In the fat redolent days of summer, it was easy not to kill an elk. I watched them move through the flickering brown landscape so familiar to my heart, and thought, twice, not today. Not now.
The first time we find them, they're grazing in the upper field--three cows and two calves, still wearing the faint spots of their infancy. The sun has already started to set by the time we get up to the rocky perch we'll come to know well in the next few weeks of hunting, and the light is just soft enough around the edges of things that I don't recognize their round, brown shapes for what they are. My Dad is turning back to tell me something, teach me something. Every walk we take now is a lesson in elk--how to tell how old track is, what the hot musk of their piss smells like, how to roll my footsteps so they are balanced and quiet--and I am about to learn something new, except I interrupt him and say instead, what is that?
Through binoculars, lifted in tandem, we can see the gentle curve of their shoulders flex as they lower their heads for more alfalfa. They've been here for awhile, my Dad says, pointing out a calf who has somehow, against all odds, taken his lanky limbs and folded himself into a soft brown oval. We watch for a minute in silence, letting the muted clamor of late evening sink into our bones.
The calves won't leave the cow, my Dad whispers finally, when they're so little. We'll have to scare them off, you'll hate it.
We have the benefit of mercy, I remind him. I'm not that hungry.
So instead we watch them for a long time while the sun sets, bathing the field in amber shades of gold, a feeling of companionship growing between all of us--birds and trees and predators and prey--until dark breaks the spell and we walk home to the cabin, and a pair of hungry dogs.
The next time we find them it is early enough in the morning that there's no sign of sun, only the gray light of pre-dawn and a biting wind leftover from night. A herd emerges from the dark green velvet of Hunt's field, ones and twos trickling into the juniper bowl on our property, moving faster than you think an animal that large should. There are two calves again, thicker now but with still-knobby knees. They play chase, one taunting the other like Cedar does to Dex, while the cows graze. A bull emerges from behind the hill, his rack worn with the nonchalance of a king. This old thing? he says, tossing his magnificent head from side to side. I was born for it.
More cows, a group of raghorns--their bellies full of fire, we can hear the clash of antlers even from so far away as they smash heads and tangle, again and again--another bull, his neck low and menacing as he chases our king. A few more weeks and they'll be in rut, bugling like crazy, my Dad whispers as we watch the drama unfold through the binoculars.
We're too far away to shoot from here, and the odds of us sneaking up on this herd aren't great--more likely we'll break them up and ruin our chances for the next weekend. If that group of four comes towards us, I tell my Dad--or maybe he tells me--I'll pick one of them off. But if they stay with the herd, we're out of luck.
We're out of luck.
What are you waiting for? my Uncle wants to know, a few weeks ago. I say, for it to feel right. I'll know when I know.
And wouldn't you know it? Here we are in late September, and suddenly I'm hungry. Gone is the abundance of the summer, here now is a turn in the air, a shift in chroma, and my primal heart beats with the fear of winter--of long, cold and dark nights, of days without light. As if my soul were a squirrel, I need to stock the larders, store nuts.
The elk are gone. We hike miles into the deepest parts of the canyon, where no one's gone for years, to seek them out--only to find the soft depressions of their beds, the smell of them still hanging in the air, as if they just slipped out through the trees. We find trees rubbed to nubbins and wallows caked in mud, we find dry circles of dirt on a rainy morning where they'd just kicked out ahead of us. I think they can hear my predator heart coming, beating for blood.
We have a little time, a few more dawns to wait out, a few more evenings to see transition into the full-bodied black of night. We aren't done yet, and like any good predator, I am patient. It's not tag soup for me this winter, not yet. I am too hungry for that.