THE CAMPING TRIP

Bob Olson and I went, as usual, on our annual fall camping trip this September. Since both of us had recently gotten divorced (Bob’s third, my first), many of our friends expected to hear of romance crackling away along with the campfire. Maybe with two other people. Our camping trips have never been known for romance, even when we were young and our hormones were percolating. Instead, they were known for their disasters: the time we got lost in the Badlands for two days and I tore my knee out in a rainstorm, the time all our gear got washed away in a flash flood, the time Sam came along and brought his .45 (a fact we only found out after he fired it in the middle of the night), the time… you get the picture.
This time we just made it into the papers: “Local man arrested for murder on the Mickelson Trail.” Luckily, the only one they mentioned by name was Elsie. They described her as a hero, which proves they didn’t get the grammar or the story right.
Elsie is Bob’s latest companion, who moved in with him in August. Elsie. A beautiful, exuberant, devoted, affectionate, brown-eyed, red-haired aristocrat: a pure-bred Irish Setter. Don’t get me wrong, Elsie’s a sweetheart, she really is, but the thought of taking her out on the trails made me almost as nervous as she was. Back when we were planning our trip, I made it clear that she wasn’t staying in my tent.
“Nor am I carrying her food in my backpack,” I’d told Bob. “Don’t worry,” Bob had replied. “I’m going to make her her own backpack.” And he did. I watched him. I absolutely refused to help, not that I could have even if I’d wanted to. I was laughing too hard to be allowed near sharp objects, such as needles. The kit came with the words “Sew Your Own Quality” written on it and Bob certainly did that. Let’s just say it took longer to make the pack than it did to destroy it.
Elsie was a problem from the beginning. For one thing, she was way too big for the back seat of Bob’s Toyota, and I kept having intimate experiences with either her nose (surprisingly cold) or her tail (surprisingly active). And she had poor bladder control. We stopped the car for her about ten times on the way out to the Hills, which meant we got in much too late to hit the trail that night. We dropped Elsie off at a motel where she curled up on the bed and happily watched PBS and munched dog biscuits while we went into Deadwood for dinner. Or at least that’s what she was doing when we left her. Who knows what dogs do when you go out?
We got up early the next morning and hit the trail, each of us wearing our packs. Elsie didn’t think too much of hers. She tried, in the first three hours we were on the trail, twenty-five different ways of dislodging it, twenty of which worked. What with finding the pack, finding Elsie, holding Elsie still, finding the pack again, and putting the pack back on Elsie we covered about one mile in those three hours. Then it was lunchtime. We had six more hiking hours and nineteen miles to go before we reached our proposed campsite. Elsie was fresh as a daisy and I was pooped.
We camped that night in a crowded public campground. Elsie did her best to make friends with everyone there, especially a heavy-set man wearing a Sturgis Motorcycle Rally t-shirt and jeans. He was not a happy camper. He was ticked off about something, perhaps everything, and yelled at anybody and everybody who seemed to be invading his space, with the result that all of us avoided him. Except Elsie. Don’t tell me that dogs understand your emotions. She loved him. She invaded his campsite, his tent, his dinner, and his pants, all with equal abandon. All his shouting was just another form of affection to her. Things got so bad that Bob finally had to tie her up for the night, which embarrassed both of them.
“I don’t understand why he’s being so hostile,” Bob said. “She’s just being affectionate.”
“Some people don’t like a cold wet nose in their bellybutton,” I said. “Or muddy paws in their chili.”
“Well, he didn’t have to be such a jerk about it,” Bob muttered.
“Oh, shut up and go to sleep,” I muttered back.
Tying Elsie up did give Bob an idea: He’d tie the pack on to Elsie so she couldn’t get it off. So the next morning, he and the dog and some rope all wrestled around together until he and the rope won. By this time, all our fellow campers, including Elsie’s new best friend, had left, and we had the trail pretty much to ourselves. We made much better time even though Elsie stopped and sat down every five minutes, trying to figure out what had happened. After a while she became distracted by the wildlife. She chased squirrels, birds, ominous rocks, threatening sticks, and innumerable leaves. She also routed out two skunks and a porcupine. You’d be surprised how hard porcupine quills are to remove from a large, active dog. I was just thankful the skunks had ignored us.
Once Elsie got her nose back, she headed off in pursuit of more prey. I had already mentioned a leash: Bob was against it.
“Linda, I brought her out here so she could run free.”
“She’s running into everything in the neighborhood.”
“She’s having fun.”
“Whatever.”
By this time my opinion of life, the universe, and Elsie was low, to put it mildly. But we went on, and my spirits rose. It was a beautiful, sunny day. We were on a remote, pristine, ribbon-thin trail that ribboned around steep slopes covered with glistening, slippery leaves. Elsie had bounded far ahead of us, far enough ahead, I hoped, that we might finally see some deer. We came around a steep switchback and there he was.
It was our fellow camper, the one to whom Elsie had taken such a fancy. He was just as angry, and she was just as affectionate. She was leaping all over him and trying to lick him in a frenzy of joy that completely overlooked the fact that he had a rifle in his hand. Nor had she seemed to notice the body that was lying by the trail, half-covered in leaves and sticks.
“Can’t you control this freaking dog?” the man barked, trying to shove Elsie away.
“Yeah,” Bob said. “Elsie? Here, Elsie! Come here, girl!”
Elsie bounded towards Bob, then back towards the man, then back towards Bob. She couldn’t make up her mind.
“Elsie, come here!” Bob said. This time when Elsie bounded towards him, Bob caught hold of the pack and held her as she strained towards this new man in her life. “Sorry.”
“You need to keep her on a freaking leash,” the man growled.
“We will from now on,” I said. “Come on, Bob. Let’s go back to the campsite.” Bob looked at me like I was crazy, which is when I realized that he hadn’t noticed the body any more than Elsie had. “We can have an early dinner and watch the sunset.” By now I was nudging Bob backwards, which was irritating him. He doesn’t like to be nudged. “Come on, Bob.”
I was almost getting away with it when Elsie broke loose from Bob and ran back towards the man, only to stop and start sniffing the body. The man looked at Elsie, Bob looked at Elsie, I looked at the man, and watched as the rifle came up in his hand, towards us.
“I think maybe you’ll spend the night here,” the man said.
And all I could do was swallow. What they say about your life flashing by is nonsense, but boy, what they say about events moving in slow motion is TRUE. That rifle, arcing in the light. Elsie’s nose, scattering leaves. Bob’s face, going white. The rifle. Elsie, turning to gnaw at the pack. The man’s other hand, gripping the front of the rifle. Elsie, sitting down to get a better chew. And then, out of nowhere, came a magnificent, aching howl, that at first I thought I’d made, until I realized it had come from Elsie, who leaped up – and we were now in fast-forward – and plunged straight down the mountain. Behind her rose a buzzing, yellow-black cloud.
I don’t care what sort of weapon or threat anyone is holding over you, when a hive of hornets is after you, YOU RUN. I ran like the wind, screaming the whole time. The only threat to my life I recognized were the kamikaze hornets, stinging me for all they were worth. When I saw three of them crawling on my hat, I went into total hysterics, during which I almost died and the hornets did. The hat remains on the trail to this day. Anyone who finds it is welcome to it.
Some time passed, and Bob finally caught up with me.
“Where’s Elsie?” he asked.
“The hell with her,” I snapped. “Where’s the man with the gun?”
We looked around. There was no sign of the man, but Elsie was huddled by a tree fifty yards down the mountain. She looked lost, forlorn, and miserable enough to break your heart. “What should we do?” he asked.
“Leave her,” I said, and we did.
Oh, quit worrying. She caught up with us.
We went on, if you’ll pardon the expression, at a dog-trot. We would have moved faster – an angry man with a rifle and a dead body lay behind us, after all – but we were tired and getting sick from all the stings we’d received. Bob had been stung about ten times on his face, and was swelling visibly, like a bad horror movie. I’d gotten all my stings in my hand, which had already doubled in size. We finally stopped by a small stream and were bathing our wounds when Bob asked, “Is there anything good for stings?”
“Tobacco,” I said. I was looking at my hand and waiting for the skin to break.
“Do we have any?”
“You made me leave my cigarettes at home. You said my lungs would collapse out here.”
“Well, I didn’t know this would happen.” My look must have been unfriendly, because he quickly said, “It’s not my fault.”
“You brought the dog.”
A sullen silence followed, during which I remembered the pancake mix. At the time it seemed perfectly logical: pancake mix has baking powder and soda in it; baking powder or soda (I couldn’t remember which at the time) was supposed to draw the poison out of the stings. I mixed up a thick batch of it and we plastered it all over ourselves. We even put a thick layer of it on Elsie’s rear, but she just licked it off so I can’t say whether it helped her or not. Then we sat in more silence and watched the bright yellow pancake batter swell and dry and crack.
And then we went on. It was almost dark when we finally came out on the highway. Bob started trying to wave down a car immediately. He had no idea what he looked like: a nuclear mutant from a Japanese horror movie. No wonder the only person who stopped for us was a highway patrol officer, and he looked nervous. He looked even more nervous when we told him our story.
“So let me get this straight,” he said. “You’re saying that the two of you --”
“And Elsie,” Bob interrupted.
“The dog,” I added, helpfully.
“The three of you ran across somebody who was burying a body up on the trail, and the only thing that saved you was that the dog sat on a hornet’s nest?”
“That’s about it.”
“You do look like you got stung awfully bad,” he said. “You feeling all right?”
“No,” Bob said.
“Actually, I think it kind of evened up his head,” I said. Bob swatted at me.
“You know you got a bunch of yellow stuff all over your face and arms?” the patrolman asked uneasily.
“Pancake batter,” I said. “For the stings. Draw out the poison.”
“What happened to the man who was burying the body, Mrs.…?” By this time we were in the car, and Bob and Elsie were in the back.
“Miss,” I said. “Linda Thompson. This is Bob Olson. We’re just friends.”
“Miss Thompson. What happened to the other man?”
“No idea,” I said. “Those hornets came up and I started running. He probably did, too.”
“He could be anywhere,” Bob said, struck with the thought.
“You two been drinking any?”
“Just water,” I said.
“But we have plans,” Bob added.
Luckily, Bob knew a couple of the cops down at the Deadwood courthouse, and our story began to be listened to with less disbelief, although far more humor. We got Bob’s car and eventually found a six-pack, a pizza, a pack of cigarettes, and a motel that would take dogs and had a smoking room for me.
The next morning we all went back out on the trail, along with two policemen and a couple of forest rangers. It’s amazing how much one section of wooded trail looks like another. I was beginning to wonder if we’d even been in this part of the state when suddenly Elsie bounded ahead of us and started worrying a flat, dirty, green object with energy and conviction. It was, of course, my hat.
“It’ll be about a mile up the trail,” I said proudly.
“Try five hundred feet,” said a ranger, who was looking through a pair of binoculars.
I threw the hat away – like I said, it’s still on the trail – and looked ahead. There were those boots…
“Maybe you should stay here,” Bob said.
I said a word he’s heard many times from me, and we went on. The body was still half-covered with leaves and sticks, thank God. The policemen started working on it. The forest rangers fanned out, looking for where the man might have gone. I lit a cigarette and watched as Elsie bounded and gamboled and slid after them. I strolled a little up the trail – just far enough away so that I wouldn’t see what was under all those leaves and sticks and dirt. Elsie came running back up to me, sticky and dirty and happy. Then she bounded off again, down the slope. I heard Bob say something and everyone laugh. And then Elsie let out a loud bark, and there was a loud gunshot, and as I hit the ground all I could think of was, “Oh, Lord, please don’t let there be another hornet’s nest here.”
Elsie had found him. Murderers run from hornets just like the rest of us, only he’d slipped and ended up at the bottom of the slope with a broken ankle and a lot more stings than Bob or I had gotten. And no pancake batter. He’d spent a long, cold, lonely night out in the woods, until Elsie showed up and then he shot her.
Oh, don’t worry. He didn’t even wing her, just scared her half to death. She yelped and went running as fast as she could to Bob, who cradled her like a baby. Meanwhile, the police went down and told him to throw down his weapon, or they’d shoot him, and he did.
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Local man arrested for murder on Mickelson Trail

John Milford of Deadwood was arrested for the killing of David Olson on Saturday, September 25. Milford and Olson were on the George S. Mickelson Trail when they continued a fight which had started in a Deadwood bar earlier in the week over a motorcycle belonging to the defendant. According to Milford, Olson had borrowed and crashed the motorcycle and was refusing to pay for the damages. “It just got out of hand,” said Milford. The defendant shot Olson in the chest. He was trying to bury the body by the side of the trail when he slipped and broke his ankle. Milford was forced to spend the night in the woods and was discovered the next day by a dog belonging to a pair of hikers. The heroic animal, an Irish Setter named Elsie, led police to Milford, despite being shot at by the defendant. Milford is being held without bond…
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Heroic animal. You know what she did on the way out that day? She routed out a rattlesnake.
Bob called me last night. “Hey, how about Wyoming next year? We could go out to the Grand Tetons, do some fishing, hiking, camping.”
“What about Elsie?” I asked.
“Now, Linda, I can’t leave her at home.”

THE END