EVERY MAN'S DEATH IS A STANDING IN FOR EVERY OTHER. AND SINCE DEATH COMES TO ALL THERE IS NO WAY TO ABATE THE FEAR OF IT EXCEPT TO LOVE THAT MAN WHO STANDS FOR US."
Cormac McCarthy, Cities of the Plain Seems ages ago when the four of us began coming up to John's Colorado cabin for the annual mule deer and elk bowhunt. Heck, it HAS been ages, and there have been a lot of good times spent here. How many mornings has it been, the four of us laughing around the breakfast table, someone searching the refrigerator for a private hangover cure? They come from the far corners of the nation where we have scattered to. Ages. Good times. Good times through bad.
This year one of us has arrived seriously ill.
We have picked at the remains of blue-grouse hash and scrambled eggs and fried potatoes, the whole smothered in Mexican salsa Sid has made of produce from his garden. He and Monty have slipped out into the chill morning to gas the 4-wheeler. I, push back my plate and John gestures with the enameled coffeepot and fills my chipped mug after a nod. This seems the moment I have been waiting for.
"So, how bad is it, really? "I ask John, the oldest friend of the three.
"I'm afraid it's not going to go away this time, Mike," says
John directly, shrugging, looking into his strong hands encircling his own mug nearly drained of coffee. So that is that.
"Let's get started," he says.
Silver starts to creep into the east as we run out of good road and grind upward into the pass, over rocks and across plunging creeks. By the time we have locked in the hubs and crawled past the crumbling mine equipment and rusty tailings the skyline bursts into limned perfection, the sharp firs standing staunchly, poison green and bluish, swatches of aspen just beginning to show the color of over-ripe Golden Delicious apples.
"This road just keeps gettn' worse," says John, watching the sky and not the bad road at all. I cannot help but come to the strange realization that it is remarkable to be alive.
We park the truck on the pass overlooking 100 miles of shale-streaked, lichen-covered Colorado high country and get into the camper shell to begin setting out bows, quivers and daypacks weighted with lunches.
"You wanna climb now or later? Into the bowls, or down into the meadows?" letting John make the decisions.
"Let's go down and check the wallows," says John shouldering his pack.
We don't have to discuss which wallows or where they are or even what they are about for us. The wallows are down off the pass, well past the meadows and into aspen-ringed hollows where springs well up to create spongy, lush-green patches of clover and moss and short grass. Each year elk come to this single place to till the black muck violently, pawing out depressions, urinating into the mess and leaving accurate impressions of themselves at the edges. When it is HAPPENING at the wallows someone will certainly arrow an elk at very close range.
"When was that Sid took that 6x6 down there after I sat six days straight without see'n noth'n?" queried John with a grin, remembering it.
"Let me think. ... Zack (my Labrador retriever) was two then, so that'd make it, what? Jeeze, ten years ago."
The slope is steep at first and crams my toes into my hoot tips painfully while we zigzag through firs, finally coming onto the bench with the trees thinning. John points with his battered Wing and following the line of the string I see a freshly peeled, limb-twisted pine. An elK rub. We walk to it and feel the slivers of curled bark, pluck at the neck hairs trapped by beads of pine resin, inhale the sharp turpentine smell.
"Fresh," whispering. John points with his bow again. There is another.
"Why you using the Wing? Where's your Widow?" finally putting my finger on what is different.
"Think'n 'bout given you the Widow."
"Givin' me your Widow? What for?"
"Well, Mike, you've always liked that bow." Then it hits me, sinks in. He is finished talking.
"Bet'cha there's some activity on the wallows," John says after a long pause. We walk on, hunting now, watching ahead, pausing abruptly to probe with binoculars, walking again, avoiding sticks or rocks that might alert game. There is a muffled bugle, not distant, but coming from a thick piece of forest. We freeze in mid-step. John points with his chin. The chill is leaving the air and we circle because the wind is wrong and then move toward the bugle again, hear it once more, more distant, then stop to strip a layer.
"Get'n go'n, sounds like," says John. "Pretty warm yet."
"Remember how cold it used to get years ago, when the puddles would have ice on 'em, and you'd have to wear wool gloves in the morning? Maybe there is something to all this global warming garbage," seeing the ice, hearing it tinkle as I tapped a frozen puddle surface with a boot toe, remembering that morning when I shot my first bull and how when he stopped clear at 17 yards through the aspens. I had to take my eyes off him so I could locate my bow string with frozen fingers. John called him in for me with a whistle flute he made from gray plastic tubing and a carved wedge of pine.
"Heck, Mike, been weather changes since begin'n of time. There used to be rain forests 'n' dinosaurs in Wyoming. What wiped all that out, dinosaur farts?" shaking with restrained laughter.
"Just seems us humans are determined to kill the Earth. We crap in our own nests and never seem to stop to think."
"We won't kill her. We're the only ones who'll die in the end." Silence.
"Let's look at the wallows," my throat restricting and my voice coming out funny. I hope John does not notice.
At the wallows are three fresh depressions filled with disturbed, muddy water. Our old blind is still there, too, off to one side and slightly downhill where cooling evening breezes carry our scent down the canyon and away from the wallows and the noses of the elk who might come here. The blind is still in good shape, needs no maintenance, save tossing a handful of twigs aside, but we add a few fresh boughs anyway, to show our respects, to lay claim to the place once more. Someone will kill an elk here soon.
By 4 p.m. John and I have reached the wallows again and for the first time we sit in the blind together, not actually cramped, but close.
"Why have we never done this before?" John whispers after we have stared at the three mirrored disks of still water for maybe an hour in silence, unwinding into the quiet Zen of the place.
"Don't know. Never thought of it, I guess."
The bugle comes at seven, close, flat. We smile and shift, aware of ourselves again suddenly. "Your shot, John," leaning close and whispering the words.
"Go ahead, Mike. He's all yours buddy. Don't care if I kill one this time."
The bull steps into the edge of the clearing, a fair 5x5, a respectable bull in this part of the world. He does not pause, but saunters in head-on. I clutch my Cascade recurve tighter and get a grip on the string with my leather glove. The bull reaches the first wallow and begins to paw with a slapping hoof, splashing his belly. He lays then, horse-like, rolling, again looking like a horse, attempting to turn over completely. It takes him four tries to go all the way over. I thrust out my bow arm as the bull stands again. John touches my elbow. Breathing the words close, "Mind if we just watch him, Mike?"
I put the bow down and we watch the bull going through the same routine several times before horning a fir.
"I'm sorry, Mike," after the bull has finished and walks away for good.
"Don't be. Wasn't he something? So close, do'n his thing like that and no idea we're anywhere around. Like a barn-yard pig in that mud."
"He was the most beautiful elk I've ever seen." It was dark now and we had a long climb ahead, but we just sat, talking about that elk.
John simply dropped her into my lap unceremoniously; no lingering caress, not a moment of reflection. I now own his treasured Black Widow recurve. I remember when he bought it. He said his wife nearly divorced him over the matter because even back then it was a lot of money and would mean no restaurants or movie tickets for a month. It was the beginning of something and John and the woman were eventually divorced. That is when John moved into the cabin, writing to me about it on a post card showing the Durango/Silverton narrow-gauge steam train. The divorce had been ugly, he said, and he was happy for the time alone.
On the way down to the junction store for some gas for the truck the following afternoon John is silent, watching the creek and mountains flow past the window. He seems to be working something out, and when I pull up before the pump at the junction he sighs and looks at me seriously before unlatching the door.
"I'll get it," he says.
Moving up the road again John is talkative. "Remember that time, when you had the Scout, the gas pump going out and me sit'n in the engine compartment squirting gas out of a spray bottle all the way to town? Your yell'n, 'More, more!; less, less! More!'"
"How 'bout when the spring fell off the accelerator lever on the carb of Monty's Bronco, the motor racing while we careened down that rough, steep spot with Monty hold'n the brake with both feet and scream'n bloody murder?"
"Thought we were in for it, that's for sure. Remember how we fixed it?"
"The elastic band off your skivvies!"
"Fruit'o the Loom carburetor job. Got us home didn't it?"
"What a collection of beaters we've gone through over the years...."
"Remember when we had all the meat from those bulls tied on the roof of the Scout, driving up to Denver at three in the morning so you wouldn't get fired?"
"Scrunched down in the seat to get comfortable and turn the dam lights out with my knee. Can't figure out what the heck's going on. All I knows is I can't see where I'm go'n," laughing hard.
"All that meat coming over the wind-shield and crashing on the hood when you shut'er down! Screaming and the tires screeching. Man. I'm sleep'n hard and thought you'd plowed into something!"
"What happened to that Scout?"
"Bent the frame running over a boulder chase'n a $20 coyote across the desert..."
"Before you shut the cabin down when you leave," John is saying now, bouncing up into the pass above the wallows again, "you gotta walk up to the cistern and shut the valve off on the in-take. You gotta drain the whole tank. Just run everything inside so you drain the tank 'n' water line and the inside plumbing at the same time." I can do nothing but nod, my mind blank putting a meaning on it all.
"Drain the gas outta the generator, too, else it'll glue up the carb from sittin'. Flush the toilet 'till it's dry or it'll crack the tank. Also, gotta roll up the mattresses and tie 'em and hang 'em from the rafters or the mice'll eat the stuff'n outta 'em when they come in for the winter. Don't leave food or the mice'll just get at it all, except for canned stuff, of course.
"The deed's in my Uncle Jim's name still, but there's no problem there 'cause he's dead. County sends the tax bill in his name and you just pay 'em; no big deal."
We reach the end of the road and I kill the engine. We stare out over the endless vista, all the distant purple and pink and emerald peaks showing clearly. I can think of nothing to say.
"Why don't you try up in the bowls tonight, Mike, Might find one of those hawg muley bucks up under the bluffs there above Engineer Lake. I'm go'n down to the wallows, I think. I think that's the place."
I begin to feel dazed and heavy. John has his gear, looking over toward the bowls. "I love this country. Favorite place on Earth." I say nothing.
John smiles at me and says, "Wish me luck." He shoulders his bow, falls into the canyon head, and sinks from sight.
I should say something but I only watch him go. Then I let myself off and think, These things can go on and on. And I almost believe it.
That evening John does not come back to the truck. He has not arrived well after midnight. I head off the mountain, then into town, to make the phone call.
John isn't coming back. Never again.