Authors: Mackie d'Arge
For Charlotte, and for Arielle and Alena
The principal crooked his finger at me. “Come to my office,” he said.
I almost choked.
Please let it be something horrendous I've done
, I prayed.
Just don't let it be â¦
But deep inside me I already knew.
It was my mom.
She'd done it again.
My heart crumpled as I pushed myself out of my seat. I tried to ignore the snickers and stares as I trailed after him to his office. There stood my mom, arms crossed, silently waiting. Clearly she'd already said her piece and didn't feel the need for more words.
The principal scowled as he flipped through my records. It was all there, the number of schools I'd attendedâI'd been plucked out of four schools already that year. “Well, Blue,” he said gruffly. “Given the time left until school lets out for the summer, I'll make you a deal. Take
the books you'll need to finish up, only promise you'll send them back, along with your last assignments.” He frowned at my mom, but she didn't notice. She was staring out the window already anxious to be on her way.
My hands shook as I cleaned out my desk and locker. “I get to go on vacation early,” I bluffed to the class as I stuffed my things into my pack. “It's been great knowing you all,” I added, swallowing hard. Then I slung my pack over my shoulder and marched out the door. No sad good-byes for me. No promises to keep in touch. I'd learned it was easier that way.
I followed my mom out to the pickup, kicking at the gravel as I muttered under my breath, “Just four more weeks until summer vacationâcouldn't you have managed four more measly weeks?”
Even if she'd heard me it wouldn't have made any difference. All our worldly belongings were piled into the back of Ol' Yeller.
I tossed my stuff onto the heap, climbed into the cab, and wrapped my arms around my dog. As we turned onto the highway the load in the back of the truck shifted, then settled into place again.
Frankly, I wasn't the least bit surprised that she'd quit another ranching job just like that. Two months in a place was our average. This time we'd barely made one.
That's the way it's always been. She leaves in the blink of an eye. It comes on suddenly, as though a heavy thought has fallen from the sky and hit her on the head. She'll put
her hand up to her forehead and her eyes will get all faraway looking like they can see through walls and out beyond the hay fields and the hills to someplace no one else can see. “It's time to hit the road,” she'll say, and she'll finish up whatever she's been doing, tidy up neat, and start loading our gear into the back of the truck. And if I get a certain look on my face when we've driven into some motel for the night, or into some ranch looking for work, she'll look at me and sigh and say, “Bloom where you're planted, Blue. Just bloom where you're planted.”
As if we've ever stayed in one place long enough for roots to grow. Honestly, I've been potted and repotted so many times my roots have all but curled into a ball, like they're scared to death to fasten to the earth 'cause they'll just be jerked right up again.
My mom's worked at so many ranches back and forth across Wyoming that I've forgotten half of them, or tried to.
She's been hired on as a cowpuncher, fencer, hired-hand-of-all-trades, night calver, sheepherder, cook, irrigator, hay handâyou name it, she's done it, and as good as any cowboy only she's a cowgirl and proud of it. And everything will be going along all fine and dandy. We'll have settled in at some ranch. I'll have gotten over new-kid jitters at some school I won't bother to learn the name of. With luck I'll have made a few friends. But before you can say “whistlin' blackbirds,” we'll be on our way once again.
Our worldly goodies don't add up to much. My clothes all fit into one battered suitcase, my mom's into another. There are two canvas bags full of boots, hers and
mineârubber irrigating boots, winter boots, cowboy boots, and some really scruffy sneakers. Our bedrolls and pillows. Her cowboy gearâchaps and spurs and lariat ropes. Her saddle. We had to sell mine. Her tools she carries around in the tool chest. She has her own fencing pliers and wire stretchers that she takes real good care of. And her special irrigating shovel with a pointed blade. She keeps the handle oiled and gets upset if someone uses it or leaves it caked with mud. It cost forty-three dollars plus tax. My mom has several pairs of leather gloves that she tries hard not to lose. I've got a pair too, but they're getting awful small. Then there's our aluminum tool box that's plumb full of books and stays in the back of the truck. We've carried it around forever and ever and keep adding to our supply, trading for books and giving some away. You could track where we've been by the books we've left behind. My mom says if you want to get high, books are better than whiskey or gin and you sure feel better the next day.
Not that she drinks anymoreâor at least she tries not to. Back when I was little, after my dad took off like he did, there was a spell when she drank more than her fair share. But one night she didn't get back to the bunkhouse. Nor the next day, either. If it hadn't been for a sweet old rancher's wife who took me under her wing, who knows what might've happened. It scared my mom enough to almost make her stop drinking. Speaking of my dad, we used to carry around his treasured guitar, which he somehow forgot to take with him. Last year my mom hocked it. I got all snivelly because I knew how he loved
that guitar. Besides, it gave him something to return for other than just little ol' me. My mom promised we'd buy it back someday, but I was sure she wouldn't. Then there's our just-in-case box and our radio. My mom's box of secrets. Mostly I think that's a few letters she got from my dad. She never would read all the parts out loud to me, no matter how much I begged. My Prismacolor pencils and my journals. My old journals I keep stored in my suitcase so they won't get left behind. The newest one I keep in the backpack I made all by myself, out of a pair of my dad's Wrangler jeans. I've drawn or written in journals since I was four-almost-five, and somehow I've managed to hang on to all of them. I used to have a teddy bear named GrubâI'd had him since the day I was bornâbut the last place we were at, a puppy chewed him up. All that was left now was one black button eye. It hurts to even think about that. And now to finish upâa good iron skillet we've had since forever, my mom's white china teapot, and her stash of medicinal teas, our blue enamel dishes, and two tin bowls for Stew Pot. He's a border collie, Australian shepherd, blue heeler dingo, and who-knows-what-else mix. He's eleven or so, and my best and usually my only buddy. The only piece of so-called furniture we own is Stew's monstrous fake-fur beanbag bed.
That's it, folks. All our worldly goodies.
The last time we packed up I had pleaded for a whole year in one place, or maybe six months. Even four would do. All I got was one of those looks that said, “Don't go getting your hopes up.”
But I did have them up. I had
hopes. I wanted to unpack my suitcase. Call someplace “home.” And maybe â¦ maybe my dad would be able to find us.
“Wishes don't put fishes on dishes,” my mom said after I'd whined and wished myself into a tizzy.
I puzzled over that for a long timeâor at least until it made some sort of sense. Maybe I'd have to
something to help make this happen. But what?
I was sure he'd been looking. I could imagine him pulling out his wallet at coffee shops and gas stations all over Wyoming and passing around an old faded photo of usâof course I'd be little, but my mom would still look the same. Someone would say, “Oh yeah, didn't we see that pair at a branding at so-and-so's ranch?” or something like that. But up till now, if he'd tried to check out the tip, he'd have found that we'd left with no forwarding address.
Hardly a night went by that I didn't pour my heart out to Whatever's Up There. “Please let my mom's special place exist,” I'd pray, “and please, please let us find it. And if you could, let her like it so much that she'll stay, and let my dad find out that we're there.”
I even drew a picture in my journal of how I thought that place might look. I drew a secret place hidden way up in the mountains with canyons and cliffs and a long winding stream, and up in one corner I drew a house overlooking hay meadows. It wasn't a bunkhouse or a trailer or a sheep wagon. It was a high-tall two-story house. Over
the house I wrote the word “home.” Curving over the mountains I sketched in a rainbow and colored it all the colors of light.
At night I would lie in bed and march my fingers up the road I'd drawn on that paper, right up to the house, and then I'd take my finger and climb it up imagined pathways through the mountains. Sometimes I'd even put my drawing on the floor and I'd touch it with my bare toes. I'd concentrate so hard that sometimes it felt as if my toes actually touched solid ground.
So here we were, on the road once again. This time we'd left the high windy plains of southern Wyoming and were headed up north where my mom said things might be better.
“We're not going back to that ranch,” she said, keeping her eyes on the road, “even if something got left behind.”
I was still grumpy, so miles went by before I sniffed, “Okay, so what happened?”
“Never mind. I'd had it up to here,” she said, slashing her hand across her forehead. “So I quit.”
But I knew. This time it hadn't just been itchy feet. She'd had enough of the way that old ranch manager had acted like he was some big catch that she might want to fish for. There'd been something about him that had made me uneasy, and he'd insisted on calling me Runt or Pee Wee or Squirt, so good-bye and good riddance to him.
The next place just
to be better.
When we got off the interstate, we stopped in at a few ranches to see if they needed help. No one seemed anxious to hire us, though one place needed a cook.
“I've had enough ranch-cook jobs to last me a lifetime,” my mom said, and we kept right on going.
It was dark when we got to Lander, on the edge of the Wind River Indian Reservation. We found a cheap motel, and the next morning we woke up to red cliffs and fresh snow on the mountains. In town, a light rain had fallen. As we drove down the street to have breakfast a rainbow popped out of the sky.
I knew it was rare and peculiar for one to show up in the morning.
We could sure use some luck,
I thought. I spit on my finger and crossed my heart seven times. It was Wednesday, May ninth, a few minutes till eight.
Not five minutes later my mom opened a newspaper and spotted the ad.
“When one door closes, another opens,” she said, pointing to the ad section and pushing the paper across the table to me.
I gave her one of my looks. There were three “Ranch Help Wanted” ads in the paperâthe first for a part-time night calver, the next for a nonsmoking cook. I shook my head and tried out the third. “Early-rising self-starting caretaker-irrigator needed on remote mountain ranch,” I read. There was a local number and the name M. McCloud.