foliage pale in the moonlight. She heard a rustle and the warrior rode out on his piebald. Martha gasped. She wiped her face, then her hands on her skirts.
The warrior took her measure while she took his. He got down off his big, beautiful horse. He’d never got off his horse before.
“You cannot marry that man,” he said, his voice as deep as a slow, wide river.
“I don’t want to,” Martha said. “Lord knows.”
“Your father thinks this is best for you, but he is wrong. You are too fierce for that life.”
Martha nodded. She held back tears. She wanted to be strong. “I’m fierce like you.”
His smile was the fresh rush of a waterfall. Martha felt that queer heat in her belly again.
“You cannot marry him. You should come with me.”
“With you?” She looked off into the junipers. Their rough bark stood out in such detail, like she could see into the deep grooves, see the sap running. She smelled the tang of their berries mingled with the warrior’s cedar scent and the breeze from the river. Her feet tingled. She felt anchored to the ground, felt like she belonged to the earth in a way she never had before.
“Will I be your wife?” she asked.
“Would you like to be my wife?”
“I don’t know.”
The warrior walked slowly towards her as his horse watched with its ears pricked forward. He put his big rough hands on either side of her head and searched her face. Then he kissed her, hard and soft all together. She closed her eyes. She saw eagles flying, trees whipping in the wind, heat lightning flashing over the plains. She leaned into him, pressed her ample breasts against his solid chest as he slid his hands down her back and cupped her bottom. She had never kissed a man, but she knew just what to do. She held him tight and moved against him. When he broke the kiss she wanted more.
“Would you like to be my wife?” he asked.
“Yes,” she said, a little breathless.
“Then you will need a Ute name.”
A word rolled off his honey lips. Mysterious and beautiful. How could that be her name?
“What does it mean?” she asked.
“Bear in the heart.”
She beamed and took his hand. “That’s me.”
He kissed the hand that held his, then lifted her onto his horse. He glided up in front of her. She snuggled in, her arms around his rock hard torso. They rode off towards the dawn.
I’m sorry, Papa, that I ran off. I couldn’t marry that man. I’m with my Ute warrior and our life is filled with magic and birdsong and clear running water. Please don’t worry about me. I’m learning to be a woman now, Papa, strong and wise. The first thing I learned is there’s no stopping love.