Sheepwagons are set and leveled where the view of the country is long and generous and includes a pond or creek where the sheep can water. Like tiny ships at sea, the wagons are built to provide sturdy shelter from the elements and to hold its contents securely in place across the miles. Their rounded roofs are metal or canvas stretched across wooden bows. Above the wagon tongue is a door, split, and through it to either side a wood cookstove and cabinets. Benches run along the sides with storage beneath, and reaching across the back is a bed with more cabinets beneath and a small window behind. From the framework of the bed, a bit of plywood can be pulled out like a kitchen cutting board to serve as the table.
On this first trip out in the spring, the tender leaves the herder with a well-stocked camp and drives away. A few days, maybe a week later, the rumbling of trucks breaks the silence and along with the rumbling the rising, bleating clamor of ewes and lambs. When the trucks stop and the dust settles, metal ramps are pulled down and the ewes and lambs spill to the ground and spread and roil through the tender new grass. For the rest of that day, the herder will walk the edges of this chaos with dogs and horse, bumping strays back to center until the reunions between ewes and lambs eventually bring quiet to the waning light.
The sheep give the herders purpose again, placing them back in a world where they belong. But for those few days without sheep, their world is made up of thin air and silence, a blank slate that had sent more than one new man walking back to town.
In the early fall, after the lambs have been shipped to market, the ewes are trailed from the mountain with bitter winds sweeping at their backsides and doubled up into winter bands of two thousand or more, with the bucks thrown in for breeding. There on the low-elevation winter ranges, they paw the snow for shrubby winterfat and eat the tips from sage. The toughest of the herders stay with their sheep through the hard months of November, December, and January, gathering dogs to their beds when the temperatures fall to twenty and forty below, sleeping with eggs and potatoes under the covers to keep them from freezing in the night. At Thanksgiving, John brings a turkey dinner. At Christmas, a ham and a brand-new Pendleton wool shirt, gifts from the ranch.
As a young woman, I found my way into the middle of these lives. Id come to Wyoming, twenty-two and fresh out of college, to travel with my sister and her five-month-old son while her husband worked on a paleontological dig at Natural Trap Cave on the lower reaches of the northern Big Horn Mountains. Wed camped into Montanas Pryor Mountains, the Pryor Gap, and on up north to Glacier National Park but were drawn back to the ragtag, anything-goes dig site on Little Mountain, where tents and clothes and Buddhist prayer flags all flapped in the wind. I developed a crush on the head of the dig, Miles, a sinewy paleontologist who quoted poetry and sometimes brushed his teeth with a shot of Jack Daniels in the morning. On the day before I was to head back east with my sister, Miles took us up the mountain toward the Medicine Wheel to picnic with an old sheepherder, Doug, who worked for the Lewis Ranch.
He was camped at the Little Headquarters, a low-slung, one-room log cabin, with an attached shed where he kept a circus of goats, dogs and horses. As a child Id hidden within the pages of books, crafting my own particular fantasy of a life lived out, with mountains, horses, a cabin, animals that I alone could befriend. I later learned that most of the sheepherders, including Doug, lived this reclusive life to save themselves from the raging alcoholism that pursued them in town, but to me it seemed idyllic. I longed for it, so much so that when I went with Doug to retrieve canned drinks chilling in his spring, the words came blurting out, Can I stay here? Do you need any help?
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.
Blood at the Root
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