"Ol Rosie's led the horses off again!" Pa's voice was like a shaft of cold steel jabbing me under my warm quilts. "Get up, Wart. You got to go after them."
I opened my eyes. It was still black dark, and the loft was so cold, there were ice crystals on the edge of the quilts where my breath had left a little moisture. I pulled my head in like a turtle and huddled down deep in the warm feather bed.
"Get up, Wart." Pa poked me in the ribs with his hard hand. I shut my eyes quick and pretended I was still asleep. Even when you are twelve years old, sometimes that will work. For a little while.
"Wart! Roll out! Now!" My name is John, but Pa calls me Wart. I guess that's the way he sees me -- hard, bumpy, and not much use. But he needed me now. He grabbed the quilts and peeled them off of me. It was like falling into ice-cold springwater as the November air wrapped itself around me. My long-handle underwear didn't even slow it down.
Pa had on his long-handles, too, with just his pants pulled on over them, but he didn't even look cold. His hair wasn't combed, and three days' beard made him look even darker in the faint light coming up through the trapdoor. But there's this thing about Pa: I don't think that the cold -- or heat or dark -- has the guts to lay ahold of him. I sure wouldn't...
Eyes barely opening, then, I rolled over, and my feet hit the bare wood floor. It felt like sheet ice with splinters. I stood up, with one hand windmilling around behind me. I was hoping I could grab a quilt and wrap it around me, but Pa stamped to the other end of the bunk and grabbed up my shirt and pants and boots. "Put these on," he said. "I'm fixing you some breakfast -- "
"Ma -- ?" I fumbled out, still barely awake.
"Ma -- she's -- took sick -- " Pa shoved my clothes at me, and I clamped my hands over them. Ma -- sick? That meant -- oh. That meant --
I sat down suddenly. Well, yes, I knew it had been getting on for the time when she was to have the baby, but I guess I'd thought she'd just have it during a night, like she did with Davy, and I'd get up one morning and there it would be. I'd never thought it would have anything to do with me -- or that I'd be stuck with a rotten job like going after runaway horses, just because a baby was being born...
Pa jerked around and strode back to the hole in the floor of the loft and started down the ladder to the kitchen below. Now I could smell the smokey kitchen stove, the coal-oil lamp on the table. He stopped -- shoulders and head still above the floor. "Hurry up," he grunted. "I'll fix you somethin' to eat. You got to get goin' -- "
Yeah, Pa -- I got to get goin'. How come you didn't send me out yesterday, if you're in such a hurry? I asked Ma once why Pa was always pushing us to hurry. She told me about the washtub and the looking glass: "Wart, when people like us get married and set up to make a living, people offer us either a washtub or a looking glass for a wedding present." I guess I looked dumb, because she went on to explain. "You got a choice. You can either use the washtub and take in washing and earn some money to eat with, or you can pick the looking glass and watch yourself starve to death. Your pa and I -- we chose the washtub." So I guess that means I'm included in the washtub deal.
"Wart!" Pa's voice was beginning to get that hard edge in it. But even then I knew that part of the edge was because of Ma. It wasn't ever said, but Pa put Ma first. Always.r
"Yeah -- yeah, Pa -- I'm coming!" I dressed as fast as I could, buttoning my shirt and ramming the tail into my pants, pulling on socks stiff with dried sweat and then my boots. Needed to pee -- I had to get down to the kitchen fast enough to go outside to the outhouse before Pa had the food cooked, or else he'd throw it on the table and tell me to eat and I'd end up sitting there eating it with my belly about to burst. I turned to go. Oh -- almost forgot -- "'Mighty God, bless us in this day to come and may Your Son and our Savior be our guide -- "
Sitting at the plank table beside the wood cookstove, I shoved fried potatoes and ham into my mouth while my father shoved orders into me. "You'll have to ride Gypsy. She was tied in the barn, so she's the only one didn't run off. She's slow, so you got to use your head. The other horses can all outrun her, so you got to head them off, or run them into a box. Ol' Rosie's bound to knock the fence down in the small pasture, but if you're lucky and they ain't moving too fast, you might catch up with them before she knocks the other fence down and they get out of the back pasture. If you do, try to pen them into that back corner where I got the fence partway around the spring. You got to get ropes on Pet an' Snip, though, because they'll follow Ol' Rosie if you don't. Once you get Pet an' Snip roped, Bejeesus and Damfool and Socks and the others will probably follow them. Molly an' Blaze might. Well anyway...some of them will follow."
"What about the colt? What about Ol' Rosie?" I knew the colt would be spooky and skittish, and that was bad enough, but rounding up Ol' Rosie was like rounding up a grizzly bear. She was just as likely to charge you as she was to go along with the herd.
"Colt will follow the mare -- Pet will see to that. An' I don't care if I never see Ol' Rosie again as long as I live." Pa poured himself a tin cup of coffee and then set another cup beside my plate. "That horse's got a devil in her. She's cost me more than ten like her could ever earn."
Pa didn't ask for my opinion, but if he had, I'd have agreed with him. Pa had taken on Ol' Rosie, a huge red roan workhorse, as part payment on a loan, and we'd all been sorry ever since. Jim Cummins, the rancher who gave her to Pa instead of the fifty dollars Pa had loaned him when his wife died, had really handed Pa one of the worst problems we'd ever had -- and on a dry-land ranch in eastern Oregon in the year of our Lord, 1907, that's saying a lot.
Not that Ol' Rosie wasn't strong. She must have Clydesdale or some other heavy breed of draft horse in her, because all by herself Rosie could pull a four-bottom plow or a hay wagon loaded with green timothy hay. She could pull it, that is, if she didn't kick the singletree to pieces, break the reins, and buck off half her harness while you were getting the tugs fastened. And getting her hitched up was the easy part. After that you had to be sure no rabbits sprang up under her nose and no funny noises attracted her attention -- and Rosie was always swinging her hammer-head around looking for things that would attract her attention. She was powerful and deep-chested, and actually very smart (even those who had to drive her thought so), but she was crazy.
There are people who don't think horses go crazy, but those are people who don't have anything to do with horses. Either that or they've got them mixed up with those new automobiles you hear about, though so far I haven't heard of anybody getting kicked by a Ford. When you work with horses every day of your life, feed, brush, water, harness, drive, cuss, and depend on them every day, you get to know them. And some horses are crazy.
Pa said Ol' Rosie was crazy because when she foaled the first time, her owner left her out in a pasture that backed up to the foothills along the far side of the Ochocco Mountains. A grizzly bear came down out of the forest, smelled the blood and the new foal, and he stole that new little colt right away from her. I guess she put up an awful fight -- there are claw scars all over her -- but she lost her foal. And ever since, she's been crazy. Pa says she's got a devil in her.
I was still thinking about Ol' Rosie, and picturing that grizzly and the bloody fight she had put up for her colt, when I saw Pa suddenly jerk around. Then I heard it, too: a faint sound from the bedroom where Ma and Pa slept. It ended quickly, but I knew it had been Ma -- crying. Pa dropped the skillet back onto the stove and turned and almost ran across the kitchen, through what Ma calls the parlor, and into the bedroom. I saw his face as he went by me -- he looked scared. Only Ma can make him look like that. Then everything got very quiet.
I sat there at the table looking down at my tin plate and felt a chill begin to spread inside me. You don't grow up on a ranch without learning that birth is never easy. Ma was a strong woman -- nearly as tall as Pa -- but that didn't seem to make it any easier. I could still remember when Davy was born -- I was eight years old -- and even though he was born during the night, I could see that Ma was white-faced and tired for a long time afterward. Pa had worked out in the field all day and then come in and cooked, swept the floors, and hung the wash out to dry -- only time I ever remember him doing that. And he finally let me use the hatchet to cut wood for kindling -- he said he supposed I was old enough not to hack off any fingers, and I didn't. Came real close once, but I never told him about that.
But, finally, thinking about Ma and the baby coming, I realized that I'd better start figuring out what I had to do. Pa was going to have his hands full taking care of ma and keeping Davy out of trouble, and now I had my own job. I was going to get on the slowest horse we have and go out and try to find ten runaway horses and a colt in a country that is cut up into gullies and ridges and rimrocks and covered with juniper trees and pine forest, or shoulder-high sagebrush where, if you were lucky, you might get a good, clear look at a horse if he was tied up and no more than twenty feet away.
And there were a lot of square miles of this country that I would have to search. We had two pastures, both fenced, and the horses could be in either one of them. But I couldn't count much on their being in the low pasture, because if Ol' Rosie decides the grass looks better on the other side of the fence, she can just plow right through a barbwire fence as if it weren't even there. And if she did that, and then went on through the other fence around the back pasture, there was nothing to stop her from heading for the high mountains, with the only valuable things Pa has -- his workhorses -- at her heels. A rancher who loses his horses loses his ranch, too. I was eager to help, but I realized it wasn't just that this would be a hard job. This was the first time Pa had sent me after the whole herd when they'd run away. I sure didn't want to have to come home and tell Pa I'd let the horses get away from me. I really didn't want to do that...
I gulped my coffee and shoved the last bite of fried potatoes and ham into my mouth and then grabbed up my plate and fork and carried them to the dry sink, where Ma -- where somebody -- would wash them. Then I stood there for a breath or two while I tried to think. What did I need to take with me? Something to eat. Blankets, in case I didn't get back before night. Ropes. And -- a rifle? Suddenly I was gripped with a queasy feeling in my guts. I didn't want to go after those horses -- maybe end up being out there alone in the mountains for a day or more -- without a rifle. But -- would Pa let me take one? He had taught me how to handle a gun and shoot, but I'd only been allowed to take one out by myself for a little while -- an hour or two, never on a long ride like this, and never in rocky, brushy country. A lot can go wrong real fast when you have a gun and you don't know how to use it.
Then I heard him behind me, and I turned. "Pa -- "
"Ain't you ready yet?" Pa came stomping into the kitchen. His face was dark, and his eyes narrow under his heavy black brows -- never a good sign. Some people says Pa looks like he's part Indian, but he isn't. He's black Irish -- his pa came over on the boat from Kilarney with everything he owned in a copper bucket.
Pa was carrying Davy, my four-year-old brother, wrapped in a quilt and still asleep. "You ought to be leavin' now."
"Yeah. Listen, Pa -- "
"Here -- help me git the boy settled over here on the bench -- " He put Davy down on the hard wooden settle beside the cookstove, and I helped him tuck the quilt in around him. Davy has reddish hair like Ma, and he looks like her, too, or like her when she was little like him I guess. Davy was still so little -- small even for a four-year-old -- that his hand holding the quilt didn't look much bigger than a baby's. But all at once it came to me: From now on, Davy wouldn't be "the baby" anymore. And even though he makes me so mad because he tags after me and steps on Ma's garden stuff and makes noise and leaves gates open -- gates open?
All at once I looked up at Pa. "Davy -- did he leave the corral gate open? Is that how the horses got out?"
Pa stood up and, as he did, he reached for a pair of saddlebags that were hanging on the wall. He grunted. "I reckon he did. But you should have watched him. You should have caught it."
My shoulders sagged. My fault again. Jeez -- it's bad enough to be blamed for my own mistakes without Davy's thrown in, too. It would have taken my whole day just to follow Davy to keep him out of trouble. But I knew better than to argue. Pa isn't a man you argue with much. And if he was already blaming me for the horses getting out, there was no sense in even asking about the rifle now.
I went over to the row of coats hanging on nails by the door and took down my warmest fleece-lined sheepskin coat. It was a hand-me-down from Pa, and pretty big, but I would need it to ride God knows how many miles in this weather. I'd be lucky if it didn't snow. The ground was still bare, but we'd had several freezes already, and it couldn't be too long before the first heavy snow fell. The cows and horses had furred out in their heavy, hairy winter coats -- too bad God didn't make people like the animals. I'd once asked Ma why He didn't do that, and she'd cut back a faint little smile. "He knew what you'd look like in fur," she'd said.
Over by the stove, Pa was wrapping biscuits in a towel. "I'm puttin' in all the bread we got, an' some cold fried ham. There's two canteens an' you'll have to take both of them. Horses can drink at the springs, but you got to be careful an' drink only clean water -- "
I wound a muffler around my neck and, as I took my old black hat -- also a hand-me-down from Pa -- and my leather gloves off the bench by the door, I happened to look over at the wooden shelves beside the bench. On the shelves were rows of glass jars, pale green, filled with peaches. Ma had canned them last August. I'd peeled them, listening to Ma as she'd sung kind of to herself, songs like "Bringing in the Sheaves" and "When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder I'll Be There," and then she'd filled the jars and fastened on the lids and boiled them in a huge old copper tub. She'd always let me eat the little pieces that didn't fit in the last jar, so they wouldn't be wasted, she said. And even now, just thinking about those peaches, the taste, the smell, the color, made my mouth water. A jar of Ma's peaches could make even this ride better. "Can I take a jar of Ma's peaches?"
"Hell, boy, how you gonna open a jar of peaches out in the brush? Now, git out there an' saddle Gypsy. I'll bring your gear out in a minute -- "
Well, no peaches. There was nothing more to say. I turned and went out into the icy darkness.
Copyright © 2001 by Louise Moeri