A Killer Drops In For The Night


False face must hide what the false heart doth know

Macbeth I:7

People come into our lives with a reputation or a persona (the aspect of someones character that is presented to or perceived by others) that may be earned and accurate or a complete fabrication. When an armed killer drops in on you during the darkness of night in the middle of nowhere, for a meal and a cup of tea, his persona is all around you and your senses are on high alert.

There were usually four to six cabins out on a trap line. They would be spaced 20 to 40 miles apart depending on the terrain, snowfall, and elevation. You cut your logs in the winter, peeled them in the early spring, and built the cabins before the opening day of moose season, August 15. Windows would often be car windows, (very durable) or used windows from the scrap yard in town. The roof and floor were plywood with roll roofing or metal if you happened to catch a barn being torn down, in other words the cabins were done on a shoe string budget, but they actually made pretty nice homes when you are out in the bush. Your furniture was made by hand and the guys took pride in their ingenuity, if you had old hinges you used them, in the mean time, leather hinges would ‘do’ until you found an old pair. They almost all had running water (run to the creek and run back).

Some of the fondest days of my early life were spent waiting out a storm on the trap line while reading the classics: it was best not to read the ones that were primarily based on murder and mayhem, a vivid imagination will put you at a disadvantage with 20 hours of darkness and the winds howling through your cabin walls.

In Canada, up until the eighties, trappers were the only ones permitted to carry pistols, apparently a high level RCMP officer read about the Mad Trapper of Rat River and said “no more pistols for trappers” maybe he was worried about my vivid imagination on those stormy nights. The idea was protection against the odd Grizzly that will awaken on a warm winter’s day and walk about to find an old moose or elk that has succumbed to the starvation of winter; however, a human will suffice, pound for pound, they are the slowest and the weakest of all creatures that inhabit the high country.

A rifle is a pain to carry and you hate to place it in the snow every time you freshen a set; so a pistol is at least a psychological source of protection from a hungry bruin. I carried two, a 44 magnum revolver was for the dire emergency that never happened and a 22 LR Revolver was just right for finishing a coyote or securing the odd grouse for dinner with a head shot. I never shot the 44 except for target practice, it was comforting to have it none the less. It worked for me and usually, I was more than content not to pack a rifle, I missed taking a few shots at wolves and that cost me hundreds of dollars; however, we must remember that every decision has trade offs. The fur traders seemed to offer more money when you were packing a sidearm, that was a big advantage.

On one of those long nights, while reading of Macbeth, his wife Lady Macbeth and their-inflicted problems with murder and mayhem, there was a hail from outside the door, “Hullo, in the cabin”.

Now this is standard procedure and correct etiquette among the semi-civilized men who inhabit the wild country; only a fool would bang on the door or barge in on a man who is alone, armed to the teeth, and whose only fear is the possibility of a Grizzly bursting into the cabin for dinner. You usually have an average of one visitor a year, so company is almost always appreciated, especially if they have manners.

“Come on in, the cabin’s warm and there’s hot grub”, my reply was also pretty well standard. The latch was turned and a tall gray bearded man walked in, after leaving his snowshoes on the porch: he was encased in ice and snow, he un-shouldered a huge pack to reveal a Lynx, several Marten, and a Fisher.

“The Lynx and one of the Marten is yours, the rest is mine” he had followed my line to the cabin and had checked my traps. A common practice among friends, but I had no idea who this man was; at least he was honest, but then he knew I could read the sign around the traps and figure out what had transpired.

“Hang them over the beam with that sisal twine and we’ll skin them in the morning.” The man moved with difficulty from age and arthritis, so I helped him hang the fur to thaw. He didn’t want to carry more weight than necessary, wherever he was headed, and the hides weigh almost nothing without the carcase.

“Skook, I’m glad you’re here; I don’t much talk to no one and I watched you grow up from afar over the years.”

Bingo! I knew who he was. His name was Bill McCabe: he was a murderer from the states. A phantom who talked to no one and sold his furs to the odd fur buyer who was sworn to secrecy. In my mind I checked the location of my two pistols; how fast could I get to one, aim and pull the trigger, sadly enough, that was what was going through my mind.

I was speechless, but he spoke up and carried the conversation. I’m headed South; I’m cold, cold to the bone, and I can’t get warm. Thought, I’d try Texas or California; some place where a guy can get warm, I can’t take it anymore.

He had lived by himself for at least sixty years in these mountains, I guess everyone has their limits.

“You don’t need to be afraid Skook, I wouldn’t harm you; actually, I’m here to help you.”

Was this a ruse? I listened with trepidation, most rumors in the mountains have a basis in truth and the rumors about this man were that he was a hardened killer of over 20 men.

He took off several layers of clothing and revealed a thin body that was obviously still hard and fit after at least 75 years.

His legs were stiff and were obviously painful from arthritis. “I’m going to tell you flat out, so you will relax,” and he looked me straight in the eye. I won’t trust a man who doesn’t look you straight in the eye, yet I also knew that this was the same technique I used just before I sucker punched someone and turned their lights out.

“My trap line is now in your name, you own the traps and all the equipment; just pay me half for two winters.” In BC, trap lines are registered and represent a considerable amount of money. “In the Balsam meadows just South of the lake, I have a herd of about twenty head, you can keep this year’s foals, the yearlings and two year olds; if you will sell the rest after getting on them in the spring and riding the buck out of them, they should bring a pretty penny, some of them are excellent mounts. You will ship me two thirds of the money and we’ll be square.”

The man’s horses had an excellent reputation in the Peace River Country: he was a bona fide horseman there was no discounting that fact. However, I was confused and feeling like Kip in Great Expectations; this was truly a great amount of money he was offering. “Why are you doing this I asked?”

“I got no one else and I know I can trust you. You see, I knowed your dad and Barb Wire Johnny since they were kids.”

“How come you never introduced yourself to me?” I asked with sincerity.

“I didn’t figure you needed to know a murderer in your formative years.”

It was true, he was a murderer. I did a quick inventory of all my weapons, pistols, rifle, and knives; there was nothing close by and I was nervous.

“Skook, during the first war, when I was a lad of 14, I cowboyed on a ranch in Arizona. I loved the work, but there was an older feller there, in his mid-thirties, that couldn’t resist picking on me all the time. He was short, very strong, and mean. He pestered me relentlessly; when I ignored him he would push me and laugh at me. Some of the guys asked him to leave me alone, but he took pleasure in tormenting me: until one day, I reached under my bunk and pulled out this 44,” I scooted my chair back several inches when the old pistol appeared, “I put it against his chest and pulled the trigger. He was dead before he hit the floor. Four guys saw me shoot an unarmed man. I gathered up my belongings and started to leave when the cook handed me a canvas sack with biscuits, bacon, and beans. I thanked him and rode North out of camp. It took me two years to get this far and I’ve been here nigh on 60 years. I love this country, but it’s time to leave.” He put the pistol away and I breathed a sigh of relief. “I figure to have three to ten years left and as much as I love this country, I don’t ever want to be cold during the time I have left. You know the states pretty well, working down there during the summers and all, I figure to ask you where to head. I got enough cached away, I don’t have to work, but if I started a few horses each year and kept busy; I could maintain my dignity.”

“Sounds like you have a pretty good plan,” I offered to rustle up some grub, but the main thing I wanted to do was to get a knife in my hand without being obvious. I started making a moose roast with onions and turnips with mashed yams as a side dish. We talked continuously as most men do when they spend a major portion of their time in isolation. He told me he read the sign and knew what had happened to Barbwire Johnny, said it was a shame, but it could happen to any of us who spent so much of their life on a horse. I didn’t know exactly what he knew about Johnny’s death and I kept my cards close to my chest.

Finally, he said, “It’s for sure the RCMP don’t know how to read sign, those guys couldn’t find a ham in a smoke house.”

I started laughing when I heard those words and turned from the cook stove to look him in the eye. “Yea Skook, I came through a few days after you laid Johnny to rest and watched from afar while the RCMP conducted their two hour investigation in the forty below. It was nice of you to make that stainless steel marker for Johnny. I hope someone does something nice like that for me.”

Bill McCabe and I talked late into the night and had a couple shots of Irish Whiskey; the next day, we skinned the fur and I helped Bill stock his pack with supplies for his trek South. He ended up near Fort Worth and I visited him several times in the years he had left. I sold the trap lines a few years after that night and with the money from the fur and the horses I had the capital to buy property in the US. My horse business took off and I was flying to Europe and the East Coast every other month; if I’d had more business sense like Bill, I’d have squirreled my money away and been in better shape for my old age.

Bill’s persona preceded him and I expected trouble: I ended up with a major stake in life. Sometimes there are extenuating circumstances to a man’s persona and I think Bill certainly had peculiar circumstances surrounding his life. He lived out in the open in Texas and was a respected member of the horse community. The Texans considered him a Canuck and neither one of us ever told anyone differently.

In the 2008 Presidential election, we witnessed a man with a persona that was manufactured by PR men and the media; he was elected to the highest office in the land. He is a good speaker, at least with a teleprompter he has a certain flair for speeches, but America was conned into believing they were getting more than an orator with a teleprompter. That is where the persona gave him the edge to get elected; yet, eventually a public figure must live up to that persona. This has become the undoing of the president, he can’t live up to his press and the expectations America has placed upon him.

Bill didn’t live up to his persona either; no, he was a vast improvement over his persona.

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Good read. Thanks.

Indeed. Thanks.

Excellent story, Skook!

Good and easy read.

I don’t think I’ve posted here but maybe a couple of times. Skookum, I wait for your articles and savor each one. There is wisdom to be gleaned from the men of the wild country if one will be open to receiving it. I live in southern Iowa, but my heart is in the mountains and I appreciate your taking me there for a visit with your writing.

Shutterbug: YES, your absolutly right.
PLEASE don’t be lazy, and join in more often. bye

Good story Skookum.

I just came back from a trail ride in the Red Rock Canyon in NV and the head wrangler was named Ernie, he had a lot of the characteristics you mentioned of Bill, even going to jail. We talked almost the whole time riding up the cliff sides and watching the other riders to make sure none stumbled or let their mounts get the better of them. Even found out we knew some of the same people who are always in the horse circles where ever you go. It’s strange how two people who know noting about each other can hit it off and find something in common to talk about while weaving thru cactus.

Shutterbug, its nice but sad to read of your fascination with the mountains; Iowa s a long way from the mountains.

The mountains are beautiful with fascinating wildlife and pristine rivers and creeks, but they are stern taskmasters. Those of us who have struggled to make a living in the wild country often failed to appreciate the natural beauty; in fact, some who were born there wouldn’t know what natural beauty is, let alone have appreciation for the wonder of it all.

Sometimes, it is best to be from the flatlands and admire the mountains from afar. By your screen name, I will assume you are an avid photographer. That can be a real asset as you vacation in the mountains and record your trip in a photo journal. Sadly, I haven’t recorded much of my life with pictures and the few pictures I had are missing.

Plan your trips carefully with a computer and visit different areas each year. I haven’t seen but a small fraction of what is available, but I must recommend Banff and Jasper and the little Park West of there Yolo. The parks start on the Alberta BC border and extend into BC; they are great for camping or luxury hotel camps depending on the health of your checkbook It is country that is magnificent and you will be assured of seeing some wild game including bison.

Remember, a good part of the experience is a state of mind; you must keep your mind in a good state while you are in Iowa to be ready for your next trip to the wild country.


Aleric: Sounds like a great trip. Did you ride horses or mules? I’ve only ridden and driven a few mules, but I can’t help but like the homely buggers.

Most of the old time horsemen you meet will still have the bark on and will only be semi-civilized; they often don’t really fit in one of society’s niches; consequently, they are always on the periphery of society, perhaps appreciating their freedom more than most.

Riding in cactus can be a prickly business.

Glad to hear you took the trip and at the perfect time of the year.

Aleric: hi, that was very nice to read and I’m glad you like you trip,
MAY I ask you if you ever heard from our friend from another post, his name was APACHE, and he is a brave patriot on the quest of helping to get rid of the enemies on the BORDERS,
I hope he’s okay, and will get back to FA when he want.
we don’t forget the BRAVES here at FA. bye

Great story Skookum. And great analogy.

My Granddad told me once that he could sleep soundly next to a murderer, but could never do the same next to a liar.

You just don’t know what’s in a liar’s heart.

Thank you.

A few years ago when we left the Bighorn Mountains in Wyoming after a week of camping, I shed a few tears (I’m female, so its ok 🙂 ). Yes, there is tremendous natural beauty, but what I like best about the mountains is that they are untamed. Fools get culled from the herd. A liberal worldview won’t work in the mountains.

One of the most amazing places I’ve been so far is Green River Lake, WY. about 5 years ago. We had the pleasure of visiting with some outfitters and hunting guides while we were there. We were the only people camping there other than the campground hosts. It was fantastic. No, I’m not a luxury hotel kind of gal. Just a tent, a gorgeous view and some good trails to hike and run, a good horse to ride is bonus and I’m a happy camper. 🙂 In the early 90s we took a trip to western Montana. We’re cattle people and basically spent our time driving backroads looking at the cattle herds and the scenery. We came upon this run down resort and met a cowboy named Harvey. Harvey offered to take us for a horseback ride in the mountains. We were in the middle of nowhere and a little apprehensive, but his 5 yr. old son was with us so we took the chance. When Harvey learned I was an experienced rider, he brought me this beautiful green broke paint gelding. Wonderful horse. We all had a terrific visit as we rode through woods. I think Harvey was not only glad for the company, but happy my husband knows about cattle so the conversation was easy and interesting for both men. It was a great experience.

Yes, I’m an avid photographer. For fun I shoot rock concerts for the music section of a local newspaper and I also take senior pics for high school kids. You can see my collection at http://www.flickr.com/photos/shannonparkersmith. There are some mountain vacation shots in some of the older sets. Enjoy!!

@ Skookum

We rode horses, never been a mule person, my step dad loves em though, but they did have a few on hand. Ernie had wandered a lot in his life and lived in more than 10 states, but even though he was no more than 5 years my senior he had lived more in those years than I or the others had. But it was good that we saw eye to eye on a lot of basics.

@ ilovebees

I have not heard anything from Apache, he is most likely busy and hasn’t gotten around to checking on us sedentary. Lol

ALERIC, thank you, if he check FA, he might give us a comment so we know he’s okay.
Shutterbug, such a beautifull family, I can imagine
the pleasure to camp for all the family together, in nature at her best.
thank you for sharing with us, bye

Thank you, ilovebees… you’re very kind to say so. We have some great memories from those camping trips.

great read, I especially liked the one you wrote a while back about the “hunters” who couldnt be bothered to pack thier gear back out,

skookum do you have a mirror site where your short stories are compiled with some background on the pop culture, politics ect, of the day were going on when you decided to share these insights, characters and events of another time?

my grandfather used to say something in a similar, overlapping vein on occasion,

“just becuase you are a character doesn’t mean you have character.”

this was said, to me usually when he would be chuckling while watching me comb my hair and strike poses in the mirror trying to be the coolest 15 year old the early 80’s post disco era had ever seen.

then he would usually take his 85 year old keester to the mirror and mimick me to the delight of the rest of my family.

the best part of both my grandfathers is I still miss them 20 years after theyve both been gone……

I like your writting style skookum it makes me want to think of long past times and poeple in my own world that really are worth remembering….

Rumcrook, your grandfathers sound like grand guys, cherish their memories and try to be their equal when you step up to the plate as grandfather. It happens before you are ready, turn around a few few times and you are there.

I have six granddaughters, all small enough that I can still carry in a bucket and they think I am special. I have six more ankle biters in the Yukon that call me Grandpa Skook, they aren’t really my grandkids, but I am “close enough” in their eyes. So in reality, I am a pretty popular guy, their parents say the kids are always asking about when I will be back. How good can it get?

There are no other sites for me: I am a relative newcomer to the internet (less than two years and still bewildered). I came to FA because of my frustration at what I perceived as the election of a Marxist and the subsequent erosion of Freedom. Curt has given me a chance and I am eternally grateful. I hope to hone my writing skills and have a retirement income writing outdoor material in the future. I drive long distances to work (50,000 mies/year) so I have lots of time to outline articles and books in my head. I literally have way more material than time and have never suffered from writer’s block, even back in college, when my Liberal Profs encouraged me to be a Journalism major. I didn’t align myself with the Liberal formula for cranking out Leftist Pablum for a B: Hell no, I wrote of the mountains and of men with the bark on. They loved it and gave me A’s every semester to take the same Creative Writing 400 level courses over and over.

I laughed and laughed at their namby pamby silliness and gave them blood and guts and they gave me A’s. a great way to keep the GPA up.

Thanks for the kind words Rumcrook, I don’t know why I went off on a tangent.

Shutterbug, I have worked in the Big Horns in the past as well as the border area of Montana. Many of the people I knew are still there on ranches; however, the place is continually under assault for hobby ranches for extremely wealthy people who need a weekend piece of paradise.

You have a beautiful family. I wont say you are lucky since you have obviously worked hard to instill values into your children, Congratulations! is more appropriate. Your family is an example of the very fiber and core of the America we cherish.

The Parks I mentioned in Canada are only one (Long) day’s drive North of Sheridan. If you make the trip, I advise seeing “Head Smashed In” interpretive center and the Canadian Military Airservice museum in Nanton, Alberta. The air museum is an hour and the interpretive center is a two hour visit. the Calgary Stampede is quite a show if you are into rodeo, but the city is a little rowdy during stampede days.

There are many free camp sites in BC, that just have water and outhouses and of course you can wilderness camp out side the parks just about anywhere. Always be conscious of bears.

Keep up the good work! Skook