Bucking Bull Fever
by Wayne van Zwoll
The mouse pokes his nose from behind the kickboard, below the corn flakes. He’s done this many times. He knows it is folly to act before weighing consequences.
The man in the orange shirt drones on about his rifles. The mouse is more interesting.
I nod as the hunter looks my way; then, as he engages another of the half dozen, half-interested men at the table, I mind the mouse.
It is not time.
The man laughs at his own joke, but I didn’t hear it so only smile. Other men wedge in some words, but Orange Shirt gives them no time to find an ear.
The mouse has pulled its nose back into the blackness of mousedom. I wait.
“. . . and whacked him hard. He jumped and ran and stopped. I figured 450, maybe 500, and raised it a smidge . . . ”
Suddenly, a bright eye gleams in the shadow. The mouse rockets out across the scuffed pine floor, skids around the corner of the refrigerator and is gone.
The men have not seen it because they are thinking about what they will say when Orange Shirt is at last silent.
It is clear that another fellow has readied a rebuttal. He is marshalling his words like troops. He is a smaller man, with intense gray eyes and thick brown hair. His hands are thin and white, with no muscle. He is likely from The Desk, a void bereft of machismo. Here, in a place beyond pavement, with stubbly-faced men taking whisky in coffee and hoisting duffel with ham fists and talking of elk and horses and rifles that hit like siege cannons—ah, here is The Chance! The white hands writhe with anticipation.
The mouse has no point to prove; its lot is but to eat and hide and stay warm. It has made good on its chance.
Like the mouse, I look for the right time to leave. When the intense little man finds his voice, I ease from my chair and go into the night, shutting the cabin door quietly behind.
Cold wind rattles aspens I cannot see. Diamond-chip stars glitter as my eyes shed the blindness of lantern light. An amoebic cloud glides across the moon. A coyote yips. Upstream of the dam, a beaver’s tail smacks water. The earth turns silently toward morning.
The men are dealt out like candy apples on Halloween: two to Jake, two to Fred, two to me. They split up the little man and Orange Shirt. I get neither. My first hunter is young and outgoing, with spring in his step and a rifle that gleams. It wears a scope big enough to spool telephone cable. The other man, wrinkled and slight, limps toward me. But his thoughts run to other things, and he looks and listens beyond the circle of machinery sputtering to life in the blackness about the cabin.
His pack is small and tattered, a rucksack of canvas, with straps that wear grooves in clavicles. His rifle is nondescript, a 1950s Husqvarna with a Weaver K4. He slides a leather ammo pouch into a checked wool coat and stands to the side. Porch light glints off an eye, and I remember the mouse.
Defrosters roar against ice on windshields as men pile, three across, into pickups dusty from yesterday’s climb to 8,000 feet. The pack train—that white canvas caterpillar winding to the clop of steel on granite—seasons October dreams; but here, atop roaded slopes, a horse makes about as much sense as a kerosene lamp on a power pole.
The old man must be reading my mind. “Be a fine morning in a saddle.” I nod.
The kid grins. “I’d take a Suburban right now.” He is big-boned, cramped in the compact Toyota. I tell him we will soon be where he can stretch.
We walk a mile from the trailhead before dawn gets color. I ask the kid to save the flashlight, but he flicks it on and off, killing our night vision. He means no harm.
The bulls are winding up when we ease along a grade two miles out on a ceanothus ridge. Below, in aspens now a dim chalk white against night’s thinning ink, a mature elk brays.
“He’s close,” hisses the kid, clutching his rifle. The old man hangs back, the Husqvarna slung.
“Wind’s wrong,” I say. “He’ll move across. We’ll never catch him unless we circle down-canyon and ambush him on yonder slope.”
“Then let’s go!” He’s keen. I glance at our companion. He shrugs. My call.
“It’s a hump.”
“I’m game,” he replies. He could have asked the old man, but his focus has already narrowed.
We find an elk trail that takes us east, but soon drop off it to lose elevation fast. The kid is athletic and chugs up the other side. He’s too noisy, and I tell him so. “The sun’s about to break now, and we’ll have to look hard as we close on that meadow. Blow an outrider bull, and all this will be for naught.”
I want to give the old man some slack too. He isn’t complaining or stumbling or even panting. But an easy start can make hunting easier late.
A swirling wind tips the aspen leaves toward the elk. The scuffling and hoof-clunks, just now audible. Stop. Nuts!
It might, I hope, be ordinary misfortune, a gaffe soon forgotten; but the bull turns in a slot, and we see antlers. “Oh, my,” whispers the kid. As the hooves drum a retreat, I tell him we’ll find other elk. He doesn’t want to because this rack is very big.
“They’re geared up,” I say.
“I’m fit,” he replies, careful not to look at the other man.
“We’d have to commit the afternoon.” And then some.
“He’s worth it.”
The gentleman with the Husqvarna shifts it on his shoulder, then shrugs. He smiles through a grass stem in his teeth.
We drop onto the Toyota’s bench at 9:15, an hour after last light and three hours after fragmenting the herd. The bull has clammed up. The kid still wants this elk. But the old man gets first shot tomorrow.
Supper kept hot enough. Orange Shirt took two pork chops, so I do without. I chew with my eye to the kickboard. The mouse has not touched the peanut butter in the trap pan. He’s still out there, like the bull.
Under the porch light at dawn, the old man shows me his rifle, a pawn shop find the year he got back from Nam. “Been through two cases of ought-six, one for each wife,” he grins. Then the grin fades and he turns away. I start the pickup to defrost. He comes over and says the kid can shoot first.
“It’s your turn.”
“So I’m giving it away.”
I stare at him a minute and shrug.
Sometimes elk behave. This morning, in a canyon ablush with dawn’s pink light, we hear the bull we’ve come to find. We hie to the hem of a conifer thicket, uphill to cheat the thermals. There! A black silhouette with impossibly large antlers. Four cows sift out of the timber as it closes again on the bull.
“Wait,” I whisper, without looking back. But the old man is in no rush. I turn to see him kneeling in the frosted sedge, his rifle upright, butt on the ground. He is chewing a grass stem.
The bull teases us at the meadow’s fringe. The light is dim, the vitals not yet defined, limbs not all accounted for.
It is not yet time.
But the kid has the fever, and I realize too late that he is crouched too still. The magnum bellows. Flame stabs faster than I can blink, and for a moment I am blind.
“Cycle it!” I hiss. But he is stunned by his own impetuous act.
The elk are gone. A splash of blood offers little encouragement. “I don’t think we’ll find this elk,” I tell the rifleman. “But we’ll look hard.”
That day and the next morning we search. I speculate on where the bullet went, where the elk went and why the lad fired so soon. The man with the Husky helps on the track but doesn’t say much. He’s good at trailing. At last I tell him we must hunt for his elk.
“No elk out there with my name on it,” he says.
“We’ll try to change that.”
“When he’s ready,” the old man replies, with a nod to the boy.
To his credit, the young hunter agrees to follow with empty chamber as we hunt. Emasculation, I reflect, takes many forms. It is most humiliating when self-inflicted.
We find a few elk that evening but no mature bull.
Orange Shirt has killed a bull and leaves me my supper steak.
The mouse has carefully shaved a lick of peanut butter from the pan without tripping the trap. I find this oddly pleasing.
The old man has just this day to hunt, he tells me in the porch light next morning. He must short the trip. I find this a burden.
We walk, because he wants to walk “on ridges with a view.” Brightening skies illuminate dun-colored spots on distant knobs. Bull voices float faint but clear across canyons still dark. When an elk screams closer, we go to him. The man chambers a cartridge, but declines the shot at 70 yards. A good elk for the last day. I’m striking out.
We meet the lad at noon, as agreed. He has spent the morning looking for his elk. But it is not his and never will be. Without a rifle, he follows us all afternoon and, just before dusk, to a copse of Doug fir where a bull is raking his antlers.
We stay in the shadows at the edge of cover. Like the mouse, we stop. The breeze swings on saloon door hinges, and I start to move.
But the old man puts a hand on my arm. His touch tells me it is not yet time and that it is folly to act before weighing consequences. It is I, now, with the fever.
The bull has stopped raking. I imagine him alert, sifting options. We wait a long time. He has slipped out, I think. But the hand still rests on my sleeve.
The bull appears after I think he is gone. The hand releases me, and the rifle slides into my corner vision. The bull looks at us and knows, just before the Core-Lokt staggers him. He is off, then, but we hear the crash.
I turn to congratulate the old man. But he is not holding the Husqvarna.
“It is best to nip bull fever early on,” he observes. “No one should have to wait a year to beat it.”
I take the rifle from the lad and hand it back to its owner. “It is a fine elk,” I say tonelessly.
“Every elk is a fine elk,” the veteran chides. “No one should have to wait a year to learn that either.”
As we open the six-point he tells me of a cure for bull fever. That night, after shortcake, I write it on a recipe card:
— Think shooting only when the hunting is truly over.
— Allow yourself one chance and a tiny slice of time.
— Focus. Ignore the antlers. Aim small.
— Press slowly.
I slide the recipe card into the cupboard, under the jar of peanut butter.
Wayne van Zwoll—journalist, scholar, sharpshooter, hunting guide—has published 10 books and more than 1,000 articles on rifles and big game hunting. Among his most recent works: Elk and Elk Hunting, Bolt Action Rifles, Book of the .22.