I can see her standing there in the dimly lit hallway by the bathroom, next to the antique oak washstand my father had refinished. She was in her midfifties then, the mother of five mostly grown children and the wife of a minister turned president of a theological seminary. She hadnt yet gone back for her masters degree, which she got at the age of sixty and began her internationally significant career in the work of Alzheimers care. She was a woman between lives and angry with her daughter for squandering the freedom and opportunity she must have envied.
I stood before her, bruised and lost, a young woman meant to be a success in something but not. Unable to distinguish words of love from banishment or childhood dreams from a place to hide, I packed my things and headed back west. Id gone because I was drawn to this nomadic life of horses and sheep and dogs.
Id gone because I was young and lost and had no idea where else to go. I arrived in the snows of February, twenty degrees below zero, and made my home in a sheepwagon parked under the bare-branched cottonwoods of the Whistle Creek Ranch.
For fifteen dollars a day plus groceries, I pulled on coveralls slick with lanolin and paint smears and worked twelve-hour shifts in the long, low-slung Whistle Creek lambing sheds, where five thousand ewes gave birth in six weeks time. At six in the morning, when the night-drop man went off shift and the day crew came on, the tiny wooden jugs that lined the perimeter of the shed would be filled with ewes and lambs brought in during the night. The jugs were small pens, roughly three feet by four, just big enough for a ewe and one or two lambs. In the midst of crowded corrals, ewes would sometimes birth their lambs at a high trot and never look back. Or, they could get distracted before they bonded, learned the smell of each other, and the lamb had a chance to nurse. Those tiny wooden jugs promoted love between mother and child, a forced closeness until the real thing took over.
It was my job every morning to brand the new pairings with numbered paint brands, one to a thousand in rounds of green, blue, black, red, orange. Id check to see if each lamb had sucked. If not, the tiny space of the jug made it easy to drop into a squat and wedge the ewe against the boards with a shoulder while guiding the lambs mouth to the teat and shooting a taste of milk through its lips. The ewes gave off the acrid smell of dank wool. The lambs had loose wrinkly skin and long tails. From down within the jug, the world would go silent as the lamb began to suck and the ewe would remember something old and innate and give up her mad bleating in my ear.
When the lambs had suckled, the pairswhich sometimes included twin lambswould be turned out into slightly larger pens holding four pairs, then eight. When the relationships passed muster, theyd get sorted outside the lambing shed into pens of twenty, then a hundred, moving in orderly fashion toward the bands of roughly a thousand pairs that would summer together on the high reaches of the Big Horns.
In my first season, my sheepwagon was parked under the cottonwoods behind the Whistle Creek tenant house, along with five others parked in a row for hired hands and herders. The wagons were set so their Dutch doors opened to the east, to the morning sun and acres of hayfields that stretched out toward the sagebrush hills. At the far end of the wagons was an outhouse, ancient and foul.
As the spring nights warmed, I slept with the Dutch doors open to the night and to the sounds of coyotes and owls. One night I woke to find the wagon lurching with the stumbling weight of someone coming through the door and across the tiny floor. It was Antone, the Basque night-drop man, and then he was at my bed, his tongue in my face, his weight on top of me with his stale sheep smell, his words slurred and stinking of alcohol. From within the protection of my sleeping bag, I yelled and knuckled his head and bit at his lips until he spit on me and finally left, cursing and muttering that he hadnt meant any harm.
Excerpted from Claiming Ground by Laura Bell Copyright © 2010 by Laura Bell. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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