I had an uncle named Lloyd who lived in Deadwood long before it became a hot tourist town. He was a character and I loved him dearly. He was ¾ Sioux Indian and incredibly handsome. I had a bad case of hero worship, and when his family would come to our place in Eastern South Dakota or we’d go there I tagged along behind him and soaked up his “Indian Lore”. Aunt Shirley, Lloyd’s wife and my dad’s sister, had another name for his Indian lore. I won’t repeat it here. I had red hair, freckles and blue eyes and Lloyd had jet black hair, dark skin, and eyes so deep brown they looked black. So with his twisted sense of humor he became the “Lone Ranger” and I was relegated to “Tonto”.
Every year Dad and Ma would go out there to go hunting with Lloyd and Shirley. We needed the meat, and I think Ma and Dad needed the break. I always loved to go to Deadwood, even though I ended up just babysitting my siblings, because I thought my cousin Cathy was the epitome of cool. She played guitar and sang like a bird, had huge brown eyes and softly curling dark brown hair. She and I were just a few months apart but it felt like she was so much older and wiser.
Finally one trip Lloyd and Dad asked Cathy and me if we'd like to go with them to hunt and have our mothers take our place staying with the little kids. Boy would we! I'd been deer hunting before, but never had the chance to shoot. I could blast a 7-Up bottle into a million pieces and I was a dead shot on rabbits. A deer was much bigger...how hard could it be? That day we took the rifles to some out of the way place Lloyd knew and practiced, sighted in, and just generally tried to act like big shots in front of our dads. We stopped at a little Mom and Pop store and stocked up on Pepsi, candy, and I think Cathy and I got our general deer permits. (I'm fuzzy on that because I know we needed them in subsequent years but I don’t think we did that year.) All the way up that twisty, nasty back road the next morning Dad and Uncle Lloyd instructed us on the need to be alert, to keep quiet, and to do exactly - EXACTLY - what we were told the second we were told, without hesitation or questions. They stressed that we needed to rely on their experience and orders. At that time Uncle Lloyd was employed as a game warden and he and Dad lectured us incessantly about the regulations as well.
But we were undaunted as we jumped out of Lloyd's old IH Travelall. Cold? Lordy it was cold way up high in the Black Hills. Our boots crunched a little too loudly on the snow as we found a convenient little bush to take care of what drinking sodas and bouncing over every rut in the road had precipitated. Then we crunched our way back to the truck and were given our guns and our instructions - again!
We split up. Cathy went with Dad and I got to go with Uncle Lloyd! I had my rucksack wrapped in flannel, just as Lloyd had told me. He was right - the flannel muffled the sound of branches catching on the canvas! The snow was crusty, but he was heavier than I was so he left prints just deep enough for me to step right into. He took small steps, stopping every couple of yards to just watch and listen. He whispered that if I was really quiet the pine trees would sing to me. He was right about that - there was indeed a soft song coming from them. He also told me to check the piece of thread tied to the very end of the barrel of my gun for little puffs of breeze so I could shift my eyes as the wind shifted. He told me that that way I wouldn't waste time looking the wrong way and would only be looking for deer that hadn't caught our scent. What do you know? Uncle Lloyd was right again! That little tiny piece of thread caught every little shift in air currents, showing me exactly where the light winds were coming from.
We went along for some time in the quiet of the early morning. He moved with competence and experience and showed no signs of any discomfort. I, on the other hand, was freezing and beginning to wonder if we would ever see a deer! Deer are far less cooperative than bunnies.
Lloyd stopped, pointed to the branches of a huge pine tree, told me to crawl under them and sit against the tree trunk. I was to wait for him right there and nibble on my Snickers bar for energy. This tree must have been there since the beginning of time and its thick branches touched the snow all the way around it, like a heavy dark green skirt. He said he'd be gone for a few minutes and that I would warm up under those protective branches. I did as I was told, and found the ground underneath dry. I wasn’t one bit scared being all by myself as I slowly ate my candy bar, listening for either the sound of a shot or for Uncle Lloyd's return. He was right about that too - it did feel like I was getting a little warmer.
The branches parted and Uncle Lloyd motioned for me to follow him. He said he'd found fresh deer sign and that we were going to head that way. So again I took advantage of his short little footsteps. We hadn't gone far at all when he stopped suddenly. I was so focused on watching the edges of the tree line off to the side that I bumped right into him! Deer tracks! He crouched down and showed me how to check them to see if they were fresh or old. Then he pointed off to one side of a particularly large set.
"See those little dark pellets? That's deer poop. If those pellets are fresh we're about to get pretty busy. I'll show you how to check 'em." I'll bet if I'd have looked up at him right at that moment, what was about to happen wouldn't have happened - the orneriness in his eyes would have given him away. But, good old, dumb, obedient 13 year old that I was, my eyes never left the pellets on the ground as we moved toward them.
He picked up a couple and squeezed them. Looked to me like he was squeezing that poop pretty hard, but then what did I know? He sniffed the ones he'd picked up as well.
"Okay, Tonto, let's see what you think. Do just what I did."
Well, okay, I had gloves on. I picked up a couple of them, squeezed like he'd done, and smelled them too. I got nothing, but then my nose had been running and frozen for the past hour....they were hard as little rocks and to my untrained nose had no smell at all. So Uncle Lloyd popped a couple of them in his mouth to taste them and then he spat them out on the snow. Wait! What? Oh,no, not this girl! He looked at me with all seriousness and said, "We told you girls that if you wanted to do this you had to do what we told you. If you ain’t gonna learn anything we’ve wasted a hunting trip."
Oh, I groaned. I gagged. I even tried to argue but when he gave me what Aunt Shirley used to call his "Watch out Mr. Custer" look I was sunk. I'd promised. Cathy had promised. He'd been right about everything he'd told me to that point. And Lloyd had done it and spat them right back out. He'd survived. It wasn't like I had to swallow them or anything. So I took a deep breath, tried to tuck my tongue into the back of my throat so they wouldn't touch it (not real successfully, by the way) and I put two of those little round brown pellets in my mouth.
Oh,GROSS! Oh, NASTY! Oh, wait...do deer eat chocolate? And caramel? I spat them out but couldn't get the taste of Milk Duds out of my mouth. Milk Duds? MILK DUDS? Back then Milk Duds weren't coated with a thin layer of the shiny, light brown stuff like they are now - they were dipped in the same type of chocolate that chocolate covered peanuts are still bathed in. They were good back then! Uncle Lloyd laughed so hard he couldn't even maintain his crouching position...he just sorta fell over, whooping and wiping his eyes. I felt like such an idiot….an idiot who didn’t think the whole thing was one bit funny!
We hunted for a while longer, but when even Uncle Lloyd got cold it was time to head back. We hadn’t seen a thing except some tracks and some Milk Duds. I was still walking behind him, and darned if his shoulders didn’t periodically start shaking as he thought about his funny little trick. I was fuming. But what could a 13 year old do against a much loved grownup? Couldn’t yell at him. Couldn’t cry and be a baby. The closer we got to the Travelall the lower my head drooped. I yanked open the back door, plopped my backside on the seat and grabbed a bottle of Pepsi. It had reached that partially frozen slushy stage, and just what I needed to wash the taste of humiliation and “deer poop” out of my mouth.
I looked up when I heard Dad hailing Lloyd. Behind my dad, Cathy was shuffling her feet. She saw me and picked up speed, finally diving into the seat beside me. I handed her a Pepsi and said, “Milk Duds?” She nodded. I grabbed the red wool blanket and tossed it over us.
Late that night Cathy and I were still awake, finally warm in our sleeping bags on the living room floor. She’d been much more quiet than usual and I was madder at my dad for humiliating her than I was at Uncle Lloyd’s trick on me. The house was silent and I was trying to think of way to cheer up my cousin. Dad went into the bathroom and ran a tub of warm water. Almost everyone was sleeping, and after a few more beers Dad told Lloyd he was going to crawl into his quick bath. Cathy slipped out of her sleeping bag and tiptoed to use the bathroom first. When she came out Dad ruffed up her hair and went on his way. A few minutes later we heard a string of cuss words coming out of the bathroom and my dad flew out of there. He stopped dead, looked down at Cathy and said, “Touché!” then went back down the hall, presumably for another beer.
I looked at Cathy. She flipped over on her back, put her arms behind her head and said, “Baby Ruth in the bathtub."