Wednesday, March 18, 2020

What’s a Girl Like You Doing…?

By Andrea Downing

 If you say ‘female outlaw of the Old West,’ Pearl Hart is probably not the first name that comes to mind. Belle Starr?  Etta Place, maybe? Perhaps because Pearl was notorious for one thing—the last stagecoach robbery at a time when the railroad was slowly supplanting the old stage runs. If it was the last...
Hart was born Pearl Taylor in Canada and came from reasonably well-off parents.  She was well educated, including a time in a boarding school before she eloped with a no-good rascal by the name of Frank Hart.  The Harts’ time together produced two children, who were sent to live with her mother, by then in Ohio. It wasn’t long before the independently-minded Pearl purportedly took in Buffalo Bill’s show at the Chicago World Fair and heard the call of the West. She left the abusive Hart and eventually ended up in Arizona.
Life in Arizona brought a variety of occupations and a variety of outside interests—booze, cigars, and morphine. Working as both a cook and a soiled dove, Pearl was able to sustain her habits until the local mine closed and her business interests tanked. Pearl had been going through lovers like most of us go through a chocolate bar, and the one of the moment was a German named Joe Boot. She and Boot tried gold mining in Globe, AZ, but their claim proved worthless—just at the time a letter arrived saying her mother was seriously ill. What’s a girl to do?  Well, this one robbed the stage…
It was 1899 and the days of Indian raids and bandito hold-ups were thought to be over, so 
the stage driver was unprepared for the outlaws.  Pearl and Boot reportedly got away with $400, but the sheriff was soon on their trail. Captured, Hart apparently swore with Boot never to be separated, and in an article called, “An Arizona Episode” that appeared in The Cosmopolitan of October, 1899, she claims she attempted suicide at their parting.  In the Arizona Republic newspaper of June 5, 1899, Pearl admitted “…she had instigated the hold-up…” yet during her trial on June 15, she pleaded not guilty.  The jury, apparently to the judge’s disgust, let her go free—but not for long. She was re-arrested for the robbery of the driver’s pistol and sentenced to five years in Yuma Prison.
Luckily for Pearl, her incarceration led to what today would be called a ‘media circus’ with a never-ending line of reporters and photographers gravitating to the prison for stories and photos of Pearl.  Finally, in desperation, the territorial governor pardoned Pearl two years before her term was up. Or was that the reason?  Another theory is that she had either actually become pregnant, or was faking pregnancy, which would be an embarrassment to the Prison Governor. She was handed a ticket to Kansas City and told never to darken Arizona again.
Pearl's photo taken for Cosmopolitan
At this point, the life of Pearl Hart gets a bit foggy. She was reported to be in a play either written or organized by her sister about Pearl’s life, moved on to Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show under an alias (and remember it was his show that spurred her to go west, so that must’ve been a heart-warming episode), and by 1904, running a cigar store as a cover for a gang of pickpockets.  Then there is the account of her doing a tour of the Pima County Jail where she had been held prior to her trial and making herself known to the guide.  If this is true, it may also be true that she married one Cal Bywater and lived out her days as a rancher’s wife in Globe, AZ.  It is thought Pearl passed on in December, 1955.

I can’t claim Always on My Mind is as exciting as Pearl’s life, but it’s available now and, I think, an equally good story.

1972 - Vietnam, the pill, upheaval, hippies.
Wyoming rancher Cooper Byrnes, deeply attached to the land and his way of life, surprises everyone when he falls for vagabond hippie Cassie Halliday. Fascinated and baffled, he cannot comprehend his attraction—or say the words she wants to hear.
Cassie finds Coop intriguingly different. As she keeps house for him and warms his bed at night, she admits to herself she loves him but she misinterprets Coop's inability to express his feelings.
Parted, each continues to think of the other, but how can either of them reach out to say, "You were 'always on my mind'?" 


As night colored the sky, Cassie pulled open her curtain and peered out as shades of pink and purple streaked across the treetops tinged by a blackness off to the east. Storm clouds. She could feel the sudden September chill, heard the propane heating click on, Coop enter the kitchen with the dogs whining downstairs. He stomped off his boots for the night. She supposed he was looking after himself, just the way he had lived before she ever came on the scene, cooking whatever he liked to eat, having his beers, occasionally watching TV, Elam and Wayne at his feet, before climbing up to bed. And she supposed he realized at some point she would have to come out and start living again, either here, or moving on if she couldn’t forgive him.

Love, to her, had always been difficult to define. She believed it to be something deep inside, something shared, a song in your head playing constantly in the background. Always there. It was your heart skipping and your stomach somersaulting when the person walked in the room, got close. And that was what she felt for Coop now, those were her very feelings every time he got near. Even though she believed those feelings were not returned, she knew the thought of leaving him was painful. He offered her a steadfastness, a certainty, a support she hadn’t experienced before, small kindnesses she enjoyed and wouldn’t want to do without. And maybe that was it: she didn’t like the thought of doing without him, of leaving.

Hearing sports come on the TV, she snuck out to wash for bed, still ignoring the chocolates where he’d left them. Later, she lay in bed and listened to his routine she knew so well now, the clunk of his belt buckle as his jeans hit the floor, the little hop of getting his leg in his pajama bottoms, and his stroll down to the bathroom to wash, and back again before the light clicked off. It wasn’t long before soft snores came through the wall and Cassie realized she missed all that, the way he curled around her in that big, old bed, their feet entwined, his head nuzzled into her shoulder sometimes, the grizzle of his day’s beard growth against her skin. She thought of sneaking into the bed but gave up the idea; he’d probably just throw an arm over her and fall back to sleep, say nothing except maybe ‘I knew you’d come ’round.’

It was a crash of thunder that woke her, followed by the sound of something like a lover throwing pebbles against the window, but this was no lover. Its power was so forceful, she thought the window might break. As she pulled back the curtain, blades of lightening mapped the sky, a deep indigo when lit, the forks like veins in the sky’s skin. She heard the rustle of Coop waking, the creak of him sitting up in bed. For a moment she sat watching, and then realized her garden would be decimated.

She grabbed an old shirt of his she used as a bathrobe, unlatched the door, crashed barefoot into the box of chocolates, sent them flying and scattered all over, as they fell from the hallway, through the banister, into the corridor below. She flew down the stairs. Cooper appeared as he pulled on his jeans and a shirt and followed behind her.

“Cassie, don’t, don’t, it’s too late and there’s lightning!”

She pulled open the kitchen door and ran into the garden, fumbled with the new gate to yank it open, tried to protect her head from the pounding hail, hail the size of her fist. Cooper had pulled on his boots and made a grab for her, but she wrenched away, unsure of what to do to save the remains of her crops.

“You’re not gonna save anything now, Cass,” he shouted above the maelstrom, “give it up, get back inside, I have to go see to the cattle!”

The dogs appeared on the path, out of the kitchen where they’d been sleeping, set up a yowling that added to the din. Sick of seeing all her hard work lay ruined, she turned and pushed past Coop who stood helpless. She grabbed a knife from the kitchen block and came back out, cut heads of cabbage, and whatever else she felt she could save. But it was no use: the hail continued to beat her, and she shivered with the cold, shaking. The shirt stuck to her lithe body until she collapsed in the mud.

“Cassie, you can’t do any more, you best get inside sweetheart, it was the end of the season anyway.” He bent over her, soaked through himself, his hair plastered to his head. “Cassie?” He knelt beside her, watched helplessly as the sobs came, wracked her body, swaying with its pain.

He gathered her up into his arms just as Hank’s pickup pulled into the yard and he and the older cowboy got out, slicker-covered, and looked on.

“We’ll saddle up,” the elder said, his voice drowned in the rumble of the storm. “You come on, Coop, when you can.”


Hebby Roman said...

Fascinating glimpse into a woman who definitely charted her own course (both bad and good), as well as trying to revive the outlaw spirit of the Old West. Has to make you wonder!

Andrea Downing said...

Yes, it would seem that way, Hebby--though I must admit, there are a lot of conflicting stories about Pearl Hart so it's difficult to sort what is true. Still, she made good copy for the newspapers.

Patti Sherry-Crews said...

Love these old west characters. I had read about Pearl when I was researching stage coach robberies, but I didn't delve into the details of her life. I'm particularly taken with her running a cigar store as a cover for a gang of pickpockets! There's a good story there!

Andrea Downing said...

Gee, Patti, I hadn't thought of the story-line value to the gang of pickpockets. You're right, and it could be quite funny too.