A Hunter's Story

He took to the trail as a child, and as life passed he found that he had never really left it.

Field & Stream Online Editors

He began hunting back in the time when men first learned to fly. Seven decades later, when I began hunting with him in the Missouri Breaks, he still had not accepted winged humanity, was convinced that every Piper Cub droning above

The juniper hills was determined to drive the deer from his land, his black eyes tracking the plane across the sky like a young jack rabbit watching a red-tailed hawk. They were the same hills he'd hunted since he was a child, when his mother, half-Assiniboine and half-Scot, drove the wagon across the high winter prairie to a coal vein eroding from a cutbank near the Dakota border, winter fuel in a treeless land. They rode wrapped in Pendleton trade blankets, and when a cottontail ran from the wind-carved snow, he would jump down from the wagon and follow the rabbit to its burrow and stamp the hole full of snow, knowing (because his mother told him so) that the rabbit would leave by another entrance and seek the sun. On the trip back, late in the afternoon with the brittle sky the same white of the hills, the rabbits would run up the hillsides and stand confused by their snow-stamped holes and his mother would lean one elbow on the wagon seat to steady the single-shot .22. When he was 6 or 7 and could hold the little rifle she let him shoot sometimes, but he always helped gut and skin the carcasses and pack them frozen in a barrel in the barn. Sometimes there would be smoke in the distance from a coal vein struck by lightning the autumn before, and it seemed strange to his child-mind that the fire didn't freeze during blizzards like the cattle they sometimes found standing upright after storms.

He told me his father was a m¿¿tis horse trader from the Cypress Hills of Saskatchewan who believed in fast horseflesh and fat cattle, who could see nothing of value in rifles but the death of wolves. He would not allow his son to hunt when fences needed fixing, and fences always needed fixing. So the son told the teachers at the Indian school that he was needed at home, and told his father at home that he was needed after school, and by the age of 11 was breaking horses for ranchers around town, riding his black gelding 30 miles between jobs. By his 12th birthday he owned a Winchester .30/30 with a 26-inch octagonal barrel and broke horses during summer for a ranch 100 miles up the Missouri. They gave him a $1 gold piece for each greenbroke cowpony, and everyone knew they could afford it because they had made their fortune robbing trains back in the 1890s. The railroad they'd robbed ran through towns named Glasgow, Malta, Havre, Harlem, and Zurich, tank towns named by the railroad baron's daughter who'd spent a year in Europe, then traveled West in her private car, bringing the names with her.

At age 14 the young horsebreaker was sent to boarding school in Kansas and learned of cities on the other side of the world that were named after water towers in Montana. He knew from pictures in the books that the rest of the world was no place to live, and spent his time with sharecroppers on the edge of town, running hounds after raccoons and drinking Kansas corn. The boarding school presented him with a train ticket home after one semester, and he was never happier than when he saw through his Pullman window a gray mule deer moving across the Montana dawn. He swore he would kill one, though they were scarce, and all the while he was riding home from the train depot with his father, who told him he would never amount to anything but a lazy hunter, he thought of hills where mule deer dance. He saw the shape of a certain horizon in his mind and rode there that evening with his .30/30 and killed a forkhorn buck under a rising moon.

When he came home with the buck behind the cantle his father told him to leave. He said he loved his father but could not help hunting, and even 70 years later he bit hard on his pipe when he told me the story. He said that he became very unhpy then and did too many things: drank whiskey and broke horses for gold to buy whiskey, and fought anyone who would fight. Finally he met a woman from the city who made him less unhappy so he married her. She did not like him hunting either and instead wanted more money to buy city things, so he rustled cattle at night until a friend he trusted said he would soon be strung up. His wife wanted more than he could give her and took her revenge by burning his clothes after he undressed at night. He began drinking again and would come home and shoot at the flies on the ceiling with his Colt. This stopped his wife from burning clothes, but she also stopped other things and went back to the city.

The day she left he took his .30/30 and rode down to the Missouri bottomlands, which in those days were covered with brush and timber as far as he could see from the bluffs above the river. The sun went down and the moon came up; he left his horse tied to a box elder, and he told me many years later that he still didn't know why he went down there so late but that a white deer walked between the trees through the moonlight and he followed, toward the river, seeing white antlers and white legs between the trees but never enough for a shot. He followed close to the river and could hear the current under the cutbanks. Then a breeze came down from the bluffs and he heard strange clickings and scrapings in the trees above and looking up toward the moon he saw feathers lifting and then falling around skulls and scaffolds in the branches of the trees, and heard dry leather scrape against bark. He stepped back in the shadows and something hard and white touched his cheek and he turned and ran through the cottonwoods, fearing dead grandfathers, falling over things he would not look at, picking himself up on bloody hands until the willows held him tightly with wild thin arms. He wouldn't open his eyes and yet he saw the white deer again, running toward the moon, and he fell to his knees and crawled after the deer, under the willows, until the riverbank broke and he fell down a sandy cutbank to the mud on the edge of the Missouri and saw across the water the white deer swimming, moon on his antlers and moon on the waves behind.

He'd dropped his .30/30 somewhere in the woods and would not go back. He had left his desire for whiskey back there, too, and knew that he was done with whiskey and stolen cattle and most things from the city, but that he still needed a rifle and a good shotgun, also. He broke horses again until he felt that he'd broken the madness still left in him, and bought another rifle, one of the .30/06s that hunters said could shoot as straight and far as a wolf running, plus a Winchester pump shotgun, and married a woman who could make star blankets and bead white buckskin. She did not want many city things, and his jobs breaking horses and stretching barbed wire kept them in flour and cloth and shells for his guns. They had three daughters, and in the summer and fall during the drought years, when the prairie blew for days and carried the antelope and grass away on its breath, he and his family would go to the mountains where the women picked huckleberries and sold beadwork in the tourist stores while he hunted, never carrying a compass but following instead glimpses of a white deer through dark trees. He was never lost, he said, just late sometimes, and then he would sit under a tree and eat a piece of loin or heart from the elk he'd killed and wait until the white deer came by again. He said his daughters never did understand such things, though they ate the elk, and until they noticed boys and needed to smell nicer, they helped tan the hides. They wanted to ride the highways in automobiles and do other city things, but in later years when they'd grown and run away with men from the city and then come back home without their men but with grandsons, they brought him broken-winged birds and asked his help, as if they knew a knowledge of death could help life. His grandsons listened to him (as I did a few years later, following his pointing pipe through the Missouri hills), listened to how he killed the elk whose antlers lay on the dogpen roof, the old bull he'd killed on the mountain the Assiniboine called Thunder because of the clouds that always ran through its scalp. He told about falling across a rock slide in the wind of a thunderstorm and breaking nothing but the rear sight from his rifle, and how he'd climbed to the ridge where his horse had run in the lightning and the bull was lying under the only tree on the ridge, a stunted fir; he'd walked up behind rocks and swung the rifle as the bull ran like sage grouse flying, and broken the elk's neck in front of the shoulders. He told about how he killed the mule deer as big as a yearling steer-his grandsons did not believe it, he knew from their eyes, and he grew suddenly angry, remembering how it had taken all one day to lower the buck off the steep mountainside, the cowhide rope around his waist to keep the buck from sliding off into the canyon below, down to a barren ridge where he let the horse drag the deer down in the night. But he forgave his grandsons because they were young and would sometimes ride with him in the old Chevrolet pickup he now hunted from on the prairie. They shot the young sage grouse that stood under the sagebrush along the coulees with their great-grandmother's .22, and he showed them how to gut grouse quickly without a knife, but they were bored with dead things and wanted to find more live things to kill. He tried to explain that other moments were possible, but did not have the words, not because of any lack of education but because of the repetitive stubbornness between youth and old age, where grandsons never want anything but the high ridges and grandfathers have lost the memories of all the valleys and draws. As he grew older he circled the places he remembered best, the coulees near home, and left the mountains to the young men who would not climb them. He forgot to grow bitter because he kept these places in his mind.

He still went out in the mornings before everyone else and sometimes would kill a buck or catch a large fish while others slept, not because of any particular skill but because the sky still held wonder and the prairie still seemed unknowable. He remembered his youth more clearly than his old age, and the horizon still seemed the same horizon he'd envisioned when he'd stepped off the railroad with the names of distant cities. He began to forget the names of his great-grandchildren, but during the times he had the strength for his grandsons or me to take him back in the hills he could still find the trails where he'd driven stolen cattle, where he'd killed the buck with antlers as long as wagon spokes but only two tines. Often he was very tired and would sit s as if they knew a knowledge of death could help life. His grandsons listened to him (as I did a few years later, following his pointing pipe through the Missouri hills), listened to how he killed the elk whose antlers lay on the dogpen roof, the old bull he'd killed on the mountain the Assiniboine called Thunder because of the clouds that always ran through its scalp. He told about falling across a rock slide in the wind of a thunderstorm and breaking nothing but the rear sight from his rifle, and how he'd climbed to the ridge where his horse had run in the lightning and the bull was lying under the only tree on the ridge, a stunted fir; he'd walked up behind rocks and swung the rifle as the bull ran like sage grouse flying, and broken the elk's neck in front of the shoulders. He told about how he killed the mule deer as big as a yearling steer-his grandsons did not believe it, he knew from their eyes, and he grew suddenly angry, remembering how it had taken all one day to lower the buck off the steep mountainside, the cowhide rope around his waist to keep the buck from sliding off into the canyon below, down to a barren ridge where he let the horse drag the deer down in the night. But he forgave his grandsons because they were young and would sometimes ride with him in the old Chevrolet pickup he now hunted from on the prairie. They shot the young sage grouse that stood under the sagebrush along the coulees with their great-grandmother's .22, and he showed them how to gut grouse quickly without a knife, but they were bored with dead things and wanted to find more live things to kill. He tried to explain that other moments were possible, but did not have the words, not because of any lack of education but because of the repetitive stubbornness between youth and old age, where grandsons never want anything but the high ridges and grandfathers have lost the memories of all the valleys and draws. As he grew older he circled the places he remembered best, the coulees near home, and left the mountains to the young men who would not climb them. He forgot to grow bitter because he kept these places in his mind.

He still went out in the mornings before everyone else and sometimes would kill a buck or catch a large fish while others slept, not because of any particular skill but because the sky still held wonder and the prairie still seemed unknowable. He remembered his youth more clearly than his old age, and the horizon still seemed the same horizon he'd envisioned when he'd stepped off the railroad with the names of distant cities. He began to forget the names of his great-grandchildren, but during the times he had the strength for his grandsons or me to take him back in the hills he could still find the trails where he'd driven stolen cattle, where he'd killed the buck with antlers as long as wagon spokes but only two tines. Often he was very tired and would sit s