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Two Women of the Prairie
by Steven Utley
She had shed her clothes, and her loosened hair streamed behind her. Her eyes were wide. She had her mouth open, screaming. She looked like a madwoman.

Historical Fiction, 11 pages.
Originally Published in Louis L'Amour Western Magazine, 1994

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It never occurred to her to complain. Things were the way they were. When her daughter died, her son-in-lawís familial obligations ended, and he was free to seek another wife. She was free to choose between getting by as well as she could for as long as she could, with no living relatives to help her and in the face of the fact that no one who was not a relative owed her a thing, or else staying behind and waiting to die when the band moved on.

Her will to live proved stronger than her pride. She became a scavenger, subsisting on othersí garbage. She had no lodge skins or poles, and no animals to haul them if she had; she fashioned for herself a rude shelter of rags and sticks, which she carried in a bundle on her back when the band traveled.

Old woman! old woman! the children might call, and make faces, and dash away laughing, delighted at their own cleverness. No one else paid any attention to her unless it was strictly necessary.

Get out of the way, old woman, a man might say as he came by on his pony ó unless, of course, the man happened to be her former son-in-law, in which case he would ignore her as steadfastly as he had from the moment of his marriage to her daughter. It was considered bad form to speak to oneís mother-in-law, worse if she were dead, too. She bore being dead, being ignored, being insulted, as she bore everything else, with a scavengerís patience.

It was only late at night, as she lay in her miserable shelter, that she sometimes permitted herself to dwell upon the series of calamities that had befallen her. She would stroke one mutilated hand with the other and count the missing finger knuckles, each lopped off in token of mourning for a dead relative. Husband, brothers, sons, daughter. She would recall what it had been to have ten fully functioning fingers, and then what it had been to be young, smooth-skinned, pretty. She had been all of those things. More than one young man, affecting nonchalance as he passed playing his flute, had singled her out in a group of marriageable maidens and tried to flirt with her, only to have his composure wrecked by girlish taunts and laughter. One man had finally paid her father many horses for her; no one could have been more impressed by her value than she herself was.

Late one night, as she thought about those horses, the will to live finally did gutter in her, like a flame in a draft. She crawled out of her shelter and walked away from the sleeping camp.

She walked in no particular direction and never bothered to look back, for she knew that no one behind her cared. She walked with the wind, and it urged her on her way. She walked for hours, strangely tireless, as though she had saved up strength over the years for this very occasion. The stars passed overhead, the moon fell slowly, the eastern sky lightened. At last the hours and the miles told on her. She was stiff and in pain, and the chill had settled through her withered flesh, into her bones. She was thirsty and hungry, too. Still, it never occurred to her to complain.

* * *

In the dream, if it was a dream, if she had actually been asleep in bed and dreaming and not lying awake in bed and thinking, the prairie spread away from Rebecca to a circle of horizon. She was the only thing moving in that grassy expanse. She was moving at a dead run, clawing at the air with her hands as though she could grab it and pull it past and increase her speed by that much. She had shed her clothes, and her loosened hair streamed behind her. Her eyes were wide. She had her mouth open, screaming. She looked like a madwoman.

She started, and the vision vanished. Embers glowed in the hearth, casting barely enough light upon the sod hutís walls and ceiling to show her they were there. So I have been dreaming, she thought, and turned on her half of the rough bed toward her husbandís vacant half. Not seeing him there had begun to seem normal. It had been strange at first, as strange as seeing him there had been after the wedding. One adjusted, so that each strange new thing became a familiar old thing. Six weeks earlier, she had watched her husband ride off on the one horse, leading the one mule, and heard him promise to return within a fortnight. Since then, she had felt herself tugged in several directions at once by the hope that he still would come back, the fear, now passed into expectation, that he might not, ever, and the deepening suspicion that he had never intended to do so. He had taken the one firearm and most of the tools.

She rose from the bed and moved to the window. There was no glass, only a greasy cloth covering; she drew it back and looked hatefully out at the prairie. Dark clouds lay low on the horizon, and the air was cool and heavy with moisture.

As she had done every morning since her husbandís departure, she took inventory of foodstuffs: so much corn meal left, so much coffee, syru -- [End of Preview.]