"And if you don't know which way's east," adds Harold, "I can loan you my North Dakotian compass." He pulls out a woman's powder compact and opens the mirrored lid. "It don't show you where to go, but it shore shows you who's lost!" Haw, Haw.
The climb is a killer, but thanks to the new snow there is inspiration at every halt. Elk sign galore. Vast stretches of raw dirt mixed in with pine needles where the bulls have been tussling. Mounds of fresh droppings, some of them still warm at the core. Saplings rubbed raw earlier in the autumn when the bulls were polishing their antlers for the rutting battles, the red bark of the skinny trees dangling like a teen-ager's braids. At the top we halt. The sun is just coming visible over the rolling rock ahead of us. The big red ball again.
"I'll drop down here to the right," Roger whispers, "just over the crest of the ridge. You stay just on this side of the crest. Let's move along real slow and easy, like you'd still-hunt the swamps up near Eagle River in Wisconsin. Stay about a couple hundred yards apart. I'll whistle every now and then to let you know where I am, and you whistle back."
I push out along the ridge, pausing five counts for every five steps I've taken. The old angst rises along the back of my neck—air prickles, my skin as sensitive to sound as a fever victim's to the touch of a breeze. All the senses peak in moments like this, all the tastes come flooding back to distill themselves on the tongue, blood and breakfast. My eyes seem to widen and deepen in my head, huge light-suckers, vacuums that draw in every color, every shadow, every movement. The tension on the nerves and muscles—latent death—rises with every step and redoubles with every pause. If a man were to live his whole life with the taut senses of a hunter at the end of a stalk, he would die at the age of three....
The first crashing sound hits me like a truck coming around a blind corner. I wonder for an instant if Roger has fallen off a cliff. Then the bull elk tops the rise, galloping like a horse, and swings his huge head to look at me. I stare into his big brown eye and he keeps right on going, watching me watch him go, the wide rack steady over his hammerlike head, his neck low—and I don't even get the rifle to my shoulder before he's gone. Damn, I'm thinking, they don't run like deer at all.
And then the second bull appears, half a second behind the first one. He's smaller by a bit, and he pauses in his gallop to look at me, slowing to a trot. I snap off a shot and kick dirt under his belly. Off he goes, and I start to curse myself—what kind of a hunter am I, stupid, no-good....
And then the third bull appears. The third bull! Someone loves me! Unconsciously I have moved up the ridge toward the spot where the animals are crossing, and now as this bull slows to stare at me I have dropped to one knee and the rifle is steady and the crosshairs touch the spot behind his shoulder and as he moves I swing with him and the rifle goes bang. I see the guard hairs fly over his heart. He leaps ahead, down the mountain, out of sight, and I can hear his jumps—one, two, three, four, five, six, then a pause—and then a heavy thud that seems to shake the earth....
Over the knoll ahead of me, snow hazes down from a pair of quivering spruce trees. I move up quickly and quietly and look downhill. The elk is down. In his dying flight, out of control, he crashed through a dead tree and somehow twisted his way through two others—the ones that produced the snow shower. He lies on his left side, his legs flexing. He is big as a horse, umber-colored, touched with cream and dark brown, dying. As I stand there watching him die, the big feeling washes over me again: bigger than guilt and pride, though akin to them, bigger even than love and loss, though their brothers, and I flash on down through time to the men who crawled deep into the earth to paint their prey by torchlight on the wet, cold walls, and then crawled out again to kill meat, their god.
Roger comes over the rise and looks at the dead elk.
"Hey!" he says. "You got one!"