My Forty Years Scribblin's
Beginner's Luck

An outfitting story written in 1996 and submitted to The Montana Magazine in 1997. Although they didn't print her story, the editors wanted an interview with Mildred.

They must have had a name, those two, but we still remember them as "Those Nice Old Guys From California." Of course we had a number of nice old guys from California—and elsewhere, but most of them had some experience behind them. These two didn't. When I saw them crawl off their horses at our hitching rack I felt a little pang for my husband, otherwise known as "The Boss," for the thought came to me, "those two are going to be hard to get to where they can shoot an elk."

They'd read all about it, mostly thrills and glamour stories, but the transition from the city sidewalks to a spider web of game trails was like plunking them down in a foreign country. After a day's rest they made several sorties into the hunting areas, coming in at night somewhat the worse for wear and not having seen anything that looked like big game. They were not complainers. They rubbed their sore spots, poked fun at themselves and swapped wise cracks with the other hunters but their little excursion was fast becoming just a learning experience. They found that they couldn't keep pace with the younger, more experienced men… "By the time we can afford a trip like this we're too old to climb the mountain." I could see that their expectations had taken a turn for the worse and I was determined to see that their trip would not be a total washout. I furnished the best meals that I could manage and went out of my way to see that they had as many comforts as possible, a fire in their little barrel stove and hot water to wash up with when they came in, hot coffee in the cook tent any time of the day and cheerful conversation whenever the situation called for it. I felt badly that their first attempt at big game hunting was turning sour.

Tom, our packer and guide, was taking a group into the head of Babcock creek for a day-long foray but our "Nice Old Guys" dropped out of the brigade, knowing the trip would be long and taxing. By now they knew how to get their horses back to camp and were apt to come riding back at mid-afternoon. They knew a spot along the trail where they tied their horses and sat on a log, eating their pocket lunches and holding their private discussions, just plain killing time. Each had a whistle, an elk bugling instrument as per wildlife magazine instructions, so now they started tootling and laughing at each other and then, surprisingly, there came an answer from up the creek. Scarcely believing, they knew from the tales they'd been told and the stories they'd read that it was the battle cry of a bull elk! One would blow his whistle and they would wait for an answer. Then the other would blow and they would wait for an answer. The bull was coming nearer, jumping deadfalls and snorting his anger. They could hear him raking the trees and saplings—the rattle of his antlers looking for something to gore. It was getting scary. Then the brute walked out of a thicket, jumped over a downed log and stood looking for the culprit that was challenging him. He was plainly "on the prod." The shooting started and the critter went down. But he refused to stay down. They both shot again, making connections part of the time, shooting until there was no more movement. Now they looked at each other and drew a deep breath. They had a job to do! The fun was all over—or was it? They worked their way over and under the downed timber and hunted until they found their elk. If they hadn't been so hyped they would have been dog tired.

Loading up at Morrell Creek for another ten-day stay at the South Fork camp, about 1947.Back in camp that night our hunters were like two kids at Christmas. Their dejection turned to elation. The other men had had no luck and our two nice old guys were the camp's heroes.

That had to be the deadest elk in The Bob Marshall Wilderness. They not only killed him in Babcock creek, they killed him all over again at the supper table and from all the noise and laughter coming from that direction they must have done it again before lights out in the bunk tents, not to mention all the way back to California! The Boss groaned when they described the place where they downed him. Seems that they couldn't have picked a worse place to get him out of, an old blow-down, too high to go over and too low to go under. They would have to use a chain saw to get the pack horses to him.

"Did you blaze a trail back in?" he asked.

"No, but we marked the place. We laid two sticks crossed on a log." There was only one thing wrong with that—when they went back next morning the couldn't find the log! The Boss combed the area, scrambling over down timber and otherwise wearing himself out before he stumbled upon the kill. Sure enough, right there also, was a rotten log with two sticks lying crossed on top. They had done an acceptable job of dressing it out and even had a tag on it although they would never know which one had killed it, and they didn't seem to mind that their prize had a few extra bullet holes in it.

The day before they were to leave for home they sat upon a hillside of an Indian Summer afternoon and watched a big brown bear digging for grubs a safe distance below them. Thank goodness, they were afraid to shoot at him—with their degree of experience and no expert help at hand. Just one more piece of luck that some of our regulars would have given their eye teeth for.

I was glad to see them go home happy—their first and obviously their last big game hunt had ended satisfactorily. They would have tales to tell and meat, hide and horns to prove it. It was just plain "beginner's luck" for two nice old guys from California.