Elk Words

I wrote the following story over two years ago. I had just returned from an Idaho elk hunt in the Lemhi’s, a mountain range that runs north and south in the middle of the state. On this trip, I shot my first Idaho bull, a nice five point with character. He fed our family for over a year. I experienced many emotions during the hunt. Overwhelmingly, I thought of my father, who died from lung cancer when I was 30. His dream was to go elk hunting. We only did it once together. He never got his bull. But every time I get mine I think of him.

“I’ve always wanted to shoot an elk.”

“You should. You should do it. You’re not getting any younger.”

“Thanks for reminding me.”

“Just buy a tag and do it. The west is full of public land. We can do it.”

“Someday. Someday I’ll go. Just one. I just want to shoot one elk before I die.”

I can hear the words now. I can hear his voice, low and weathered, like the clouds hanging over this mountain. His words told me many things. They told me how to hold a football. How to shoot a basketball. How to throw a baseball. How to hold a shotgun. How to handle it safely. How to clean it. How to aim at clay pigeons. How to aim at ducks. How to shoot ducks. How to clean ducks. His words cushioned my growth into the sporting world. His words supplemented my life. His words told me when I stepped out of line. His words were not found every day. He wasn’t that kind of father. But I savored his words when I found them. I savored the time we spent together. The time was found outdoors. Hunting. Like I’m doing now. He’s not here. But I can still hear his words.

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But I can still hear his words.

“There’s something about a big bull elk. Just once I’d like to hunt one. Even if I didn’t shoot it. I’d love to see one bugle up close. I’d love to hear it in the dark.”

“You’re retired now, dad. What’s the holdup? Just plan a trip and I’ll go with you.”

“I’m not in the best shape. You need to be in good shape to hunt elk.”

“I’ll help you. We’ll start walking together. We’ll get in shape.”

“Someday son. Someday we’ll go. I just want to shoot one.”

He was right. You need to be in good shape. I wish I was in better shape now, hiking up this mountain. The elk were here this morning. I could see them above as I hiked in the dawn glow. They entered the timber at first light. They fed in the low country last night. I could hear them bugling. Tucked into my sleeping bag, the head cover tickling my ears, their whistle songs put me to sleep. It’s warm for September. They’re tight-lipped by 8:30. Dad couldn’t have hunted this mountain. It’s too steep. He wasn’t in the best shape. But he could have hunted the low country. Like we did back then. He could have waited in the evenings in the bottom of the canyon. He could have handled that. We would have needed to draw gun tags. He couldn’t archery hunt like I’m doing now. He had an old shoulder injury and he couldn’t pull the string back. Too many years of farm work. Too busy to hunt elk.

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“Someday son. Someday we’ll go. I just want to shoot one.”

“I found a place, dad. I’ve got it figured out. It’s relatively flat country and there’s lots of elk. Let’s do it. Let’s go elk hunting. You’re not getting any younger.”

“Thanks for reminding me. I don’t know. I don’t know if I can do it.”

“Well, I’m going. I’m going to hunt elk. It’s always been a dream of yours. You should come too.”

“Ok, I’ll come. But I don’t want to get a tag. I want you to shoot one. I’m not in good shape. I don’t want to ruin the hunt for you. I’ll hang around camp and cook and sit by the fire. Maybe I’ll walk a few times with you if I can.”

 As I hike over the next ridge, I wonder what would have happened if he would have had the tag instead of me. I tried to talk him into it. I tried to tell my dad that he should be the one with the license. But he insisted. He paid for my tag and he insisted I should be the hunter. I couldn’t understand it. He had always dreamed of hunting elk. That was his chance. It made me angry. Such a foolish thing to feel that way. I can see that now. With daughters of my own, I can admit that. Still, it would have been nice. I would have liked for dad to get his elk.

They’re bedded now. I can hear a bull bugling in a deep pocket of pines. I can tell he’s laying down. I could go after him. I could go for broke. After all, it’s the last day. No. No, I think I’ll wait. I’ll come back this evening and hunt him from below. I’ll go back to the tent and take a nap. Like dad did in the afternoons. Then I’ll hunt him in the same country dad could have hunted. The same kind of country we hunted then. That was fifteen years ago. Ten years before we found out he had lung cancer. He wasn’t in the best shape.

“Look dad. These tracks are fresh. These tracks were made this morning.”

“It’s about time. We haven’t seen a fresh set all day. It’s getting warm too. Maybe too hot for elk.”

“He might come back. He might come back to this waterhole tonight. He might come back to drink. We should wait here. We should set up here for the evening.”

“Whatever you think son. You’re the hunter.”

“Why don’t you shoot him, dad. If he comes in tonight, why don’t you shoot him? It doesn’t matter whose name is on the tag. I want you to shoot him.”

“Son, you know better than that. You know that’s not right. Your names on the tag. You’re the hunter.”

“But you’ve never shot an elk. You’ve talked about it your whole life. I want you to shoot one, dad. It’s been your dream.”

“It’s ok son. That’s enough talking. Let’s be quiet and pick a good spot.”

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I can almost see his smile.

I’m back at camp now. I’m waiting on the sun. Just like we did back then. That day I shot my first elk. The day dad touched one for the first time. The first time he felt ivory. It was just the two of us. We didn’t talk much as we waited beside the mud hole. We didn’t talk as much as we should have. I can see that now. Talking wasn’t our strong suit. I wish I could talk to him now. I wish he was here, cooking steak and eggs. I can smell his cooking. I can hear his coughing. I can almost see his smile. It’s getting harder to see. Time is fading his eyes and his cheeks. Time is eroding my brain painting. I don’t like that. I can still hear his words, though. The sun is creeping low now and I’m asleep. I can hear his words.

“Look son. Look. Wake up. There he his.”

“Where? Where dad?”

“There. It’s a bull. It’s a damn nice bull son. Get your gun ready.”

“I’m nervous dad. You shoot him. I’m too nervous.”

“Wouldn’t be right, son. You know that. Now that’s the end of it.”

“I’m nervous, dad. My heart is pounding and I’m shaking too much.”

“Take your time son. Just breathe. We’ve got time. He doesn’t know we’re here. It’s ok. Just breathe.”

It’s evening now. I’m walking through the bottom of the canyon. I can hear the bull bugling from his bed. He sounds old. His throat sounds scarred and used, like dads. That’s close enough. I’m choosing my steps carefully now. I want to be underneath him when he rises and comes down to look for cows. I can see dad. He’s beside me, telling me it’s going to be ok. I can see him in the hospital bed too. His hair is gone and his color is different. He doesn’t look like my dad but I know it's him. The bull is up now. I can hear him walking. He’s walking toward me. It’s dead calm in this canyon. Too calm. He’s going to hear me. He’s going to hear my breathing. I can hear dad’s words. He’s with me now.

“Just breathe. You’ve got time. He doesn’t know we’re here. Just look at him. He’s beautiful.”
“I can see him, dad. I can see him in the scope. I’m shaking. The scope is moving too much.”

“Relax son. We’ve got time. Here. Put your gun on my pack. There. Take another breath. It’s ok. He doesn’t know we’re here. Wow. What a bull.”

He’s moving through the trees now. He’s a good bull. Maybe bigger than the one fifteen years ago. It doesn’t matter. I’ve learned not to compare elk. My heart is pounding. He’s walking downhill. He’s coming. He’s closing the distance fast. I’m not ready. I should be ready. I take a deep breath and clip my release to the loop. He’s close. He’s close now. Dad’s with me. He’s always been with me. Every hunt I’ve ever been on. When he was alive. After he died. He’s always been there. I can always hear the words.

“Switch the safety off now. Get ready. He’s broadside. Take a long breath. Put your finger on the trigger and start to squeeze. Don’t jerk it. Nice and easy. Nice and slow now.”

He’s at twenty yards. He’s broadside. I can feel my finger on the trigger. I can feel it moving and I don’t remember telling it to move. Dad’s with me. I can feel his breath over my shoulder. Maybe it’s the wind. Maybe the bull will smell us. I can see the heart of the elk. I can see where I want my arrow to go. My finger pulls the trigger.

“Reload! Reload! Great shot son! Great shot. There he goes. There he goes. Watch him. He’s down! He’s down son! You got him!”

There’s blood now. I’ve waited long enough. I can see the blood. It’s easy to follow. The shot was good. Thank God, the shot was good. I wish he was here. I wish this was his bull. He shouldn’t be far. I heard him crash. Next year I’ll take my daughter. She’ll be a year younger than I was then. Next year I’ll take her elk hunting for the first time. Dad will be there too. He’s always there. It could have been his bull. But I understand now. He only wanted one. It was his dream. It didn’t matter who pulled the trigger. The hand of his child was as good as his own. I can see that now. There he is. There’s the bull. I can hear the words. Every time I hunt, he’s with me.

“Look at him, son. Just look at that bull. Most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. You did well. I’m proud of you.”

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