Remember, only the screw ups are worth reading: About two years after the"I shot the truck" incident, my brothers and I decided that loading up four of our saddle horses,three for riding (one each) and one for packing, and spending a weekend hunting up in an area of the Little Belts called "Lost Fork" just as the season opened would be a “grand idea”. After planning the trip for about two weeks while we finished the fall seeding, we were finally ready for the "grand excursion". Loading up the horses in a stock truck, and all our gear into that self-same 4X4 that I had shot, we headed in to the mountains, "the great whitehunters". We arrived in the"unloading" area on a Thursday morning before the hunting season opened, got the animals all saddled and packed up, and off we went. The first thing a fellow finds when he starts into the Lost Fork area is a climb call "stud-horse hill", it is named appropriately and has left any number of four wheelers stranded shy of the summit. While it is not necessary torest your mount before you complete the climb, it is recommended by all who do it with any regularity. Once the summit has been reached, there is a relatively flat traverse until one drops down into the valley and begins the trip upstream to where the Lost Fork branches off from the main stream of the North Fork of the Judith. If you are on horseback, you only need to fordthe stream once or twice before a well-worn horse trail appears which allows you to stay, for the most part, high above the Judith as you move farther and farther into the mountains. This is a spectacular ride, as you are above the river in some places by at least 100f eet, and in some others as little as 25, the vista is awesome. But perhaps the most delightful aspect is that when you are on horseback, the sounds of the river tumbling over its rocky bed, and the scent of the forest is unadulterated. Now, the whole experience melds together with sights, sounds, and odors giving an overall impression of only slightly"human altered" primeval mountain scenery. It is really quite impressive; the trail itself is the only real clue that you, yourself, are not among thefirst to see this place. It has always amazed me that the amount of litter on that trail is so slight, since it is used by countless people from all over the world as it is the main supply routefor the Circle Bar "dude ranch" which also has a cabin not far above the branch-off of the Lost Fork. When we had nearly reached the fork of the river where we would proceed into the area where wheeled vehiclesare now prohibited, we set our first camp of the trip. This spot has been used by others, but really very few, since from it to the next is only a few miles. I had chosen it for just that reason, it is relatively unused, and approximately 1/2 the way up into the area where Iintended to set up our "hunting camp", out of which we would mostly hike afoot for the hunting itself. This first stop would allow the horses a nice rest before attacking the harder part of the journey, and split it into two easy segments rather than one difficult trip forboth the mounts as well as we three. Three young men, one in his late-twenties(myself) and the others teen-agers have an inordinate sense of optimism, andthat very thing along with "first hunt together" enthusiasm makesgoing to sleep that first night an inordinately difficult thing toaccomplish. That and the fact that a guyhas got to stop pretty early in the day actually, since when the sun goes downin the mountains. It goes down and out with a vengeance. There isn't much of that sneakysort of dusk that a person finds out on the "flats", one minute youcan see around the camp, and the next you are only able to see slightly outsideof the circle of the fire. Both of mylittle brothers had questioned me as to why we were stopping so early in the day,only about 5:00 or 5:30 p.m., and until the dark ran up and grabbed them, theythought I was pulling their proverbial legs about why we had to do it this wayif we wanted both supper and a place to sleep. After sitting around the fire and getting tired of each other's stories,we retired to our sleeping bags and attempted to go to sleep. This proved impossible as the questions ofwhere we were going and what were our chances of getting a decent hunt kept onand on, until I finally suggested that we light up the Coleman lantern, andplay a few hands of three man Hearts until it got somewhat later in theevening. We had picketed our mounts withample "parachute cord" (this is a flat cord that my father hadpurchased at a surplus outlet, a tightly woven OD green nylon) so that theycould browse during the night. We couldhear them walking around; snorting at each other quietly as we finally fellasleep. When the morning dawned, wearose, re-built our fire for breakfast, ate and then re-packed the camp ontoour horses and proceeded up the Lost Fork to the place I had chosen "in myhead" for our base. Before noon we had found the spot, re-pitched our camp, andpicketed the horses experimentally as to whether they would have enoughavailable grass to reach while we hunted on foot. After many practice spots were tried andrejected, we finally had four places where the horses couldn't tangle in eachother’s leads, or wrap the leads up in brush and other obstacles and shortentheir reach. When this was done, we atea lunch, and I told my brothers to "look around at the area", get theshape of the mountain tops memorized, so that if we were separated for anyreason, they could either go up or down stream to return to the camp. We then set off on our first "areascouting" sortie to find the best spots in the immediate vicinity fromwhich to do our actual hunting. By lateafternoon we thought we had found them, and returned for supper in pretty goodspirits and high hopes for the morrow. We then checked our horsesconsumption of the surrounding grasses, found that they had not eaten all thatmuch, walked them down to the river for their evening drinks, and brought themback and gave them all a "treat" of a few handfuls of feedpellets. By the time we had tended theanimals, eaten our own supper, and extinguished the fire, it was getting darkagain so we crawled into our tent and cranked up the Coleman for anotherevening of three handed Hearts. Afterabout two or three hours of this, we decided to sleep, and had only been asleepfor what seemed like a very short time, when Jeff woke me up and said hethought he heard something outside the tent that sounded like ol Blue (our packhorse) "passing gas" in an area where he should not be. Dad jokingly called him the “Blue Farter”, ina reference to some fish or something called the “Blue Darter”. And Blue was a gas passer, every step couldbe punctuated with a “blast” at times. The four horses we had with uswere, the aforementioned “Blue” (a gelding of advancing years), but goodhealth, strength, and temperament; my brother Jeff's personal animal, “John Boy”who was an extremely tall beast of four years (and the only stud in the bunch),my own gelding “King”, and the one Jon was riding (an appaloosa that belongedto our step-mother) whose name I cannot recall as I write this. When we peered out of the tent, there wasjust enough moonlight to spot both “Blue” and Jeff's stud disappearingdownstream, dragging their small "picket" trees behind them! Now, the idea of going off in the dark totry and re-capture them left us all a little cold and we decided todouble-check the tethers on the remaining two mounts, and search them out in themorning. Needless to say, the nightpassed very slowly and when we finally had enough light we set out reallythinking that they would only be down the stream a short distance, and we couldreturn to camp and continue with our hunt as planned. What we think happened is that a MountainLion had either come through or passed our camp up-wind and spooked those two,and their “anchors” were just weak enough to give way. Now while the remaining two werethe mounts Jon and I had ridden into the mountains, Jeff now rode Jon’sappaloosa and I rode King, and we had Jon simply await for our return. He was the “little brother” so he had littlechoice. By the time we had reached thejunction of the Lost and Middle fork, with no sign of the beasts, we weregetting quite concerned that we wouldn't find them at all. There was a new camp at the junction now, andwe stopped there and rather sheepishly inquired whether those hunters there hadseen our two horses. They all gave outlaughs of various quantities, and asked if one of the horses was dragging asmall tree? We told them that they bothhad started out dragging trees, but we had found one of those trees upstream,dragged damn near into kindling. Another"hoot", and then they informed us that they had seen both horses comecharging through just before first light, and they hadn't even slowed down asthey proceeded downstream. Jeff and I had a confab aboutwhat to do now, and we decided that the best thing was for one of us to returnand secure our camp and get brother Jon, and the other to continue upstream fora ways to find out if the "trail" that was being put down by thedragged stump continued in that direction. I volunteered to go back for Jon, break down the camp and store it undertrees and such, return to this area and slowly proceed downstream. Since Jon and I would be riding double, andKing was getting on in years too, it would be easiest on him if we went at areduced pace, and rested quite often. Sowe parted company, and I returned to Jon and did the deed the best I could tomake our gear less than obvious to the casual passing hunter. When Jon and I got back to theplace were the two streams merged, we realized we had no idea whether or notJeff had already passed by, or was still upstream searching. This little bit of non-foresight on my partwas embarrassing, but not a total fiasco in that Jeff was a bright guy, and ifwe just "parked" our carcasses right there and waited, he would turnup from one direction or the other. Nowwe waited, and waited. When it startedgoing "dim" again, we built a fire, and decided to cook up the smallsnack stuff we had remembered to bring with us from camp. I had thought, incorrectly it now appeared,that we would be returning to our camp before nightfall (with all four horses),and would eat when we got back there. All we had brought along with us were two packages of hot dogs, abouthalf of our trailmix and a few pieces of homemade jerky. Jon and I saved Jeff a few dogs and some ofthe other stuff, and shortly after we had finished eating this meager meal,Jeff rode into our sad little camp, and told us that he had ridden all the wayup to the permanent camp the dude ranch maintains, with no sign of the animals. He had talked to the folks at that camp, andthey hadn't seen any loose horses come their way, and so he had ridden back toour camp, found it taken down, and figured he would find us downstream just ashe had. He apologized for not comingover to this area sooner, but had not seen us when he first turned and went upthe Lost Fork to our now packed up camp. This evening there wasintermittent cloud cover, and so the moon only shown through occasionally, andwhen it didn't it was black as pitch out here. It was still reasonably early, only about 6:00 p.m., but already pretty damn dark when the clouds covered themoon. Out next decision was one that weprobably should not have made, but it turned out to be the best oneanyway. We discussed our options, stayhere for the night, ride back to our old camp and try to set it up in the dark,or just mount up and ride out and back to the trucks. I told my brothers that while I had neverpersonally ridden in the dark, I had heard from our father and others thathorses are most trustworthy animals in the dark. Their sense of smell and hearing takes over,and they will just follow a path once started out on it with an uncannysure-footedness. It took the three of usaround an hour or so to come to this decision, but after we had done so, we putit into action and were more than pleasantly surprised at the ease with whichthe horses did the job. My "respect" forhorses had always been somewhat lacking, but after that nighttime ride itdefinitely went up more than just a few notches. The horse path that we followed was mostlycompletely unseen by us, but the horses never placed a hoof wrong the whole wayup, down and out. I could every now andthen catch a glimpse of my gelding’s ears, and they were on constant swivels ashe "listened" to the path, as well as smelled it out. When we passed by the area where we knew thatthe river was below us by at least ahundred feet, we could hear it rushing by to the right and below, but thehorses never even broke stride or speed. Jeff and I took turns giving Jon the "double-up", and soneither of our mounts had to do the heavy duty work the whole way. The little appaloosa of our step-mother hadmuch more difficulty carrying two, and so I took Jon more often and for greaterlengths of time than Jeff. By the time we had reached thestud-horse hill decent, we had decided that we were going to make it all right,and just in time to load in the morning light and return home for a breakfast. That was mostly how it went. We got back to the trucks, loaded our tworemaining mounts, and drove on home for breakfast. When we got home, the horseswere unloaded, given a curry/brushing, extra oats, and many thanks. My wife (Sammer) was more than atad bit surprised to see us sitting at the table eating when she camedownstairs to make her own breakfast that morning. She had not heard us arrive, didn't expect usback until many days later, and we had been as quiet as we could be while wecooked up eggs and sausage. While wetold her the tale of our "lost horse, Lost Fork" hunt, she giggledand chided us as the "great white hunters", basically making life asmiserable as she could. Again getting on me for the “shooting the pickup” hunt,wondering why I even bothered to go hunting at all. You shoot trucks, you loose horses, and theonly time you put meat on the table is when you hunt around the place. Wondering out loud how ourfather would take the news of two of his horses being "mis-placed" upin the Little Belts, and trying to help us to figure out how to avoid thatparticular trouble. She did mention onething that turned out to be our salvation however, when she told the story ofher Dad using his plane to search for lost cows on the Cut Bank River, she gotme to thinking about where I could borrow a plane. Our father had sold his Piper Cub andTri-Pacer long ago and his Apache was beyond my ken, and I knew of only onefella around whose plane may be available. To the west of our place, we bordered a family named French, and theiryoungest son Danny was a commercial spray pilot who had two planes for hiswork, and one for pleasure. One was hissouped up older Super-Cub, one was a Piper Pawnee spray specific plane, andthen there was his restored four-place Stinson Bison. Later that day I drove over to their homeplace and tracked Danny down, I told him my tale of woe and asked if he couldhelp me by over-flying the Middle and Lost Fork areas with me, if I bought thegas. He had his laugh, and agreed. We took his old Super-Cub since he flewsupplies in and out of the dude ranch camp with it on a regular basis, and knewwe could land there if need be. After we had flown the whole ofthe Middle fork, North Fork and Lost Fork, and turnedaround to head back empty-handed, Danny suggested something I would never haveconsidered. The Middle Fork of theJudith was "planted" with Elk sometime in the past, and the Game andFish people had erected an "elk trap" down at the base of the riverso that they could capture, count, tag, and inspect the herd as itmatured. Danny said, "You know, ifthose horses were moving on their own, they might just have gotten in there andcould be just standing in it." Thissounded unlikely to me, but worth a look since we hadn't spotted them anywhereelse, and I was already trying to think of how I was going to pay for thesesuckers if they went unfound, or were loaded up by somebody else and just"absconded with". My father isfar from a forgiving soul when it comes to his horses, and I was already farfrom his favorite son, this might just be the capper on our relationship. Danny flew out of the river run,circled for some altitude, and flew over the elk trap, and surprise, surprise,there were two horses standing in the big pen. A more pleasant sight has not been seen by me in respect to horses. Just standing around, already caught, waitingfor someone to come and get 'em. Boy ohboy, what a beautiful sight. All I had to do now was figure away to go and get the gear my brothers and I had left in the Lost Fork, andtake the whole silly mess home and put it behind me. After Dan had flown us back to his place,and I drove home to tell my brothers the good news, I discovered that theycouldn't help me go get this stuff because they had to return to their schoolclasses soon and hadn’t done their required school shopping before the“hunt”. I needed another hand to help meget this crap out of the mountains, and I was afraid that all my buddies hadalready taken off on their own "little excursions of the fallhunt". This fortunately turned outto be untrue, but at that very moment I was more than a little concerned aboutmy ability to go and retrieve it all by myself. Seemed like it was going to takethree round-trips into the mountains atleast, without assistance. One up to getthe horses, one up and back with one horse on lead to carry half the stuff out, and the last oneto get it all down and out of the mountains and loaded into a truck. Turned out that my good friend,Pete, had returned from his hunt early that fall (successfully), and wasavailable to give me assistance. Wemade it in and out with only one over-night stay required, and since all thegear necessary for two people to stay over, with food, tent and"fart-sacks", was already in place, we did not need to do anythingexcept get our four horses fed and watered, grab a six-pack of brew, and"do the deed". Needless to saythis "rescue" trip was a business only type of excursion, no huntingor other-side tracks were taken. Missionaccomplished in a two day period, horses and gear "home again, home again,jiggity jig" and Dad was never (to the best of my knowledge), informed ofthis particular fiasco. I can only hope.