|Flowers In My Garden
© Copyright 2001 by Travis Humphreys
First Prize General Nonfiction
This true story is about a man finding some surprising friends, and getting in touch with his inner self while making his way in the wilderness.
I frowned anxiously as I drove the last peg into the rough wooden bunk frame. I picked up my new bed and wrestled it into the tiny cabin. To my relief, it was an exact fit against the back three walls. A half an inch longer and it would have been too long. Six feet four inches was not very wide for a home, but it suited my needs nicely.
The deepening purple velvet of late afternoon began to creep across the mountainside. I felt a slight chill in the air as the shadows engulfed my side of the canyon. I hurriedly nailed on the last few cedar shingles and moved my things into the new cabin.
My grant had come thru the previous fall. I was studying the predatory habits of the local cougar population. There had been complaints of cougars preying heavily on cattle in the surrounding ranch lands.
It had been early December when I began work on the cabin, and it was very cold in the mountains. My temporary accommodations had been a tiny backpacker's tent. By comparison, this nineteenth century style dugout homesteader's cabin would be a palace.
I had looked forward to sleeping in a "real house" all through the long months of winter and early spring. I was expecting the feeling of being surrounded by solid rock walls, and the warmth of a real bed to be heavenly.
To my surprise I had a hard time sleeping that first night. Strangely, I had seldom given scorpions and other critters a thought while sleeping on the ground or in the tent. Now, inside the cabin at last, I was plagued by thoughts of scorpions creeping out of the cracks in the walls adjoining my bunk.
I had not built a door, and as I stared out the open doorway I even began to imagine a bear dropping in for a sandwich! Funny how the mind can play tricks.
I had been in those mountains for eight months, and there had been no scorpions or bears. The camp was about 7500 ft high in the mountains of southern New Mexico. There were very few scorpions, and the bears were very shy of people.
The second evening came. It had been stormy all day, so I had rigged a tarp as a curtain over the doorway to keep out the wind and the rain. Somehow I felt better about the bears too. As if a piece of canvass could stop a bear!
I awoke to a glorious sunny day. I wanted to take full advantage of it. I hauled rocks for a fireplace, tended my garden, cut almost a half cord of wood, and dug some roots for my supper. I'm not sure which job I should have left out of the day's schedule, but I had clearly overdone it. By late afternoon, I felt like I had been pulled through a knothole!
Deciding to stop for the day, I went inside the rather gloomy cabin, and lit the kerosene lamp. I lit the tiny gasoline stove and put the kettle on to simmer for a cup of tea.
I peeled the yucca roots and put them in a pan, with shredded jerky, dried wild onion, spring water, and a few pinion nuts to make my supper stew. Putting the pan on the stove, I made my tea and went outside to sit and relax while my dinner was cooking.
The sunset brought pastel shades of pink, violet, and purple that didn't even have names to the tiny hidden canyon. I was dazzled by the display of constantly changing watercolor hues on the snowcapped peaks. I sat in my newly constructed chair and ate the stew, with some acorn bread, while enjoying the show. The beautiful lavender brushstrokes slowly faded to the restful magic of twilight.
Pulling my jacket tighter, I left my chair behind and retreated to the comfort of the cabin. I gratefully crawled into bed and picked up my book...
I awoke with a jolt. It was pitch dark, and for a second I didn't know where I was. I felt a prickle on the back of my neck. Something was wrong!
My luminous watch dial indicated it was midnight. I realized I had fallen asleep while reading and the lamp had run out of kerosene.
I had no idea what had awakened me. I began to fumble for a flashlight on the rough table next to the bed. In my haste, my fingers grazed the light, knocking it to the floor. As I groped for it in the clutter of bags and boxes of gear, I thought I felt something furry brush my arm! I jerked my hand away, as if from a hot stove. I frantically felt around the tabletop again and found a match.
Striking the match, I found the flashlight. From the safety of my bunk, I shined the light very slowly all around the cabin. I found nothing.
Chuckling at my silly fright I lay back down. Then bowing to caution, I got up, filled the lamp with kerosene, and lit it. I turned the flame very low, but it still emitted enough light to allow me to quickly turn it up if needed.
Bump! Bump! Bump! Something was banging into my backside through the mattress. I seemed to levitate from the bunk, and I landed near the doorway at the other end of the cabin! I had a flashlight in one hand and a pistol in the other.
I crouched in the darkness listening to my own thudding heartbeat. It suddenly occurred to me that shooting that pistol inside a tiny rock cabin might be a wee bit stupid. The bullet would bounce around those walls in every direction!
Putting ricochets out of my mind, I grasped the pistol tightly, and crawled inside and looked under the bunk. I moved a box of gear, and found myself nose to nose with a skunk! In the next instant, something important became very apparent to me; I had obviously been been wrong about the bears. I'd had no trouble at all going through that canvas door!
My courage slowly came back to me and I decided I must reclaim my home. Bracing myself, I carefully moved back inside the curtain.
A small skunk was now sniffing around under the table. It took no notice of me at all. I quietly sat down on the bunk, and felt my butt being bumped from underneath once more.
Running and thumping sounds suddenly filled the tiny cabin, as if kittens were wrestling under my bunk. Two more little skunks came dashing out from under it! The three of them then began a game of tag that would have been delightful to watch, except for the fact that I expected to be gassed at any moment. After about five minutes, they passed through the curtain as easily as I had.
The next morning I sat in the chair in front of the cabin drinking coffee, and eating acorn bread and honey. In an absentminded moment of deja vu, I saw from the corner of my eye that my old black house cat was moving toward me from my left and rear. I tossed a piece of the bread to the cat. A split second later, I remembered she had been dead for 3 years!
I literally fell out of my chair in my attempt to turn and look at what I was feeding. I found myself sprawled awkwardly on the ground, facing the wrong direction. I hastily rolled into a sitting position. I'd been joined by one of the previous night's visitors. The little skunk was only about a foot from my left leg.
Instinctively, I froze, in order to avoid setting off the four-legged stink bomb. At that instant, it struck me that this skunk didn't stink! Nor had the others. It would appear that they didn't have any enemies in this little forgotten canyon and just never had to spray.
To my horror, the little skunk climbed into my lap. She checked my shirt pockets, found a scrap of jerky and quickly gobbled it up. At first, I was afraid to move. Even breathing seemed risky until the skunk curled up in a ball, and went to sleep in my lap! I grew brave and began to stroke her, very gingerly. She awoke and again searched me for food. Finding nothing, she wandered away.
I stopped work early that evening. I was eating my supper outside again when I saw them coming. The skunk from this morning and a buddy came out of the woods below and headed straight for the cabin. Curiosity overcame me. I quickly rose from my chair, and fetched bread from the cabin. I sat on the ground next to the chair and tossed bits of bread to the two skunks. They ate it very daintily, as if they were using their best manners. When the bread was gone, they both came right over to me. The small female again climbed into my lap and curled up, covering her nose with her tail. The young male was content to lie at my feet.
At dark they got up and set off on their evening rounds to eat grubs, worms, crickets, and roots.
My new friends crawling onto my bunk and awakened me at about three in the morning. She curled up on my chest, while he lay at my feet. I was a little unnerved, but not in a position to argue. After a few minutes it began to feel quite normal and pleasant.
Remembering the little skunk in "Bambi", I soon came to think of them as my "Flowers".
They came to me each evening and morning through the summer and fall. The routine seldom varied, although sometimes there were three. They appeared to be siblings who had been orphaned, and this was no doubt why they had adopted me.
As the weather got colder, they began to come less often and then it was just the female who came, and finally she stopped as well.
I found that I missed my Flowers more than I would have expected. As I went about my daily work of monitoring the mountain lion population, I often looked for them, but to no avail.
Spring came and I was again trying to scratch out a meager vegetable garden in the rocky ground of those unfertile mountains.
As I finished my weeding one evening, I looked up and my little Flower was coming up the hill. She looked very proud! You see, trailing behind were three perfect miniature Flowers.
I found a biscuit and sat on the ground. I broke off small bits of the biscuit and tossed them to the little ones, trying to lure them closer. When they got too close, mama quickly headed them off, and she refused to come to my lap as well.
The sun went behind the mountain, and the velvety purple shadows again began to creep up from the canyon floor. Flower abruptly started up the hill behind the cabin with her family. She paused and turned back to me, resting her front paws on a small log. She stared into my eyes, as if to say goodbye. Then the moment was broken and she took her little family and trotted away into the deepening purple haze.
I am sure she came by to show me her little family and to say goodbye. She was a mother now and had to teach her offspring about the dangers of the world. Unfortunately, a man is the most dangerous of all. I never saw her again.
I miss having Flowers in my garden.
Travis Humphreys has been a Jack of all Trades. He has worked with explosives, and as a salesman. He has also been a sailor, a manager, an exterminator, a fireman, a cowboy, a miner, cabinet maker, hunting guide, and trapper. He lived alone as a mountain man for several years in the rugged Guadalupe Mountains of Southern New Mexico.
He now lives with
his wife Sherry in the beautiful Hill Country of Central Texas. He writes
stories of nature, adventure stories, and historical fiction.
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