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When Ruth arrived on the truck loaded with her supplies, she headed straight for the first of four pinyons that enclosed her cabin site. While Matt guided John Olsen's backing of the flatbed, she boosted herself up the trunk of the pine and inched her way out onto a wide lower limb, until she could wrap her hand around a rusted tin can hanging from the branch above. Ruth had been picturing that moment since the day she signed the form and paid the fees for her homestead, March 15, 1929, nearly three weeks before. At that moment, she had made up her mind to erase all sign of the place's history as a stopover for cowboys who couldn't tolerate a few drops of pine pitch on their shirts. Can-Tree Springs, indeed: not a fit name for her land.
Ruth yanked on the can, but it remained stubborn. After twisting the tin several times to loosen the baling wire, she jerked down again. Both wire and can came off in her hand. After she had removed the three other cans, Ruth patted the rough bark beside her. She would free the other trees once the men left. With a finger she caught one of the clear drips of pitch that covered the sides of the cantrying the turpentine taste on her tongue. The rest of the sticky drip she smeared on the back of a hand, its scent merging with her own, then she dropped to the ground to help the men unload her belongings.
Matt and John had already begun piling building materials in front of the furthest pinyon, beside an odd-shaped boulder that reached to just above Ruth's waist.
"Wait," she called out to Matt, who was ready to throw moreplanks onto the pile. "Not there. Don't put any more there. How about over by that scrub oak?"
"What's the matter with here?" Matt leaned the planks against the boulder and swiped his forehead with the back of a hand. Sunlight turned his hair the color of fresh-churned butter. "Seems here would be handier for you." His pale blue eyes settled on her as John Olsen came up beside him lugging a huge sack of cement.
"I'd just have to move it all again" she said. "That's why." Ruth picked up a fallen twig. "Look. I'll show you," she said, pacing out the area as she drew an approximate rectangle in the dirt. "Here's where my cabin will be, between the pinyons, where the ground's nice and flat. You can see you're putting all that inside my cabin."
"If you draw your rectangle the other way, we won't be," Matt said. "Just turn your house around." With one foot he began to redraw the floor plan.
"No," Ruth said. "I want to walk right out into morning sun. My front door has to face east."
"Ya, Rute," John Olsen said, hunkering beside the stone. He rubbed at the white stubble on his jaw. "But what you do about the boulder?"
Ruth walked over and squatted beside the old Swede, who smelled of goat and infrequent baths. Baths would not come easy here in this canyon, she realized. She ran a palm across the cold exterior of the rock. It appeared strangely alive. The smooth saddle of its back, the way it rested on a rounded belly made it seem like some kind of mineral beast. "I guess I'll have to move it, then" she said.
Both men laughed. Matt patted her shoulder. "Ruth," he said, "you may be the most capable woman I ever met. Honest. But not even John and I together could move that boulder."
Ruth felt her face flush. For once Matt's big smile didn't turn her to goo. "Just put the building materials over there, Matt Baxter," she said. "I'll move this rock. You wait and see." She marched toward the truck to escape the men's looks of amusement. John Olsen rose and began shifting the pile.
With three of them, it didn't take long to finish the unloading. While Matt and John set up her tent and carried in her cot and chest of drawers, Ruth gathered wood and built a fire in the circle of rocks that cowboys in the past had constructed. Then she picked up a bucket and walked across the wash to the patch of green that surrounded her spring. She knelt among the wiry sprigs of succulent grass, some more than a foot high, and dunked her bucket into the shallow pool of watercareful to avoid skater bugs and the gray beetle floating upside down near the water's edge. Behind the spring, the exposed roots of a cottonwood dropped a tangled skirt down the bank. When her bucket was full, she dipped a cupped hand into the water and brought it to her mouth. No water had ever tasted so sweet. Her very own, fresh from the earth. Her earth.
Later, the three of them sat in canvas camp chairs and christened her new homestead with cups of cowboy coffee. Containing her eagerness for the men to leave, Ruth sat savoring the smell of coffee and campfire smoke. She listened to the drone of passing flies and admired the sunlight puddling on Matt's soft curls. Caught up as she was in details close to her, she almost didn't notice, just over Matt's head, a man descending the bluff across the wash, dropping so smoothly he appeared almost to float down the rocks. She was too surprised to say a word, but her face spoke for her: John Olsen followed her eyes over to the stony base of Rocky Mountain.
"It just Jim, Rute. Indian Jim," John said, pulling pipe makings from his pocket.
"But I thought you and Kate were my nearest neighbors," Ruth said, "What is he doing ..."
"Ya, Rute. Jim stay on the mountain sometime. In summer. He set svedges at the mine. Good worker, Jim is. Smart too." Olsen tamped the tobacco in his pipe.
Ruth got up and walked to the campfire, where she wrestled the enamel pot off to the side of the rocks. Using a stick to tip the hot pot handle, Ruth poured coffee into her cup while the man made his way toward the camp. She wondered what she would have done if Matt and John hadn't been there. What could she have done? She decided to take up Matt's offer and borrow his rifle until the one she had ordered came in at Matt's General Store. Not that she'd ever shot a rifle.
The man was dark-skinned, with definitive, rugged features. Abundant black hair hung loose halfway to his waist, except where it was bound by a red bandana around his forehead. Ruth had seen Indians before in El Paso, Mexican Indians who came across the border for supplies or business. She had never spoken to one, but had always been curious because of the rumors about her mother, Cally. No one in the family would speak of it directlynot even her motherbut Ruth had overheard enough hushed snatches of stories those years she lived with her aunt, whispers about the "half-breed bastard" her grandfather had brought home to raise. And once when Ruth was very young, she remembered a time on the streets in El Paso when a well-dressed woman spat at her mother's feet and hissed the word squaw.
Matt nodded when John Olsen made the introductions, did not rise or offer his hand. Ruth was surprised to see suspicion and discomfort in his face. She could tell the Indian noticed it too: not that the expression on Jim's face did more than harden around the eyes as he looked at Matt. She made a point of walking over to offer her hand, though Matt's disapproval lent stiffness to her action.
"There's hot coffee," she said, resuming her seat. "The cups are in the box there. Feel free."
"Thanks," Jim said, his face softening into the suggestion of a smile. "I do." Ruth stifled a laugh of surprise.
"Have they told you," Jim said as he tipped the coffeepot to pour, "about the inscripted rocks up there on the mountain?"
"Inscripted rocks?" Ruth asked, confused as much by the Indian's manner and clear speech as by what he said. He was more than simply smart. "What kind of inscriptions?" A picture formed in her head of cowboys attacking the rocks with pen and ink.
"Figures people long ago made on rocks. Your people call them petroglyphs. I'll show them to you sometime if you want. It means this place was important once. Possibly a major hunting area. My own people had a strange name for it. Something like 'place where rocks reside.' Something like that but not quite. Maybe more like 'small rocks rising'. Some things just don't translate," he said.
From her two years at Sarah Higgins Academy, Ruth recognized the educated nature of his speechcurious in such a man. But underlying that was some kind of Indian inflection that moved his voice smoothly over words, blunting the sharp edges of sound the way flowing water rounds off sharp rocks. She looked at Matt, who was studying the man with a wary interest.
"So before the cowboys came here with their tin cans, there were Indians," Ruth said.
"That's true everywhere, isn't it?" Jim sat on a small flat rock next to the fire. "Good coffee," he said, swirling the liquid in his cup so that light from its surface scattered patterns on the pinyon branches overhead.
"You come down to house, Jim? Could use help." Olsen tapped out finished tobacco onto the ground and rubbed it into the dirt with one foot. "Go up for a load in the morning. Stay tree or four day." He returned the pipe to his shirt pocket.
"Thought I might. I'll catch a ride down with you, John. Spotted your truck from near the top."
"Why don't I leave that rifle with you, Ruth?" Matt said, his eyes on the Indian. "Come on. I'll instruct you." He got up and walked to her chair, reached out a hand.
Ruth allowed him her hand and followed him back to the truck. Matt seemed distracted as he gave her a lesson on loading the .22. When he showed her where the safety was located, he seemed unaware of how close his arm came to her breast. "I want to make sure you're safe," he told her, once the rifle was loaded. "I'll be back in a week. No telling who might wander by meanwhile. Here," he said, "I'll show you how to shoot it."
Picking up one of the cans Ruth had discarded from the pine, Matt placed it on top of a rock near the bank of the wash. As she aimed the rifle, he came up behind and reached both arms around her, snuggling the rifle into the crotch of her shoulder. "Now keep the rifle firm here. Line up those two sights on that can," he said, leaning in closer. She could barely breathe with the warm outline of his body fitted tight against her.
Ruth felt him suck in his breath. She closed one eye and lined up the sights so the can sat square in front of the two posts, fighting all the while to concentrate against the pounding in her body. "Now," Matt whispered, "pull the trigger." A great rush of blood swept to Ruth's head as she snapped back the lever.
The shot ricocheted from the cliff across the wash. The can flew off the rock.
"Good shot." The Indian's voice came from behind them. Matt stepped back, and Ruth turned to find Jim and John Olsen heading toward the truck.
"It wasn't hard," Ruth said, keeping all trace of surprise from her voice. She would not be flustered, though she couldn't help but be impressed with herself. So that's all there was to it; it pleased her to have so easily broken through one of the mysteries of the male world. She sashayed back toward her camp, taking the rifle with her.
Setting the rifle and box of shells inside her tent, she went back out to say her good-byes. Matt reached out the truck window as John started the engine. "See you next week," he said. "I'll bring up those supplies from the store. Maybe your twenty-two will be in by then." He gave her arm a quick squeeze when she came up beside him. "Be sure to keep that rifle handy."
"I'll be all right" Ruth said. She climbed on the running board and poked her head in the window. "Thanks, John. For your help. Your truck too. And tell Kate thanks for the food."
"We neighbor now, Rute. Maybe you crazy, but neighbor." Shaking his head, John put the truck in gear. "Up here ... all by yourself. Think you can move that boulder."
"I will move that rock," she assured him, though the truth was she'd forgotten all about her promise until he reminded her.
"Maybe John can loan you some dynamite," Matt said, laughing.
"Ya. We don't use the dynamite. We svedge the onyx." As the truck began to move, Ruth jumped from the running board and stood to one side while they backed onto the rut road. She gave a wave to Jim, who sat on the wooden flatbed, his back leaning against the cab. The Indian nodded, held her eyes as the truck pulled out and bumped on down the rough road.
Ruth watched the truck disappear around the far bend of Rocky Mountain, waited until the drone of motor grew faint. Grateful as she had been for the men's help, she had felt the canyon would not be fully hers until they were gone. When the engine sound faded into rushes of air playing in the pinyons, she lay flat on ground warm with March afternoon sun, nothing but a cotton shirt between her back and the place she had come to claim. Rough pebbles pressed into her skin beneath the cloth. Thin clouds spilled over the tops of the pine tree she had freed, its branches no longer encrusted with rusty tin cans. From somewhere an oriole strung a song through the air. She took in deep breaths of wildflower and pine and let the place seep into her, wanting the canyon to inhabit her as fully as she meant to inhabit it.
When her senses were saturated, she burst to her feet, stretched her arms above her head. "Mine. Oh, it's mine. Really all mine!" she yelled, then listened as her words bounced back from the bluff across the wash. Of course, the place wasn't quite hers yet. She still had to prove up on her homesteadto construct herself a structure out of the heap of building materials. And to move that damnable rock. She was required to stay three years in this place to make it hers. What sweet tortureliving here three whole years! Crazed with joy, Ruth cackled out into the quiet canyon, and the rock cliff across the wash returned the sound of her laughter.
When the echoes died, she walked over to the rock and studied it. As ridiculous as it seemed, there was something willful about that rock. As if it would moveor not moveall of its own accord. She climbed up on the saddleback of the stone, curved her legs around its cool sides. "Giddyup," she said, almost expecting to ride the boulder like a small pony out of the range of her cabin site. The boulder didn't budge. She knew it didn't want to move anywhere. She knew also that this place could never be hers until she had moved this rock from her chosen spot. She had traveled far to find this place, so many things had come together to bring her herethose months spent in nurse training that enabled her to come west, all the small details dove-tailing to bring her to this canyon. She couldn't let one rock stop her now.
Matt said she'd been lucky to get the building materials, thought it miraculous the way they'd come available the day after she filed her claim. The sixty-five dollars needed was exactly what she had left after paying the filing fees. She suspected it was destiny at workthough she hated to think the death of the Henleys' child and their sudden departure had come about in order to present her with the odd assortment of materials she needed.
Can-Tree Springs in Rattlesnake Canyon had been the last of the sites Matt had taken her to see, and even then he seemed reluctant. Not even he had thought a woman would be interested in homesteading such an isolated claim so many miles away from Juniper Valleyor he didn't want her to be. But the place did have water, Matt admitted. Ruth hadn't known herself just what she was looking for, but she knew the minute she found it.
They had followed an old mining road that wound around the base of Rocky Mountain and into the long wash that led up Rattlesnake Canyon, Matt's Model A bucking the rough road all the way up. In the first hour they surprised three deer and stopped to kill a rattler. Hawks and buzzards circled overhead. When they started out, Ruth had a qualm or two about the isolation, but the farther they drove the more at home she felt. The very wildness of the canyon excited her.
Some four miles up, the road cut through a long thicket of willows, and a small stream rose aboveground on one side. A few minutes later they arrived at a stone house tucked back on a flattened knoll. Goats galloped up and down the mountain, poked heads out from behind willows in the wash. "The Swedes' place," Matt said as he stopped in the road and set the hand brake. They would be her closest neighbors if she took the homestead, Matt told her, a mere four miles down canyon from her. The "Swedes" turned out to be John Olsen, his wife, Kate, and several men who slept in tents beside the stone house and hacked out a living mining onyx up the North Fork.
Excerpted from SMALL ROCKS RISING by Susan Lang. Copyright © 2002 by Susan Lang. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.