Line Shack Skunk
1933 The Blue Wilderness, East Central Arizona
“Hello, the house,” the middle-aged couple heard as they stacked the last of the home-canned beets on the shelf. It was fall in the high country and that meant getting ready for winter. There was ranch work to be done, but the fall canning took precedence because they would be living on the vegetables from Mrs. Fritz’s garden. Besides, the cowboys hadn’t shown up yet for the fall roundup to move the cattle from the mountain pastures to the lower country.
Freddy, the ranch owner, stepped out the door of the log cabin that was the ranch house for one of the biggest ranches in Eastern Arizona. He looked at the four cowboys, sitting comfortably on their cow ponies. The horses were lean and tough as were the scruffy and unshaven men with their longish hair hanging over their collars, except for the youngest of the men, whose hair was too curly to hang. Instead, it only curled over his ears and under his hat. Their clothes were dirty and worn from life on the range, but their saddles were oiled and well cared for.
“Howdy, men,” said the ranch owner, smiling. “I was beginning to wonder if you were going to make it. I thought maybe Newell and Carson got throwed in jail like last year for being drunk.”
Newell and Carson grinned at the teasing, looking down at their saddle horns. Caleb, the oldest of the bunch and self-appointed spokesman of the crew, chuckled, then pointing to the youngest man, said, “It was Butch this time.” Three of the cowboys laughed long and hard, joined by Freddy on the porch. Butch hung his head, embarrassed.
“Well, I’m glad you’re here. We was just finishing the last batch of canning for the day and I was planning on unloading and splitting firewood from the wagon. Put your horses in the corral and your blanket rolls in the bunkhouse. We’ve got work to do.”
The next morning, the four cowboys and the ranch owner saddled their horses and left the split and carefully stacked firewood to ride deeper into the mountains, climbing in elevation until they reached their destination, ten miles from the ranch house. It was a line shack that the four hired hands would work from as they pushed cows and calves to the lower country that wouldn’t get as much snow.
The men tied their horses to the hitching rail at what they called the barn, which consisted of four stout log poles with a tin roof butted against a solid rock cliff face. Caleb was first to make his way to the line shack, which was nothing more than four walls and a roof with a plank floor held off the ground by four ponderosa pine logs. It hadn’t changed from last year, he decided, as he stepped up on the rough floor.
As he opened the door he noticed the mattresses from the bunks, rolled and hung from the ridge pole to keep the mice out. They seemed to be in good shape other than the thick layer of dust that covered them – and everything else in the one room shack.
The four cowboys went to work, cleaning with a broom that had seen better days. Most of the dirt fell through the spaces between the planks on the floor. Freddy brought the pack mule close to unload the supplies his hired hands would need while they stayed there, then telling the men to be careful, he mounted for the return trip home.
By the end of the day the cowboys were settled into their home away from home and had a roaring fire in the stove. It was colder here than the lower elevations, and they each knew from experience that winter would be there any day. The next day they would hunt for a good sized elk to hang at the barn for their winter meat. Between that and the provisions brought up by Freddy, they would be set.
For the next week the cowboys made good progress gathering the cows and driving them off the mountain. Their rawhide tough cow ponies handled the hard work well, as did the rawhide tough men.
Real winter came on the eighth day. The cowboys had a large bunch of cows and their big calves moving off the mountain at a good pace. By noon, a cold wind was blowing and by four o’clock, when the men left the cows and started toward the line shack, the snow was three inches deep and growing deeper with each mile.
At their arrival, the cowboys took care of their horses, then made their way to the shack for the night, each carrying an armload of wood from the huge stack at the barn.
Butch leaned down, balancing the armful of firewood as he turned the knob to open the door. The rank, skunk smell hit him immediately. “Awww!” he exclaimed, as he entered and dropped his wood into a corner of the shack, close to the pot belly stove. The reaction of the other men was the same. They squinted their eyes and tried not to breathe.
The next morning, riding through the snow on the ground on their way to push the next bunch of cows off the mountain, the men discussed what to do. “I think we ought to shoot the little bastard,” said Carson, patting his lever action .30-.30 in its scabbard under his leg.
Butch looked up, shaking his head. “If you shoot him under the shack, he’ll stink for the whole month we’re here. We can’t stand a month of nights like last night. We couldn’t even eat our supper for the smell.”
“You’re right about that,” agreed Caleb. “It’s too cold to be outside and too stinky to be inside. We’ve got to do something.”
“Do you think we could get him out, then shoot him?” asked Butch, scratching over his ear where the hair curled.
Caleb looked at the youngest cowboy, “You volunteering to go in and get him?”
Butch thought, then said, “No, I don’t suppose I am. But we have to do something.”
“Maybe we could trap him,” suggested Newell, who had been silent until then, listening and thinking.
“Now, there’s an idea,” said Caleb, warming to the thought. “There are some coyote traps at the barn.”
“Those wouldn’t work for a skunk, he isn’t heavy enough to trip the pad on one of those leg traps. But I have an idea. When I was a kid, my cousin and I would trap quail in a peach crate. You know, the kind with twisted wire and thin wood slats. We’d bait the trap with corn, then prop it up with a stick and a string. We’d wait for the quail to go in, then pull the string.”
“That’s the dumbest damn thing I ever heard of,” complained Carson. “How many quail did you catch like that?”
“To be honest, not many. They’re too smart – but unless you’ve got a better idea, I think it’s worth a try,” Newell replied.
“Me too,” agreed Butch.
“Then let’s do it,” decided Caleb. “We’ll get home early enough tonight to get ready, then you can go in and set the trap.”
“I think you’re all fools,” disagreed Carson. “The skunk’ll spray Newell while he’s in there setting the trap. You think it stinks now with him just living under there? Wait till he sprays. I still think we ought to shoot him and be done.”
“No shooting,” ordered Caleb. “At least not until we get him in the trap.”
The foursome returned early that afternoon, three of the four anxious to see if the trap idea might work. At the barn they found an old peach crate. Two of the wooden slats had been broken so they quickly repaired those with wire. Carson was leaning on a corner post at the barn, soaking up the last of the afternoon sun, watching the preparations of the other three men without offering to help in any way. Finally, he mocked, “What are you going to use for bait? Do you even know what a skunk eats?”
Caleb and Butch looked from Carson to Newell, hoping the cowboy with the trapping experience had thought of that.
“I’ve been thinking on that,” said the smiling cowboy. “You’re right, I don’t know what skunks eat, so I’m going to try lots of things at once. We have a bag full of pecan nuts. Mice love them if they’re shelled and a skunk is kind of like a big mouse. We have corn, coons like corn and a skunk is kind of like a small coon. And we have eggs, I don’t know of a critter that doesn’t like eggs. I’ll mix ’em all up in a tin cup and see what happens.”
“You’re plumb loco,” said Carson as he spat a long stream of tobacco juice in the snow and walked to the shack. It was his turn to cook, though if last night was any indication, none of the hands were going to be very hungry.
Newell shrugged his shoulders and grinned at the two remaining cowboys. “It’s worth a try. What’ve we got to lose?”
Caleb and Butch grinned back. Butch asked, “What else do you need to be ready?”
“Thirty foot of string,” was the reply.
“We ain’t got no string that I can think of. Would a rope work?” offered Caleb.
“I’m sure it will.”
Caleb looked toward the shack. Carson was inside. “Butch, you go get Carson’s rope off his saddle. He ain’t done nothin’ to help. He can supply the rope.”
A supper of elk meat and beans was eaten in the cold breeze outside the shack. It was almost dark when Newell scooted on his belly into the space under the floor boards. They had seen the skunk moving when they peered down through the spaces in the floor – they knew he was in the middle section.
Careful and slow, Newell made his way toward the back of the crawl space. Three sides were closed in by boards, but the front was open. When the crate was set, the trapper slid back out the way he came. When he was able to, he stood and walked into the shack. “It’s going to be too dark under there to see if the skunk goes in. We need to light all the coal oil lamps and set them on the floor. I’ll climb in about half way and wait. Y’all are going to have to be still if we expect the little cuss to try for the food.”
“D’you hear that Butch and Carson?” asked Caleb.
“Yes sir,” answered Butch. Carson only looked at the older man, then retreated to his bunk for the night.
The coal oil lamps were lit and placed on the floor over the biggest of the cracks. Newell belly-crawled half way into the crawl space and waited. Soon, the only sound that could be heard was the snoring of the three men in the shack. Newell waited patiently, but as the night wore on, he too became sleepy.
He closed his eyes for just a second’s worth of rest, then woke suddenly as a mouse ran across his arm. He jerked, hitting his head on the floor boards. Cursing silently, he settled in again, watching the trap with the intensity of a circling eagle.
At length, Newell thought he could hear movement toward the trap. He strained his eyes. Suddenly he saw the foul smelling creature, close to the trap, but not quite inside. Newell’s hands gripped the rope, ready to spring the trap the moment the skunk went in. He didn’t have to wait long. The skunk ambled under the box directly to the cup with the gruel mix.
Newell jerked the rope, the stick was away and the skunk was trapped.
“I got him. I got him,” yelled Newell, shimmying out of the crawl space as fast as he could. He ran into the shack, but the three men were snoring, dead to the world. “Humph,” he remarked to himself, “Big help y’all were.”
Carson was the first one up since it was still his turn to cook. He started the fire in the pot belly stove, then rattled dishes in his cooking. The other three men stirred. Butch sat on his bunk, pulling his pants over his long-handle underwear. He noticed Newell, still in bed but leaning on his elbow, a big smile on his face. “Did you catch him?” asked the young, curly haired man.
“Sure did. That trap worked just like I told you guys it would.”
“Well, I’ll be damned,” squawked Caleb. “That calls for a celebration.”
“Sure does,” agreed Butch. “Let’s open a can of peaches for breakfast instead of waiting till Sunday.”
The men dressed, then sat at the roughhewn table to enjoy flap-jacks and peaches. Carson was mad that Newell’s idea worked and at all the attention he was getting. Finally, Carson said, “Okay, smarty britches, how’re you going to get him out from under the shack now that he’s caught?”
Newell smiled, unperturbed by the cook’s attitude. “I’ve been thinking on that. I’ll shimmy in to the peach crate and tie the rope on it. If we drag it out slow, he’ll have to walk along inside the crate.”
“And just how do you figure to get the rope tied without getting sprayed?” asked Carson.
Newell dropped his fork to the table, starting to lose his patience. He looked at the naysayer. “I heard a long time ago that a skunk can’t spray unless he can get his tail up. That peach crate’s low enough to the ground. I think it’s worth a try unless you know something better.”
Carson wiped the skillet with an oily rag before hanging it on the wall. He glanced back with a scowl. “Just be warned that if you get sprayed, you’ll have to sleep at the barn till the smell wears off.”
Caleb stood, looking at both men. Then while glaring at Carson, addressed the trapper, “Newell, I say you get on down there and pull the polecat out.”
Newell donned his coat, then stepped out the door and down to the ground below. In no time he was on his belly, slowly and deliberately working his way toward the skunk. The varmint hunched down at the back of the crate, facing Newell, beady eyes watching the man approach. The cowboy slowly tied the rope onto the wire of the peach crate, then backed out. Once outside he carefully pulled on the rope. All four men watched the crate slowly make its way to the light of day with the skunk reluctantly moving along inside.
Newell pulled until the trap and the skunk were ten feet from the shack, out in the open area at the front. Caleb turned and said over his shoulder to Carson, “Now you can shoot him.”
Carson was standing close, but he didn’t have a gun. Instead he held a can of coal oil. “Shooting is too fast. He made life miserable for us, he’s got to pay.” He stepped forward, poured the coal oil on the skunk, then struck a match and threw it into the peach crate. The oil on the skunk quickly caught. He was running around inside the peach crate in a panic.
“That’ll teach the little no-account,” said Carson smugly. Then looking at the rope, he said, “Newell, your rope’s burning.”
“Ain’t mine, it’s yours,” said the trapper.
Carson looked wide eyed at his only rope. “You used my rope?” he screeched.
He then grabbed the rope to get it away from the flames, but in lifting the rope, he also lifted the peach crate. The flaming skunk ran, terrified, to the only place of protection he could – under the line shack.
The tinder dry kindling that had been collected by a packrat immediately caught fire and in just a few seconds the flames were licking at the floor boards. Within minutes the shack was completely afire. The men rushed through the smoke trying to save what they could. It wasn’t much.
The four men stood at the barn, watching the flames leap skyward. No one said a word. Less than a mile away, approaching at a quick half-trot, was Freddy, the ranch owner. He had gotten an early start to come help the hands. He noticed the smoke and wondered what it might be. He rode into the clearing and stopped behind the men as they watched the burning building. The men, unaware he had ridden up, were startled when he spoke. “What happened?”
Three of the cowboys stood with heads down, waiting for Caleb to speak. Finally, the older cowboy said, “We was just trying to get rid of a skunk.”
Freddy shook his head, sitting silently, watching the flames. At length, he said, “Remind me never to let you dig a sliver out of my foot.”