Sam Nash pushed the empty beer bottle away across the knife-scarred table.  “I’m ready to hunt bulls,” he said.  “We need to be making tracks for the mountain soon, before it gets too dark to put a camp in up there.”

Jim McCorkle set his chin forward but  didn’t answer right away.  He’d ordered black coffee and refused a third refill when Sam was already on the second beer.  “I’m ready when you are,” he said finally.

Beyond the plateglass window, tall cottonwoods stained orange and yellow followed the curve of an invisible creek across a green meadow on which brown hay bales lay evenly spaced.  Past the meadow, buff-colored foothills shored up the dark frontal face of the mountains to make a platform for the granite peaks farther back in the range to stand on.  The peaks were dusted with snow where the rock wasn’t too steep to hold it, and a rime of snow showed along the top of the timbered wall overlooking the valley.  Jim didn’t like the snow and cold.  He’d had enough of being wet and uncomfortable in Vietnam, 40 years ago.  From where they hung on the wall behind the bar, the mounted elk and moose and deer heads could see the mountains through the window, too.  Their glassy eyes looked farseeing and sad, as if they had a longing to be back there.

The drive from Sheridan up to the campsite was 55 miles, and the hunters had to chain up for the last ten.  A foot of snow lay between the forest trees, and a light snow fell as Sam and Jim unhooked the trailer from the pickup truck, cranked the camper up, and fixed a camp.  They were former Marine Corps buddies and still worked well together, never needing to ask each other where help was wanted or how, the way it had been for them in Vietnam since before Sam was hit in the thigh by a Cong sniper and Jim tourniqueted the wound with his belt and piggybacked him deeper into the jungle where Charlie couldn’t find them.  When the bedrolls had been spread on the bunks and Sam was cutting fire logs with a chainsaw, Jim brought his new rifle from the truck and laid it carefully in its leather case lined with lambswool across the foldaway table inside the camper.  Jim had spent a year and a half building the rifle himself, and he was very proud of it.  The gun was a .375 caliber with a Mauser action, powerful enough to take the largest and most dangerous game in Africa but almost unknown to Wyoming hunters, in spite of its surgical perforation of elk and deer.  Although Jim had been in love with the idea of the hunt since he was four or five years old, the thrill for him in hunting elk this year was the chance to test the new rifle in the field.

It was dark before the camp was secure.  Sam produced a bottle of single-malt scotch, and they drank a glass apiece before heating supper on the gas stove.  For his supper, Jim needed only boiling water to add to the MREs he ordered from an Army-Navy store—all the food he carried with him into the field.  After eating, they washed up and sat outside in heavy jackets around the blazing fire Sam had built within the circle of trees beneath the hanging stars.

“You remember the night hit on that ammo dump the summer before we left country in ’69?” Jim asked.  “Five thousand 250-pound bombs going up in a red-and-orange mushroom cloud and the shock wave like a halo all around the damn thing.”

“I remember it,” Sam told him, shortly, “but after 40 years, I don’t think about it.”

An hour before first light the next morning, the thermometer on the wall of the camper read six degrees.  The gas heater had gone off during the night, the sink was seized up, and all the supplies that could freeze had.  When Jim awoke, the neck of the mummy bag crackled with hoarfrost where his breath had frozen.  He got out of it as fast as he could and began pulling woolen service pants on over the long johns.  “My knee’s swollen up the size of a grapefruit this morning,” he said.  Sam, who was on his knees in red suspenders over long johns trying to restart the heater, didn’t answer him, and Jim ate 400 mg of Ibuprofin to reduce the swelling.

The gas cookstove worked fine.  They heated water for coffee on the burner and ate cereal with hot water added to it out of tin bowls.  The sky was pink in the east and the stars had faded out overhead when they left the trailer, wearing their hunter’s orange coats and carrying the guns still in the cases.  The cold stung their noses and burned their fingers inside the gloves as they climbed up to the bench seat of Sam’s pickup, left running for ten minutes already in the steam cloud of its own exhaust.  Sam set the gun case muzzle down on the floorboard and unzipped it below the forward lens of the telescopic sights.  “OK,” he said, “let’s go find us a couple of elk to shoot.”

All morning they drove on the two-track roads, looking for tracks on either side in the snow and not finding any except for those of rabbits and squirrels, a few deer, and two moose.  A little before ten the wind got up, whipping the snow into scalloped patterns and trailing banners of snow from the highest peaks.  Though they met other hunters on the road, no opening-morning shots echoed in the granite basins around.  

“The damn wind isn’t helping any,” Sam remarked, cheerfully.

“I think it’s a dead end,” Jim told him.

Sam set his coffee cup back in its holder.

“Don’t start with that now, Jim,” he said. “You swore the last time you wouldn’t do it again.”

“I think they’ve gone over the face already.  We’ve driven three hours without cutting a single track.”

“Even if you’re right, there’s bound to be stragglers we can get onto.  I’m hunting bulls this week, and I mean to shoot one if I have to put in a spike camp and hike a hundred miles to do it.”

Jim McCorkle didn’t answer him.  Instead, he put his finger through the partway-open gun case and explored with his finger end the expertly machined action of the rifle he had spent the past two winters constructing.  As well as it had fired at the range, he knew even without trying the gun how it would perform in a field situation.

Around 11:00, Sam proposed hiking a couple of miles in to the Sawmill Lakes where there had been elk the year before.  They left the truck along the side of the road, slung the survival packs on their backs and shouldered the rifles, and started off in a foot of fresh snow, following the trail downhill through the forest.  The slippery, snow-covered stones turned Jim’s ankles annoyingly, and he could feel the bad knee enlarging as they went.  The snow was glaring white among the vivid green trees, and the sky a depthless ultraviolet above the black tips of the firs.  The lakes had not iced over yet, and two pairs of mallard ducks took off over the open water on a beeline as they approached, wings beating fast across the glitter of their own spray.

“God, what a day,” Sam exclaimed.  He brushed the snow from a rock with the side of his glove, seated himself, and took an antelope sandwich from his pack.  “Even if we don’t see anything to shoot, it’s worth the effort just to be in here, away from it all.”

Jim nodded absently and felt his knee under the wool pants, dreading the climb back out.  It was all too much like Vietnam, the monsoon rains replaced by snow and the biting high-elevational winds.

They ate an early supper that evening and sat up drinking scotch as they looked over the topographical maps spread between them across the foldaway table.

“I heard a week ago they’d seen elk down on the golf course,” Sam remembered.  “My guess is, with the drought, when the first snow came they had no reason to stay high where there’s nothing for them to eat anyway.  I’d say our best chance is to hunt the west side above Shell Canyon in the morning, see if we can pick up any tracks over there.  Does that sound like a plan to you?”

“Sure,” Jim, who was thinking of a warm bed and other comforts of home, told him.  The scotch, though a fine one, was a poor substitute, in his opinion.

At bedtime, Sam turned the overhead lights off to save the battery, and the two men undressed by flashlight and climbed up to the bunk beds at each end of the camper.  “Something tells me tomorrow’s going to be our lucky day,” he said in a muffled voice from inside the bag.  “They can’t all be down on private land, not this early in the season.”

Jim lay on his back looking up at the stretched canvas overhead where condensation drops were forming.

“You know,” he said, “there’s times I think I don’t want to hunt, ever again.  I had enough of killing in Vietnam.”

In the dark, Sam was quiet for almost a minute.  Then he said, “Vietnam is the biggest thing in your life still, after 40 years.  Isn’t it, Jim?”

A droplet of icy water fell and hit Jim on the forehead between the edge of his wool cap and his right eyebrow.  Very soon now, the other drops would freeze in place and quit falling.

“I don’t know how to answer your question,” he said finally.

In the morning it was warmer.  The snow that had been grainy and crisp the day before slumped now, and patches of mud and gravel showed in the snowpacked road.

“With any luck, the critters will be out soaking up the afternoon sun,” Sam encouraged him.  “Looks like you might get to try your new cannon out after all, Jim.”

Jim nodded and swallowed an Ibuprofin.  The swelling in his knee had gone down overnight, thanks to 12 straight hours’ rest.  He hated to think what it was going to feel like after seven or eight hours in the field, tramping through snow and sagebrush.

They stopped at the blacktop to unchain and drove south on Highway 14 across the high plateau to Granite Pass, then down to Granite Creek below the pitched, open slope of Cedar Mountain.  Tracks descended through the snow and sagebrush from the rocky tors above, all of them headed downhill toward Shell Canyon and the Bighorn Basin below it.  Pickup trucks with California, Oregon, and Texas plates were pulled onto the shoulder of the road, and hunters in orange coats stood beside them, glassing the tracks across the creek.

“Thousands of dollars for a license and the trip out here, and the hunt’s over even before it begun,” Jim said.

“It’s over if you park your fat ass beside your truck and just stand there looking,” Sam told him.  “I bet if a guy was to drive back up the road a ways and get in around behind Cedar Mountain, he could maybe come on a few stragglers waiting to jump off the hill.  It’s worth a try, isn’t it?  Better than going back to camp and listen to the ice freeze in the water bucket.”

They came on a two-track going west off the highway and followed it up to a treeless saddle between two pinnacles of orange rock grown around with the black fir trees.  Sam set the parking brake, and he and Jim got out to inspect a line of tracks crossing from one of the pinnacles to the other.  They were the tracks of a bull elk, apparently a large one, but slumped with the snow into grey and nearly formless blurs.

“Two days old, maybe three,” Sam pronounced.  “Probably he’s down on private land around Shell right now, tearing up some rancher’s hayrick.  Man, don’t you just love it being up here, though!  Sometimes, I think I missed my calling as a CPA—wish I’d decided to become a sheepherder instead.”

From the saddle, they looked out over green timbered ridges sloping down to the tawny foothills and across the desert basin stretching in shades of ochre and red to the dark pediment of the Absaroka Mountains, their snowy superstructure gleaming against a brilliant October sky.

“I have to have a purpose when I’m in the field,” Jim said, a little stiffly.  Though not an envious man, he was aware of the difference between his friend’s lucrative career and his own ne’er-do-well one.  

“I do have a purpose,” Sam told him, quietly.  “Look, man, I love you—you saved my life, all those many years ago—but I like to hunt, and hunt hard.  It doesn’t mean we aren’t friends anymore.  Only next year, each of us goes his own way come hunting season—OK?”

Later, when they were packing in the camper and cranking the top down into the trailer part, Jim felt sad and a little ashamed.  He hadn’t meant to spoil Sam’s hunt, and he’d wanted very much to try the new rifle in the field.  Only his knee hurt him, and evening was coming on cold, and it was all so much effort and discomfort.  He’d had enough of being wet and miserable in Vietnam, and when he had landed in San Diego, there was a bunch of hippies with signs demonstrating at the airport, calling him a killer.

Well, he was a killer, and he didn’t regret the people he’d killed, even if it had turned out to be so much wasted effort, in the end.  He’d done his duty back then, and that was all that could be asked of any man.  What did it matter that it happened 40 years ago?  As he understood his life, his career as a military officer never really ended, only the dangerous and uncomfortable aspects of it had.  The rest would go marching on forever, until he died.  Jim McCorkle had decided long ago he really had no problem with that.