Stephanie Grace Whitson
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YOU are in SO MUCH TROUBLE.
Seventeen-year-old Irma Friedrich sighed. If only Momma hadn't shrieked a moment ago, Diamond wouldn't have startled. And if Diamond hadn't startled, Irma would have landed the dismount that involved a handspring off the dapple-gray gelding's withers and a high arc through the air. She would have been standing in the middle of the arena --- uh, corral --- taking her bow as Liberty Belle, the star of Buffalo Bill's Wild West. She would have been waving to the imaginary crowd of thousands and then going over to pat Diamond on the neck and reward him with a few cubes of sugar. But Momma had shrieked --- at the worst possible moment, when Irma had just put the reins in her teeth and started her handstand on Diamond's back --- and Diamond had broken his stride, and so here Irma was, sitting in the dirt trying to catch her breath and wondering why in the world Momma and Daddy had come out to the ranch at this time of day. They weren't supposed to drive out from town until suppertime, and it was barely past dinner.
As Irma got up and dusted herself off, Daddy stepped down off the back porch and hurried toward the corral. "Are you all right?" he hollered. When Irma nodded and bent down to pick up the hat she'd borrowed from her cousin Monte's room, Daddy stopped in midstride, put his hands on his hips, and sputtered, "Then get yourself up on the porch and apologize to your mother. You've frightened her half to death." Spinning around, Daddy stomped back across the patch of dirt that served for a backyard and up the unpainted stairs onto the porch of Aunt Laura and Uncle Charlie Mason's two-story ranch house.
Diamond ambled over and snuffled her pocket. Irma glanced toward the ranch house, where Momma was sprawled on the porch swing, Aunt Laura standing over her, fanning to beat the band. Irma could just imagine her cousins --- Minnie and Mollie, Mamie and Maggie --- all gathered at the kitchen window watching the drama unfold. The girls could be counted on to stay out of sight now, but they could also be counted on to take advantage of every future opportunity to tease Irma about everything from the missed dismount to their Aunt Willa's dramatic collapse.
With another sigh, Irma looked down at Monte's hat. The smooth felt yielded as she tried --- and failed --- to reshape the crown. Monte was usually understanding about Irma's borrowing his old clothes and hats, but he was going to be mad about his mangled hat. She hadn't exactly asked his permission to borrow his recent purchase, and she knew he'd had it all shaped and ready for tonight's barn dance over at the Double Bar J. She should have left it in his room, but it had looked so right when she tried it on and peered at herself in that little mirror Monte had on the back of his bedroom door.
By the time Irma caught her breath enough to duck between the corral poles and head for the house, Aunt Laura had stopped fanning and gone back inside. Movement at the kitchen window indicated her cousins had gone back to their chores --- probably at their mother's insistence. Daddy was sitting beside Momma now, patting her arm and murmuring something that must have been reassuring because Momma was nodding. Irma very much doubted Momma had really fainted. How many women could faint in such a way as to land perfectly draped on a porch swing? Momma could rival any actress ever to appear on the stage at Lloyd's Opera House in town.
Halfway to the house, Irma felt a twinge in her left ankle. Now that she thought about it, her shoulders hurt, too. And her backside would probably bruise where she'd landed. The closer she got to the porch, the more she hurt. Everywhere. But Momma was crying again, and Daddy was obviously in no mood to be wound around his only daughter's little finger. Ignoring her aches and pains, Irma swiped a strand of red hair away from her face. Tucked it behind her ear. Lifted her chin and took a deep breath. YOU, she thought again, are in SO MUCH TROUBLE.
* * *
"Sit," Daddy said, and indicated one of the two battered chairs opposite the porch swing.
The chair creaked when Irma obeyed. She folded her hands in her lap, newly aware of how dirty Monte's jeans were, how her hair was falling out of the scarf she'd used to tie it back, and worst of all, how she must look to Momma, a woman who believed in multiple petticoats, corseted waists, and bustles almost as sincerely as she believed in Jesus. And that was saying something about a woman who never missed church, ran the Ladies Aid Society with an iron hand, and could quote scripture as well as Reverend Coe.
"Apologize to your mother," Daddy said.
For what felt like the millionth time in her life, Irma read bewilderment and an expression she had come to label What hath God wrought? in her mother's hazel eyes. It was no secret that, if Momma had any say about it at all, Irma would never have been allowed to spend summers on her aunt and uncle's ranch, reveling in what Momma considered "unladylike pursuits." But Momma knew better than to try and come between Daddy and Aunt Laura Mason --- his baby sister and only living relative. No one had expected the only boy among her five Mason cousins to end up being Irma's favorite and best friend. And no one would have predicted that Irma would end up spending more time tagging along with Monte riding and roping than she did gardening and cooking with the Mason women. But no one minded. No one, that is, but Momma.
When, only three years earlier, Uncle Charlie and Aunt Laura invited Irma to go with the Masons on a holiday to Omaha, Momma waxed poetic about all the wondrous things Irma would experience in the city. She even helped Irma pack. Unfortunately --- for Momma --- Irma cared nothing for the bustling streets and well-stocked shops of Omaha. What impressed Irma was seeing the first performance of the Honorable W. F. Cody and Dr. W. F. Carver's Wild West, Rocky Mountain, and Prairie Exhibition.
From the moment of the Grand Introductory March to the firing of the last rifle during the closing act, fourteen-year-old Irma had been entranced. She returned home from that trip knowing what she wanted to be, and to Momma's horror, it had nothing to do with domesticity and everything to do with the Wild West.
In the ensuing years Irma fell off more horses than she could honestly count. She hid bruises and denied sore muscles and did everything in her power to make sure Momma never guessed that summers on the ranch were now about a lot more than playing cowgirl. Oh, no. Irma wasn't playing. Not one bit. She was working toward the dream of becoming Liberty Belle, headliner for the Wild West Show. Something Momma would never understand and never approve. Something that had been kept secret. Until just a few minutes ago, on this Friday in April of 1886.
Daddy knew about his daughter's dream, of course. He even encouraged it a little when Momma wasn't around. Oh, he didn't really believe Irma was going to leave home and be a Wild West star. Irma knew that. But he didn't seem outraged or, what would be even worse, laugh at her the way Momma had the one and only time Irma mentioned Buffalo Bill's adding cowgirls to his troupe. But the daddy who was proud of his daughter's riding and roping skills was nowhere in sight today. Right now, Daddy was holding Momma's hand as if it might shatter into a thousand pieces, and as he stared at Irma, his gray eyes showed no willingness to smooth things over for her.
Irma glanced down at her gloved hands. Momma would hate the old pair of stained leather gauntlets, but she would hate seeing the grime beneath Irma's fingernails even more. Momma already said Irma's hands were "masculine" and battled that perception by providing a silver-handled manicure set and an ever-expanding array of dress gloves, neither of which Irma appreciated. She sighed. Curling her fingers against her palms, she decided to leave the work gloves on.
"We're waiting," Daddy said.
Irma cleared her throat. "You drove out early. You weren't supposed to get to the ranch until suppertime, and I didn't think --- "
Daddy interrupted. " 'You drove out early' and 'I didn't think' do not qualify as an apology, Irmagard."
Irma bit her lip. Irmagard. It was a bad sign when Daddy called her that. She looked at him and stifled a little shiver. Did he want her to lie so Momma would feel better? She wasn't sorry she'd saddled Diamond and practiced her trick riding. It had taken some serious finagling to arrange the last few days of practice sessions. First she'd had to convince Daddy and Momma to let her help Uncle Charlie drive a string of horses over to Buffalo Bill's ranch, Scout's Rest, in preparation for the daylong "doings," when most of Lincoln County would be in attendance to watch cowboys from all over audition for the Wild West. Then, once at Uncle Charlie's ranch, she'd had to convince Uncle Charlie to do without her so she could perfect the act she was determined to show Buffalo Bill. And she nearly had perfected it. Until Momma screamed and ruined everything.
Why couldn't Daddy admit to being proud of what he'd just seen? And if Momma couldn't be proud, why couldn't she at least acknowledge that her daughter had accomplished something that had taken a lot of hard work and perseverance? But all Momma could see was the borrowed outfit and the fall, and all Daddy seemed to care about right now was Momma's reaction. It made Irma want to cry.
"Are you going to answer me, Irmagard?"
What had Momma been saying? Oh, brother. Nothing upset Momma more than when Irma daydreamed instead of paying attention. She looked up. "I'm sorry, Momma. What did you say?"
Momma sat up straighter. "You said that we weren't supposed to get here until suppertime and that you thought --- But then you didn't finish what you thought. So, I'm asking ... what exactly were you thinking when you expressly disobeyed my wishes and returned to your cowgirl fantasy? What exactly were you thinking when you stole your cousin's clothing? What exactly were you thinking when you saddled poor old Diamond and ran him ragged? And, pray tell, what exactly were you thinking when you were sailing through the air risking life and limb for some ridiculous stunt?"
As Momma talked the words came more quickly, and her usually mellow speaking voice got positively squeaky. When Momma was like this it was better to just let her make the speech. Sometimes, by the time she was finished, she'd worn out the worst of her temper.
"Did you give one tiny little thought" --- Momma held her hand up and indicated an imaginary inch between her thumb and forefinger to illustrate --- "to how we would all feel if we came outside and found you ... there" --- she waved her lace-edged hankie toward the corral --- "crumpled ... dead ... gone from us forever." She hiccupped, lifted her hankie to her mouth, and closing her eyes, began to cry. Again.
"Now, Momma," Daddy said, and patted the hand he still clutched in his.
Momma wrested her hand free. She glared at Daddy, and the two pink spots on her cheeks grew bright red. "Don't you 'now Momma' me, Otto Friedrich," she said. "This is your fault. You're the one who's let this ... this" --- she gestured toward the corral --- "ridiculous ... phase go on and on." She looked away. "If I had known this was going to happen, I never would have let her come out here. And I certainly would not have agreed to attend that ... that hullabaloo at Bill Cody's ranch tomorrow." Her voice wobbled. She cleared her throat and said to Daddy, "The child has done nothing but try my patience ever since your family took her to Omaha. Wild West indeed!"
"Now, Momma," Daddy said. "Half the county will be there tomorrow. You love socializing with the ladies. And you know we couldn't refuse an invitation from Bill Cody. He's been good to the bank. Good for the bank. And to have declined --- "
"Tut-tut," Momma said, and waved her hankie again. She sniffed. Her voice dropped a notch. "I suppose, if I'm honest, I have to take my share of the responsibility." She gestured toward the corral again. "This started long before Charlie and Laura took her to Omaha." She paused. "I'm the one who arranged for her to go on that camping trip with the Codys." She sighed. "But I sincerely thought a friendship with Arta Cody would help matters." She shook her head. "If only I'd known back then that it would fuel this ... this ... horse nonsense."
It isn't nonsense, Irma thought. Why can't you see that? Being invited on the Dismal River camping trip with the Codys when she was eleven years old was a highlight of her life, second only to seeing the Wild West in Omaha. It was on that trip that Irma's love for the wide open spaces had been praised by Buffalo Bill himself. The other girls had shrieked and held up their skirts when they had to ford the river. Not Irma. Irma had urged her pony down the bank and across the water and let everything get wet and she hadn't minded a bit. The other girls had been so tired that on the way back, they put their saddles in the supply wagon and road in the buggy with Mrs. Cody. But not Irma. The other girls had been afraid when someone stampeded the ponies one night and Monte said it was probably Indians. But not Irma. After all, she reasoned, they were with the great Indian scout Buffalo Bill, who knew half the Indians in the West.
And she would never forget how, when they got back to North Platte, Buffalo Bill patted her on the head and told his friend Otto Friedrich that he had a "tough little cowgirl" on his hands and he should be proud of her. Most of the time it seemed that Daddy was proud. Monte and Uncle Charlie said she had a natural talent. Over the years even some of the wranglers working on the Mason ranch had given her grudging praise. But not Momma. Momma always acted as if the things Irma loved most were a disease to be cured.
"... and you haven't been much help," Momma was saying to Daddy, "setting up an arena in my own backyard every time I'm gone for an evening!" She whipped her head around and glared at him. "Don't think I haven't known what's been going on behind my back!"
"Now, Momma," Daddy said. "I thought her enthusiasm would run its course. I was only trying --- "
"Whatever you were trying," Momma snapped, "what happened is that now Irmagard actually believes we're going to allow this --- " With a sigh, she gazed at Irma. "I don't suppose it really matters what you were thinking today. It's irrelevant anyway in light of --- " She glanced at Daddy. "Tell her, Otto."
The look on Daddy's face was undecipherable. But definitely not good. Irma spoke up. "I'm not hurt, Momma. I fell off, but Diamond would never step on me. Not on purpose." She paused. "I-I'm sorry I frightened you. But as I said, you weren't supposed to ... I mean, Aunt Laura said you were coming for supper. I didn't think there was any harm in --- "
"It doesn't matter," Momma repeated. "It's all going to be part of the past soon enough. It took a great deal of talking on your father's part." She smiled at Daddy. "But reason has prevailed. In fact, part of the reason we drove out early was to give you the news. You've been admitted to Brownell Hall for the fall term."
"But ... but ... that school is for ... for ..." She held out her arms to implore Momma. "I'm nearly eighteen. I'm way too old for Brownell. Arta was only sixteen when she attended."
"Yes," Momma agreed. "And look what they did for her. There isn't a finer young lady anywhere. She has a leading role in North Platte's social life and admirers wherever she goes. She can hold her own in any society, and that includes the finest circles in the East."
Irma had overheard enough of Momma's conversations with friends over the years to know that, for Momma, the East was the shrine of all things desirable. Momma spoke of her arrival in what would become North Platte, Nebraska, back in '69 as if she'd entered purgatory. There were no trees, no lawns, and no flowers back in those days, and if it hadn't been for Daddy's building Momma a nice twostory house with a picket fence, Irma suspected Momma would be back in the hallowed East sipping tea right now. But with the house and the growth of North Platte, and with Daddy's hard work, the name Friedrich had come to "mean something." At least that's what Momma said. So Momma stayed to reign. Until, of course, the day Mrs. William F. Cody arrived. No one in the area would have been able to challenge the great Buffalo Bill's wife when it came to social rank. So Momma did the next best thing. She endeared herself to the Codys by being slavishly devoted to anything Louisa Cody cared about. And when Arta Cody went away to Brownell Hall, where all wealthy young ladies from Nebraska were educated, Momma had begun a campaign to see that Irma followed suit.
Just look at her, Irma thought, observing Momma's expression as she prattled on about the future. She's so pleased with herself. I should have known she hadn't given up on Brownell. And Daddy was siding with her. How could he? Didn't he know --- didn't he care --- that being forced to attend a place like that would kill her?
"No," Irma said aloud, and shook her head back and forth.
"I beg your pardon?" Momma said with a little frown.
Irma met her mother's gaze straight on, even arching her own eyebrow as she repeated a little more loudly, "No. I won't go. You can't make me."
Daddy opened his mouth to say something, but Momma held up one finger and he was silenced. "It isn't a decision that is yours to make, Irmagard," she said. "It may not feel like it right now, but we are doing this because we love you and we want what's best for you."
Irma snorted. "Right."
"Young lady," Daddy said. "Watch your tone."
She swallowed. Maybe begging would work. "Please, Momma. Daddy. You can't mean it. You can't."
"Your father and I," Momma replied, "have discussed this, and we agree. You need a chance to be around a more refined circle of --- "
"I don't," Irma interrupted. She gripped the arms of her chair with her gloved hands.
"Do not interrupt me," Momma snapped. "You are not yet an adult, Irmagard, and as such you do not really know what is best for you. Certainly you have an unusual amount of energy and spirit. And a strong will, which --- " she forced a laugh --- "undoubtedly came from me. These are fine qualities and will stand you in good stead once you accept the path intended for young ladies to walk."
Irma groaned. "I'm not made for the path you're talking about, Momma. I'm sorry, but I'm just not."
"Every woman is made for the same great purpose. To resist our highest calling is to resist God."
"I'm not resisting God," Irma insisted. "I just don't want to get married and have babies right now. Maybe not ever. Is that so bad? Isn't God the one who gave me the ability to balance on a cantering horse's back? Isn't God the one who helps me run fast --- faster than even Monte? If it isn't God, then who? Tell me, Momma, please, because I want to know." She put her hand on her pounding heart, leaned forward, and let the tears come. "I love God, Momma. Really, I do. When I'm riding out on the prairie and there's nothing but sky for as far as I can see, that's when I know God is there. He's around me and I can feel Him and, honestly, Momma, I feel closer to Him there than I ever have sitting in a pew listening to Reverend Coe drone on and on about the Israelites making bricks for Pharaoh."
"Irmagard!" Daddy scolded.
"No, Daddy, no. You have to listen." She looked at her mother and pleaded, "You have to listen, too, Momma. I know I'm a disappointment to you. I know you want a daughter who's a fine lady like Arta. You want me to like tea parties and fancy dresses, but I don't, Momma. Sometimes I feel like I'm going to suffocate." She stood up, sobbing, shaking her head. "I can't be who you want me to be," she finally said. "And if that's who God wants me to be, then I guess I can't be His, either."Ignoring her father calling her name, Irma ran to the corral where Diamond stood half asleep. Jerking the gate open and grabbing the horse's reins, she leaped into the saddle, pulled his head up, and kicked his flanks. Crying harder than she had in a long, long time, Irma clung to the saddle as Diamond charged through the corral gate, past the barn, out onto the open prairie, and toward the horizon.
Excerpted from UNBRIDLED DREAMS © Copyright 2017 by Stephanie Grace Whitson. Reprinted with permission by Bethany House. All rights reserved.
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