The Washington Post
The Hearts of Horsesby Molly Gloss
An elegant, heartwarming story about the profound connections between people and animals
In the winter of 1917, nineteen-year-old Martha Lessen saddles her horses and heads for a remote county in eastern Oregon, looking for work “gentling” wild horses. She chances on a rancher, George Bliss, who is willing to hire her on. Many/b>/b>… See more details below
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An elegant, heartwarming story about the profound connections between people and animals
In the winter of 1917, nineteen-year-old Martha Lessen saddles her horses and heads for a remote county in eastern Oregon, looking for work “gentling” wild horses. She chances on a rancher, George Bliss, who is willing to hire her on. Many of his regular hands are off fighting the war, and he glimpses, beneath her showy rodeo garb, a shy but strong-willed girl with a serious knowledge of horses. So begins the irresistible tale of a young but determined woman trying to make a go of it in a man’s world. Over the course of several long, hard winter months, many of the townsfolk witness Martha talking in low, sweet tones to horses believed beyond repair—getting miraculous, almost immediate results. It's with this gift that she earns their respect, and a chance to make herself a home.
The Washington Post
Gloss's austere latest (after Wild Life) features a wandering taciturn tomboy who finds her place in rural Oregon while the men are away at war. After she leaves home in 1917, 19-year-old Martha Lessen plans to travel from farm to farm in Elwha County, Oregon, breaking horses left behind by owners away fighting. She winds up in small town Shelby, where farmers George and Louise Bliss convince her to stay the winter with them after she domesticates their broncos with soft words and songs instead of lariats and hobbles. While breaking the town's horses, Martha meets a slovenly drunk, a clan of Western European immigrants and two unmarried sisters running a ranch with the help of an awkward, secretive teenager. When Martha's not making the rounds or riding through the Clarks Range, Louise tries her hand at socializing (or, perhaps, breaking) her, but Martha chafes at town dances, social outings and Louise's hand-me-down church dresses. Gloss's narrative is sometimes as slow as Martha's progress with the more recalcitrant beasts, but following stubborn, uncompromising Martha as she goes about her work provides its own unique pleasures. (Nov.)Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Martha Lessen is a young woman on the run, taking with her the three horses she loves. It is 1917. Looking for work in the dry-grass country of eastern Oregon, she touts herself as a breaker of horses. Most of the young men are overseas fighting, so Martha is hired on at the Bliss family ranch. Word spreads of her gentle horse-whispering ways. As she rides daily from ranch to ranch to work with various horses, she becomes a sort of one-woman Pony Express, carrying messages and food and learning to act quickly in cases of illness or injury. For the shy Martha, with a less than desirable childhood behind her, the acceptance she earns is transformative. Gloss's fourth novel (after Wild Life) is based on historical accounts of cowgirls in the American West. With obvious appeal for horse lovers, it has a homespun quality, and varies in action between a gentle canter and energetic gallop. Strongly recommended for public libraries.
Keddy Ann Outlaw
- Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
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- 5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.80(d)
- Age Range:
- 14 - 18 Years
Read an Excerpt
In those days, even before the war had swept up all the young men from the ranches, there were girls who came through the country breaking horses. They traveled from ranch to ranch with two or three horses they were taking home to break or with horses they had picked up in trade for work they’d done. Of course most outfits had fifty or sixty horses back then so there was plenty of work, and when the war came on, no men to get it done. Those girls could break horses as well as any man but they had their own ways of doing it, not such a bucking Wild West show. They went about it so quiet and deliberate, children would get tired of watching and go off to do something else. They were usually alone, those girls, but it wasn’t like in the moving pictures or the gunslinger novels, the female always in peril. If they were in peril it wasn’t from outlaws or crooked sheriffs, it was from the usual things that can happen with ranch workbreaking bones, freezing your fingers offthe kinds of things that can happen whether you’re a man or a woman.
In November in that first winter of the war a girl named Martha Lessen rode down through the Ipsoot Pass into Elwha County looking for horses that needed breaking out. She was riding a badly scarred mare she called Dolly and she had a couple of other horses towing behind her, which she had brought along just because she didn’t feel she could leave them behind. At the upper end of the valley where the road first drops down along Graves Creek she saw a man out in a big fenced stubble field feeding about thirty cows and half a dozen horses and a pair of white mules. She called to him from the road, “Hello,” and he stopped what he was doing and looked over at her. “If you’ve got any horses need breaking to saddle, I’ll break them for you,” she told him.
The daylight was thin, a cold and wintry light, and it pulled all the color out of the man’s face. He stood up straight. The winter before, there had been a string of about a hundred days when the temperature never rose above freezing and some countiesElwha, Umatilla, Granthad piled up seven feet of snow. Deer had been driven down into the towns, and cougar had come into the pastures with the cattle. Starving horses had wandered into people’s houses. But this particular winter, the winter of 1917 and 1918, would be an open one, and the day Martha Lessen rode down out of the Ipsoot Pass there wasn’t any snow on the ground at all, although the stubble field the man was working in had been grazed off and the skimpy leavings were dark from frost-kill. He was feeding from a wagon drawn by a pair of black Percherons.
“Maybe I do,” he said. “There’s a couple could use working.” He looked her over. “I guess you ain’t no Land Girl.” This past summer a lot of men from the ranches had gone into the army and quite a few town and city girls had come out to the countryside to fill in where they were needed“Land Girls” the newspapers had begun to call them. Some of them had come to Elwha County with the idea of being cowboys, though mostly the work that needed doing was getting in the hay crop and the wheat. Martha Lessen was the first girl he had seen advertising herself as a broncobuster.
“No I’m not,” she said. “I’ve been riding and doing ranch work since I could walk. I can break horses.”
He smiled and said, “I just bet you can,” which was a remark about the way she was built, big and solid as a man and five-eleven in her boots. Or he meant something about her old-fashioned cowboy trappings, the fringed batwing chaps well scratched up and her showy big platter of a hat much stained along the high crown and the rolled edge of the brim. Then he said, not with serious misgiving but as if he had discovered something slightly amusing, “Breaking to saddle, so I guess that means you’re not interested in breaking horses to harness.”
She could have found plenty of work around Pendleton, where she had come from, if she had wanted to break horses to drive, so she said stubbornly, “I’d just rather train a stock horse than a wagon horse if I’m able to choose.”
He considered this. “Well, go on up to the house and I’ll be up shortly and we’ll see about it.” He went back to feeding hay.
She followed a line of telephone poles from the road back to the ranch house, which was a paintless tall box with skinny windows set among a scattering of barns and sheds and bunkhouses built variously of lumber and pine logs. A yellow dog scrambled out from under the porch of the house and barked once and then walked up and smelled of the girl’s boot. “Hey there,” she said, which satisfied him, and he walked off and flopped down in the hard dirt at the edge of the porch steps.
Elwha County was more than two-thirds taken up by the Clarks Range and the Whitehorn Mountains, with the towns and most of the ranches lying in the swale between. This house stood on the first moderately flat ground at the foot of the Clarks, its front windows facing south across the valley toward the Whitehorns. The girl wondered what sort of view could be seen from those windows, and she turned in the saddle to look. There had been a little cold rain earlier in the day and the clouds were moving southeast now, dragging low across the pointy tops of the lodgepole and yellow pine stands in the far distance; there was no telling whether the serrate line of the Whitehorns might show in better weather. By the time she turned back toward the house a woman had come out on the porch and was wiping her hands on her apron. She was just about exactly the age of the man who’d been feeding cows, which was fifty, and she stood there in black high-top shoes and a long dress and a sweater with the sleeves rolled up to the elbows, stood there wiping her hands and squinting at the girl.
Martha said, “I’m here to see about some work breaking horses. The man feeding cows in that field by the road said I ought to wait here till he came in to talk to me about it.”
“Well it’s cold,” the woman said. “You can put up those horses in the barn and then come in and have a cup of coffee. He’ll be a while.” She went back inside the house.
Martha watered her horses and led them over to the barn but she didn’t put them up. She left them standing saddled in the open runway, out of the wind, then walked back to the house. The dog met her again and smelled of her boots and her chaps up to the knees and she patted him on the head and went past him onto the porch. When she rapped lightly on the door the woman inside called out, “You’d better just come on in.” She tucked her gloves into her belt, scraped her boots as well as she could on the porch boards and stepped inside. The dim front room ran the width of the house and was furnished more elaborately than Martha was used to, with upholstered chairs, carved end tables, Turkish rugs, kerosene lamps with elaborate glass shades. Thick draperies closed off the windows, which might have been to keep the heat inside; but Martha felt if there was any chance of seeing the mountains she’d have left the windows open to the view.
She crossed the room and went through a doorway into the kitchen where the woman was pouring coffee into heavy china cups. This room was bare of the fussy furnishings at the front of the house. The long pine table and chairs and two kitchen cupboards were painted white, and the windows were tall and narrow and curtainless. The day’s gray brightness flooding through those panes of glass made the room seem clean and cold. From this side of the house you could see some trees, but the house was too close to the Clarks to get a view of their snowy peaks. The girl took off her hat and held it in her hands.
“What’s your name, dear?” the woman said.
“It’s Martha Lessen.”
“Well my goodness, I have a sister and a cousin both named Martha, so that’s a name that will come easy to my lips.” She put the coffee cups and a pitcher of cream on the kitchen table and sat down in a chair.
“If I was to pay you for it,” the girl said to her, “I wonder if I could later on give my horses a little bit of your hay.”
The woman made a dismissive gesture with one hand. “Oh heavens,” she said, as if that was just the most outrageous idea. “You help yourself. A horse has got to have something to eat. Sit down now and drink your coffee.” Martha sat in a kitchen chair and put her big hat in her lap and poured as much cream into her coffee as the cup would hold.
“You talked to George, did you?”
“I didn’t get his name. He had on overalls and a brown coat.”
This amused her. “Well of course every man in this part of the world is wearing overalls and an old brown coat,” she said, “but I guess it was George Bliss who is my husband and I am Louise Bliss.”
She then started right in telling Martha how they were Old Oregonians, both she and her husband, children of first comers, and how this house they were sitting in had been built from trees cut and milled right here on the ranch by her husband’s daddy right after the Indians were driven off, and how her own granddaddy had fought in the Civil War and then come up to Oregon with one of the first big trail drives out of Texas and bought half a dozen cows with his wages, and by the time he died owned almost two hundred head of cattle and eight hundred acres of Baker Valley pastureland. She spoke as if the girl had asked for every bit of their family history but it was just that she had immediately taken Martha Lessen for a certain kind of ranch girl, the kind that followed the seasonal work traipsing from ranch to ranch; and Louise had known such girls to be shy as the dickens and indisposed to talk. She felt it would be up to her to fill the silence, and Martha’s old-time cowboy trappings seemed to make her a perfect audience for romantic pioneer stories.
When George Bliss came in through the back porch he poured himself some coffee and stood there drinking it without sitting down at the kitchen table. His wife wasn’t saying anything he didn’t already know. She and George had brought four children into the world, she was telling Martha, and one had died shortly after being born but they had a boy who was now in Kansas preparing to fight in France and another who was at college up in Pullman, Washington, with the intent to learn veterinary medicine, and a girl, Miriam, who was married and living with her husband’s family on a ranch up around Pilot Rock. George stood there drinking his coffee quietly and letting Louise go on talking without interrupting her, and it was the telephone that finally broke the thread of her story and made all three of them jump. It wasn’t the Blisses’ ringtheirs was two longs and a short, this was three long janglesbut Mrs. Bliss went to the telephone anyway. In those days there were seven ranches on the party line at that end of the valley and they listened in on each other’s calls without a bit of apology.
George took his opening to say to Martha, “I’ve got a couple of likely-looking three-year-olds, or I guess they’re four-year-olds now, that haven’t never been broke. They’re halter-broke more or less, and I suppose I could get a saddle on them if I was determined about it, and I suppose if I was truly determined I could stick on and ride them out. But they ain’t been finished and I haven’t got the time to do it now that my son has gone off to fight. I’ve got just two hands I’ve been able to keep this winter. Henry Frazer, who was my foreman, has left me and gone over to help out the Woodruff sisters since all their hands joined up, and one of the two I got left is a kid who I expect will be joined up as soon as he turns eighteen and anyway ain’t had much experience bucking out horses. I hired him mostly as a ditch walker and for moving the gates on my dams and so forth in the summer, and I’m trying to teach him cowboying but he’s not the best hand I ever had in the world; and the other is a fellow with a bum arm that keeps him out of the army and also keeps him from doing any kind of roping, and which is a disadvantage, I guess you know, if you’re trying to break broncs.”
The usual method of broncobusters in those days was to forefoot a horse with a catch rope, which brought him right to his knees, and then wrestle a saddle onto him while he was on the ground, climb on and buck him near to death. Martha Lessen was a terrible hand with a lariat and horses hardly ever bucked when she rode them the first time but she didn’t say any of this to George Bliss. “I’d like to break them out for you,” she said. “I can gentle most anything that has four feet and a tail.”
“What would you want for the two of them?”
“I could do them for ten dollars apiece.”
He lifted his eyebrows. “Ten to get them started or will that get them finished?”
Since this was the first time she’d been asked to name a price, she was easily warned off. She’d been helping out her dad since she was old enough to sit her own horse, and she’d been about thirteen the first time anybody hired her to move cattle or gather horses off the open range or round up a runaway team. She’d been breaking horses since she was fifteen but it had always been something she’d done in her spare time while she was working summers on one ranch or another and not something she’d been paid separately for. “I expect I can get them close to finished for ten dollars,” she said, looking down into her coffee. She knew the hard part wasn’t climbing onto a horse for the first time and a decent working horse might take a year or two to truly finish, and she thought George Bliss must know this too. But she could get a horse pretty well along in a few weeks, and after that it would be a matter of the horse gaining experience. She waited and when nothing more was said, she added, “If you aren’t happy with the way they turn out, you don’t have to pay me.”
Mr. Bliss looked at his wife, who had by now hung up the telephone and come back to the table. Martha wanted to know what sort of look Louise Bliss was giving back to him but she deliberately kept from acting interested: she turned the coffee cup in her two hands and looked down at her thumbs rubbing along the rolled rim of the china.
“That was the hardware store over in Bingham,” Louise said, because George’s questioning look had been about the telephone and not at all to do with Martha Lessen. “The nails and wire have come in, and after all this time, I should hope so.” George knew whose nails and wire she meant, and merely nodded at his coffee. Then Louise said suddenly, “Do you know? This girl sitting here is named Martha?” as if she expected the news to amaze him.
George said, “Is that so,” with no more than mild interest. “Well Miss Martha, let’s go out and take a look at them broncs and you tell me do you think you can make them into cow ponies.” He winked at her without smiling and set his coffee down and went out through the back porch into the yard.
“Thanks for the coffee,” she told Louise Bliss and followed the man outside.
His two white mules were standing there tied to the porch rails; George Bliss had saddled them before he had come inside the house. He climbed onto one of them and when she realized what was expected of her Martha got up on the other and they rode out to find the horses. The yellow dog ran to get ahead because it was his habit to take the lead, a habit that had resulted in his acquiring the name Pilot.
The war had encouraged George Bliss to plow up a big stretch of his deeded pastureland to plant wheat, so his wheat fields, fenced and cross-fenced and edged with irrigation ditches and diversion dams, took up most of the flattish ground to the east and the south near the homeplace. George led Martha the back way, north through a gate into the grass and bitterbrush foothills. After forty minutes or so they went up through another gate into the scattered timber of the Clarks Range. Those mountains had been part of Teddy Roosevelt’s freshly minted Blue Mountain Forest Reserve back in ’06, then were split off into their own reserve about 1912. The Taylor Grazing Act and all the rules and rigamarole of leasing from the government were a good fifteen years off at that point and George was still using the mountains as pasture for his livestock, was still wintering his horses and some of his cattle in the grassy canyons inside the reserve. He and Martha began scouring the creek bottoms one after the other, looking for the horses he wanted to show her.
She had a cowboy’s disregard for mulesa mule lacked the dignity and honorableness of a horse was one of the things she believed. But this belief wasn’t in any way based on experience and it was a surprise to her to discover that the white mule had a nice swinging walk and a sure foot and a look in his eye that struck her as entirely dignified. When they had been riding in silence for a while, she finally worked up the nerve to say a few words to George Bliss about the mule’s gait and his sure-footedness. He told her, “Well, a mule is no good for working cattle, I guess you know, but I’ve always been partial to them for packing or if I’m going up into broken ground. They never put their foot wrong is my experience. My daddy used to raise mules for the army, which is how I got interested in them. They’ve got a lot of good sense. A mule won’t put up with a lopsided load; he’ll walk right up to a tree and scrape it off. I guess if I was smart I ought to go to raising them again, with the war and all, and there being a lot of call for mules.”
The girl’s showy rodeo costume had caused him to saddle the mules out of amused contrarinesshe intended to surprise and upend her. But now that she had spoken well of the mules he was coming to a slightly different opinion of her, and he began looking for a way to feel out her knowledge. After he’d thought about it he said, “These mules come out of a mare, Tulip, that I wish I had a dozen more just like her. She was half-Shire, and her mule colts was good big work animals. People say it’s the stud, but when it comes to mules my money’s on the mare.”
Even farm girls in those days were modest and circumspect when it came to talking to men about the details and mechanics of stock breeding, so George didn’t say anything further along those lines; but all the time they were riding he went on talking in the same indirect way about matters to do with horses, especially anything to do with their breaking. He was mildly trying to provoke an opinion out of Martha Lessen without ever directly asking her anything. “I guess you know a mule is just about nothing to break,” he told her. “You can climb up on a mule and he’ll raise his back once or twice and then settle down to work, that easy.” And later on he said, “I don’t know what the difference is, or why horses have got to be so hard about it.”
She had opinions and might have stated them; it was just from natural shyness and a failure to realize what he was fishing for that she didn’t say much. But as he kept on with it, she finally figured out what George was after and began to speak up, and once she got going she had plenty to say. She told him, for instance, about her preference for a McClelland saddle when she was breaking a horse, because those old cavalry saddles were light in the stirrup leathers and she liked how they let her feel the horse, and the horse feel her. She told him she liked to use her own homemade basal hackamore as long as possible on a green colt and after that a snaffle bit; and that she didn’t have much use for a spade bit. She told him when a horse misbehaved she figured it was for one of two reasons: either he didn’t understand what you wanted or the bad behavior hadn’t ever been corrected in the past. She said that in her experience horses weren’t mean unless some man made them that way; but some horses, once they’d been made mean, just weren’t worth the time it took to break them. “Like people,” she said, glancing at George. “Some people just belong in prison and some horses just belong in the rodeo.”
They made a full swing along the timbered breaks of the foothills, passing through several small bunches of cows and steers, and three different bands of horses. In one bunch of fifteen or twenty mares, George pointed out a young buckskin stud horse he said was half-Arab that he’d bought to improve his herd. Martha said appreciatively, “He’s got an awfully nice-looking head,” and after watching him a momenthe was tossing his head, kicking and rearing and whinnying, showing off for George and Martha in front of his wivesshe also said, “Those young horses sure like to make a big show,” without saying what had come into her mind, which was a young stallion she knew of who’d been put into pasture all one summer with half a dozen experienced brood mares without producing a single foal. Those mares had just been disgusted by his adolescent male lordliness, and they hadn’t ever let him cover them.
He showed her maybe forty horses altogether, and among the last band the four-year-olds he wanted to have broken to saddle, a bay and a chestnut, both of them geldings. The chestnut, when he moved, had an odd action, a kind of conspicuous engagement of the hips, which Martha thought might make for a smooth trot. They were in their long winter coats and looked pretty rough, almost wild. She doubted they had much memory of being halter-broke, but if they’d been broken out in the usual way then not remembering was good news as far as she was concerned. She told George Bliss her opinion about the chestnut, the way he lifted his hips, and George gave the horse a close look in silence and then said, “Well, it do look different,” without saying whether he thought she was right about the horse having a smooth gait.
When they got back to the house it was late in the afternoon, the daylight already failing, and it had grown pretty cold. They put up the saddles and turned the mules loose in the stubble field by the road and stood watching them trot off to rejoin the other animals. The cows in that field were all of a type, short horns and short-coupled bodies and red-brown hides spotted rarely with white. “Those is Louise’s cows,” George said. “I hate those pure breeds, all that extra work trying to keep them separate, and all the paper filing and so forth. Her daddy give her two registered ones when we was married and she was just dumb enough to like it.” Martha would have taken this at face value if it had been her own dad saying it. She didn’t know how to take George Bliss, who sounded only cheerfully long-suffering.
“Well, let’s go eat,” he said to her, and slapped his palms on the top rail of the fence. She had expected George Bliss to say yes or no while they were standing there looking over his animals, and he hadn’t given her the word either way. She had a sleeping bag and tent with her and some sandwiches and cheese, and had more or less imagined that if she had trouble finding work she’d sleep in fields or sheds and make do with her own groceries. She didn’t know if George Bliss’s invitation to supper constituted an unspoken offer of employment. If she thought she was hired, she’d have wanted to put up her horses before going in to eat; but there was no way to know if Mr. Bliss had just forgotten about her animals standing saddled in his barn or if he hadn’t yet made up his mind whether to hire her on.
She followed him across the shadowy yard and around to the back door, onto the closed-in porch where they kept the wash basin and a towel. He let Martha have first turn at the water, which may have been a concession to her femaleness. She was used to elbowing a turn with her brothers and her dad, used to dirty towels and brown water, but sometimes when she’d worked on other ranches the men would put her at the head of the line. She didn’t mind being singled out for such things but liked it better when the men seemed to forget she was a girl. Once some women relatives of the boss, women dressed in linen suits and delicate shoes, had come out to watch a branding crew where Martha was helping out, and some of the men had grum- bled about it. “When there’s women hanging around it sure takes your mind off what we’re doing, don’t it?” one of them had said to her seriously.
She washed her hands and stepped into the kitchen, where George’s wife was turning out sourdough biscuits from a pan. A man with a graying handlebar mustache was sitting at the table drinking coffee and he gave her a curious look. He was about forty, with a falling-away jaw and thinning brown hair and old pockmark scars on his cheeks. Martha nodded to him and took off her hat and stood holding it and waiting, without knowing whether she ought to help Louise Bliss bring the soup and biscuits to the table, which was something some ranches would have expected a hired girl to do, or whether to sit down with the hired man. When George Bliss came into the kitchen she saw he had hung his hat on a peg on the back porch and so she stepped back out and found a peg for her own hat there. The Blisses were both sitting by then, and she took one of the remaining chairs. She wished she had had sense enough to take off her chaps and leave them outsidethe old-fashioned batwings took up a lot of room under the tablebut it was too late to do anything about that now.
“Dear Lord bless this food and the horses and cows and the other animals and our children and all the boys in France and all the little Flanders children who are hungry,” Louise Bliss said with closed eyes while her husband and the hired man looked down into their laps with identical expressions of seriousness.
“Amen,” they said quietly when Louise had come to the end of her prayer.
As the food began to be passed, George said to Martha, “This here is Ellery Bayard but don’t never call him that, he goes by El. El, this here is Martha Lessen who is a broncobuster.”
El Bayard said, “Is that right?” matter-of-factly without seeming to be amused by the spectacle of a girl bronc rider; and this, together with his family name, immediately put him in a good light with Martha: Bayard was the name of a legendary horse she had read of who had outraced the army of Charlemagne while carrying four men on his back. El’s right arm was fixed or nearly fixed in a half-bent position as if it had been broken once and poorly set. He made deft use of it lifting and passing plates and bowls but it was a puzzle to Martha how he would ever manage to get a saddle onto a horse or shovel out a hole or tighten a fence wire. Martha was left-handed and had been made to feel self-conscious about it, especially when she was with new people, but El Bayard’s frozen arm seemed in some way to mitigate her shyness as she spooned her soup with the wrong hand.
They had eaten their dinner earlier in the day and supper was therefore pretty light. There was turnip and carrot in the soup and a chicken may have run through the pot on its way to somewhere else, or more likely this was one of the meatless days that had become patriotic in the last few months. Given that there wasn’t much to eat, Martha minded her appetite, though the only food she had had all day was a breakfast of toast and buttermilk, and a sandwich eaten while in the saddle riding down from the Ipsoot Pass. When Louise Bliss encouraged her to eat up the last biscuit, she allowed herself to be persuaded.
Talk at the supper table was devoted to the war. In the afternoon newspaper had come more news of the fighting around Passchendaele, finally taken by the Canadians after months of bloody battle. In the midst of something the men were saying about soldiers who had drowned in the deep mud of the trenches, Louise Bliss stood up from the table and said in a tired voice, “I just can’t bear to think about it.” As she clattered dishes and stepped back and forth from table to sink, her husband gave his hired man a silencing look. Then he pushed his chair back and said to Martha, “Let’s go turn out those horses you brung with you. I guess I forgot entirely about that.”
They walked out to the barn in a damp cold. The yellow dog Pilot, who didn’t ever like being left behind, scuttled out from his place under the porch and ran ahead of them. George brought along a lamp from the kitchen and stood by in the broad runway while Martha unloaded her gear and stripped the saddles from all three of her horses. She’d been riding Dolly on a good California stock saddle, and she’d put the old McClelland army saddle on T.M.; Rory was carrying a saddle with a wide flat seat, which she’d borrowed from her brother Tim, in case she ran into a horse who was big in the barrel like Rory. Tim and one of her other brothers, Davey, had both gone into the army, which meant Tim wouldn’t be needing the saddle for a while. When she had finished stripping the tack off her horses, George unwired and pushed back the gate that let into the stubble field and stood by while she waved the animals through. The Bliss mules and horses, clear out by the road, lifted their heads and spoke and came trotting over stiff-legged. Martha watched them become acquainted, a ritual of snorting and low nickering and mutual inspection of flanks. It appeared that a bright chestnut mare was the lead horse in that bunch and Martha watched her with Dolly to be sure there wouldn’t be any trouble between them, though she didn’t think there would be. Dolly was old enough and had been through enough troubles in her life that she liked to keep to herself, and other horses usually let her go her own way.
“You can put up in the daughter’s room is what I think,” George Bliss said. “We don’t keep the bed made up since she was married but I guess you can just shake out your blankets on the mattress.”
“I wasn’t expecting to be put up in the house.”
He gave her a look. “Well, that’s sure up to you. I guess there’s the barn. My hired men are living in the bunkhouse so I expect Mrs. Bliss wouldn’t listen to you sleeping out there.”
“I don’t mind the barn,” she said.
“It’ll be cold, I’ll guarantee you that.” “ All right,” she said.
He laughed. “All right you’ll take the barn? Or all right you’ll come into the house?”
“All right the barn.”
Her eyes were on the dark shapes of the animals moving off now toward the far side of the field. George Bliss looked out there too. “How did that sorrel mare of yours come to get scarred like that?” he asked her.
“She was scorched in a fire.”
“Was she, now? That’s a shame. I bet she was a goodlooking horse before that.”
“I don’t know. She was already scarred when I got her.”
“Are you breaking her for somebody?”
“No sir, she’s mine, I got her off a man who thought she was spoiled. She was only scorched, but he figured she was spoiled and he sold her to me awful cheap.”
George Bliss gave her a look.
“She’s an awful good horse,” Martha told him.
He nodded skeptically. “Well I guess it don’t matter what a stock horse looks like if she’s got good sense.” He offered her the lamp. “As long as we’re speaking of fire, my wife worries a lot more about kerosene than about anything elseher family was burnt out when she was young, and it was a kerosene lamp that did itso there’s candles and matches in the barn, I believe, and you go ahead and keep this here lamp with you for now but I’d appreciate it if you’d turn it out when you get good and settled and a candle lit and so forth. You can make yourself comfortable in the tack room and if you need another blanket you come over to the house and get one. My other hand has a girl he’s spooning and that’s why he wasn’t at the table tonight but he’ll be at breakfast, and you come on over to the house tomorrow too and have breakfast, come around to the back door and walk right in but don’t come before daylight. We’re getting old enough we don’t like to roll out until the sun is up.” He winked at her solemnly and walked off across the dark yard. The dog considered the question of who he ought to stay with and finally trotted off to get out in front of George. It occurred to Martha that the rancher still hadn’t, strictly speaking, said she was hired.
On one side of the barn runway six stalls were laid out on either side of a tack room. The other half of the barn had been left open to shelter machinery, and she made out a set of harrows, a cultivator, a stoneboat, pipe for irrigation, parts for a homemade buck rake. There was a haymow above, but she wouldn’t have wanted to sleep up there on account of the dust, and anyway George had said to make herself comfortable in the tack room. It was small and crowded, half a dozen saddles on wall trees and twenty or more bridles and halters and hackamores, as well as collars and rope and harness pieces hanging on pegs or slung over the half-walls that divided the room from the stalls. There was barely space to turn around between the wooden boxes spilling over with tools and blacksmithing equipage. She lit a candle she found standing inside a sooty glass chimney on a shelf crowded with veterinary gear and turned out the kerosene lamp. She went back to where she’d left her things and carried her saddles in one at a time and slung them up onto the half-walls of the stalls, then carried the rest of her gear into the tack room and shifted some things around a bit so she could make her bed in the cramped space on the floor. After shucking her chaps and walking out in the darkness to use the privy, she came back and stripped down to her long underwear and crawled into the sleeping bag.
On ranches she’d worked for, it was never expected she would sleep in the bunkhouse with the men, so when she was too far from home to sleep in her own bed she had often been put up in the ranch house, and she’d slept in some pretty poor conditions, one time for several weeks sharing with two children on a bed with no mattress, just a spring with gunnysacks filled with straw, and a couple of wooden fruit boxes under the spring so it wouldn’t sag down to the floor. She had gotten in the habit of asking for the barn, which at least was likely to be quieter and more private. This year, before heading out on her own, she’d sewn together a sleeping bag made from a wool blanket and a piece of felt and an old fur rug. In the newspapers she had read that the British soldiers in France were sleeping in mud and had only a couple of thin blankets to keep them from pneumonia, so she didn’t think she had any grounds for complaint.
The candle cast a high shadow, but it was enough light to read by. She was making her slow way through Black Beauty, a page or two at a time, too tired most nights to read for very long. Tonight, coming to the part where Beauty meets his old friend Ginger, in terrible condition from bad treatment as a cab horse, she shut the book and blew out the candle and then went on lying awake looking out into the darkness. Gradually the saddles and the other things took dim shape around her, and the smells of the fur rug and saddle soap, leather and hay, the warm, clean, fecund smell of horses, arose out of the cold darkness and were a comfort against a yearning that was not homesickness.
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MOLLY GLOSS is the best-selling author The Hearts of Horses, The Jump-Off Creek, winner of both the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Award and the Oregon Book Award, The Dazzle of Day, winner of the PEN Center West Fiction Prize, and Wild Life, winner of the James Tiptree Jr. Award.
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