One More Elk
“A seventy-one-year-old man’s got no business going out elk hunting by himself.”
Myrna made this proclamation while she poured Ed a shot of whiskey at the Oxford Bar, but Ed was paying more attention to how she could pour it to the very edge of the shot glass and never spill a drop.
He didn’t want to argue the point, but the day before, when he’d gone to Myrna’s house and met her deepest needs for her, three times in four hours, she hadn’t said anything at all about what a man his age should be able to do. Ed knew he wasn’t the man he once was, but he still had good knees and most of his wind, and three times in four hours, that had to count for something!
Myrna came back to him a few minutes later, hooked her right pinkie around his left one and said, “Ed, in my fifty-one years, I never met a man as tough as you. But please honey, don’t go out there by yourself. If I lost you I…”
Ed smiled. “Okay, sweetmeat. I’ll call it off.” He knew that she knew he was lying, but his lie would reassure her that he cared enough about her feelings to lie to her, and for a woman as good as Myrna, that meant a lot.
Ed left the Oxford Bar after that one drink and went home. He got to bed by eight and slept solid till one A M when his internal alarm went off. He dressed and made coffee and was on the road in twenty minutes, his gear already loaded the day before.
Driving faster than he normally would, he went east on Hwy 200, past Lincoln to Copper Creek Rd, then five miles up to a two-track mud road that he hoped led back in to where Dan Young had told him, a month before, he’d spotted the biggest bull elk he’d ever seen, alive or mounted. Ed had decided right then to go after it, seeing it as an appropriate climax to a long career as a successful meat hunter.
The road was as rough as Dan had warned. It took three hours to go five miles into it. It dwindled to ruts blocked by a fallen tree, and there, Ed stopped, got out and set up his Coleman Stove. He heated enough canned stew to make him groggy after he finished it, filled his small thermos with coffee and started putting on layers of wool. He made a final check of his gear, shouldered his pack, then headed east, his rifle in his right hand, his compass in his left, and a .44 magnum strapped to his waist. Ed never went in to the bush without that .44. He had too much respect for grizzlies.
He stayed on the bearing Dan had given him for five miles, counting his footfalls to gauge the distance. He’d started to overheat after the first two uphill miles and now his coat was open and he was breathing deep but keeping a steady pace.
The going got slower through tangled brush, then leveled off to a lodge pole flat, then uphill again, bearing always east, till he came to a jagged ridge overlooking a broad meadow. The meadow had to be a thousand feet below, and if the elk came out, sometime before dawn, he worried he might not get a safe shot, so he worked his way across the face of the ridge, as slow and quiet as he could. He found a good spot and settled in. It was almost 6 A M. He estimated he was almost eight miles from his truck, so if he didn’t get his shot off early, he’d never make it back before dark, not if he was loaded down with a bull’s rack and a load of meat.
He settled onto the pine-cushioned ground, glassed down into the meadow, checked the wind, and waited. He was nerved up as usual on an elk hunt, but he was tired from the forced climb. He settled back against a tree. It was still as death up there, not a hint of a breeze. His mind gave him a picture of Myrna, with her long black hair plaited on top of her head, her face rosy, the lit-up smile she always gave him when he came to the Oxford, the same smile she’d given him the day before when he’d left her house.
He kicked himself out of this silly dream and glassed the meadow again. Above and to his left was a higher ridge. He didn’t know what was on its other side, but that might be where the elk were bedded, waiting to come out to feed. He decided to change position. He got up and took a few steps toward the ridge but a distinct smell stopped him. He scanned the ground around him, and in the starlight he saw a fresh pile of bear shit. Its surface gleamed in the faint light. The stuff wasn’t steaming, but it was definitely fresh.
Ed glanced around him. A faint breeze crossed his nose, so he checked behind him, saw and heard nothing, and hurried up the side of the ridge. He was winded and stopped to rest. The sight of fresh grizzle shit and the coming of dawn had him breathing way too shallow. He squatted down and forced himself to breathe deep.
Dim grey light rose over the hills to the east. From where he sat, he felt pretty good about getting a shot down into that meadow. He settled onto his butt, wrapped his arms around himself for warmth, shivered when he thought of that fresh bear dung, and chuckled at the memory of having tracked around the Montana bush for fifty years and never once seeing a grizzly, except for the time he was sitting on a friend’s deck in town, looking out over Rattlesnake creek, and saw a big grizzly sow stroll across the back yard followed by her three cubs.
The morning light was about to pour into the meadow. Ed got to his knees, looking down into it. He scoped with his range finder. He was well within range, maybe a hundred and fifty yards. Then to his left, on the next ridge, a dark image rose. First came a massive antlered head, then the rest of a huge bull came clear. It was looking down into the meadow, checking to see if it was safe. Ed froze. The big dark shape became clearer as more light came. It was a bull, a way too-big bull. Fucking Dan, Ed thought, he exaggerates sometimes, but not this time.
Ed’s entire body thrummed with a feeling he loved and hated. Spotting a bull elk sent his heart into spasms. His blood got hot and sweat dribbled into his eyes. He was under the spell of that elk, but he was calm enough to check the wind again and when he felt it chilling his neck he got seriously worried. If that bull got the slightest whiff of him it would vanish.
As he raised his rifle, the elk’s massive head scooted forward and reared back with a piercing bugle, telling his heard it was safe to come out to feed. Ed had his rifle poised at his shoulder. He scoped down to the Elk’s shoulder blade. At that instant, the elk turned to him and Ed fired.
The kick of the Winchester sent a flow of sweat into his eyes, and while he blinked the big elk shuddered. Ed was sure he’d hit and just as sure he’d missed. The elk held steady, then staggered forward, then toppled down the side of the steep ridge. It stopped once on a log snag, then slid another thirty feet. Ed looked on, glowing with primitive joy, forgetting in his moment of glory the sorrow that would soon follow
He eased down the steep slope, got to the bottom of the valley and started up. He was directly below his kill when it slid again toward him. Ed hurried out of its way but its massive rack caught on a young spruce. Ed eased up to it. He stood over it, shaking, out of breath, not believing how big it was. Myrna might be pissed at him for going hunting alone, but she’d be awe-struck by the size of this rack.
Ed had no time to lose. He dropped his pack, set down his rifle, pulled his knife from his belt, tested its edge, lifted the elk’s huge hind leg and cut away a circle of the foul smelling hide. It was an area that bull elk’s spray with their urine and he didn’t want it touching the one hunk of meat he wanted. He made a cut up center of the bull’s belly, reached in and cut around the diaphragm, held his breath and pulled out the gut bag. It rolled out okay, but by now Ed was winded and wondering if he should even bother with any of the meat. He’d have to haul it up this ridge, and down and up steep muddy ground and all that long way back to his truck. He straightened up to ease the nagging pain in his back and decided to let the coyotes have the carcass. All he wanted now was that massive elk’s head.
He cut around the upper neck as best he could, sliced through the tough neck muscles, then with his small hatchet he chopped at the vertebrae. He was working so hard he didn’t notice the wind had shifted. It brought a stiff breeze to his face that he was grateful for, and in his haste and joy at killing his grandest elk, he didn’t notice the bear.
It came from behind. Just before it struck, Ed had stood up, aware, in some primitive way, that danger was near. The blow caught him on the right side and spun him around. He landed by the elk’s tail, sprawled out on the ground, unable to get his wind back, trying to raise his head to see. He got a few gulps of air down but he was too stunned to feel fear yet, because his mind hadn’t yet grasped the reality of instantly going from predator to prey. He squirmed to get his right hand free, but then he saw it was free… but for some reason it wouldn’t move, so he grabbed at the .44 with his left hand but that hand didn’t seem to have any grip, He stopped struggling and lay back, the raspy sound of his breathing mixing with the slurping, tearing noise of the bear chewing on the elk’s gut-bag.
He thought, I’ll rest a minute. Then I’ll put six rounds in this fat motherfucker. Then he wondered how he could have been stupid enough to let this happen. He’d seen fresh bear shit and he knew that it had been a warm fall and that the bears wouldn’t be down in their dens yet. Then he closed his eyes, seemed to drift off for a minute, saw a vision of Myrna’s pretty face smiling at him as he told her about his last elk.
It was the stench that woke him. A slight breeze brought him the smell of human shit. He wondered how it could have been strong enough to overcome the smell of the foul bear odor and the smell of the slaughtered elk. He took as deep a breath as he could and reached again for the .44. He now had the strength to pop the strap and slide the gun out. It was a heavy piece and it felt heavier than ever. He got it raised but his hand shook. He thought, Hold still, goddammit! Put one in his fucking skull.
It took all his strength to pull the trigger. The gun recoiled and flew from his weakened hand. The bear looked up, surprised, then turned to Ed as if it had just noticed him, but had to turn all the way because one of its eyes was missing and in its place was a black bloody hole. A long, foul-breathed moan came from deep in the bear. He collapsed on top of the elk. Then the bear and the elk started to slide downhill.
Ed rested his head for a few seconds. He was glad to have killed the bear but now he had to get up and get out of there. He knew his right arm was in a bad way but he could wiggle his legs so he knew he wasn’t paralyzed. I’ll rest just a minute more, then I’ll have to get up.
He raised his head to look at the bear and elk, then he looked down at his body and realized where the smell of human shit had come from. His head fell back and he looked up at the sky.
The sweat on his face had dried and he was turning cold, but the sky… for some reason… it had never looked so beautiful. Its bright morning blue was ringed with a golden haze. He shivered violently for almost a minute, and then his body went calm. Ed felt warm again, just as he’d felt the day before in Myrna’s bed as they’d laid spooned up together, watching the fire in her wood stove.
Then a string of memories passed, framed by that gold-rimmed sky. He relived his first elk kill, which came after skulking in the woods for twelve hours and, heading back in frustration, found a young bull elk munching grass fifty feet from his own truck. Then he relived the time he was lost in a blinding blizzard on a lodge-pole flat and had to walk out with his hand over his face looking only at his compass, bumping into trees, scared to death of being stuck out there overnight.
But he felt no fear now. He felt quiet. That golden rim around the sky was closing in on the blue part. He raised his chest for one long final breath, and before he slipped away, he thought of his lovely Myrna, and how pissed she’d be at him for going out elk hunting by himself, at the age of 71.
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