It was early September. The man stood there gazing into the bottom of a Dodge Neon as if it were the Northern lights or the Montana sky. He found even the most beaten undercarriages beautiful in their own way when the smell of grease was heavy in his nostrils. He looked like a wire frame wrapped in ace bandages. His clothes were always too baggy around his upper and lower extremities. It didn’t help they were half a size too big as well. Though he’d never done anything, he was often referred to behind his back as a tweaker. He was a good man but had come from a bad part of town. A skinny white kid you expected to have a relationship with pills in a trailer and dodging work, especially if he was gazing off as such. He didn't. He pulled his hat back off his brow to scratch an itch. It broke his spacey trance.
He could never focus at times like these. Work seemed less important than it was, and it was always important to him. He was about to go into elk camp. This year he was going solo. All his friends were busy this year. Damon had drawn a lottery hunt for the eastern side of the state. He was the only one who would have come. The rest of his old hunting squad had small children, families, and some other bull shit excuses for not going this year. He had the next six days planned out by himself. The driving across the county to the abandoned airstrip, crossing the famous Green-Bridge Canyon, parking in the open field next to the brier of blackberries he’d harvested his first buck from. Then the hike in to hunt. It was just over thirteen miles to the knob above the pond. The pond never had a name they could find on a map. So, they called it the pond. He knew it would be higher than normal at the end of summer and the frogs would croak him to sleep. It had just rained for the first time in almost three months. He wasn’t mad but at the same time a little more rain could make the hunt that much harder, and he needed to fill his freezer. The moisture would be good for the sneak, not the hike. He was already struggling for money and he still has a dozen pounds of last years harvest. He never held out for a trophy. He always took the first opportunity he was given. He didn’t plan this year to be any different.
Finally, he was washing the grease off his hands. Only today he took it lightly with the “Cherry Bomb” scrub soap. He didn’t want to build a scent of delicious artificial cherry. He didn’t want to smell like anything but dirt, pine, and stale uncut grass. That’s why today he brought a bag of pine needles to scrub his hands in after he had the grease off. He wanted to kill as much of the scent as he could after he was clean. As he was rinsing the cherry off his boss, the owner of the shop, started at him with directions.
“Hey Todd, I need you to bring the GMC and the gold Prius in the back around to bay three. Prius needs clutch and the Sierra needs a rebuild on the whole tranny, good luck getting it over here. Those’ll be all you tomorrow.”
Todd confused and flustered, turned around to make sure Chuck was serious. He’d known about the start of bow season for at least the last month, if not his whole life growing up around here. How could he forget about Todd’s only hobby? The only vacation time he’d taken off in the last six years. They talked about it under the hood and in his office all the time. He finally blew a half puff of relief out when he saw Chuck was pulling his chain. The slingshot smile gave him away like Crown Vic headlights used to give away cop cars at night.
“You bastard, you got me there for a second.”
“Well I wanted to make sure your head wasn’t too far in the clouds so you could get your ass going and make it to have camp up before midnight! And if we’re being honest, how could I forget about you god damn bow hunters. I used to think it was fun, until I picked up a rifle.”
Todd smirked, “I’ll have it up before tomorrow, shit before nine.” He reached in his back pocket for a clean rag to dry his hands He looked back at Chuck, “The harvest is what I need, but the fun part, that’s in the chase.”
“Yeah, the fun's in the hunt, n' the life is in the death, and when you’re back and telling me this year’s stories you can include an “I Told You So” if you get it before tomorrow”, Chuck cracked a smile that stood out like a fresh egg white on a hot cast iron skillet this Sunday morning.
“Oh, they’ll be a lot of stories to tell when I get back.” A side smirk and a cast of his eyes upwards, he was lost in the dreams of elk bugles ringing through his ears.
“Well good luck, and bag one early so we can get you back a few days early” Chuck winked, nodded, and continued through a back door into the lobby of the shop.
Todd almost skipped to his truck, bubbling with excitement. He had even spread freshly laundered blankets across the seat of his baby. The Toyota he’d had long enough for them to make two more generations. It still looked brand new and ran even better. With all these scent precautions and a bottle of scent killer in his hunting pack he was going to be invisible.
Halfway out of town and freshly filled at the last gas station, he was already off to a bad start. This was not a good time to be irritated but as the service got spottier and his "old man" iPhone that hadn’t downloaded the playlists he wanted, well it was getting close to being tossed out the window. It didn’t help the only radio station that came in clear was the exact kind of pop country bullshit he hated. He flicked the radio off. He’d rather hear the air current blow through his cab anyway. This was supposed to be happy time. He needed to clear his head.
He was hearing bugles in his head long before his tires hit the gravel, but when he finally came across the flattened strip of field that airplanes were supposed to be able to land on, he actually heard one. It was probably the last one for the night as the sun came down. As he got out of the truck it rang off into the distance. Sounding the end of a song in the night like the needle dragging on his Bingham LP echoing in the speakers. He pulled the action packer out and changed into his outfit of freedom. He loaded his pack, strapped his headlamp, and changed his boots. Soft winds that blew through the timber reminded him he was well past wandering into anyone. He closed and locked up before he started his journey. He had two and a half hours to make it by nine. Chuck might have been right. He’d never have to know though. He could always camp short of the usual spot tonight. In fact, he may have to.
Six miles in, almost to the top of the ridge he decided, tonight this was the spot. Even if it was cold and windy it was better here than walking another seven. A better view in the morning and the options to go in any direction. In less than five minutes he had his sleeping bag out, sleeping pad blown up, and was on the last stages of pitching his two-pole tent. The smell of the mountain air and dampness of fall rolled into the tent as he opened and went in. He sipped his water down as he cracked open a cliff bar. He knew he’d have to hunt towards some water in the morning. He didn’t think he’d go through the water that fast, but those first few miles out of the truck really took its fair share of water. At least he had everything he needed and was finally out in the middle of nowhere. Some people didn’t get the peacefulness that came with loneliness. He locked his eyes into the stars and thought of grabbing a few minutes to clear his head before bed. It would only help him hunt tomorrow.
The next three days provided little hunting and a lot of hiking. He was never within a day walk of a bugle. He hadn’t even seen same day fresh sign. He had caught glimpses of a few coyotes, a dozen rabbits, and even a few nice blacktail. He’d be back for a buck later. Now was the season he lived for. Up and down each ridge, views of elk in the distance kept him going. Three days and not an animal within two hundred, or even sixty, let alone the desired thirty. He wasn’t mad yet, but he was getting there. He had prepared for this all year. He needed to succeed. He needed the meat. He sat at the base of a pine as the sun passed over the far edge of the western mountain tops. He needed tonight to think. He had to come up with a new plan. He awoke before three and packed up. His new point of view was to do what nobody wanted to do. The last three years with his elk camp the one thing they’d never done was hike down into the start of the canyon. The steep walls off the other side of Rattle snake ridge were calling his name. That the famous green bridge was always remembered for the drop into the gorge and the view of the mountain. It would be most of the morning to hike out to the saddle. He was okay with that if it landed him what he needed. It was beautiful in its own way.
Step by step on the game highway. Right foot, bugle, left foot, sign, every stride added to the butterflies in his stomach. The screaming mating calls he was getting closer to grew louder and sharper. It already was proving to be the right decision. He'd hiked in the direction of bugles before but they never got this close. He had two days left to hunt and a day to hike out once he bagged an animal. While his pack was lighter, missing a few days of freeze-dried meals, he could still feel it gain weight with every mile he walked. He needed water again. He was five more miles into the wilderness than he ever planned to be. A deep breath and a quick stop, it was all going to be worth it. He knew it.
Todd crested the side of the saddle. He slung his gear into a pile at the trunk of a lone standing pine. Unstrapping his bow from his pack he sat using his pack as a cushion. One deep breath. He started to sip on what he had left in his hydro-pack. He heard the first mew. The soft wine, like a poorly played clarinet from low to high notes ricochet in his ears making way for the next sound. The next wasn’t the same sound. It was a reverberating blow. It was a herd bull. The chuckle you hear after a bugle, it was a laugh at all those who hadn’t got him. The gravel in his voice told you he was more mature than most had ever seen. Todd leaned forward over his bag looking around the trunk his bag lay against. He could hear the movement over the edge. He knew it was bigger than he could have hoped for and he hadn’t even seen it yet. Todd was frozen. Only on videos he’d watched online did this ever happen. Here he was for just a few days of hard work. He couldn’t believe the once in a lifetime chance was now. The bull of a lifetime, a full freezer, and a story to tell everybody about the hunt by himself. He didn't know what he was going to do yet but he was ready for whatever may come.
Todd puffed the liquid smoke and checked the wind. Softly it swirled around. He unstrapped the range finder from his belt. He quickly gathered the three trees blocking his clear view in front. Twenty one, thirty six, and forty five, then it was over the edge. He set the small piece back on his belt. His hands tightened around the bow handle. He could hear the shale moving below but thought he had enough time for one more wind check. He knew he didn’t have the time to make it all the way around the mountain by side hilling. About three hours until the sun was setting. Pulling his pack back behind the tree. He decided after dropping below the crest he could work his way around the North edge and hopeful in a few minutes he could call them up or they may come by themselves. Each step took seconds as he moved from the grassy plain of the saddle to the shale rock. Concentrating on the quiet kept his thoughts from ricocheting off the inside of his skull. He was going mad as nothing had been heard since the last bugle. He hadn’t made it more than five yards and wasn’t sure if it had taken an hour or only a half. Not a sound, cow or bull, since he started. No movement, no sound. Positive they had winded him and taken off in the direction he had decided not to walk. Todd didn’t know his luck was about to change. He let his bow down and unhooked his release. He couldn’t believe it. He let out a deep sigh. Just then he froze from what sounded like footsteps again. He crouched, he searched for some sort of cover. One small holly bush and a few skinny aspen trunks are all he had to hide himself in. He pulled his reed out of his pocket and slipped in into his mouth. Pushing his tongue against the rubber out of nervousness. He waited for the animal to show itself.
The tan flashed between the trees as fast as his heartbeat. Flashes set off like paparazzi as the animals came single file. Cow, Cow, Cow as they started to slow as they reached the flatter section. Three slowed in the open. Not sure of their next move. More tan lightning came through the trunks of the trees. Cow, cow, cow, fuck, the ivory tips crested the line, the chocolate mane covered what took the whole cows tan hide, and Todd knew. The high-pitched scream pointed right at him stood his goose bumps higher than the mountains he’d climbed, higher than he could have ever imagined.
Todd couldn’t make out the size of the rack, it didn’t matter. He knew it was bigger than he’d ever seen in person. As his head was behind the last trunk coming forward Todd clipped the release on. He could smell something about the animals that set into his primal being. Keeping his arm low and drawing below the waist like he’d practiced. His back tightened. Slowly bringing the bow up so his right index fingers PIP joint sat in the notch behind and underneath his right ear lobe. He pulled back without eyeing the six females now walking forty-five degrees to his left. He hoped they had their heads forward. He prayed none of them saw. He begged they were walking onward as his only focus was this shot. The bull shook like a wet dog as he chuckled again and again. Todd looking through plastic peep in the string saw something he’d never seen before. Kill or no kill this was worth it. It was beautiful in its own way. Even without a death the hunt was worth the life. The span between his ivories set him apart without the extra dagger on each side. The walloping whale tail at the end hung low enough to scratch his own ass. Three hundred was well under his first six. With an extra or two he couldn’t imagine where this stood. Todd was waiting for a lane. He had him straight on over at forty. He knew he could get him under thirty if he could hold. Angled towards him he knew he’d have a better shot if he could just hold out. He could get the broad side he needed. His racing heart was now fully loaded with nitrous. He was worried the animal would hear the drum beating in his chest. He could see more coming up behind him, more tan. He was locked through his sight. The neon fluorescent green dot trying to find the seam behind the front shoulder. The monster turned away. It moved too fast to let one fly. He wasn’t stupid enough to injure an animal. He needed enough confidence in the opportunity to kill. It was the reason he trained all year. He needed to bring life out of the death. He didn’t know how much longer he could keep a full draw. The bull went right back to where he’d come from. Right at a smaller male. The lesser male was still most people’s bull of a lifetime. In this situation it was dwarfed by the first. He didn’t have a shot. He finally noticed the cows. They had kept walking on their routes line but had finally tuned and wrapped around slightly behind him. He knew he was fucked. They couldn’t tell he was there, blending in with the bush with their focus directed on the battle that was starting he knew he was safe but couldn’t move. The first rattle as the went head to head sounded like major league contact on a first pitch. With thud after thud his senses heightened and yet the world melted around him. He began to pay no attention to anything but these magnificent creatures battling for mates during the most wonderful time of year. What seemed like hours could have been seconds in real time. It was beautiful in its own way. As quickly as it had started it would end. The smaller bull was thrown on his down hill side with a swift swing of the uphill bull’s head. He was put down so quickly the sound of the thousand-pound animal being thrown into shale sent the females behind him scattering. The winning bull let out a scream. He was dominate. He was magnificent. He was in position for the shot. Todd drew back. Todd was ready for this moment. He centered on the silhouette. The thoughts raced through his head. He was watching drop by drop of blood run from the cut on his forehead and drip off the individual hairs below his eye. The bull had taken the others eye guard to his forehead and his victory dripped off. He shook his pumping hormones and adrenaline out as his eyes locked Todd’s. He remained locked on to Todd’s eye as it ran through his peep. The silhouette of earthly colors with a background of green was beautiful in its own way.
A wave of emotions overtook the archer. He was stuck. Todd’s thoughts that had been absent. They were back harder than they’d been hunting before, maybe ever before. He had his finger behind the release but couldn’t move it. The monster that was screaming in front of him deserved to live. He couldn’t take the life of something so dominate. Something that stood out in a sea of the same. He needed to breed as badly as Todd needed the meat. Todd knew he wasn’t going to be able to pull the trigger. He wasn’t sure he would be able to take a shot at the perfect sculpture of an animal that was in front of him. It was beautiful in every way. He couldn't bring death to the king that had just won his own life. As this was crossing the highway in his mind the younger bull came back. The loser of the last fight was back again for more. The trophy turned back to assert his dominance again and was quartering away. Todd had the shot. He was starting to sway as his muscles leaked fatigue. The younger bull was broadside. The younger bull was still older and more of a trophy than he'd ever seen. Todd knew he had to take something for survival. He moved his sight ten yards over and was finally able to pull on the release.
He watched the arrow fly and lodge itself into the perfect placement. The bulls split and took off. The one he’d hit went back around the rounded end of knob and ended up behind him. He could hear the shale sliding turn into broken brush. Minutes rolled by like days in solitary confinement. He wasn’t sure he’d made the right decision. He saw it hit, yet, he wasn’t sure the placement was perfect. He wasn't even sure he made the right decision to let the other animal go. He was excited. He was nervous. He was waiting to start searching.
It took less than five minutes to come across the blood trail. It was a trail and a half. The bright red bubbled blood told him he was looking for the final resting place. Stopping for more water he spotted the five and six from one side. Coming closer his adrenaline came to a stop. It was overtaken by ominous awe. He bent his knee next to the body and grabbed the base. He knew he’d made the right choice as he took in all in front of him. Pulling out and filling his reusable cotton bags he’d knew they’d be more full than they had ever been before. He was happy even if this was the smaller of the two. It was still bigger than anything he’d taken. Still bigger than anything he would probably ever have a chance at again. It was positively in the three hundred class. The king of rattle snake ridge would live another day. He had taken life in the hunt to avoid death. He brought his knife out. He began to cut.
With everything cut out packed up he began to hang quarter by quarter. He was flooded with a weight of heaviness, of soreness, of a tired ache. Three quarters hung off the limb of a tree. The tree the bull had laid his final moments under. The tree he would remember for the rest of his life. He left one quarter down along with the bag containing the heart, liver, tongue, testicles, back straps, and tenderloin. He put the bag of the valuables and the back right quarter into his now empty pack and strapped the head over the top. It was as heavy as he could struggle to walk with. He ate the last meal and finished his water as he prepared for the hike back to his truck. He knew it would be the rest of today for a one-way trip. He wasn’t mad. He could sleep in his vehicle for a few hours, refuel, and replenish to have an early start and be on his way home before midday tomorrow. Excited at how it had turned out, he knew this was where the real work started. He set off to. Had to start now to make sure he could get up in the morning. The cool evening air was still and moist as it chilled the sweat that soaked his clothes.
Four hours of nonstop humping had taken him around the backside they hadn’t explored due to the arduous murderous slopes. They were murderous. He had hiked through them that night. Well worth it for the time he had taken off his original hike into that special place. He was coming up on the horizon of his truck bed. The canopy gleamed in the moon light. He unlocked and unloaded. Setting his bow first in the backseat first then throwing the pack in the bed of the truck. One quarter, the bag of goods, and the rack he thought weighed more than he could carry had all made it back. He was surprised he had. He got back up and walked to the front of the truck. Underneath the driver seat he pulled out an already open bottle of Pendleton. He walked to the back of the truck and sat on the tailgate. He pushed his loaded pack into the back and pulled the cork from the bottle. Unstrapping everything from his pack he worked the sleeping pad and bag out of his pack. He set himself up in his canopy. He couldn’t see the stars but knew the night was beautiful in its own way. He swigged the whiskey and chased with fresh water. He was happy. He had succeeded. He could sleep without worry tonight. He did.
First thing in the morning, four a.m., he was up and out. His empty pack felt nice in comparison to the one he’d carried the days before. He was ready for the two trips it would take. He had already thought of ways to make it one. He could build a sled from saplings or branches and pull the other three quarters out in one. The one trip may take close to twice as long but it would be worth it. A light drizzle began to soak the dry leaves he walked over. He had thought about walking his original path in but decided the loop around the back cut enough time off to be worth it. Another big hump and he’d put this trip behind him.
He had a triangular sled made with evergreen branches under the two back corners. It was loaded with the three quarters and had his rope looped through the top point. He tied the rope through the aluminum frame on his pack. It was heavy to pull but easier than another trip to the hell side of the canyon. He tightened the straps on his backpack and began the pull. The rain came in heavier. He was glad the rain was coming. The cool breeze that brought it in had kept his meat from spoiling. The water now kept the dust down. It wasn't too muddy yet and it was the only thing that allowed him to take a rest last night. The cool water beading up and running down his body mixed with the sweat and kept him from overheating. He powered through. The sled slid easier on the wet ground. He was making better time than he could have imagined. He came around the Western edge breaking the Northern face. The canyon below him let him know he had very little time left before he was back at his truck. Another hundred yards before he stopped for a drink. Finally stopping he had time to look into the stormy canyon. It seemed as if the clouds had accumulated heavier in the canyon below the bridge. He starred into the dark crevasse seeing dark water washing the red mud into the black canyon. It was beautiful in its own way. Looking onward he caught a glimmer of light. It wasn’t sunlight or photons from a source, it was the buckskin colored tan patch he’d been looking for all weekend. With no binoculars on him he couldn’t be sure, but he felt he knew what it was. He burned the next half hour to his parking spot. He threw the rain soaked meat into the back. He left his sled tied to his pack and hanging off his tailgate. He opened his driver side and reached into the center console. Hand on his lenses he rushed back over to the edge. As he put them to his face he saw what he never needed to know. The ivory crowned ghost he had passed upon lie in the muck at the bottom of thirty-foot-wide canyon with walls as steep as cliffs. Todd couldn’t tell if his face was running with tears or rain. He couldn’t tell if he was disappointed in himself for not taking the kill, or at nature for taking the kill. He let his binos down to his side. The life had been taken outside of the hunt. Nature knew death. Tired, beaten, and out of energy he knew he had to make one last trek. He knew he couldn’t leave the crown of the forest to decay at the bottom. Even if he couldn’t keep the crown and hang it on his wall, it deserved to be seen by others. He might even switch it with the trophy he’d taken. The law would never know which was his. It was the thing he never knew if he should do in the first place, but he knew he should do it now. The rain was coming in harder. The mud was running sticking to the sides of his boots. It was a wasteland of summer in the canyon, it was beautiful in its own way. He started down.
The game warden stood at the edge of the canyon with the loaded pick-up at his back. The September sun shined across the bridge, across rattlesnake ridge, and down the canyon. The red mud had hardened darkening the bottom except the one light spot. The light spot that had been there for who knew how long. The warden put his binoculars up to his face. He let out a deep sigh as he turned to the officer next to him.
“He had everything he needed here. He tried to go down for one last jewel in his crown. The icing on the cake that was probably one of the best hunting stories around."
The warden shook his head as he turned back to the deputy, "It is sick, twisted, and never something I would wish to come across again. It wasn’t beautiful in any way. It's a message. Not quite sure if it means don't take more than you need, or you can be the hardest worker, most dedicated, and only in it for the good of others, only to still feel the wrath of what most call bad luck. I hope when I tell this story to others, his boss, and my children one day they will realize it’s not a hunting story. It's about life, death, and the hunt.”