My Forty Years Scribblin's
You Canít Smell A Rat If They Ainít Any

The Trail, Eureka, MT Spring 2000 by Mildred Chaffin

It is hard to say anything about Mildred Chaffin without saying a lot. A short introductory note like this is intended to be comes out sounding more like a list. She was born to a poor homesteading couple in Evaro, Montana in 1908, and like so many of their kind, came to understand deprivation and doing without better than most ever can or will. She married a railroad man at 15 and lived the life of a nomad, moving here and there on freight train, always with a baby and a growing passel of children. Her first husband died in a railroad accident in the middle of the Great Depression, leaving her with five children to raise.

It happened that she was an accomplished cook, especially under less than ideal conditions, and she performed in that capacity at a variety of jobs—Forest Service work camps, school lunch, guest resorts. Along the way she married a man who was more at home in the mountains than in an easy chair. For 18 years she and Allen ran an outfitting business in the Bob Marshall Wilderness. She had enough experiences in there to fill a book and she has done just that.

Her book Scribblin's details many of those stories. She has several other smaller books, including two cookbooks. She has also published dozens of stories in the Montana Journal. She wrote the following unpublished piece 25 or 30 years ago. Her father was a logging camp man and much of the lingo, such as, "Holy ol, Mackinaw," came straight from him.

He was middlin' tall and middlin' thin. He was middlin' homely and middlin' slow and he was youngish. He went down on Comstock-McCone Logging company's books as Lincoln Burton, but for the better part of six months he'd been known by the bunkhouse population as, "that lazy bastard in the corner bunk." Consequently, when the unpopular subject slid out of the company's war surplus 4x4 at the new bridge camp dragging his gear behind him, old Jake Littleton, the camp boss, was a little chagrined.

"Oh my gawd, J"ake groaned, "I thought we was rid of him after he sprained his ankle. Here we ask for an extra man on this bridge job and this is who we get."

Al Dexter, the straw boss and "Parson" Billy Graham, left the rough camp table and came out of the tent to stand beside the salty old camp boss. "How does Miss Janey 'spect us to wrap up this job before freeze-up with help like that?" Al's whiskered jaw was set in abject disgust.

"I don't know," Jake declared, "but we've got to get this skeleton camp up before we leave. Every hour's gonna count when we come back next spring. This bridge has to go in before the high water hits."

Al agreed. "No bridge, no timber. No timber, no more Comstock-McCone Loggin' outfit." His eyebrows drew into a frown. "And the old man'll bust right up through that sod an' boot the devil out'n us if we let a thing like that happen to Miss Janey."

"Just the same," put in "Parson" Billy, "it might be a good thing she took up school teacherin'. Men in general don't like workin' for a woman; not even one like Miss Janey Comstock."

"I reckon there'll always be enough fellers to keep the outfit in business," Jake said. "Comstock-McCone always pays good."

"I just hope ol' McCone's neffy gets out here so we can drill some timber savvy into him before they pension us off." Billy nodded toward the new arrival. "Maybe he'll work a little harder with ev'ry night gettin' colder and ev'ry skiff of snow layin on a little longer."

"That's the trouble," Jake said. "He don't know enough to worry about the weather."

"Well, if he won't work, maybe we can have a little fun with him," Al said hopefully. "Tain't no fun to needle somebody if he won't hit back. And after the way we worked on him last summer..." Jake shook his head hopelessly. Meanwhile, the object of their contempt remained outside holding a two-way radio that he was always fiddling with.

"I think he's improved a little," Billy said. "Remember how soft and pasty he was when we first got him?"

"Takes more'n six months of sun to bake any spunk into a carcass like that." Jake argued.

"I'd like to see him get mad; like to see what he looked like just once," Al put in.

"1 think he almost did," Billy reminisced. "You didn't see him the day he yanked the handle off his lunch pail after you nailed it down on that stump. Nor the time you glued the pages of that magazine together that he was always dreamin' over."

"Come to think of it," Al remembered, "he did turn a little white around the mouth the time Parson switched eggs on him. I thought I'd bust when he started to peel that raw egg into his lunch pail."

"No self-respect." Jake wagged his head. "He just ain't got no starch in his back bone."

They watched as the newcomer gathered his knapsack and sleeping bag and headed for the foot bridge that crossed the creek into camp. "Parson" Billy put the beans and potatoes back on the camp stove. Al reached for another enameled plate and eating utensils.

"What's new?" Jake inquired when the young man entered the bunkhouse.

"Nothing much," he answered.

Little was said during the meal. Afterwards, Jake sent him out to draw several buckets of water to help with the cleanup. "Ain't no use tryin' to work him along with us," he said to Al and Billy. "The thoughts of strainin' himself always starts him polishin' his glasses or diggin' cordwood out of his boots or somethin'. I'm gonna hand him a draw knife and put him to peelin' them stringers and timbers we cut yesterday. And by the Judas priest, if he don't finish the job by the time we're' ready to go, he walks out."

The next day the sky threatened a change in the weather. The three bewhiskered old-timers performed like a well-oiled machine from daylight to dusk, never laying eyes on the young man who was off by himself peeling logs. When he arrived in the tent just before supper, they laughed when they saw the seat of his pants. A coating of sap covered his rear end.

"Looks like you been scootin' the bark off them timbers with the seat of your britches," Al observed.

Again, the young man spoke very little during the meal. Again he went out to fetch water afterwards.

"I wonder if the prospects of a seventeen mile walk out is speedin' him up any," Billy speculated.

The next day pole frames for a temporary rag camp were set up and braced against heavy snows.

An out back building was readied. Cable was strung over the water at the intended bridge level that might be all-important as a safety and connecting link in the race between the loggers and high water come spring. Jake worked with one eye on the weather.

"Give us one more good day," he said to no one in particular. "She'll be all ready for the canvas, then the crew can go to work when they get here and the cook and flunky can take care of the rest."

"If we get a real freeze tonight, hell or high water won't take the bark off them timbers," Al ventured. "What will mama's little helper do then?" He hunched his shoulders against the wintry wind.

In the morning of what was to be their last full day, Jake poked his head outside. Tiny flakes fell from an overburdened sky. "This is it," he stated. "We've got to get out before the road gets plugged." The three old-timers set about packing their gear and folding up camp.

Mama's little helper seemed anxious to get out of their way, heading out to his job. Ax blows punctured the air as the three old hands cut up a pile of wood to leave for the day they would come back in the spring. This was no fall warning. By eleven o'clock the air held a definite feeling of winter. Jake let out a bellow toward the unseen bridge timbers piled behind a lodgepole pine thicket, but the young man did not appear. The chill deepened. Icy fingers crept out from the water's edge.

"He can't be gettin' anything done out there," Billy said. "He must be froze into the sap."

They carried the boxes and bundles of camp gear to their vehicle, then Jake started purposefully to where the bridge timbers were piled.

"What do ya s'pose Jake'll do?" Billy wondered.

"He'll make him walk. Guess you ain't known Jake as long as I have," Al said.

Jake came stomping back from the thicket. "He ain't there!"

"Ain't there?" the other two said in unison.

Jake went to the piled bedrolls and knapsacks. "His gear ain't here either. He must'a taken it when we went to cut wood."

"Could he be walkin' with all that stuff he had?" Al wondered aloud.

Billy put in his two cents. "He didn't have the timbers peeled so he just decided to hoof it into town."

"That's where the rub comes in." Jake snapped. "they're all peeled."