My Forty Years Scribblin's
What You Don’t Know Won’t Hurt You—Much

The Bugle Nov/Dec 2000 by Mildred Chaffin

September—glory time in the backcountry, and I was "back in the saddle again." My spouse, better known as "The Boss," handed me the lead rope and stepped back with a gesture, "Head 'em out." In the days of my apprenticeship, he brought up the rear with his half of the string to watch that my packs were riding straight and to unscramble me if I got into trouble.

On this Indian summer day though, I had no thoughts of what might lie around the next bend, over the next hump or down through the weeks as they ran into months, until the punishing trip home at the season's end.

I caught myself nodding in the afternoon sun, while the miles unraveled beneath my horse's feet and I could finally look down the valley to the treeless hillside bordering our campsite. A long thin wail pierced the air— the war cry of the mountains: a bull elk belting out his invitation for battle. And the sound was coming from the very spot where we were headed. I turned in the saddle and shot a glance at my partner, and he nodded with a knowing smile. In years past I had taken to carrying an empty cartridge in my shirt pocket, hoping to coax a response from just such a critter. I let go a blast on the cartridge. Nothing happened. I tried again and got an answer. Excitement quickly washed away my drowsiness. We were going to have a welcoming committee! I blew another blast—and plainly he wasn't waiting to welcome us, he was traveling to meet us.

He didn't care what kind of noise I made, just so it kept coming. I was having the time of my life, and at last he answered from a little knoll right above the trail. We could hear him lashing the little trees with his antlers and pawing up the earth. The Boss yelled, "Put that thing in your pocket, or you'll have him down here among the horses!"

Well, I hadn't thought of that, but suddenly the woods went silent. Old Wapiti had discovered that he was plowing up the wrong forty. He pulled a sneaky out of that jackpine thicket without giving us a glimpse of his cantankerous hide.

Now there was only the squeak of saddle leather and hoof-beats muffled by the dust in the trail. And I was scooting around in my saddle, trying to find a soft place. After seven hours we were nearing our destination. The fun part, and my thrill for the day, was over.

Through the next few days we roughed out the camp: cook tent, saddle tent, bunk tents and woodpile. The coyotes performed their evening concerts, and the bears hadn't found us yet. On day four, the Boss headed back out with an empty pack string to pick up the season's first hunters. Now I would begin earning my keep as headquarters camp guard.

Our first hunters of the season were regulars and had proven to be a hardy bunch. The 10 days with us was their annual getaway. Among the group was a doctor who had set his sights on a certain kind of hunt for a certain kind of critter—one with a lot of fight and a trophy rack on top of his head. I heard the accounting of his hunt from the cook stove in the corner of the tent, while the knives and forks waved excitedly over the supper table, punctuating the unfolding of the day's events.

Some of the hunters already had their elk hanging up, and our packer and guide, Marvin, had taken horses to bring some men in the upper Babcock, a nine-mile ride from our camp on Otter Creek in the Bob Marshall. So Allen guided the doctor.

"The bulls were whistlin' all around us," Allen later recounted over the campfire. He and the doctor had tied up their saddle horses and gone slipping along on foot. One critter displayed a special interest in the Boss' musical ability, took up the challenge and began to make his way toward them. No immature warbler was he. He let loose his rage, and the threats he spewed forth in his grunting were unmistakable.

"You want him?" Allen asked. Doc nodded assent. "See how close you can get him."

The bull crossed a small opening, his nose almost to the ground. "His old horns were just a-rockin'," Allen remembered, "and his nostrils were blowin' fire. He stopped now and then to paw up some dirt, and the hair on his neck was standin' straight up."

"The bull jumped a little dip and stood lookin' for somethin' to gore. Doc's eyes were glued to that whopping chunk of elk, and I thought the guy was never gonna wake up. I had my gun ready because if he didn't shoot pretty soon, somebody was gonna have to!" When the doctor finally pulled the trigger, the bull fell right between them.

September's first hunters came and went, and more followed. October rode in on a cold rain, fair warning of a change of seasons.

It was only a matter of time until the old bruin found me, and he chose a time when there were no horse bells jingling, no shouts of men—no one in the world but me. Last year's black night-raiders had done nothing worse than raise a ruckus, pilfering my fish or whatever I was keeping cool in the icy waters of Otter Creek and keeping me and the dog awake all night. But this one meant business. I was baking for the coming 10 days' lunches, and the aroma of cookies wafted over the valley.

Suddenly the dog began to bark furiously. Uh-oh. I sensed trouble, got loose from some of the dough and reached for my rifle. Just ambling out into the opening was a great, big cinnamon bear—and he wasn't running from the dog either! Had there been somewhere to go, I would have been doing the running, but the spirit of some ancestor said, "Stand up and fight!" So I fired a shot over his head, and he turned and loped off into the timber. But he didn't seem very excited, not nearly as much as I was when I looked out to see him coming again. Clearly, scare tactics weren't going to do the job. So I let fly another bullet, this time for real. But the gun barrel was doing a half circle, and I suppose the shot landed somewhere between the mountains. Well, if he was determined to get into my cookie jar, I'd give him a run for his money—but it would be outside, where there was plenty of room.

With a couple hours of daylight left, I gathered a pile of wood and spread my bed beside it in the yard, along with a couple flashlights, guns, shells and a prayer for dry weather. As dusk arrived, the dog settled into his watchful vigil, the coyotes began their evening song, and I crawled into my blankets prepared for war.

But I misjudged my woodpile and it was used up by 11 o'clock. The critter didn't leave either, but the shots had made him wary, and the dog was letting me know where the bear was. It seemed that daylight would never come.

The next day I stayed outdoors as much as possible, banging things around, sawing wood—anything to make noise. Hang on, I told myself. One more night and one more day and the camp will be full of hunters, mighty hunters with guns. I could hardly wait. But what to do in the meantime?

I'd learned that sleeping in the yard wasn't the answer. Well, there was the "meat house," consisting of four corner posts set in the ground with cross poles every few feet to hang the elk quarters from. Each year we cut little green saplings to lay over it to shade the meat. A light went on in my sleep-deprived brain. This time I couldn't fail. I threw my bed up there a piece at a time, together with my gun, two flashlights and a box of shells. The clearing sky promised an October moon, and the closer that bear came the harder I'd shoot! I climbed on top my perch as night came on, and through all those hours of darkness the yapping of the dog and the persistence of the brush-cracking marauder kept me popping up like a jack-in-the-box.

I never did get a look at him, but he knew where I was! The little green saplings spread apart and my bed was sagging dangerously. By daybreak, I was hanging on by my hands and my heels and came down covered in an inch of frost, stiff, disgruntled and cured.

By evening, the men arriving with that hunting party looked like angels from heaven. And it was a labor of love to get out of bed and help skin out the critter after Boss shot my cinnamon bear, 40 feet from the cook tent, as he was perversely following the dog, who had tucked his tail between his legs and headed straight for the door!

November came in with more than a hint of winter in the air. There was an inch or two of snow on the ground when my man pulled out with the string that morning. This would be the final trip of the season, with two hunters coming in from Miles City. He waved a cheery goodbye and promised to be back in a couple of days.

The first day dragged to a tortuous end. On the second day, I flew at preparations for company. Meanwhile the weather was looking worse. Much worse. Come night, the coffee pot was hot on the back of the stove and supper needed only the finishing touches. I sat down to wait, and nod. But they never came. Something must have held them up, but I knew they'd be here tomorrow.

Tomorrow came and went, and I crawled into my blankets mighty worried. I knew that one man with 10 head of horses could run into a heap of trouble on a slick narrow trail. I had moved my bed into the cook tent and put it on the bench beside the table, with one side propped up by two orange crates. That way I could keep a fire to save my food from freezing. The little nuisance black bear that had been pestering must have crawled into a hole somewhere. Apparently he didn't like this weather any better than I did.

On day three, the tents were threatening to cave in, and I made the rounds beating the snow off them. All day my eyes were turned toward Pyramid Pass, and it was clear the weather up there was on the rampage.

Four days now. Night was bound to come, and at last I stared out into the blackness and let the tears fall. But I knew that wouldn't solve anything, so I calmed down and made myself do some rational thinking. If my man hadn't made it out, then he and those 10 horses were at the bottom of a ravine someplace, covered with snow. I tried to concentrate on what I would need to get out and look for him, even to the point of making a list, and all the time I knew it was worse than useless.

There were two other camps a short hike from ours. Come morning I would make my way down there and see if anyone was around. I knew the Cahoons were going to pull up stakes, but there was a chance the Murphys' tent would still be up. And maybe, just maybe, the Forest Service telephone would still be working and I could get a message to Seeley Lake. I got some comfort from that thought, crawled into my blankets and dropped off to sleep.

Sometime in the wee hours, I awoke to a scratching, crunching noise that sounded to my groggy ears like huge feet at the back of the tent. The blood congealed in my veins. Old Bob had declined to move into the cook tent with me, and now it dawned on me that he wasn't barking. For one guilty second I wondered if something had happened to him while I was deep in sleep. I reached for my gun and let out a yell, while I jumped into my overshoes, all the while expecting a big hairy paw to rip the tent wide open. At my yell the little yellow mutt burst through the door.

"Git 'im Bob," I hissed, with icicles racing up and down my spine. He made a jump or two then hesitated, as if asking what it was that I wanted him to "git."

Warily, around that tent we went but nary a track could we find. Cabin fever? No. I knew I'd been awakened by a noise. I added some wood to the few red coals left in the stove and crawled back into bed.

The scratching and crunching began again. I suspect the coyotes hadn't done their homework, and a hoard of mice had moved in with me and my food supply when the storm got bad. They had made a raceway between the wall and a frozen canvas I had placed there to keep my perishables from freezing. After things got dark and quiet again, they began to amuse themselves by running up over my bed—zip, scoot— across the table, jumping off, zooming around to the bed, and doing it all over again. More than once I detected tiny toenails in my hair. How ridiculous can you get? I was lying in bed, in the dark of night, batting myself on top of my head. Well, it was bound to happen. One little explorer worked his way down a fold in the blanket right under my chin. This was too much! I gave the blanket a violent toss.

I don't know where he landed, but I landed on my feet in the middle of the dirt floor. What to do now? No use putting my bed on top of the table—they were using that for a springboard. I lit the gas lantern hoping they would stay out of sight and let me be. Miraculously, everything quieted down. When I came to again, it was broad daylight and the old lantern was still standing guard.

By the time I headed for the other camps and Hahn Creek station, it had stopped snowing but was almost knee deep and light as feathers. Five big, shaggy cow elk came sidehilling down the bare hillside in front of me. Passing Cahoon's camp, it was a letdown to see they hadn't been gone but a day or two. Over to Murphy's next. Bare frames here, too. Well, there was still the ranger station with a telephone box on the porch. I rang every station on the instruction sheet, but there was no response.

Few people will ever know what a beautiful sight that little log cabin was, sitting there warm, protective, inviting. Logic was washed away on a wave of disappointment and frustration. At once I knew what I was going to do. I would get into that cabin one way or another... I could go to jail in the spring!

The going was slow as I dragged my boots back to camp, and I couldn't help daydreaming there'd be people and horses all over the place and smoke coming from all the chimneys. Needless to say, there was no smoke, no horses, no people.

I dug a piece of tin out of the snow, nailed some sticks around the edges and rope on the front. I intended to lash my foodstuffs to it and drag it down to the cabin where I could wait until somebody found me. I fed the dog and tried to eat supper. I was plumb worn out, and if the mice ran over me that night I didn't know it. Without a shred of hope, I had gone to bed without so much as putting on the coffee pot. Much later, something brought me out of the dark depths. I thought I'd heard a shout. I turned over and pulled the covers over my head. Mustn't let this thing get me down. I tried to shut out the tormenting thoughts. There it was again! I couldn't let myself hope. But when I parted the tent flaps and looked out into the night, there against the snow were the big dark shapes of animals and a muttering among the men. It took several tries to get a sound out of my throat, and the dark camp and no answer from me scared the daylights out of them.

An enforced layover accounted for their delay. The going had been tough, with the men breaking trail for the horses, up to their belt lines in the snow over the pass. The men from Miles City had turned back alarmed at the storm, and it had taken the cavalcade seven extra hours to get through.

We broke camp the next day, and the second day I made my first trip out over Monture Trail. Some of our neighbors and my brother-in-law had come along to help us through the ordeal, and we all spread our blankets and sleeping bags on top of the sawdust in the ice house at Monture Station, more than happy to be back near civilization. That was just one of the times that my husband declared, "If I ever get you out of here, I'll never bring you back!"