Jack had been in this position before. Fading light, a cool Colorado fall evening, and just a hint on the breeze of what he had come looking for. He had come to this spot, this corner of God’s country, at precisely the bewitching hour. That hour when dusk is creeping up on daylight and the shadows start to announce their presence with more authority. On this fine mountain afternoon the great white bull had called his name and the sweet pungent smell that was wafting to him told Jack they were near.
He had stumbled upon this place 40 years ago after missing a switchback that he normally took to the canyon below. He had no idea then where he was in regards to a map but knew when he first laid eyes on this place, that it was special. It contained the very habitat that wapiti dream of. Cool wallows, grazing flats high on the mountain full of pockets of aspens, and some of the darkest timber in the Rio Grande National Forest brought the biggest of bulls into its fold. If one could stand the walk, and if one could be true to the hunt, then this pristine lady would give up her secrets, and hopefully, some of her elk.
As he made his way past the last wallow he looked down to clear a stick from his footpath. There he saw it. The faintest bit of dark blue plastic had shone up from the ground and caught his eye. A smile crossed the lips of the hunter, and he began to reflect to much younger days. He could walk all day and not get tired, stooping to drink from the clean mountain streams when thirsty, and only eating when his body demanded more than a bite of jerky here or a tootsie roll there. He remembered the night he got lost on this very trail back in ’62, and how he had started cutting plastic from the worn out poncho he had in his pack to help retrace his steps at first light. He needed to make it down the mountain first, but he knew he had to come back. This newly named Blue Plastic Trail held elk sign like no other he had ever seen. Nowadays the mere thought of littering this sacred ground would bring a frown, but on that night he just couldn’t bring himself to part with the marking of this particular path for fear of it getting lost from him. Like Hansel and Gretel he had found the breadcrumbs the next day, and this same plastic had guided his way to the motherland for years since. Of course he no longer needed the old blue plastic pieces to help him here, for he was now part of this place, inseparable from it in the resolve of his mind. He could take himself there any time at home in Oklahoma by just closing his eyes and breathing in the smells and sounds of the mountain.
A bugle ahead startled him out of his trance. The smell of elk had gotten stronger, and although light was fading fast, he could make out shapes in the distance. A chirp here was answered by a mew there; a broken stick to his right revealed a mother with calf in tow, and a glunk up ahead told him the monarch was close. They were all around him, and he understood what the sportswriters talked about when they said “into elk”. He was as into elk as any human can get. He was one of them, talking, sassing and cajoling each of them as they passed within spitting distance of the trail. Daylight was burning fast, and he knew the distance between he and the great bull was closing.
He took the gamble and moved forward to a knoll in the aspen flat ahead, passing the great bull’s ladies as he went. Not running, not sneaking, just a casual walk with cow talk lingering in the air. As he moved forward in his path stood a giant cow, and he had to halt his advance. She was not budging off the trail and also not buying his advance on her mother’s herd. She had seen his kind before, a two-legged elk that got too close to the herd and scared everyone away into the night. A stare down began, and the two-legged elk did his best to look at the ground and become part of the landscape. He closed his eyes and drew upon his Lutheran faith to attempt a simple prayer. “Dear Father, I love these animals. If it were thy will I shall not take this animal. But if you could spare me this request, and give me this to feed my family I would be forever grateful.” His eyes remained closed, waiting to hear the cracking of hooves on the downed saplings that were strewn about and barks to the wind as the animals left the mountain in alert. There was only silence. Something had changed: The giant was there. As he raised his bowed head slowly, he noticed the cow had moved off the trail. She had accepted his apology with a mournful mew and had decided to mingle with her mother’s herd instead of causing trouble for the hunter. A silent thought of thanks to God brought the realization that this could happen, was happening, and that now he was nothing more than a mere spectator, watching everything unfold in slow motion. With the light remaining he could see a ghostly figure ahead.
This same ghost had made his appearance days before. With no companions yet the bull was merely taking a long walk after rising in the timber in the evening. Across the park Jack had made out the shape of an elk, a big elk with something odd about his coloring. He was a magnificent noble with only a speck of brown to his ribcage and rump as reminders of a peasant’s lineage. Light was fading fast that evening as well, and although he could not see the tree 75 yards up the slope, the elk drifted ghostlike between the pines further up the ridge and out of sight.
He had heard his Choctaw Grandmother speak of a spirit bull when he was a young boy visiting her on the reservation. He had played in the dust of her home with his little bow and arrows that were made for him by his uncle and listened to the elders discuss such things. That seemed like such a long time ago to Jack. Before his career as an engineer, before his time in Vietnam, and before he became a man, a hunter, and a lover of elk he was a little boy playing in his Grandmothers floor hearing of the Spirit Bull who represented the strength of the native people. “A white bull. A giant of a white bull.” he told himself as he stared on in amazement after that first encounter. Why was he chosen to see this? Perhaps he earned this right through love. Time. Commitment. Dedication. Love of these animals. He had spent 40 years in these mountains with these elk. He had slept with them, ate with them, and had watched generations of them grow up. Yes he was a hunter but he was also an admirer of theirs. He answered the call to hunt these animals and loved them just the same. Now that time was upon him. The giant white bull was near.
Tonight the shape drifted as a dimly lit bulb that got brighter in the fading evening light with each step closer it took. With the elk almost at range for his recurve the spell of the brightness was nearly impossible to break for the hunter. His chest felt funny, and there was that familiar pounding in his ears that always accompanied the moment of truth in these situations. This was different however, and Jack knew it. He loved these animals, but he also was a hunter. The Good Lord had given his nod of approval as this great elk stood before him, and he intended to take it. The cow from before was gone, and now it was just these two: the hunter and the monarch.
The range was close, maybe 20 paces. At the ready with an arrow nocked and tab on the string of the old recurve, a lone aspen held Jack’s disguise. The ivory monarch arched his back and blew a whistle that made the lump in Jack’s throat tighten and the hair rise on the back of his neck as the crested arrow bobbed nervously upon the flipper rest. Finally a familiar calm had kicked on inside his swimming head. Where there was noise in his ears there was now total silence. His pulse rate had slowed, and his breathing was rhythmic and unlabored. He had done this a hundred times on everything from mule deer, to whitetails, to these great animals. The stars were being lit, and the last of the light was being squeezed out of the day. Jack knew it was now or never. He found his spot on the animal’s ribs and the bow was drawn. As the phantom stepped forth from behind the last aspen, the blurred background of the elk’s ribcage came into focus. The tab was released, the arrow flew home and that sound of success, a hollow thump that is sweet music to the bowman, made its way down the knoll towards Jack. Thundering hooves followed, with elk exploding into the timber below the hunter. Jack had thought he heard a great crash up above him, and with that sound he bowed his head in respect.
Tears now streamed down the old hunter’s face. Not tears of sadness or pain, but of pride and wonderment. Yes he loved these animals, and he didn’t care who knew they moved him. He would once tell anyone who listened about how they made him so emotional. In these mountains for 40 years and at 73 years old, Jack was beyond explaining to people how these elk made him feel. He just knew these animals are to be respected and loved, and that hunting them was a privilege that he had fought for in a war many years ago. It was who he was and what he was. There was no shame in it.
After waiting an hour, and with darkness finally upon him, Jack made his way up the hill the 20 paces using the tiny flashlight he had in his fanny pack. Pink frothy blood, that crimson piece of evidence that is sought so desperately after a loosed arrow, jumped up to Jack from the grassy floor. More and more spoke to him as he followed the rise in the aspen flat. Finally it had stopped and for an instant his heart jumped into his throat with worries that perhaps the shot was not as good as he thought. There was no need for the worries for there were hooves ahead in the moon shadow of a young fir tree. With this Jack felt a sudden washing of relief, of joy, and of sadness all rolled into one indefinable emotion. He had been rewarded for passing on younger bulls and only taking the occasional cow for meat. Jack was pleased that all of the elk he had seen here in the past, all the small bulls that he had merely watched over the years in easy bow range, had somehow created this perfect hunt. Ever the reluctant warrior, a giant white bull had ended his 15 year draught of antlered elk.
Jack remembered his prayer, and he blushed when he thought of telling God that he wanted the meat. Oh he did want the meat, but he also wanted that bull in his den to comfort him when he was too old to climb these hills. He had yearned for that special trophy to tell his many grandchildren about, the one that finishes the story for him as a hunter. Surely God understood that he loved these animals like no other man and had given him this gift.
As his eyes adjusted to the light a white rump appeared between an old burnt out stump and a tree he had marked with his pocketknife years ago. A rustic tan color shone up from the ground in front of him on the great elk’s leg. He shook his head in disbelief and squinted through the fading light. Yes a tan body that was absolutely massive. It was the kind of animal that one only shoots once in a lifetime. Not white but a big caramel colored body with… no antlers. Suddenly as if on queue, a loud bugle sounded nearby in the darkness of the hollow, jolting Jack back into the present. Yes, the same bugle from before that had rattled him so, now was bringing him back to the edge of his emotions.
Ol Jack laughed out loud, and with a smile that returned each time he thought of the bull and hunt the years after, he thanked the Good Lord for the lesson. It was then that he remembered the lesson of Grandmother’s story so long ago: the Spirit Bull was sacred. He could not be killed nor hunted, expect in the spirit world. He is there for us to hunt when we go to be with our ancestors.
The great bull had other generations to father, and Jack had only asked for meat. He now had that meat for his family’s freezer and a new desire in his heart. He had been given a white bull to see, enjoy, and keep in his memory. The fuel for all of those Grandfatherly stories that needed telling to younger hunters whose presence he would grace in the future was born. To Jack what he got was more valuable than antlers and an oddly colored cape. The best possible memory was burnt into his soul, and he knew that his time as hunter was not over yet.
That old matriarch had decided to lead the ivory bull to the safety of her herd, taking the arrow in his stead. Jack had made a perfect shot, but perhaps 40 years in these hills had softened his eyes a bit. There was one more elk between him and his bull, and during his preparation to make the shot, she had slipped between the two warriors. As Jack contemplated this more tears welled in his proud eyes. “Lord,” Jack thought out loud, “what did I do to deserve this gift?” He loved these animals, and that was enough.
With his tag filled and the meat cooling on the mountainside the great old hunter made his way down the mountain for the help he would need at first light to retrieve his trophy. He was guided by tiny bits of an old blue poncho that seemed to magically glow with each step that he took that night. Somewhere down the hollow a new matriarch was soon crowned. The new queen led her mother’s old herd off the mountain with a white bull nearby bugling into the darkness of the canyon below.
Michael Davenport is a Nurse Practitioner that lives in Southern Illinois who along with his beautiful wife run a Rural Health Clinic. He is blessed to get to chase his dreams “out west” for a couple of weeks a year in elk country.