My Forty Years Scribblin's
Epilogue
The Honorable Ruse

Unknown date by Mildred Chaffin


It wouldn't take much 'rithmatic to tally the folks around Lake Center not beholden to Ben one way or another. Never a family down on their luck that hadn't shared a chunk of venison, a can of bear lard, or a slab of bacon with the ruddy old lumberjack with the bushy white hair. Or maybe even a snifter to combat the grippe.

"Nothin' so good as a hot toddy to sweat out the mis'ries," Ben would say. "Into the soogans with ye now, and I'll keep an eye on the wood box 'til ye're able to handle the axe again."

Ben didn't keep contact with any kinfolks and it went without sayin' the time would come for us to return his favors.

"Old folks' home is all right for them as needs 'em," Ben claimed, and there was no mistakin' what he meant.

Ben's step was still kind of quick and nimble, like when he was ridin' the slippery logs down the wild rivers in the spring drives. But his barrel chest had begun to flatten and his riverman's voice was beginning to crack. He spent most of his time prowling the woods and he wasn't fooling any of us when he said he hadn't really wanted to bother with the orphan fawn, but hunger drove it out of the thicket where it waited for the old doe mother that never came back, and—well, it "Jist up and' follered him home," so he scrounged up a pop bottle, "borried" a nipple from Mrs. McGee, and saved its little spotted hide. The little fawn took to the bottle just like anybody's baby and Mrs. McGee couldn't have been more proud of all eight of her younguns. Ben called him "Scamp", and that summer Scamp sampled most of the posies and garden truck in Lake Center, including Ben's pansies in the dirt bank around his cabin. Come September, he found the school house and hung around to mooch the younguns' lunches.

"I hear tell that teacher used some harsh words to keep 'em from coaxin' him into the room," Ben grinned, tickled pink at the thought.

Well, hunting season was bound to appear. Ben went to town and came back with a chunk of red flannel.

"Got to put a collar on 'im so some trigger-happy poacher won't pot-shot 'im," he declared. But I never seen such a change come over anybody. He stopped by my shanty about noon one day and I put on an extra plate and asked him to set up. We was a-talkin' away, as if we hadn't spent half of last night together down at Jess Riley's bar. Ben spooned poor-house gravy over his spuds and forked a chunk of tender steak into his mouth. We'd been laughin' at some fool thing or other and all at once he turned kind of green.

"Something the matter, Ben?" I asked. He got up from the table and went outside to spit.

"Sorry, Tom, I jist can't do 'er. Too much like eatin' my brother." Him, that had lived on wild meat all his life! He never went hunting again. And he wouldn't eat deer meat ever.

Scamp was getting harder to keep tabs on. And if he'd hear a shot, you'd see Ben out in the woods, looking for that red collar and calling his pet. We took up a little collection to buy Ben a red shirt and told him to wear it. It wasn't the hill people we worried about; it was the "sooners" from town.

The second summer the little spike came and went just about as he pleased. Through hunting season he managed to tear up several collars and worried Ben to a frazzle. And that winter he found the logging camp down the river where Ben worked, before the company pensioned him off. The lumberjacks all knew about Ben's little buck and Scamp enjoyed a lot of handouts from the cookhouse. But he got a lot of teasing too, and by the time he was three he was slicked off jim-dandy and crankier than a timber man without any breakfast. He'd make that snorting whistle and paw dirt and bluff anybody he could. Not that he ever forgot Ben. There's a little bald knoll alongside Ben's cabin and every few days he'd come for a visit. He might even be up there in the moonlight, whistling and stomping and shaking his pretty little rack; and Ben would come out to see the show.

"Come on down here and say that, you rascal you!" Ben would shake his fist and laugh and the buck would stomp. I swear they understood each other, those two.

That last winter made an awful change in Ben. He seldom went down to Jess Riley's any more. He 'bout gave up keeping a collar on that rascally buck and like as not he'd hand me, or Hokey Blame, some change, "Mind pickin' up my mail and a can-a tobaccy?"

So it seems kind of provident that the buck came by his cabin the day before that last season.

Ben was near down with his mis'ries but he hobbled out and tied one more piece of red rag around Scamp's neck. Early that fall the company moved in a new man; a good man with the scaling stick and he had a wife and two-three kids. But, like Ben said, "They ain't our kind, Tom. That scaler feller don't look a man square in the eye."

Ben didn't know it, but Scamp had pawed up the earth and put their little girl up a jackpine tree and the whole bunch hated his innards.

On the openin' Sunday Ben stayed in his bunk covered to the ears and miser'ble in all his joints; but he heard that rifle shot just the same. Hokey Blame came hiking down the road about the time the scaler feller was backin' out his pickup, and Hokey, being such a sociable feller, leaned against the pickup and got set for a friendly kind of visit.

The scaler noticed Hokey seen the blood and deer hair on his shirt so he said, "Got me a doe already this morning. Sure puts me out of the shooting in a hurry."

"That so? Best kind-a meat though," Hokey allowed.

Hokey said the feller kept revvin' up his motor but before he got away this yella dog come around the house draggin' a bloody red rag. Hokey said he felt like he'd been slapped in the face with a piece of raw liver. Said that bloody red flannel turned his stummick right over and made him see other kinds-a red besides. Said the scaler set there defiant and sulky and Hokey stood there lookin' at him with hate and disgust.

"Well," the feller smarted off, "what you gonna do about it?" He knew Hokey wasn't gonna do anything about it. Just because Ben had raised Scamp didn't mean he had dibbs on him any more'n he owned the rest of the deer population.

Hokey came down to my shanty sizzling like a rendering pot, and we set there feeling might sick.

"What're we gonna say to old Ben?" I asked.

"I dunno," Hokey muttered. "But us bein' his first friends, we better get up there and tell it to him easy-like, 'fore somebody blabbers it out in cold blood."

Well, I seen right away, that Ben was pretty sick and when he asked me had I seen Scamp that day I'd-a lied or died tryin'.

"Why, yes," I blubbered. "He was out back of my shanty an hour or so ago." Hokey let out a long breath and poor old Ben settled back like I'd lifted a tamarack log off his chest. We made him a hot toddy and carried in some firewood, and on the way back I said, "Now we went and done it! How we gonna tell him the truth, after lyin' to him thataway?"

"I don't see why we gotta tell him," Hokey said.

"How you figger that?"

"Well," Hokey reasoned, "ain't no local folks aching to tell him. An' that scaler sure won't! Now, the way I see it, we can go around spreadin' the word and have ever'body tell Ben they seen Scamp, here an' there. Let the ol' man stay happy long as he can."

So, we went around spreading the word, and there wasn't one disagreein' soul. The McGees and the Dolans threatened to take the hides off''n their kids if Ben ever found out and the McGee, and the Dolan kids, bein' the toughest kids in town, they threatened the rest of 'em. Mrs. McGee told me Ben asked if she'd seen Scamp lately and she told him, "Well, I didn't actually see him but his tracks came right up there and ate off my yellow rose bush, so I'm sure he's feelin' his old impudent self." She didn't tell him that was over a year ago and Ben shuffled away chuckling.

Then one day when I'd taken him some bacon and "tobaccy" Ben called me back outside the door.

"Look-a here, what that Scamp done last night" he chuckled. "He just et up all them pansies I had planted here."

I looked... but the funniest feeling come over me. There hadn't been any pansies there since Scamp was a little spotted fawn, and the dirt bank was covered with four inches of snow! Sometimes he'd get worried. "I don't trust that scaler feller," he said to me. But somebody told him Scamp was hangin' around the loggin' camp and he brightened right up.

"He's a smart one that rascal," Ben grinned. "He knows what side his bread is buttered on."

I begun to notice the men wasn't talkin' to the scaler any more. And I see the women go in and outa each others' houses for their mornin' gossip sessions and the scaler's Missus wasn't with 'em. Then I heard the kids at school was harang'in their younguns something awful. So I guess I wasn't too s'prised when I passed their house one mornin' and there wasn't no smoke comin' out. And there wasn't no curtains, or no pickup, or no yellow dog. I went up and looked in the door glass to make sure, then I went hot-foot up to Ben's cabin.

"You won't have to worry any more, Ben," I told him. "The scaler feller took his fam'ly and left."

"Ye-ah-h? Where'd he go to?" Ben was right interested.

"Uh, back," I said. "Back where he come from."

"Hmm. Maybe he wasn't such a bad feller after all," Ben allowed. "A feller as can go back to where he come from."

Well, one mornin' when I looked there wasn't any smoke liftin' out of the jackpines where Ben's cabin was. I got a mite worried and went up and pecked on the door. He didn't answer so I pushed it open and went in. He was settin' at the table with his head on one arm. His breakfast pancakes was stone cold and he had spilled his cup of coffee when he layed his head down. But he never knew it. I got the rest of the fellers and we made up a citizens committee to go through his stuff. He had a little money in a "tobaccy" can. The neighbors pitched in and we burried him nice, if I may say so.

Me and Hokey still go down to Jess Riley's of an evenin', to have a little nip with the fellers, and swap lies. Often as not the conversation gets around to our old friend, Ben. And some of the fellers swore it was so, but I didn't believe it either 'til I seen it myself... a slick young buck and a old lumberjack a walkin' the skyline together.