The troll was a snowman with a hunter’s cap, a bright orange vest, and a .300 Weatherby cartridge case for a nose. From the first heavy snowfall until the end of elk season, the snowman stood sentinel over a sheet-aluminum trailer parked in a clear-cut at the mouth of Carcajou Creek, in northwestern Montana.
Having been tempted by the country because it was a blank space on the map, a thumbprint of whorled contour lines without trails, I walked past the snowman that first morning with hardly a glance. My mind was already intent on the steep slope of the forest where it canted up from the creekbottom, leveled off just long enough for a man to catch his breath, and then rose and rose and rose toward a 9,000-foot peak that no one had bothered to name. You had to be a certain kind of hunter to appreciate a place like that, to look at the melancholy expanse of forest and notice the subtle color change where the spruces displaced the pines, the dark smudges that marked flat benches where elk passed their days.
Even my teenage son, who had followed me into thickets all his life, cast a doubting eye on that black hump of pine. He had just read Heart of Darkness for a book report, and as we sat in the dawn gloom, reluctant even to open the truck door to the cold, Tom uttered an unconvincing laugh and whispered that most haunting line in all English literature: “Oh, the horror, the horror.”
Looking into that darkness, I was inclined to agree. Yet I hesitated to pass judgment. I knew that forests saved their personalities for those who challenged them, that once we were behind the curtain of trunks our opinions might change. But here my assumption was wrong. For instead of the diversity I had expected, instead of the dips and rises of land and the abstract striping of light where the sun penetrated the pine, this wood remained a monotone of gloom. It seemed to be composed entirely of a single tree, spindly and tall, that repeated itself in exacting detail straight up the mountain. We could seldom see more than 20 yards ahead, and the land was steeper than it had looked from the truck. There were a few elk trails, but the snow was old and crunched underfoot; sneaking up on our winter’s supply of meat seemed unlikely.
We hunted that morning and half the afternoon without any change in the weather. By the time we began to retrace our steps, it was starting to snow. We had seen nothing of life except for squirrels, had heard nothing save the wind, had smelled nothing but the pine.
The orange of the snowman’s vest glowed indistinctly in the clearing, like a taillight shining through snow. When we approached it, the door of the trailer opened and two dogs bounded down the step. They were followed by a young girl, whose bright smile set the shadow of the day in sharp relief. The dogs leaped about our legs, barking excitedly, then quieted at the girl’s reproach and obligingly punched their noses into our outstretched hands.
“That’s Trigger”—she pointed at a nondescript, collie sort of dog—”and that’s Patch with the black eye. My gramma’s in the trailer and my grampa’s out huntin’.”
“Did you build that snowman?” I asked her.
“Oh, yes. He has a bullet for a nose. But,” she continued, the corners of her mouth turning down, “Trigger bit his arm off and Patch ran away with it.”
I told her he was a very nice snowman, nonetheless, and that Tom would find him another arm. Tom rolled his eyes at this indulgence—after all, it was late and we were tired—but he dutifully walked to the nearest deadfall to break off a stick. The dogs were the first to notice the dark figure emerging from the murk of the forest. They dashed away to greet it. A moment later we heard a booming voice.
“Sylvian!” The girl beamed and ran to the man, joining the dogs in a leaping throng.
“That man is like a king returning to his castle,” I said idly, as Tom restored to the snowman its full complement of limbs.
And what a strange man he was. Scarcely taller than his granddaughter, he was stoutly constructed, but gave off an air of great vitality. Like his gravel voice, his power seemingly radiated from his center; his solid middle was set to gleaming by the gap-toothed studding of brass cartridges on his belt. He wore checked wool knickers and a coat cut from the same green-and-black pattern.
The knickers made the legs of the man taper to a point, and he tapered at the upper end as well, to the tip of his Tyrolean hat. He had a broad face stubbled by heavy black beard and bright black eyes. A mustache highlighted his smiling mouth. He looked like a man who should have hunted deer in Maine when Teddy Roosevelt was president, rather than elk in Montana.
It was my son who later remarked that he looked like a gnome and that his granddaughter, with her pixie face and shortcropped hair, resembled an elf. “Hello, hello, hello!” he boomed, grasping our hands.
“I guess that puts them down,” Tom said, eyeing the rifle he had slung on his shoulder. It was an old-style Weatherby with diamondshaped, blond wood inlays on the stock.
“Yes, it does. Yes, it does.” He paused. “Sometimes it doesn’t,” he added in a second.
It was his manner, I would discover, to qualify almost all his remarks this way. It was not a sign of uncertainty but rather a respect for the uncertain nature of the country. It was an acceptance of the exception that proves the rule, which I’ve found in other men who choose to hunt alone in deep forests.
So we talked. He’d hunted here for 45 years, starting right after his Army release on coming home from Korea. He had dragged bull after rope-necked, heavy-antlered bull off the mountain. They’re always there, he said, but almost no one bothered to hunt hard enough to find them in this wilderness.
“It swallows you up like no place I’ve hunted. It’s like entering a forest of your own heartbeats.”
What an odd remark, I thought. Yet I instinctively knew it to be true, that when he hunts in silence and in darkness, a man becomes aware of his pulse in a way that does not happen in the open country.
The little man excused himself to check the progress of dinner. Tom and I returned to our truck to set up the tent. “Of all the books in the world, why did I have to choose Heart of Darkness for English lit?” he said, while I heated our stew. He added, “This place gives me the creeps.”
Later, the tranquillity of our campfire was broken by the dogs, which charged out of the trailer to yap at the flames. Three figures, in descending order of height, followed behind. The man’s wife brought up the rear. She was a sweet, bundled woman not more than 4 1/2 feet tall, who smiled continuously, adding a sense of normalcy to the gathering. She was what my mother would call a good church woman, easy talking, with a twinkle of humor in her voice, but not quite ready for the millennium or the changing mores of society. “That Bill Clinton,” she said, “what a rascal he turned out to be.”
She left for bed early, saying, “Don’t let old Charlie keep you boys up too late. He kills a lot of game around the campfire.”
“I’m just gonna forget you said that, on account of how good that turkey soup was.”
“Ha!” the man proclaimed, and turned back to us with his chest heaving in chuckles. The girl, Sylvian, looked shyly from one of us to the other. As her grandfather began to talk, her luminous brown eyes followed every gesture of his hands. She migrated from her chair to his lap as the evening drew on and fell asleep with her head against his chest. The dogs lay with their jowls on his boots.
He told wonderful stories, full of cougars and bears, even of ravens, with which he said he felt a special kinship. He said the wolverines, for which the creek had been named, came right into the camp at night to steal their food. But those were the old days and the future seemed uncertain. Like all of us, he feared for the forests. “A steep place like this,” he waved a hand into the darkness, “a chainsaw is the instrument of the devil.”
But he did not dwell on the politics. Mostly, it was as his wife had predicted. Mighty big elk were felled around our flames: a 6-point bull with one antler, another with a scar-tissue eye and white lines on its muzzle where a cougar’s claws had once sought purchase. Yet as a hunter humbled by wilderness, his best stories were of elk that had escaped the thunder of his Weatherby. Finally, the great chesty voice faltered, his chin dropped to meet his granddaughter’s head, then snapped back up. He had fallen asleep telling his own tales!
He got up to go back to the trailer with his granddaughter asleep against his shoulder. Before turning from the fire, he gave us a word of parting advice. “These elk don’t fall over by themselves,” he said. “You need a little luck, a little bribe to the spirits.” He nodded at Tom. “You smile, but your father knows what I mean.”
And to me: “In the morning, add one of your own car tridges to the snowman. It’s pagan, I know, to make offerings to false gods, but any time Sylvian builds a snowman, someone gets an elk. Best not to argue with success.” He turned away. “I’ll help you load yours into the back of the truck tomorrow afternoon. Ha!” he said over his shoulder, and disappeared into the dark.
It snowed some more during the night, and once when I woke up, the man’s face came swirling back into focus; it occurred to me that his mustache was dyed black. Why he would dye his mustache, this man who seemed utterly without artifice, I couldn’t fathom, couldn’t fathom at all, and fell back to dreaming. When we stepped out of our tent before dawn, the whole of the mountain was engulfed in a vast, eerie silence. We walked into the woods without making a sound.
“Stop a minute,” I told Tom. “We forgot to stick our cartridges in the snowman.”
I did not need to shine my flashlight to read the expression on his face. To Tom, the gnome who lived in the tin trailer was just another one of those characters his dad liked to indulge, a loquacious man who seemed to have stepped out of a time warp, while his elflike granddaughter was just a girl. Little wonder, being only a boy, that he thought the snowman only a snowman. But I had hunted long enough or perhaps it was that I had failed often enough—to believe in forest trolls. I told Tom to extract a cartridge from his rifle. I trudged back down the hill and added two brass buttons to the snowman’s vest.
We picked up an elk track a couple hours after daylight. I had the cow tag, and when we spotted her up the hill through the thicket, I snugged the bead foresight into the wide V on the rib of my old double rifle and touched the front trigger. She died in her bed without ever knowing we were there.
“I’m all hitched up, ready to go,” the little man said as we dragged the quarters out. “Sylvian heard the shot. ‘One shot, meat,’ so the saying goes.”
He peered at the quarters. “Nice yearling cow; she’ll eat real good.”
He stuck down one of his short arms and lifted a hindquarter into the truck. He reached back with his other arm and loaded the other. He must have cables inside those sleeves, I thought, and glancing at Tom, I could see he also was impressed
“Trigger, Patch, it’s time to go home,” the man said. “Maybe we’ll see you here next year?”
“The good Lord willin’. The good Lord willin’.” He turned to leave. “But in case He isn’t willin’—this old ticker, you know, has seen better days…. Well, anyway, just in case, I’d hate to have the new century say good morning and not have a snowman up to greet it! So that’ll be your job, the worst come to pass.”
“We’ll see you next year,” I said.
He shook both our bloody hands and pulled his trailer out of sight down the snowed-over road.
The forest was darkening behind us when I stopped the truck beside the snowman. With the trailer gone, the mounds of snow looked forlorn and neglected. The girl had stripped the hat and vest off and removed the Weatherby brass from the nose. The dogs had torn the twig arms off again. All that was left were two cinder eyes. I had to brush off the new snow to find the heads of our cartridges.
“This one’s yours,” I told Tom as we pulled away. “You might want to save it.”
What I didn’t say was that the day those cartridges had bought for us belonged to a passing era, that through some kind of forest magic we had been permitted a last glimpse of all that was good about hunting in the past century: the resurgence of game, the country where you could hike all day without seeing another bootprint in the snow, the willingness to do the hard work necessary to get an elk under tough conditions, the ability to smile when you didn’t, the courage to face the darkness, and the firm handshakes and pioneering spirit of true American characters. I figured he would look back some day and see all that. I figured our future didn’t hold much hope if hunters of his generation didn’t fight to keep some of it alive in more than stories.
Tom put the cartridge in his shirt pocket. I did the same with mine and we peered down the headlights at the snowy track through the woods.
With the gnome, the elf, and the troll of Carcajou Creek no longer our guardians, a curtain of gloom, heavier than any that had preceded it, enveloped the forest. Who could say what darker spirits were settling in der for their long nocturnal siege?
“Let’s get out of here,” Tom said.