October Sundown

elk hunting

UP THE ROAD A FEW MILES FARTHER, he makes the four-mile hike to Storm Lake basin on tired legs, using a gait that allows his hips to alternately lug them with the aid of swinging momentum. No matter, he’d have crawled to this spot. If Oak Branch was hallowed ground, Bear Charge was sacred. Out comes the Copenhagen.

He sits softly on a gray, weathered, downed tree trunk, his eyes transfixed on the scene. A thousand times he’s seen it in his mind, every time the incessant mental cop questions his courage and makes his life hell. His eyes trace the mountain flank where he’d delivered a solid, front-on hit to a five-by-five bull from 30 yards after catching him returning from the creek. Again he marvels at how the bull took the full impact of 180 grains without flinching. Just stood like a statue in winter until the man thought he’d missed clean, when the elk suddenly spun and flew down to the creek, crashing just short of water.

As he’d prepared to pack out that first load of meat, his rifle leaning 10 feet away against a tree, a sow and two adolescent cubs appeared 30 yards ahead. The sow startled, and during her delay, the quartered elk somehow gained life-and-death value to the man. After a stare-down, she charged, hair bristling and teeth clacking, but the man stood his ground. She put on the brakes at 20 feet. Now it was the man who bluffed a charge, stopping at 10, prepared to win or die. Here the man cursed it, traded growl for growl, and shuffled forward with his fists raised. The bear grabbed her cubs and retreated.

“When he returned for his second load of meat, the old sow bear had brought reinforcements. Two boars were picking over the remaining quarters and carcass.”

The man never told the story to anyone. No one ever asked. Besides, the ending wasn’t so good. But many a night, with just himself and a bottle of whiskey, he brought it back in vivid color. And whenever the misery cop accused him of being a poorer father than his own had been, or laughed that he was an abject failure in comparison with other men, or just recently when it aped that he’d finally achieved his mandate of becoming good for nothing, the hunter pointed to this very spot and replied maybe so, but on that day, with his bare hands, he challenged three bears and sent them running.

Sometimes a lone victory can stave off a thousand defeats, so long as it’s big enough.

Sitting on the blowdown, he gives thought to climbing the flank to re-live the head-on shot, but his legs are spent almost beyond what’s needed to get back to his truck. Besides, in all truth, it wasn’t really a clear victory. When he returned for his second load of meat, the old sow bear had brought reinforcements. Two boars were picking over the remaining quarters and carcass. The man didn’t charge in for a second round, and the cop hits him over the head with it every time.

AFTER PARKING IN THE LAST CAMP ON HIS ITINERARY, 36 miles from the R&H, off a two-track that wound crazily through the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest, he rises again before the sun. His last bologna sandwich serves as fuel. If Oak Branch was hallowed ground, and Bear Charge was sacred, then what lay here among the mountains is holy ground. His only regret is that he discovered it almost too late in his hunting career.

His legs feel like pig iron. He drags them up and over the first mountain in fractions of steps. No sense hurrying. He stops frequently as the footing gets more precarious and the risk of falling increases. He sits a number of times, waiting for his legs to catch up. He looks ahead at the next mountain where, 20 years ago, he met another man who’d come out of nowhere, a cripple who, despite his affliction, could scale mountains. The afflicted man had approached him slowly, wincing and chewing with his face, moving his body with gentle yanks like he was shooing flies from all parts, an outward misery that mimicked the old man’s inner turmoil. The men had exchanged pleasantries as well as two armed strangers in a wilderness could, then sat and talked for hours. The afflicted man told him about a spot he knew tucked between mountains, a place where the gene pool was deep and frozen. The same place he is now heading despite the weariness in his bones. The place he’d bagged many a six-by-six, starting a streak of 10 seasons with the antlers scoring 360 or better. These men hauled the first monster bull out together, and looking back he swears the crippled man hauled twice as much meat as he did.

The air had been whipping up clear signs of the impending storm, and now the temperature nose-dived and began dropping nickel-sized snowflakes over the bare woods like goose down. With his back sagging and his legs nearly without feeling, he shuffles down into glory—a double saddle straddling four forested mountains like a bracing cross, shrub-infested and swamp pocked, offering shots from 50 to 400 yards. The only skills required were knowing the location, having the temerity to hike in, and pulling the trigger.

Sitting in his old nest with a 270-degree view, he finishes off his canteen and hears his stomach growl. The Cope succors him. Waiting, he goes over each hunt and each huge elk, feeling again the weight of the meat and the antlers on his back, and that lowlevel fear of wondering if he’d have to fight off another bear for the meat. But soon the memories turn bittersweet. This time the torture isn’t in the nagging reflection of a life barely lived, or the accusations of a conscience schooled by hell to dog him, but of seeing himself young and strong beneath antlers and hams, and knowing it would not return. Of Amy and her “come and get it” eyes to which he had faltered, knowing she was gone, too. He wonders about the afflicted man—as close to a mentor as he’d ever had—where he was, if he made it to the Promised Land and was rewarded with a new body in elk paradise.

The sun has long drifted behind the mountains now, and the snowflake air is frigid. Forest color takes on its final gloaming and fades to a snowy dull gray. The cold that had dampened what weak flicker of warmth remained in his bones makes sleep compelling, but he knows he’d never return from sleep this far in. A last clear thought: The woodsman realizes the time has come to leave for just the chance at making it out alive.

Minutes drag by. The valley darkens, pastels turn gray and black, and only the contrast of trees against a snowy floor provides vision. The layer of sweat and grease he’d worked up on the way in feels like a plaster of ice, but other than shivering, he still won’t move. He came to see the elk.

The snow gathers on his face now, and the voice inside clears its throat. Oddly soothing, it says be patient, just a little while longer.

Relief to the penetrating cold comes in a mind-numbing delusion offering the hint of comfort, and with it the scene begins taking on an eerie iridescence. What’s that? Across the saddle, on a trail angling down the mountain, eight elk pick their way without the least bit of concern. His eyes bring them into sharp focus from 400 yards, they prance like Christmas reindeer, the last a massive seven-by-eight bull. He hears their social mewing as if they’d thrown their voices across the saddle into his nest. Now another pack train of cows climbs out of a swamp with their enormous bull. To his right another gray and brown harem, huge cows half the height of trees, followed by a bull with 10 points, brawny as a Clydesdale. The man’s legs feel a sudden surge that rises and chases the cold from his skin.

“Hold steady,” he whispers to his son, locked and loaded beside him, and clasps the hand of his redheaded wife. “Take him when you’re ready.”

Robert Ellis is a former professional baseball player who resides in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He is currently a therapist and e-book author. When not writing or counseling, he enjoys hunting big game in Michigan and Colorado.