Fortuitous killing offends me. A man should know what he intends to kill, should seek out the particular object of his murderous instincts, seek it out as an individual, know its habits and its track, how they differ from others of its kind, and understand the meaning of his own heart as the gun fires. Otherwise killing is gluttony. God knows I have killed animals indiscriminately in my life, but their deaths haunt me. Those acts were far more grievous sins than any lies, cruelties or infidelities I have perpetrated on my human victims. A lie, a putdown or an infidelity is a calculated act; Headhunting is simply gratuitous. I seethe silently for a while, then bluntly ask Mel and Harold why they gunned down the coyote. After all, a coyote eats mainly mice and carrion; Mel and Harold themselves are not sheepherders; the coyote is misunderstood in that regard; studies prove they don't kill that many domestic animals, and even if they did....
"That's how we do around here," says Harold.
"Shoot," says Mel, injured, "it's just a coyote...."
I flash, and it's as brief, as bright as the muzzle blast from Mel's rifle...the people I've hurt too often. Then Mel passes the snuff tin around. We load our lips and head for the barn, talking normally again.
The next day we leave before dawn to hunt Deer Mountain, a peak to the southeast of Hamilton. The sun, when it finally arrives, reveals a terrifying aspect. The roads that climb these mountains are little better than the tracks of a snail climbing a beanstalk. Slick, thin, the merest translucence on a steep surface, they wind around and around, aimlessly following the line of least gravitational resistance. To look down from the passenger side of the jeep is to court instant vertigo. Mel drives loosely, turning his head to talk. Thank God he is no chatterbox!
The best approach is to study the distant mountains. Trapper Peak and Sleeping Child. Lost Horse and The Lonesome Bachelor: my Forest Service map dispels acrophobia as effectively as a tranquilizer might paranoia. I sink back into the gray dust of geography and history, adrift and happy in a world of long-dead trappers and distant, sleeping children. Harold peels an orange from his lunch pail and the sharp romanticism of citrus fills the jeep. Then he curses the fibers that stick between his teeth. At the top, Mel parks the jeep and we dismount, stiff and groggy, to check our rifles.
"Colder'n a mother-in-law's heart," says Harold, his orange-scented breath pluming in the early light. We're up in the snow, more than 7,000 feet at this point, and the air bites the jaws like a dentist's drill. Still, it's not much snow—three inches at the most—and the only sign we have crossed on the road has been that of deer.
"We'll poke around for a while up yere," says Mel, "and if we don't jump any elk we may find deer. Take 'em if you see 'em—in this district you're allowed two on your license, either sex. Kill any grouse that you see. They're good lunch meat for tomorrow. We don't hunt 'em up here like you do back East. These are fool hens, won't flush worth diddly. They either stand and squawk at you or else jump up into the trees and figger they're safe. Shoot their heads off. If you see an elk or a deer, shoot for the heart—well, you know that anyway. I don't hold with these gut-shootin' fellers or these dudes that take whey they call 'haunch shots' on a running meat critter. Waste a lot of time that way, tracking them out." He spits his quid of snuff. "Meet back here by noon."
It was the longest speech he ever made.
In terms of big game the day is a washout. But in terms of coming to an understanding with this vast, cold-hearted country it could not be more successful. Mel and Harold shoulder their "crowbars"—a rifle is a workman's tool in these parts—and amble downhill into the snowy pines. Their footfalls and voices fade even before they are out of sight. Lesson No. 1: sound travels vertically in this vertical country. A man with a broken leg could shout his head off, empty his rifle with distress shots and not be heard by his partner a few hundred yards away. I head uphill with my own partner, a lean Californian named Roger Ferry who is also my brother-in-law. Roger is tall, soft-spoken, bespectacled, a consummate woodsman who grew up as a deer hunter in the fiat, tamarack and muskeg country of northern Wisconsin. Like so many of us from that land of waning opportunity—" America's Drearyland," some embittered ex-Badgers call it—he went West. Though he majored in French literature at Marquette University and had ambitions to write when he was younger, he now runs a small home-improvements business in Sacramento. Being his own boss, he has plenty of time for the pursuit of his true vocation: hunting and fishing.