The Lazarus Bull
This week’s F&S Classics is an adventure tale of a mighty bull elk that fell for a spell—before coming back to life
THE DEAD ELK wasn’t there. When Roy and I finally worked our way down the 60-degree hogback to the snow-filled chute bottom, the dead bull had vanished. But the six-pointer had neither evaporated nor ascended into elk heaven. He had walked off, the tracks said, first staggering for a few yards, then moving out strongly, leaving behind a few spots of blood at the top end of a melted-in and flattened body shape in the snow.
“I saw him go down flat. He didn’t move for five minutes. Dead as a door nail,” muttered Roy Feutz, my Lander-based guide on a 1968 hunt in the Gros Ventre Range. Then, his voice rising, “Why that colorful language offspring of a colorful language canine was DEAD!”
“And like Lazarus he rose,” I agreed solemnly. But it wasn’t funny at all.
Two hours and about two miles of black timber blowdowns later we were licked. The “dead” bull had traveled steadily. He had left no further blood, had neither slipped nor stumbled in the hard places, and the spike we had earlier seen with this six-pointer had rejoined him. The bull, however defunct he had been for five minutes, was healthier and traveling faster than we were. Total frustration.
In what is now a full generation of what some think of as professional hunting, this misery has happened to me twice before, and I have witnessed it one other time. The trouble is not the fault of the bullet or the caliber or the rifle but solely of the hunter. He has shot a mite high.
Next time you quarter an elk—or trot down to the nearest wholesale beef distributor if elk aren’t handy—note that between the forequarters, that hump we call the withers is created by a series of fingerlike bony processes, or vertebrae extensions, which stick straight up from the spine. They project upwards at that point, more or less between the shoulder blades, where the spine crooks down decidedly between neck and back line. Shoot too high, bang a bullet in where it will jar those bony fingers yet will not actually break up the spine proper, and you do the beast no really permanent damage. But you will very probably stun him into immobility, create the effect of a Dempsey-like punch on a Milquetoast jaw.
Years ago in Quebec, it took only a matter of seconds for the moose I’d hit too high to fall flat and wave his feet in the air before coming to, perhaps 15 seconds; and the zebra in Zambia had managed to recover from spine shock collapse in moments, to sprint off while I was rounding a litter of mopane brush. The Lazarus elk just broke all the records by being down and presumably dead for at least three minutes, indeed more like five. And he was long gone.
Getting even that one chance had come hard. The year before, during the 1967 season, late October had seen Wyoming’s upper Gros Ventre trails choked with snow belly-deep on a horse. The elk were out of the timber, congregating in bunches of a hundred or more, pawing out feed on the high alpine meadows where wind had blown the snow thin. Cold, and tough going—but pick your bull. In ’68, at October’s end, however, there could be no selection, just a sweaty scramble to find any elk. Warm weather, actually hot at midday, had the herds scattered over north-slope bedding grounds, steep as a barn roof and everywhere tangled with blowdowns impassable to horses and at 9,000 feet near-impossible for men. Prying elk out of the cool darkness of those spruce fastnesses takes either dynamite or a heavy, cold snow, and we hadn’t much luck in finding the fuse for either.
The high Gros Ventre, where the river flows southeast from its source before whiplashing around the foot of Sportsman’s Ridge northwest toward the Snake and the valley before the Tetons, is superb elk country. It holds the classic mixture of high meadows, forested slopes dotted with little parks where the grass grows fat, peaks high enough to keep the bulls fly-free in summer. The elk have a fine route out to Jackson Hole wintering grounds, and a good way in over spring calving areas. And most important, 4-wheel-drive vehicles are out. They can make it only to a point some eight miles downstream of the hook-shaped bend, or onto Bacon Ridge lying east. All the other country northwesterly up beyond the ultimate Gros Ventre spring, onto Darwin Peak toward Pyramid and the rest, is horse country.
“And it will stay that way, too,” said Loring Woodman, the young man who operates the Darwin Ranch for a few dudes and fishermen in summer, and a half-dozen hunters at a time in the fall. “This quarter section is totally surrounded by national forest land untouched for generations. Unless Union Plywood, which has already logged off the Union Pass country to the east, manages to bamboozle the Forest Service into letting them cut up the Gros Ventre, just to keep their Dubois mill operating, it may stay that way. The game commission people seem to think chopping up this area with roads and lumbered-over areas would be the end of the Gros Ventre elk herd. From what I hear, there’s some small chance that all the elk and deer range between here and Jackson may end up as primitive or wilderness area.”
“That would get my vote,” I agreed. “Mighty little country left without the stench of gasoline. And lumbering this range would be a vile sin.”
The Lazarus bull who grew up in it had been a dandy. Actually he was a raunchy, rangy old bull, probably totally bereft of fat after a season of running a harem of a dozen or so cows, but his head sprouted widespread antlers with six long points on a side, a proper trophy. Theoretically, of course, I hadn’t come out to Wyoming to bust any monstrous old bull whose gravy would bend a fork, but to bag a first-rate chunk of meat. At least, the heap big chief of the local gun club back home had so requested.
“You get a fat young bull down as far as the freezer in Pinedale,” he instructed, “and we’ll pay for the packaging and shipping of all the elk steaks you can’t use at home. Our February stag party will be big enough this year to eat a whole elk.”
Of course he didn’t understand the trophy hunter’s natural instincts. Faced with a quick choice between a fat spike and that stringy old hatrack, I had automatically chosen the trophy-horned bull—and then flubbed even that. From here on out I’d better be looking for a tender one.
Where to Next?
Even that was tantalizing. We kept seeing elk. One midmorning from one glassing spot we picked up two cows and a spike, then a dozen cows, then a bunch over two dozen, all heading off the open park country down into spruce thickets on the north slopes. We rode within knife-throwing range of seven cows so suddenly they stood in bug-eyed horror almost long enough for me to get the camera working. But only the moose common to the Gros Ventre region, at this season up into the mountains for the rut, would stand to have their pictures taken. One dawn we rode up the steep section of Sportsman’s Ridge. No one could account for that cornball name, but I have a sneaking suspicion it dates back to the days shortly after the century’s turn, when on behalf of one of his Rough Rider buddies, Fred Darwin, Teddy Roosevelt used a spot of influence to carve out of national forest for him the unique quarter-section on which Woodman’s ranchhouse now stands. During the climb Roy Feutz saw a bull with real hip-scratching horns melt down into the forest. I didn’t see it. My noble steed, a lazy female correctly named Nasty Biter, wouldn’t get up within 30 yards of Roy’s gelding. Perhaps they’d feuded previously.
We were certain that victory was ours when the glasses picked up the creamy body of a bull deep in timber across a steep-sided gully. But he wouldn’t stay put while we tiptoed into range. Since tiptoeing on a 45 degree slope heavy with crusted snow and blowdowns is noisier than falling off a tin roof, that wasn’t surprising.
Roy was getting discouraged. So was I. We spotted three cows one late afternoon, bedded or lazily feeding on a grassy bench a full mile across a timber-filled basin from us. There had to be more elk in that bunch, hidden in the shadows. If we could work our way across and up to that higher level where a shallow rimrock slanted uphill, we would strike a fringe of timber right above ’em. It took over an hour, since the basin had a canyon down its middle that human flies could negotiate better than horses. The stalk was perfect. We sneaked into within 40 feet. But there were still only those three cows. Not even a spike, and my license called for an antlered critter.
“We’ve tried Grizzly Basin and Alpine Meadows and Pine Meadows and those parks down the Hollow Log Trail and Bugle Basin and Hungry Meadows and a dozen other good spots,” Roy summarized after dinner one evening. “I am stuck.”
“How about Sleepy Hollow?” asked Woodman, who had somehow managed to get a piano into his remote ranch, and had been exercising it with the works of Johann Sebastian Bach, no connection with the Beatles. “Have you tried up there?”
Bull Down—For Good
After the first day or so that hadn’t occurred to us. The high hollow was the largest grass and sagebrush park really near the ranch, only a half hour up the ridge, and while we had on occasion seen night-before elk sign as we passed through it, certainly no area tagged Sleepy Hollow could hold elk. That name belonged to a place on the Hudson River, 2,500 miles to east, where a skinny character named Ichabod Crane met up with the Headless Horseman. I didn’t dare ask Woodman why the name. I had asked why one horse was named Public Enemy No. 1, and his answer to that one showed why foolish questions get foolish answers.
“Earlier this season elk fed in there every morning,” Woodman continued. “Why not ride up in the dark and watch it at dawn?”
We’d tried all the hard places, made all the 10- and 12-hour rides. Maybe an easy one would produce.
It was less than full dark when we eased into the lower edge of the park, having left our horses tied well back. Scattered patches of old snow crunched under our boots. The sun had already broken the eastern horizon, threw flatly horizontal rays of gold across the up-sloping park. The place was empty. No. Not empty. My glasses showed elk hazy in the cold shadows halfway up the park. Cows. Five cows. But one was light colored. The sun had lifted by inches and a beam cut sharply through the timber to cross that animal. It was a bull! Not a big one, a five-pointer, but seemingly fat. Probably he had been no Casanova during the earlier month.
There can be something of anticlimax, I discover as I get older in hunting years, in the actual dropping of a game animal once the search and the stalk are done. There was a snag a few feet from where we lurked in the concealing timber. I crawled over to it, still in the shade, and slipped a round into the chamber of the 7mm Taylor and Robbins wildcat. Roy was whispering that his idea of the range was 250 yards. I didn’t agree. It was well over 300, unless the early light was fooling both of us. But with the help of the snag, the crosshairs steadied and the rifle bucked. Should be good, I thought as we heard the zop of the bullet striking home. The cows ran but the bull stayed right there, staggered. None of that guessing he’s dead, I muttered. This must be sure, and the rifle zipped another 160-grain Nosler across the sage. The bull went down.
And then the work began. A trip down for pack horses, a trip back up and then down again with the meat. I just hope those gun club guys enjoy their elk steaks next February. I may be chewing along with the rest, but I’ll be thinking of the Lazarus bull, the long-horned one that died and then ran away. Like to meet him again next year.