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A Day with the Elk by Winthrop Chanler

 

Early in September of 1890, we were in camp in the northern part of Colorado, an easy day's ride from the Wyoming line. Our party, eight in all, consisted of myself, three friends, three packers, and a cook. We had been out nearly a month, and after the first week our success had been good. We were taking life very easily—hunting a little, fishing now and then, and doing a great deal of healthy "lying round camp."

Game was very plentiful. There were black-tail and elk all around us. The antelope, than whom the ammunition manufacturer has no truer friend, were within easy reach. One of the party had bagged two bears, and a packer had found a dead one, whose fore-paws and ears were sufficiently preserved to be worth a $10 bounty to the finder.

The outfit with two exceptions was content. Our cook, having surreptitiously drunk all the whisky, was struggling with an increasing thirst provoked by an empty demi-john. My cup of happiness, unlike the cook's, had never been emptied, but it was far from full. I had not shot an elk. They were all round us, and had been for a fortnight. I had hunted them alone and in company. I had had many chances at young bulls, but had hitherto held my hand, waiting in vain for a good head. We had plenty of meat—a condition of things forbidding useless slaughter. Spike bulls and cows were therefore sacred, and seemed to know it, for they gave me every chance to take advantage of their youthful inexperience or sex. Twice I had stumbled on a large band in timber. I had heard the musical challenges of the young bulls answered by the patriarch, with his squealing whistle ending in a deep grunt of conscious superiority. The young bulls were provokingly plentiful—but the patriarchs always invisible. Of course every other member of the outfit saw the "biggest bull yet" whenever I happened to be absent. Each of my three friends had a good head or two to his score, and their accounts were closed. Our time was nearly up, and I began to despair of getting what I wanted. For two days I sulked in my tent, and then one morning Robert Bruce's historic spider fell into my lap from the tent-pole, and I arose and went forth for a last try.

Our camp was by a stream in an aspen grove, on the edge of one of those open spaces which, be they large or small, are known in Colorado as parks. Behind us to the south lay heavily timbered ridges, alternating with little valleys full of shade-trees, long, sweet grass, and pleasant brooks. There, I thought, was as good a place as any in which to find the "faultless monster that the world ne'er saw," and thither I accordingly went.

It was about noon when I started, and my intention was to work away to the south, and then hunt back to camp toward evening. I know that there are those who say that if you want to kill game you must get up early. They are perfectly right, and I agree with them entirely. But there are others who maintain with equal truth that toward sundown is the best time. One time is as good as the other, and inasmuch as an empty belly and the dark before the dawn are bitter things to me, and to be avoided if possible, I prefer the evening shooting. So, fortified with a good night's rest, and a breakfast calculated to last me till the morrow, I set forth alone and on foot.

In hunting, as in most cases where real work is to be done, one is best alone. Two people are apt to talk just at the wrong time. And even if you do not talk at all, four feet make—of necessity—more noise than two, and two bodies are easier seen than one. I left my horse behind, because I did not wish to burden myself with an extra responsibility. A horse can be a dreadful nuisance. You may want to go where he cannot, and so you must either leave him tied up somewhere, or else suit your way to his. Again, you lose valuable time in dismounting and tying up, before stalking or shooting your game. And both time and temper suffer when you can't find the place where you left your horse. Some men have the true woodsman's instinct, and never get lost or turned round. These are fortunate beings, and worthy of respectful admiration. But woe to him who, unendowed by nature with their gifts, seeks to imitate them. For my part I have always had quite enough to do to keep my head and feet agreed as to the direction of camp. Any extra strain, such as the necessity of looking for a mislaid horse, is sure to cause a disagreement between the members, and so bring on a catastrophe.

I had been out several hours. It was getting on toward evening, and I was well on my way home. There was no lack of elk in the neighborhood, for my more fortunate friends had proved that they were easy to find. I could see that bands had roved that very morning over the country through which my path lay. I could see where some great bull had thrashed the young sapling with his horns till the tender bark was stripped off, or hung in long, wet ribbons from the wounded tree. And in the pools where the big fellows had wallowed, the mud had scarce settled. In places the grass was trampled and littered as if by a bunch of cattle. The "sign" was plentiful and fresh. Still I heard no whistle, nor saw a living thing, save now and then when a big-eyed black-tail doe would gaze at me with mild wonder until she got my wind, and then away she would bounce through the timber, followed by her startled fawn.

But the shadows were getting longer and the air cooler; the sun was going rapidly down hill. I knew that now was the time when the elk were sure to be moving down out of the timber for their evening feed in the open glades. I was making my way quietly along a little stream, whose timbered banks afforded good cover, and at the same time a view of the small parks running up to the wooded ridges on either side. Suddenly my heart went to my throat, and I dropped in my tracks. There—to the left and within a few yards of me—was a cow coming down through the timber to drink. Close behind her was another cow, and then a young spike bull. I lay still and breathless, praying to all the gods that the band, which I felt sure was behind, might pass my hiding-place. There would surely be a big bull or two among them, and at that distance if I missed—. I was already thinking whether the neck or the shoulder was the best chance. The cow bent her head to the water, and began to drink. Her two companions paused on the brink. Nothing else showed. The cow raised her dripping muzzle. I was so near that I could hear the drops tinkle as they fell back into the stream. And then a puff of wind, soft as a sigh, fanned my cheek, and with a snort and a bound the two cows and their youthful escort vanished back into the wood. They had got my wind, for see me they could not, and no log could have lain more still.

Then arose a mighty trampling on the other side of the stream. The trio had evidently rejoined the band, startling them by their sudden retreat. I crept across the stream, and crawled through the thicket to spy out the land beyond. A thick, low clump of trees thrust itself like a venomous green tongue out into the open park which stretched away in front of me to the right and left. Beyond the park was a heavily wooded ridge, whither I felt sure the band had gone. But no—not all! Further on, at the extreme end of the green tongue of timber, in full view and broadside on, stood a young bull. He was evidently the last of the herd. He stood gazing about him as if he wondered what had startled the others, and why they had left him so unceremoniously. What a picture he made, as he stood outlined against the green hillside, turning his lordly head slowly from side to side with watchful eye and spreading nostril! I had seen plenty as good as he, and had held my hand. But then it might be my last chance. He was only a ten-pointer. But I had gone home so often empty handed, and he was only seventy or eighty yards away. Instinctively my rifle went to my shoulder, my finger pressed the trigger, the elk plunged forward and fell on his knees. As he struggled to rise, I shot him again. And then—what are mere words to describe what I felt! On my left, beyond the accursed green tongue, went with a rush a great band of cows and calves. And in their very midst rolled the great-grandfather of all the elk in the State of Colorado,—a perfect monster! His back was as broad and as yellow as the Tiber in spring. His horns were as thick as a strong man's arm, and spread like the branches of an oak. Across the park and up the hill he went, his wives and children thronging round him so close that I could not shoot for fear of doing useless harm. Up and over the ridge and into the timber he went, and I saw him no more. It was all over in a moment; then I remembered the young bull I had shot, and went and sat down by him. I expressed my profound regret for what had occurred, and explained how it had all happened. His grandpapa should have shown himself a moment sooner, or at least should have had the decency to separate himself from the ladies when running away. And then, having performed the necessary rites, I left him where he lay, and started for camp to get a packer and a horse.

My way lay over the very ridge the elk had crossed in their flight. Thinking that I might get another chance at the big fellow, I went carefully along, keeping a sharp lookout ahead. For about an hour I kept on through the woods. It was getting dark fast, but I was very near home, and could see the great park on the edge of which our camp lay. As I walked, I could hear from time to time the whistling of bulls on all sides; some far off, and some seemingly quite near at hand. In crossing a large open patch of burnt timber, I was stopped by a very loud whistle close in front; and, on creeping up, saw on the far edge of the clearing three bulls standing. They were between me and camp, and not two hundred yards away. They seemed to hear or see me, but stood perfectly still, probably mistaking me in the dusk for one of their number. One was a big fellow, I could see, as he stood out against the sky. What horns he had! The failing light made him seem gigantic. I crawled on till within easy range, and still he never moved. He was standing breast on, apparently watching me. Aiming for where his great shaggy throat joined his broad breast I fired. The rifle blazed out in the dusk; the elk gave a bound, and turned his quarter toward me; the other two dashed off into the woods. Again I fired; this time for his shoulder. The flash of the rifle half blinded me for an instant, but I could see that he was down. I started for him at a run. Up he got, and went lurching heavily down hill toward camp. I was now quite close to him, and fired once more. Again he fell, but, the slope aiding him, he struggled up and went stumbling along. There was no need of another shot. He was nearly spent, and my only thought was to get him as near camp as possible. Forgetting all about the danger of going too near a wounded elk, I was close at his quarter, hurling sticks and stones at him to drive him home, as one would an ox. The hill was steep; my second shot had broken his shoulder; he pitched rather than walked down the slope; and finally fell forward in a heap and breathed his last.

He was not the monster I had lost, but he was a grand big one; as big as any we had killed on that trip. I had what I wanted at last, and having marked well the spot where he lay, I heaved a sigh of satisfaction and started for camp.

In half an hour I was stowing away a well-earned supper, and fighting my battle over again for the benefit of all who chose to listen. About nine o'clock I went back with two packers and a horse to where my prize lay stiff and cold. By the light of a roaring fire we cut him up, and then, loading the horse with what we wanted, we left the remainder for the bears and coyotes, and betook ourselves to camp.

Two days later I had the melancholy satisfaction of assisting at the decapitation of the monster who had escaped me. I devoutly believe it was the same elk, and though of course I cannot swear to his identity, yet I am sure he must have been a full brother to old Yellow Back. My friend had stalked and shot him while superintending the luncheons, siestas and gambols of his numerous family. When I saw him I groaned in spirit, and congratulated the lucky sportsman. We took only his head, for he was too much married by far to be good eating. His mighty body was left as a memento mori to the valiant bull who succeeded him in the affections of his widows and offspring.

Winthrop Chanler.