Dougs cabin was one of eight line camps scattered across the midelevation benches of Little Mountain, remote country where the sheep would be held for several weeks between the drying of the spring ranges in summers heat and the opening of the higher altitude Big Horn National Forest grazing allotments. John Blue Canyon road was too rough for anything but a beater sheepwagon, so years ago, the ranch had built tiny shacks and cabins, most barely big enough for bed and stove, on each of the separate ranges. The herders stayed in these while they tended their sheep in the lush feed and tedious close quarters of Little Mountain where the bands mixed easily. But when I arrived, it was summer. All the bands had gone
up to the top of the Big Horns, leaving Doug to tend the bucks below on Little Mountain until they could join the ewes in the fall for breeding. The country was peppered with empty cabins, any one of which could have housed my childhood dreams.
Doug was small and gray, with the twinkly blue eyes of a leprechaun and his jeans held up by rainbow suspenders. Well, now, I can hardly keep myself busy, he said in answer to my question. But, you know, I bet you could set up camp in the Cow Creek cabin. Theres lots to see up here. I could give you a horse. Strawberryd be plumb fine for you. Ive got about two of everything, salt and pepper, groceries aplenty. And a rifle. Youd need a rifle. Ever shot one? By the time wed returned with the sodas, our plans were made. When my sister and her husband left the next day, I wouldnt be going with them.
For the rest of that summer, I lived in the Cow Creek cabin, ten-by-twelve feet with a bed, table, wood cookstove and creek water to drink. Most afternoons, Doug would check in on me. Hed draw crude maps on scrap paper, showing trails, a homestead cabin, an old still site. Next morning, Id saddle up Strawberry, a sixteen-hand red roan gelding, filling the saddlebags with lunch and a book, one map or another folded in my pocket. I hunted arrowheads out on the Honeymoon cabin point, scouted out the Bischoff cow camp on the edge of Cottonwood Canyon and explored dark, secret trails that lead down into the depths of Devils Canyon.
On weekends, Miles would bounce up the seventeen miles of deeply rutted roads in his old Land Rover with wine, books, stories, an iced-down Sara Lee cheesecake. On one occasion, he arrived with Sonia, the new Big Horn County librarian, and her two children, recently migrated out from Lexington, Kentucky. Shed unfolded from the Land Rover, a lanky, dark-headed Dane with uncontrollably curly hair and crinkly eyes. Ive found you a fellow Kentuckian, Miles said, and our friendship was immediate, enduring long after my brassy romance with the paleontologist was over.
At summers end, Doug rolled a Bull Durham cigarette in the crease of his jeans and encouraged me to return. Im sure we could get you a job lambing in the winter, hed said. Youve only seen a tiny piece of this whole outfit. Its big. I can talk to John and get you a job.
I laughed at the prospect, sure of a more traditional future and certain it wouldnt be in the lambing sheds of Wyoming. But fall was hard. I was at a loss as to how to live my life and where to dig in. I saw people with companions, homes, meaningful work, but I had no idea how to become them, how to spin that web of comfort and belonging around me. I felt alone, unmoored and unworthy.
Id been drawn to the racetrack, to the fog-wisped early mornings of Kentucky, the thin-skinned electricity of the thoroughbreds, the weathered coarseness and nomadic air of the track crew. I hot-walked and galloped horses in the mornings and loaded UPS trucks from a warehouse in the afternoons, living once again in my parents house. One day, as I stepped from the shower, my mother saw the bruises that covered my body from handling truckloads of packages, and, trembling with frustration, she said, You dont have to do this. Youre smart and pretty and have an education. If you arent doing exactly what you want to be doing when you turn fifty, its your own damned fault.
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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