The Light in the Shadow

by Laird Roberts

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    Based on family oral histories.First Dad would pull ahead, then the Scot. With each sheep finished, the excitement grew. There was a lot more than prize money on the line.

    When I was growing up my father would go on the sheepshearing circuit. He took us with him, partially I think, because he didn’t want to be away from his family long, and also to keep an eye on me. The sheriff was still pretty upset about the bed-sheet-and-wire ghost he’d taken a couple of shots at after my friends and I floated it in front of his office at midnight, letting out a blood curdling scream for dramatic effect. It took years before he quit blaming every little thing that happened on me.

    Anyway, we would start in late January in Arizona and follow the spring north. By the time we reached Montana we would have enough money to get by for another year. That’s the way it normally went until we ran into bad luck one spring. I was 11 that year, and my sister Kathey was 13. The rain was coming down hard the day before we reached the last camp in our circuit.

    “Look at it come,” my mother said. “Have you ever seen it rain like this in all your days? I think a typhoon picked up the whole Indian Ocean and is dropping it on us.”

    My father leaned into the steering wheel and tipped his felt hat back. “Cal will have his sheep under sheds, but with it rainin’ cats and dogs and alligators like it is, there won’t be any shearing done today. What do you say to getting a room in a motel?”

    “I’d die for a hot bath,” said my sister Kathey, putting her hands behind her head, bumping me with her elbow. “Let’s get a room with a bath.”

    “What do we need a bath for? Just walking from the truck to the room will be all the bath anybody’d ever need.” My sister elbowed me again.

    “It’ll take more than rain to make you smell sweet again,” my father said, laughing. “I think all of us can use a good hot bath. Those cold showers at the camps just don’t do the job.”

    “Let’s make sure we get a clean room this time, no bedbugs,” my mother said.

    The rain made the Montana spring even greener. The air was cool and as clean smelling as anything you’ll ever smell. We drove by several motels, but my mother just shook her head. “Looks kinda run down. I’ll bet there are bedbugs.”

    The rain slowed to a gentle shower, and the sun dropped down from under the clouds. Blinding rays of hot sunlight burned through the rain, making the drops shine like diamonds. My father turned the truck off the road and stopped.

    “How’s this?”

    Mother wiped fog from the window.

    “Looks a little old.”

    “It’s been kept up pretty good.”

    “Let’s look at just one more.”

    My father shook his head and pulled back onto the highway. “You can’t always tell what a place will be like by the outside,” he mumbled.

    The rain had stopped, and it was starting to grow dark when we found a motel my mother liked. It was white with green shutters and looked new, like it had just been painted. The inside of the room was the same. It smelled lightly of the new paint.

    “I get the bath first,” Kathey yelled and shut the bathroom door.

    “After we get cleaned up good,” my father sank down into a chair, “how about we go back to that roadhouse we passed for supper.”

    “I’d like that,” my mother answered. “It’ll be nice to go into a place clean for a change and not have people turn their noses up at us.”

    Scrubbed until we were raw and smelled fresh as spring rain, we put on our best clothes and then drove over to Jack’s Dirt Cheap World Famous Truckstop and Post Office. We sat down at the booth feeling like we could pass for big city tourists on holiday. Jack, wiping his hands on a towel, came over and stood next to our table. He took a careful sniff, wrinkling his nose.

    “Sheepshearers, huh. What’ll you have?” I guess we laughed for about ten minutes straight, but not as long as we did when we got back to the hotel. My mother had just walked into the room when she started laughing.

    “Lloyd, you won’t believe this.”

    She pointed down into a corner.

    “Bedbugs,” she said with a big grin. “With green paint on their backs.”

    We slept in our tent that night.

    It’s been a long time since then but I can still remember the details of the shearing pens, the strong smell of the sheep and the sweating men, the steady soft rhythm of the machines, the men constantly moving, bent over the animals, the wool rolling off in great folds.

    There was usually one boy tying fleeces for every three or four men, but I worked only with my father. I was young but my father was also fast, shearing over 200 sheep on his best days.

    There was usually a contest, the men chipping in a quarter and the rancher putting up a five or ten dollar bonus, which my father almost always won. Two other men in this camp were also fast. One, a giant, big-boned Scot, worked right next to my father; and before the week was out it was their contest. They were both passing the other men by 20 sheep.

    On the last night, after supper, the big Scotsman lit a large cigar and leaned back.

    “Tomorrow,” he said, “I think I’ll be taking the bonus with me, and I’ll bet you a hundred dollars on it.”

    My father smiled and tipped his milk glass in a circle.

    “I’ll take another glass, Mama,” he said. He turned to the Scot. “Well, I won’t bet with you, but I will beat you.” He lifted the glass of milk and drank half of it. “You’re pretty good,” he said. “But I got the edge on a man that smokes and takes a drink. You won’t last in a hard contest.”

    The Scot looked at the cigar.

    “We’ll see about that,” he said. “We’ll see about that.”

    Cal Fredricks, the rancher, stood from his chair. “I’m upping the bonus for tomorrow.” He hesitated and rubbed his hand on his pants. He was a short, tough looking man. “To a hundred dollars, just to make things interesting.”

    Word got around. “The Mormon and the big Scot are going at it.” Before it was finished there were a hundred men and women and children watching. My father would pass the Scot by one and two sheep, only to have the Scot pass him a little later. They were tied for nearly an hour. Locked into a strange mirrored cadence, hands rose, coming down with choreographed smoothness, cutting thick folds of lanolin-rich wool.

    “One hundred and fifty,” someone shouted. “One sixty.”

    My arms began to ache and sweat streamed down my face, burning my eyes.

    “Three hundred for the Scot.” The Scotsman had broken the cadence and moved ahead one. Then my father did what I’d seen him do before. He picked up his pace and put all his reserve energy into it. Slowly he passed the Scot.

    “Three hundred and eleven,” the voice boomed over the drone of the machines and the crowd and the sheep.

    When it was over my father had won by only three sheep. The two men, breathing hard and drenched with sweat, collapsed next to each other in a pile of bundled wool.

    The Scotsman pulled a small handbag close to him. He took out a small box of cigars, opened it and picked one up looking at it. Raising it to his nose, he sniffed in a deep breath. Then he took the cigars into his hand and threw them out into the mud.

    “Next year,” he said grinning, “I’ll give you a real run for your money.”

    My father laughed, wiping sweat from his forehead with a red handkerchief. “We’ll just have to wait to see about that,” he said.

    The sun was low in the sky, and the air was cooling when Cal Fredricks came over to our camp. My father was sitting next to our tent. They shook hands, and then Cal took his wallet from his back pocket and began peeling off greenbacks.

    “Never seen anything like what you and the Scot did,” he exhaled the words of emphasis. “Nothing like it. It was worth the hundred. There’s a dance and a party a little later. You’re sort of the guest of honor. Your wife and daughter are welcome to come up to the house to clean up.” He turned and walked away. “What a contest. Never seen anything like it.”

    My father put the money into a small box with the rest of our earnings and then put the box under the seat of our truck and locked the door.

    The dance was a wild foot-stompin’, hootin’, Montana-sheep-man dance with plenty of fiddle players, fried chicken and, in our honor, homemade root beer. It was held on a wood platform on the edge of the grass and sagebrush prairie. The moon was monstrous and bright yellow that night; hanging low against the rolling hill it threw almost more light than the lanterns hung from poles around the platforms. I remember seeing the silhouette of a flock of birds fly across the moon. The air was cool, still edged with winter and smelling of the rain, cool enough to make you want to keep dancing for most of the night.

    To watch my father you would never have guessed he’d sheared 330 sheep that day. At about midnight, with the help of Cal’s son, I threw an entire carton of firecrackers onto the floor, just to quicken the pace of things a little. My father didn’t even ask any questions. He took one look at me and told me to go to bed and added that we’d be having a pretty serious discussion in the morning. I fell asleep with the music of the violins and the shouts of the dancers.

    “Bobby.” My father was shaking me. “Wake up.” I opened my eyes. It was still dark. My father was holding a lantern in his hand.

    “Someone broke into the truck. Did you hear anything?”

    I shook my head. “Did they get the money?”

    My father nodded as he turned and walked out of the tent.

    “Did you notice the truck when you came back?” he asked when I came out of the tent. I shook my head again. All of our money had been in the truck, all of it.

    I looked down at my bare feet. “Went straight to bed,” I whispered.

    My father hung his head for a few seconds and took a deep breath.

    “I’ll go up to the house and call the sheriff.”

    The money was never found. The next morning my mother came out of the tent carrying another small bag. She handed it to my father. He opened it and pulled a handful of money from it.

    “This is our tithing money,” he whispered.

    She nodded. “It’ll get us home, maybe buy seed for the farm. We can pay it back.” She had her head down. “It’s all we have.”

    My father looked down for a few seconds and then he looked up grinning. “Bedbugs with green paint on their backs. Come on, there’s something we need to do.” He started toward the truck. “Won’t take long.”

    We drove down into Helena where my father stopped the truck in front of a bank. He leaned on the steering wheel.

    “I’m going to get a check for this money,” he said. “And then I’m going to send it to Bishop Anderson. It’s not our money to decide what to do with.”

    I thought my father had lost his main drive bearing. He had to be crazy, sending the only money we had back to the bishop.

    What I remembered most about the rest of the summer was the terrible feeling of being stranded 700 miles from home. Work was hard to get. The shearing season was over. All the big sheep operations had finished their shearing. We took anything. We made a few dollars helping Cal bag his wool and load it for market. My mother took a job in Jack’s Dirt Cheap World Famous Truckstop and Post Office as a cook. Kathey and I washed dishes.

    My father found plenty of work, but where he had been making over twenty dollars a day shearing, he was only able to make one or two dollars for work that was just as hard.

    It was late fall before we were able to make our way back home, and it was several years before I would begin to understand what my father had done.

    I was driving a herd of sheep across the desert near the Nevada-Utah border. Several ranchers had put their herds together for the drive. It was summer, and there is a stretch of trail we were taking of nearly a hundred miles where there was no water. My father had not been able to make the trip with us, but he had given instructions on where to find a spring about halfway across. “It’s ten miles out of your way, but if you spend a day there you can make the crossing no problem. Don’t let them talk you into trying to push straight through.”

    It was hot, and the sheep were already hanging their tongues when we reached the place that my father had told us was the turnoff point to the spring.

    Tom Larson, a tall thin man, pulled his horse up next to me.

    “We’d better push on through,” he said. “Your father’s a good man, but I never heard of a spring, and if there is it’s gotta’ be dry as a horned toad’s back.”

    He looked out toward gray, lifeless hills to emphasize his point.

    “You’ll be losin’ your entire herd. If you push through, maybe a lamb or two.”

    But there was no choice. Back up a canyon a few miles from where we were, my father said there would be water, and I believed him.

    “You’ll be lucky if you get yourselves out alive,” Tom yelled as we turned my herd out from the rest.

    I thought about my father up there in Montana, 700 miles from home, sending his last few dollars to Bishop Anderson. There really was no choice then either. I thought about it as we moved silently up the terribly dry wash of canyon with only the sound of sheep’s hooves on the stones and the cicada hum. Bedbugs with green paint on their back—the people in that hotel, instead of keeping the place up, had tried to just paint over things. It looked good on the outside, but when you got inside it wasn’t. My father knew who he was and what he believed in, and he wasn’t about to become anything less. From him I learned to decipher the light from the shadows. The summer we’d spent in Montana had been a hard summer, but it had also been a good one.

    The sheep were too thirsty to make much noise, and the herders with me weren’t talking. I knew they thought I was crazy. They didn’t know my father like I did.

    We found the spring late in the afternoon about two miles up the canyon. It came from under a great granite ledge, cold and pure, and flowed down for a hundred feet and then disappeared into the gravel of the dry wash. My father had called it the spring in the shadows.

    Illustrated by Paul Mann