November 27, 2019
Author: Chilton Williamson
(Author’s Note: In Wyoming We Eat Elk for Thanksgiving Dinner)
If compensation is possible for a summer so brief that the growing season is limited to 55 days at best it’s the most beautiful Indian summer on earth, climaxed by elk season in the last two weeks of October.
While friends of mine, here and elsewhere, seem politely convinced that writing is merely a reasonably transparent excuse for hermitism and other forms of indolent and antisocial behavior, nevertheless the writer’s trade is, always has been, and ever will be among the most arduous means invented by man to answer and assuage the call of his inner vanity. As much as his neighbor toiling in the coal mines or contemplating the rear ends of a hundred head of cattle from the back of a tired cow pony, the writer requires his respite; his period, however brief, of rest and recuperation. Come the 13th of every October, my work, finished or not, is done for the following week or ten days, and I’ve joined the majority of able-bodied men in town, everyone buying supplies from the IGA store, sighting in his rifle, attempting to catch his horse off the back forty, loading the pickup truck and backing it up to the horse trailer or camper, and kissing his wife and children goodbye, while trying to took sorry about it.
By late morning on the 14th of October, I was on my way west to Twin Creek to collect my animals, and by midafternoon we were rumbling along the dirt roads north from Kemmerer through Pomeroy Basin, across the braids of the Oregon Trail, under the steep long brow of Sheep Mountain, across South Fork of Fontenelle Creek, past Krall’s ranch, over the cattleguard that marks the National Forest boundary, and along the base of Absaroka Ridge to Fontenelle Crossing. Here the horse trail begins its ascent by Bear Trap Creek to my perennial spike camp beneath Indian Mountain. Having been caught out in the past by snowstorms and mud I’ve learned to continue another six miles, following Little Fall Creek down to La Barge Creek and parking in a meadow beside the gravel road. This extends the ride in and out by 12 miles, but peace of mind is worth it. This year, I had Linda Meller along to wrangle the horses for me while I devoted myself to the hunt. Since Linda bred both animals and sold them to me for enough money to pay for her children’s orthodonture, I figure she ought to know as well as anyone what she is doing.
Except for writing, every one of my activities is about gear. We spent 45 minutes saddling the horses; loading on the packs that straddle the croup behind the cantle; attaching the lariats, canteens, bedrolls (tied into the saddle strings ahead of the horn), and the guns slung in their leather scabbards from the D-rings and tucked beneath the skirts; and making the necessary adjustments and balancings. As we were about to depart a game warden, on loan for the season from another part of the state and unknown to me, drove up and asked to see my permit. Finally, at just past five o’clock, we rode out from La Barge Creek (where Joseph La Barge was killed by Indians in 1825) on a ten mile ride through the shortened light of a mid-October evening.
The horses made good time on the clay road, arriving an hour and a quarter later at the crossing. The trail begins as a jeep track ending at an old hunting camp, beyond which it narrows to accommodate a single horse before going on above the floodplain of Bear Trap Creek, where the curious beaver swim in slow circles behind their dams. The slope rises steeply on both sides of the creek, sagebrush and aspen on the southfacing aspect, black timber and talus on the north. Clinging precariously to the bank, the badly eroded trail crumbles in places beneath the horses’ hooves. (I have never aspired to be rolled on by a fully loaded horse.) At the third or fourth turn, we came upon a cow moose who stubbornly held the right of way for several minutes. As twilight approached I reined in to glass the long ridge high above, where the big bulls hold. Where Bear Trap descends through a pass on the left the trail goes right, and the angle of ascent becomes more acute. Breaking from the heavy timber, we watched a herd of doe deer browse their way peacefully through a stand of aspen thin as cobweb in the deepening dusk. Before the horses had struggled up the steepest stretch to the treeless saddle, the light was almost gone. Within the pine forest on the other side of the saddle it was entirely gone yet a strange glow persisted as if rising out of the ground, which rang with a hollow sound beneath the hooves. By it we made our way on to camp, unloaded the horses, raised the tent, and gathered wood enough for a small fire to heat our supper of canned beans and chile.
The alarm sounded at six-thirty in total darkness within the nylon tent. Linda had slept badly in her lightweight bag and could not be roused. I slipped from my own bag, fully dressed except for my boots, crawled from the tent into a faint dawn streaked with a few high clouds and brightening above the spires of the trees, and lifted my orange coat and rifle from the snag where I’d placed them the night before. The air was cold, but not cold enough to have frozen the cold sweet water in the canteen. Moving carefully, I walked off from camp through the subacqueous light in the direction of Indian Ridge, already turning pink at the summit where the horse trail goes over. More carefully still–three steps forward: halt, look; three steps forward–I began to flank the ridge, a 45-degree slope of red clay and shale intermittently covered by deadfall, a few windblasted old pine trees, and clumps of supple new growth replacing them.
A movement like the drop of an eyelash caught my attention: a tail whisking somewhere among the young trees. I put the glasses on them and saw a cow elk and two calves, their cream-colored scuts turned toward me. Searching farther, I saw a second cow; farther still, and a thin ray of sunlight assumed material form out 300 yards. A spike, perhaps a forkhorn: Any elk is a good elk; you can hunt for weeks up here without seeing anything. A rock ten feet away offered a rest. I crept to it, knelt, cradled the forestock of the .338 Winchester Magnum in my gloved hand, took aim, and fired.
The young bull lifted his head and stared above my own into the tops of the trees behind me as the crash of the explosion rebounded around us. The vertical distance was greater than I had estimated, causing me to hold too high and send the bullet a foot above him. I settled the crosshairs on the brisket and fired again. The bull staggered under the impact of the hit, turned slowly, and walked behind the root mass of a fallen tree overgrown by saplings. By the time I reached him he was stretched on the ground with just enough strength to scrape the duff with his hooves. I circled him carefully and discharged a final shot into his neck. Back in camp, Linda had heard the reports and had coffee waiting when I arrived there.
We were on the kill an hour later, Linda with her camera, I with my knife, saw, and a pair of hatchets. I spent some time and even greater effort in turning the 600-pound carcass to position the hindquarters downhill from the front ones and in rolling it securely onto its back. Then, taking a pinch of belly skin, I ran the point of the knife under it and slit the tough hide from pelvis to brisket. The paunch, pale, slick, and warm, smelled powerfully of sagebrush. With the knife I cut it free of the encompassing frame of bone and cartilage and severed the esophagus, windpipe, heart, and lungs–pulverized by the 250grain slug–while the body cavity filled with the purple blood. Then, seizing the hind legs below the elbow, I rolled the carcass twice, three times, and spilled the guts in a pile on the ground, saving only the liver, which I placed on a tree stump close by.
I severed the legs at the knees and elbows, cutting first with the saw, then popping and crushing the ball joints with a hatchet, and moved up to the neck and head which I removed above the shoulders. It was noon by now and we were beginning to tire, particularly Linda who had been holding the camera all morning to record the butchering, but still the work was only started. I paused to chase a camp robber off the liver, which in any case was shriveling in the sun (I don’t care for the stuff myself) and to strip off my leather vest, flannel shirt, and bandana, everything stiff with the dried brown blood, before setting to work again in my Army wool pants and longjohns under the hot October sun. With the knife and saw I divided the carcass behind the short rib. Then I upended the front half, set the blade of one hatchet across the top of the spine, and pounded the hatchet with the head of the other. With excruciating slowness the blade sank into the spinal column, cleaving bite by bite downward through bone and marrow. Many hunters pack in a chain saw for the job of quartering, but as well as being a cumbersome tool it can be a lethal one. Several seasons ago a game warden from Big Piney severed his own femoral artery and bled out in minutes beside the carcass.
It was past one o’clock when I finished quartering the front half and began on the hind one. My hands were already blistered through the bloodsoaked leather gloves, but by two the job was clone and we were set to return to camp for the horses. (Or horse: On the single occasion when I tried to pack an elk on the gelding, he’d run over me in his headlong flight downhill and thrown himself over an embankment into the creek bottom.) By three we were back with the mare who stood patiently tied to a tree while we struggled to heave the front quarters into the panniers, one on each side of the saddle. Then down to camp to unload and back to Indian Ridge for the hind ones. At four we were once again in camp. The meat cooled on a compacted snowbank and our guts tingled from infusions of Jim Beam cut with handsful of snow.
While Linda gathered wood for a fire I picketed the horses and afterward sat crosslegged on the pine needles to attack the Jim Beam bottle again, feeling the greatest satisfaction I had known all year. Three elk in five seasons is good work. The sun dropped behind the ridge and immediately the darkened air chilled about the orange flames and the column of gray smoke rising through the pine boughs where the saddles, blankets, guns, and ropes hung around the pitched tent. Supper was beef stew, tortillas panfried in butter, black coffee, and whiskey. When we finished eating, the stars were out and the horses, grazing clumps of dead grass at the ends of their picket lines, were barely visible. I snubbed them to a couple of pine trees for the night and crawled into the tent on hands and knees behind Linda. We zippered into the bags and lay in the dark for some minutes before anybody spoke.
“Do you think we ought to move the meat?”
“I was just laying here thinking about it.”
“The horses will warn us if a bear comes.”
“Well, shall we move it?”
“Yes. Let’s go move it.”
We rose and went out halfdressed into the cold dark where, seizing the great shaggy bullstinking bloody quarters between us, we lugged them away from camp to another snow drift at the edge of the park.
The wind got up in the night enough to shake the tent, but at daybreak the sky was clear. Because the mare can pack only half an elk at a time we had two trips to make down to the crossing and back. While Linda fixed breakfast I hurried to strike camp, load the packs, and settle the panniers over the mare’s saddle. The elk quarters were cold, slippery, and hard to handle, heavier than they had seemed the day before. Linda rode out on the gelding, while I followed on foot, leading the mare.
We made slow progress on the steep trail. The dead weight bore heavily on the mare’s front legs and knees, and the gelding flared his nostrils and blew hard each time a breeze carried the scent of elk to him. But it was a splendid morning again, the sky almost white at the horizon and cobalt overhead, the parallel ridges dark with pine and saddled by yellow parks, the tawny desert far below repeating on a lesser scale the series of crests and ridges rolling eastward. On a precarious sidehill we caught up with a mule train packing a couple of elk and a big bull moose, to which the gelding reacted like a rodeo horse. I considered taking my sidearm from under my coat and shooting him, but Linda protested the idea of having to walk out.
We made Fontenelle Crossing by noon. Linda waited by the creek with the mare, the meat, and herself for company while I took the gelding from her and went loping away cross-country, proceeding from one bow in the road to the next. We reached La Barge Creek in half an hour and 15 minutes later were back at the crossing again. I parked the truck and trailer in a swag in the road and looked up the forested canyon to the distant wall of Indian Ridge, a high red barrier keeping back the sky, where the last elk quarters waited. The gelding stamped.
“We’re burning daylight,” Linda said.
(This story originally appeared in Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. It was subsequently reprinted as a chapter of The Hundredth Meridian: Seasons and Travels in the New Old West, published in 2005 by Chronicles Press.)