New Frontier

Pepper Espinoza

 

Chapter One

Ida hugged herself and shivered. It was late in the afternoon and the sun was sinking low behind the mountains. Long purple shadows stretched from the low cliffs, and she noted with a sigh that there were already traces of snow on the towering peaks. It was only September and she wasn’t ready for what promised to be a hellish winter. She couldn’t look away from the white-capped mountains, her eyes tracing the edge of the snow until she couldn’t see it anymore through the dim light.

The trees next to the house had already changed colors. The small cottonwoods and willows had dropped their leaves and were bracing themselves for the cruel, unforgiving winds. The air carried the rich smell of autumn-burnt leaves, slaughtered animals and smoked meat. In the silence, she could hear the Smith boys in the far distance herding their cows into the barn for the night. They mooed in protest and the kids shouted with tired encouragement.

Mrs. Smith had stopped for a visit the day before, unexpected and unannounced. She clucked around Ida's cabin, casting disapproving looks over the dust on the floor, the pile of unwashed clothes, and the dirty fireplace.

"Oh, Dear, if you need help, don't you know you can always ask?" Mrs. Smith said. She patted Ida's hand and tried to look understanding.

"Thank you for the offer," Ida said tightly. "I appreciate it, but I'm fine."

"Oh, well, I know how hard it must be for you. Being out here all by yourself. I don't know what I'd do without my Johnny and my boys. Why don't you come to the services on Sunday?" Mrs. Smith suggested with a kind smile. "I think you'd have a wonderful time and there are so many interesting people…"

Ida gritted her teeth at the memory. She knew why Mrs. Smith came over, knew why all the people in town talked about her. None of them could believe that such a small woman, not much older than a girl, could take care of herself. None of them could believe that her delicate hands and slight back could bear the load, that her small frame was strong enough to face the wilderness.

There was something so fake, something so bizarrely artificial about the woman and her children that Ida couldn't even think about them without getting a headache. Their shouts and yelps faded and died, and silence fell on the evening. Even the chickens in her yard were silent as they waddled, one by one, into the hen house to roost. The large gray and red rooster, Larry, stood proudly in the barnyard and watched his hens until they were all safely tucked away for the night.

Ida’s chores were done for the day. Her back and arms felt sore, and the blisters on her hands and feet stung. Grime and sweat clung to her body and clothes, and she ignored the ripe smell coming from her. Her eyes felt gritty from the dirt and her head throbbed with exhaustion. She looked forward every day to watching the sunset. She enjoyed the final, peaceful moments of each afternoon; the way the world slowed down, settled down, put itself to bed. Twilight gave her a chance to breathe, a chance to unwind for a few precious minutes.

She had so many things to finish before winter trapped her inside, away from the city, away from the stores and her neighbors. It would be her first winter alone, her first winter in Salt Lake City, and she had heard horror stories of women and children who had starved or frozen to death, or were forced to accept charity from their neighbors or the church. Ida didn’t want to be another sad story. And she understood now that she would be braving the harsh weather by herself. Liam would not be joining her until the spring.

The thought of Liam ended her short reprieve and reality shattered the evening. The endless weight of the responsibility pushed on her chest, and she wished for the millionth time that she wasn’t stuck in this godforsaken territory by herself. She wasn’t supposed to be alone. Liam had promised her that if she was willing to stay by herself for just a few weeks, a month tops, he would join her by the summer. The conversation still played over and over in her head, an awful echo she couldn’t escape.

“Why can’t I go to California with you?” Ida had asked, struggling to keep the fear and frustration out of her voice.

“Because I’m not going to be there for very long. Besides, it’s no place for a lady," Liam explained patiently.

“Liam, I can take care of myself. What am I supposed to do while you’re gone?”

“You stay here in the Valley and I’ll be back before harvest," he had promised as he kissed her cheek.

“But I want to go to California," Ida insisted.

“Why? There’s nothing there but mining towns…nothing there for you.”

“You’ll be back before the winter?”

“Yes, I promise.”

And so, she had settled in Salt Lake, working hard just to feed herself. The money he left her was running low. Nothing she raised was for sale; everything was strictly for food. She wasn’t a good enough seamstress to make money from sewing, and even if she was, she didn’t have time. Every day she felt a little more crushed. She wanted out. She wanted to go east or west or north or south. It didn’t matter. She just wanted to go somewhere, be somewhere, else. And she wanted to be with Liam. And she wanted to have the time and inclination to keep up with her friends and family, and write in her journal.

Ida pushed the unpleasant thoughts out of her head. There was no point in dwelling on them. She’d just make it work because what other choice did she have?

With a sigh, she picked up the bucket of water and whistled sharply for her dog, Ranger. She expected to see his low body come galloping through the thicket of trees, but there was no response. She whistled again, louder, and called his name. She waited a few minutes, shouting his name repeatedly, growing increasingly concerned. He never ignored her.

Ida brought the pail into the house and put it carefully on the floor. The small cabin needed to be cleaned. Housework had been abandoned as the harvest season started, and a clean and spotless home was far below having food for the winter on her list of priorities. She looked around and wondered what a stranger would think if he saw the house. Ida knew what her mother would think. She would be horrified that her daughter had allowed herself to sink as low as this.

Ida collapsed on the edge of the bed, exhausted. She eyed the basket of sewing that she had been meaning to do for the past two weeks. She hated sewing. She hated needlework. She hated darning socks and patching clothes. She put it off for as long as humanly possible before she would break down and do only what was necessary. A pile of books sat beside the bed, but she ignored them as well. Her journal remained closed, and the stack of letters she needed to read and respond to were left untouched.

Ida wanted to blame the exhaustion for her apathy. She had spent the entire day digging up potatoes. The day before, she had been picking peas and ears of corn. She had every reason to be exhausted to the point of collapsing on her bed, her eyes already closed. But that’s not what kept her from her reading or writing or correspondence.

Every time she picked up the pen, she couldn't think of anything to write about. She wanted to tell her mother and her sister about her wonderful life, but all she could write about was the size of her blisters and latest haul of potatoes. She lived it; she didn't want to write about it. She never could concentrate on the books. Every time she tried, she read the same page repeatedly until she gave up with disgust.

Ida didn’t want to stand up again. Her back and legs wept, and she thought if she could just sit down for a minute, she'd be fine. Her stomach growled, and she didn't know what she needed more, food or sleep. But she knew she didn't need to be out looking for the damned mutt.

“Stupid dog,” she muttered as she grabbed the lantern from the kitchen table. Ranger wouldn't run away. He liked the regularly timed food and the big soft bed. But there had been a few sightings of cougars in the area, and Ida didn’t want to lose her dog to one of the lions. Everybody gathered their animals close to their homes and barns, and kept a sharp eye on them.

Ranger was her only companion.

Ida hesitated outside her door. He could be anywhere. She didn't want to spend hours wandering around in the dark. The family who lived on the property before her had been there since Salt Lake City was settled and planted a thicket of trees between the cabin and the foothills. Ida supposed the trees were meant to be a windbreak. She decided she'd search there first while there was still enough light to see. As she walked deeper into the trees, it grew darker and darker. Soon her only light came from the small lantern, and it cast a weak circle to see by.

“Here, Ranger…come on boy…” Ida called as she walked. “Come on…it’s getting cold, you dumb dog.” She puckered her lips and made kissing noises, then tried whistling again. She made so much noise that she almost missed the distinctive sound of a green willow branch snapping back into place.

She froze, her eyes straining in the darkness as she held the lantern high above her head, desperately trying to see any movement in the night. What she did see, however, caused her heart to jump to her throat. She caught her breath and took a slow step back as the bright green eyes reflected in the light tracked her movement.

“Ranger?” Her voice was low and hopeful. She hadn’t even armed herself before going off in the dark, and if it wasn’t Ranger, she didn’t know what she would do. There was a tense moment when the beast didn’t move, and the eyes glittered dangerously in the dying light of her lamp. Then it leapt out of the brush towards her, paws extended, and hit her squarely in the chest. She fell back and it licked her face and neck with its big wet tongue.

“Ranger! Damnit, get off of me! Stupid damn dog…what are you doing out here? Huh?” Ida stood up and brushed herself off, muttering under her breath about what a worthless animal she owned. She reached down to grab the rope that hung around his neck, but before she got a hold on it, he had scampered off again. She shouted in frustration.

“Ranger, come on…I’m not mad at you…no reason to run off again…just because I’m going to wring your neck when I catch you…no reason to hide…come on, come on, come on!”

She caught sight of his bright white fur and followed him deeper into the darkness. Whatever light that had lingered after the sun had set was gone now, and the glow of the moon was only a hint behind the mountains. The lantern was slowly flickering out. The smart thing would be to head back to the relatively warm safety of her cabin. She turned around, intent on doing just that, when Ranger howled. The eerie sound made Ida shiver, and she turned to face the direction of the noise.

Intrigued and a little frightened, she continued walking in the direction she’d last seen him. Ranger howled again, and the hairs on Ida’s arms stood on end. Something was definitely wrong. She cursed herself again for leaving her gun at home. She would have felt infinitely better armed with the familiar, comfortable rifle

Ida picked her way carefully through the dark. She didn’t want to trip on a root or twist her ankle in a rabbit’s hole. She knew that there were animals lurking just beyond the edge of her senses, and she did her best to go through the silence without disturbing them. Ranger finally stopped howling, and she strained her ears for any sound or warning of danger.

“Ranger…where are you? Come on boy…”

In response, the dog barked. It sounded like he hadn’t moved at all. Well, at least I’m not chasing him through the mountains. She stumbled into a small clearing then, the young trees circling and enclosing it. Ida found Ranger sitting next to a large lump on the ground. He sniffed at it intently and his tail wagged furiously. When he heard her, he looked up and acknowledged her with a short bark, then turned his attention back to the oddly shaped shadow on the ground.

Curious, she took another step. It was probably just a dead animal that would attract every dog and scavenger in the area. In that case, she wanted to get out of there before the stray dogs and coyotes showed up to fight over the decaying meat. It was probably fresh. Ida didn’t smell anything to indicate there was a dead animal near her.

“What have you got there?” She asked as she moved closer, the light above her head. The soft light fell across the body.

Not a dead animal.

Ida choked back a startled scream. A man with a deep, dark wound on his shoulder, bleeding through the cotton of his shirt, was stretched out on the ground in front of her. His head rested on leather saddlebags, his face white with loss of blood, his body thin and haggard. He looked dead. Holding her breath, she leaned forward and touched his neck, searching for a pulse. It took her several seconds, but she finally found the very, very faint but steady throbbing.

Ida straightened and sighed as she considered her options. She couldn’t just leave him there, but she certainly couldn’t drag him back through the trees. Even though he was lean and trim, she didn’t think she was strong enough to lift him. Also, she didn’t want to cause him more damage than necessary and make things worse. But he would definitely die if she didn’t do something, and soon.

Ida pinched the bridge of her nose and closed her eyes tightly. She saw rows and rows of injured men stretching in front of her. She heard their gasped cries, their strangled moans, their painful, shallow breath. She could smell the blood and infected wounds. The vision flashed and was gone, and only the injured man was silent at her feet. Silent and bleeding and dying at her feet.

Ida set the light down next to his body and circled him, looking for something, anything, that would help. No inspiration struck, and his breathing became more labored. It almost sounded like a death rattle.

“Damn,” she whispered.

She went back into the trees and looked for two large, sturdy branches. It was difficult to find two that were the right size and strength, and she spent several precious minutes searching the ground. Finally, she returned to the clearing, triumphantly carrying two branches that looked like they would serve her purposes nicely. She took off her long shawl and wrapped it around the wood, making a crude litter.

Ida linked her arms under his and lifted him off the ground easily. She was so surprised at how easy it was that she nearly fell backwards. She paused and regained her balance, and then slowly walked backwards, dragging him along the bumpy ground and onto the shawl.

She saw instantly that the shawl wasn’t going to be strong enough to support him for long without ripping. Sighing with disgust, she settled him onto the material and then tried to lift the wood, looping her arms over it and settling the ends below her shoulders. She clutched the lantern tightly, praying that it wouldn’t go out before she reached the cabin. Ranger followed as she started to walk, sniffing at the man’s feet and wagging his tail as they moved. Slowly. It was obvious that this was going to be a long, sluggish process.

On the way home, Ida was even more wary of wild animals. She made a racket breaking through the brush with the body, and she knew the fresh scent of blood would attract unsavory beasts. Ranger trailed the make-shift litter, barking and growling occasionally. Her shoulders and back went numb, and she lost all the feeling in her hands and fingers. Her head felt light and her lungs hurt. Despite the growing chill, her shirt was soaked with sweat. How far from the house was she? She didn’t think it was more than a half-mile, but it felt more like twenty.

When she’d started, the body hadn’t seemed that heavy. By the time she was in sight of her humble home, she staggered and faltered under the weight. She gritted her teeth with determination and forced each slow, agonizing step. Just a few more yards, just a few more yards…

Finally, she reached her porch and collapsed at the door, gasping for breath. She was strong and in shape from working on the farm, but carrying dead weight through a dark grove of trees and underbrush had taxed her more than she had expected. She leaned over his body and checked for a pulse again and panicked when she felt nothing. Oh my God, did I kill him? Oh God, oh Jesus, oh God. No, no, she found it again. Fainter than before, but still there.

She rubbed her neck and rotated her shoulders. As she straightened, her back popped and cracked. She took a deep breath and lifted him off the litter and dragged him into the house. She knew she wouldn’t be able to lift him onto the bed…first she’d get him undressed and washed. She laid him on the rug in front of the fire, grimacing at the sight of the blood and dirt and mud all over his clothes and skin. He moaned softly, but didn’t stir.

Ida put the water on the stove and rummaged for clothes. She lined up her instruments on an old towel beside him on the floor. A bowl of hot water, several towels, needle, thread, rags, a bottle of whisky to clean the wound, and scissors. She changed into a large, clean shirt that reached past her knees. It was completely inappropriate but she really didn’t care. Who would know, anyway?

The low fire illuminated the small cabin, but Ida lit a few more candles and lamps so she could see his injured body clearly. She’d worked as a nurse during the tail end of the war, and though that was six years and a thousand miles away, Ida had never forgotten her training. Her hands still remembered how to remove the bloody, dirty clothes, how to pull the needle through the skin, how to clean and bandage. She could do it with her eyes closed and knew how to distance herself from the man she was caring for.

Ida looked at his naked, bruised, stained body without passion. She noted with surprise that his wound was bandaged, and as she slowly cut the rags from him she realized that wherever he had been before, he had been well cared for. Whoever had doctored him had done so with a fine eye and a careful hand; however, the exposure to the elements and the hard journey back to her cabin had reopened the wound and he was bleeding thickly through the stitches. It looked like he had been pierced by shrapnel, not hit with a bullet.

With infinite gentleness, she began to bathe him, cleaning away the filth. She winced when she discovered broken ribs as she rubbed his chest and sides. Fortunately, the bones hadn’t punctured his lungs. Bruises marred his chest, arms, and legs. Some were fresher than others. His lips were dried and cracked, his eye swollen shut.

She worked diligently, cleaning him and then pouring the whisky over his wound. It was a bottle she had bought in anticipation of Liam’s arrival last spring and had stored in a cupboard behind the flour. Untouched. She wrapped his chest tightly, and then stitched the bleeding hole in his shoulder. She winced in sympathetic pain and was grateful that he remained unconscious, for his sake.

Once the grim work of cleaning, binding, and patching was done, Ida sat back on her heels and took a deep breath. She finally allowed herself a moment to study his parts in whole. He was small in stature. Short, thin, but even in his sleep, his muscles were flexed and hard. He had a handsome face, strong features and high cheekbones. His hair was a curly mess, stiff with sweat and dirt. Ida couldn’t allow herself to admit that he was attractive—she quickly changed the direction of her train of thought.

Ida knew he would be most comfortable on the bed, but she was too exhausted to carry him there. Instead, she decided to make him as comfortable as possible on the floor. She put a large pillow under his head and covered him with two of her spare quilts. Ranger watched with curiosity, staying out of her way until she had the strange man carefully tucked under the blankets, then he curled up against his side.

“Ranger, get away from him…he doesn’t need you smashing his ribs.”

Ranger didn’t move and the man didn’t stir. The mutt stared up at her with big brown eyes, panting, and it almost looked like he was smiling. Ida didn’t have the heart to make him move. Besides, the extra body heat from the dog wouldn’t hurt, as long as he didn’t try to lie on top of him.

Ida blew out the candles and turned down the lamps. In the darkness, she could easily hear the injured man’s breathing. It was comforting, in its own way. Steady. In and out. Ranger whined a bit in his sleep and settled down. Ida stood in the middle of the cabin for long, cold minutes and just listened to him. The evidence of another human life in her home. The temporary reassurance that she wasn’t alone, even if he was an unconscious stranger.

Ida broke from her stupor and changed into her entirely proper, uncomfortable, scratchy, wool nightgown. She kept her eyes open long enough to brush out her dirty and snarled hair. Even though it hardly made a difference, she kept up the small rituals and customs that her mother had taught her. A hundred strokes with the brush every night before she went to bed, even if her hair was filthy and hung in lifeless strands around her face. She scrubbed her face and her hands while her eyes slowly fell shut.

She climbed into bed and made plans for the next day. She would cook a stew. Stew was good. She needed to finish the potatoes, and it was time to check the smokehouse. She needed to go into the city, too, and buy some cloth, but she wouldn’t want to leave her patient alone. That errand would have to wait.

She hoped the man would heal before winter set in because she just didn’t think she’d have enough food to feed more than one mouth. Especially if the other mouth was a grown, sick man who would need the sustenance…

Ida didn’t have the energy left to worry and fret. Her eyes fell heavily, her breathing deepened, and sweet sleep overtook her.

 

 

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