LATE AFTERNOON on Christmas Eve, the year I was eleven, my father took me with him across the river. I can't remember what the urgency was, but he needed some papers signed by a rancher who lived over on the other side of the Missouri from Pierre. So off we headed, west over the bridge and north through the river hills.
If you've never seen that South Dakota country in winter, you have no idea how desolate land can be. I once asked my grandmother why her grandfather had decided to stop his wagon-trek in what became the town where she was born. And she answered, in surprise that I didn't know, "Because that's where the tree was." The empty hills were frozen dry, as my father and I drove along, with sharp ice crystals blowing up from the knots of cold, gray grass.
Now, we were supposed to stay only a minute or two, get a signature, and turn back for home. But you can't pay a visit in South Dakota, especially at Christmas, without facing food--endless besieging armies of it, and usually the worst of American holiday cuisine: Jell-O molds with carrot shavings, chocolate-packet pies, neon-pink hams pricked to death with cloves and drowned in honey. If you've never seen one of those prairie tables, you have no idea how desolate food can be.
From the moment she spotted us turning off the highway, Mrs. Harmon must have been piling the table. I remember eating cinnamon buns crusted with sugar, while Mr. Harmon and his two tall sons told us about the coyote tracks they'd found that morning. It was the cold that made the coyotes risk it, scenting the trash cans, probably, and the livestock had been skittish all day. But then Mrs. Harmon began to yell, "Jim, Jim, the horses are out." And in a tangle of arms and jackets, we poured out to herd back the frightened animals.
By the time we were done, however, four expensive quarter-horses were loose on the prairie. Cursing, Mr. Harmon climbed into his pickup and headed north along the highway, while my father drove off to the south. Mrs. Harmon took it more calmly. She went inside to telephone the neighbors, and the boys began to saddle three horses to ride out and look.
You have to understand the significance of that third horse, for it marks the difference between the town and the country--even a little town surrounded by country, like Pierre. The Harmons just assumed that an eleven-year-old boy is old enough to help, while my mother would have pitched a fit at my riding out on the prairie alone, a few hours from sundown, in the middle of winter.
In fact, there was little chance of getting lost. I knew, more or less, how to ride, and the highway was in sight much of time. Still, as the land grew colder and darker, the excitement faded, leaving only brittle determination, a boy's will not to be the first to turn back.
I can't have ridden far through the Christmas hills--maybe three or four miles--when I came over a rise and spotted one of the horses skittering in front of a worn farmhouse. Standing in the yard was a woman, a rope in one hand and her other hand held up empty toward the horse. She was hatless and tiny, hardly bigger than I was, with a man's heavy riding coat hanging down below her knees, and she seemed very old to me. Yellow light streamed out on the cold ground from the one lit window of the house.
As I rode down, she waved me back, talking to the horse in the gentlest, lightest patter, as though nothing much had ever been wrong, really, and, anyway, everything was all right, now. He bobbed back and forth, nearer and nearer, until he touched her open hand with his steaming nose and she eased the loop over his neck.
"Bea Harmon called," she said, handing me the rope, "and told me you were all out looking for this boy. They often come to me, you know. He'll go along quietly now."
Her eyes were quick and black. "I don't see many people, here about," she chirruped, like a winter bird. "Come in and get warm. I'll make some coffee. No, you're a little young for coffee. I'll put some water on for tea, and there're the cookies I made in case someone came by." But I was proud of bringing back one of the strays and wouldn't wait. I shied away from her outstretched hand and galloped back.
Sometimes you catch sight of a turn leading off into the distance, a dirt track or a county road at right angles to the highway as you drive along in the straight, miles-long line you see only in the West. And you know you'll never go up it, never come back to find where it leads, and always there remains a sense, as you roll past, that maybe this time you should have turned and followed that track up into the distant hills.
Her hair was the same thin shade of gray as the weather-beaten pickets of the fence around her frozen garden. She had a way with horses, and she was alone on Christmas Eve.
There is little in my life I regret as much as that I would not stay for just one cookie, just one cup of tea.
J. Bottum is Books & Arts editor of The Weekly Standard.