The sun hid behind the mountains as Dan imagined that the wild country at his feet stretched to the Arctic. He very much liked the sound of the word arctic. Wild country was one of his favorite daydreams.
After chugging up the trail, the other boy stopped to heavy-pack pant at Dan’s shoulder. Mom had argued long and hard against the hunting trip. She was concerned with Dan’s lack of respect towards gun handling. Dad had argued that it was time for the boy to do something on his own. In the end, Mom gave in only after Dad ruled it a two-man expedition. Dan also gave in because going with the older cousin was better than not going. Now, here they were, standing over a remote basin and alongside Dan’s imagination.
“Where we going to camp?” Cody asked as a large gob of sweat dripped from his nose.
Below, a thin silver thread split a tight u-shaped valley then descended before disappearing.
“Down there.” Dan pointed with his rifle.
Dan kept his rifle in hand even though the approach area wasn’t open for hunting. He had read in Field and Stream that professional hunters in Africa always carried their rifles. Besides, he liked the feel of the rifle and was proud to have carried it the entire distance.
Cody adjusted his shoulder straps. “Are you sure we can find a spot?”
“Then let’s get down there.”
Off in the distance, a vague whistle pulsed through the expanding shadows. Somewhere, down in the valley, was a bull elk impatient for romance. Cody raised an ear and grinned. Dan listened and considered the four-note melody. He needed to prove he could take an elk, but not just any elk. He desired to hunt the remote tough country and come home successful. Dan nodded at Cody then stepped over the edge and down a thick-crowded draw.
Now inside the valley, the high country opened up and allowed a handsome meadow. Waiting for Cody to catch up, Dan watched a half-dozen cow elk graze. The elk had not sensed Dan, and Dan hoped his cousin would come up quiet. After slowly raising his rifle, he scoped each cow.
Dan had read and reread every article before deciding on a wooden-stocked Ruger M77 chambered for the 7mm Remington magnum. On top was a 2x7 Leopold Gold Ring scope. Dan was proud of his rifle.
Dan felt Cody and gradually lowered the rifle then raised his hand. The older boy toed quiet until they stood together. As they watched, four more elk appeared. Dan had pored over maps looking for just such a spot, something disregarded, a place where a hunter on foot and not afraid to shoulder a load could get into and a horseman could not. The elk grazed on into the dark dog-haired timber at the far side. Dan relaxed. He had figured it out all on his own, and the proof had just been in the meadow. Gathering his dreams, he motioned to Cody.
Smile beaming and heart pounding, Dan whispered his instructions. “Let’s back up a ways. There’s a small flat. We can camp.”
The boys dropped their packs. Dan emptied his and Cody sat down. They would not build a fire or light a stove, since cold camp was the only way to hunt. The plan was to take an animal, bone it out and make the carry. Dan daydreamed of arriving at the trailhead with a heavy meat-laden pack.
After a cold supper, the boys hunkered down for the night. As sleep took him, Dan envisioned a massive bull elk and triumph.
Both boys were awake well before first light.
After nibbling and sipping, jittery hands stuffed silent packs. The boys, now hunters, slipped quietly through the trees towards the meadow. At the edge, they waited cautiously for shooting light. Slowly, magically, shapes began to emerge but nothing with four legs though a pair of chick-a-dees flitted into an Engelmann spruce and loudly discussed what they saw. Ignoring the small birds but listening, Dan motioned to Cody with his chin. The teens watchfully ghosted both sides of the meadow and into the doghair then separated, each working the difficult timber at a practiced hunting pace. A mist formed low.
Dan impatiently hunted the timber and was soon in a rock-broken meadow and out of the thick dog hair. It was now full light but the mist held. After scanning the meadow carefully, he came to a standstill, mesmerized by gold-brown leaves fluttering in a nearby aspen then toed into the meadow as if drawn by the autumn color.
Suddenly, above, the sound of crashing hooves and breaking branches came to Dan as he whirled.
A mule deer buck broke across a scree slope headed for higher ground. Dan’s mind raced. Should he take the muley? Didn’t he want an elk? Was this his chance?
The deer made it to a thin stand of poor pine but ahead of the buck was a tiny gap. Dan brought up his beloved rifle in one smooth motion and squeezed. Instantly, the buck was falling, now panic-eyed tumbling then weak standing and desperate. Dan ran up the slope. The muley was dead.
Dan pulled the carcass down the hill to flat ground. By the time he dragged the deer to the small aspen, he was sweating hard and dirty. Mindless, he had nicked his arm and now the blood flowed down to his hand, mixing with that of the deer.
Cody came up as Dan found his knife.
Dan wiped the sweat from his brow with the back of his forearm, filling his nose with the smell of dirt, blood and triumph. He grinned at his cousin.
Cody looked down at the kill then back over his shoulder and up towards the summit of Lake Mountain. Glad at first that it was a muley and not an elk, Cody glanced at the smiling Dan and thought to mention an easy muley could be had lower down and then skidded into a pick-up, but for some reason he changed his mind. “Nice,” he said.
“Four point,” said Dan. The buck carried the long, thick tines of a mature buck, not a monster, but certainly respectable.
“Didn’t see any elk?” Cody hid a grin as he unbuckled his pack belt.
Dan opened up the deer and steam rose into the brisk mountain air. Cody watched. Dan reached up and in, pulling out the heart. There was one clean hole right through the middle. Dan sat on the deer’s chest, admiring the heart shot and the antlers, and decided this was the happiest he had ever been. It wouldn’t be that hard to carry the deer out, they could probably be out by tonight, and Dan had done it all on his own. It was his achievement. This was his deer, his first, and not just a hayfield muley, but a wild one from the remote high country. Dan was very proud. Anybody could take one down low where nobody ever stayed long and the developers were already grabbing the best land. His one-shot, heart-shot buck was from real country, man’s country.
“Where was he?” Cody asked.
Dan looked up at Cody and pointed with the tip of his blood-wet knife to the now deadly opening far above. “There,” he said.
“Four hundred yards.”
Dan cleaned his blade on a pant leg. “He was running.”
Cody slid his pack off and leaned his rifle against it. “Long up hill.”