The old engine that served the stations between California and Arizona hurled soot and smoke behind it into the open windows of the passenger cars. The only thing for it was to close them, which turned the car into a dark little oven in the desert heat. There was no first class carriage and the wooden benches that served for seats were worn and full of splinters. Eleanor’s trousers had been ruined. She decided there could be no worse way to travel as she climbed with relief onto the platform in Tucson, but immediately realized her mistake when she saw the wagon that would take her to the Smith’s ranch, nearly eight hours from the town itself.
If indeed one might call it a town.
Nothing was paved. The sidewalks, where they existed, were bare boards that creaked as one walked. Some of the buildings looked almost made of mud, with dark little windows without any glass and big, bare yards with chickens running unfenced, sometimes straying into the streets.
She exhaled gratefully when she saw that at least the house where they would stay overnight looked newly whitewashed, with glass windows, a breezy piazza and some flowering bushy shrubs in the yard, though Eleanor could not say what sort of shrubs they were.
Eden’s brother-in-law, Peter Harris, had been a Negro. The fact itself didn’t bother Eleanor—she was an infamous radical herself, after all—but Eden might have warned her so she wouldn’t have had to contain her shock when he had reached out to shake her hand. She supposed it was all part of some mad penance Eden was extracting from her, in spite of her encouraging telegram welcoming Eleanor to come.
The night in town was comfortable enough. Mr. Harris’s mother, Dora, was kind and hospitable. She was not at all shocked by Eleanor’s attire, or if she had been, she’d hidden it well. Then again, Eden had grown up with these people, and who knew how women dressed in Arizona?
But though the breakfast had been a good one—not so different from what one might come by in a French country inn—Eleanor dreaded the day ahead of her, bumping in a wagon in the ridiculous sun for hours, completely exposed to who knew what dangers.
Why did people think the West a romantic place? Eleanor could not believe Lillian Smith sincerely preferred it to Boston.
And yet, halfway through the horrid ride in the wagon, across a landscape that looked like it might not really be the earth at all, Lillian herself appeared astride a chestnut horse, a young man accompanying her on a bay stallion.
“El! You’ve made it!”
It was not a young man. It was Eden—sunburnt and shaggy-headed, wearing workman’s clothes and riding the most magnificent horse Eleanor had ever seen.
Mr. Harris stopped the wagon to greet them as Lillian dismounted.
“Eleanor Stephens! How fine to see you in Arizona!” she exclaimed, clasping her hat to her head as she tilted up her face to smile in greeting.
Eleanor hardly knew what to do. Standing automatically, she found she couldn’t reach Lillian’s hand from the wagon. She climbed down gingerly, brushing at her trousers as she went, and finally arrived at the ground. She removed her hat and took Lillian’s hand in her own still gloved one, for fear it was filthy beneath the kid. It was absurd. They were, quite literally, in the middle of nowhere and she was fretting about etiquette.
“Do you want to ride, El?” Eden called out from astride the bay horse.
“I’ll be fine in the wagon with Mr. Harris,” Eleanor said. She was a good rider and often joined hunts with her English friends. But she had never tried a cowboy’s saddle and did not want to make herself a fool before Eden’s mother.
Lillian climbed astride the chestnut horse again and Eleanor noticed for the first time, a rifle on a leather strap across her back, just like the one Mr. Harris had donned this morning before they left town. If Lillian had appeared before them naked, she could not have shocked Eleanor more.
The wagon began to move slowly again and Mr. Harris smiled, not unkindly, as Eleanor dug in her pocket for a cigarette and a match. Eden and her mother rode ahead until they became small spots on the horizon, but never quite leaving the wagon behind. Mr. Harris said nothing and Eleanor hardly knew what to ask him as she smoked cigarette after cigarette and watched the strange landscape creep by. Mr. Harris accepted only one of her cigarettes, and that, she sensed, almost out of politeness. She wished for a snifter of brandy and a bath and a bed in a cool room with blowing curtains, but somehow doubted any of those things awaited her on Joe Smith’s ranch.