The sheepwagon door stands open to the early dawn. There are times when sleeping inside feels little different than sleeping out like the dogs curled in their scratched beds or the sheep planted against one another across the rise. Theres a blanket, a curve of metal roof, a shelf of books above the bed. From up in the McCullough Peaks a lone coyote yips, sharp and high. There comes an answer, closer, the voices halting at first, then unraveling slowly into a mad chorus of wavering howls. Through the doorway, I see the dogs appear and settle their haunches into the dirt. They watch out over the land, their ears shifting to the cries like antennae. When silence returns, they lower themselves to the ground, still listening.
Under the covers, my hands are still against my bones, the edge of longing too great to name or call up. I wish for a fire to be lit in the iron stove by the door. I wish for the smell of coffee, a cup warm in my hands, a voice to say my name.
A dawn wind rustles loose tin and whispers through stiff sprigs of sage, their seedheads quivering against the wind for as far as I can see into the murky light and beyond, into the empty miles. East, across the Big Horn Basin, the horizon of mountains bears up the salmon wash of morning.
There were nine men herding for the ranch, each with at least a thousand head of sheep in his care. Red, Grady, Murdi, Maurice, Rudy, Ed, Doug, Albert and others that came and went, all crossing the days, one by one, from their calendars. They smelled of sheep tallow, woodsmoke and kerosene, and sometimes of whiskey seeping through their pores. Some of them brought a rare beauty and grace to their work. Others, psychotic or drunk, herded because they couldnt find a place among people. In the three years I herded, I came to understand they were often one and the same. They wove the line between sacred and profane, never staying much to center. I came to them the observer, the adventurer, thinking myself different and holding myself apart. I came to them a young woman among old men, but what we had in common was that line.
Across the rangelands of northwest Wyoming, they herded, headed slowly for higher ground, for tender grass and air that held some scrap of moisture. Through brief summer months they hung suspended at the top of the Big Horns. Between timberline and sky, drifts of snow gave way to pools of wild sweet arnica and sheep spread across the earth like clouds run to ground. Beneath early snows of September, the herders retreated, following the sheep down to where the range was more dirt than grass and the slanting sun would give them a brief reprieve on winter. For ten months of every year the sheep and the herders moved across this corner of the map, rising and falling, their tracks a waltz driven by time and weather and the sureness of both.
The men were cared for by John Lewis Hopkin, the grandson of the ranchs original owner, and Sterling, the man who helped him during the years I herded. They tended the camps and nursed the mens eccentricities, becoming for them the one line of communication with the outside world. Once a week, theyd drive out to each camp, hauling horse oats, groceries, water, mail, rifle shells, and gossip from town. The herders would try to make this visit last as long as possible. Rudy would offer up Dutch-oven biscuits and a long list of complaints, Maurice, a pot of pinto beans with ham and tortillas rolled by hand on top of the wood stove. Some would string it out with a search for some phantom sick lamb or ewe. Grady would have coffee, sometimes an excellent mutton stew, and, in the months he was sober, good conversation and a quick wit. As for me, I was a listener and a woman among men. This alone was often enough.
Once a week the camps would be tended. After the grind of the pickup engine faded in the distance, thered be only the sound of sheep, of wind, of our own voices speaking out loud.
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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