This book is all about people and how different we are, especially about life and how we deal with its mysteries. The stories include a little about death and an occasional encounter with animals and a lot about some of the colorful and interesting characters I’ve met told with a touch of humor, some adventure, and a little pathos. These fictional accounts are sometimes based on real people with the places and names change to protect especially the moose.
I sat alone in a bar full of crusty tough loggers dressed in tin pants, red and black wool shirts and dented aluminum hard hats, who, based on the booze they’d consumed, should have been prostrate on the floor. Instead they drank loud, playful and looking for trouble, a fairly common condition on any given late Friday afternoon. The Road Boss blew threw the door, two-hundred-thirty pounds of meanness and eyes dark as coal, just in time to save me from the loggers. He stood tall in the doorway, filling it completely with a red checkered wool shirt and high-water canvas pants over tight-laced White high-heeled boots. His dark wavy hair turning to silver hung over a chiseled face used to intimidate subordinates. His reputation as a rigid, driven man ranged company wide and I suspected he hadn’t endeared himself to anyone. Those who’d met Augustus Horne and still had their front teeth knew better than use Augustus. His few friends called him Gus and the gypos worse.
“Kid,” he yelled at me, “where the hell you been?”
“Until quitting time up Squaw Creek right where you sent me this morning.” I replied, not looking at him and staring into my beer. I’d been setting road cut and fill stakes nearly twelve hours and my humor ran dark to match his.
“How far ahead are you staked?” he asked tightlipped as if he had a mouthful of Copenhagen and needed to spit.
“Far enough, probably four or five days of construction,” I said studying my beer.
“Good, first thing Monday, I want you and that other new guy up Gorman Creek where the road ends and start finding them corners along the right-of-way. You got that?” Twenty years of dealing with cat skinners, can operators and salty road construction workers had not improved Horne’s human resource management skills. One of those skills was making sure we knew that he considered us not important enough to remember our names.
“I got it,” I said, still concentrating on the beer because I knew it would irritate him. I wanted him to know that I too had White logger boots laced tight.
Horne raked me with steely eyes, his jaw cast in granite and lips pursed thin. “You get one free one from me,” he said, the words coming from deep in his throat, “you just had yours. Remember that.”
If he expected an answer, I disappointed him. Silence hung heavy before he continued. “How much surveying you done?”
“Enough,” I said, dredging courage.
Horne’s silver-streaked hair, noticeably compressed in a circle by his hardhat band, probably accounted for his tight mouth. Those of us who wore aluminum lids every day had that distinct band line across our foreheads. His sun-darkened hands jabbed a threatening index finger at me. Square frame shoulders tugged at his heavy wool shirt and sinewy arms bulged out of rolled sleeves. From my barstool perch, I couldn’t see horns, but my gut told me they were there. Somewhere.
He looked straight at me. “A smart mouth will get you nowhere fast. I’ve been riding herd on gypo loggers and cat skinners since before you were born. Anytime you think you’re tough enough to try me, come ahead.” He waited for that to sink in and when I didn’t argue, he added, “You’d better hope you’ve done enough!” before moving off to talk to the loggers. Knowing he’d stand by and not lift a finger while the loggers used me for floor sweeping, I took the high road and left dreading the coming of Monday morning.
My partner in this adventure, whose name Horne couldn’t remember, was also newly graduated, three years older and carried the devil in his pocket. He took great pleasure in jerking my chain. Lester Dermott wore his surveying vest like mine, heavy with compass, pencils, notebooks and measuring instruments over a flannel shirt and black logger jeans. We both wore heavy caulked boots calf high.
“Damn”! Les griped, pulling on his rain gear after we’d parked the pickup. “I hate rain!”
It was cloudy, threatening rain and windy. The deepening overcast obscured the tree tops while we drove a steep, winding, already muddy road until it deteriorated into a small turnaround. We lingered in the dry pickup cab just long enough that the low-hanging mist opened up and rained in earnest.
Gurley Aluminum Forester’s Compass, plumb bobs, Abney level and our brown bag restaurant lunches packed into a backpack, Les grabbed the fifty-four-inch Jacob staff leaving me to carry the heavier rolled up K & E two-chain video tape and a short-handled double-bit brushing axe. We’d flipped a coin in the truck to determine who got the more desirable compass man job and I didn’t win. I would have been more depressed had I known the day would go from bad to worse.
We found our starting point after thirty minutes of searching in a thicket of dogwood brush, prickly six-foot spruce seedlings and foot deep bear grass. The original rock monument included a granite stone with a scribed X covered with moss. Two of the bearing trees, reference points for the stone marker required by land survey rules, were gone, long destroyed by old forest fires, hungry bark beetles and raging mistletoe. The two remaining had blossomed into thirty-inch diameter, one hundred and fifty foot giant Western Larch surrounded by a mat of rotting annual needle fall. Blazes cut by the long ago surveyors were healed-over and unreadable.
“I’ll flag while you’re putting up the markers.” Les said, electing himself boss to go along with his elevated station as “Compass Man.” I dug out the yellow-painted aluminum markers that would notify anyone passing by of the section corner.
It rained just long enough to make us miserable for the day. Les drove the Jacob staff into soft ground, mounted the compass, swung the instrument until the needle pointed north and said, “Ok, I’m ready,” grinning because he knew I was going to bathe with every swing of the brushing axe.
Locating the original sixty to eighty year old survey corners in the dense underbrush required a combination of cutting forest material out of the way, precise measurement, careful compass work, monk patience, and a large dose of good fortune. Les would gleefully keep me on line while I struggled to clear obstructions. He would pick a tree on the site line as far along as the terrain would allow. Once I had the brush cleared, I’d blaze the selected tree, hike back to where Les waited, lay out the two chain video tape and we’d measure the distance, correcting for slope with the Abney level and the video part of the steel tape. By noon our progress fell short of a mile and a half. And we were soaking wet. Along the way we’d spotted one black bear, standing on his back legs looking at us over a hundred yards of jumbled windfalls before ambling off, several mule deer and a bobcat who lay unafraid on a buckskin pine windfall with one front paw hanging down, questioning our sanity for being there.
We temporarily gave up looking for a quarter corner and found a semi-dry windfall to sit on while we consumed a cheese and dry bread lunch. I choked down half of mine and gave up, leaving the rest to some small forest critter. Head against a tree, I closed my eyes and drifted into sleep when Les exploded, “Jesus, look at that!”
“What?” I said, sitting up, looking around and seeing nothing.
“There!” Les exclaimed, pointing down the hill. “Just behind that big alpine fir. A moose. I think it’s a cow.”
Looking closely, I could just make out part of a deep black outline of movement in the brush below us maybe two hundred yards away. A solitary animal, more than six feet tall at the shoulder and weighing over a thousand pounds when mature, moose, both cows and bulls, are a formidable sight. Long gangly legs, a lengthy broad nose and wide mouth, guarantee a moose not winning a beauty contest. Normally shy, they quietly move away from danger according to most accounts and this had been our experience.
“Looks like she took off. I can’t see her anymore,” I said, immediately losing interest.
“I read somewhere that the cows can be pretty aggressive, especially when they have a calf.” Les suggested, grinning. “You better watch out or she’ll getcha.” I could feel the tug on the chain. Lester Dermont at twenty-six stood a couple inches shy of my six foot-four, kept the Highlander brewery in business long after the other regional brewers disappeared and stilled the hearts of most women between sixteen and sixty. He wore whiskers long, but neatly trimmed, dark black like his hair. On Saturday nights, Les drove the hundred miles to Butte with his Canadian friends to play semi-pro hockey. Tough as the hobnails on his calf-high logger boots, his left cheek carried a three inch puck scar from mouth to ear to prove it.
“Let’s move,” I said, “it isn’t getting any drier.”
We continued, as we had all morning, battling the wet brush, hollering out slope corrections and finally finding the remnants of the quarter corner, quickly marked it and kept going. An hour later, I brushed through tangled alder and broke out into an open area. Waving at Les to read the slope, I pulled the correction, drove in a chaining pin, and motioned him forward. Ahead was a long, solid rock outcrop to a point where it dropped suddenly twenty-five feet or more into a mini-canyon containing a ten foot wide stream bubbling over large boulders. The rock ledge on the opposite side rose to almost level with where I stood. Looking as far as I could see downstream the canyon continued. Upstream seemed better although still deep and a sheer drop to the bottom.
Suddenly, Les was beside me and exclaimed, “Damn, Scotty, how in hell are we going to get around that?”
“Don’t know yet,” I said, thinking. “The P-line has to be to our left, upstream somewhere close. You stay here and I’ll explore and see if I can either find the P-line or a place where I can cross.”
“Ok, I’ll be here waiting.” Les was, as usual, fine with a rest break. “Shag your soda cracker ass though would you; I don’t want to get stiffened up.”
I started picking my way upstream, following as close as I could the jagged edge of the mini-canyon. After a short walk, I discovered the preliminary road survey, or “P-line, with year-old brushing, faded white wooden stakes, survey lathe, and the remains of red plastic survey tape hanging from small trees and alder brush. A two-year old couldn’t have missed it. No doubt about it, I was going to have to cross and we’d need to follow the section line we were on at least another mile. The canyon here was shallower and narrower and it looked as if I could pick my way to the bottom and up the other side. A skinned shin and two rock cut fingers later, I walked out of the brush onto the large open granite ledge directly across from Les.
Standing at the edge I yelled over stream noise, “Put me on line and tie the end of a roll of survey ribbon to the tape and throw the roll across to me. I’ll grab it and pull the tape across.”
Sometimes, even the best plan develops a hitch. Les, down on one knee and bent over tying the ribbon to the tape, suddenly looked up with widening eyes and a slack jaw and choked out, “Scotty, look out, moose!” At about that instant I heard pounding hoofs behind me and, without looking back and with no other thought other than avoiding trampling by a enraged thousand pound cow moose, I jumped over the side onto a narrow ledge about four feet down. Fortune on my side, I hit the outcrop, ducked my head and ground my fingerprints into the vertical rock face. Creek noise roared in my ears and my back felt the empty space between me and the jagged boulders below. Looking up into a moose face, I watched her slide to a stop with her head low, eyes fire red, black hair stiffened up on her neck and back, the end of her nose barely four feet from mine. Her mouth wide open panting, I nearly fell backward off my perch from the sight of wet grass stained teeth, and a blast of hot moose breath. I was certain for a long moment she was going to try following me down.
Instead, to my immense relief, the angry cow whorled and trotted back across the rock opening and disappeared into the trees. In the moments following, I swallowed my pounding heart and assessed my predicament. Cautiously, I rose up and peered along the flat granite ledge looking for the cow.
“Damn,” Les said behind me, safely across on the other side, and a smirk playing on his face, “I’m impressed. Didn’t know you could move that fast! If you could do that all the time you’d make a hell of a wingman.”
Les’ hockey reference did nothing to improve my humor. “Where’d she go?” I yelled.
“Don’t know, I can’t see her, she disappeared into the brush.”
I waited what seemed like hours, but according to my K-Mart Timex didn’t make fifteen minutes, while Les chanted “Here moose-y, moose-y. Here moose-y, moose-y,” behind me.
“Shut up, fer Christ sake,” I snarled over the noise of rushing water, “I want to be able to hear her if she makes any noise.”
“Ah, come on, where’s your sense of humor? You can’t imagine how funny you looked scrambling over the side to get away from ma moose.”
I couldn’t at the time dredge up a particle of humor. I stood crouched, legs in tightened knots, toes curled grasping for a hold on the rock and my fingers trying to meld into the granite face. My legs screamed in protest. When I couldn’t stand it any longer, and I hadn’t seen any movement in the brush, I began to pull myself back up onto the ledge. I almost made it.
The cow moose, as if she was waiting for me to move, charged out of the brush like a smoking locomotive and made it across the outcrop in seconds. Scrambling back to my narrow ledge, a vision of her huge black body sweeping me off my perch and the two of us crashing to the rocks below in a tangle of moose and young surveyor flesh flashed across my mind. Mixed in, swirling between moose hair and bloody spring runoff, floated Horne shaking his finger at me.
The cow, proving herself an excellent judge of distance, again plowed to a stop four or five feet before the edge. She stood for moment, snorted, and backed up a couple of steps. I decided then to be glad moose were herbivores since her fire red eyes appeared to debate whether to eat me there or take me home for dinner. Then, with another snort, she whorled and trotted back into the brush.
We played this game for an hour. Twice more when I tried to climb back on the rock ledge, I’d just get to a point where I could get my feet under me when she’d charge again. Finally, after even Les was getting bored with the game, and over a half hour had passed without seeing the moose, I cautiously crawled onto the ledge. I got my feet under me, though still crouched, waiting a moment for my adversary to appear. When nothing happened, I stood up, my cramped legs stumbled the first couple of steps before breaking into a headlong run for the upstream brush as if the devil himself was prodding my rear with a pitchfork. In my mind I could hear thundering hooves and smell moose breath. I reached the P-line, heart pounding and bleeding from alder brush slaps, dove over the side into the creek bottom and scrambled up the other side. Then I stopped and looked back. I stood alone, heart pounding and gasping for breath with not a moose in sight.
“Let’s gather up our stuff and head back. We can finish this tomorrow. You say one word about what happen here and I swear I’ll cut your tongue out,” I snarled at Les a few minutes later.
“Who, me? I wouldn’t tell a soul,” Les grinned, lying through his teeth.
By the weekend we’d finished locating corners without seeing moose, the rest of the crew had enlightened me with continuous moose jokes, and I was back setting cut and fill stakes on our active construction projects. That morning, just to start the day off right, one of the cat skinners told me between fits of laughter, that if I saw any moose to yell and he’d come at top speed with his D-8 to rescue me. Later in the afternoon, Horne showed up and climbed up the bank I was staking.
“How’s it going?” he said, gruffly.
“Ok.” I replied, expecting grief, though for what I didn’t know.
“Good,” he said, noncommittal, but staring at the stake I’d just set like the numbers were wrong.
“The cut is correct,” I said, defensively.
“I know. I want you to come and see me, in my office, when you get back tonight. Be there by 5:30. You got it?”
“Yes, what’s wrong?” I said trying to think of something I did that was going to get me fired.
“Just be there,” he said with no further comment.
I drove into town debating what Horne wanted to talk to me about. He had left me and walked back to his pickup only stopping a moment to shake a finger at one of the cat skinners. Dread surrounded me like a tight-fitting coat when I knocked on Horne’s office door at 5:29 pm.
“Come in,” he yelled through the door and when I opened it and stepped into the room, he continued, “Sit down; I’ll be done here in a minute.”
Horne sat at a paper covered, heavily marked, oak roll-top desk pushed against the far wall with his back to me, writing. Water-stained Celotex covered walls painted a dreary brown strained to hold up numerous book-covered one by ten unpainted pine shelves supported by black metal el brackets. Survey stakes, bundles of lathe and instruments decorated the floor giving the room a cluttered look. The only chair looked straight-backed and uncomfortable. I sat anyway.
After a few minutes of silence broken only by his pencil scratch, Horne turned to me and said, “I understand you are an expert on moose control.” His face betrayed not a hint of where this was going.
I wasn’t sure how to answer, so I said, “Well, I had a little run in with one a few days ago,” daring him to make something of it.
“Tell me about it,” he said, straight faced.
I did, a condensed version, minimizing the time element, figuring he was going to dock my time card.
About half-way through he started to grin and near the end he laughed, reached for a lower drawer in the desk and pulled out a fifth and two paper cups.
“That’s the best moose story I’ve heard in twenty years. Let me buy you a drink and you can tell me the whole story.”
Horne kicked me out an hour or so later, full of cheap booze, hopeful that I’d last a while longer on the job and knowing I’d better keep our meeting to myself.
Authors Note: This story is based on an actual wild animal encounter; only the names and places were changed to protect the moose.
Copyright© Dave Folsom. All rights reserved.