That night we take a run up the mountain in Mel's jeep, heading for a salt lick that the elk sometimes visit on their way down from the peaks to their wintering grounds in the high valleys. The idea is not to kill, but to see if they are moving, and if so, just who is doing the moving—cows and yearling calves, or the big bulls we are seeking. Though the autumn has been a strange one, fraught with warm weather and unrelieved by snow, the bulls should be finished with the rut by now. If so, they will be banding together again in their bachelor gangs and replacing the meat and muscle they lost over the past month during their titanic mating battles and their long-winded, randy chases after the cows. If the bulls are moving down the mountain it will make our hunt that much easier. The closer to the valley, the handier the roads, the shorter the distance we will have to drag our kill. A bull elk can weigh 600 pounds, gutted. If we kill one at the top of the mountain, we will have to cache it somewhere and then return for Mel's donkey, Jenny, to pack the meat and the trophy out. "We can do 'er," Mel says, "but it ain't no fun."
At the foot of the mountain we rendezvous with Mel's hunting partner, Harold Nelson. He, too, is slumped and bearded in the image of the mountain men but, in contrast to Mel's dour demeanor, Harold is a mountain wit. The eyes behind his granny glasses squint and sparkle. We can almost hear him creak as he climbs into the jeep—he suffers from emphysema and a spinal fusion, he announces, the result of too many smokes and a fall from a cliff some years back. He was once shot by another hunter, over in Idaho where he was born, and now refuses to wear red or Day-Glo orange clothing in the field for fear that he will make an easy target. He has a low opinion of most hunters, including Mel.
"Your average hunter," he says, "is like a dog chasin' a car. Even if he catches it, he don't know how to drive."
Winding up the mountain in the dark, Mel asks Harold how his love life is.
"Waal," says Harold, lighting up a cigarette to feed his emphysema, "it used to be wine, women and song. Now it's Metrecal, the old gal and Sing Along with Mitch."
They call him Count Nelson down in the valley, one of those negative nicknames, like a fat boy known as Skinny. Yet he is an authentic American original, tough and human, a man whose only lies are told at the expense of the world's cruelty and for the amusement of his friends. He damns all citybound ecologists as "flower sniffers," and cuts Christmas trees for a winter's living, yet in the days I walked the mountains with him I discovered that he knew the names of all the birds, beasts, trees, mosses, rocks, lichens, clouds and peaks much better than the field guides I had brought with me. He kills meat to feed his family. "You know," he said one afternoon as we rested on the sunnyside slope of a frozen peak, "there really ought to be only one man hunting this country. That way it wouldn't get drained of meat so quick, and all the flowers wouldn't get trompled down. I hate to see it goin'. But I'll tell you who that man oughta be. Harold Nelson."
"How old do you reckon Harold is?" Mel asks.
"Oh," after a long pause, "about 193."
At the salt lick, nothing but deer sign. The elk are still up high. Winding back down the mountain we pick up the brassy flash of eyes in the headlights. "Coyote," says Mel. "Kill the bastard!" says Harold. Mel stops the jeep. He opens the driver-side door and steps out with his .243 Browning lever-action rifle, takes a rest on the door and shoots. The eyes wink out and we see a long, yellow shape skipping away through the night. Mel shoots again. "Nailed him!" Harold walks up the road and comes back holding the coyote by the brush. It is a bitch, a young one. The first bullet shattered her right front leg, which dangles by a shredded tendon. The second bullet took her through the chest. Her tongue lolls and her eyes are not yet glazed. Harold cuts off her tail with a clasp knife and slings the carcass back into the woods—"for the magpies."