Johnny reached over from his cot and poked me.
"Willie, wake up."
I was already semi-awake, my head felt thick and slow. My eyes weren't working, and I had a bad taste in my mouth.
" Is Puppy asleep?"
Johnny sat up and snaked his head around trying to see through the darkness. We stayed still and listened. Then a series of snores came from the comer where the outfitter's son-in-law was working on a well needed beauty-sleep.
Johnny giggled and we both slipped out of our bedrolls. I tucked the covers over the camp cat and my stuffed Bugs Bunny.
We eased out of the tent and slucked our way through the mud to the horse corrals. Using our flashlights, we caught our hunting horses and saddled up.
Johnny was excited, I was tired. Everything we did was new for him, to me it was the same old thing 42nd verse.
The hunting had turned to absolute crap. The usual places that I depended on weren't producing. The critters that I'd seen were immature runts. I was tired of trying to make trophy hunters happy. I doubted that there were any trophies left in this part of Montana. Thanks to the innovative wildlife management of the Montana Fish & Game we might as well have been hunting elephants.
My mood was cruddy and so was the weather. It was as dark as the inside of a cow, The sky was overcast and warm, with our luck it would start raining. The humidity was more like Texas than Montana. I felt like I had a weight riding on me.
Johnny was his normal oblivious self, or else he wasn't going to let my blues stop him from having a good wilderness experience. I couldn't blame him if he was ignoring me, he was enjoying his first year guiding and was doing a good job. He deserved to be happy. He was an asset to the outfit. It's an asset to have someone like him for a friend.
We rode up the trail towards the horse pasture. Even though I couldn't see, I wouldn't turn my flashlight on. For some psychotic reason I think it's funny to make people follow me around in the dark. Making them follow horseback is even funnier. Maybe I'm just mean.
My horse knew the trail and plodded along. He was a common looking thing, probably bred by Indians. He was lazy and common acting, lacking most of the manners that are taken for granted on a good horse.
"Willie, can he come if it's raining?"
Johnny's excitement was starting to rub off on me. He forced a smile out of me that I'm sorry he never saw. My voice was flat as I answered shortly back over my shoulder.
" I guess he can do whatever he wants."
We rode along and could feel the openness of the horsepasture as we passed it. Ile black night held the beauty of our surroundings captive.
My nag took me under some branches and I put up my arm to break as many as I could so that Johnny would have safe passage. I cussed to myself.
"You OK Willie?"
"Yeah I'm alright."
The rest of the trip was uneventful and our silence became uneasy. I let my mind drift off and for awhile I was in Texas. I was with my daughter, Sam. She is a beautiful song that I sing to myself when I want to be happy.
She was telling a story. The sun was shining and I was focused on her smiling little face. I was watching her antimation more than listening to what she was saying. She was sitting on my lap and we were giving each other big hugs.
More and more often this was happening, my daydreams were so strong that I would take myself away. Closing my eyes, I'd go to where I really wanted to be. I always felt like it wasn't fair to those around me. It seemed that sometimes I wouldn't totally come back, at least not until I absolutely had to.
Don't other folks suffer this way?
I jerked back to reality when we left the main trail and began winding our way up the side of Crystal Ridge. Leaving the timber, I could once more feel an openness rather than see it. My pony labored his way up the slope and grunted and began to breathe hard. I had little pity for him. Despite myself, I stopped a short way from the top to let him rest. Vaguely, I could see the ridge above us. My stomach rumbled and a chill ran through me. I felt cold and clammy.
In a moment, we rode onto the top. Then we turned and headed towards the south. Visibility was slightly better and I could make out my surroundings. Midway down the ridge we pulled over and tied up. Ina small hollow, between some jack-pines, 'we arranged our cache of wood and built a fire.
The next 30 minutes was spent building the blaze and soon we had a small stump fueling the heart of our temporary camp. Crossing my legs, I sat back against a small tree. It was nice to be away from the main camp that had become far too civilized.
Johnny had fallen into the woodsman way of doing things. He needed a little help, but he had the right attitude. After twenty years of being friends he could read my mind.
"Willie, what's the matter?"
The fire was nice and I was comfortable. A small fire in a remote place with a close friend is all a guy, like me, can ask for.
"You know, I think I'm too sensitive. Maybe I expect too much of myself, or maybe I expect too much from the rest of the world, but lately, I've been feeling like a big phoney."
He gave me a strange look through the flickering circle of light from the campfire. His expression was incredulous but he was patient.
"What do you mean?"
"I ain't no mountainman. This work we've been doing don't really take no real mule packer. You couldn't even call this cowboy work. We're just dude wranglers. Just damn dude wranglers. How can we call ourselves hunting guides? There ain't nothing here to hunt. I'm just a big phoney."
I sat there with my legs crossed and my arms hanging in my lap. Then I continued.
"I've got a big hole in me. I miss Sam so bad it's eating me up. I'm not sure I'm doing my job right, all I can -,An think about is that I'm not with Sam."
He sat across from me and nodded his head sympathetically.
For a while we sat there quietly. A couple of hands who had shared much of their lives together. We had endured many of the same losses. A couple of lost riders on a trail that we'd condemned ourselves to ride.
By modem standards we're little more than bums, easy to make a fool of in a court of law. By the same stroke, most men envied our lifestyles.
I envied other people. I envied the people that could be content in one place. I envied the people that could be content with a mediocre job, but paying for a home and being able to live with their family.
That's not the kind of guys that sat at that fire. We'd been one way so long that our way was starting to gain credibility.
Johnny finally shifted around and banked some dirt against the fire with his feet.
"Well Willie, I miss my family too. I'm kind of lonesome myself, but right now I'm having the time of my life. We're not getting so old. It's just that time doesn't seem to be on our side anymore. We invent a lot of problems in our heads that the good Lord would take care of if we let him 'Mat's where the old adage about living right comes from. We've lived hard and fast and don't know any other way to do things. Are you going to rodeo next year?"
"Don't reckon I can quit. Look at me, if I stop my muscles will soften up and my bones will fall apart. I'll get old, I got to keep going."
Johnny did his little chuckle.
"You ever want to have another woman around permanent?"
It was my turn to chuckle. Johnny could always make me feel better, and I always laughed when he'd ask me a personal question. I started grinning that big grin that hurts my face and makes my stomach ache.
"From time to time you meet someone with a special quality. Thinking about them makes you feel good. Hearing their voice can lift your spirits and make you unreasonably happy for days. -- I used to think I was that kind of person, but I've had several wives explain to me that I ain't."
Suddenly, I was my old tough self again. I pulled myself up straight and peered off into the night, grooming my mustache with my fingers. My voice became confident and final.
"Johnny, he ain't coming."
"What? Why not? How do you know?"
"I ain't been living right. I guess you could say I've been bad. Whatever, he ain't coming. It's no reflection on you, I'm sorry..." A few slow seconds ticked by. " but he ain't coming."
Johnny looked dejected for a moment then got up and started kicking dirt on the fire.
"It's OK Willie, I'm here and that's a dream come true for me."
We rode back to camp. The trip back was better, we joked and laughed the entire way. I still wouldn't use a flashlight, but now riding in the dark was the only way go.
We got home, to Texas, a few days before Halloween.
The next morning one of our lifelong friends, Stephen Hoelscher, came to the house. He had an idea that would tickle me for a long time to come.
"Hey Herman, you got a place where me and my boy Josh can hunt next year? I don't want to shoot anything, but I know that Rusty's 3 boys got deer on your place this year, and Larry Urban and his daughter got one here this year."
"I was thinking we could all get together the night before the season the way we used to and then take the kids hunting the next morning."
The plan instantly relieved me. This was something I'd enjoy better than a whole season in Montana. A few friends getting together for a day or two and enjoying the woods with each other and their kids. I couldn't think of anything I'd rather do. It would give me something to look forward to, and no amount of money would stop me from having these two days with my friends - friends that were like family to me.
A few days later the opening day of the general deer season arrived. I had no intention of shooting anything, but I thought it would be nice to sit in my stand anyway.
Sam was with me that weekend, but after a long drive Friday night she wasn't too excited about getting up Saturday morning.
I left the house in the dark and hiked down the hill across Yaupon Creek. Then across the prairie and through the brush across Rocky Creek.
My deer stand had a comfortable feeling to it. I'd spent many hours in this spot, I'd grown up in this spot.
I was happy to be home and happy to have Sam back at the house.
The brush rustled in front of my stand, and I assumed it was a squirrel or an armadillo. In the early morning darkness I couldn't tell what was making the sound.
The air was cool and clean, giving all my senses a chance to operate. I was finally content.
Slowly, daylight allowed my vision to find a few details. Not much was happening.
'Men there was movement directly in front of me, but a ground fog was setting in.
A shadowy form was looking at me from behind a yaupon. I reached for my binoculars.
I smiled and felt my cheeks tighten as my eyes watered and my throat choked up. I left my gun in the comer and opened the door to crawl down out of my stand. Old Prancer and the rest of the crew were waiting for me under the pecan trees. When I got to the ground I could smell. coffee boiling down by the creek.
Maybe I'm starting to live right.
Lost Rider of Yaupon Creek