Remembering a late-winter pelt payload
(Reprinted from above link)
The moment I walked in the house, I headed for the kitchen to warm up by the old Home Comfort cook stove.
Grandma had let the fire go down a bit while she watched her afternoon soap operas on our first black-and-white TV, but the room was still warmer than that back of John Butler’s old pulpwood truck.
John had recognized me as he turned onto the Eggbornsville Road and slowed down enough to allow me to hop up on the wooden bed that was still littered with pine bark.
It was near the end of February, and usually the weather is beginning to moderate at that time of the year. But not this winter. A late-season cold front had dropped down from Canada about two weeks earlier and refused to retreat north. It was cold.
The 2-mile ride in the back of that pulpwood truck quickly chilled me to the bone. The cab provided some shelter from the wind, but not much. And John, who was heading home after dropping off his second load of pine logs that day, was giving his machine plenty of gas.
Yes, I could have waited and rode a nice warm bus home from school, but that would have made me an hour later arriving. Our route was the bus’s second run, and it would have been 4:30 before I got home. If I ran or hitched a ride, I could make the two-and-a-half mile trip in less than 30 minutes, putting me at home by 3:30.
An hour doesn’t seem like much, but when the sun goes down at 5 o’clock and an eighth-grade country boy has two miles of traps to check, it can be an eternity. So, I walked home each day, hoping to get a ride and speed up my trip.
I warmed up and was about to go upstairs to change into my everyday clothes when my grandmother came in from outside. After a few brief words of greeting, she gave me some news.
“Emma [her sister] called and said that Warren Utz told her to tell you that Bamber is coming Wednesday and this might be his last trip,” Grandma said. “If you have any furs, you’d better have them ready.”
Bamber was the area fur buyer. He lived over in the Valley, near New Market, I think, and made winter trips through the countryside all the way to the Chesapeake Bay buying furs that he would resell at auction.
I would later learn that this man actually had a first name, James, but back then he was simply “Bamber,” and he was coming Wednesday. And this was Monday.
I did have a dozen or so furs hanging in the old meat house, a few muskrats, a coon or two, one buck possum and several skunks. They were dry and ready and all I had to do was pull them off the stretching boards.
But I had one skunk that I had not skinned and it was almost solid black. Today, fur buyers prefer polecats with more white, but back then it was the black skunks, those with perhaps just a patch of white on their heads, that brought the most money—about $2.
There was a good reason why I had not skinned that skunk. He was frozen solid. My trapping season had ended when that last shot of frigid air came in and this was the last pelt I would take that year.
I caught him just before the cold front arrived and, as was my custom, I hung him up on a tree limb to air out for a few days before skinning. Unfortunately, the cold air arrived while he was airing and overnight he froze like a rock. So, I just put him in the back of the meat house, figuring to skin him when he thawed.
There was no hurry, I thought. Bamber usually didn’t make his final trip through until the middle of March. Now, I found out that the fur buyer was ahead of schedule. I had a problem.
I might still have until Thursday, I thought, because Bamber would often spend the night a Warren’s house, where the two would drain a bottle of cheap wine and swap trapping stories. But I couldn’t be sure. I had to skin that polecat. The pelt wouldn’t be dry, but I at least had to have it on a stretching board to make a sale.
But how would I thaw that skunk? The cold wave showed no signs of breaking. Then, as I stood warming by the fire, I came up with a plan.
The next morning before I left for school, I went out and got that skunk and wrapped him up tightly in an old feed sack. Then, when Grandma was in another room, I stuffed the packaged polecat behind the kitchen stove and left.
I really didn’t know what to expect when I got home, but thanks to Grandma’s bad sinuses and her inability to smell, I didn’t catch the grief that I was prepared for.
“Do you smell something like pepper burning?” Grandma asked when I walked into the house.
I said that I did not and after shaking her head a couple of times, she let the subject drop.
When she had left the room I sneaked the guano sack-covered skunk—now completely thawed—out the back door and within 15 minutes, it was skinned, fleshed and hanging up. Mission accomplished.
Bamber, as I suspected, was a day late to pick up my furs. The black polecat brought $2.25, and I think I wound up with about $25 cash money for my entire late winter catch. Twenty-five dollars! That was big money back then.
Grandma never did find out that I had hidden that skunk behind the kitchen stove that morning. In retrospect, knowing how much we needed money, she probably would not have been too mad, but I was not about to take a chance.
Sometimes you do what you have to do—no matter how bad it smells.