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    cabin near a mountain lake in winter

    Solo Elk Hunt

    A Story

    By Peter Battle Biles

    February 19, 2022
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    • Noah Lawrence

      Such a stirring story, thank you Peter!

    Richard knew the valley well. When he tramped in Sunday night, the snow cast it in an unfamiliar glaze and mirrored a distracting cascade of sunset colors that had him questioning his memory. He’d come for an elk hunt, to stay in the hunting lodge he’d built with his brother; now he was almost sorry to disturb the peace with his own footprints. But he walked on, shouldering his rifle and hoisting his pack over his hipbones. There would be ample time to look around. Now, he was tired. His hike had started warmer, but all eight miles of it had been punishing. His bones and tendons burned, his mouth was cold and parched. But he’d come here to feel something. To encounter some drama. To be alone. This was good pain, he thought, the testing pain that he was looking for. The wind whipped snow over his brow and chilled his upper cheeks and eyes, the only parts of him that weren’t swaddled and wrapped.

    He was in a mountain basin west of Denver, with scraggly gray rocks slotting the whole valley like solemn teeth. There weren’t many trees up here. The elevation allowed for little but rocks, snow, and a bit of moss by the stream that ran down the slope and through the basin. It was a lonely mountain.

    He soon reached the cabin. One of the windows was cracked and a stair step had collapsed from rot. Somewhere higher up, a wolf gave a resonant howl. Perhaps there was a pack nearby, and maybe that meant a herd of elk.

    He grunted with relief when he got in, stamping the snow off his boots. The firewood from last year remained unmolested in the corner, and the scarred table still had his brother’s deck of cards in the center as well as Richard’s beloved tin camping cup. “Nothing’s changed here,” he thought. “Nothing will, probably.” The cup was rimed with dust and the room smelled of split pinewood, old leather, and cold dirt. Richard stood a moment in the dimness, watching his breath linger in the gray light of the window. He swallowed, noticing the cards on the table a second time, and knelt to start the fire.

    cabin near a mountain lake in winter

    Photograh by Alex Hawthorne

    One might assume Richard Pellmore was a busy man, always surrounded by other people, and needed the solitude of the valley to come back to himself. But Richard had hardly spoken to anyone in three months. He spent long hours on his own schedule as a sub-contractor installing electrical wires and drywall, sometimes seven days a week. He had found a working groove of solitary living and was half surprised that his life did not feel lonely. He worked, he watched television, he slept. He talked from time to time with his old college roommate, spoke every other month with his stepmother, who could only remember his name and that he was divorced.

    “Mary divorced you, did she, Richard?”

    “Yes, Maureen.”

    “Oh. Oh. You were married to her, Richard?”

    “Yes, Maureen.”

    “Oh. Oh. And your brother Taylor got married, didn’t he?”

    “No, Maureen. No, he died a couple months ago. I’m sorry. Maureen. He died.”

    He called her because she was lonely. But he was not lonely. He had his job, his gun, and a hunting lodge. He was okay.

    The fire grew to a healthy blaze, crackling the dry pine, and Richard put on cowboy beans with bacon. Lord, how good such simple groceries taste in the cold so far from civilization, he thought as he cherished every bite. There was nothing else in the world he needed, he thought, sitting alone at this table set for two with the hot sweet barbecue in his mouth.

    “Well, long night ahead,” he muttered. “Too late now.” And it was late. The moon hung above the basin, an unseeing eye. Richard put down his narrow mat near the banked fire and slept.

    The elk trilled early the next morning when it was so cold that even the stars seemed frozen in the sky, snow dots in a range of dark. Richard turned creakily onto his sore shoulder. The elk bugled again. It was close. Richard sat up, listened. There it was again, long, undulating, and piercingly high. He’d always thought that noise could never be imitated by human lips. What an unearthly sound. Alien and gorgeous, the stuff of gigantic beasts made audible to lesser ears.

    He focused his eyes on the still-dark window. Nothing stirred in the basin field; all was dim bluish-white, ghosted by starlight and the moon. His heart skipped a beat at the loneliness, a very big loneliness, intensified by expanse, made strange by beauty. Suppose the cabin fell on top of him? Would anyone ever find him? He laughed. Of course no one would ever find him. He liked to think he was in a secret cove, an inlet of the universe. He liked to think he could remain out here forever and the rest of the world would function as always: oblivious to his existence. It was a strangely comforting thought. Maybe he liked it that way. He had the comfort of having no attachments to the world below. He was high up, and free.

    A wolf howled. Another followed, with a deeper timbre, and the pack emerged from the sparse hedge of pines at the basin funnel, black-robed and snarling after the lone elk that sprinted a few feet ahead of them. Richard was surprised by how clearly he could see it. The whole procession was probably sixty yards away – near enough to aim and get a shot in, even. He wanted to scare off those wolves and get the elk himself, of course; he could already tell that this one was huge. It turned and its rack swung and bucked, defying death; then it ran on, this lone chariot with no army to help it. The wolves snapped at the bull’s heels, trying to jump and latch on to its neck. Richard had to hurry. He grabbed the flashlight, clutching it with his teeth as he put on his wool sweater and outer parka, still wet with melted snow from the day before. The elk rifle stood propped in the corner of the room, already loaded, its silver lever gleaming slightly in the moonlight. “I’ll lose it, dammit,” he thought, listening to the animals pass. Snatching the gun, he went out with his boots untied and no gloves on.

    “Hey!” he screamed. “Hey, get out of here! Get out of here, sons of bitches!” The wolves had stopped the elk and loaded it down with their weight as they jumped, bit, hung. The elk stumbled, got up, shook off two of them, and made an unsuccessful run onto the ice of the stream, falling partway through where it was thin. Richard drew his pistol and fired it into the night. The wolves snarled and ran, dispersing like shadows. The elk lay where it had fallen, gasping. Richard broke into a trot. He fired the pistol twice more. Dawn began to break over the basin, the ice, the stricken animal. The elk was still alive, struggling to stand. Richard shot it in the heart from ten feet away. The elk thrashed, spurting blood, which slowed to an ooze in the snow and water, and died with a long exhalation that produced a cloud of vapor in the morning air.

    Richard knelt next to the dead bull. Its blood was heavy-smelling, metallic, somehow in tune with the wintry stars, the brutal cold, the silence. He was a bit disappointed not to have used the rifle. And he wasn’t sure he could claim credit for the kill either; the wolves had had it fairly well handled before he arrived. He observed the dead animal quietly for a few moments, admiring its size and the spread of its unbroken antlers. He placed a hand just beneath the wound. The hide was bristly, warm, and taut. The emptied black eye looked at him, and Richard found himself shocked to remember that five minutes before the beast had been alive – fleeing, heart beating, outrunning a pack of wolves. Why was it alone in the last moments of its life? Why was it not safe among its herd? He touched the warm body of the great elk. He didn’t want to take his hand away. He hadn’t touched a living thing in three months.

    He wished he could have touched the great elk when it was alive.

    Contributed By PeterBiles Peter Battle Biles

    Peter Battle Biles is a graduate student at Seattle Pacific University and an AmeriCorps volunteer with Habitat for Humanity. He was born and raised in Ada, Oklahoma. In summer 2019 he was an editorial intern for Plough.

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