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From the critically acclaimed author of Tallgrass comes a powerful novel about an unlikely friendship between two women and the secrets they’ve kept in order to survive life in a rugged Colorado mining town.
It’s 1936 and the Great Depression has taken its toll. Up in the high country of the snow-covered Rocky Mountains, eighty-six-year-old Hennie Comfort has lived in Middle Swan, Colorado, since before it was Colorado. When she first meets seventeen-year-old Nit Spindle, Hennie is drawn to the grieving young girl. Nit and her husband have come to this small mining town in search of work, but the loneliness and loss Nit feels are almost too much to bear. One day she notices an old sign that reads prayers for sale in front of Hennie’s house. Hennie doesn’t actually take money for her prayers, never has, but she invites the skinny girl in anyway. The harsh conditions of life that each has endured create an instant bond, and a friendship is born, one in which the deepest of hardships are shared and the darkest of secrets are confessed.
Sandra Dallas has created an unforgettable tale of a friendship between two women, one with surprising twists and turns, and one that is ultimately a revelation of the finest parts of the human spirit.
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Award-winning author Sandra Dallas was dubbed “a quintessential American voice” by Jane Smiley, in Vogue Magazine. She is the author of The Bride’s House, Whiter Than Snow, and Tallgrass, among others. Her novels have been translated into a dozen languages and optioned for films. She is the recipient of the Women Writing the West Willa Award and the two-time winner of the Western Writers of America Spur Award. For 25 years, Dallas worked as a reporter covering the Rocky Mountain region for Business Week, and started writing fiction in 1990. She lives with her husband in Denver, Colorado.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
PRAYERS FOR SALE (Chapter 1)
The old woman peered past the red geraniums in her deep front window at the figure lingering in the moon-white snow at the gate. In the gloom of the late winter afternoon, Hennie Comfort did not recognize the woman, who stood like a curious bird, her head cocked to one side as she looked at the fence, then the front door, and back at the fence again. Hennie watched, thinking it odd that anyone would wait there, mute as the snow itself. Why would a body stand in the cold when she could come inside by the stove?
Hennie had gone to the window to read her letter in the winter light, because the heavy snow had weighted down the wires, causing the electric to go out. It was too dark inside now to read, although Hennie knew the words wouldn't be any different from what they were when she read the letter at the post office that morning.
For years, Mae had urged her to move out of the high country. This time, she'd made it plain that if Hennie insisted on another winter on the earth's backbone, Mae would come to Middle Swan herself and pack up her mother and take her below, to Fort Madison on the eastern edge of Iowa. Mae was a loving daughter, but she was as stubborn as Hennie. "You can spend your summers in Middle Swan, Mom, but I insist that from now on, you live with us during the winters. What if you slipped on the ice and broke your leg? You could freeze to death before somebody found you."
Mae was right, Hennie admitted to herself. If she fell, the snow would cover her up, and nobody would know where she was until she melted out in the spring. It was foolhardy for a person as old as she was to stay another winter on the Swan River. Besides, it was selfish of her to let Mae worry, and Hennie was always sensible of the feelings of others. But Lordy, she didn't want to live on the Mississippi.
Hennie set the letter on the table and returned to the window to look at the woman, covered now in white flakes. She'd be frozen solid as a fence post if she didn't move soon. So the old woman opened the door and walked into the snow in her stout shoes, her hands tucked into her sleeves. "Hello to you," she called.
The stranger looked up, startled, a little frightened. She was a new-made woman, not much more than a girl, and Hennie had never seen her before. "Oh!" the stranger said, clasping and unclasping her bare hands, which despite the poor light, Hennie could see were red and chapped. "I don't mean to be nosy, but I was wondering how much?"
"How much for what?"
"A prayer." The girl tightened the triangle of plaid wool scarf that covered her head before she thrust her hands into the pockets of her thin coat.
Hennie was confused for a moment, and then realizing what had confounded the girl, she laughed. "That sign's been there so long, I forget about it."
"It says, Prayers for Sale. I'm asking how much do you charge, and is it more if you're in need than if you're wanting just a little favor? Do sinners pay more than the righteous? And what if the Lord doesn't answer? Do you get your money back?" The girl asked all this in a rush, as if she didn't want to forget any of the questions she had pondered as she stood frozen-still in the cold.
"That sign's older than God's old dog."
"How come you to sell prayers?"
"The sign says so. I've seen it three times now. I came back because of it," the girl persisted. "I can pay, if that's what you're thinking. I can pay."
Hennie chuckled. "That sign's a story. I'll tell it to you if you'll come inside."
"I've got a nickel. Is that enough for a prayer?"
"Lordy, are you needing one? No money will buy a prayer, I tell you, but I'll give you one for free, if you're in need of it." Hennie put her arms tight around herself to squeeze out the cold, for she had gone into the storm without her coat.
"I need it. I do."
"Just you come inside then and tell me why."
"I can't. I've got to get home and fix Dick's supper. But I'd be obliged to you if you'd say a prayer--a prayer for Sweet Baby Effie, sweet baby that was, that is. Maybe you could ask that wherever she is, she's not taken with the cold--I never knew it to be so cold--but just any words will do."
"I'll ask it," Hennie said, turning and gesturing toward the house, but the girl wouldn't follow. Instead, she took a step backward.
"I thank you," she said, carefully laying her nickel on the crosspiece of the fence. Then she turned and fled. Rubbing her arms now against the cold, Hennie watched until the little thing disappeared into the storm. Then she picked up the five-cent piece and went inside, placing the coin in a mite box that she kept for Bonnie Harvey to take to church. Hennie herself didn't attend services, hadn't in a long time.
As she sat down in a kitchen chair, Hennie picked up the letter, but instead of holding it up to the window to read again, she pondered the young girl. Something about her was familiar, although Hennie was sure she'd never seen her before. It might have been the way she said her words, which told Hennie she was from the South. Or perhaps it was because the girl was new in Middle Swan and appeared to be not a day older than Hennie herself when she'd arrived long years before.
Hennie looked out the window again, but there was no sign of the girl returning, no sign that she'd even been there, in fact. The old woman wondered why the girl wanted a prayer; she seemed to have a powerful desire for one. Well, Hennie knew the need for prayer in her life, and she would do what she could. So slowly, she knelt on her old knees beside the chair, clasped her hands together, and asked God to keep Sweet Baby Effie warm. Then she mumbled, "Now, Lord, there's a girl, a poor girl, by the looks of her, that's needing your help--and maybe mine, too. I'd like it right well if you could tell me what to do." She paused and added, "And I'd be grateful if you'd find a way short of dying to keep me from moving in with Mae."
"You've got it pretty good here," Hennie Comfort said, looking around the room with approval. She ducked her head as she went through the door to Nit's cabin, not only because she was a tall woman, even in old age, but because the doorway was that low.
Rooted to the ground, the cabin, built of peeled logs polished by the sun and wind and snow to a rich gold-brown, was ramshackled outside. Within, there was only one room, and that not much bigger than a coal shed, with a door and a window that held four panes of glass. But the place was tidy, cozy even. A rag rug covered the worn linoleum that was ribbed from the uneven floorboards beneath it. The log walls had been freshly chinked and papered with the Denver Post, the pages right side up so that you could read them at your leisure. A bed was shoved against one wall. The tops of its tall wooden head- and footboards pressed in on each other, making the mattress sag even more than it would have if the boards had been upright. The bed was Dionysius Tappan's old bed. He'd died in it, wheezing and blowing with the miner's puff, and then the cabin had sat vacant until the young couple moved in.
The pretty girl ought to have a better bed, Hennie thought. But young folks who hadn't been married long wouldn't worry so much about a good bed. They might even feel lucky that they had a place to sleep, what with this being 1936 and a depression not likely to end soon. The girl had spread a quilt over the mattress, a patch quilt in gay colors that would brighten the long winters. A second quilt, a design of eight-pointed stars, newly made with new and old fabrics, was folded over a wooden bench. Hennie was always sensible of the quilts.
A pie safe, the green paint half worn off its tin panels, stood near the cookstove, and a crude split-bottom rocking chair, once painted blue, sat in the far corner. The only other furniture in the room was a small table and two dynamite boxes that served as chairs. The girl's husband--she'd said his name was Dick when the two had met outside Hennie's house a few days earlier--must have picked them up at the gold dredge company. "Pretty good, all right," Hennie said again.
"It's a gem of amber," the girl replied. She clasped and unclasped her hands in delight. "Would you sit?"
"If it wouldn't put you out any," Hennie replied.
"Oh no. I'm starved for company. I get so lonesome. But my hand had an itch to it this morning, so I knew I'd be shaking hands with a stranger. You're my only caller--that is, my first caller. I guess there'll be others . . ." Her voice trailed off.
"I reckon so. Not many know you're here yet. I didn't myself till you stopped at my fence." After meeting the girl in the snow, Hennie had inquired at the Pinto store about the new couple.
"They live in the Tappan place. I don't recollect the name. He works the dredge," Roy Pinto had told her. Then he'd shaken his head. "There's some in Middle Swan that resent him getting hired on. They're out to get him. Besides, he's not stout enough for dredge work." Not many were, Hennie had replied.
Hennie gave the girl her name and said she lived at the end of French Street, in the two-story hewn-log house, just before the road turned to go up to the old We Got 'Em mine. Hardly anybody remembered the We Got 'Em, but Hennie liked to say the name. She remembered when Chauncy Stark had come running down the trail yelling, "We got 'em, gold ore like you never saw." "But you know where I live," Hennie told the girl.
The young thing nodded and said, "I'm Nit Buckley . . . that is, Nit Spindle. I haven't been married very long, not even two years, and sometimes I forget I'm married. I mean, I'm glad, because I love Dick and all, but it still seems strange to be somebody's missus instead of me."
"Pleased to meet you again, Mrs. Spindle," Hennie said. "I gave the prayer like you asked, gave it more than once." When the girl turned away, embarrassed, mumbling her thanks, Hennie knew she'd have to wait until Nit felt like talking about the prayer, if she ever did. It wouldn't do for Hennie to push the girl just to satisfy an old woman's curiosity. So instead, she drew the clean dishcloth off the top of the pie she was holding and presented the dessert. "This pie's nothing special, but it'll do you if you're hungry." In fact, the pie was a thing of beauty, with a perfect crust, pinched around the edges, the latticework woven, not just laid on, and it was stained red where the juice had seeped onto it. "It's a welcome-to-home present," she added quickly, in case the girl thought she was bringing charity. There'd been that other young couple on the Upper Swan who'd lived on a little flour and porcupine meat, too proud to accept help. They wouldn't take relief even from the county. Those two had nearly starved before somebody took them down below where they'd come from. "I bottled the raspberries last summer," Hennie continued. "Picked them myself up by that burned place that's under the saddle on Sunset Peak, before the bears got to them. The bears are harbonated still, and so are the raspberries. Fresh raspberries, now that's the best eating there is, might near be."
Nit's eyes widened as she took the pie and set it reverently on the shelf of the range. "Thanks to you. I'll return the compliment someday," she said. "I'm glad it's not pieplant. I don't love pieplant. I just don't love it. But I've always been a fool all my life about raspberries. I never expected to find them here. I mean now, that is, this time of year."
"I'll take you raspberrying come summer. I know the best places all around. You can find rhubarb just anywhere. All you have to do is look for an old cabin. But like you say, you don't just love it." Hennie took off her heavy wraps and laid them on the bed, before she seated herself slowly on one of the boxes. "I ought to know the place for raspberrying. Almost seventy years have I been living in Middle Swan." She didn't add that this might be the last year. Although Mae had written that Hennie could spend her summers in Middle Swan, the old woman was afraid that once she was settled in Iowa, she'd most likely stay put. Mae would find reasons for her not to return to the high country. Hennie reminded herself that if she was ever to deal with her life's deepest secret, she'd have to do it soon.
"Seventy years? Why, I didn't know Colorado'd been here that long." Nit flushed and bit her lip, looking anxious for fear she'd given offense.
Hennie only laughed. "It hasn't. But I have. I'm almost as old as these hills--eighty and six." She didn't look it. Oh, her skin was brown from years of living too close to the sun, and her hair was the color of the snow that had fallen for days now. But there was a toughness and sense of purpose to Hennie Comfort that belied her age. And while she'd never been pretty, she had been handsome and still was, with her tall angular body, her large mouth and straight nose set in a long face. She sat upright, her back straight as a pine, not stooped like most mountain women.
Nit stared at Hennie, about to say something but too tongue-tied. She shook her curls and said at last, "We've got coffee, the grounds not used but once."
"I'll take a cup if it wouldn't rob you."
"No, ma'am. It would not." Nit turned quickly and busied herself at the range, putting kindling into the firebox, watching the fire flare up, adjusting the damper, then adding stove wood. After she dipped water from a bucket and poured it into the cast-iron tea kettle, fitting the kettle into the eye over the firebox, the girl lifted down a basket and took out a bundle wrapped in newspaper. She removed the paper to display two fine teacups and saucers, which she polished with a dish towel before setting them on the table.
"Oh my, real English bone china," Hennie said.
"Sometimes I'm afraid to use them. They're delicate as birds' eggs, and I've got nary another. But you're my first caller." She paused. "I guess I already said that."
Hennie wanted to tell the girl that cracked mugs would do for her, but seeing Nit's pride, she said instead, "I thank you for the honor."
"I didn't mean you'd break them." Nit turned back to the stove and spooned the used grounds into the coffeepot, then added a spoonful of fresh. She poured boiling water into the pot and let the coffee steep, the grounds settle. "I hope you don't think I'm putting on airs, Mrs. Comfort. The cups are a wedding present, and I love them so. I'm saving them for good, for callers such as yourself. Have you ever seen anything so pretty?"
A long-ago look came over Hennie Comfort's face. "Somebody gave me china cups as a wedding present, too. I was younger than you." The old woman had packed them in a barrel of flour for the trip to Colorado, and she had them yet, chipped and mended but still good enough to use.
Nit said she was seventeen. Small, with clear pink skin, her bobbed hair the color of the rust that covered Middle Swan's abandoned mining machinery like a patina, and wearing a prim little dress with cap sleeves and a sash, she was just a chunk of a girl.
Hennie told her she'd been fourteen, going on fifteen, when she'd married.
"It's old enough," Nit said.
"That was eighteen an...
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Book Description St. Martin's Griffin, 2011. Condition: New. book. Seller Inventory # M1250000580
Book Description St. Martin's Griffin, 2011. Paperback. Condition: New. Never used!. Seller Inventory # P111250000580
Book Description St. Martin's Griffin, 2011. Paperback. Condition: New. Ships with Tracking Number! INTERNATIONAL WORLDWIDE Shipping available. Buy with confidence, excellent customer service!. Seller Inventory # 1250000580n