My Forty Years Scribblin's
Always Expect the Unexpected

This story was written in 1996 and published in the April 1996 issue of the Camp Robberand the August-October 1998 issue of The Rocky Mountain ElkFoundation's magazine, Bugle. Mildred has a night visitor while guarding camp.

One more ten-day session at the Chaffin hunting camp in The Bob Marshall Wilderness has just become memory. The time has come again for me and our little yellow dog Bob to guard the camp, keep it from being ripped apart by marauding bears while my husband, "The Boss" outfitter, heads back to civilization for a new party of elk hunters and a batch of supplies. Tom, our packer and guide, and seven departing hunters are already strung out for a mile up the trail, homeward bound with their trophies, meat and gear.

In three days, maybe four, The Boss will return, then another stint of sixteen-hour days, hungry hunters and doctoring sore-backed horses will begin. I am a "mother hen," the official courtesy and complaints department—sometimes called upon to patch up torn britches and skin, and always ready to listen sympathetically to the hunters' hard-luck stories and pretend to believe their tall tales.

While trying to keep his horse and packstring in line, The Boss reached down from his saddle to collect my grocery order and listen to various other instructions. The last of the cavalcade fidgeted on their pickets, not wanting to be left behind. He pocketed my want list, raised a hand in a goodbye salute and eased up on the reins. I raised my arm in answer, and brought it down hesitantly as I watched the last of the bobbing packs disappear behind the trees. The fading sound of hoof beats sounded so final. I wanted to yell, "Hey, wait for me!" But never did.

How many women, I admonished myself, would give their eye-teeth to spend two months in this little part of heaven each year? I buried my puny flurry of nostalgia and turned to the business at hand.

"Let's see now Bob, we've got to get this camp in order. First we'll clean the bunk tents and stock them with wood and kindling. Then we'll carry in some sawdust for the cook-tent floor. We'll heat some water and do laundry, and I'll carry in a supply of cook-stove wood. And if you were any good you'd go out and chop up a couple of blocks!"

My little furry friend was always agreeable. It was all the same to him. Whether I called him pet names or son-of-a-gun, he would answer with a thump-thump-thump of his stubby tail on the ground. If I picked up the rifle or the fishing pole all I needed to say was "lets go get 'em!" He would "woof" up into my face and his little hairy appendage would whir up a miniature dust storm. He was my protector, my alarm system and my main source of entertainment, never asking anything in return, just happy to be wherever I was.

With the camp work taken care of, Bob and I went down to Young's Creek to while away a few hours, turning over rocks, hunting for bugs, daydreaming. I didn't need any fish as yet, still had leftovers to do away with.

At last, supper time. Although the dog had food in his dish, he always wanted what I was eating, so I flipped him bits of my leftovers. The pieces he didn't like he took out and buried, the rascal. Then he came back, snuggling against my knee, while I sat at the table watching the flickering fire in the draft of the little barrel stove. Although it was Indian summer with radiant daytimes, the evenings were chilly and the morning sun rose to a blanket of frost covering the land. Now and then Bob's ears would stand up and his little pointed nose tilt toward some sound I failed to hear. I felt pretty secure with my dog and my gun. Maybe too secure.

"Bedtime, Bob," I said, and he trotted behind me to the tent. I crawled into my blankets and he went to lie beside the stove.

Cook and saddle tents at the South Fork camp,Far into the night I awakened to the sound of his growling. I fumbled for my flashlight and turned it on. Still groggy, I saw my dog standing stiff-legged, the hair on his neck bristling, showing his indignation. Now what? Then I saw the tent sagging under the weight of something heavy—right over my bed! That took the grogginess out of me in a hurry. I scrambled out of my bunk trying to recapture my battered equilibrium. If it were a bear it had to be a small cub, which meant Mama bruin must be somewhere nearby. Unhappy thought. But if it were a bear, my dog would be out there fighting for me. I had never seen him acting so strangely.

I grabbed for my rifle standing handily at the head of my bed, jumped into my overshoes and gave the offending thing a poke with the gun barrel. It solved nothing; the animal just climbed up to the top of the tent. Bewildered, and yes, maybe a little scared, I untied the tent strings and ran out the door. The dog darted out ahead of me and stood bristled and stiff-legged glaring up at the top of the tent.

Well, I'd been asked to contend with everything from a swarm of ants to yellow jackets, from mice to pack rats, from snooping bears to a bull elk that boasted of his prowess all night right by my tent, but this? This was something else!

Blinded by my light, a phosphorescent ball with a snout and two beady eyes sat peering at me—a full grown battle-ready porcupine with his gleaming quills standing out in every direction. He had found firm footing and was feeling his way along the ridge pole one step at a time, in defiance of me and Bob.

That explained the dog's strange behavior. Old Bob still remembered his youthful experience with porcupine quills. I went back inside and poked at the dark blob silhouetted against the night sky. The porky let loose and slid down the tent top, taking my stove pipe with him. I ran out to catch a glimpse of him behind the tent, but he was nowhere to be found. Seems we weren't the only ones who knew about the foot log for crossing the creek.

Old Bob and I went back inside: Bob to his favorite spot beside the stove and me to my pile of blankets to thaw off the frost. It didn't take long for the woman in me to come to the fore. I began wondering what I must have looked like out there in those uncounted miles, my hair all a-tussle, a rumpled night gown and overshoes, a gun in one hand and flashlight in the other. Poor old Porky, no wonder he was in such a hurry to get over the foot log!

As my astonishment faded, the whole ridiculous episode wrapped itself around me, and I gave way to a chuckle. And sure enough, from out of the darkness came a thump-thump-thump of a stubby little tail on the hard-packed ground.