My Forty Years Scribblin's
One Way or T' Other

An outfitting story written in 1997 and published in the January-February, 1998 issue of The Rocky Mountain Elk foundation's magazine, Bugle. One of the Bar UC's regulars makes a different kill.

My cook tent was the social center of our hunting camp on Otter Creek near the headwaters of the South Fork of the Flathead, "way back when," and I was Johnny-on-the-Spot and all ears when the day's events unfolded at the supper table. That was when it all came together—when the gang discussed the day's happenings, hazing and poking fun at each other as they made the groceries disappear.

"If the wind hadn't changed I'd of had that big bugger!"

"How big did you say he was?" The question was an invitation to enlarge on the report.

"Well, he was the biggest thing I've seen in these parts!"

As the story came alive, the diner next to the storyteller had to duck a waving hand with a fork in it, and the bull's antlers grew an extra tine or two with each telling. But that was part of the dream, savoring the excitement or suffering the disappointment of losing the greatest chance the hunter ever had.

Bill was one of our regulars when we began outfitting soon after World War II in what is now The Bob Marshall Wilderness. He wasn't a trophy hunter, wore no sports-catalogue togs nor fancy accouterments, and wouldn't stand out in a crowd. He made no demands and had no complaints, just seemed to be happy as one of the gang at this yearly event, the opening of hunting season. But he provided us with a number of good suppertime stories.

Map showing the two Chaffin camps and the packing routes overBill had hunted elk on foot, but his first trip packing-in showed that he scarcely knew which end of the horse went forward. On one routine trip Allen, "The Boss," looked back to see him sitting crosswise in the saddle trying to tie his shoe. The horse had her head up, ears laid back and was throwing disapproving glares back at her rider.

"Bill, get that foot down. That old mare's goin' to dump you on the ground!"

"No, she won't. I've done this before," Bill answered placidly.

"Well, she would if I tried that," The Boss said with a shake of his head.

As Bill was a loner and had gotten to know his horse somewhat, The Boss decided to let him hunt by himself. One evening in Indian Summer—a time when the rising sun or the moon glinting off a dusting of snow on the highest peaks in "The Bob" could bring a tightening to the throat and a wish that this might go on forever—Bill returned to camp and reported he had killed an elk. That night over supper he told his story softly and wonderingly, as though he could scarcely believe it himself.

He had seen what we called "The Breaks"—a succession of little draws and ridges, thickets of green timber and lots of water and grass, a wildlife paradise a few miles downriver from camp—and headed there that day. Soon he jumped a cow.

He piled off, quickly tied his horse, went slipping through a thicket, and shot. She didn't go down, but she didn't run, just flinched and walked off into the brush. He made his way over to where the cow had been standing.

There was blood on the leaves, blood on the tall grass. Bill followed the sign, which led him up and down the little hills, through the little thickets, and down to the edge of Young's Creek. The water was fast and high, spilling over big boulders and forming deep pools.

He tied his horse beside the trail and began to search, but she seemed to have vanished. There was no blood, no elk, no tracks in the dust of the trail, nothing. Bill backtracked and searched on for another hour or two, then returned to the creek bank. He was hungry and his legs were giving out, and the air was thickening with the chill and the scents of evening. He was about to quit.

Then he saw it—an elk's head etched against the dark rocks on the opposite side of the creek. The entire neck and body were submerged. "I thought I was seein' things," Bill said.

He pondered the situation, wondering what to do next. "I had to get her out of there, one way or t'other," he recounted.

Now, if there was a Bigfoot living way up in the Hole in the Wall on the mountainside—as we sometimes led our newcomers and tenderfeet to believe—he must have been shaking his woolly head in disbelief as he looked down while that mere man pulled a broken timber from a pile of driftwood nearby, got it under the cow and used it for a pry pole. The swirling water helped to buoy the limp body up and he managed to float her to the edge of the deep hole until she caught against the riffle. Standing on the rocks he pulled and tugged until he got the hindquarters out of the water. There he gutted out his prize and dragged the offal out onto the dry bank.

Bill's episode topped all the yarns that came forth at the supper table that night. And when The Boss and Tom, the packer, went with him to pick up his elk the next morning, The Boss said, "Bill, how did you get across that creek?"

"Oh, I just hopped across on the rocks," Bill shrugged.

"He must have done some tall hoppin'," The Boss said later. "There was a lot of water goin' over those rocks."

"And," he wonders all these years later, "I don't see how the devil he got that cow even halfway out of the water. It was all Tom and I could do to haul her out of there with saddle horses!"

Bill took a lot of ribbing when the guys accused him of drowning his elk, but he only grinned his silent good-natured grin. He had accomplished what he came for, his friends had heard a "once-in-a-lifetime" story, and The Boss had one more name to add to his register of Happy Hunters.