Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore
August 15, 2009
Claude Dallas was a self-styled mountain man, an Ohio boy who moved to the mountains of Idaho to lead a fantasy life as a trapper and ranch hand. It’s hard to say what he really thought, but it seems he fancied himself the last of the truly independent men of the West, a man capable of living on his own without need for rules, unless they were his rules.
The serious problem arose when two game wardens arrived to question Dallas about poached game stored in his southern Idaho camp. From trial testimony, it appears Dallas didn’t feel compelled to answer their questions, so he simply killed the two game wardens.
In my job as a Forest Service volunteer, I watch over hunting camps in the surrounding mountains on horseback, reminding people to pick up after themselves, to obey the rules pertaining to road usage, and occasionally checking hunting licenses. That’s on the surface of it, at least, but more often than not, I find myself tracking suspicious behavior, sometimes out of curiosity, but also because some people have a tendency to do stupid things in the mountains.
I operate alone and sometimes go days without contact with the outside world, which suits me well. My two-way radio can be patched in to the sheriff’s frequency in a dire emergency, but that’s never happened. I’d been following some vehicle tracks in a non-motorized area when the trail suddenly forked, deep in an expanse where few people venture. The same vehicle appeared to have gone once in either direction, indicating the vehicle may have still been in the area.
Which way to go? The long shadows of late afternoon were upon us, and I made the decision to take the right fork, thinking that since it was more in the direction of my own camp, I might be able to make contact on the way home. Neither direction seemed more likely than the other.
Sometimes, the Claude Dallas story hangs in the back of my mind when I’m doing stuff like this, for, as I said, the freedom of the mountains can make some people a little crazy. It wouldn’t matter if I kept a .38 special holstered to my rib cage, or a .44 hog leg strapped to my belt, or if I traveled totally unarmed, to a man desperate, for whatever reasons, I represent implicit danger just by the government uniform I wear and could be taken out before I see it coming.
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As it turned out, I followed the tracks through a maze of old logging roads, ad nauseam, and just before dark, found myself near the trail back to my cabin. Clearly, I’d made the wrong choice – should have gone left instead of right, but figured I’d come back in the morning and take the other fork. There were no signs of the tracks coming out, so the odds were good I’d find this guy.
I rode out a couple of miles from the cabin to check my cell phone messages and found one from my contact at the Forest Service that gave me a slight chill. He had received information that very day, concerning an alleged felon, armed and dangerous, who was believed to be hiding out in the region I had just been canvassing. “Under no circumstances” should I venture “into that area.” I had a realistic, but bizarre vision of riding into his camp, unaware of the danger, my government uniform declaring me a card-carrying member of the establishment, and summarily getting shot.
The wanted man went back to the city to harass his girlfriend and got arrested there. Immediately thereafter, my contact and I found his camp and through some incredible forensics, positively identified it as his.
Although I’ve been requested to remove the encampment, I think I’m going to leave it until the guy gets out of jail. When he comes back to check it out, I’m gonna write the SOB a ticket for illegal use of a motor vehicle.
Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.