Excerpt: Chapter Two
e asked around and found out that the ranch was on the reservation way up in the foothills of the Wind River Mountains. We got directions and headed on up there, didn't even call or anything. My mom doesn't like phones any more than she likes unnecessary words. She says I talk more than enough for the two of us.
We'd hardly turned off the highway and onto a rutted dirt road when we came to a sign. We jolted to a stop and read it.
The small print said it was Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho Tribal Land and that you had to be a member of one of the tribes to go on. No hunting, no fishing, and a big humongous fine for picking up artifacts.
I got the feeling the sign meant what it said.
"What now?" I moaned. "This has to be the right road. Unless we've been sent on a wild-goose chase."
From the looks of things it sure could've been possible. The two-track road crooked over the hills toward the mountains. One ranch peeked out of the hills on our right, but otherwise there was nothing but sage-covered hills stretching out till they butted into steep rosy cliffs and high snowcapped mountains. Junipers dotted the hillsides and still-leafless aspens and cottonwoods followed the curves of a creek.
My heart gave a lurch. It looked strangely familiar.
My mom shrugged and put the truck into four-wheel drive, passed the sign, and kept on going, dodging rocks and boulders, splashing through puddles and lurching over shaky bridges that crossed and recrossed a wide shallow creek until finallyafter eight miles that felt like a hundred and eightywe came to a pole gate with a sign that said "Far Canyon Ranch." We pried open the gate and headed for the shiny tin roof of a barn that stuck up behind some bare trees. We crossed another shaky bridge and there by the barn we came across a man.
"Are you the Mr. McCloud with the ad?" my mom asked.
The man had looked a bit startled to see us come rattling across his bridge, but he nodded and said, "Yes, ma'am." He was in the middle of doing something to his tractor, so he put his tools down and wiped his hands on a red cloth. "Do you have any references?" he asked politely.
My mom shook her head. "No," she said. "I quit my last job."
Mr. McCloud took off his gray sweat-stained cowboy hat and scratched his dark wavy hair and asked, "Well, do you know how to irrigate?"
She didn't answer, just held out her hands, palms up, for him to see.
My mom has big hands, with long, thin fingers. And calluses and scratches all over from shoveling and doing all kinds of ranch work. Mr. McCloud put his own big calloused hands under hers and lifted them almost to his face so he could see them real close-up. I thought maybe he was going to read her fortune, he studied them so hard. Finally he turned her hands over and looked just as carefully at the backs of them. No rings, no watch. Lots of scratches from barbed wire. By then I knew she was thinking she'd have been better off saying some words, but it was too late.
"Yeah," he said, giving her back her hands. "You do." And he looked into her eyes.
I don't know if my mom would be considered pretty, maybe not. She's kind of skinny but real strong and her arms have muscles that ripple almost like a man'salthough because it was spring and still cold she had on her old navy-blue coat with feathers sticking out all this way and that where it'd been torn by barbed wire, so you couldn't really tell she had muscles. She doesn't do anything with her long, dark hair, so it's usually in her eyes, but she has eyes the color of a stormy sea, the kind of eyes that if you do look right into them you might find yourself drowning, they take you down so deep.
Mr. McCloud coughed and surfaced and said, "Sure looks like you can handle a shovel and do fence work. Can you caretake? Know a thing or two about calving?
She gave him a look like, "What do you think?"
"Well, okay," he said. "I like girl-help. Females are usually gentler with the animals and a darn sight more careful with things in general and they don't say they know how to do something when they really don't. Last hired man I had around here didn't know the hind end of a cow from its front. Plus he got the tractor stuck for six weeks in a swamp. I thought it'd sink clear down to China." He glanced at Stew Pot, who'd jumped out of the cab and was now proudly perched on the tarp that covered the gypsy load in the back of our muddy pickup. Then he turned and looked at me, sizing me up.
I was standing there trying hard not to think of the tractor plowing its way through the earth and popping up in China, and wearing such a silly grin he must've thought I was a happy camper. My dark reddish brown hair was all scrunched up under my blue baseball cap and sometimes I can almost pass for a boy till I open my mouth. I'm kind of substandard runt-sized for my age, so I stretched up real tall trying to look at least thirteenwhich I was, almost. I puffed up my chest, not that it did any good. It'll probably be eons before I'm not flat as Kansas.
Mr. McCloud nodded at me and I nodded back but kept quiet.
"You know," he said, turning to my mom, "it's a forty-five minute trip back down that road you came up. You'd have to get your kid"he glanced at me"your young lady, down to catch the school bus. It's another hour to the school. No easy way around that. We haven't had a youngster on this place since I don't know when. Don't know how that'd work out."
My mom could've told him that by great good luck and fortune I was going to finish up the school year by mail, but she just stood there and said nothing, so I did.
"I'm homeschooled," I piped up, giving him the biggest smile ever. Behind my back I crossed all my fingers.
Mr. McCloud's eyebrows lifted. He looked from me to my mom and then to Stew Pot in the back of the truck. He was silent for a long moment, as if weighing the situation. "This place has been left to the hired hands to handle for the past several years," he went on. "There are some heifers about to calve, and the fences and ditches are in pretty bad shape. But we're short of hands at the moment. I live on another place, mostly, on our main ranch off the reservation, about forty-five miles due-east of here. I get out here only once in a while to check up on things. I'd like to be movin' along soon as these heifers have calved."
My mom finally spoke up. "I can handle it," she said.
Mr. McCloud gestured toward a small log cabin that was partly hidden by trees beside the creek. "That's where I bunk out when I'm here," he said. He jerked his thumb at a wooden building beside the barn and added, "And that's the bunkhouse for the hands."
He stopped as though his train of thought had taken another track. I could almost see the wheels churning as another thought hitched up.
"The old homestead's up there apiece on the hill. It's where I grew up. Where I used to live..." He gestured to a place up the road, though we couldn't see any house because the road bent around some aspen, cottonwood, and golden willow trees that glowed in the late-morning sunlight with the first yellow-green buds of spring. The ranch lay snuggled in a sheltered valley, and all around its fenced pastures rose hills and cliffs and canyons, and behind those, high mountains.
Mr. McCloud stared down at his hands. There was a long silence when all we could hear was the sound of the creek and some birds. "House hasn't been lived in for almost three years," he finally said. "It would need fixing up, but it should be livable. You can bunk out up there."
"Okay," was all my mom said. She hadn't spoken more than a dozen words and she'd landed the job.
© Mackie d'Arge
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