In Open Spacesby Russell Rowland
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The windows of the old Model T rattled as the mail truck bounced along the winding gravel road from Belle Fourche, South Dakota, to Albion, Montana. It was well past midnight, and I tried to sleep, but my head bonked against the window each time I dozed, until it felt as if I'd grown a corner on my forehead. There was also the matter of Annie Ketchal, the driver, who loved to talk. When I saw that Annie was the driver that night, I cringed, because I knew I wouldn't get much sleep. Because of her job, she knew everyone, and not only did she know them, but she had a gift for finding out more about them than anyone else knew. At the age of fourteen, I usually found the information she passed on interesting, and sometimes even shocking, but on this night I simply wasn't interested in lives outside of my own.
"Sorry about your brother Blake," she said after a few miles.
"Thanks, Mrs. Ketchal," I answered, feeling my jaw tighten, my lower teeth settling against the upper.
My heart seemed to press against my chest, as if a strong hand had a firm grip on it, squeezing it tightly, telling it, "Don't beat... don't you dare beat." And I knew as sure as anything that this pain would never go away. I thought I would feel this bad for the rest of my life. My fourteen years hadn't taught me that you feel this kind of pain sometimes, and that although it may never completely disappear, it does fade. And if anyone had tried to explain that to me then, I would have silently told them to shut up and leave me alone, to let meget a little sleep. Just as I now silently wished that Annie Ketchal, as friendly as she was, would be quiet and let me and my struggling heart be.
I had been standing at the blackboard doing a math problem when the telegram arrived. I was an eighth-grader, just beginning my second year at the Belle Fourche School, fifty miles from the ranch. I boarded with an older couple during the week and caught the mail truck home most weekends to help with the harvest, or haying, or feeding the stock.
Brother George drowned in river.
read the telegram. My mother's words, as always, would never pass for poetry, but it told me everything I needed to know.
I gave the telegram to my teacher, and standing there as she read it, my mind reviewed all of the immediate concerns of a fourteen-year-old boy. First, I knew that I would be going home immediately. And I knew that there was a good chance that I wouldn't be coming back. I thought about the dollar a day I could earn if I stayed home, and wondered what I might be able to save up for. And I felt a certain sense of relief about not coming back, because in the year and change that I'd been in Belle Fourche, I had never adjusted to life in town. I didn't like the pace. I spent most of my time in the classroom wishing I was sitting on a horse in the middle of a broad pasture. I couldn't keep my mind on the books in front of me, especially when the sun was shining. And although I did well in school, I never felt the same satisfaction from getting a test with a big blue A on it as I did from stepping back and admiring a stack of hay I'd just pitched, or pulling the forelegs of a calf, watching it slosh to the ground and shake its moist head, ears flopping. At my core, I relished the thought of going home.
What I did not think about in the moment was that my life would completely change with this news. I thought about George and his baseball, and how he could scoop a ground ball and whip it to first base with such fluid grace that it seemed as if he caught the ball in the middle of his throwing motion. But I guess I wasn't ready to think about the fact that I would never see him again.
So when the teacher asked me if I was okay, I nodded without hesitation, and it was true at that particular moment.
"All right," she said. "You go on ahead then."
So I walked to the boarders' house, told them the news, packed my bag, and caught the mail truck home. But after several hours in the truck, the reality started to penetrate. I remembered a day the previous winter -- an early morning when we were out feeding the stock. It was colder than hell that morning, and George, Jack, Dad, and I were doing whatever we could think of to keep warm, pounding our gloved hands together, running in place, working our jaws to keep the skin on our faces from freezing. George was talking, as he often did. He was talking about cattle, and sheep.
"People talk about how stupid animals are," George said, stomping his boots against the ground. "But just look at this. Every morning, we get up and come out here to feed these bastards, who aren't at all cold. We come out here and risk our lives to wait on these animals, and they're the stupid ones? I think we're the stupid ones. Not only that, but we paid money for these sons of bitches. We paid money for the privilege of waiting on these goddam animals."
He kept along in the same vein, a half grin on his face the whole time, and the rest of us were laughing so hard, we felt warmer than we had all morning. Even Jack, who usually had little tolerance for George's monologues, was laughing. It...In Open Spaces. Copyright © by Russell Rowland. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Meet the Author
Born in Bozeman, Russell Rowland is a fourth-generation Montanan. He served in the Navy, and has worked as a teacher, ranch hand, surveyor, lounge singer, and fortune-cookie writer. He lives in San Francisco.
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