My Forty Years Scribblin's
Over The Hill

The Bugle Magazine July/August 1999 by Mildred Chaffin

It was 1947, and another season had come and gone at our camp on Otter Creek in the wilderness now named for Bob Marshall. The wavering half-light from the kerosene lamp struggled mightily to reach the far corners of my cook tent, and sparks from the wood stove shot little bursts of firelight through the open draft to dance on the nearby canvas walls. My mind wandered while I sat hunched on the bench beside the table, waiting out the interval. One more cold and lonely night in the wilderness and one more monotonous day until my spouse, The Boss, would return with the empty packstring to break camp and get me out of here.

Each year I dreaded this last lingering finish, with little to do and no plans or preparations for an incoming party. The sudden burst of enforced leisure was about to drive me wacky. For two months, the parade of 10-day sojourners—sore-backed horses and sore-footed men to doctor and feed and clean up after—had left me little time to be homesick. Now, I wanted to see my kids. I wanted to go to town and just look, feast my eyes on everything, like a kid in the candy store, and call my friends on the telephone to hear all that had happened while I was away.

I found myself remembering the events of the season just past. Most were run-of-the-mill, but some were good for a smile or two, such as the time I concocted an ointment for the harried Boss, who forgot his salve for the horses' blistered withers. A glob of bacon grease for a base, a goodly helping of disinfectant, a squirt from the tube of zinc oxide, then I thickened it with a dollop of boric acid powder and stirred the devil out of it. It didn't resemble anything I'd ever smelled, but it passed for horse medicine. I found it worked for humans, too, when one of the hunters came in to have his blistered heels bandaged after hiking all day in a pair of new boots.

Then, "Missus, do you have anything for this cut on the back of my head?" The man's high-powered rifle had upended him, and he split his scalp on a sharp rock. Out came the kitchen ointment. I thought it best not to mention that I'd dipped my fingers in the same cup a week ago to heal his horse's saddle sores.

"I don't know what I'm gonna do. I broke my teef," complained another hunter, hoping I had a solution. Well, here was one the kitchen ointment wouldn't fix. But I wasn't about to jeopardize my reputation!

"Let me see what I can do," I soothed, as I poked around the cook tent. I can't remember just how I did it, but I sent him down the trail to home the next day with his upper denture in place. When I ran into the man some 25 years later, he greeted me unabashed and before an audience with: "Remember when you fixed my teeth?"

When our wrangler jumped off a log and injured his leg, rendering him unable to put a foot to the ground, I raided the nearby jack-pine thicket and manufactured him a pair of crutches. The procession continued. Maybe healing is partly a state of mind. My patients always went back to the bunk tents comforted and on their way to recovery.

Bath time was a holdover from the dark ages. Though the big cook tent belonged to everybody, the Boss and I kept our bed and belongings in a spot in one corner, so I had to be certain there were no sorefooted stragglers in camp before getting undressed. Sometimes I just gave up and headed for the jack-pine thicket across the creek, juggling a wash basin, towels and soap over a narrow footlog like a trapeze artist.

Periodically my quiet reverie was interrupted. What's that noise out there? Real or fancied, I'd grab for my rifle and set it handily against the bench. After all, my reason for being in camp was to keep varmints from running off with the place when the men weren't around.

But all things come to an end. Beside my private biffy stood a quaking aspen sapling. I had watched it turn from green to gold in the October sun. When the last few frost-burned leaves fluttered to the ground, it was time to go home.

Now the tree stood naked in several inches of snow, and the creeks were rimmed with ice. I looked at my frigid bed and shivered. I'd put two small rocks on the little barrel stove at supper time, and now stuffed them in my bed to make a warm spot for my feet. Then I searched for anything that might keep the rest of me warm. It made quite a get-up: my nightgown, a sweater, a pair of wool socks and my son's outgrown long-johns. I threw back the covers and blew out the light. Okay glamour girl, take a deep breath and dive in. Now if the night prowlers will just leave me alone and let me warm up this pack-horse load of blankets, I can sleep the night away and be hours closer to home when daylight comes.

The next day inched by in slow motion. I packed what I could, then sat by the stove. More waiting. Finally, that evening, my spouse arrived, bringing our neighbor Wally along to help pack out the camp.

At dawn we rose to start dismantling. The Boss kept hurrying us, saying for the umpteenth time, "I want to get over the hill before dark." By the time we were ready to leave, I felt as though I had already done a day's work. As always, I turned in my saddle for a half-sad, half-glad look of farewell.

I walked at intervals to keep my blood from congealing. But the deepening snow tugged at my feet, and I soon gave up and rode. Dusk set in as we neared Pyramid Lake, and we weren't over the hill yet.

At the beginning of the season, we had taken along two green-broke 3-year-olds in case we ran short of pack horses, and they were following loose. And then there was Tony, a big handsome gelding without a brain in his head. Tony's owner had wished him on us to give him some experience, but the big lug would quit and lie down when he got us in a tight place.

Now the men with their packstrings had rounded a point and were out of my line of vision. Suddenly the two loose horses left the cavalcade and went out on the frozen lake. I called again and again, "Come back, babies, come back." But we had watered there early in the season, and the colts remembered. I dared not ride out after them. There was a muffled, rending sound. But by now they were far out, tails whipping in the windridden dusk. It was a great relief to hear an excited whinny somewhere behind me.

Now the men reached the top and started down. In the half-light I could look down to where the steep and crooked trail should have been, but the blowing snow had wiped it out. The string was above the trail and snarled in a jumble of boulders. The men were taking them apart and working them down, two at a time. Enter Tony, the troublemaker. He had crumpled like a wet rag, caught a knot on his pack saddle on a hidden log, and lay grunting and groaning as though his end had come. He couldn't get up if he'd wanted to, which he didn't. The Boss cut Tony's load off and tied it on his own riding saddle, which left the Boss on foot and still three miles from base camp. While the men struggled to get the packstrings back on track, I sat helplessly waiting on my saddle mare.

I soon discovered that only one frightened colt had come back from the ice. And clearly, the other one never would. The going was easier as we descended, but my head was full of that rending, cracking ice and the terrified animal's call.