An Old Hunting Story – Part 1 – Keith Makes a New Friend
“Keith Makes a New Friend”
As a New Year’s resolution, my wife and I decided that we would volunteer to spend a few hours a month at a local assisted living facility in our small town of Wheat Creek. I thought it was a good idea until she said that our first day would be the next Saturday. “Saturday?” I asked. “The geese are really flying, and Zach and I were planning on hunting Saturday.” I pleaded. “I already scheduled our time with the facility for this Saturday, so you will just have to change your plans!” She said, and left the room. I knew I was being selfish, but I really wanted to hunt on Saturday. At that moment, I had no idea that I was about to have one of the most memorable Saturdays of my life!
We showed up to the Wheat Creek Golden Age facility the following Saturday morning. After a brief tour, we were told we could sit in the common area and play games and visit with anyone who passed by, or we could pick a resident and visit with them in their room. My wife decided to sit in the common area and visit with everyone while I chose the latter and asked to be paired with the resident who had the least number of visitors. The director said that there was a ninety-eight year-old resident named John, who received no visitors. So, I picked him. She walked me to the end of the hall, pointed to suite 13 and said that was John’s room. With that, she disappeared back down the hallway.
After I knocked on the door, a louder than expected voice said, “Come in.” In the corner of the room, near the only window sitting in a large, leather chair, was John. He didn’t look ninety-eight years old. He was wearing blue jeans, a plaid flannel shirt and house shoes. His room was clean and neat. I noticed a Sports Afield magazine on the table next to John, a cane leaned against his chair, and in his lap was a Bible. When I walked in, he asked, “What can I do for you, young man?” I told him that I had volunteered to come up and visit with the residents, but before I could finish my sentence, he jumped in and said, “I’m glad you came by because I don’t get many visitors these days. You see, I out lived my wife and all my buddies. As Liz and I never had kids, I guess I’m all that I have left.” He added, “Come in and take your jacket off, boy. I have one of those new-fangled coffee makers, so if you want a coffee, fix yourself one and come sit down.” I helped myself to a cup and sat on the couch across from John.
“You from around here?” John asked. I told him that I was. He said he had lived on a farm in Wheat Creek his entire life, and that he’d still be there if he hadn’t broken his hip several years back and just couldn’t get around anymore. “I see you are wearing a camouflage jacket, looks like Mossy Oak. Are you a hunter, by chance?” John asked. “As a matter of fact, I am,” I told him. Then, he asked me what kind of hunting I did, and before you know it, I was telling him my best hunting stories. The entire time John sat quietly listening intently. After a while, I told John I had noticed his hunting magazine and asked him if he had ever done any hunting. To that he responded, “Believe it or not, I’ve hunted every big game animal in North America and hunted all over the world, too.” “Every North American Animal?” I asked. “Absolutely!” John responded, rather matter-of-factly.
“What’s the most dangerous hunt you’ve ever been on?” I asked. “Well, I’ve had several close calls,” he responded. “I’ve been charged by moose and elephant. Once, when I was buffalo hunting on the Standing Rock Sioux reservation with my buddy EJ, I had a buffalo gore my horse which sent me ass over tea kettle. But, the closest I ever came to losing my life in the field was one time when I was elk hunting in Montana – I believe it was in 1948, may have been ‘49, but somewhere in there. Boy, that was a hunt to remember!” he added. After asking John, “What happened on that hunt?” he told the most amazing hunting story I had ever heard.
John began, “It had been an unusually warm fall in Wheat Creek. Dad and I had finished harvest early, and it had been a bumper crop. It was nearing mid-November when my buddy Jim and I left Wheat Creek pulling a horse trailer behind my dad’s 1946 Chevy pickup truck. When we unloaded the horses in Montana for our elk hunt, it was a bit colder, but still nice. We had planned to hunt almost twenty miles from the trail head, so knowing we had a full day of riding ahead of us, we set off at first light. In addition to our two saddle horses, we had a pack horse along to help us load our elk out, if we happened to be successful. As always, I had my Winchester .30-30 in my scabbard.”
“I don’t know if you have ever ridden a horse in the mountain on a crisp clear morning, but if you have, you’ll know what I’m talking about. The amazing horse sounds, from their snorting, to their hooves scuffing up rocks or splashing through a stream, is sweeter than any music Mozart ever wrote. The site of the sun coming up over the mountains and through the trees is more beautiful than a Van Gogh painting. And, I can still remember the smells of nature that morning – the crisp air, the pine scent and even the smell of the fog lifting, although it was more than seventy-years ago. Yes sir, young man, that hunt started off as perfect as a dream.”
John continued, “The next morning, as I pulled the tent flap back and stepped into the predawn Montana morning, I could tell it was quite a bit colder. But, as I stepped out of the tent and heard an elk bugle down in the valley, the change in temperature and the snow that had started falling didn’t seem to matter. Over black coffee and bacon, cooked on an open fire, Jim and I decided that we would ride our horses near the top of the ridge, then hunt on foot down the mountain. Our hope was to catch the elk on their way up to their bedding area. The snow had picked up as we stopped to find a place to tie our horses up for the day. We picked a small clearing amongst the spruce trees and tied a picket line between two trees. This would allow the horses to graze in the open meadow, but get under the trees if the snow continued. I’m damn glad we did that.”
“As the snow was really coming down, Jim and I decided to hunt together. We had made our way down and around the mountain, maybe a mile or so, when the sun started to lighten the sky. It was a late sunrise because of the cloud cover. The entire time, since we had left our horses, we had heard a number of different elk bugling. We believed we were on the perfect path to intersect with them, but they were moving up pretty quickly, probably because they wanted to get bedded down before the snow got too deep. We picked up our pace, too.”
“We hadn’t gone much further when we saw movement in the trees, down the mountain, and just a little ahead of us. Jim told me to keep going on the trail we were on for another fifty yards or so, and he would circle above and try to call a bull to me. With that, he worked his way up the mountain, and I moved ahead slowly.”
“I could see a group of cows, with a small bull, heading right for me, so I stopped beneath a large spruce that had a blown-down tree in front of it. It was a perfect natural blind. I had no more than settled in my hiding place when I heard a bull bugle just below me. Next, I heard Jim give a few cow chirps. The chirps stirred up the cows a bit, but the bull didn’t respond. As Jim kept chirping, the cows chirped back and kept moving my direction. In fact, some cows and a small bull had passed by me. Still, no sight of the bull, and he hadn’t made a sound since Jim had first called.”
“Then, Jim let out a loud and aggressive elk bugle. Jim’s aggressive call caught me so much by surprise, it actually startled me. It got the real bull’s attention, too, as the second that Jim’s call ended, the bull bugled back. Then, the bull bugled again, and this time, I could tell he was much closer. As Jim started to call again, the bull jumped on top of his call and now I could see him. He was a big, beautiful six-by-six bull. He ran into a clearing, not more than fifty yards below me and let out another loud bugle. The site of that magnificent tan and brown bull silhouetted against the snow-covered pines is a sight I will never forget. As he bugled, the bull almost disappeared in a cloud of his own breath. I had the hammer cocked and the iron sights of my .30-30 on him, but before I could pull the trigger, he ran forward out of the clearing. He was heading my way, but there was no shot opportunity. When the bull was no more than twenty yards in front of me, and still running, Jim bugled again. It stopped the bull in his tracks. He stood there, looking past me trying to find the intruder bull up the mountain. It was all the time I needed. I squeezed the trigger and the bull fell into the accumulating snow, just in front of me.”
“In seconds, Jim had joined me, and we walked over and admired the beautiful elk. As I have always done after a successful hunt, we said a prayer thanking God for His gifts of wild places and the renewable wildlife that we hunt to feed our families and spirit. As elated as we were, Jim and I started to discuss the potential danger we were facing because of the exceptionally heavy snow fall. We knew that we had a full day of butchering and packing, so there was no way we were getting off of the mountain that day. As the snow was piling up quickly, and there was no end in sight, we had to make plans to hunker-down on the mountain and survive, what was shaping up to be, one hell of a blizzard. We decided that Jim would go back and get the horses, break camp, and move our camp up to the clearing where I first saw the bull. There was plenty of wood in the area for a fire, and a natural shelter for our tent and horses.”
“Before Jim headed back, we built a big fire and stacked up enough wood to keep it burning until he got back. It was half past ten when Jim walked out of sight on his way back to the horses. As I pulled my knives from my backpack, I remember thinking that I hope we can survive the blizzard. Little did I know, that in a very short while, surviving the blizzard would be the least of my worries.”
As John had just finished that sentence, his door opened up and an aide told John it was time for him to come down for lunch. Time had flown by so quickly, I hadn’t realized that it was already lunch time. “What happened next?” I asked John. “I guess if you want to hear the end of the story, you will just have to come back next week!” John responded, with a wink. With that, he sat his Bible on the table, grabbed the cane that was leaning against the chair, and stood up. I was on my feet by then. John walked right over to me and while shaking my hand said, “Son, I sure hope you come back next week, because you haven’t heard the half of it!”
After we had walked down the hall together, I introduced John to my wife, before he sat down for lunch. As we headed toward the door, I turned around and said, “Hey John, I’ll see you next Saturday!” My wife looked at me and whispered, “I thought you were hunting next weekend?” With a wink, I responded, “I guess I’ll just have to change my plans!”
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