“Mosquitoes! You old duffers don’t know mosquitoes!” I kindly mentioned while visiting with my weekly group of old duffers. Each of us seemed to have our own mosquito tale trying to outdo the other with Alaska mosquitoes, Oklahoma mosquitoes, Arizona mosquitoes and on and on… What a bunch of old codgers! They had no idea of what real mosquitoes were like. Of course, I was just the one to set them straight.
“Now listen up. You guys are starting to sound much like a bunch of old biddies each with the most hackneyed, stale, banal stories I’ve ever heard (Sometimes I tend to exaggerate). My tale, I mean, account, is the total truth which I can assure you.”
“Back in the day when I was in high school and worked summers for a local rancher out of Big Piney in western Wyoming, now that was when mosquitoes were bad. Not like the little nilly willy ones that are around today or like the ones you guys have mentioned. We had real, giant mosquitoes”.
Bob, the ranch owner, had sent John, Cuss and myself up to the Connor Place near North Horse Creek to repair fence along the forest boundary. It was early Spring sometime in June…. Yes…. June is Spring in the Wyoming Range. There were still snow banks melting in the warming mountain air creating gullies of runoff along with pools, sloughs, and waterholes of that fresh mountain liquid that is the life blood of Wyoming. Without mountain snow melt in the Spring, Wyoming would be a dried up desert. Water fresh and cool was most abundant this time of year. Though it sure did make for multitudes of places to bred mosquitoes and monster ones at that.
Cuss was in charge of us as he was the hired man who had worked for Bob for many years. John and I were high school kids working Summers. As you know, it’s hard for ranchers to hire good help. However, did you know, it’s just as hard for ranchers to hire bad help? So here we were, bad help, but cheap. We just hoped Cuss packed plenty of grub and bug repellent.
We were staying in what I would call a line shack. It might have once been a nice log cabin when it was new back in the Paleolithic era. When we arrived, it was at least still standing. The logs hadn’t seen paint for eons and had been bleached silver grey by sun, time and weather. The crannies between the logs had long ago lost their mud chinking making plenty of spaces to see through and you can well imagine creating passage for critters like mosquitoes or skeeters as Cuss called them.
We hauled our bed rolls and food for the week into the old shack. It had an ancient and dilapidated cast iron wood burning stove and a beat up kitchen table with four wobbly chairs in the front room. Jim Bridger was probably the last one to enjoy a meal on the table when he came through the area in the mid 1800’s. The walls were covered with burned in brands from local ranches making them a great historical study if a person was of a notion to pay close attention. We weren’t as the skeeters wouldn’t let us stand still long enough to sneak a gaze at the brands. The front room had one nice bunk which Cuss immediately claimed. John and I were relegated to the adjoining room. Of course we were miles from electricity, running water, and flush toilets.
Cuss pointed to where the privy was located. It was in worse shape than the shack. It consisted of silver-colored grey boards leaning to one side. A crescent moon shape had been cut in the door. I wasn’t sure it would last past the next good push of Wyoming wind. If the wind came up, well, none of us were anxious to end up in Nebraska while in a flying privy. In addition, we could imagine the sumptuous feast on bare bottoms the skeeters would enjoy at our expense once we were behind its closed door.
Cuss told us if we wanted running water, we’d have to run down to the spring with a bucket and run water back to the shack. Cuss also warned us of the skeeters that hung around the spring. He told us, “don’t bring any of those really, blankety blank cuss words, BIG, expletive, more dirty words, ones back to the shack as I don’t want to have to protect you little sh_ _ s from them”. He continued, “we haven’t seen the big ones yet and you had better not be attracting them. I don’t want you two ##^&*## acting as ###,^^&* skeeter bait. There’s skeeters out their big enough to carry your lard a___s off into the forest never to be seen again”. Both John and I stood with eyes big as plates imagining the damage that a skeeter that size could do to our tender young behinds.
I opened the door to the adjoining room where John and I would toss our bed rolls. There were a couple of old mattresses each with a skim of dirt. Cobb webs covered the streaked windows and mouse droppings on the window sills welcomed us to our new home for the week. Dust darkened the wooden floor. After brushing the caked dirt off the mattresses, John and I each threw our personal gear on a bed. I grabbed an old broom that still had some of its yellowish bristles and began sweeping and scraping the dirt while swatting skeeters. One would think I was a musician the way my arms were flailing and thrashing about trying to keep those droning, humming, buzzing beasts from landing on me. In the back of my mind I envisioned what a really large skeeter might do to a person.
After cleaning, fixing the bedding, and devouring sandwiches, We crawled into our blankets trying to ignore the dust, dirt, grime, and skeeters in the room. We each had to sleep with bedding covering our heads out of fear we’d wake up with large red welts from bites or being carried off by larger bugs. Best to hide under the covers than face that. Soon, I found myself deep in sleep while a nightmare of riding and roping … skeeters…. romped through my tortured slumbering brain. Eventually calming, my nightmare turned into the possibility of sitting in a large bath tub while marinating in bug repellant.
Nightmares of riding and roping skeeters were all to soon interrupted with a loud, screeching voice saying, “grab your blankety, blank (lots of cuss words) socks, you blankety blank lazy little blankety blanks. It’s time to get your blankety blanks out of that bedroll and get out here. Breakfast is ready and if you don’t get up, I’ll feed it to the blankety blank skeeters. They’ll probably do more f_____g work today than you will anyway.”
Cuss was not only the ramrod of our small contingent, but also a heavy smoker, a masterful cusser, and camp cook. He was never without a cigarette protruding from his mouth even while cooking. He lit his first smoke before he crawled out of his bed roll which created more fog that I suppose helped protect him from skeeters.
As I crawled out of my sleeping bag, smelling the delicious cooking aromas coming from the kitchen, I noticed what appeared to be an extra large skeeter as big as a rat in the corner. In my waking fuzziness, he seemed to wiggle his wings and stick his fisted front feet in his ears apparently trying to block out Cuss’s cussing. He finally vanished towards the the kitchen as he apparently heard the words that Cuss was going to feed breakfast to the skeeters if we didn’t crawl out and get to breakfast. I wasn’t sure I was awake yet or not.
John and I joined Cuss in the kitchen. Cuss stood over a hot cast iron skillet with over easy eggs frying. Bacon sizzled next to each egg, and sliced sheep herder spuds were browning in a separate pan. The wood burning stove radiated warmth on this cool mountain morning. John and I huddled next to the stove and absorbed not only the heat but the delectable bouquet of fragrance from the breakfast Cuss had whipped up.
With his beat up Stetson pushed back on his head, he elbowed us aside puffing his stubby cigarette with ashes suspended half an inch on the end while at the same time exhaling smoke through his nostrils. I was happy the ashes didn’t fall into the eggs and pleased that there were fewer skeeters hanging around all that smoke. As he opened the oven door we saw a pan of golden biscuits. He used one of his grubby work gloves to pull the biscuit filled tray out and sat them on the table.
We consumed everything in site. Cuss mentioned that it appeared John and I had been competing in an eating contest. John slouched in his rickitty chair, arms hanging, fork laying on the table, head hanging as if done in from eating too much, and moaning about eating all that grub. He had apparently conceded the contest to me as I asked if there were more taters and another biscuit and and how about more bacon?
It would take much of the morning to repair the fence only because John and I would have to walk a section of fence which consisted of a steep, rock strewn, sagebrush-covered hill. There was no way to drive a truck to it. I noticed that Cuss’s section was on flat, grassy, bottom land, and he could drive to it. As he drove away he waved and then snickered to us, “being the f______g ramrod and cook has its advantages. Enjoy your blankety blank morning”. A cigarette protruded from his mouth and smoke filled the interior of the old beat up Chevy cab but he was not swatting skeeters like we were.
Heading up the hill, John packed the fencing bar and a post. I carried a shovel, wire stretchers, and another wooden post. We each had a pocket filled with wire staples and a canteen of cold spring water. Fencing pliers dangled from John’s belt.
Up the hill we started with a spring in our young steps. Legs pumping hard. With each step that hill seemed to propagate more hill and build into a mountain. The higher we climbed the further the top was from us. Our fencing equipment seemed to grow in weight. Mosquitoes, deer flies, and horseflies buzzed about our heads and sometimes landed on bare skin. They sunk their proboscis into exposed flesh extracting all kinds of our body fluids. We’d drop our equipment, slap at those pesky critters, utter some new words we’d picked up from Cuss, gather our tools and move on until the next time we were attacked.
We became so perturbed at all the biting bugs, we put our coats on, pulled up the hoods, stretched our sleeves to our gloves in order to protect us as much as we could. We decided it was better to die of heat stroke instead of bug bites. Cramming our straw hats on top of our hooded heads we continued our ordeal.
Being 16 and often including girls in our conversations, I suspect if any young ladies met us now they would run off in hysterical fits or maybe fear us as if we were some new bred of Sasquatch; either of which they would not want to be associated with.
Reaching the fence after what seemed like a decade, we set about tightening barbed wire with the stretchers, pounding stables, adding a post where an old one had broken off and doing whatever needed done so the fence would stop cattle from wondering into areas they weren’t supposed to. All the while we waved arms, slapped at skeeters, deer flies, and horse flies. Their only intent was to sap our blood.
Finally reaching the corner where we finished our work, we threw down our tools, plopped onto the hard ground, and found shade under a sagebrush as we each gasped from effort and heat.
As we lay there sipping cool water from our canteens, recuperating from our long trek and long, hard, hot work, we tended to dose off. Startled from our short nap, we discerned a very loud buzzing. It sounded like two B-52 bombers instead of two gigantic, overgrown skeeters larger than an elk. As we laid there breathing hard, we thought we overheard this conversation. “These two look like tasty morsels. Shall we peal and eat them here, or take them back into the trees and enjoy our feast in the shade?” The second buzzing B-52 said, “naw, let’s devour them here, if we pack them back into the trees, the big boys will take them away from us.”
John and I gave each other a ‘what the heck’ look, quickly jumped up, grabbed the fencing tools and bolted. It didn’t take us long as we were both hell-bent for leather scurrying down the newly repaired fence line, dodging sagebrush, rocks and any flying critters which might have us in their sights.
I was a faster runner so I beat John to the truck but he wasn’t far behind. We jumped in and rolled the windows up. Cuss looked at us as if we were a couple of dunderheads. He threw his cigarette into the dirt, stomped on and pulverized it with his work scarred Tony Lamas, and headed to the truck cussing at us and taking long strides we didn’t know he had. All the while pulling out another smoke, lighting it, not missing a step. I think the smoke we saw coming from Cuss this time was not only from a cigarette.
“Can any of you old duffers beat those skeeters?” I asked my old codger friends. They answered me with loud defeated silence.
No photos this time but feel free to look my photographs over at http://samsherman.imagekind.com/.