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Authors: Molly Gloss

The Jump-Off Creek

BOOK: The Jump-Off Creek
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Table of Contents

Title Page

Table of Contents

Copyright

Dedication

Acknowledgments

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

8

9

10

11

12

13

14

15

16

17

18

19

20

21

22

23

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25

26

27

28

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36

A Mariner Reader's Guide to The Jump-Off Creek

For Discussion

About the Author

First Mariner Books edition 1998

 

Copyright © 1989 by Molly Gloss

 

All rights reserved

 

For information about permission to reproduce selections from this book, write to Permissions, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 215 Park Avenue South, New York, New York 10003.

 

www.hmhco.com

 

The Library of Congress has cataloged the print edition as follows:
Gloss, Molly.
The jump-off creek / Molly Gloss,
p. cm.
ISBN
0-395-51086-4
ISBN
0-618-56587-6 (pbk.)
I. Title.
PS
3557.
L
65
J
8 1989
813'.54—dc20 89-32157
CIP

 

e
ISBN
978-0-547-52536-5
v1.0414

 

 

 

 

For My Great-Grandmothers—

 

Molly Mizell Donaldson
1875–1944, Miles, Texas

 

Emma Castle Hurlburt Bettey
1862–1924, Walla Walla, Washington

 

Nancy Kerr Lovelace
1853–1938, Irion County, Texas

 

Lena Meyers Remlinger
1860–1930, Fort Vancouver, Washington

 

—Westering Women, All

 

 

 

 

I am greatly indebted to many published and unpublished diaries, letters and journals of women who settled the West. I hope their strong, honest voices can be heard in this book.

I'm grateful to Tony Wolk and Dee Anne Westbrook, who read the manuscript with care and perception; and to Ed, who gave me time, encouragement, applause.

I must also thank my dad, who introduced me to the public library, and to the panorama of the real and imagined West.

1

6 April
Bought the black hinny Mule today, $18, also the spavint gray as my money is so short and I have hope he will put on wt, his eyes are clear w a smart look in them and his feet not tender. Believe I am now outfitted, shall start out at Day Break. Weather is poor w rain & a cold wind, not a favorable day for travel but I shall not put it off, each days boarding $3 I can ill afford and now the stables cost of 2 Mules & the Goats. My list of needs has many unhappy lines drawn through marking out this or that not so nec at prices so very dear. O well the poor Mules will be hard put to carry the things as is. I have stld my accts w Mrs Mailer as I plan to be gone in the morning before she is about. She has given me a good rolling pin from her own kitchen as well as many candle stubs & ends of wax, tho not in other ways been over kind these few days I have boarded. I believe she thinks I am a Mad Woman or worse. For myself, after so long in getting to this day, I find I am not much afraid—but in that may be some proof of my Madness. I shall not see Mrs Mailer nor perhaps any woman, at least until the Fall if I am still alive then and able to come out for my Winter's nec. But I am used to being Alone, in spirit if not in body, and shall
not
be Lonely, as I never have been inclined that way. I believe what I feel is just a keenness to get to that place and stand under my own roof at last.

2

At the head of Buck's Creek where the springs puddled out to fill the low ground, sometimes there would be as many as half a dozen cows standing along the edges of the pond, tearing at the grass. But there weren't any there now, only old, sucking tracks in the mud, from yesterday or the day before. In a fine silent rain, Tim rode once around the pond and then went down from there, scouting the blind gullies where snow-melt fed down toward the Buck's. He was half a day before he finally turned up three cows sharing the skimpy grass with their calves, up one of the dead-end canyons.

He let the dog do most of the work. He hung back, holding a short loop of rope open against his thigh, while the dog broke the cows out gently toward the creek. The left-behind calves bawled a little for their mamas and jig-trotted after them, but shortly the cows settled into a walk and the calves sorted out which mother was which and nuzzled flanks with fitful, bawling complaint. Tim and the dog shunted back and forth behind them, keeping them headed right without seeming to do much. Tim's breath was white, thinning around his shoulders as he rode through it.

Where an old lightning strike had burned a clearing, he called up the dog and let the cows nose the wet grass and weeds growing among the snags on both sides of the creek. Then he stood off the horse and squatted to kindle a little fire behind a windbreak of wood. The trees had not seemed much of a shelter, but now on the bare slope the rain came down harder. He pulled inside his oilskin as far as he could get and made a wordless sound of
annoyance. At the little noise, the dog came and squatted next to him and Tim opened his palms.

“Hey," he said, in a low voice. When the dog pushed his face against his hands, Tim ruffled the dog's wet coat.

He put coffee and beans to heat and hunched on the damp grass, waiting for it, looking out at the cows. Once, aloud, he said, “Three goddamn calves.” The dog looked toward him then but without much interest, hearing no temper in it, just a dull grayness like the rain.

Tim drank coffee from the spigot of his pot, sucking it down gingerly. Then he ate beans with a dipper of hard bread and put the pan on the grass for the dog to finish while he tightened the saddle. Behind him, he heard the pan bump a few times and then the dog's low warning. He didn't look around yet. He dropped the fender of the saddle and stepped unhurriedly around the backside of the horse.

He didn't know the woman who came toward him from the edge of the burnt clearing. She sat high and straight on a big black mule, towing behind her another mule that looked thin-necked, ribby, with a spavined hock. There was gear hanging everywhere off her high-cantled saddle, and off the heaped-up load on the other, the gray mule. She had, besides, two filthy goats on a long tether.

She pulled up the saddle mule when she was still a little way from Tim. “How do you do,” she said, gravely polite, and in a moment, smiling in a flat way, “I smelled your campfire smoke.”

There was a short silence before it occurred to him: “Coffee is still hot,” he said, ducking his chin, and he went back around the horse to the fire and the blackened pot. She sat a minute, watching him, and then she swung a leg across and stood down stiffly beside the mule. She had kilted her skirt up so she could ride astride, bringing the back hem up between her legs and tucking it into the front of her waistband. Without busyness, she pulled the skirt free, shook it out, smoothed it with the palms of
her hands. The coat she had on was too big, mouse-colored, the collar standing up high around her neck. She looked pipe-thin inside it, her arms thin as sticks where they stuck out of the folded-up sleeves, her face thin too, but for a big chin, a wide straight mouth. In the shadow beneath a floppy man's hat, her skin looked coarse, he could see the set-in creases by her mouth and between her brows.

He reached the pot to her handle-backward. “I've got no cup,” he said, not quite looking at her.

She seemed not to care. She came across the little distance to him, took the pot solemnly and tested the spigot against her mouth. It was bitter coffee, but she drank it without making any face. When she had taken a few swallows she gave him a stiff smile over the edge of the pot. “Good,” she said.

He looked around him for something else to offer her. “Beans are eaten up,” he said. “But there's bread.”

She made a slight refusing motion with her head while she kept drinking the coffee. Then she let the pot down and said, “Hot coffee is all I hoped for. It has proved to be a cold day.” She stood holding the pot in her two hands, cupping her palms tenderly around the blackened, beat-up tin. She had long thin fingers. He could see the nails were all bitten down or broken, the skin around them tough and thickened.

In a moment, unexpectedly, she let go the coffeepot with one hand and held out her arm toward him. “I am Lydia Bennett Sanderson.”

He had put both his own hands in his pockets to keep them anchored, and now he fumbled, pulling them out so he could shake. “Tim Whiteaker,” he said. He let go her hand and stood back from her. In a moment, silently, she handed over the emptied coffeepot, offering with it another of her little smiles. He occupied himself, dumping out his thrice-used grounds and stowing both his pots in the kit behind his saddle. When he turned again, she was standing over his bit of a fire with both her sooty palms held open to the flames.

He waited through a long silence while she stood that way, disregarding him. Finally, carefully, he said, “You're a good way off the beaten track, ma'am.”

She looked toward him and blinked solemnly and the rain went off her eyelashes. The look in her face became stiff again. He could see her eyes were tearless.

“I have bought a place along the Jump-Off Creek,” she said, and swung one hand in a vague gesture east or north or both.

He was not much surprised. Once in Montana and a couple of times later in the Spokane country, he had known women who'd homesteaded alone. They had had a steadfast look, or a doggedness, and now that he was watching for it, he could see it in this woman's face. He thought what he had taken for thinness might be a hard, worn-down lean.

“You're a way from the Jump-Off too, if you don't mind my saying so, ma'am.”

She tightened in her wide mouth like it was a drawstring purse, little creases raying out around it, but then right away let go that look, let her mouth out flat again like he hadn't hit any sore place at all. “I believe the advice I got was not good.”

“Which way did you come, ma'am?”

“I left La Grande yesterday and Summerville this morning, taking the Thomas and Ruckel Road.”

“There is a trail that spurs off that road shortly after the forks of the Thomas Creek, and that would get you over to the Jump-Off after a while.”

Her mouth stayed flat. “Yes. I was told so.”

Tim ducked his head, looking away from her out to the cows and then down to the dog. “I haven't gone out to that road myself in a while. I guess that trail isn't much used, nor the road either, since the railroad has been put through.”

“No,” she said. “I don't believe it has been kept up.” He thought he could hear the little pique in it, as if he might be to blame for that, and he felt something like irritation himself. It wasn't him that was lost.

He scuffed his boot, pushing mud up over the fire. The woman stood back from the smoke. “If you go south from here, in a while you'll come out on the Oberfield Ranch Road. It isn't much of a road, but you'll see the wagon marks in the mud.” He didn't quite look at her. He kept kicking at the last of the fire. “East on the Oberfield Road will get you on back to the Ruckel so you can try again. There's a dead old yew tree about where your trail is, and if you get to the place where the roadbed is washed out on the left side, you're past it by about a mile.”

He caught up the bay's reins and whistled to the dog without ever plainly looking at the woman. Then he touched his hat brim with his hand, said, “Good luck to you, ma'am,” and toed the stirrup, allowing the horse to move away, hop-trotting, before he had settled in the saddle.

He thought she might call to him. But as he and dog gathered in the cattle, he could see her there beside the faint scarf of smoke, dividing her skirt again and then pulling at the knots on those mules and retying them. She looked toward him once with a level, indifferent glance, and in a moment deliberately away.
Hell with it then
, he thought. But from the far edge of the trees, in the gray drizzle, there was no seeing her prickly look, there was just the thin, solitary woman-shape of her in that big old coat. And finally, with a grumbled sound that made the dog look, Tim reined the horse back toward her.

BOOK: The Jump-Off Creek
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