I never met her, and we spoke only once - by phone. It was midwinter in the remote canyons of northeast Oregon, and my husband and I had just lost our jobs on a ranch that had gone bankrupt. We didn't know anybody there except the cowboys we'd lived among that year.
Along with our job, we lost our housing and our supply of firewood. We borrowed gas money and drove around the county looking for abandoned housesin which we might be able to stay. At the courthouse, I looked up the property owners and then called to ask if they would let us live there. In the meantime, we slept in the yard of a friend of one of the cowboys and woke up to a blanket of snow covering the tarp spread over our thick bedrolls.
The day I called Imogene Bianco, snow was falling steadily and the lights of the only grocery store in town shone like halos in the early dark. My husband stayed in the truck with the babies, windows fogged, radio on. I trudged across the parking lot to the pay phone and looked at the number on the scrap of paper in my hand. Everyone else had turned us down.
She was a Nuxall, we found out later, a name that meant something to people whose families had settled there when the Nez Perce were still around. She had grown up in the shack that we wanted to move into on top of Sheep Creek Hill. It was a tiny house perched on the ridge with snow piled high and wide around it, but you could see the lights of ranches scattered across the valley below. You could also see the mountains, big-shouldered ones to the south, and beneath them, the glow of the little town.
So I dialed the number three states away. I said we'd lost our job on the Chesnim, that we had two babies, and if she would let us live in her cabin, we'd trade work for rent.
Nobody had lived there for years, she said. The roof might leak. There was no running water. She thought the sheds were filled with garbage. If we'd haul that off, we could live there the first month free. After that the rent would be $40.
I don't remember the rest of our conversation. As I walked back to the truck, I could see my son bouncing on the seat, his lumpy, blue cowboy hat flopping up and down. Through the wet-streaked glass, I could see my daughter sitting cradled in her father's lap, her pudgy hands on the steering wheel.
My husband looked up with the question in his eyes.
My chest felt tight with emotion. My face was numb. I was overwhelmed by the realization that a complete stranger had just given us a home. When I could talk, I told my husband she had said yes.
We celebrated by calling the friend of our friend, asking if we could make her a pot of soup and sleep on her living room floor.
That winter the wind howled through the walls of the little house. Ice formed on the inside walls of the bedroom. The babies were awakened by the cold and slept half of every night in our bed. We hauled frozen scrap lumber from the timber mill and kept two stoves going. We chopped ice and hauled water from a ditch above the house.
The snow fell and fell and drifted into swells on the open ridge. When the storms blew over and the moon came out, we bundled the babies into packs with only their eyes showing and carried them on our backs across the crusted drifts. Our silhouettes lay stark against the bright, still surface. Then we danced and gestured, laughing at our shadow play.
Hidden in swales along the ridge we discovered abandoned homesteads and ice-covered ponds. We imagined the lives that had taken place there, the work that had been done. And when the cold became too much, we turned back toward the little house.
We couldn't find another job that winter. Odds and ends of work trickled in. The day before Christmas, a box was delivered by members of the Elks Club. I don't know how they found us. The box contained an entire turkey dinner, ready to cook. Wrapped in colorful paper with a big bow was a miniature wooden log truck made by the high school shop class, complete with logs you could load on and off.
The little house is barely there now. After we found a job that spring and moved on, no one else needed it. A tree fell through the roof a couple of years back, and most of the windows are gone. It was sold and sold again, cows wandering the pastures in summer, the house and barns slowly withering away.
I pass by there often. It's on the road to the canyons and the winter range. When I drive by, I think about what that house meant to us. I think of Imogene, and I wonder if she's still alive. I wish she could know how much she said yes to.