The Old Guide
by Cynthia Vannoy-Rhodes
“I want that elk,” I said. “He can’t be far away. I’m going after him.
I’ll get him or die trying.
It was November. Elk season in Wyoming. I was working as a camp cook for an outfitter friend of mine. I had an agreement with Bill. I would cook, free gratis, and, during the one week when he didn’t book any hunters, he would take me hunting, and I could bag any elk I wanted.
So, it was a good deal for both of us. I enjoyed cooking, living under canvas in the Big Horn Mountains, hearing the stories from the hunters and seeing the trophies that they brought in. Then, it was my week. Bill packed up the horses, and we left the main camp for the spike camp some miles away. It was warm as we rode out; unseasonably warm, which is usually the pre-cursor for bad weather. The clouds boiling up and obscuring Black Tooth Mountain and Clouds Peak made bad weather a certainly.
Bill trotted up beside me. “We’d better hurry, that looks like a bad storm coming up.”
That was a really bad time to see the elk. On a distant ridge was a huge bull elk, watching us. I spotted him first, and grabbed my field glasses. “Look at that elk,” I called to Bill. About that time the elk wheeled around and disappeared behind the ridge.
“What elk?” Bill asked.
“You didn’t see him?”
“No. We’d better get to camp.”
“I want that elk,” I said. “He can’t be far away. I’m going after him. I’ll get him or die trying. I know the way to the camp. If I get him down, I’ll gut him and come back and get you.”
“You’ve got about two hours. If the storm comes closer, hightail it to camp,” Bill said, turning the pack string and trotting off.
I turned my horse’s head and rode up the slope, hoping I could find the bull. I glanced at the clouds over the mountains, hoping the storm wouldn’t hit very soon.
Topping the ridge, I saw several elk across a little swale, grazing. I had hit elk heaven. There were seven bulls, all heavy antlered and long main beams. But which one had I seen? I swung the glasses back and forth, and then, on the far side of the head, my bull raised his magnificent head. How could I get to him? I looked over the terrain, and saw a small valley. If I could get down to that valley, I could stalk him from there.
I tied my horse to a tree, took my gun, and began my stalk. Halfway down the hill, I felt the wind. It was cold, and smelled of snow. The clouds were hanging low, and slow, lazy snowflakes began to fall. Should I go back? But the elk wasn’t far away. Surely it wouldn’t get too bad. I continued on. The snow got thicker and the wind howled like a demon. I knew I had to go back, elk or no elk. Now, I would almost have to be on them to see them anyway.
I turned back, and the snow was now so thick I could barely seen five feet ahead of me. Did I come this way, or was it the other way. Where was my horse? Getting lost in a blizzard is no fun, and I was lost.
I heard a noise over the wind, and, turning, I saw a horse and rider come out of the snow.
“Bill,” I yelled. “Help.”
The rider came on, but it wasn’t Bill. He had long, stringy hair and an old slouch hat. He was leading a packhorse with a set of huge elk horns tied to the packsaddle. He didn’t speak, but pointed, and moved off slowly. I followed, having trouble keeping the packhorse in sight, but knowing I had to.
Then, we entered a grove of trees, and there was my horse. Funny, Ol’ Blaze, one of the string that was worse to whinny when the other horses left him, was silent. The old man pulled up his horse and waited until I mounted and fell in behind him.
I was cold the bone. The wind seemed to cut through my coat and gloves, and I was wishing for a warm fire and a hot toddy.
Grimly, I held on to the saddle horn, following the packhorse.
Then, emerging from the snow was the tent, with the lantern light glowing softly through the canvas walls.
I pulled up Ol’ Blaze and called to the old man.
“Thanks, old fella. Come in, have some coffee.” But he was gone. Vanished in the snow.
Bill came out of the tent, concern written on his face. “Connie. You’re back. Thank God. When that storm came in I thought you was gone for good.”
The tent was warm, too hot with my coat. I took off my coat and held my hands to the small camp heating stove. “Man, that storm came up in a hurry. I saw a lot of good bulls in a swale, and a really huge one, but the storm blew in. Thank God for that old hunter, I wish he would have come in for coffee.”
“Old hunter?” Bill asked, his voice strange.
“Old guy, leading a pack horse with probably a world’s record elk on the pack.”
“Long hair, slouch hat, buckskin jacket?”
“I didn’t see his jacket. What’s wrong?”
“Twenty years ago, old Jake Brenton rode off, after a bull elk. It was an obsession to him, this elk. He said he was gonna get that elk or die trying. He was never heard from again, and they never found any sign of him, or his two horses. He just disappeared.”
The chill I felt had nothing to do with the storm raging outside.
“You know, wherever that bull elk is, maybe he’d better stay there.” I told Bill, accepting a cup of hot coffee.
Outside, the wind howled and the storm raged.
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