The second in a series, Bess II – Into the Wind – is the sequel to the popular Bess – A Pioneer Woman’s Journey of Courage, Grit and Love. Click HERE to go to Amazon to purchase the book.
As a twenty-one year old single woman, Bess Parker ventured forth alone in 1908 into far southwestern North Dakota to establish a homestead and became a successful rancher. Her journey demonstrated her strengths and steely will as it was filled with challenges, heartache, a failed marriage, and ended in 1916 finding her and her four small children alone in a sod house.
Bess II – Into the Wind carries her challenging story forward through the First World War, the Spanish Flu epidemic and into the twenties. It probes deeply her personal struggle with her heart and emotional needs, facing the challenges of raising small children on a growing and dangerous ranch on the pioneer prairie, and dealing with a special friendship developed during the period from 1916 through 1924 and the resulting social pressure of that relationship.
Read Chapter One Here
July 1916: Near Haley, North Dakota
The sun beat down relentlessly on the prairie between Bess Parker’s homestead and the Teepee Buttes to the west. The same sun responsible for sprouting spring-green shoots was now busy turning the wands of waist-high prairie grass a pale, golden hue. The royal-blue sky was high, with a few puffy clouds floating lazily toward the east, and the afternoon heat shimmered over the waving grass in the lightly gusting breeze. To the west, a few tumbleweeds danced along the broad pasture. Another hot summer day, Bess thought as she stepped out of the sod house to fetch some eggs from the chicken coop just behind the shed.
Bess’s children—six-year-old Marion, five-year-old Helen, and three-year-old Billy—were playing on the dirt pile near the shed. Bess smiled as she watched them roll down the pile, kicking up dust and dirtying their faces. She chuckled. They’ll all need baths after this, she thought. Her youngest, six-month-old Sidney, also known as Tip, was inside the house, sleeping in his crib.
Suddenly, Helen jumped up and raced down the hill toward the well. “Hiss!” she exclaimed with excitement. Without hesitation, Bess dashed forward to catch the little girl to see what she was chasing.
“Hiss!” Helen shouted again as she pointed toward a huge snake that was slithering swiftly away.
Hiss was a harmless bull snake, usually coiled in a corner of the shed on a bed of hay, and was almost a pet that the children loved. But that snake is not Hiss, Bess thought with alarm as she caught up to Helen and grabbed her arm. And she was right. A rattlesnake was coiling up near the well. The serpent was dappled light-brown and green, with a yellowish belly and dark, oval blotches like crossbones on its back. Its steely, green, oval eyes, the flickering forked tongue, and the unmistakable buzzing sound of the rattle signaled that the snake was angry. Very angry.
“That is a rattlesnake, Helen,” Bess said sternly, with a sharp intake of breath. “They’re bad! Really bad! They will bite you! Get away! Now!” She tightened her grip on Helen’s arm and jerked her backward to a safe distance.
Rattlesnakes were common on the western prairies of North and South Dakota, but Bess had never seen one so close to the house—and had never seen one so big. One bite and its poisonous venom was lethal. Slowly, so as not to set off the reptile, she gripped Helen’s hand and led her back up to the dirt pile by the shed where Marion and Billy were staring in wonder. Bess commanded, “Stay here!” Then she dashed into the shed, grabbed the garden hoe, and ran back down toward the well.
The snake was coiled up by the well, basking in the heat of the sun, its forked tongue flicking in the air every few seconds. The serpent had stopped shaking its rattle, but Bess knew that if it sensed danger, the rattle would start buzzing again. Bess’s heart pounded as she gripped the hoe, raised her arms, then slammed it down—chopping again and again at the snake. After a few blows, she’d severed its head. Only then did she breathe a sigh of relief.
The rattlesnake was nearly four feet long and quite fat. Bess shivered at the thought of what might have happened if she hadn’t been outside when Helen began to chase the lethal serpent. Most people never knew that the snakes were so prevalent that at any given time, death could be no more than twenty feet away—a thought that sent a cold chill up her spine.
Bess wiped the sweat from her brow. Her arms and hands shook. After she caught her breath, she walked back up the hill to the shed where the children were playing. “Never chase a snake,” she said to them, shaking her finger. “Hiss is good, but the others are bad. Dangerous. Never chase them!”
“I’m sorry, Mama,” Helen said. “I won’t do it again.” She gazed up at Bess, her brown eyes pleading and apologetic.
“Yeah! You could’ve been bitten!” Billy chimed in.
“It’s okay,” Bess said. “Just be careful. It’s not safe.”
Bess put the hoe back in the shed, grabbed a shovel and an old, empty burlap gunnysack, and headed down the hill toward the dead rattler. She shoveled the snake into the sack and carefully put the severed head in with the carcass. Afterward, she dug a hole about two feet deep in the soft dirt behind the chicken coop, put the bag in the hole, filled it up with dirt, and stomped on it. Then she found a large, flat rock and placed it over the buried serpent.
Rattlesnakes were only one of the many dangers on the prairie. She rubbed her hands together and sighed again after disposing of the snake. She walked over to the small bench beside the root cellar, sat down, and rolled a cigarette with Bull Durham tobacco, her favorite.
The summer of 1916 marked the eighth year since Bess had ventured west from her childhood home in Cando, North Dakota, to homestead in far southwestern North Dakota. Ever since she could remember, she had always wanted to be a rancher.
As she watched the children play, she drew in a deep puff of the fresh tobacco, her memories drifting away with the cloud of smoke.
* * *
When Bess was a child, she enthusiastically helped Papa on their farm. She loved the smell of fresh-cut wheat, and how the air carried speckles of dust from the nearby fields where other farmers planted their crops. Papa was the manager of the grain elevator in Cando—the place where farmers brought their harvested grain—and he always encouraged Bess to learn all she could about farming and ranching.
“You gotta have a plan, my Bessie!” he’d always say. “Take chances. Smart chances. Like when sailors are out on the ocean, they often have to sail into the wind. In this life, you have to learn to sail into the wind.”
When Bess started high school, she had a plan to learn about ranching. She spent many hours in the Cando Public Library poring over documents and books, learning about the Homestead Act of 1862, which stated that any adult who had never taken up arms against the United States government could apply for a homestead—160 acres of land—as a grant. If the homesteader proved that he or she had made “improvements” on the land over a five-year period, he or she would receive permanent ownership of the land. The Act would benefit any citizen—male or female—who was at least twenty-one years old. That’s me, Bess thought. Homesteading is what I want to do!
And she did it! In 1908, right after Bess turned twenty-one, she became eligible for a federal homestead grant and set out on her adventure—a single woman traveling alone and heading west toward the vast expanses of the unknown. But she was prepared. She had her plan. She’d secured her federal homestead grant, and the adventure began. And she became successful. At present, through acquisition of land other homesteaders had abandoned, she now owned 1,440 acres of good ranch land.
During those eight years since Bess homesteaded and improved upon her land about a mile just south of Haley, North Dakota, and bordering the North and South Dakota state line, she had witnessed the slow transformation of the virgin prairie into fenced-in pastures and broad stretches of plowed ground where the wheat, oats, and flax were now waving in the breeze like a golden lake. Beautiful, like waves on the ocean, she thought as she smoked her cigarette and gazed west toward the Teepee Buttes and the vast, undulating prairie. She never grew tired of the lulling, hypnotic, wave-like motions of the tall prairie grass and the wheat.
Over near the dirt pile, she heard a shout. “Don’t do that!” Helen screamed at Billy. He was dangling a slimy worm in front of her face.
Bess chuckled. Billy was always teasing the girls. Of all her children, Billy reminded her the most of her husband, Doc. He had the same wide, blue eyes and crooked smile.
It had been three weeks since Doc had left, and Bess couldn’t have been happier. It felt like a giant weight had been lifted and floated away. Soon after Bess had arrived in the west, she’d met Doc, who drove the wagon carrying her supplies from Dickinson to Haley. His birth name was Chris Stewart, and he had come to Haley from Galesburg, Illinois, just before 1900. Shortly after he arrived in Haley, a man traveling through town had fallen off his horse, and Chris helped set the broken leg, thus earning him the nickname “Doc.” Doc was a handsome man—tall, slender, with sky-blue eyes and a full head of bushy, brown hair. A memory I would just as soon forget, thought Bess.
Back then, it was all so promising. In 1909, Bess was twenty-two years old, and the world was hers to take. Her friendship with Doc flourished. They attended local baseball games together, and she frequently hosted him for supper. Soon it became clear that his affection for her was becoming serious, but Bess had a secret: she was not attracted to men. Instead, she was sensually drawn to women.
All her life, Bess understood she was different from her friends and classmates. While her girlfriends dreamed and giggled about boys, Bess found solace working in the field or tending to the sheep. It wasn’t until she headed out west that she came to terms with the fact that she desired women—physically and emotionally.
“Linda,” she whispered. I felt love for the first time in my life. Such passion in so short a time. But Bess had been keenly aware that hopes for any sort of long-term relationship were tempered by the taboo of two women being in love and sharing a life as if they were married. Two single women living together and not looking for husbands in such a small, rural community might have led to our being ostracized—pariahs, she thought. People out here wouldn’t understand.
She shook memories of Linda away, drew another puff, and focused on her children. Helen and Marion were chasing Billy around now. If she were grateful to Doc for anything, it would be for their beautiful children.
When they married, she was quite fond of Doc. She’d gone through heartbreak with Linda and drawn the short-sighted and rather selfish conclusion that what she needed most, as a woman alone on the prairie, was security. So, when he popped the question of marriage, it seemed more like a business arrangement for her, a way to garner some safety and not be alone.
Bess felt guilty about how she had treated Doc. But to be fair, she had honestly enjoyed his company, and figured she would eventually grow to love him. And she did love him—in a platonic way. Inwardly, Bess knew she was being unfair to Doc. It had been silly of her to think that she could suppress who she really was. She spent many lonely nights in her marriage laying next to a snoring Doc while her heart and soul were in conflict and her real physical needs left unsatisfied.
After they wed, Doc spent a lot of time on his ranch about ten miles away, raising workhorses, while Bess raised sheep and cattle on her homestead. For a while they prospered—becoming financially secure—but then mechanization initiated the decline in Doc’s horse business. Grain farmers switched to tractors, thus eliminating the need for horses to pull plows and other equipment. More people were getting automobiles, causing a decline in the need for horses to pull buggies.
When Marion was born, Bess’s world was irrevocably changed. She’d taken on a new role as mother, and she and Doc had become somewhat closer in terms of shared ideals. They were in this together—or so she thought. A year later, Helen entered the world, and Doc became withdrawn and quiet. Every so often he would bounce the girls on his legs or chase them around the room pretending he was a scary monster, and in those moments Bess caught a glimpse of the old Doc, the Doc who smiled and laughed. When Billy arrived two years later, Doc had a spark in his eyes at the joy of having a son, but that soon waned, and something dreadful entered their lives. Whisky. By the time Tip was born, Doc had become a drunken mess.
Over the last three years of their seven-year marriage, Doc had been a regular at Kiley’s Bar in Haley. He would come to the homestead drunk as a skunk late into the night, say little, and leave early the next morning without so much as a goodbye. He seemed to have no interest in Bess or the children.
Last fall, he’d been accidentally shot in the leg after a drunken brawl at Kiley’s, and that was the last straw as far as the marriage was concerned. Bess was fed up with the drinking. The day Doc finally left, he quietly said, “I’m not the man I used to be.” Bess noticed the sadness in his eyes and his voice, the only parts of him she recognized. He’d left a broken, hollow man with a severe limp, and she had no doubt he would be crippled for the rest of his life. He returned to his original home in Galesburg, Illinois.
Every emotion swarmed through Bess in the days after Doc left—frustration, anger, sadness, triumph, relief, failure, hope. She was terrified of being left alone with four small children, and she cursed Doc up and down from dawn to sundown. But Bess always prided herself on her inner strength and resolve. If she wanted something, she would get it, even if that meant getting her hands dirty. Raising four kids alone would be a challenge, but Bess was confident she would pull through, especially when things got tough.
So, with a spring in her step, Bess filed for divorce right after Doc left and changed her name from Stewart back to Parker. As part of the divorce, Bess obtained title to one hundred sixty acres of land just east of Haley, where Doc kept his horses. Because of this, she could claim that she was part of the township in which Haley was located and would be able to send the children to school in Haley. Although her original homestead was only one mile south of Haley, it was across the North Dakota/South Dakota state line, and she would have had to send them to school much farther away in Ludlow.
Now, she and her four young children were abandoned, but they were Parkers. “Nothing stops a Parker,” Bess said as she stubbed out her cigarette in the dirt. She stood and stretched her limbs. It was a beautiful summer day as the Parker children’s laughter floated away with the breeze.
* * *