I got an early start on Tuesday morning. Jack Hill did not.
Before heading out on the Missoula run, we had a breakfast meeting with Jennifer Trace to discuss the new machine shed. At 6:07 a.m., as Sissy and I were heading out the door, Carolyn West called. Said Hill had crashed early the previous night, gone to bed around 7:00 p.m.. Still wasn’t quite fully awake and with it yet. He’d have to skip breakfast, with apologies to Jennifer, but believed he could be up to facing the world by the time I was ready to head for Missoula.
Let’s hope so, I thought. The initial report back from Jack’s contacts should be in by now. He needs to be there.
Guess when you’re more than 250 years old, a twelve hour day of cave exploration and single jack mining might be enough to wear you down a bit. He’d handled that shift just fine–or so it had seemed–and gotten through Monday reasonably well, at least as far as I knew. Just pushing himself harder than your average bear, which he most certainly had a tendency to do.
I wasn’t about to admit I was worried, even to myself.
The Traces had accumulated dozens of pieces of old farm machinery during their time on the ranch. Now that Sam was gone, Jen had decided to pull all of that together under one roof. Not the working tractors and haying machinery, and certainly not the big Allis Chalmers combine. Those would all stay parked in and around the main shop situated a hundred yards or so to the east of the house.
Only the older stuff, from a rusted-out potato picking machine made in the 1940’s to horse drawn mowers, plows, and harrows…all of that would go into the new structure. There was so much of it that the widow Trace was planning to have each and every piece refurbished–within limits–and then put on display. Sort of a back country museum.
That’s the word she put out for public consumption.
In truth, the “new machine shed” was a huge pole barn built up, over, and around the little cave entrance cabin. Even before the roof was finished, the hands were pressed into service, plucking ancient iron from weed patches and hidden hollows scattered hither, thither, and yon.
For good reason, the ordinary ranch hands had no idea of the oversized shed’s true purpose.
Once all that antique steel was in place, the cowboys would go back to their usual tasks, getting ready for spring branding and vaccinating, selecting stock for the Miles City Bucking Horse Sale–at which bucking bulls were also sold, these days–checking fence lines for the summer pastures, and the like.
We of the warrior persuasion would be tackling another project altogether. B.J. and I figured to weld through the night hours, with the shed’s doors closed and the windows shuttered to keep light from seeping out, though we’d of course have ventilation fans going. My uncle and I were master welders; the job shouldn’t take us more than a single sleepless shift.
Using all those steel-laden machines as cover to confuse any possible surveillance, we’d encase the cabin in half-inch steel plating, just as we’d done with the basement for the main ranch house. Then another layer of logs would be applied, inside the steel.
The reworked cabin, totally hidden in the back of the machine shed, would then acquire a full time occupant: Horace the tracker. The old man had finally gotten rid of his full leg cast, and he was raring to go.
Horace, Portal Guardian.
He was looking forward to it. Until now, he’d been staying in a little shack that sat off to one side of the main bunkhouse. This, he assured us, was a much better deal.
“Hell, Tree,” he grinned, spitting a stream of Beechnut juice at a patch of melting snow, “It still hurts that I lost the boss, but even so, I dang near held my own against the bad guys with no cover at all. Let ’em show up now! I got a shed full of machines where I can play hide and seek, then a fallback fort-box cabin with half an inch of steel sandwiched between nearly two feet of logs. They ain’t getting in, no matter who comes at us. Don’t care if it’s the U.S. guvmint or the Stinky Low Cartel boys; with this setup, I can hold ’em off long enough for the cavalry to arrive, for sure for sure.”
Horace, it seemed, was in no rush to build his retirement cabin on Jack’s land.
To give him an extra air of legitimacy, a reason to stay close to the portal day in and day out, he had a new official job description. It would be up to him to start fixing up all those rusty old hunks of junk, turn them into precious bits of Americana. In fact, he’d already started, selecting a scythe that looked like something the Grim Reaper would carry. It needed a new handle, the production of which was an art in itself.
Our inner circle had breakfast down and all these plans double checked by 8:15. Sissy and I were back at our place within minutes. She’d been thinking of going to Missoula with Jack and me, but we’d acquired a new member of the household, and she’d finally decided to stay home. Play Mommy.
We’d heard the sound just before dawn on Monday morning. We were still in our bathrobes, turning up the heat, getting the coffee going. Light spilling out from the kitchen showed our two half grown cats, both sitting near the front door, motionless, ears pricked forward, staring.
It had fallen to me to open the door, and–
The tiny black and white kitten sat staring up at me for maybe half a second, then got to its feet and strolled right in like she owned the place, trading sniffs with our older furballs, then looking up at Sissy as if, okay, it was her turn now.
“Aw-w-w-w…look at you.” My lover’s maternal instinct surfaced in a rush. She bent over, scooped the little thing right up off the floor, tucked it under her robe so only the baby cat’s nose and eyes could be seen peeking out, and breathed, “You’re just in time for breakfast.”
Neither of us questioned this sort of occurrence. This girl kitten couldn’t possibly be more than six or seven weeks old, far too young to be away from its biological mother. Plenty of folks would tell you such a thing couldn’t happen, that there was no way a critter that young, small, and helpless could survive the twenty degree nighttime temperatures and the many predators of these mountains.
Those folks, of course, had no idea what they were talking about.
“Looks like you guys got a new baby sister,” I told the older cats–six months of age, now. “Be nice to her, okay?”
They didn’t hear me, being all-fired curious about the newcomer. Dad could wait.
Not all cats are that cool when a new baby dares to show its cute little face. Based on the past 24 hours, we didn’t expect any persecution of Ruby–which was what Sissy had promptly named the longhaired little Sylvester clone–but we weren’t taking any chances. Mom would hang around home, keep all three furry felines happy.
“Ruby?” Jack Hill asked, his voice somewhere down in the basement. “She named a black and white cat Ruby?”
We were rolling down the dirt road, heading for the Y that connected to the highway that led past Clearwater Junction. The kneebone connected to the thigh bone…. “Yep. Ruby. What’s with your voice?”
“Dunno,” he growled. Not with emotion; that’s just the way his larynx was functioning this morning. “Got up this way. Only worse; it’s actually improved quite a bit from an hour ago.”
“Wore you out, did we?”
“Seems like. I’m all right, though. Just needed eleven hours of sleep instead of three.”
“Yeah. Figured it out; I hadn’t gotten more than three hours of downtime a night for a week, maybe ten days or so.”
“Crazy old coot.”
“Gotta be; look who I’m hanging with.”
His voice was sounding better with use. Or maybe I was just getting used to it. Good enough.
I brought him up to date on the plans for shielding and reinforcing the cave entrance cabin, then…”Did I ever tell you what happened when I was eleven?”
“No.” He glanced over at me, studying my profile for a moment as I wheeled the Pontiac through the Y to the right. “Don’t believe you did. Lay it on me.”
“Well…as you know, I grew up on an Idaho ranch, Mormon country, tall timber and high peaks not unlike around here. Back among those canyons and ridges, up above the foothills where Mom’s boss runs most of his cattle, a man could get himself lost or eaten by bears or killed in any number of ways, even today. Not likely to get scalped by Injuns or jumped by outlaws, but other than that, you could be back couple of centuries and never know the difference.”
Hill nodded. “Sounds familiar.”
“It does. That’s a good part of why I got no intention of pulling out of this country here. Feels like home.
“Now, my mother started me off reading when I was pretty small. Couldn’t say exactly when I told her, Mom, I can do it myself, but I do remember reading a book titled Yellow Eyes about a mountain lion and another one, Wahb, the Grizzly, when I was seven or eight. Which was some advanced, since my mother had borrowed them from the school’s fourth grade library.
“The adults already had me spotted as a gifted child, but I didn’t care about any of that. I’ve always had this eidetic memory, see, what they used to call a photographic memory, and no matter how much time passed after I read about Yellow Eyes the cougar and Wahb, the grizzly cub that got terrorized when he was small but grew up monster-sized to rule the forest, I could relive every adventure those two critters ever had….”
It hadn’t stopped there. I’d become obsessed with the wild country, with stories of life in an earlier time when men were men and sheep ran scared. In my mind’s eye, I rode with Liver Eating Johnston in his war against the Crow, with the vigilantes from Virginia City that put an end to the robber Sheriff Henry Plummer, with Tam the Tall Tale Teller on the Chisholm trail, and a whole lot more.
But I kept it to myself. I was the only black kid in an otherwise all-white ranching community, also the smartest kid in class, and I didn’t need anything else to make me seem different from the others.
Other youngsters in the area thought about children’s games, including growing up to be just like Dad, ranching or farming or going off to Salt Lake City to make their fortunes. I dreamed of vision quests, sweat lodges, the Trail of Tears, smallpox deliberately passed on to the tribes through infected trade blankets, and mountain men.
I hated the knowledge that those men made their livings by murdering and skinning fur-bearing critters, yet I loved the way they gave their hearts to the hawks.
And I decided, at age nine, that I must go deep into the high country, way up in the timber where I could at least pretend no man had gone before–or at least no white man or black man–and prove myself to myself.
“Mom, of course, was having none of it,” I grinned, chuckling at the remembrance.
“No, I don’t suppose she was.” Jack’s return smile could be heard in his voice. That was good. Still gravelly, but it looked like maybe he was going to live.
“So I tricked her. My mother had a habit I figured I could use against her. I was her only child; it could have been lack of experience. When I wanted to do something she was against–usually because it scared her half to death–she’d try not to butt heads with me directly. She’d get all reasonable and stuff, suggest that maybe it was a good idea, but why not think about it a while. Like, you know, a year or more.
“She had this idea that if you could stall a kid for a year, he’d forget all about whatever it was he had in mind. And maybe that even works for some kids, but not with me. I set her up, in front of witnesses–made sure we had this conversation at supper one night when her boss was there, and the ranch hands, too.”
Simply put, I’d told her I wanted to head off into the mountains for a week that summer. Alone. Just me and a backpack and the Savage .22 pump action rifle they’d started letting me shoot that year.
Naturally, she’d not only said no, but Hell no! There’d been a hunter from that county, twenty-three years of age, who’d gone out after elk with his father in law the previous fall. He’d never come back. His skeleton had been found just the previous month, after the snow melted, mere yards from where his rifle was propped up against a tree.
I’d refrained from mentioning that the rifle, despite having supposedly endured a full Idaho winter plus spring runoff, had survived without a speck of rust on its gleaming barrel. The problem, I figured, had nothing to do with the woods in the winter. It had to do with a certain father in law.
But I had bigger fish to fry, namely getting a deal with my Mom before the witnesses left the supper table. Not that they were in any hurry to leave. The day’s work was done, apple pie was on the way, and the contest of wills between mother and son was entertaining as all get-out to watch.
Having already learned the art of refusing to take no for an answer, I finally gave Mom the “opening” she’d been looking for.
“I s’pose you want me to wait a month or something, till I’m older.” I pouted when I said that, while secretly enjoying the men’s laughter.
“I believe you might need to wait more than a month, Treemin,” she said fondly. You know, thinking she’d won.
“What? Two months?!” I put all the fake horror I could into that one…and the negotiations were on.
In the end, we settled on a waiting period of two years. I’d already figured out at that age, don’t ever let the other person see you’re happy with a deal, or they’ll feel like they left money on the table. So a kind of half-sulked, agreed reluctantly, and we shook hands on it.
When I was eleven, I would be allowed to do my “camping trip”.
Mom never knew I’d figured I’d be lucky to get the agreement for age twelve.
Jack interrupted my narration. “So, when the time came, she was all gracious about it?”
“HAH! Jack, she was livid! By then, being big for my age, I was nearly as tall as her and twice as strong, but she still saw me as her baby in the way mothers do–and she realized she’d been had, which was worst of all. I’d made detailed notes in this little journal. Showed them to her–again in front of witnesses–and when her boss started laughing, she threw her hands in the air and gave in.
“I was off to see the wizard.”
Scared shirtless. That summed it up. Scared shirtless.
It hadn’t been so bad at first. I had the rifle and a spare box of ammunition, 15 rounds in the tube and 50 in the box, 65 all told. I was Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett and Jim Bridger all in one…until the sun went down.
At a guess, my campsite was situated a good five miles and who knew how many ridges north of the ranch. It had been a fine hike, never speaking because that’s not what you do when you’re a mountain man and there might be Injuns about, but loving every step of the way. The moment I’d disappeared into the trees, leaving my mother behind to worry her buns off ’cause Moms just gotta do what Moms just gotta do, I was in Heaven.
One game trail after another, interspersed with hikes straight up over ridge after ridge, winding but always trending upward, the daylight hours had been awesome. There’d been a moose feeding in the shallows of a small lake, squirrels scolding in the trees, bluejays and ravens and great golden eagles. Deer were everywhere, their hides dappled in the sunlight filtering down through the trees.
Once a trio of black bears, a big sow with her two cubs. I knew not to get between them, but there’d been no threat.
All of that and more, finally deciding on a place to pitch my roll a good hour before sunset.
I had no tent. Tents were for wusses. Cowboys on the Chisholm Trail didn’t have tents; they just laid on the ground with their blankets and used their saddles for pillows.
Not that I had a saddle, but I did have a good plastic tarp, six by eight feet, big enough I could use one half for a ground sheet and pull the other half over the top of me in case it rained. Which it did not do, no rain, but there was cloud cover. I knew the moon was nearly full, but it couldn’t break through.
Yeah, I’d grown up a country boy…but never, not ever, had I slept out alone, away from anybody and everybody.
The darkness was absolute. Mom had forced me to take a little flashlight and spare batteries, but the moment I’d been out of sight of the house, I’d dug a hole, made a cache, and stashed all that to pick up when I returned. If the world went to Hell like the TV kept saying it was going to, there wouldn’t be any flashlights. I needed to know how to survive without them.
If I returned. I was suddenly convinced this had been a really, really bad idea. My teeth were chattering, and not because of the cold. My sleeping bag was warm and comfy and…and also a trap. If a mountain lion jumped on me, he’d eat my head before I could fight my way out! Panicked, I unzipped the bag, cradled the rifle like it was my very own baby, peering into the darkness.
What was that sound? A bear? Snuffle-shuffle, what?
Oh God. I’d forgotten about rattlesnakes. Did they live this high up? Probably. I zipped the bag back up. Better to be gobbled by a bear than have a five-foot diamondback slip in by my feet and crawl up between my legs for the warmth of it.
Bitten balls! Bitten balls!
The image terrified me so completely, I lost it, began giggling hysterically like some demented little girl.
When gray light finally began bringing the little meadow back into focus, I couldn’t say for sure that I’d slept a wink. Must have, I suppose. Eleven year old boys who hike the mountains all day aren’t likely to stay awake straight through the dark hours, no matter how scary the things that go bump in the night.
Not until the sun made its appearance did I sit up in the sleeping bag. No snake-bitten balls. No bears biting my head off or cougars clawing my eyes out. My mouth tasted like I’d been eating dry horse manure, and my feet were sticky-sweaty in their socks, but I was alive.
I’d made it. One day down. Six to go.
I could do this.
Once I had a fire going and had warmed a packet of instant oatmeal in the single pan I’d brought along, things were looking pretty good. Almighty good, when I thought about it. The campsite was a great one, situated on a gentle rise in the middle of a high mountain meadow. Not a big meadow, but enough that bad things coming from the trees would have to cross a few dozen yards of open ground to get to me, so if that cloud cover would stay away–and it was gone now–I might actually be able to see the threat coming.
Most importantly, there was a small aspen grove near the meadow’s edge, with a spring that created a tiny stream. Not a lot of water, but enough to fill my pan or my canteen in a minute or less.
This, I determined, would be my base camp.
Instead of venturing farther into the mountains, I would build my cabin. Sort of. The surrounding forest had plenty of wood available, but there were considerations. With only a hatchet and a belt knife for tools, it wasn’t like I could saw logs. They had to be chopped. Also, you had to be careful. Nobdoy wants to build a fine little house and then discover in the middle of the night that one of the logs is infested with fire ants.
Still, by the time sundown came again, I had me a fort. It probably wouldn’t really keep anything out that seriously wanted in, but I surely did feel a lot safer. The fort was more of a corral, stacked sticks notched at the corners but with lots of cracks between them. One good swipe of a bear’s paw would likely knock it all down despite the top row being tied at the corners with baling twine.
I had brought a bit of that with me. Not a mountain man thing, true, but they had rawhide, and I didn’t.
There was no roof, the walls were only about three feet high, and the two foot wide doorway was open except for one big six-inch log I’d dragged across the front to discourage snakes–and, should the need arise, to serve as a shooting rest.
In the dusk, I sat in my mini-fort, chewed on a few pieces of jerky, watched the full moon come up over the treetops…and I was content.
An hour later, I was sound asleep, resting in the arms of Morpheus without a care in the world.
Around midnight, with the moon directly overhead, blazing down upon the meadow, my eyes snapped open. What…there. There was an animal in the meadow, moving my way all right. Not a big critter. What…skunk. It was definitely a skunk.
A young one, half grown at best…and as it drew closer and closer, I could feel something wasn’t right about it. It’s movements were subtly off…
I knew it. Knew it in the bottom of my heart. Knew that not only was the smelly little beast all stinky and stuff, but one bite from its fevered brain could kill me.
My eidetic memory kicked in, and I remembered my reading. This skunk was in the latter stages of the disease, showing symptoms, staggering. I was pretty sure I’d seen it shy away from the stream running down from the spring: Hydrophobia. It was staggering intermittently, and by the time it had come within twenty feet or so of my fort, I could see the upper lip curling back in sort of a silent snarl, then dropping back to normal position, again and again: Abnormal behavior.
Shoot the damn thing. I heard Mom’s boss speaking in my head, the traditional human response to any rabid animal that gets too close.
But I couldn’t.
If it bit me, I’d have to head home as fast as possible, start getting treated before I showed symptoms of my own. But….
“Come on in, little one,” I spoke softly, reaching out Soul to Soul, beyond the severe encephalitis clouding the animal’s mind. “Come on in. I won’t hurt you.”
And it did. The poor little thing couldn’t make it over my six inch barrier log, yet neither did it flinch when I slowly reached out with both ungloved hands and picked it up, lifting it across, settling it down next to my own stomach in the zipped-down sleeping bag. It weighed almost nothing, skin and bones beneath that beautiful black and white fur.
“Don’t look, Mom,” I whispered, knowing that if my mother could see me now, she’d have a heart attack for sure. Then I forgot about everything else but giving the dying skunk what comfort I could.
There was nothing to be done but just let it rest there, of course, warming its emaciated body from my own human heat. The stink? It was there, but after a while I didn’t even notice.
Within moments, my newfound friend had let out a deep sigh, relaxed against my jacketed belly, and dropped off to sleep. Or gone into a coma; I wasn’t sure which. But there was respiration there still.
It took the little girl–the skunk was female–three days to finish dying. Every sunup, I would ease out of my jacket, shivering in the early morning cold but determined to allow the animal what comfort it could receive from contact with the denim. She hardly ever moved, having reached the paralytic stage of the disease; her stumbling journey to Treemin Jackson as Rabid Skunk Hospice Caretaker had been her last time on her feet. The will it took to do that, to find her way through the forest, past the horrifying flow of water, through the giant meadow to the human boy in the fort…I was in awe.
Concerned that too much light might be painful to her eyes–which did open from time to time, staring sightlessly perhaps, yet open nonetheless–I rigged a little canopy to give her shade during daylight hours. My meals, and especially anything having to do with water, were handled well away from the fort so that just in case the hydrophobia effect was still in force, she wouldn’t be disturbed.
Every dusk, when I crawled back into my sleeping bag and into my jacket, I’d ease my warm stomach back next to her, then lie there unmoving till the sun came once again. Not once did I get up to pee during the night; it would not have been right.
One night–I don’t remember which–a huge tom cougar came by, ghosting along the treeline at the meadow’s far edge. He stopped and stared our way, clearly visible in the blazing moonlight, his tail twitching thoughtfully.
I felt the little skunk shiver against me, as if some sense beyond her ravaged mind had warned her of the danger.
“Don’t worry, little one,” I whispered. “Devil cat can’t come in here. If he tries, I’ll fill him so full of holes my Mom can use him for a colander.”
The skunk relaxed. The big cat, deciding I meant what I said or perhaps simply having satisfied his curiosity, moved off into the timber.
The dawn that I knew my baby was gone, I rose silently, wrapped her gently in the jacket, and carried her lifeless form out to the place I’d selected. Skunks aren’t moles, so I didn’t figure she’d appreciate being buried. But it didn’t seem right to leave her out in the open to rot, either, so I’d found a place. There were rocks, but first I put her body into the little log casket I’d made during the daytime hours, then built the cairn.
Standing beside the finished work, hat in hand, the only words that came were, “May the blessings be, little one. May the blessings be.”
Then I blew her a kiss, returned to the campsite, packed my gear, and hit for home.
“Wow,” Jack breathed when I’d finished the telling. “Just…wow.”
“I…can’t top that one.”
“Wasn’t asking you to.”
I busted out laughing. “That was something else. Here she is, waiting for a week to pass so she can call out the search parties without going against her word, sees me come trucking right back into the house on the evening of the fourth day. First her eyes light up, then the smell hits her, and–let’s just say it was an interesting time around the ranch for a few days after that.”
“You had to trash your clothes, of course.”
“For real. The sleeping bag, too–most of all, that–and even the tarp. Heck, she had me scrubbing with tomato juice and I don’t know what else for a really, really long time.”
“You never told her.”
“Nope. You think I’m nuts? You’re the first one I’ve told. Haven’t even gotten around to telling Sissy yet. Need to do that one of these days.”
“Hm.” Hill thought for a moment. “You said that like there’s a specific reason. To tell Sissy.”
“Yeah.” I cut the wheel, grabbing the exit, realizing the telling of the tale had taken us all the way to Missoula. “That little skunk told me her name. Not at the time, but about a week later. Showed up in one of my dreams, told me thanks, and told me her name.”
Jack got it immediately. “Ruby.”
We rode in companionable silence after that, headed for our rendezvous with Mr. Gray at the Half Castle restaurant. I was thinking. Sissy had not been told about Ruby the skunk when she’d named Ruby the black and white kitten; she’d come up with that one on her own–and cuddled the baby cat exactly the way I’d cuddled the rabid, dying skunk.
It was no surprise to me, seing the itty bitty kitty make it through the wilds to me-ew at our door. She’d done the impossible before.
This was definitely not her first rodeo.