My Forty Years Scribblin's
The Outfitter's Girl Friday

Written in 1998 and accepted for publication in the October-December 1998 issue of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation's magazine Buglewith the title of Over the Hill. This is Mildred's account of Allen, Wally, and her packing out of The Bob at the end of the season.

Another season was over and done with at our camp on Otter Creek. 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 and one more monotonous day until my spouse, "The Boss," would be back with the empty pack string to break camp and get me out of here. Each year I dreaded this last lingering finish with little to do, no plan or preparations for an incoming party, and the sudden burst of enforced leisure was about to drive me wacky! For two months the parade of ten-day sojourners, sore backed horses and sore footed men to doctor, together with the endless cooking and chores around the place had left me little time to be homesick. Now, I wanted to see my kids. I wanted to go to town and just look, feasting my eyes like a kid in the candy store, to call my friends on the telephone, to hear all that had happened while I was away.

I found myself remembering the event of the season just past. Most were run-of-the-mill but some were good for a smile or two, such as the ointment I'd concocted when the harried Boss 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, thicken it with a dollop of boric acid powder—and stir 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. He had hiked all day in a pair of new boots.

Then, "Missus, do you have anything for this cut on the back of my head?" This man's high powered rifle had upended him and split the skin on a sharp rock. Out came the kitchen ointment. I thought it best not to mention that I had dipped my fingers in the same cup a week ago to heal their horses' saddle sores. Our wrangler jumped off a log and injured a leg rendering him unable to put a foot to the ground. I raided the nearby jackpine thicket and manufactured him a pair of crutches. The procession continued. Maybe sickness is partly a state of mind. My patients went back to the bunk tents comforted and on the way to recovery.

And then there was Vic. He came to me stricken faced. "I don't know what I'm gonna do. I broke my teef."

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.

Another sortie around the cook tent. I can't remember just how 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 twenty-five years later he greeted me unabashed and before an audience—"Remember when you fixed my teeth?"

Bath time was a hold over from the dark ages. The big cook tent belonged to everybody and our bed and belongings occupied a spot in one corner so I had to be certain there were no sore-footed stragglers in camp. Sometimes I just gave up and headed for the jackpine thicket across the creek, juggling a wash basin, towels and soap like a trapeze artist over a narrow footlog.

Periodically my reverie was interrupted. Was there a noise out there? Real or fancied, I grabbed for my rifle and set it handily against the bench. After all, my reason for being here just now was to keep the varmints from running off with the place when there were no men 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 in the wind it was time to go home. Now the tree stood naked in several inches of snow.

The creeks were rimmed with ice and I looked at my frigid bed and shivered. I had put two small rocks on the little barrel stove at supper time. They would make a tiny warm spot for my feet. I started reaching for anything that might generate some heat. It made quite a get-up, my night gown, a sweater, a pair of wool socks, my son's outgrown longjohns and the two hot rocks. I threw back the covers and blew out the light. OK, Glamour Girl—take a deep breath and dive in. If the night prowlers will just let me warm this pack horse load of blankets I can sleep the night away and be hours closer to home when daylight comes.

That last day inched by in slow motion. I packed what I could and sat by the stove—more waiting.

My spouse brought a neighbor to help us out with the camp. Wally rose with us to start dismantling. The Boss kept hurrying us, 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'd 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 had to give up and ride. Dusk set in as we neared Pyramid Lake and we weren't over the hill, not yet.

At the beginning of the season we had taken along two green-broke three-year-olds in case we ran short of pack horses and these 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 pack strings 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 wind ridden dusk. It was a great relief to hear an excited whinny somewhere behind me.

Now the men were over the top and started down. In the half light, I could look down 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 and the men were taking them apart and working them down two at a time. Enter Tony, the trouble maker. He had crumpled like a wet rag and caught his pack saddle on a knot 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 said Boss on foot and still three miles from the base camp. While the men struggled to get the pack strings back on track I sat helplessly waiting on my saddle mare and I soon found that only one frightened colt had come back from the ice and plainly—the other one never would. The going was easier as we descended but my head was full of that rending, cracking ice and a terrified animal's call for help. That memory will be with me for all time. My poor husband would not know about the lost horse until we reached camp. He had begun the season not fully recovered from an appendectomy and long days in the saddle, the long, hard climbs, hoisting the heavy packs had made these two months an endurance test. I shrank from adding to his troubles but there was no easy way—just say it. Already numb from the cold and fatigue he took it woodenly—just one more blow.

Down at last. My whole being was saturated with cold. I turned my mare over to the men and stumped into the tent and fumbled for a light and matches to make a fire. One thing I could do was to get some hot food into these guys.

Arriving home in mid-November was like entering a different world. September's green lawn and my strawberries ripening on the vines, all buried under nearly a foot of snow. All of a sudden it seemed strange to have a floor under my feet, windows to look out on the world, a rocking chair—and hot water. Forget the kid in the candy store. Just to be home again was enough for me.

We would have to hustle to get the camp gear cleaned up and put away before getting swallowed up in the holidays, but now, a five minute drive lets me look across the valley to see the storm clouds whirl around Pyramid Peak and I can say "Snow, darn it, snow all you want to. I'm over the hill."

Wally's comments concerning the trip were relayed to me later by a mutual acquaintance. He had said that I was put together with steel springs and rubber bands.

Although the tribulations are firmly rooted in my memories there was magic in those mountains in "The Bob" and I felt a sense of belonging that always made me ready to go back.