Grandpa Stuart’s Cougar Tales
as told by Grandma Williams (my mom,) and me
During the years my mom was growing up, not only did Grandpa Stuart, her daddy, work for Pepsi Cola, have two bands, (The Sagebrush Rambler’s and Tommy Stuart’s Lucky Five,) and his own radio program, he also had the only sawmill in Twin Falls, Idaho for many years. He bought the sawmill with the money he had saved from working for Pepsi when my mom was about 13 or 14. He’d go up with some other men, log, and bring the timber back down to Twin to saw up at his mill. However, he spent time in the mountains before my mom was a teen. She recalls some stories about her daddy.
She tells them like this:
1. Daddy would go into the South Hills and make camp then later drive back to the camp with Mom and I. He would drive the old truck with no brakes up into the mountains. Well, one time, there was no camp made up as yet and Daddy parked the truck and we had to hike a spell to get to the camping spot. Daddy held the lantern and mom held my hand. We heard a scratching sound and my mom said, “Oh my god, the cougars got us!” Daddy shined the lantern light on it and it was a porcupine.
2. One time Daddy was in Albium chopping down Rue Brenalds cherry or peach orchard and mom and I were camped out not far away, under a tree. Mom and I were laying on a blanket and I was not old enough to be in school yet. Mom’s little Pekinese dog was with us. Suddenly mom said, “Eileen, go get your dad, there’s a cougar up the tree!”
I ran real fast and even ran through a bunch of sticker bushes. By the time Daddy and I got back to mom, the cougar was gone. According to her, it had been watching our little dog. It took them hours to get all the stickers out of my feet.
3. During the Depression there was a $50 bounty on cougars. $50 was a lot of money back then. Well, Daddy heard that there was an old cougar up in the South Hills and so him and Uncle Bernard decided we’d all go up and get the cougar. On the way, dad stopped at Red’s Trading Post so daddy could purchase some shot gun shells. Uncle Bernard slept out under the stars in his green sleeping bag while mom and I slept in a tent. It was cold enough for my eyes to get all matted up and mom had to use boric acid to get my eyes unstuck. Well, that night, Uncle Bernard got no sleep at all because the cougar walked straight through our camp and although my uncle grabbed the ax, he was too scared stiff to either use it or yell for anyone else to wake up. The next morning he and daddy hunted the cougar but never saw it. As they were coming back to camp, daddy decided to practice shooting the gun because it had been a while since he’d fired it and in case they did see the cougar, he wanted to be ready. He took aim at probably a tree stump or something and fired the gun. The bullet just rolled down the barrel and plopped down on the ground at his feet.
4. And there was still another time, when they were after the same old cougar, and your Grandpa had gone back to town for good shells. This night, the cougar decided to cruise our camp, too. This time, my mom heard it and yelled. “Tommy, get your gun!” And she ran out of the tent, dragging me with her and sat me under a tree in the middle of the camp and told me not to move. Grandpa was now out of the tent, running around in his red BVD’s, trying to load the shotgun and see the cougar. It screamed and they all looked up. It was in the tree branches above my head. He shot it and it was a really old cougar. It could not have eaten anyone of us because it hardly had any teeth. Daddy said, “Maybe it could eat some porridge.” But boy, was I scared. I think I might have been about 5-years-old.
And here’s my own cougar tale as my Grandpa Stuart told it. First off, you should imagine my grandpa a little. He puts his fiddle down, and shuffles over to the red vinyl chair, his chair, in his kitchen. I take the other red vinyl chair, the one with the tear near its base, grandma’s, and am all ears. He’s over a hundred years old now, by my calculations, which differ a good twenty years from what he’s told other people. He’s missing most of his teeth. He sits back and takes his time pulling out his tobacco bag, the red and white kind, rolling a perfect cigarette. Lights it, then, clears his throat a little and blows through his lips, not smoke, just a bored sort of old habit. Even though he has no teeth, he still speaks with a brogue, yes, an Irish brogue. He was raised in Ireland even though he’s Scottish. His eyes are steely gray, like Merlin the wizards, but with a lot of twinkle. I’m asking him for stories. He dances his long, bushy eyebrows and gives me a smile.
“Ah, yes. Harumph.”He takes a short drag. “I twas younger then. Twas during the depression. Those were hard times. Hard times. I was walking, walking the highways. There were folks with kettles of soup on the highways in those days and long lines of folks like me, walking, just walking from one place to the next. I’d come up from San Fransisco and had nothing but the clothes I was wearing and a sack o potatoes slung over my back. No knapsack. No, not even.”
Well, I knew he’d been a rum runner and had played his fiddle and banjo along the west coast, but he was sounding pretty destitute at this time. I couldn’t help but wonder what caused him to quit his rum-running. He did mention his “stash” was well-hid within the Redwoods. Things must have gotten hot or something. What stories wasn’t he telling me? I looked up. He must have seen my mind working and thought to steer it towards less dangerous waters.
“Yup. Hmhmm. Lots of families even, folks with small children, all of us waiting in the soup lines set out on the highways.” He takes another puff, flicks some ash into the ashtray and repositions himself. “I took off, got tired of it all. I left that highway and set off towards the east and across the desert. There was one night I set up camp, nothing much, just collected enough small wood for a small fire, nothing big. Once night fell and the stars came out in the heavens, my little fire seemed small, very small.”
He wiggled his eyebrows while I imagined the vastness and solitude.
“A cat came. A mountain lion. He took a seat right across that tiny campfire o’ mine and stared across the flames at me while I stared right back at him. Wasn’t no use rising up n running, wasn’t no use to do nothing but stare, and sometimes, when the flames would start to smoulder and threaten to die, I’d reach out like this.” He reached out an arm and searched with his hand along the tabletop, never taking his steely eyes off me. “I’d reach out like this, never taking my eyes away from that lions eyes, and my fingers would feel a small twig or stick and I’d feed that bitty stick to the coals and the fire would light up again. Eventually the lion, he lay down and watched me watch him and I fed that little fire with every twig I touched and prayed they’d last. Once daylight came, that lion just up and walked away.”
He wound up walking from San Fransisco all the way to Twin Falls, Idaho. I didn’t ask how long that sack of spuds lasted. By then Grandma came in and his stories would have to wait for another time. She had to get supper going. Fried Spam, canned green beans, and bread with butter. Grandpa squished out his cigarette, gave me a smile and brow wiggle, then shuffled outside to walk his orchard.
This must have been in 1930. I believe my mom was born in 1932. Grandpa hooked up with my Grandma there in Twin while he was playing at some dance.
Click here to read Cougar Tales Part One
FYI: There are more than two parts to my Cougar Tales. Stay tuned and keep sharing your own here on the comment area!