Elk NetworkBlackjack Creek

Bugle - Featured Articles | April 29, 2024

By Jon Keller

A young guide out to prove his mettle discovers just how tough his job can be.

I sat on the bank and listened to the creek roll down the mountain. I stretched my fingers and rewrapped them around my rifle. The night was cold and the sky was clear and the moonlight shone silver on the water, save for the single dark stain where the elk stood, his sides heaving and his breath rising to the skyline. He looked nearly comfortable, as if the cold waters could keep me from him.

As I watched in the dim half-light, a stream of blood twisted downstream.

He had at least one bullet in him.

I only had one bullet left, and it was already chambered, and my thumb was on the safety. The bull stared at me as if he understood that as long as he was in the creek, I would not shoot him. As the crow flies, I was five miles from camp. As a man walks, it was more than double that.

I didn’t want to take my eyes off the bull. With one hand I scoured the ground for a rock, but when I found one and stood to throw it at him, I stopped. Somehow, after chasing him for those long hours and longer miles, chucking a rock at him seemed wrong. But waiting for him to bleed-out in the creek was perhaps worse.

The two hunters I’d been guiding all week (both named Norm, and referred to as “the Norms”) had tagged-out four days into the 10-day hunt. By the sixth day, they’d gotten sick of cribbage and coffee at camp and decided it was time for me to shoot a bull.

I knew before I pulled the trigger that sent this bull into the creek that I shouldn’t do it. The Norms and I were crouched on a rock ledge with a fallen fir tree in front of us. The bull, who had been bugling in the thick timber below us for hours, had finally stepped into the basin. I guessed him to be at 300 yards, which was farther than my .30-30 could shoot. Then one of the Norms handed me his .30-06, nodded to me in a fatherly fashion, and I set it over the log and sighted. I still didn’t want to shoot that far. I watched the bull rip chunks of grass with his teeth and heard both Norms telling me to “shoot it, shoot it.”

My mind reeled. I looked at their faces—one sober as a patron, one excited as a child—then back at the bull, his head down as he stood on the steep slope. I took a breath, cursed and pulled the trigger. The bull spun around and ran, grass and earth spraying from his hooves. The basin was wide-open for a quarter mile in any direction, and I took two more shots that flung chunks of earth into the air. The Norms hooted, then silenced as we watched the bull crest the ridgeline, the moon now beginning to rise as the sun set behind us. The bull stood breached against the moonrise, his horns visible in that stark light, and he dropped.

I pulled my binoculars out and glassed the ridge. Daylight was disappearing fast, but I thought I could see the dead elk, a dark spot amid grass and rock. I scanned the ridge for landmarks and noted an old whitebark pine growing like an umbrella above the bull.

We jogged back to the cluster of fir where we’d tied our horses and worked our way up the ridge, trotting the horses whenever possible. The basin was a long bowl, and we had to ride the rim around the head-end. It was full-dark by the time we reached the ridgeline, a gravel-and-stone saddle covered with dried-up whitebark pines that grew gray and arthritic into the darkness.

We trotted across the saddle and found the Forest Service trail that side-hilled across the basin. The Norms were alternately laughing at me and cursing me as we crossed the face. Above us rose Blackjack Peak, a nearly cylindrical cone of red rock that held the charred remains of a lightning-blasted fire tower. Below us, the beargrass hillside dropped into darkness.

Everything was silent save for the hoofbeats and occasional rattle of bit and teeth. No wind, no voices, nothing but the curious mountain silence that makes me feel like the world is a lot bigger than it is.

When we reached the ridgeline where we’d seen the bull drop, I told the two hunters to wait on the trail as I rode up, looking for the umbrella-shaped pine. I found it about 200 yards up the hill, and just as I noticed it, I felt my horse tense and heard him snort. Good, I thought. The bull’s right here.

I climbed off the horse and dug my flashlight out of my saddlebag. I flicked it on and led the horse by the reins, scanning the area, expecting to see a dead bull. But nothing. I slowed down and circled, retracing my steps to where the horse had snorted, and looked closer. Finally I found a small pool of blood, as if someone had tipped over a can of cola. I stared at it for too long, then lifted my head and looked at the spray of moonlit mountains surrounding me. I understood right then that the wound I’d given this elk was a serious one.

I dropped the rock I had been planning on throwing at the bull. The water slid through the night. Abe, the old guide who’d mentored me, stepped into my mind like a ghost. He’d been dead for less than a year, and this was my first season guiding without him. One night, years back, I’d asked him how many elk he’d guided hunters to, and he’d just laughed. Then I asked him how many he’d shot himself, and he went quiet for so long I thought he’d fallen asleep.

We were in the kitchen tent, which was where all the crew slept in those days, and the fire was crackling next to me. I yawned and rolled to my side, ready for sleep myself, when Abe said, “I don’t know how many I killed.”

I could hear him breathing, his tar-blackened lungs grating like a farrier’s rasp.

“But there’s three out there I shot that didn’t die. I won’t forget them.”

“Okay,” I whispered out loud, as if responding to a lecture.

The smoking had finally killed Abe, and he hadn’t died in the mountains like we’d always thought he would, climbing a high ridge or packing out a big bull. He’d always told us to drape him over a log as soon as he was dead, so that once the rigor mortis set in, he’d be ready to sling over a mule’s back. But we never had to do that. He died at home, in front of his television set, his old lounge chair kicked back, his microwave dinner untouched in his lap. When they finally found him, his trailer heater had run out of gas, and the trailer and everything in it was frozen solid.

We always like to think of the men we consider our heroes dying heroic deaths, but in my lifetime I’ve never known anyone to die heroically. I’ve known elk to do so, or I like to think so. I like to think that a great herd bull, tired from mating and fighting but still bugling and rubbing the high-mountain trees, dies well. I like to think that a single bullet in the vitals, shot by a hunter who has dreamed for years of that moment, is a quick and simple death. And I like to think, too, that it is not even how an elk or a man dies, but where he dies that’s important. Because I believe the last thing we see might very well be the most important vision we ever have. I don’t believe the act of death to be as simple as a lifetime flashing before our eyes. I believe that we see the world that surrounds us, but with a clarity so stunning that our minds recalculate our pasts.

Abe, after a lifetime in the mountains, died with barely edible food on his plate and some game-show host on his television.

The bull was bleeding fast enough that he would die eventually. He’d already covered more ground than I would have thought possible, and there he was, still alive, still standing in the creek. Once more, I lifted my rifle and aimed, flicked the safety off, my forefinger fluttering like a fly over the trigger. But I did not shoot. I wished I had a cigarette, although I’d never smoked one in my life—Abe’s poor breathing having been enough for me.

“Just move,” I said to the elk. “Just step onto the bank.”

Maybe the cold water felt good on his wound, or maybe it’s instinctual for a wounded animal to flee to water, as if what creates us is also capable of saving us.

I still didn’t know where I’d hit him, but judging by the blood flowing downstream, it was somewhere low. A leg, or low in the guts or sternum.

Then I heard a shot. And another, and another. Three shots, echoing out over the mountains. It was the Norms, of course, standing high on the ridge and firing signal shots, wondering if they’d ever see me again. I pictured them sitting beside their fire, the wind raking the coals as they looked over the black mountainscape and thought about grizzly bears, deep timbered ridges, cliff faces. Then they’d reassure each other that their young guide was safe, and once reassured, mumble about how they’d hired the only guide in Montana who couldn’t shoot straight.

I’d left my horse and my wool jacket with them and taken only my flashlight and .30-30. The magazine was full, but I foolishly didn’t bother fishing around my saddle bags for my spare shells or spare batteries.

I had clear going for a while. The blood trail was easy to follow, the splattering on the ground as consistent as heartbeats, and so I made good time as I wrapped around Blackjack Mountain’s south flank, dipping and climbing and dipping again. But when I hit the eastern ridgeline, I came against a wall of timber. I’d been hoping the bull wouldn’t make it into the thick dog‑hair mix of lodgepole and spruce, but it had. I stopped and breathed and thought about going home to camp and returning at first light, but I was stubborn and I was earnest, and I’d never wounded an animal before.

If I’d sat down and thought things through, perhaps I would have gone back to the horses, back to camp, and returned in the morning.

But I didn’t.

Below me, the timbered ridge dropped over a thousand feet into another basin, one which was surrounded on two sides by sheer cliff walls and on the third by this timbered face. The face held some heavy game trails, but it was hard going even in daylight. I started down, my flashlight beam glinting off the bloodstains like blinkers. And as I descended, I lost sight of the skyline, felt the trees encompass me like jungle walls, and I gripped my rifle tight as if to ward off the grizzlies which frequented this range.

An hour later, I reached the basin and stepped into a pool of moonlight. Far above, I could see the peak of Blackjack like a giant parapet. Then I saw it: a quick movement off to my right, near the mouth of the basin. I squinted in the white moonlight, set my flashlight down and kneeled down to one knee. I waited, and a few seconds later I saw it again. It was a bull, lying down, and he was turning his head, his small set of horns white in the light.

I guessed that if he ran, he’d have a hundred yards of clearing before reaching the treeline, and so I pocketed my flashlight and worked my way closer, sticking to the shadows. I imagined some grizzly, his nose to the wind, doing the same thing, creeping through the timber, the scent of blood like hot butter to him. When I was as close to the bull as I could be without stepping out of the tree shadows, I paused. I waited for 10 minutes or more, then lifted my rifle and took a step forward, then another. I could have killed him right then, but I wasn’t positive it was the same bull, and I didn’t want to make another stupid mistake and end up with two dead bulls that night. I took several more steps and stopped. I sighted on him and waited, but he didn’t move.

Several more steps.

He got up. He moved slowly, and when he took his first two steps I knew he was injured. I flicked off the safety and shot just as he bolted. He turned as if hitting a fence corner and charged for the trees. I shot twice more, and he didn’t flinch as he disappeared into the spruces like an owl.

I grabbed the small rifle by the barrel and made as if to swing it into the ground but did not. What kind of a guide was I? I couldn’t even shoot straight. But I told myself, it’s not easy to shoot open sights in the dark when you can’t even see the end of your barrel.

I listened as the bull crashed through the timber and silence fell again, wrapping like a cloak around the mountain, like something I could touch but not pierce. I found where the bull had bedded down in a dried streambed and the gravel was black with bloodstain. I couldn’t imagine how this animal was still alive, still running as fast as he was.

I followed the blood trail, my mind filled with late-night radio static. The bull had gone straight down the mountain, baling off the hillside through chest-high menziesia and old, fallen spruces I had to slide beneath or climb over. But luckily, the bull was having a hard time of it, too. And though it was difficult to find blood on the rust-colored leaves, I found it whenever the bull jumped a fallen tree, the ribbons of blood like candles on the trail.

Many times throughout my life, I’ve wondered why I kept going. I only had one shell in my gun, and by then my flashlight and energy both were waning. I was in the midst of one of the heaviest populations of grizzly bears in the lower 48, following a wounded elk’s blood trail. But I was a young man then, and oftentimes the motivations of young men look ridiculous in retrospect. Beyond all of my rationalizations about bloodlust and the need to put the bull out of its misery, I’ve come to believe that I was chasing that bull for one simple reason: I was too scared to stop. I was scared of what my hunters would think of me, scared of what my coworkers would think of me, but more than both of those things, I was scared that I could not do it.

The idea that I was trying to prove something—to myself, to a dead mentor, I don’t know—seems at first more juvenile than I believe it to be. It is in these moments that we become who we are. And while I was rash and hasty and perhaps a touch breakneck in those days, I was also seesawing between being a true hunter and a young guide with some talents. While I’d been successful as a guide, I’d always been in Abe’s shadow. I’d never stepped through the fire, never tested myself enough to truly know myself.

I lost the blood trail somewhere on a bench halfway down the mountain. I made several circles through wallows and over downfall before I bailed off the bench. The spruce canopy was thick, and I felt like I was descending into some great chasm. A cold sweat covered my skin, and more than once I stopped and tipped my head back, gazed up at the spruce-pierced sky and wondered what I’d gotten myself into. Finally, I heard the creek rumbling below me, and I knew that at the very least, I’d soon be on a trail instead of battling fallen logs and brush.

My flashlight died before I reached the creek. I stuffed it in my pocket and made my way through the moonshadows to the water’s edge. I was on the rim of a small gorge and the water cascaded 10 feet below me. I followed the rim downstream a few hundred yards, the going relatively easy compared to what I’d been through. At the base of the gorge I waded the shallows, climbed the opposite bank and hit the Forest Service horse trail.

This was the time to call it quits, to find the Norms and go home. It had been more than an hour since I’d even seen blood. I would go upstream, follow the trail up the canyons and catch the fire tower trail up the mountain, find my hunters and horses and ride back to camp, and eat an early morning dinner.

Or I could go downstream and hope to somehow, in the darkness, take up the blood trail again.

I took my flashlight out of my pocket and flicked it on. It was a small glow like pale skin. I put it away and turned downstream, away from my hunters and camp, and started walking, knowing full well that it was nonsensical at best. But at that point I didn’t care. I was on a quest, and even though it seemed as if the search would never end, I was prepared to keep going.

I’d walked perhaps 30 minutes when I heard something crash into the creek, followed by an eerie silence as if the creek itself had ceased to flow. My first thought was bear. My jaw clenched closed. I lifted my rifle to my chest and listened.


Finally, I snuck off the trail, down the bank, and there in the moonlit water stood the bull, his sides heaving in and out, his breath rising like wood smoke into the sky, his blood spilling like oil into the creek.

After the third and final volley of shots from the Norms, the elk still had not moved. I began to think he would stand there the rest of the night, through the following day, and perhaps die that way, his rigor mortis strength holding him against the currents like a snag.

I knew damned well that Abe would have shot him as soon as he found him, the repercussions of such an act—trying to gut him while waist deep in the icy waters, trying to quarter him underwater with a dull knife then drag the chunks to shore so they wouldn’t float away, then hike back up the mountain, cold, wet and blistering—those repercussions were negligible, for the Abe I’d known was not a man to consider the future, however immediate and vital it may be.

I picked the rock up again, knowing I wouldn’t throw it, and dropped it. I shook my head and had the sudden and strange image of Abe sliding his rifle into his saddle scabbard, a smile on his wrinkled face. Then I pictured Abe dead in his lounge chair, his dinner untouched.

I stood up and eased down the bank and slipped into the creek. The current was stronger than I’d expected and pulled against my thighs like hands. My skin tensed with the cold. But the bull still didn’t move. I was less than 10 feet from him now, and I didn’t even want to kill him anymore. I wanted to fix what I’d done.

I stepped closer, the rifle held in one fist at my side.

And closer.

I could smell him now, hear his broken breaths. We stood still, both of us confused and alone, a world away from anything either of us had previously known, and as we stared at each other, I hoped his last vision would not be of me, but of those moonlit mountain waters running like silver between us.