Horse Wife Hattie

In the summer of 1907 I took the James Hill’s Great Northern train west. If I had known McNinch was not just a lonely homesteader in northwest Montana advertising for a wife in the New York newspaper, I would have passed the rest of my days happily as a maid in the household of a wealthy industrial tycoon who had built a mansion on the banks of the Hudson River.

Mind you, before I came here, I read about lynching in the dime novels. All the Irish servants passed them among them until the pages hung dog-eared. I never saw a hanging, not even back home in County Kerry, Ireland, but for sure America had its cops and robbers to speak of.

I am Hattie Cochran, sailed to New York City to find my brother Timothy when I was a bit of a lass of sixteen. I booked passage on the Cunard line out of Liverpool, taking the ferry over from Dublin and packed in the stinking steerage like a sardine, finally landed at Ellis Island after seven days. On the docks a friendly stevedore gave me directions to Timothy’s boarding house, but when I arrived there the landlady informed me he had perished in a blast while employed digging the city’s subway tunnels. Feeling sorry for me, she directed me to the agency supplying domestic help to the upper crust and I quickly found a position.

Being as I was freckle-faced and none too pretty, the lads didn’t fancy me. The other serving girls made comfortable marriages with the eligible grooms and grounds men on the estate. The prospect of being an old maid at twenty-one became intolerable.

The other maids said I had more spunk than was good for me and asked wasn’t I afraid of Indians and grizzly bears.  I was young and foolish and what was a girl to do but make her fortune in the world every bit as good as a man. McNinch and I exchanged letters. He wrote a good hand, but I needed help penning mine. I had my picture took for him and received one from him. He was a right comely man, wore a derby, his hand shoved under the breast of a tweed jacket and his other hand flat on a pedestal. I almost expected a ten-gallon hat and bandoleer of bullets across his shoulder and a six-shooter in his hand, but he looked tame and solid for the likes of me. A bread-winner to be sure. My mother, God rest her soul, always said marry a man a bit older than you; he’s got the kinks out of him. He weren’t no Wild Bill Hickok but I weren’t looking’ for no buckaroo.

He met me at the train depot with a buckboard and team of Clydesdale horses. I was disappointed in the figure he cut—older than in his photograph, more grizzled around the chops and white in his moustache. After a polite greeting and peck on my cheek, he said, “You’re smaller than I’d thought you’d be. I hope you’re strong enough for ranch life.”

“Don’t you worry none about that. I’ve done my share of hard work, scrubbing floors and lugging baskets of laundry.”

He loaded my trunk in the back of the wagon and helped me up into the seat, then took the reins. The timber business was booming in the little town. Stumps still stood in the streets where trees had been cleared to make way for commerce. The trip up the mountain road to his ranch took the entire day. I blathered about everything that popped into me head, exclaiming at the steep climbs, the grand forests and beauty all around, but McNinch didn’t talk much or smile neither.  Was he afraid a good grin would crack his face? I would learn that was his nature and he meant no harm by it. Poker-faced, tight-lipped and business-like; I don’t recollect him ever being gruff with me. He went about getting a wife like he did everything else with no frills or fuss—at least wise, that’s how I saw it. Solicitation in a newspaper saved him the time and bother of courtship and matters of the heart.

So I didn’t get a lot of romancing, which I made up for by learning everything about the 160-acre ranch where I found myself plopped down in a high mountain meadow. I kept the three-room log cabin clean, the stove stoked with wood, our clothes washed and the meals cooked—not only for the two of us but also for the six cowhands who occupied a bunkhouse a distance behind the cabin.

One of the first things I noticed about the place was that there were more horses in the pasture than cattle. McNinch kept a few head of cattle to meet our needs and to sell a few at the railhead, but the cowhands were occupied with the string of horses, fine animals already broken to saddle. Not long after becoming Mrs. McNinch, I wandered over to the paddock where several of the lads were branding horses. I paid more attention to the beautiful animals than I did to what the men were doing with the hot irons.

McNinch rode off a lot with the cowboys and a string of horses, telling me he was taking them to sell into Canada or across the Rockies into eastern Montana. So I was left alone usually with one cowhand, more often that not, and a half-breed called Injun Jim. I didn’t mind that so much, because I loved taking care of the horses that were left, feeding, brushing and grooming them and free to ride and explore the surrounding country on any mount I chose. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get too attached to one horse before McNinch decided to sell it. Of course, he stayed home more in the winter when we were snowed in and I hoped that these months would produce a child.

But after three winters spent on the secluded ranch, we had no children. I regretted the lack of babes, but consoled myself that McNinch treated me in his fashion, like a queen, bringing home gifts from his frequent extended trips into Canada and eastern Montana. He presented me with a new foot-operated sewing machine, rolls of muslin and cotton to make clothes. He brought me curtains, lampshades, a carpet sweeper and a wringer washing machine. He let me order anything I wanted from the Sears catalogue—crock pots, gadgets, potato peelers and rug beaters--bustles, bonnets and bows—you name it I got it—and he picked up the packages at the post office in Stumptown.

But most of the time I was alone—except for the horses and Injun Jim—and the babies did not come.

Later I was glad that was so, for after I had observed more closely the branding operation that took so much of the cowhands’ time. They were altering the brands already on the horses with a running iron, an easy operation that added a line or two to the brand. I spent much time in worrisome thought about this, not wanting to believe something was not on the up and up, but in my day I had read too many of those dime novels not to put two and two together. McNinch did not mistreat me, but I feared if I spoke up against what he was doing, he would turn on me. For other than this crooked business with the horses, he wasn’t a bad man. As it was I did all the talking and about all I had managed to learn about him after three years as his wife was that he had been born and raised on a wheat farm in Kansas and had drifted west in his twenties to escape an authoritarian father and back-breaking work on the family farm. Nary a word about his childhood, only that he was the oldest of five sons. As for myself, I loved high jinks, singing and dancing and missed the gaiety and celebrations with the working lads and lasses back in New York. Always we gathered with fiddle, fife and maybe an Irish drum. I played my harp. I brought it west with me, so sometimes I carried it into the meadows to play for the cattle and horses. They seemed to like Gaelic songs I remember my grandmother singing. Mostly, I missed the laughter and jokes when I worked in the big house. McNinch didn’t laugh—a dourer, humorless man I had never met. No amount of me clowning coaxed much of a smile out of him, so I laughed a lot with the cowhands. I teased the lads to get a wife and bring her to the ranch. Then I’d not be a poor outnumbered lass.

When the boys rode off with the horses more often than not Injun Joe was left behind to watch access in the high meadow. He helped with the heavier work baling hay and pitching the bales into the barn besides giving me some company. His mother was a Blackfoot Indian and his father a Scotch-Canadian from Winnipeg. Working with horses was all he knew and he preferred them to either the European or Indian race of men. He regaled me with stories of wild herds on the plains, roping and breaking the mustangs. Being raised with his mother’s tribe on the Great Plains, his knowledge of the country, of the buffalo hunts and the coming of the railroad was vast. He was difficult to befriend at first, but I got him talking, first about horses than about his life with the Indians.

If it were not for Injun Jim I would have gone stark, raving mad after I had learned all I could about the surrounding area and the doings on the ranch. Many nights I was sleepless, thinking about the consequences of McNinch’s so-called horse trading business. Conscious of the penalty, I trembled to imagine his fate and my position as the wife of such a man. With the passage of time, the consolation of horses and Injun Jim could not substitute for a social life and I hungered for lively company.

As it was I felt my sanity hung by a thin thread unless I did something soon to improve my situation. Fear of McNinch’s horse-stealing—there I’ve named it what it was—caused me to concoct a scheme for my deliverance.

But in order to succeed I had to sway McNinch to the opinion I needed a change of scenery, so when he next prepared for a business trip, I raised the subject.

“Since I been yer wife, I can count on one hand the times I’ve been to Stumptown. I want to go with you to Canada. Let me please. I can ride as well as any of the hands.”

“I’ll grant you that, but a woman’s place is at home. I need you here to take care of the rest of the stock.”

“I tell ya I’ll be gone in the head.” I pulled at my hair and looked wild eyed. “Ya wouldn’t want a wife going berserk on ya, would ya? I’m liable to do that if I don’t get away for a while.”

That argument seemed to give him pause and he looked with concern at me. “I’ve heard tell of women going crazy alone on the prairie.” He scratched his chin. “I’ll let you go this once. But you’ll have to keep up with the rest of us. Ride hard and sleep on the ground until we get to Leathbridge. I’ll put you up in a hotel there and you can stay in town while me and the boys finish trading with the ranchers. Understood?”

I danced a quick jig and clapped my hands with glee. “Yes, sir. I’ll ride like the best of them.”

“Injun Jim can stay here and tend to the ranch.”

“No,” I protested. “Jim has to go with us. I won’t have it any other way. One of the other lads can stay here. Jim is tired of staying behind. It’s his turn to ride again.”

“That’s true. We’re going into Canada, so he can come this time. Butch’s been complaining of lumbago. He can sit this one out.”

Humming a tune, I prepared my bedroll and saddlebags for the trip. Injun Jim had been wanting to break away from domesticity on the ranch and return to the open plains of his childhood. The two of us were in cahoots.

Our journey into Canada followed the Kootenai River through the Cabinet Mountains. We sighted bear, elk and moose along the way. The dizzy heights, cliffs and slopes thick with fir and pine, filled my heart with joy and cheer with the grand beauty of the mountains. I burst into song, singing in the saddle. The cowboys didn’t seem to mind, but joined in and offered a few ditties of their own, some more fit for a saloon than on the trail with a lady, but I didn’t mind, I was having a jolly good time and the prospect of freedom played no small part in my high spirits.

I couldn’t muff the escape. Injun Jim told me where there was a lumber camp north of Libby, a small logging town on the Kootenai. We agreed to get lost from our party before we reached the Canadian border, he lighting out for eastern Montana and I to the lumber camp. Injun Jim said to leave it up to him when he saw an opportunity. That happened the morning we broke camp outside of Libby on the Kootenai and rode north.

Injun Jim pointed out a patch of huckleberry bushes on the side of a hill. “Missus McNinch,  now’s the time to pick some before the bears get them.”

I reined my horse. “I want to stop and pick some. You lads go ahead and I’ll catch up with you.”

“No, there’s no time for that. Maybe on the way back,” McNinch said.

“I’ll only be a minute. Injun Jim can stay with me, so I won’t get lost.”

“Sure, I’ll watch out for her and we’ll meet up with you later before long.”

Knowing Injun Jim was his best tracker, McNinch agreed to let me pick the huckleberries and I dismounted while the men and horses trotted past me, continuing along the mountain trail. After the sounds of the horses and men faded, Injun Jim sat down and patted the ground beside him.

“We’ll wait here a good spell until they’re a few miles ahead.”

We sampled some berries to pass the time. With a signal from Injun Jim, I arose. He repeated directions to the lumber camp and pointed me in the right direction. “Keep walking and don’t stop until you get there, which probably won’t be until just before nightfall. I reckon it’s a six-mile hike. Good luck to you.”

“Good luck to ya, too. Will we ever meet again?”

“I doubt it.” With that he mounted his horse and leading my horse behind, waved to me as he moved away.

I set out on the trail, feeling a burst of pluck that I hoped would assure my good fortune. I laughed to myself, thinking my accomplice Injun Jim was stealing a stolen horse from me husband and congratulated myself that we had accomplished our liberation. I thanked God that I had unhitched myself from an outlaw and sauntered forward.

As I walked, I surmised what McNinch would conclude was my fate. I fancied he’d think I was eaten by bears. I was more amused to suppose that he would think I had eloped with Injun Jim, that I had taken a liking to the man, being as I was, stuck alone with so much on the ranch. Whatever he supposed, I was free of my unfortunate marriage to a horse thief—a situation me poor mother—God rest her soul—would abhor if she had lived to see me married to the man.  I wondered if he would even double-back to see what had happened to me. Later I’d find out what he did conclude, but for the time being I was too happy with my freedom to care a fiddler’s damn.

I waltzed into the logging camp at dusk while the lumberjacks were eating in the dining tent and announced I was looking for a job. To be sure I got some leers as for them to think I earned my bread on my back. I told them I had gotten off the train at Libby and hiked a mile when a prospector gave me a lift on his mule to the Yak Valley junction, then walked the rest of the way. I was a wizard in the kitchen and could cook for an army. I had run the kitchen in James Hill’s mansion in St. Paul. No one questioned my tall tale and the Chinese cook welcomed me with a toothy grin and a bow. I grabbed an apron and rolled up me sleeves.

“Me name is Hattie Cochran. I be from Country Kerry, Ireland, and a right good stew I’ll boil if ya keep yer mugs out of me kitchen.”

The boss of the gang said, “Have at it, Hattie. It’s all yours,” and laughed. “We’ve had enough of this Chinaman’s grub.”

The hardy Swedes and Finns were glad of me, I a spirited lass to liven up the camp. I fed them well with venison stew and potatoes. Since everyone drifted into the woods from other part of the country or from across the sea with their own private history to hide or to bury in the forest, none of them inquired about me origins. Everyone knew the Irish were full of stories, lugged a bag of blarney, so whatever I told them was taken for what it was worth—of little consequence and a lot of mirth as long as I worked hard like the rest of them and piled their plates high with good food. In short, I was accepted as Hattie the cook.

Not long after I started with the lumber camp, I overheard the foreman announce at table.

“There was a hanging down by the Stryker saw mill.”

My ears poked up along with those of the loggers at the table, all of us eager to hear more of this news.

“Who?” one of the lumberjacks asked.

“A horse thief name of McNinch. He was getting away with it for five years, holed up on his high mountain meadow ranch—posed as a homesteader in the hills north of Stumptown. No one believed he was running stolen horses into Canada and selling them there.

“Heard tell that codger had a wife run off on him,” the foreman continued. “Never found her. They say she went east with his Injun cowhand.”

I cooked through the summer season and autumn. Before the first snow fell, I headed for the county courthouse in Kalispell to stake a claim to McNinch’s section of land and prove I was his lawful widow. I never lived up there, but when Injun Jim wandered ten years later back into town, I hired him to work the place and he was happy as a hog in mud to spend his days repairing fence and caring for the livestock.

I’m laughing to myself now. After cooking for a year at the Grand Hotel, a clerk at the mercantile started courting me. We married and saved our money to open our own dry goods store. Our trade was very good; more model T Fords were seen in the valley. New settlers populated the draws and river bottoms in the surrounding mountains. Now none of the neighbors, least of all my grandchildren, believe I was once the horse wife Hattie, wed unbeknownst to the outlaw McNinch hung for horse stealing. When I tell the story, they think it’s another of my tall Irish tales made of dung and peat—a pot of blarney to warm a cold, snowbound Montana night—a bedtime story for the children.