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THE KEEPER

(or the one who got away)


Old man Crane lowered the latest issue of the Powder River Examiner and sized up Clarence Foote as if he'd never seen his son-in-law before. He waited for a break in the argument being waged across the kitchen table. His daughter, Ruth, menaced Clarence with a wooden spoon while stressing the merits of butchering the dry cow. No break was likely to occur in this performance, so he interrupted, "Did you two come visiting just to bicker all day. Hush up, I want to read you this."

"Says here that on Wednesday, March 2, 1932, Joe Ellis, new game warden in the Miles City District, confiscated a freshly killed whitetail doe on the bluffs above Pumpkin Creek north of old Loesch School but was unable to apprehend the poacher. Ellis is seeking information on a white male with blue eyes, age between 45 and 50, about 5 feet 6 inches tall and 150 pounds who may live in the area of the kill."

The old man peered into Clarence's blue eyes and said, "Now, what I want to know is how a game warden can see the color of a poacher's eyes and not apprehend him." The old man didn't seem to notice his daughter's nervous giggle before she caught herself, hastily gathered up the coffee cups and headed to the sink.

Clarence replied coolly, "Well Pa, there's plenty of blue-eyed fathers out there putting nature's bounty on the dinner table during hard times. Why most of the ranch kids in these parts have never tasted beef." Then he looked pointedly at his wife's back and added, "It's been a long time since any family could afford to eat a dry cow instead of hauling it to market."

With that challenge, Ruth turned from washing the cups and frowned menacingly at Clarence as the old man shook his head and said, "Don't you think I know all that. I'd be the last to defend the Fish and Game telling a man when he can cull the wild critters tearing up his haystacks. But, you're skirting the point, Clarence, and I want an answer. The warden saw the color of his eyes yet didn't arrest him. We both know the damn fool couldn't afford the fine; bad enough to have to abandon the meat. But, how did he get away?"

"Well Pa I don't know why you think I can tell you that." Clarence answered dryly. Ruth grimaced and spun back to washing dishes as Clarence nodded toward her and continued, "Ruth and I had supper with the Price's Wednesday night and there was some talk about that new warden. Seems he's a very ambitious, young fellow with a few years of college. Price says the man's vowed to catch every poacher in the district so he can get promoted to Helena."

The old man turned in mock disgust to his daughter and demanded, "Ruthie it seems I'm not going to get anything out of this husband of yours. So will you tell me what you two were doing up at the Price's Wednesday which just happens to be on Pumpkin Creek north of old Loesch School?"

Ruth turned abruptly and stamped her foot, reminding the old man of the very willful, little girl he'd fathered. "We were up at the Price's because Clarence won't let me butcher the dry cow. All our venison from hunting season is gone and I'm down to feeding my family the last of the jerky. You can't expect men to work day after day in this cold without plenty of meat on the supper table. And, the hired man's wife is nursing her third baby--she needs meat too."

"Ruth the dry cow will help pay the taxes and buy enough beans to keep us until we can brand calves and feast on Rocky Mountain oysters." Clarence smirked. "Won't be the first time a cowboy's lived on beans. As for Maggie, the milk and eggs will see her through."

"Enough!" the exasperated old man barked. "All I want to know is how the damn fool got away." He looked from Ruth to Clarence and back to Ruth who by now could no longer control her nervous laughter. It was one of those infectious laughs that soon had the two men laughing too.

It took the three a few minutes to settle down and wipe the tears from watery eyes. Ruth looked a bit defeated and said to Clarence, "I guess we'll have to tell him." Then to the old man she suddenly pleaded, "But Papa, before he does, I want you to know those deer have been yarded up in that willow thicket since before the weather dropped below zero. They had stripped all the trees and were starving. They even started raiding the haystack nearby; but no whitetail can live on grass hay. Someone had to flush them out of there or they'd all die." She suddenly hit the table with her fist, telling the two startled men, "And, by God, that someone needed meat for her table."

"Okay, simmer down! I got the picture," the old man grumbled. "So you didn't kill her clean and she ran off to the high ground. Thought you were a better shot than that Ruthie."

"I am Papa," Ruth quipped. "I was after the buck. I could have dropped him where he stood if the doe hadn't jumped in the way and caught the bullet in her neck." Ruth grew silent reliving the mistake, then offered, "At least all of them flushed out of that thicket for good. The doe ran a mile or more before she dropped." With all her excuses finally exhausted, Ruth muttered, "Go ahead Clarence and tell him the rest."

"So it was you," the old man crowed at Clarence. "Well, tell me my son. Just how did you get away from that warden?"

"Now that I'm an outlaw as well as an in-law, you're going to start calling me son?" Clarence laughed. "You Crane's are amazing. I don't condone your daughter's poaching but I couldn't let her chase that doe over those bluffs by herself."

"The doe was dead when we found her and almost over to the county road so I sent Ruth back for the truck," Clarence continued. "She had only been gone about 10 minutes when I saw a vehicle coming. The driver spotted me working on the doe and stopped just beyond a rise where the vehicle was out of my view. I guess that's what made me think I was about to be nabbed."

"When he walked up the hill toward me, he sure didn't look like a game warden," Clarence recalled. "But, being naturally cautious, I wasn't going to take any chances. So I puffed myself up and strutted down to meet him as if I was the 'cock of the walk,' jabbering about what a great day it was for hunting and all downhill from here. I didn't give him a chance to say a word before I was bragging about downing two deer. I told him that the other was just over the hill and, if he would help me get this one gutted out, I'd drag the other down and gladly share the meat."

"It was then that I was sure he was a warden," Clarence speculated. "The fellow got a sly smile on his face and said, 'You bet I'll help you, buddy.' You could just see him calculating up the double fine and basking in his newly won reputation for getting a poacher to bring in a second kill when the fool had only been caught with one."

"Good to his word, he set to gutting out the doe while I ambled off over the hill," Clarence continued. "Once out of sight, I ran like crazy down a woody draw. It didn't take me long to catch up with Ruth and hustle her back to the Price's before that young fellow realized he hadn't even asked my name."

The room grew quiet. All three smiled contentedly. Then Clarence stood up, stretched, pulled on his coat and said, "Come on Ruth, time to get home."

As the three said their good-byes, the old man grinned from ear to ear, shook Clarence's hand and clapped him on the shoulder several times. Then the old man leaned over to get a good-bye kiss from his daughter and whispered in her ear, "Better keep this one, Ruthie."

Published in Rocky Mountain Rider  January 2003

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