Today's Reading


Arizona Territory, Summer of 1907

I blame the beginning of the whole thing on Jane Austen. From where I was sitting on the back of my horse that morning, the only place where I could see anything clear, everything had changed once my Quaker ma found Pride and Prejudice under my pillow. Pa was raised on the back of a horse and thought of reading as something only girls did. Neither one of them had ever read the likes of Austen before.

I'd been admitted to Wheaton College without setting foot in a schoolhouse. My aunt Sarah Elliot had a large collection of books that lined every last wall, floor to ceiling, in her ranch house. One day last fall, after having read almost every book there, I was looking for some- thing new and discovered a nearly hidden section of novels on a high shelf. The titles, Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice, sounded like essays on principles of virtue and meritorious living. Well, they weren't.

My sister Esther and I used to read these novels to each other as whispers late into the night. Jane Austen's books sure made us dream of finding a handsome man to make our lives good and rich, but this was the Arizona Territory. Most of the two-legged rascals we weren't related to were cowpokes and drifters, so I never looked at any of them to make my life any different than it was. Thing was, I didn't really like the characters or the stories. Just like so many other things I had read, the people were more tangled up about getting hitched and swooning over some lover or other than they were about the lack of rain or the cost of a new saddle. They never did anything actually worthwhile except get dressed up in fancy clothes and go to dances, but it gave us something to do on a summer night when the sun didn't set until nearly ten. I mostly liked real stories about people who did things that mattered. Inventing and discovering, that's what interested me.

Even in the early morning, I could smell rain in the air. Mosquitoes tried to make breakfast of my neck, so I pulled up my kerchief. I had a city bonnet in my parcels, but for now I was wearing what suited me, a new Stetson hat and a split riding skirt.

As Esther read aloud until she fell asleep with the book on her chest, I would lie in bed and wish my life could amount to more than just a romance. I wanted to draw pictures of people and animals and I had a sketchbook that had not a square inch left without a picture in it.

It was a shame that for me to get to go of to school like my brothers had done was about to cost me Ma's scorn in a way that felt as if she'd hate me forever. She'd picked me out a fellow, and I was leaving him as well.

Sprawled on the floor in Aunt Sarah's parlor, my siblings and I were taught the only schooling any of us ever got from that library, and it ran from astronomy and animal husbandry to skinning a snake and zebras on the African veldt. This education got my brother Joshua into medical school. Aunt Sarah's daughter April married young and lives in Tucson, while her two boys went to the University of Arizona to study geology, but dropped out after a year due to "lack of inclination." My brother Clover went to school for two years and he's set on keeping up Pa's pecan farm. My brother Joshua is of to study medicine in Chicago. Besides Esther, I have twin older sisters, Rachel and Rebeccah. Rebeccah likes to cut roses and make grafts of the stems. It sounds unusual out here in the Territory, but pretty much anything with a thorn will grow here, and so she tends her flowers and studies botany. Rachel embroiders. I hate that stuf, and the threads all tangle up in my hands. Give me the back of
a horse running hell-bent, and I can stick a post with a knife or a bullet, either one.

I was the youngest girl; always the keeper of Ezra and Zachary, my two little brothers, the rottenest and smelliest little toads ever lived. All my blessed life I've heard, "Mary Pearl, get the boys out of the sugar box. Mary Pearl, change Zachary's diaper. Mary Pearl, mind those boys don't fall into the well."

I wanted to amount to something more than that. I was about to turn seventeen, and it was high time.

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