Chapter 1

Echoes From the Wrong Gun


Even over the clack of the ancient printer, the door's slam vibrated through the house. I shifted so I could see as the boy skipped through the living room. He saw me and slowed. "Hi, grandpa!"

"Uh-huh. Howdy, boy. You animated over anything special?" A broad grin swallowed the freckled face of the twelve-year-old, so I added, "Careful your ears don't topple in."

"See!" he said, shoving a paper forward.

"What is it?" I asked, knowing all along what it was.

"Read it, why don't you?"

I smoothed the paper against a window pane and pretended to pore over it. "Hmm. This says you're trained to handle a gun without shooting yourself or somebody else. And it says you can go hunting if some old duffer tramps along."

"Will you?"

"This is just April," I said. "It's still several months until hunting season."

"But will you? Will you take me with you when it comes?"

I handed the boy his Hunter Safety Certificate while settling into my swivel chair. His eyes drifted to the big mule deer head hanging above the clacking printer, then returned. "You will, won't you?"

I stroked my chin, making as if it was a big decision. The boy's lips pursed; he frowned. "Grandpa?"

I'd been funning him long enough, so I nodded and said, "Yep." He near exploded. But an awakening maturity kept him from climbing into my lap like he would have done a few months before.

"Will I get one like that?" he asked, looking up at the huge elk rack dominating the inside office wall.

"Search me."

"But you know how to hunt elk." He started to lay a hand on my arm, but brought it up short. "You'll teach me how to get one like that, won't you, grandpa?"

"Likely not."

"Why not?" He waved his Certificate. "What good is this if you won't teach me how to hunt?"

"Because there's only so much I can teach you. The rest you'll have to learn for yourself. Odds are, a good bull like that comes only after you pay your dues by learning some on your own."

He frowned. I reached for his Hunter Safety Certificate. "All this says is you're ready to begin hunting. This paper opens a door. Same way with a hunting license. A hunting license says you can go hunting--that's all. Neither one of 'em says you'll get anything except the chance to hunt."

"You could teach me how to shoot an elk like that if you wanted, though. You was a guide. You used to take people hunting all the time."

"And I just said I'll take you. But taking somebody elk hunting and teaching him how to elk hunt are two different things. Teaching how takes time, luck, and an interest from the guy wanting to learn."

The boy glanced again at the trophy wall and nodded. "I'll learn. I'll learn everything I need to know if you'll show me."

* * *

I expected it, so was watching when Lars, leading our cavalcade, jerked off his hat, turned face to the sun and shouted, "YIPPEEEE!" The boy twisted in his saddle to stare back my way, eyes wide. I grinned and spurred my saddlehorse alongside the normally taciturn man who'd just shouted.

Lars acknowledged my presence with a wide grin and contented sigh. A late afternoon sun threw long shadows from scattered copses of pine and spruce in the valley below. A meandering stream glistened in the distance. We were surrounded by mountains thrusting toward a cerulean sky, toothy peaks jutting bare and gray and sharp above a green forested blanket. I swept the view as always, then eyed my old friend.

He sighed again and started to say something. Just then the boy pushed his horse between us and asked, "What's the matter? Is something wrong?" And the spell was broken.

"No," I murmured. "Nothing's wrong. On the contrary, everything is right."

The boy considered that before shaking his head. "I don't know what you mean."

"You will," Lars said. "Before this trip is over--you will." And the rancher clucked to his saddlehorse, leading his packstring winding down the mountain.

The boy thumped heels to his pony's flanks, following Lars. I brought up the rear with my packponies. It was late when we reached our old camping place. Because it was unseasonably warm, we chose not to set up a tent that first night. Lars and I unpacked and pulled saddles from horses, the boy carried enough wood for a bonfire. While I started supper, the others grained our stock, then belled and hobbled them before turning 'em out to graze.

Lars and I ate in companionable silence, but the boy drooped over his plate. When we finished, I said, "The cook don't do dishes in this camp."

The boy took a hurried bite. Then Lars said, "That's right. So I'll do 'em tonight and the lad can wash breakfast dishes."

The boy nodded, took another bite, laid his plate of half-eaten food on the ground and drifted to his sleeping bag.

"He's got the makings of a good one," my friend observed as he rinsed a plate. "Give him a few years and he'll be bringing us back here on his off days."

I tossed another limb on the fire. "Being young would be more fun if a body never had so damn much to learn."

* * *

As soon as the lantern flared, Lars sat up, shaking frost from his sleeping bag flap. "God, you always did ruin things--far back as I can remember."

"Get up, you lounge lizard," I growled, poking through the fire's embers and throwing on starter wood. "There's horses to catch, hogs to slop, and elk to slay, and the sun'll be up in an hour or two."

He eyed the stars above. "I believe I'll just wait for it. Besides, unless you and me chucked our rule, there's only one elk to slay and the slayer don't look all that eager to me."

Just inside the lantern's glow, the boy's sleeping bag resembled a cocoon. So far he hadn't wriggled.

"Can you hear that elk bugle?" I said.

The cocoon erupted and the boy's tousled head popped out.

We took a trail up a timbered ridge, tying our horses to saplings halfway to where the hogback bumped against the main mountain crest. Lars dropped off one side while the boy and I hunted down the other toward a spruce bottom. For the umpteenth time, I ran the boy through the mechanics of handling my old lever-action Marlin. He soon made it plain that he'd rather learn how to hunt elk, so I began passing him information about our surroundings:

"This is false huckleberry we're working through. Some folks call it elk brush. It's noisy enough anytime, but especially during dry weather like this. Elk like to lay up in it because they can hear things moving their way. And Lord knows, we're making so much noise they can hear us out on the plains. Pick up your feet, boy."

His face flushed.

"Look now," I told him, "what you don't do is jam your feet down like an elephant stomping egg shells, but kind of set 'em gentle-like and feel what's beneath before you shift your weight on it. If your foot is on something that'll roll, break, or pop, move it someplace else.

The boy's head bobbed like a yo-yo at everything I said, even though he couldn't be retaining it all. Still, in time it would sink in through repetition, if not through common sense.

I pointed. "Look at that elk track. Notice how the dirt was kicked up from the wet spot and hasn't dried out yet. Made last night. Probably within the hour." He squatted to poke the track with a finger. Was it a big one? Did it have big horns?"

"Can't tell. At least I can't tell a bull from a cow track--though there's some as would tell you they can." He frowned--even while his head bobbed. So I added, "There are ways to read whether it's a bull or cow, and maybe we can find some of 'em."

Farther along the narrow game trail, I stopped and pointed to a fresh-looking track. "How long ago you reckon it's been since an elk stepped there?"

The boy stooped and brushed small plants aside. He studied the track for a couple of minutes before he said, "This morning?"

"Why do you say that?"

"I ... I don't know. The track is damp?"

I thrust my rifle's muzzle against the plants he'd brushed aside. "You've got to learn to see what you're looking at, boy. There was a cobweb strung on the ground cover you pushed away. Look sharp and you can still see pieces of it hanging. A spider didn't have time to spin it this morning and he don't work nights. That means yesterday. He built that web yesterday--sometime after an elk stuck his foot there."

The boy studied the track for a long time before asking, "Why does it look damp."

"A seep. There's springs all over this hillside. That's another reason elk like to bed here--there's lots of water."

A short distance farther, I pointed to a track and asked, "Bull or cow?"

The boy looked at it, then at me, puzzled. "Can you tell?"

"Uh-huh. Like I said, you've got to learn to see what you're looking at." I pointed ahead. "See where those tracks lead? That elk ducked under those low hanging limbs. You reckon a bull would do that? With his antlers?"

It was in a tall-grass meadow that we ate our lunch. We sat like lizards in the sun, leaning against a fallen tree, hats and daypacks dangling from broken limbs. I'd just settled back for a short snooze when the boy said, "Grandpa?"

" Mmmm."

"Why did Mr. Glickman yell up there at the top of the pass like he did?"

"Cause he felt like it."

"But why'd he feel like it?"

"I don't know, son. Has something to do with a man working too hard, keeping his nose to the grindstone, meeting mortgage payments, worrying about beef prices in Omaha or Chicago, grasshoppers in the oat crop, and Lord knows what else. Then once each year he bunches all that for a week or two and trots off with friends into the middle of the prettiest country God ever made. He just naturally has to let the tickle out somewhere. That pass happens to be Lars' 'somewhere.' He's whooped it up at that spot every year since he first came in as a guide for me thirty years ago."

"What did he mean when he said I'll know everything is right before this trip is over?"

"I believe I'll wait and see if you can come up with the answer to that on your own. Besides, I need a little nap."

* * *

It was mid-afternoon by the time the boy and I returned to our ponies. Lars' horse was gone, but our tent was up and a decent supply of wood cut and stacked when we rode into camp. "You hunt any today?" I asked.

"Not much. Too dry. Too hot this afternoon. Too much work to be done at camp. Besides, you guys are the ones shooting elk and I thought I'd be a camp-tender so's the lad can hunt more." Later, as I flipped steaks, I heard the boy ask Lars, "Mr. Glickman ... "


"Mr. Lars, did you say you aren't going to shoot an elk?"

"It's not important to me."

"Are you hunting deer, then?"

The rancher leaned back against a tree, fingers laced behind his head. "No, not deer--that's for certain sure."

"Well, what are you hunting?"

"Same thing as your grandpa."

"He's hunting elk, same as me."

"You sure?"

"Uh-huh. I was with him today and that's what we was hunting."

Lars crossed his legs. "That's what you hunted. I think he hunted hunting."


"Look lad, your grandpa and me don't care if we shoot another elk. Or deer, for that matter. We both figure we got our share. Maybe we'll never shoot another one, and maybe we will. But it damn sure isn't important. Not near so much as for you to get your first one. What we're hunting is hunting--just being here in the fall, pounding our chests on frosty mornings, watching needles fall from the tamaracks. That's what's important to us."

"But if you get a chance at a really big one, you'd shoot him, wouldn't you?"

Lars' gazed at the meadow, struggling for the right words. I watched the man, but spoke to the boy. "Maybe neither of us knows for sure about that until the time comes."

* * *

The next day the boy and I hit for the heavy timber. Frosty mornings and hot sunshiny days makes hunting pleasant but shooting miserable. Elk were scattered, but plenty of sign told us they were there. We started out in the morning bundled in wool coats and by early afternoon, skinned down to T-shirts. To top that, wind currents drifted first one way, then another, swirling so much it was near impossible to have a breeze in our favor. Far as I could tell, we never got close enough to animals to even hear one chase off. I finally gave up and left the lad at a good game-trail crossing, telling him, "You stay here and I'll make a big sashay around and see if I can spook something your way. Okay?"

He nodded, looking about sort of wide-eyed--his first time alone in these big woods.

I was gone an hour and a half, returning to slip up on the youngster. He was alert, standing under a gnarled whitebark pine, staring first one way, then another. It gave him a start when I popped from behind a tree. Before I could ask if he'd seen anything, he blurted, "There was somebody up here on a horse. And they had a dog with them."

"A man on a horse? And a dog? You see 'em?" He shook his head. "But I heard the horse. I could hear him walking and kicking rocks--especially when they left. And the dog barked. He was close the first time."

"Oh yeah? Just one bark at a time? And did he circle you?"

"No, he went away in that direction. One bark each time, but several times."

"Each time? Like this?" I imitated a cow elk barking in alarm.


"Let's amble over and see if we can find their tracks. What you heard was a cow barking a warning. The hooves clattering on rocks were the rest of 'em getting away as fast as they could. You were close to elk, boy."

Again, Lars was in camp when we returned. The boy told him about the cow barking and how he thought it was a dog. The rancher said, "I'll bet you're a whole lot smarter now, aren't you?"

"Yep. Grandpa said I should have ran after them and hoped to see the rest before they knew why the cow was barking. Is that right?"

Lars chuckled. "You listen to him, lad. Your grandpa knows a bunch about elk hunting."

"Yes, sir, I know he does. But could I go hunting with you someday?"

"Sure. He needs a rest anyway. Why don't we do it tomorrow?"

"Oh boy! We'll shoot us an elk, won't we?"

"We'll try."

The boy crawled into bed with the rise of the evening star. Lars and I sat up sipping bourbon and branch. "We need a good tracking snow to pick up the hunting," he observed.

"I don't see any change coming, do you?"

The rancher shook his head. "Be a damn shame if the lad's first big hunt, he goes home skunked."

"Life," I replied.

"Still be a shame."

The days followed, each one like those previous, without a single cloud to break the monotonous blue of the sky. Elk hunting remained the same--never seeing, seldom hearing. It was discouraging. The boy's spirits drooped like a rooster's in a rainstorm, but he struggled gamely to turn a boy's disappointment into a man's resignation. Despite his best efforts, it looked like he was losing the battle, growing listless and inattentive to my coaching and his hunting.

With only tomorrow's hunt left, he asked me if it would be all right for him to go with Lars one more time.

"Yeah, if it's okay with Lars."

"You should hunt with your grandpa," Lars said when the boy put the question to him that evening. "Tomorrow's our last day in the valley. You should hunt with him on the last day."

"But I'd rather ..." The boy fell silent.

Lars looked at me and I nodded. "Okay," the rancher said, "we'll get him tomorrow."

Sometimes wishes turns real. The change came at last and we awakened to two inches of powder snow. Lars came chortling back into the tent with an armload of wood. "Now we'll get 'em, by golly! C'mon, laddie. Get up. This is the day!"

My watch read 10:17 when the rifle shot shattered the silence. I was outside the tent for an armload of firewood. The sound was muffled and it echoed, but I could tell it came from a nearby canyon. So I made it a point to be outside a couple of hours later, about the time successful hunters would return. They came across the flats, Lars with his swinging ground-eating stride and the boy at a trot just to keep up. I could tell even at a distance that the boy was swelled a bunch and trying to swagger. He hurried to the camp ahead of the man. "We got him! We got him, grandpa! A big one! A six point!"

"Hey! All right!"

He slapped my palms while grinning a Grand Canyon smile, then held his hands out for me to do likewise.

I said to Lars, "The horses are just below Telegraph Hill. I'd have brought them in, but I wasn't sure. One shot only--that's good shooting."

Lars shook his head. "A cup of coffee, then me and the lad will bring the bull in."

I poured coffee for both of us. "Well, tell me the story." The boy looked at Lars, but the rancher merely said, "Later." He swilled down his coffee, then he and the boy hiked away for their horses.

When they returned with the stock and began saddling, I said, "I'll go with you."

"No need," Lars replied. "He's in a good spot and he's already skinned and quartered."

"It's okay, grandpa," the boy added. "I'll help."

They were back in short order--a little over an hour and a half. The bull was a dandy six point--wide spread, heavy and long beams, strong and even points.

"You boys done yourselves well," I said, clapping the boy on the shoulder.

The boy grinned up at me and said, "Thanks for taking me hunting, grandpa."

I ruffled his hair and helped Lars lift down the heavy packs. Later, with supper cooking and Lars still fiddling with our stock, I said to the boy, "Tell me about it."

He sat cross-legged on his sleeping bag, sipping Kool-Aid. "I can't."

"What's that? You can't?"

He shook his head. "No. Mr. Lars wants to tell you and I promised I'd let him."

I flipped him my most intimidating glare, but the boy's eyes were wide and guileless, and met mine in all innocence.

Finally, supper over, dishes washed, a tired boy fast asleep, and bourbon and branch in hand, Lars settled onto a block of wood while I sprawled on my sleeping bag. He stared into his cup for the longest time as the lantern hissed and the fire in our wood stove spit and popped. "We cut their tracks just across the creek," he began at last. "Two of 'em. Both big tracks. They headed for the low ridge between Jack Creek and here. Saw where one pissed between his tracks, so we knew he was a bull."

"Then both of them were bulls," I cut in. "Bulls don't run with cows this time of year--not this long after the rut."

"Exactly. Anyway, we followed them cautious, figuring they laid up on the ridge to watch their back trail. Wind was right--blowing in our face--and with the snow, everything was quiet. The boy was doing real well, going easy and ready for quick shooting." The rancher's gaze drifted into someplace only he could see. "Damn!" he spat. "I just knew we'd jump one of them bulls and he'd get his shot."

He paused for a long while. The lantern ran low, flaring and waning, flaring and waning, pulsing a wierd light through the tent. "And?"

"We jumped one bull all right. He crashed out ahead of us and we never got to see him" The alternating light bounced from the tent walls.

"What happened to the other one?"

"Never did know. We didn't stop to find where he went because the first one headed around the hill, right for the burn. Well, I knew he'd bust out in the open, so I told the boy to hurry and we'd at least get a shot ..."

The lantern died. Darkness settled on us, broken only by a flickering light from a crack in the stove door that danced upon my friend's face. "Well, we hurried. But it's farther around than I remembered. And the boy's legs aren't as long as mine." He snaked the coffee pot from the stove, poured a cup, and offered it to me.


"I got ahead of the lad--waited for him to catch up several times--Lord he was giving it all he had ..." He paused, listening to a great horned owl hooting in the distance. It was answered by another, nearer. "I knew if we didn't move faster, we wouldn't get a look at the bull, and I guess I just got caught up in the chase and kept inching ahead. Anyway I broke out into a little opening, just before the old burn begins, and ..." The fire snapped and the lantern hissed on with its lightless pressure. He poured a dash of whiskey into the cup, then stared deep into it as firelight from the stove's crack wavered. "... there was this big bull pointed my way, not sixty yards off, staring behind--away from me--toward a screen of small firs growing between him and the big open. Branches still shook on them firs, too. See? The bull we chased had just run through. The snow was knocked off 'em and I could see his tracks clear across the little opening. They passed only a few yards from where this big guy was feeding. Well, I skidded to a stop. But hell, I was a good ten feet out in the opening by then and no way to get back without spooking the new bull."

I held up a hand. "Tell me again how it was you got out there in the first place without him seeing you."

Lars shrugged. "I couldn't have done it without he stared after the other bull. By rights, the new bull should have run when the other one passed. But instead, about the time I skidded to a stop, he turned back and went to feeding, facing me."

I reached over and took the whiskey bottle.

"So I was pinned, afraid to move. But where was the boy? I twisted my head so as to see if the lad was close, and the bull caught the motion and stared at me. But he still didn't run."

I laid the empty bottle between us.

"The boy was panting hard a hundred yards away, still in the spruce timber, staring my way. He couldn't see the bull because of the way the ground rolled, and the elk couldn't see him either. I couldn't wave or make any motion without spooking the damned elk. And it wouldn't do any good if I could, because the lad just couldn't give it any more than he already was." The man paused, reliving the scene.

"The boy started my way again, and by gee, the bull put his head down and commenced feeding one more time! Well, I near crapped my pants. Would the boy make it? Seventy yards. Sixty. Fifty. He stopped and leaned against a tree, eyes still only on me. The bull stared at me off and on. He knew something was wrong, but he didn't know what. Forty more yards before the boy got to the clearing's edge. Thirty--close enough I could see sweat trickling down his face.

"Then a sixth sense? The bull turned and started walking toward the screen of trees. Oh no! I thought. The boy won't make it!" Lars paused and sipped from his cup, staring at the stove crack.


"Of a sudden a gun boomed and the bull went down."

"What!" I roared, sitting bolt-upright. "Somebody else shot his elk? There's nobody in the country but us!"

The boy stirred in his sleep and Lars peered my way in the shadowy darkness. "It was my gun. I shot the bull. I killed him out from under the kid."

Light from the stove crack played upon one side of his head just enough to tell the face twisted in anguish. One of the owls hooted again, then only the fire's occasional popping cut the stillness of the night.

"Don't you see? He wasn't going to be in time. Wouldn't be in time to even see the bull. His first hunt--skunked. Not even to see an elk! He deserved better than that. He worked hard enough to earn more than that. He's a good kid. I ... I had to shoot it."


Roland Cheek Country


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