The Hour of Lead: A Novel

The Hour of Lead: A Novel

by Bruce Holbert


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Lonesome Animals was named as a Best Book of 2012 by both The Seattle Times and Slate, a literary debut sparking with beautiful language set against the rugged landscape of 1920s Washington state. Holbert returns with The Hour of Lead, an epic family novel and coming of age story that is once again imbibed with the mythology of the west.

After losing both his twin and his father in a brutal, unexpected snowstorm, Matt Lawson must take over the family ranch. As his mother disappears into grief, Matt learns the hardest lesson the west has to teach: he is on his own. The necessity of work stabilizes young Matt against the pitfalls of first love with Wendy, the daughter of a local grocer, and their ragged end will sent Matt on a journey across the county, leaving Wendy to tend the ranch with local schoolteacher Linda Jefferson and her unwieldy son Lucky. It will take decades for Matt to learn his way back home, and that long journey will have great impact on all of those around him.

Invoking the same beautiful landscape and language of his critically–acclaimed debut, The Hour of Lead is a wider, more expansive novel, less violent but just as affecting, another important contribution to the literature of the west.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781619022928
Publisher: Catapult
Publication date: 07/15/2014
Pages: 400
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Bruce Holbert is a graduate of the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop. His work has appeared in The Iowa Review, Hotel Amerika, Other Voices, The Antioch Review, Crab Creek Review, West Wind Review, Cairn and The New York Times. Bruce Holbert grew up on the Columbia River in the shadow of the Grand Coulee and a stone's throw from the Okanogan Mountains. His great–grandfather was an Indian scout and among the first settlers of the Grand Coulee.

Read an Excerpt


Linda Jefferson was a cliché and she knew it. Twenty-four, both schoolteacher and widow, she tugged a sweater over her blouse then her husband's sheepskin-lined riding coat. His death the year previous had deposited her in a sad, inevitable season. She weathered it as a dumb animal scratches for summer's remnants beneath the snow, not understanding winter or seeking to, only enduring it. The absence was endless and reasonless; it seemed less a wound, which mourning would have mitigated and eventually closed, than a flaw in herself, requiring constant stitching to keep from bleeding through.

In this country, loneliness was unassailable law. A man weighed his heart by the number of sleepers under his roof when the lights went out and a woman by the number of eggs in the skillet mornings. The distance between souls, however, remained incalculable. Blood made them kin, yet a heart does not beat solace or joy. One must hunt that in others, and others remained few and far apart. Days she entertained a room full of children but a job was no remedy for an empty house.

In the schoolroom furnace, quartered pine ebbed to coal and ash and wind clattered the flue. The weather battered the cottonwood in the yard and clouds clotted and thinned the light. The storm was a relief. A hard wind could perform beautiful things to country, sweep it clean like a new room. Once it let up and the sky emptied to blue, the snow seemed a new start.

As she approached the twins, pressed into desks for which they had grown too large, they hitched themselves a little taller. Clad in a cotton shirt and grey trousers, Luke flipped his book closed with his forefinger. Clothes passed between the brothers and were never a reliable way to tell them apart; still, three minutes in a room, you knew Luke from his twin, Matt, who was bent across his spelling, crimped hand steering his pencil.

She tapped a finger on Matt's paper to identify two words that remained misspelled. He nodded and opened his primer to correct the work. Matt was better suited for practical pursuits. Fall, the boys demonstrated a bent to arrive early and she'd assigned Matt the stove. Each morning, he retrieved the axe from the long covered porch and quartered a couple of aged tamarack rounds stacked at the porch's far end. After, he knocked loose some kindling and propped it across a handful of dried pine needles and a balled page of last week's news. He struck a match — one was all he'd allow — against the paper two or three places and coax the damper draft till the wood burned blue and smokeless. Not a wisp entered the room. All the while, she shot Luke new and difficult words to spell. She felt odd enjoying boys this age. Eighth grade, they recognized a woman differed from them and that they were meant to do something about it. She thought of her husband once more, his broad, callused hands on her shoulder and waist while they danced at the Fort Saturdays, not pulling her, just steady and there. His nails, yellowed by cigarettes, the hair dark and wiry between his knuckles, the same hand that dangled from the sheet as the logging crew carted him from the forest. As his crew recalled, the tree turned on its stump and thrust a wooden blade through Vernon's throat and out one ear. The mortician could do nothing without removing the head entirely, so he appeared like an awestruck child in the casket, marveling at something overhead and slightly to the left.

Wind creaked the building trusses, but it was the winter's first storm and early, likely packing only a skiff of snow and freeze enough to finish the pumpkins and squash. Still the boys ought not to risk a chill.

"You two better get on," Linda Jefferson said.

She watched the boys button their jackets and tug their stocking caps past their ears. Outside, they patted their horse and each took a stirrup and mounted. It left them one-footed until they had purchase enough to reach the saddle horn. Neither asked nor offered the other assistance. Their mulishness struck her as comic and she laughed.

* * *

Ed Lawson narrowed his eyelids and peered toward the horizon as the first strong gusts batted the shutterless window. Flakes no bigger than birdshot and nearly as hard followed. They whirled and rapped the crosshatched pane. He held no rancor against the season coming hard. After, he'd walk his property to scout coyotes or the few cougars left in the cliffs that might harass the livestock.

His wife, though, had been fussing at the window since the cattle had congregated at the feedbin despite half a day till the next feeding. They huddled at the barn door and lowed for Ed to admit them. Eventually he relented and, past them, she watched the horizon swell purple and pulse like blood through an opened vein that spilled across the sky. Winters in this place turned afternoon brief as a heartbeat, and night unraveled over day so thick sleepers dreamed themselves swimming through it to breathe. Day, when it arrived, was little relief. Breaths turned hurried, drawing in more cold than air and expelling a body's warmth until a person was left light-headed and pneumatic. The sun, shimmering behind the cumulous haze, looked as warm as it might to a fish at the bottom of a lake.

A half empty coffeepot perked in the center of the table. Ed Lawson rocked his cup below his mouth and enjoyed the vapors from the moonshine inside it.

"Probably stopped somewhere to throw a ball."

The front of her head disappeared in the glass reflection as she turned to him. "You know it's too cold for baseball."

Ed inhaled over the cup then drank. The window was nearly blank with frost. He fortified his coffee again and joined his wife looking out. Her head swung when she caught the liquor scent. He winked at her. Her face had slackened and too much sun had guttered her eyes. He recalled her profile from their first days, a crescent and white as the moon, and the thinness above her hips that tapered her. He felt no different about the woman now and considered that his greatest good fortune.

An oak crate tumbled past and splintered into the house wall. "Goddamner," Ed said. "This one's got a bad humor."

His wife nodded, still at the window.

"Not supposed to blow like this till January," she said.

Lawson joined her and stared out the glass. "Maybe January in Alaska," he said. His wife turned and watched Ed lift his long duster from the chair back and tug his gloves from the pockets and test his fingers inside them.

"Boil some water. They're liable to be frosty when I find them," he said.

He screwed a hunting cap onto his head and opened the door; cold blasted through, a lamp shook, and light wavered in the kitchen. He waved to her and stepped toward the corral. The light in the doorway became a shadow then nothing, enveloped by the sideways storm.

* * *

When he and Matt were left alone, Luke poured moonshine into fruit jars and let Matt dare him into sipping it. That woolly burning felt like Mrs. Jefferson next to him. Luke had tracked his teacher through autumn, hunting her insides under the breathy voice and slow windmill circles her hands spun as she recited poetry, like words were birds she could coax from nests. The best reader and speller in the class, Luke could not fathom where his teacher disappeared when she spoke those words. Each time he recognized her fragrance, he wished to know more.

The horse halted, a three-year-old Appaloosa mare, Mule, named for such moments. The sun, only a smear of white without warmth in the short days, turned memory aside from the shallow, long light lining the horizon. The wind pitched itself into the riders and the horse. Luke stood in the stirrup, dismounted, and twisted the reins, the rawhide frosted white to the bridle where it thawed with the mare's breaths. An ice layer clung to her neck and under her belly, and tongues of snow spiraled around them, sometimes moving up instead of down, or remaining halfway, scouring the boys' exposed skin.

A week later, the papers would report a seventy-five-degree temperature drop in fifty-seven minutes. Four feet of snow, light as down, piled onto the hardening earth in the next three hours, and double that the six that followed, all so far past the almanac records as to render the whole book inadequate. Seventy-year-old farmers from Norway and the Russian North, usually quick to reduce the New World's winters to minor annoyances, when asked about the storm of '18 remained mute and just shook their grey heads. At the river's bank, sheep huddled near the steaming water and eventually waded into it, since it was warmer. Dozens would pock the steely surface as the ice stilled even the fastest waters. Gusts spun the windvanes until the spindles stripped their couplings and the blades and ribbing spun from barn tops to be discovered months later and miles away.

The boys cussed the horse, separate and together. They quirted her face with the reins. The snow piled against their torsos and welled in the lee sides as if they were trees or hills. Wind snapped Luke's hat from his head and it vanished across the road. In his brows the ice thickened. It clotted his hair. Matt pulled the reins hard and Mule lunged forward. She accepted their weight when they mounted, swayed in the wind, and tried another step. The wind shoved the boys' heads into their shoulders and blistered their hands and faces. Luke couldn't clench his fingers over the reins. The twins gazed at the snow, eyes tearing, tears freezing to their skin. The muscles in Mule's chest bunched when she stepped, the hole her hoof punched obliterated before she could attempt the next. They traveled half a mile. Frost reached the mare's chest, ascending past the stirrups. After each step she rested before attempting another. Her breath pressed out in short, dutiful gasps and she ran a half dozen uneven strides until her weight tipped.

Matt expected Luke to act, but when he didn't Matt kicked one foot from the stirrup and hauled Luke clear of the horse's falling weight. Together, they disappeared in the high snow. Matt shook Luke and he rose. In the slanting snow, they watched the mare paw and roll and regain all fours and back away, steam coming from her nostrils.

Matt pushed Luke's shoulder. "Which way?"

"Out of the snow."

"Don't seem likely."

"Give me your hat."

Matt set his gloved hand atop the wool cap. "I got ears to warm, too," he said. Luke nodded.

"Can you drown in snow?" Matt asked.

"I don't want to find out," Luke said. He shoved Matt in the direction of an elm skeleton.

* * *

Linda Jefferson coaxed the furnace fire. Some coals pinked but most had fallen to grey ash. A hard chill buffeted the room. Heat from the open stove barely pierced it and only for a few feet. She alternated between facing the flames and warming her back with them. The snow and the biting wind had frosted inside the window glass. Outside, the road passing the school and leading to her small house had become indistinguishable half an hour before, like everything else, just drifts and swells of white. Wind hammered the north side of the building. The storm was unlike any she had witnessed or read of. She checked the latch on the window and wondered how simple pine and glass could restrain such weather.

Though no friend of cold, she enjoyed the snap and aroma of burning wood. Winters, the log camp abandoned the woods and Vernon, when he wasn't hired out as a handyman, assigned himself the cooking. She would be treated to apple and berry cobblers and read a book or her students' work, while next to her he tinkered at songs from memory on an old mandolin like temptation itself. Occasionally, she'd turn and kiss his shoulder as he played. If the number of pecks passed three, he was allowed to lead her off to the heavy-quilted bed. Sometimes he cheated, bumping into her lips without her conceding. They would argue until she'd kissed him honestly and ended the squabble. Later, the shepherd dog would climb to the bed foot. It slept with her still. She spoke with the dog often, and at times thought she might be daft, but allowed that being alone granted a person privileges not permitted others.

She approached the window in her reverie and permitted the snow to sketch the steely air, flakes spinning a familiar image then destroying it before she could attach it to a name. She imagined a story the wind was attempting to recount, wondering if it might be prophecy she was seeing. She wanted to prepare. A darkened shape appeared, at first she thought it a shadow, but the ebbing light was too unclear to cast it. The form dangled just outside her comprehension but did not vanish like the others. She squinted to study it. Shoulders and the thick neck of a horse began to appear.

A pair of her husband's wool pants hung in the closet. She tugged them over her pantaloons and under her skirt. Outside, her arms swam in the white air, and flying ice beat her face. The horse belonged to the twins. The frozen saddle was taut against its chest. She touched its jaw, which was rigid as rod iron. The animal's glassy eye did not close. Snow had drifted to its withers.

* * *

Ed Lawson regretted the snowshoes in the barn he'd decided against. For half an hour he'd hiked what he thought was the road from the creek wash, but now he'd slogged into a stand of birch he recognized as west of that road. Ed's gloved hand raked the snow from his face. He tipped himself against the leeside of a tree. He could taste his stomach stir: this afternoon's coffee and shine, a couple of eggs from breakfast. He belched once and the pain eased. The pint bottle clanked inside his jacket and he worked off a glove and twisted the cork. His fingers branched over the bottle and the glass seemed to join his flesh. His numb hand raised it a second time. The glove dropped from his arm's crook and skittered away like mice before a plow. Ed acknowledged it as punishment for tarrying and a harbinger to head on. He finished the bottle and wished for the warmth of a cigarette.

* * *

The fence that lined the road to the creek was Linda Jefferson's only prospect for locating the boys. The barbed wire pulled her wool gloves apart and the air stung her hands and the cold spread, numbing her arms and shoulders. Snow rose like water rippling for fence posts and trees in its rising current. Like many in similar straits, she only now realized that country could kill a person dead as Jesse James and just as quickly.

* * *

Ed stood. He'd surrendered his footing twice, cratering the snow with shapes that seemed unlike his own. He hoped the boys had reached the house. It would be a relief to Helen. She would fret his absence, but less than she did theirs, which is as it should be. He would manage. The time had arrived to do just that and join them at the stove for something hot. He bore straight north. A mile, no more, and he would be thawing his numb feet till they were pink as pigs. The storm shoved at his shoulders and chest, and he tilted his body against it. He busted through a drift. His hips led the way for his legs. Blowing snow pelted his eyes. He angled his gaze down and forward, then, following three steps aided by gravity, floated into the air. His arms circled and the breath in his chest filled him. He thought he would see his ranch soon, the river's wide bend at Gifford Ferry, the Fort, the arc of the earth itself.

* * *

Linda spotted the boys balled like porcupines midway up the birch tree. They floundered toward the schoolhouse in a chain, Linda breaking the snow, Matt between them squeezing her gloved hand and Luke's. Luke toppled twice. Linda feared they would be required to pack him, but after they changed order and towed him by both arms, he stumbled onward.

Matt spied the schoolhouse shape first. Snow in the doorway had heaped past the knob. He and Mrs. Jefferson clawed at the powder. Luke lay behind them and shut his eyes. Closing them was a relief; they still functioned. His brother and his teacher bent like the humped hills a few feet away. The snow they shoveled floated over him like cottonwood seeds in the wind. Through it, he recognized Mrs. Jefferson's gold hair, dull with ice. He wanted to lift himself and help but couldn't find his hands.

Linda grunted and the snow gave a little to the door. Matt burrowed on until they gained the few inches needed to wedge through. When he turned, Luke's arm raised from under the snow like a grave marker. Matt swatted the snow and found his nose and mouth. Linda pressed her face to Luke's, but through the wind could not make out a breath.

Inside the schoolhouse, they lay him on the floor. Mrs. Jefferson's fingers fumbled to untie his frozen shoelaces, then unscrewed his socks. Luke's yellow, bloodless feet shone in the faint window light.

"Get blankets from the closet," she said. She unsnapped Luke's pants while Matt found the blankets and laid one on the floor. Luke's pants were off. Matt stared at his white undershorts. He looked at the furnace, but felt no heat.


Excerpted from "The Hour of Lead"
by .
Copyright © 2014 Bruce Holbert.
Excerpted by permission of Counterpoint.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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