The alarm clock went off in the dark. In the light of the electric lantern, frost glittered on shadowed nylon walls. The inside zipper stuck; after a few futile tugs I escaped through the mouth of the mummy bag. I had on long Johns, wool socks, and a wool shirt; but the predawn cold bit anyhow. The lantern was weak, the tent tall enough to kneel in as I gathered my scattered clothes: wool army pants, leather vest, bandanna kerchief, orange hunting coat. My hunting knife and revolver were at hand, ready in an emergency at the head of the bag. Muddy boots waiting in the vestibule overhanging the tent door, gloves somewhere. I didn’t want to be doing this, but I’d pulled two horses 323 miles to do it, so I was. Same old story every year. A man my age ought to be in Florida—but there are no elk in Florida. Only geriatrics from New York, illegal aliens from the Caribbean, and the Bush brothers. The illuminated dial on my wristwatch read 6:08 already. Here we go: like climbing out of your grave in the middle of the night.
The moon, slightly reduced from the half was on its way down as I emerged from the tent, booted and with the lantern in one hand. Overnight the fire had burned down to a sifting of pale ash at the bottom of the fire pit. With the aid of the lantern I gathered a handful of twigs and the ends of a few dead pine boughs which I tossed on the ashes, hoping for a responsive curl of smoke. No go. Fumbling in the pocket of the hunting coat, I came up with a butane lighter: childproof, with a lock that has to be reset each time you thumb the wheel.
Imagining the innumerable children who must have suffered third-degree burns to that necessary appendage while trying to ignite a birthday candle or light up an illegal cigarette made me want to cry, almost. I broke an inch and a half of ice on the water bucket, filled the coffeepot, and set it to boil on the grate while I went to ready the horses. Nobody else awake in camp: It looks like just me for the morning hunt.
The horses’ breath steamed as I worked to saddle up quickly in the redolent aura of equine heat, fumbling at the leather straps with stiffened hands. A few streaks of color showed above the eastern mountains, and then a light came up in Dick McCuistion’s tent, a ruddy glow through the red nylon walls. (Why not a whorehouse in elk camp? The best equipped ones have all the other conveniences of home.) God it’s cold, and we have to ride in a few minutes.
“Wind’s up,” Dick remarked. “Going to make the hunting pretty hard this morning.”
“Hunting’s always hard,” I said.
We rode out breakfastless at 6:48, not quite early enough to catch the fade-back beyond timberline at first light that follows a moonlit night and usually makes for the best hunting of the day.
For this first season since reestablishing residency in Wyoming I was hunting the eastern slope of the northern Wind River Mountains, after last summer’s Fontenelle Fire burned 17 or 18 thousand acres of my old elk grounds in the Wyoming Range north of Kemmerer. Working from a camp set 26 miles northwest of Dubois and a mile and a half east of the Continental Divide, we were concentrating now on the Warm Springs and Trout Creek drainages and the high, wide ridge between them where we’d spotted a cow elk and two yearlings the second morning out. On foot rather than horseback, we watched for half an hour from a pine grove above Warm Springs Greek as they grazed slowly uphill across the face of a steep clearing and into the trees beneath a low saddle in the ridge. Later, I’d returned with the gelding, tied up among plentiful piles of elk pellets scattered in the bitten-down grass, and crossed over with my rifle at the ready, moving carefully and keeping just inside the forest edge. Beyond the ridgeline the east-facing aspect sloped downhill at an easy angle toward the tawny meadow where Trout Greek ran. The hillside had been clearcut 20 years and more ago, and replacement trees, rising to about eight feet in height, sprung fresh and green. Snow lay between the wide-spaced trees, and the snow was imprinted with the tracks of elk going across and up and down hill: scores of elk of both sexes, young, old, and middle-aged. (You can sex an elk track by the disposition of the animal’s body weight, toe to heel.) The discovery made it possible to complete the territorial map I’d been sketching in mv head. The herd would spend the night on the west side of the ridge, grazing the protein-rich grass and browsing the forbs. Before daylight, they’d go to drink from Warm Springs Creek, then graze their way up and over the ridge after sunrise to the new forest where they could bed down for the day in the sun’s warmth, close by the mature timber that is their security. It was what we’d needed to know, the kind of natural bus route that is the key to successful elk hunting. Finally, a clearcut requires logging roads, and we were camped at the head of one of these, behind a closure gate set in place by the Forest Service, on the east slope of the ridge. It seemed a foregone conclusion that our road must cross the clearcut below, offering a downwind approach to the bedded elk herd. I recrossed the ridge to pick up the horse and rode back to camp, where Dick and I laid plans for the morning hunt.
The frozen ruts creaked under the horses’ hooves as we rode with our backs to the creeping salmon-colored light and the wind, blowing eastward across the ridge, blindsided us on our left side. It was a bullying, penetrating wind, working its way into my eustachian tubes and cutting under my collar to my tonsils, already inflamed by a stubborn infection.
“I hate the damn wind,” I told Dick. “It’s like a personal enemy somehow.”
“I don’t mind the wind as much as I do the rain. I had enough getting wet in Vietnam.”
The road ran through several clearcuts before I recognized the one we were searching for when, looking uphill, I made out the dip in the tree line that indicated the saddle I’d crossed over the day before. I reined the horse to the left, offroad into the crusted snow where we sounded like Napoleon’s army on the retreat from Russia.
“No good,” Dick said. “They can hear us coming a mile away. We’re going to have to do this one on foot. I noticed my knee’s looking puff}’ again this morning.”
We tied up beside the logging road and began working our way slowly uphill along the black timber edge. If the horses had sounded like the entire French army, the two of us alone were only slightly quieter than Bedford Forrest’s Critter Company.
“They aren’t going to be moving anyway in this wind.” Dick, who hasn’t got his residency back, this morning was armed only with a .44 magnum revolver and a game saw.
“I know it,” I said. “All this hard work—the getting up early, this wind— for nothing. The fun’s over as soon as you pull the trigger, anvway.”
We worked our way nearly to the ridgeline without seeing anything fresher than last night’s tracks, among hundreds of older ones. At the summit we sat on a log to rest, glass the trees, and watch the sun rise over the Ram’s Horn and the Pinnacles in the Absaroka Mountains. The wind was up more than ever, an icy deluge pouring through the saddle looking over into Warm Springs Creek.
“Rick and I were hunting deer in Bridger Basin,” Dick remembered. “He was driving, and I was supposed to pick off whatever ran out of the quakies. He jumped two bucks and I dropped the lead one. Hit him right in the engine room, a clean heart-lung shot. I could see the blood gush—a fountain of blood, like the time we took out that VC sniper at 800 yards with a .308.” He paused. “There’s times I think I don’t want to kill anything ever again.”
“Well,” I said, “I never went to Vietnam, so I can’t comment on that. All I have to say is, I’ll hunt elk for as long as I can get about in the field—or as long as there still are elk to hunt.”
At the edge of a lid of gray cloud the wind had pushed in, the sun was a diffuse spot of lemon-colored light. Wearily we stood from the log and began working around the far side of the clearcut and down to the road, where we picked up the horses for the ride back to camp.
“First the warm, bright nights and now the damn wind,” I said, speaking over my shoulder as the horse skidded and slid in the muddy track. “If the weather would just cooperate, we might take something yet.”
“Anything you shoot you’d better shoot by evening. It’s all-day work getting a big bull out of here, and I have to be in Sheridan Sunday night.”
The wind kept up until past shooting light and arose again with the sun the following morning. The clouds returned, bringing spates of cold rain and snow flurries.
“Too bad we can’t afford to wait for the storm to get them moving.”
“We don’t have the time. My knee hurts like hell from riding a horse all day yesterday.”
The pleasures of hunting are not dependent on success in the field (failure means you don’t have a half-ton carcass to pack out). In Dubois, Dick and I parted company, he for Sheridan and home, me for a hot shower, clean clothes, and supper at Cavallo Creek restaurant, a home-away-from-home for displaced cosmopolites weary of a diet of steak and potatoes every night. I ordered a bottle of Italian wine with my pasta and shared it with a young lady from Texas wearing something Western by Ralph Lauren who said she didn’t understand how anyone could bring himself or herself to kill anything so noble and beautiful as a bull elk—or any other animal, for that matter.
Returning to Laramie after a six-hour pull across the state of Wyoming, I found Maynard dead in her cage. We had been together for one month short of 18 years, after I’d stepped into the Pet Corral in Salt Lake City on a day in late November 1982 to admire their collection of snakes and a particolored parrot in a cage marked “Patagonian Conure $89” squawked at me from the shelf above a handsome blacksnake coiled in his glass tank. Maynard (who was represented to me as being of the male sex and waited seven years to lay her first clutch of eggs) had been a feather-picker the last five years of her life, and I’d bought a veterinarian-approved plastic collar screwing together in two pieces designed to prevent this act of self-mutilation and allow the new plumage to grow back in. The body, not yet completely cold, was lying beneath the food cup a foot or so above the floor of the cage: Apparently the heavy collar had caused her to lose her balance, leading to the fall that had broken her neck. Death must have come quickly, as the eyes were open and the wings unspread. Actuarily speaking, she had 22 years of life ahead of her. (About what statisticians would allow her master.)
It was the end of an era as well as of a cherished companion; also something else I couldn’t identify. I laid Maynard, along with the bell she had learned to play sostenuto, like an orchestral instrument, away in a waterproof freezer container purchased at the Big K in Laramie and drove out to Jelm Mountain, a pyramidal landmark plainly visible from town 30 miles away. Halfway up the jeep trail ascending to the summit, I turned into a sagebrush park and continued offroad onto a shoulder of the mountain overlooking the Laramie River and, beyond it, the golden hills and dark timbered ridges rolling down to the high peaks of Colorado. Using a long-handled spade and a Marine entrenching tool, I dug a hole three feet deep in a grove of pine trees, placed the coffin at the bottom of it, and filled in the grave. As an afterthought, I drew the sidearm I carried on my hip and emptied the cylinder—six carefully spaced shots—into the sifting snowflakes from a passing squall.
At the bottom of the mountain I stopped for a drink at the log cafe in Wood’s Landing. The barmaid was a healthy, straightforward-looking girl, wearing something that was definitely not by Ralph Lauren. At three o’clock in the afternoon, I was her only customer at the bar. She watched me closely as I tossed back the whiskey and set the shot glass down on the wood.
“Another one?” the girl asked sympathetically. “You look like you just lost your best friend.”
“I got done burying her 15 minutes ago up there on the mountain.”
The barmaid moved a little closer to the telephone, or maybe to the gun she kept under the counter.
“You buried your girlfriend on Jelm Mountain?”
“Not a girlfriend, exactly. Maynard was a parrot. The best, most intelligent, most loving bird I ever knew.”
She relaxed and appeared to consider as she refilled the shot glass from the whiskey bottle.
“I’m not sentimental about animals myself,” the girl said finally.
“Neither am I,” I told her. “Did you happen to hear if the elk have started moving up here from Colorado yet?”