The ranch was sprawling, reaching seventy miles across the Big Horn Basin and spilling up into the high sagebrush benches of southern Montana. It was called the Lewis Ranch and had been established by Claude Lewis, the grandson of Mormon pioneers, from the misfortunes of homesteaders during the destitute thirties. At its peak it had run twenty thousand ewes in twenty bands, but over the years half the sheep were replaced with cattle and cowboys who demanded less patience and attention. All the sheep would have been sold but for the tenaciousness of John, the only sheepman in the family once his grandfather was gone.
The skeleton of the ranch was stitched together from smaller farms and ranches along the Shoshone River and the Big Horn, with their headwaters high in the Wind and Absaroka Ranges, and the meager creeksCrooked, Gypsum, Dry, Whistle and Pryorthat channeled spring melts and infrequent rains. These places held the lambing sheds, the calving corrals, the plowed fields, and they had machinery and telephones, hot showers, and kitchen tables with the imprints of forearms worn into their vinyl coverings. These were tired places with faded paint, and they worked hard for a living, but still they were connected to the tangled life of the small towns of Lovell, Cowley, Deaver and Byron. And to the Mormon Church and to bars, to Saturday night dances, to the string of human interactions on any given day that a person can take for granted.
For just two months a year, the sheepherders would be exposed to the edges of this life, and even that exacted a heavy toll. In early February, the sheep would be trailed in from their winter ranges to the Lovell lambing sheds, where they were sheared in preparation for the lambing season. The herders wagons would be lined up side by side along the east edge of the pens, backed up to the fence and facing the cottonwood bottom of the Big Horn River.
With neighbors only feet away and without miles to buffer them from towns ragged temptations, many of those quiet men unraveled. It might begin with a swig of wine offered by the Mexican shearing crew or a half pint of whiskey pulled from a ranch hands pocket. Otherwise quiet men would grow loud and then disappear. Some, the younger of the old men, planned for it with enthusiasm, counting the days until they were free to go, slicking their hair back and believing that love might be found on a barstool. Days or weeks later, a rattling car would drop them off, stumbling, at their wagon, or theyd walk the highway home in the late night. A years wages could be lost in that brief, bright sparkling. The Medicine Wheel Bar, the Cactus, the Oasis, the Shoshone, the Waterhole. Drinks were bought for the bar, money given away to strangers, saddles and rifles hocked or sold. When they reached hard bottom, out of money or health or both, they would return as quiet men again, content with the peculiar confines of their lives.
The ranchs spring ranges pushed west to the McCullough Peaks and the foothills of the volcanic Absaroka Range, north along the Polecat Bench and up into the Pryor Gap country of the Dryhead Ranch, east to the uplifted limestone slabs of the Big Horn Mountains. Straight out of the sheds, the lambs too young to trail, the sheep were loaded into semis and trucked out to the spring ranges. Days before, John and Sterling would haul the herders and wagons out into the hills, miles apart from one another, and leave them to wait alone and afoot for their sheep and horse to arrive. There, the spare rangelands are brightening with new growth: Wyoming big sage, blue gramma, needle and thread, Indian ricegrass, and, scattered among the grasses, delicate evening primrose, copper mallow, and Indian paintbrush in clumps of red, fluorescent pink, and magenta. For some, these are days of sobering up, of nursing the alcoholic shakes with strong coffee, a six-pack of beer, and the company of their dogs. For all, this time seems a true reflection of the distance between them and the world.
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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