In a Utah city left desolate after deadly plague, two survivors struggle to keep going. Rachel, grieving her lost family, finds new hope when a bay mare inexplicably shows up in her yard. But ten-year old Johnny Calico sees the horse as a means to return to his Navajo relatives in Northern Arizona. Even as the horse gives Rachel purpose for the first time since the Death, Johnny plots to steal it. More
One horse. Two strangers who each desperately need it.
Rachel sits alone in her house and watches the city around her slowly disintegrates, depopulated from a deadly plague. Like most good Mormons, she has a year’s supply of food and clothing in her basement, saved for “hard times.” She had prepared to survive a disaster, never imaging the worst disaster of all might be to survive—alone. And then a horse, a bay mare, trots into her yard and into her heart.
But someone else needs the horse as well, a ten-year old Navajo boy. Johnny Calico, his adopted family now all dead, lives by his wits, eating the food left in empty houses, and hiding from the Church officials who want to consolidate the population into a smaller area. He sees the horse as a lifeline, a means to return to his relatives on the reservation in Northern Arizona. Even as Rachel feeds and brushes the horse, finding purpose in her life for the first time since the Death, Johnny plots to steal it.
First published in Realms of Fantasy (2001), “Harden Times” was later reprinted in Irreantum. It also won an award in the 1999 Utah Arts Council Contest, where the judge, author Ron Carlson, praised the story for its “clear and forceful” writing, and for the characters, “both close to the end of their ropes, tentative, fearful, yet both refusing to let go of hope.”
Susan J. Kroupa, who has lived in Utah and on the Hopi and Navajo reservations, says the idea for the story came from several sources. “I lost a horse, a bay mare, that I dearly loved,” she said in a recent interview. “I continued to dream about the horse for a long time after her death, and I realized that she had become a symbol to me of loss, and somehow, conversely, of hope. And then, some years later, my soon-to-be husband and I were house-hunting in Utah. Almost every home the realtor showed us had a storeroom filled with food as part of the family’s preparation for a disaster. We started to joke that builders in Utah couldn’t get a permit to construct a home if the blueprints didn’t have a food storage room. And I began to wonder what would happen if a disaster left a critical shortage not of food, but of people? That speculation and my much-missed horse formed the germ of the story.”