Not long after, we took a visit to my uncle's house in Tucson. I sat and drew pictures from the front porch while Uncle Harland showed Rachel and Rebeccah around the house. The longer I sat there, the more I heard the sounds of the town and the house and the people in it. I snuggled down in a quilt on the porch and imagined I was soaking in the place. It was a different kind of peace than we had out at the farm. A busyness that seemed alive. I could see myself living in town. Maybe having an art studio. My brothers romped with their cousins and planned to go down to the Santa Cruz River. For once, I didn't have to go along with them. They didn't take fishing poles, just walked of without a care in the world. It was cold but they weren't even wearing shoes. Boys had it so easy. No one had to chaperone them when they wanted to get up to something. "Hey," I hollered. "I'll come with you!" They took of running.
I sat there with a new sketchbook in my lap and four new pencils before me. I sharpened them with my skinning knife. I worked slowly until I could put a nice point on without breaking the lead.
We stayed there two weeks before my little cousin got a fever. Before long, all of us had caught it, Ma and Pa and Aunt Sarah, too. I remember Pa carrying me to the kitchen. I remember a doctor looking down at me and shaking his head. The hours lingered along with the fever, and I began to believe I would die, that it was only a matter of time.
Then one day—or night, I couldn't tell—Aunt Sarah and Mama came to me with an envelope and some papers. "See, here, Mary Pearl," Mama said. "Sarah found this advertisement in the paper that they want girls to go to college back east. A place called Wheaton College. She sent of your picture you drew from the front porch, and they've written to let you come. Please get well, honey, and you can go to school and study art. The price is reduced for girls. Won't you get well now?" Then she waited awhile until I opened my eyes, and gave me the sternest order I'd ever heard from Ma: "I'll give you anything, but don't die, girl!" Then she walked away.
I remember waking up later, holding the envelope to my chest, and looking at it as if it had been a dream. Art school. I let it sink in for a while. It was real. It was only six months away. I held that envelope in my lap like it was a baby, dreaming of the things I'd learn. First thing I did was write a letter to my old friend Elsa Maldonado, who now lived in a convent in Tucson. I didn't know if she'd get my letter, but we'd grown up together, and I wanted her to know I was leaving.
Riding home under a blanket in the buggy instead of on horseback, I thought long and hard about what all this growing up was about. My sisters, Elsa, and I had been so happy, so easily looking forward to spring, or new clothes, or a good pair of gloves. Now suddenly we were "marriageable" and it seemed the world had lost its grip on us. Like we'd become parcels instead of persons. We girls were just things to tack down and hobble, as if the whole family was afraid we'd sally around and act a fool, instead of that we'd grown into young ladies who might have a notion of their own. Made me simmer, thinking of it.
Spring came by the end of February, and by the second week of March the hills were covered with salvia and penstemon flowers in red and purple swords, and over everything lay a carpet of golden orange poppies. It was a fine time of year—still a little cool and downright chill at night, but a good time to open windows and deep clean the house. When Rachel was here, we sisters all complained about it, but now that she was caring for Uncle Harland's children and there was only Rebeccah and me, we helped each other and sang while we worked. The only time Ma fussed at me was to tell me to rest because of my illness a few weeks ago. I felt so good and happy I wanted these days of spring cleaning to go on and on.
One night, I knocked on Rebeccah's bedroom door. A light came from under the bottom. "You awake?" I whispered.
"Come on in," she called. "What are you doing up at this hour?"
"I came to ask you again to go to college with me. You'd like it, too. Besides, I've never gone anywhere except to town."
She smiled, and looked so much like Ma. "Miss Jane Austen believes a girl ought to seek out ways to further her accomplishments in life. It's a chance for you to learn new things."
"Well, come along then. Please?"
"I think I'm bound to be an old maid. I don't truly want to go, honey. But you're more adventurous. You're brave."
I sighed. Didn't feel brave. "Reckon I've been told too many times to be afraid lately. Too many people around that don't belong here in this Territory."
"You'll make friends there in Illinois. It's a real state, not just a territory. They've got more law and order. Likely most girls don't even own a pistol."
"Mary Pearl, they dress like the pictures in a Godey's Lady's Book."
"No place for a gun belt or a scabbard on that rig."