An unsentimental vision of the west, new and old, comes to life in a gritty new collection of stories by the author of Snow, Ashes
In Ghosts of Wyoming, Alyson Hagy explores the hardscrabble lives and terrain of America's least-populous state. Beyond the tourist destinations of Jackson Hole and Yellowstone lies a less familiar and wilder frontier defined by the tension wrought by abundance and scarcity. A young runaway with a big secret slips across the state border and steals a collie pup from the Meeker County fairgrounds. A chorus of trainmen details a day spent laying rail across the Wyoming Territory, while contemporary voices describe life in the oil and gas fields near Gillette. A traveling preacher is caught up in a deadly skirmish between cattle rustlers and ranchers on his way from Rawlins to the Indian reservation on the Popo Agie River. Locals and activists clash when a tourist makes an archaeological discovery near Hoodoo Mountain. With spirited, lyrical prose, Hagy expertly weaves together Wyoming's colorful pioneer and speculator history with the notoften- heard voices of petroleum workers, thrill-seeking rock climbers, and those left behind by the latest boom and bust.
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About the Author
Alyson Hagy was raised on a farm in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. She is the author of three previous collections of short fiction and two novels, Keeneland and Snow, Ashes. She lives and teaches in Laramie, Wyoming.
Read an Excerpt
Ghosts of Wyoming
By Alyson Hagy
Graywolf PressCopyright © 2010 Alyson Hagy
All rights reserved.
It was not as hard to steal the collie pup as he thought it would be. From early morning when the woman set up and wiped her table with a cloth until the time the silver container of coffee was emptied by those coming to look at the dogs, there had been somebody around the camper and around the crate that held the pups. But lunch hour put the scatter in people. Tacos and fry bread were for sale on the other side of the bleachers — he could smell them. And the heat slowed things down, even for the dogs that panted hard and fast like they knew they were destined for the sheepherding finals.
The high sun was what seemed to drive the woman into the camper. It was nothing more than company, the chance to talk out of the hearing of adults, that got rid of the girl and her sister. They went off with kids they seemed to know from the sheep-raising universe of Colorado. There was discussion of buying Cokes or lemonade. The older girl was the one who'd offered him a pup to hold. He'd refused, staying polite and not looking too interested. He had a dog at home, he said, one that was good over pheasant and jumping in the water for ducks. A hunting dog from Texas. This was a lie from his mouth, though he'd heard the exact same words said by a long-haul friend of his father's.
Except for the dog stories, he had not liked that friend.
The girl had smooth brown hair held off her neck in braids the way 4-H girls he knew wore their hair, especially the ones who barrel raced on horses. He was a little sorry she would get in trouble because of him. She'd take the blame, no matter what. That was how it worked. But there was a pile of pups in that crate. At four hundred dollars apiece, nobody's feelings or whipped ass was going to hurt for long.
Luck would determine if it was male or female. He wouldn't have time to check. A bitch was easier to train. This, too, came from his father's friend. But there was some number of male dogs in the finals. He'd watched them stalk the skittery bands of sheep in the preliminaries. He knew how capable they were. And he didn't care what it was. The one the girl held away from her chest to show him had looked good enough to him. Everybody knew border collies were smart beyond the ordinary for dogs. You could train them to within an inch of their business, and they would wait outside a building for you with no rope or leash. They would wait for you all day.
He partly zipped his jacket and snapped the snap on its waistband. His Broncos hat was already so low on his head he could barely see. He slipped in and unpinned the crate before he even squatted down. The lucky one was toward the front, round bellied, asleep on its side. He used two hands for support so as not to shock the pup, wanting it to think well of him from the get-go. He lifted it like it was a glass tray. Then he got one hand under its sleepy, dangled haunches and slid it into his jacket. It didn't make a peep, nor did its many sisters and brothers. He closed the crate, put a quick touch on the bill of his Broncos hat to be sure it was set square on his head, and he was gone.
He waited until he was clear of the Meeker Fairgrounds to take off his jacket and turn it inside out so that the brown cloth fabric showed instead of the blue. He also removed his hat and tucked it into his back pocket, though his bare head felt show-offy to him. This was his disguise. He had to set the pup on the ground to make his changes. It was more alert now, and he saw its tongue bend in an arch when it yawned, and he saw its tiny teeth. The teeth were see-through and small like fish teeth. He scooped the pup with his hands and cradled it. It was a female. He could tell that much. He could also tell from the mask of her face that she had the good, preferred markings he'd heard the handlers talk about.
She made a sound in her white-furred throat, and he made a sound back.
He carried her through town inside his brown jacket, cars and trucks passing on both sides of the road. He supported her round belly with his hands, walking as if his hands were only in his jacket pockets and he was only going for a stroll. He used sidewalks when he could. He wished he could stop at the cafe he saw — one with yellow paint around the windows — but he knew he could not, even though he had money, because of the deputies and what had happened with his father. He read the sign for the cafe that hung out over the street, and he liked the sound of the name. Belle's. He could call the pup that, call her Bell after the instrument and after the cafe in the town where he'd gotten her. Border collies always came with short names. It cut down on confusion.
Bell. A good name for a dog that was bound to be sweet but never shy.
He walked until he got to the gas stations. There was one on each side of the road just before the road filled out into a highway. He saw what he hoped to see on a good-weather Sunday, a steady stream of livestock trailers and open-backed trucks, many of them too large and awkward to pull next to the pumps. He'd planned to buy food, but he knew better than to pass on what looked like a rare chance. A red trailer stacked with hay was goosenecked to a diesel pickup with Colorado plates. The driver had left the rig angled near the air hose. He did what he'd done before, apologizing to Bell in a low voice for the delay of their supper. He unlatched the trailer's gate on one side and stepped into the dark crowdedness of the hay. Then he slid Bell loose from under his jacket and set her safe in the trailer's corner. He turned, made a loop of the orange rope that was already tied to the rear of the trailer, caught the latch handle in that loop, snugged the gate closed, and dropped the latch to lock them inside. It would be a hell of a sight easier to travel with hay than with steers or horses. They might not even get caught.
He sat down and drew Bell onto his lap, leaning into the sweet wall of hay. Bell had slept in the nest of his jacket, but she was awake now. Her dazedness was wearing off. He could feel the difference in the set of her legs and the sharp probing of her teeth on the soft parts of his hands. She would miss her brothers and sisters soon. He knew how that would go. Missing a sister — he did not have a brother — was a burn that was slow to cool. What he needed most was for Bell not to bark. Barking would not be good. He tried to keep her busy chewing on the bottoms of his jeans and on his hands, though her sharp fish teeth were already making him sore. He was glad when the driver cranked the rig and they eased onto the highway. The weather was dialed in. There would be no problems with heat or cold. They could find food later. He understood food was something he had learned to do without while Bell had not. But if he was right, the trailer's destination was close — no more than a couple of hours. He pulled his Broncos hat from his pocket and smoothed it down over his hair. He knew how to wait.
When the rig slowed to leave the highway, he took a look and thought the town might be Hayden. The driver pulled into another gas station but didn't cut the engine — it seemed like the driver only needed to take a leak. He bundled up Bell and got out of the trailer while the going was good. The sun was still flat and clear in the sky, but the air was beginning to smell of evening. He walked behind the station and took a leak of his own, then he let Bell walk and sniff some in the gravel. He needed to get one of those whistles, the kind only a dog could hear. For now, he'd count on his voice and the way Bell would learn to listen to it.
"Come on, Bell. Come on, little gal." He knelt on the gravel and called until she came to him. He told her she was pretty smart to make him proud on her first day.
He apologized for what he had to do next. He set her in an empty barrel that was soured from garbage, and he walked fast around the station and went inside and bought a pint of milk and some sticks of peppered jerky and two bottles of the fancy water his father made fun of. He paid for his selections with the bills folded in his front pants pocket. He was tight with worry for Bell. He got back, and he stroked her on top while she drank water from a hamburger container until they both were calm. There was hay mixed in her black fur and a flat mark of grease on her tail. He tried to clean her with his fingers. He had some water, too, while Bell lapped at the milk, then he got after the jerky. Bell didn't care for the jerky. He told himself that next time he would get the kind without pepper.
He had passed through Hayden before, and he liked his chances of finding a ride. He knew people paid no attention to strangers and how they came and went, alone or not alone, in the summer. He only wondered how bold he should be. His question was answered by the arrival of a club cab Ford bearing two cowboys. He was standing near the phone booth when it pulled in.
He watched the driver for a short time. The driver was a rodeo cowboy, for sure. Ironed shirts hung in the window of the Ford, and there was a show hat on the driver's head. The passenger was dressed cowboy, too. He walked up to the driver and asked for a ride.
"It's just me and this little dog," he said.
The driver, who was young and red skinned from the day's sun, looked him over. "Where to?"
"I got cousins on the Front Range, cousins and a aunt," he lied. "Anyplace toward Denver is good. The dog is for them."
"Denver it is," said the driver.
"Tell him he's got to buy beer." This came from the passenger.
"I don't believe he's old enough to buy beer."
"Shit. You know what I mean."
"I got money," he said. And he dug into his pocket with some defiance. He freed up ten dollars, handed it to the young driver.
"She is," he said. "Smart, too."
"What if she messes in the truck?" This from the passenger again, in a mood.
"I'll hold her. If she wets, she'll wet on me."
"I got a towel," the driver said. "I don't know what Ray's worried about. A little dog like that can't outmess him nohow."
"Fuck you," said the passenger, making one piece of a smile. "And give over that money. I've got a thirst."
They got going pretty fast, him and Bell squeezed in the back of the cab with some rigging and a bull rider's vest. He held Bell so she could look out the window as they drove, and she seemed to like that. The driver and Ray cracked beers and drank them and didn't talk. They started to talk when they slowed to pass through Steamboat Springs because they wanted to make fun of the town for its traffic lights and tourists. The driver said he didn't know a single good horseman who could still afford to live in Steamboat.
"They got girls, though," said Ray. He was watching out the windows just like Bell.
"Not the kind you like," said the driver.
"What's that mean?"
"It means rich. It means talking and spoiling and taking your time."
"And I can't do that?"
"Besides the fact that you're butt ugly, I've never seen you slow down for nothing, not even a rich girl."
"It's true," the driver said, laughing. "We have plowed this field before —"
"I ain't plowed nothing with you. You can't —"
"My point is you could act right with girls, but you don't."
"And who are you? Mister Smooth Shit?"
"I didn't say one way or the other. I didn't say a thing."
Ray looked over his shoulder. "You say you're giving up that dog. I wouldn't give up a good dog or a good gun, neither one. With dogs and guns you know what's next. They stay in bed all damn night whether you want them or not."
"You got to excuse Ray," the driver said, laughing some more. "He just got throwed off the crippledest mare on the Western Slope."
"You didn't do so hot yourself, twig dick."
"I didn't. It's lucky I got a credit card for gas."
They went into their third beers as the truck hauled up Rabbit Ears Pass. He stashed their empties at his feet. Bell whined some at the change in altitude until Ray asked to hold her. He didn't want to give her up, but he knew travel meant all range of favors. So he gave Ray the pup, and she seemed to take to him, working at his skin and his sleeves with her tongue and teeth. Ray gave him a cold beer in return, and he drank it, grateful.
He would guess later that it was the losing Ray couldn't get past because he couldn't find anything else about the situation that might have flipped the switch. Ray hadn't had that much beer, none of them had. It was just that Ray had to make somebody else the loser.
"This is a nice dog," Ray said after Bell curled into his lap for some sleep. "How old?"
"Seven weeks," he said. "She still misses her mama."
"I don't miss mine. How much she cost you?"
He paused, listening for the trap. Older boys and men liked to set traps. "Four hundred," he said.
Ray made a whistle sound behind his lips. It was not the admiring kind. The sound perked Bell up. "How much did those heelers go for in Rifle?" he asked the driver. "I saw Bobby Byrd take one, but I don't recall the price."
The driver turned his head for one second. "I don't remember, had to be a couple hundred. You know, when you wake a pup —"
"Oh, damn. Shit."
"That ain't shit."
"Damn. Make her stop. Come on, dog, stop."
"Naw," the driver said, laughing once again. "Your britches ain't wet with shit."
Ray cussed a long streak, holding Bell in the air like a paper airplane while he tried to work the piss off his legs. The towel, they'd all forgotten that. The driver, still aiming fast into the valley, reached under his seat and found an oil rag, which he tossed at Ray. "Oh," said the driver. "Oh, I got one now. Pissed pants and a crippled mare. I got a story to tell on you now."
"Goddamn dog," Ray said. "Right on my good jeans."
"I'll take her," he said from the backseat. "She didn't mean to hurt nothing."
"The hell she didn't," Ray said. "She's one bad thing after another on a bad day. So are you. Dillon there made you part of my damn bad day."
"Then let us off," he said, his heart bolting the way it did when he was close to trouble. "That's what you can do."
"That's not what I want to do," yelled Ray.
"Christ, Ray," said the driver. "It's no more than pup piss. It'll dry."
"It is more. It's what you said."
"Christ, then. I take it back. I didn't mean to get under your saddle."
"Yeah, you did, you son of a bitch. In the money at Gunnison two weeks ago and you ain't let up since. You don't think I'm good enough to haul with your goddamn gear."
"Give the kid his dog."
"Give it to him."
"I'll give him something else first," Ray said, his hand going after his belt buckle, and that meant two things to him in the backseat — it meant belt whipping or worse — and he'd given up taking the hurt of both, so he reared between the seats and grabbed for little Bell. But Ray was quicker, and mean. Ray kept his hands free, and he got his window down, and he dropped the dog out onto the moving road.
"Christ. Jesus Christ, Ray. You can't do that," yelled the driver.
But he had.
The driver, Dillon, hit the brakes, which sent them all flying forward and cut down on the punches and kicks that followed. They threw him out of the truck, too. Ray kept yelling, his face the color of meat, but he heard nothing of it. He ran. He was all running. He saw her by the side of the road, black and white like a shoe tossed into the bristly cheatgrass. He saw her move. Then he was by her and with her, lying on the ground low and flat so she might see his face. Pleading. "Don't be dead, Bell. Please don't be dead."
She staggered to her feet. She shook her head as though her ears itched, then bounded deeper into the bristled grass. She went away from him and away from the road. Scared.
"She rolled. Swear to God she rolled, I saw it in my mirror. She might be all right." It was the driver, Dillon. He had backed his truck up to where they were. Ray wasn't with him. "Young ones like that don't have much bone. She might not've felt it."
He lifted her up, afraid to see blood in her mouth, afraid she'd have eyes like his sister's cats after they had been drop-kicked.
"I'd take you to a vet, but I can't, not with Ray. I'm sorry. The town's right up here. Walden. I'm sorry. Here's money to have her looked at."
There were sounds. The truck disappeared. He made out that the truck stopped for Ray before it started again, and he made out the pale leaf of a twenty-dollar bill on the darkness of the road. He picked up the bill and put it in a separate pocket. Bell's heart was like a hammer against his hands, and his own heart was moving blood so fast it made his stomach sick. He was afraid the live part of Bell would tear through the skin of her chest and leave him behind, but it didn't.
After a minute or two she acted like she wanted to walk. He didn't let her down at first, but then he did. She walked like normal. She sniffed at the oily road. When she saw a grasshopper and tried to stalk it, he knew she was all right. Bent, but not broke. He told her he was glad. That he was proud of how tough she was and how she learned things. What she'd learned was a lesson he hadn't meant to teach her right away even though it was the kind of thing that was bound to come before you were ready for it, the black lesson of fear.
Excerpted from Ghosts of Wyoming by Alyson Hagy. Copyright © 2010 Alyson Hagy. Excerpted by permission of Graywolf Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Brief Lives of the Trainmen,
How Bitter the Weather,
Superstitions of the Indians,
Oil & Gas,
The Little Saint of Hoodoo Mountain,
The Sin Eaters,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Alyson Hagy is a skilled storyteller. Many of the stories in Ghosts of Wyoming (Graywolf Press) feel more like the type that would be told around a campfire than put down on the page, particularly "Superstitions of the Indians." The best of the bunch is the first story in the collection, "Border". It has a more contemporary feel than the other stories, and it sets the tone for a very different collection that the one that Hagy presents. While each story is a good one in its own way, the collection lacks cohesion. A good collection of short stories is bound together by a thematic or stylistic link. Other than being set in the state of Wyoming, there is not much holding these stories together. The inclusion of the ghosts is sometimes literal, sometimes metaphorical. Each story goes off on a different track, and each is written in a different style. This inconsistency is distracting to the reader who is reading the collection from start to finish. Taken separately, however, the stories can be enjoyed for the glimpses they offer into life in Wyoming. Overall, I'm very pleased with what Hagy has to offer, and I look forward to reading more of her work. I do wish this collection had been organized a bit differently, though.