From the February 2014 issue of  Sporting Classics.  

 

He fell at dawn on a cold December morning, and by late the following November he was hanging on my great-room wall. He was magnificent, from the moment I first saw him there in the gathering dawn, a big bull elk of prodigious size and royal demeanor, his antlers tall and long and massive with deep, even splits. 

One of his brow tines was broken off and polished around the edges just above the base, and when it was later suggested that I have the taxidermist add back the missing point, I bristled and grew angry and for a moment was nearly rude. 

For this was how God had given him to me, and this was how he would stay, at least for as long as I was alive to cherish the Gift. 

 

My wife and daughter will tell you that I have

stubborn streak when it comes to such

things, one of the many ingrained character

flaws they have had to deal with over the

years.

 

I am not by nature a true trophy hunter. 

The fact is, I dislike that word “trophy,” nearly as much as I detest the word “harvest.” My wife and daughter will tell you that I have a stubborn streak when it comes to such things, one of the many ingrained character flaws they have had to deal with over the years. 

Especially since I killed that elk. 

I remember the morning he came. I would have been perfectly happy with a much smaller bull. But as I said, this was the elk that was given, and this was the elk I took. 

It had rained the night before, and when I arose in darkness, a heavy mist covered the entire mountain. The sun rose a phantom in the fog as we made our way south off the ridge and down around the eastern edge of the lake. We had spotted a small herd of post-rut bachelor bulls at dusk the evening before, a mile across the valley at the base of Book Out draw. But it had been far too late to try and make a move on them, and all we could do was leave them undisturbed, then dream of them that night and speculate about where they might be come dawn. 

But for now the light was still too dim and the visibility too limited to effectively put our spotting scopes into play, so we took our best guess and headed south. We spotted them on the side of a ridge 800 yards above us to the east as the fog began to turn a pale iridescent orchid in the first languid light of day.

At first they were barely visible as they ghosted through the muted aspens, but soon they topped out along the open crest of the ridge. There were at least seven or eight elk in the herd, most of them nice bulls. But one was clearly superior to the others, and it was he who demanded my entire focus. 

The rays of the rising sun framed him in a ragged, backlit halo that pulsed and flickered and extended outward all around him as he floated there in the mist, completely oblivious to my presence, and somewhere deep in my soul there awakened that old familiar twinge of conflicted sorrow that always seems to stir when there’s a killing to be done.

But kill him I must, I thought. For is this not why I have come? 

And so from this moment forward, his living and his dying were in my hands as I closed the distance, until for the briefest moment I had him partially in my sights. But I knew that if I touched the trigger now, there was too great a chance I would only wound him. 

So I did not shoot. 

He began edging out the ridge to the north, and I continued up the canyon, below and parallel to him, hoping he would turn, and his life having already been in my hands once, I sensed that it might soon be in my hands once more and again I would have to make the decision whether to take it or spare it, as the entire band disappeared over the crest and into the dawn.

   

For that single moment he was free of me, free to continue, free to live, and if they hadn’t circled back he might be living still. 

But one by one by two and three they began to turn. The first bull slowly materialized from the mist, as did the next one and the one after that. Then two bulls appeared off to the south as another topped the ridge directly above me. 

 

For an age he came, his rack growing ever

taller as he advanced, and it was yet another

age before I could make out his head and

neck and then his massive shoulders as he

topped the ridge and began descending the

near side.

 

I studied each as closely as I could through my rifle scope, but none of them were him. And just as I began to think he might have continued alone down the far side of the canyon and that I might not have to kill him after all, his polished ivory antler tips began to reappear along the skyline.  

For an age he came, his rack growing ever taller as he advanced, and it was yet another age before I could make out his head and neck and then his massive shoulders as he topped the ridge and began descending the near side. And now again he was nearly mine, though the shot was still not clear and perfect. But I felt that it soon would be, and once more I would have to make the decision, and as I waited, he disappeared into the aspens. 

Had he kept on that same trail, he would have vanished down the canyon and we would have both been free. But slowly and almost imperceptibly he started to turn. Instead of quartering away, he began angling back to me through the trees, then out into the open scrub oak, and suddenly he stumbled and lurched and abruptly fell forward onto his front knees as my bullet hastened through his chest and burrowed into the frozen ground beyond. 

The first shot was for myself, that I might have him. But the second was for him, to end it as quickly as possible, and he collapsed, never to rise again. 

I cycled the bolt one last time, and for another age I watched him through my scope, the crosshairs resting squarely on his broad motionless shoulder, keen for the slightest twitch that might require this one final cartridge, until the rebounding echoes of my shots faded to silence.

I continued watching him until the risen sun began to burn away the mist and bath him in gold, and only then did I ease my rifle back on safety and rise stiffly from the shadows and commence climbing the snowy slope toward him. He lay on his side above me as I approached, his great antlers rising into the sky, and I stopped two or three yards below him and knelt there and prayed, then carefully unloaded my gun and leaned it into his shoulder. 

I sat there with him for a long, long time, peering east into the last sunrise he ever saw, and when I got him back to base we caped him out and quartered him and hung him in the cold for a day and a night. The next morning I hauled the meat up to Pagosa to be processed, then sent the cape and antlers off to Denver for taxidermy.      

By the following Thanksgiving he was hanging on my wall. 

 

In mid-December I got home one evening and found that my wife and daughter had decorated him for Christmas with tinsel and ribbon and little silver bells, and I nearly came undone.

But just in time I realized that they had meant no disrespect to the animal, and I caught myself, then deliberately removed the decorations and explained to them that I had actually killed this elk, this very elk – this elk beside whom I had knelt and prayed and whose life had once been mine to spare. This same elk we would be having for our supper that evening.

They listened, and I hoped they understood. 

And later that night my little daughter came to me and, knowing me as well as she does, she looked up and said softly and with great feeling and empathy, “ . . . you know Daddy, you ought to write that down someday.”

Maybe someday I will.

 

NOTE: This is Chapter 37 from Michael Altizer’s latest book, Nineteen Years To Sunrise. Available both in a hard-bound Trade Edition and a leather bound Collector’s Edition, signed volumes of this book can be ordered online from Sporting Classics at SportingClassicsStore.com—click on “BOOKS.” Or simply call (800) 849-1004. 

The author always welcomes and appreciates your comments, questions and input. Please keep in touch at Mike@AltizerJournal.com.

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