When the government opened the Ute Reservation for homesteading, John Mason stood ready. He hightailed to a scrappy lot of sagebrush and weeds just twenty miles from the New Mexico territory. He was done mining for the Syndicate Mine. He was ready to be a farmer.
So he started to build his Sunnyside farm there in the foothills of the Rockies. He and his boys dug a mud hut into a hillside, a temporary home until they could build a house, and John sent for Eli Burnham, the diviner. Eli came with a forked branch he’d taken from below his own fertile peach tree. He held the branch loosely, palms down, thumbs turned in, and walked the acreage John Mason had cleared. Mason’s younger kids tagged along.
Eli’d been at it an hour when the branch gave a decisive jerk. He was at the far edge of the property, just pivoting for return. “Here’s water,” he said. The branch fairly writhed.
“Doodlebug, doodle, doodlebug,” one of the littles sang.
“How does it work?” another said.
“Won’t work if he tells you.”
“Go tell your pa. Tell him only ten feet down.” They scampered off.
It had been a wet spring. Three miles west, the Animas was still breaking its banks, and beyond it, snow capped the La Platas. To the east, Eli could see the silvery threads of John’s good luck in the patchy ice on Florida Mesa, where the government had put the Utes. The underground streams would run high, an auspicious beginning for John Mason and for those who would follow, because John surely wouldn’t be the only land grabber. He was just the first.
“Mr. Burnham.” Eli turned to see Dave Mason, John’s weedy fourteen-year- old, loping toward him. Dave was the fourth born of eight living children, the third son. “Pa wants to know can’t you find anything closer?” Dave said.
A shadow crossed the diviner’s face. He could see John across the field, standing in the shade of a cottonwood tree. “Who’s John Mason to ask for more when many get none?” Eli thundered. Dave stared at his feet. If John heard, he made no sign.
Eli took off his hat. He wiped his forehead then put the hat back on.
It was the children who gave him pause. It would be a trek from here to the hut, and it would be the littlest kids hauling water. So Eli palmed the branch and started again.
Dave thought the diviner looked like an out of work undertaker, dressed as he was in a dirty white shirt and a swallow-tailed coat. He wore no collar. His pants might once have been black but were road weary and dung colored now, and he wore his hat turned down all around.
John’s wife, Ziphora, did not come out to watch the witching. A devout Methodist, she believed what the Old Testament said—that divination was the devil’s art. In the hut, she prayed, “Keep us free from sin, protect us in the hour of temptation,” while she knotted rope to lengthen Dave’s hammock. Dave had sprouted this year and was as tall as his father. He slept outdoors in the hammock. Dave wouldn’t sleep in the hut. When the boy was five, John locked him in a closet to cure him of whining. Now he had a terror of closed spaces.
In the heat of the afternoon, Eli’s branch shook again. He had been half asleep, dragging his feet. He stood still and let his eyes confirm what his hands doubted. A tiny shiver. He was just a stone’s throw from the hut.
“Twenty-one feet down,” he called.
John Mason stepped into the soddy doorway, his shirt untucked. Eli saw whiskey’s gloat in the tilt of John’s head.
“Not twenty-two?” John said smiling lazily.
“Twenty-two, maybe.” Eli slipped the branch into his saddlebag. “No more.” He swung up and tipped his hat.
Hearing him go, Ziphora bit her tongue and did not offer him something to eat, as she ought.
It would be a busy year for the whole family. To hold the claim, either John or Ziphora had to stay on the farm, but somebody had to work for pay, so they divided up. For the rest of the summer, Ziphora, her oldest girl, Liz, and the littles went back north to Rico, where they rented a house and Ziphora laundered miners’ shirts, a nickel apiece. John kept the boys with him. He put his eldest,Will and Jim, to digging an irrigation ditch. It would be all pick and shovel work through rough-side hill out to the river. Dave and ten-year-old Edison he put to grubbing sagebrush and harvesting cedar. By September they had thirty cedar logs, enough to timber both wells, because by god they’d dig two. The far one they’d rent out to tenant farmers. “We’ll play baseball while they work,” John told his boys.
When Ziphora came back, John soldiered up for one last winter in Rico’s Syndicate mine. He took Dave along to do for him.
They caught the train in Durango, rode boxcar class. In Rico at their rented house,Dave hung his hammock between two aspen. His father said, “You ain’t sleeping outside. Freeze your ass up here.” Rico was 9,000 feet high, and anyway, they’d be living in a house, not a hole in the ground. But Dave acted deaf, like he knew better. “Suit yourself,” John said, then laughed that night when the blue-faced child came shivering in.
What Dave did for his father? Got up at five every morning to build the fire and grind the coffee and start the mush and get the wash water ready. Get the pit clothes from in back of the stove where they were warming, and put them right beside his father’s chair. Get beer, get wood, get coal, chop wood to fit the stoves. Peel the taters, fry the taters, get more beer. Sweep the floors,make the beds,wash the dishes, dig out bats. In November, they’d caught two wild burros pulling siding off the house to suck out hibernating bats.
He befriended the burros and called them Deck and Salon. He’d never known burros to eat bats, but Deck and Salon went wild for them. Dave started prying the bats out so the burros wouldn’t tear the house down. Then they got lazy and wanted to be served. They’d stand at the window and bray for bats. Dave felt sorry for the bloodsuckers, all rolled up in little furry balls, but Deck and Salon had to eat.
At night, Dave fell bone-tired into bed. John sat up sipping hooch and talking to himself. “Best thing the government ever did, opening up the Indian land… Two underground springs! Leave this bat-ridden house, don’t look back. Leave everything… Furniture, not worth a dime. Buy a coach seat home. Buy one for the boy.”
John generally felt well disposed toward Dave that winter. He often told him that he kept the house so well he would’ve made a good girl. A couple of times, thinking he’d give the kid a holiday, John closed Dave’s bedroom door at night, planning to get up quietly in the morning and make the fire, though John never woke up first.
Those nights, Dave startled awake when he heard his door close. Suddenly, his breath came hard, his head began to pound, and then would come those suffocating thoughts. He was almost a man, not a little girl, and this was not a coffin, it was just a room. He would tell himself, turn over, go to sleep, but he stared into the darkness until he heard his father’s snores through the tarpaper wall. Then, in shame, he’d open the door again.
Spring brought the news that the Syndicate was closing down. Bad news for many, not John. It seemed fitting that as he left the mine for good, it left, too. John bought himself that coach seat on the Durango train. Dave he put on a borrowed horse. The boy had showed surprising initiative. Got hired to herd the Syndicate’s unemployed burros down the mountain. The job filled Dave with joy and fear. It would be his first paying job.
In Durango, John took a turn at the saloons, then continued on to the farm, picking his way along the river, though he didn’t recognize the path. Somewhere, he’d lost his coat and hat, and the leather on his right boot had pulled from its sole—pulled from its sole on the River of Lost Souls, the Animas. He laughed when he thought of that, and coughed and coughed, black Syndicate phlegm pouring out of him and leaving him on his knees in the mud, staring under bushes, wondering how much time he’d lost. Certainly, the days were longer now than when he got off the train.
When the taste of water no longer made him vomit, he began drinking from the river. Holy water. He believed in God, but he did not care about him because God didn’t care about him, never had. If God cared about him, why was he walking home hatless under the hot sun?
He came upon a fisherman. The fisherman took pity on him and gave him a fish. He came upon a wolf eating the carcass of a deer. The wolf sneered and John sneered back, and they both went about their business.
He began to recognize the landscape. The flattening of the land as the mountains fell away. A cottonwood grove. At the Sunnyside wagon trail, he left the river and started the three miles home. A ways up the slope he saw an overturned wagon. Its whippletree was busted, and there were empty water barrels strewn all about. The picture was like part of the walking dream he’d been having. Thinking back on it after he passed, he recognized that wagon as his own.