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The Hearts of Horses

by Molly Gloss

Hardcover, 289 pages, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, List Price: $24 |


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Molly Gloss

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Book Summary

In the winter of 1917, with many of his regular hands off fighting in World War I, George Bliss hires young Martha Lessen, a female horse whisperer, to help gentle wild horses, and as she demonstrates her unique talent for dealing with damaged horses, gentles a horse for a dying man's son, and clashes with an abusive hired hand, she finds a sense of family and belonging.

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Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: The Hearts Of Horses

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 work — breaking bones, freezing your fingers
off — the 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 counties — Elwha, Umatilla, Grant — had 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' ring — theirs was two longs and a short, this was three long
jangles — but 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
"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
She had a cowboy's disregard for mules — a 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 contrariness — he 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 moment — he was tossing his
head, kicking and rearing and whinnying, showing off for George and Martha
in front of his wives — she 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 grumbled 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
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
outside — the old-fashioned batwings took up a lot of room under the table —
but 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
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
"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 good-looking
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 else — her family was burnt out when she was young, and it
was a kerosene lamp that did it — so 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.

Copyright © 2007 by Molly Gloss. Reprinted by permission of Houghton
Mifflin Company.