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Drawing Lines

Russell Rowland

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When you drive along these roads, whether it’s the four-lane highway, the narrow strip of asphalt that takes you from one 200 person town to another 200 person town, or the gravel road where people still erect a finger or two in greeting, you think to yourself that there’s more than enough for everyone. This land stretches out in every direction, naked and vulnerable, in a way that makes it impossible to not fall in love. And there’s just so damn much of it.

And yet there are lines. Lines you can’t see. Lines drawn on a map somewhere that tell you not to stop along that road and get out of your car, hop that fence, take a walk and smell that deep, rich grass. Dip your hands in that stream. And it’s the ones who draw those lines that decide whether we get to walk here, or here, or here.

The Natives didn’t understand ownership. We handed them pieces of paper and pointed out where the lines were and they thought the whole idea was absurd. They knew that none of us really own anything. They probably didn’t even take it seriously at first, these papers with lines. So when we offered $24, a handful of beads, a week’s supply of meat, it seemed like a good deal. Because we didn’t really mean they couldn’t come on the land again forever, right? Because there really seemed to be more than enough for everyone. Wasn’t that obvious?

Until the guns came out when they crossed the lines. And suddenly they realized, Hey, these guys are serious about these lines. They’re not messing around!

It’s that kind of sneak attack that always gets us in the end. It’s the way they tell you what you want to hear, offer a few tokens while they’re drawing these lines behind your back. They’re clever that way, being able to create such beautiful lines. Lines you’d never think were possible.

Russell Rowland is the author of three novels and one work of nonfiction, Fifty-Six Counties: A Montana Journey.