Eastern Montana starkness. Her older sisters were at a finishing school, but she preferred the ranch life with her older brother. He was his father’s top hand, but she was just a bit of this and too much of that. Didn’t fit in where she was supposed to. Finishing school was in her horizon, but she was not about to be shipped off to boarding school to learn to speak French and serve dinner for a party of eight.
She liked to write and draw. Paper was scarce, but she was clever. She hoarded it and made the most of each sheet. When she heard the grand prize in a writing contest was a car, she spent every midnight moment writing her story. Maybe if she could prove her worth by winning a car, she’d be allowed to stay on the ranch.
What might the story have been? Decades later when she showed me this photo, she could no longer remember what she had written that won the car, but she remembers how the contest had tricked her.
What happened after that, Gramma?
She practiced vaulting onto the back of her father’s horses so she could prove to him she would make a worthy ranch hand. Broke her nose once in practice. Broke her nose a second time, bringing in a stray calf strapped across her saddle. Horse slid down the creek’s embankment just as her nose met the skull of the calf. Horse brought her home unconscious.
She drew on end pages torn
from her father’s books. Charcoal shading,
thick-penciled lines of a tired horse,
someone’s roper boots. Rugs on a clothesline,
bloody feathers on a block. She pressed
these papers between chapters
of Mathew, Mark and Luke, learning
to ride bareback instead of attending school.
Sixty years later, Will was born,
her ninth great-grandson and I named him
from my heart. At his baptism, she placed
her Bible in my hands, told me about her
sketches, about a brother I never knew she had:
I was twelve when he rode out,
looking for a stray. Found his body
in a coulee between Salt Creek and Battle Bay,
a boot caught in a stirrup. We beat the rugs,
dug up beets, killed chickens for his wake.
Life must go on my father said, so I rode
my brother’s horse, did his work, and learned
to carry on. Not until you named your son,
have I said my brother’s name.