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Encounter at the Summit

Nov. 05, 1973
Nov. 05, 1973

Table of Contents
Nov. 5, 1973

Kicks
Hawg Hunt
Feet Of Clay
People

Encounter at the Summit

One after another the three bull elk, big as horses, crashed the morning stillness and crossed the ridge on the Bitterroot Mountains. Death caught up with the last

By Robert F. Jones

A hunting trip can be a series of flashes, the least important of which is the one that grows from the barrel of a gun.

This is an article from the Nov. 5, 1973 issue Original Layout

We are blasting down U.S. 93 from Missoula to Hamilton in Mel's broad-shouldered Ford van. November in Montana. The Bitterroot Mountains rise around us, tall and impersonal, so unlike the humanized mountains of the East or even the West Coast. These are hard mountains, black-faced with fir and pine, that don't give a damn who dies on them. Lewis and Clark's men had to tighten their belts here in the fall of 1805; the roots they gnawed to supplement their jerky supplies were bitter. These are not the sort of mountains you want to stare at for any length of time. They are too complex in their geology and history, too big in every dimension to soothe the soul.

It's snug in the van, though. Mel has the heater turned up high, and over the radio Loretta Lynn is singing Don't Come Home a-Drinkin'. Her voice has that special timbre, somewhere between a sneer and a snivel, common to road-house cocktail waitresses and lady country singers. Mel opens a fresh tin of Copenhagen. I tuck a hefty pinch in my lower lip and the juices start to flow. It's a nicotine hit unlike any other—a small, warm, friendly explosion in the chilly caverns of the skull.

"Nope," says Mel, "they ain't come down off the peaks yet. They're still on top, lyin' up by day in the lodgepole tangles and feedin' at night. Plenty of sign, though, up in the Skalkaho Country." He rolls down the window and squirts a shot of snuff juice into the slipstream; the left side of his van bears a ragged, tan racing stripe. "Me and Harold, we was up there just yesterday. Deer sign lower down, but all the elk sign was way up near the top. We'll have to climb for 'em, I fear." He closes the window and the cold, clean mountain air disappears in a blast of heat and song and Bull Durham smoke.

Melvin McNeal, strawberry rancher. A strange, almost sissified occupation for a mountain man, but then the times have changed drastically since the firm of Bridger, Beckwourth & Broken Hand, Unltd. closed shop. Put Mel on a mountainside, though, and his true nature shines like a beaver pelt. The swift, shuffling gait that never varies, uphill or down. The quick, sneaky, game-seeking eyes common to muggers and born hunters. Bent-shouldered, big-knuckled, as spare of words as he is of flesh, Mel McNeal would not have been out of place 150 years ago, riding down into the Great Basin on the back of a raddled mule with a Hawken over his pommel and Jedediah Strong Smith leading the way. His scruffy, rust-colored beard underscores the image. "I won't shave again until I've got a bull elk in the meat shed," he says.

Already two deer are hanging there, glazed almost black in the dim, sweet, frigid air of the shed behind his house. The smell of hanging game has always seemed exciting to me—a ranker, wilder smell than that of the beeves and swine we used to whiff in the butcher shops before the supermarkets took over and hid all meat from the senses, under plastic. I suppose that in the smell of slow putrefaction there resides some arcane folk memory, the promise of full bellies for the tribe. Mel's two deer, young and tender but pathetically small without their heads, hides and guts, dangle from the roof beam by their ankles. I lay a hand on one of them: smooth, hard, cold. Like the Bitterroots, where he killed them earlier in the season.

Mel's yard is a bit of a zoo. Peacocks and guinea fowl scamper around, kicking the gravel and nattering at one another in the incessant warfare of the bird world. Domestic mallards waddle up, blatting for a handout. These are the Godzillas of duckdom: twice the size of the few wild mallards that have dropped in, uninvited, to spend the winter with Mel's pen-raised flock. "Aw, I like having birds around," he explains. "Not just for the eggs and the meat, either. It's more the idea—peacocks in Montana! They're a tough bird, though. They hold their own pretty good against the foxes and the hawks and the coyotes. And the neighbor dogs are flat skeered of 'em!"

Out beyond the yard is a pond full of icy water and Kamloops rainbow trout. Mel calls them "cannaloops," confusing their real name, which comes from the distant Pacific Northwest, with "cantaloupes," and in a way they are like melons to him: starved for trout, all he need do is pick up a rod, hike through the yard, flip a spinner into the pond and come home with a couple of three-pounders. For his serious fishing he heads for the mountains.

Deer stew and home-baked bread for dinner. Mel's wife Jan is a shy, plump woman who blushes readily at compliments about her cooking ("Nothin' much," she says). Like so many mountain women she takes her skills for granted, makes little of them, unaware of their natural beauty and her own. Instead, she affects an air of weariness and worthlessness, tempered with flashes of desperate independence which she has probably learned from the huge face of the color television set that dominates the McNeals' small living room. The only book in the house is a Bible. Now and then she flares angrily at her two sons, Sean and Max, themselves shy boys still under the tutelage of women, but her rages are perfunctory, ritualistic and immediately followed by a lot of loving. The boys will be O.K. once they are allowed to think of themselves as men.

In the bedroom hang Mel's trophies. A royal elk of seven points, a wide-racked whitetail deer, a solemn mountain goat, a pronghorn antelope, a pair of black bear hides and the heavy, glowering, bug-eyed head of an elderly bull bison that Mel tracked down and killed in Yellowstone country years ago. The presence of the dead animals in the bedroom is at once awesome and ridiculous. It would be like making love in a wing of the Museum of Natural History. I am put in mind of a remark my daughter made when she was three years old and saw her first mounted deer head. She stared at it for a long time, then said firmly, "The rest of him lives in the wall."

That night we take a run up the mountain in Mel's jeep, heading for a salt lick that the elk sometimes visit on their way down from the peaks to their wintering grounds in the high valleys. The idea is not to kill, but to see if they are moving, and if so, just who is doing the moving—cows and yearling calves, or the big bulls we are seeking. Though the autumn has been a strange one, fraught with warm weather and unrelieved by snow, the bulls should be finished with the rut by now. If so, they will be banding together again in their bachelor gangs and replacing the meat and muscle they lost over the past month during their titanic mating battles and their long-winded, randy chases after the cows. If the bulls are moving down the mountain it will make our hunt that much easier. The closer to the valley, the handier the roads, the shorter the distance we will have to drag our kill. A bull elk can weigh 600 pounds, gutted. If we kill one at the top of the mountain, we will have to cache it somewhere and then return for Mel's donkey, Jenny, to pack the meat and the trophy out. "We can do 'er," Mel says, "but it ain't no fun."

At the foot of the mountain we rendezvous with Mel's hunting partner, Harold Nelson. He, too, is slumped and bearded in the image of the mountain men but, in contrast to Mel's dour demeanor, Harold is a mountain wit. The eyes behind his granny glasses squint and sparkle. We can almost hear him creak as he climbs into the jeep—he suffers from emphysema and a spinal fusion, he announces, the result of too many smokes and a fall from a cliff some years back. He was once shot by another hunter, over in Idaho where he was born, and now refuses to wear red or Day-Glo orange clothing in the field for fear that he will make an easy target. He has a low opinion of most hunters, including Mel.

"Your average hunter," he says, "is like a dog chasin' a car. Even if he catches it, he don't know how to drive."

Winding up the mountain in the dark, Mel asks Harold how his love life is.

"Waal," says Harold, lighting up a cigarette to feed his emphysema, "it used to be wine, women and song. Now it's Metrecal, the old gal and Sing Along with Mitch."

They call him Count Nelson down in the valley, one of those negative nicknames, like a fat boy known as Skinny. Yet he is an authentic American original, tough and human, a man whose only lies are told at the expense of the world's cruelty and for the amusement of his friends. He damns all citybound ecologists as "flower sniffers," and cuts Christmas trees for a winter's living, yet in the days I walked the mountains with him I discovered that he knew the names of all the birds, beasts, trees, mosses, rocks, lichens, clouds and peaks much better than the field guides I had brought with me. He kills meat to feed his family. "You know," he said one afternoon as we rested on the sunnyside slope of a frozen peak, "there really ought to be only one man hunting this country. That way it wouldn't get drained of meat so quick, and all the flowers wouldn't get trompled down. I hate to see it goin'. But I'll tell you who that man oughta be. Harold Nelson."

"How old do you reckon Harold is?" Mel asks.

"Oh," after a long pause, "about 193."

"He's 39."

At the salt lick, nothing but deer sign. The elk are still up high. Winding back down the mountain we pick up the brassy flash of eyes in the headlights. "Coyote," says Mel. "Kill the bastard!" says Harold. Mel stops the jeep. He opens the driver-side door and steps out with his .243 Browning lever-action rifle, takes a rest on the door and shoots. The eyes wink out and we see a long, yellow shape skipping away through the night. Mel shoots again. "Nailed him!" Harold walks up the road and comes back holding the coyote by the brush. It is a bitch, a young one. The first bullet shattered her right front leg, which dangles by a shredded tendon. The second bullet took her through the chest. Her tongue lolls and her eyes are not yet glazed. Harold cuts off her tail with a clasp knife and slings the carcass back into the woods—"for the magpies."

Fortuitous killing offends me. A man should know what he intends to kill, should seek out the particular object of his murderous instincts, seek it out as an individual, know its habits and its track, how they differ from others of its kind, and understand the meaning of his own heart as the gun fires. Otherwise killing is gluttony. God knows I have killed animals indiscriminately in my life, but their deaths haunt me. Those acts were far more grievous sins than any lies, cruelties or infidelities I have perpetrated on my human victims. A lie, a putdown or an infidelity is a calculated act; Headhunting is simply gratuitous. I seethe silently for a while, then bluntly ask Mel and Harold why they gunned down the coyote. After all, a coyote eats mainly mice and carrion; Mel and Harold themselves are not sheepherders; the coyote is misunderstood in that regard; studies prove they don't kill that many domestic animals, and even if they did....

"That's how we do around here," says Harold.

"Shoot," says Mel, injured, "it's just a coyote...."

I flash, and it's as brief, as bright as the muzzle blast from Mel's rifle...the people I've hurt too often. Then Mel passes the snuff tin around. We load our lips and head for the barn, talking normally again.

The next day we leave before dawn to hunt Deer Mountain, a peak to the southeast of Hamilton. The sun, when it finally arrives, reveals a terrifying aspect. The roads that climb these mountains are little better than the tracks of a snail climbing a beanstalk. Slick, thin, the merest translucence on a steep surface, they wind around and around, aimlessly following the line of least gravitational resistance. To look down from the passenger side of the jeep is to court instant vertigo. Mel drives loosely, turning his head to talk. Thank God he is no chatterbox!

The best approach is to study the distant mountains. Trapper Peak and Sleeping Child. Lost Horse and The Lonesome Bachelor: my Forest Service map dispels acrophobia as effectively as a tranquilizer might paranoia. I sink back into the gray dust of geography and history, adrift and happy in a world of long-dead trappers and distant, sleeping children. Harold peels an orange from his lunch pail and the sharp romanticism of citrus fills the jeep. Then he curses the fibers that stick between his teeth. At the top, Mel parks the jeep and we dismount, stiff and groggy, to check our rifles.

"Colder'n a mother-in-law's heart," says Harold, his orange-scented breath pluming in the early light. We're up in the snow, more than 7,000 feet at this point, and the air bites the jaws like a dentist's drill. Still, it's not much snow—three inches at the most—and the only sign we have crossed on the road has been that of deer.

"We'll poke around for a while up yere," says Mel, "and if we don't jump any elk we may find deer. Take 'em if you see 'em—in this district you're allowed two on your license, either sex. Kill any grouse that you see. They're good lunch meat for tomorrow. We don't hunt 'em up here like you do back East. These are fool hens, won't flush worth diddly. They either stand and squawk at you or else jump up into the trees and figger they're safe. Shoot their heads off. If you see an elk or a deer, shoot for the heart—well, you know that anyway. I don't hold with these gut-shootin' fellers or these dudes that take whey they call 'haunch shots' on a running meat critter. Waste a lot of time that way, tracking them out." He spits his quid of snuff. "Meet back here by noon."

It was the longest speech he ever made.

In terms of big game the day is a washout. But in terms of coming to an understanding with this vast, cold-hearted country it could not be more successful. Mel and Harold shoulder their "crowbars"—a rifle is a workman's tool in these parts—and amble downhill into the snowy pines. Their footfalls and voices fade even before they are out of sight. Lesson No. 1: sound travels vertically in this vertical country. A man with a broken leg could shout his head off, empty his rifle with distress shots and not be heard by his partner a few hundred yards away. I head uphill with my own partner, a lean Californian named Roger Ferry who is also my brother-in-law. Roger is tall, soft-spoken, bespectacled, a consummate woodsman who grew up as a deer hunter in the fiat, tamarack and muskeg country of northern Wisconsin. Like so many of us from that land of waning opportunity—"America's Drearyland," some embittered ex-Badgers call it—he went West. Though he majored in French literature at Marquette University and had ambitions to write when he was younger, he now runs a small home-improvements business in Sacramento. Being his own boss, he has plenty of time for the pursuit of his true vocation: hunting and fishing.

We pause at the crest of Deer Mountain, Roger to glass the country for game, I to catch my breath. My knees have turned to water with the climb and, despite the cold, most of it is squirting out through my sweat glands. In this thin air, not yet acclimated to the altitude, I stand about as much chance of catching my breath as I would of catching Frank Shorter in the marathon. Roger, by contrast, is fresh as a sprig of alpine rue. He quit smoking years ago for just this reason.

"Nothing moving but an eagle," he says, putting down the glasses. "Away over there, across the valley. You know, if you hammered Montana flat and crimped it down a bit around the edges, you'd have a perfect lid for the whole Pacific Ocean."

We split up and swing across the shoulder of the mountain, hoping that one of us will push a deer, or maybe even an elk, out of its bed and into range of the other. The wind up here groans like a god with a bellyache. The ponderosa pines and Douglas firs—some of them mature giants, uncut during the big logging boom of the 1890s because of their remote locations—sway and clatter and yowl under the push of the north wind, but at ground level the air is still. Except for a few ravens that croak their ragged way overhead, bitching at the wind that keeps pushing them off course, and an occasional camp robber, the mountain seems empty of life. I see some old deer sign and the tracks of a coyote that came through the previous afternoon when the snow was still wet with the afternoon's relative warmth; the doglike prints look as big as a wolf's, but are blurred and splashy around the edges.

Then I catch a flicker of movement in the lodgepoles below me. Sitting, I glass the thicket with my scope. The gray twitch resolves itself into an ear. Then a wet brown eye leaps out of the neutrality of the background. Then I see the animal whole: a mule deer doe. It always amazes me when they snap into focus that way, and I wonder how many I have passed, and how close, that I never did see.

Mel said to take 'em—either sex. My mind does its quick rationalization number: I sure could use the meat. I bring the crosshairs down the crease behind her shoulder, a nervous optical caress. She is at least 300 yards away. The scope is jumping rhythmically, just the faintest of up-and-down movements, but enough to ruin my shot if I take it. I expel my breath, but the jumping continues. My heartbeat. I start the squeeze anyway, and just as the trigger reaches the breaking point I see out of the corner of the scope another muley behind her—a buck, only a crotch-horn, a two-pointer, but a buck—and in that instant the rifle goes bang. The snow jumps. The two deer disappear.

A clean miss. My hands are shaking.

There is no blood in the snow where she stood, and I see where the bullet dug a trench in the dirt beneath it. It's a deep hole, like the kind we used to shoot marbles at in the schoolyard. Marbles and murder: I'm glad I missed her.

Back at the jeep, Mel and Harold are building a fire. They drag up a few snow-sodden pine logs, drench them with gasoline from the spare jerrican and flip a match into the heap. Kapow! Instant bonfire. I wonder what Bridger would think of the technique, as opposed to flint and steel. He'd probably approve. Those men were nothing if not pragmatic. Later, Roger tails in with two blue grouse dangling from his belt. He surprised them in a brake down the mountain, and when they flew up into a nearby ponderosa he headed them, one, two, just like that. Just like Mel said.

That night, skunked, we hit the saloons of Hamilton to recharge our depleted spirits. Most of the patrons are ranchers and drovers. They shake their heads solemnly at Mel's account of our failure, offering suggestions for the morrow. "Use to be a lot of big old bulls down thereon Hog Trough Creek, on the backside of Black Bear Point." Too durn early for that country. "How about Water Sign Meadows, or farther on down by the One Tooth Cabin?" Too durn far. White Stallion, Two Bear, Sawdust Gulch, Railroad Creek—all have their drawbacks. We sulk over our beers, listening to Merle Haggard on the juke. "I'm a Lonesome Fugitive...."

The light in the bar is warm and minimal, the colors from the jukebox paint rainbows on the walls. I get a kick out of the signs on the walls of backcountry saloons—a form of Americana that has largely disappeared from the cities:

"No Shirts, No Shoes, No Service! (Bras optional)."

"My heart ees yors, but my ass is zee government's."

"Of all the purebred strains, the Herefords and Black Angus have attained the greatest popularity in Montana."

"Yea, though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, I shall fear no evil...'Cause I'm the MEANEST SON OF A BITCH IN THE VALLEY!"

Harold cocks his white cowboy hat back on his brow and shrugs his sheepskin jacket higher on his shoulders—he'd duded up, clotheswise, here in town. He even smells pretty good, having gone home for a shower. His glasses catch the glint of light from the jukebox and he stares at us like the sunset of a rainy day, after the clouds have passed.

"All right, you 'tater-ass sissies," he says to us, "tomorrow we'll hit the Skalkaho Country. She's a mean 'un, so cold up there you could milk a cow in chunks. But that's where the noble wapiti is right now, and that's where we'll get 'em."

The morning, still hours before dawn, is not black but rather a dirty gray. The vaulting sky suffers from ring around the collar. It snowed during the night, and walking out into the cold we feel a sudden surge of hope. The new snow has to help us. Mel's ducks and guineas and peacocks seem to sense our good spirits: they cluster around, even though it's long before their usual wake-up hour, yammering for breakfast. So what—our own breakfasts are still warm and heavy in our bellies—scrambled eggs, beans, venison steaks cooked up by a sleepy Jan in her housecoat, in that rich, warm kitchen. "Good luck," she says, then scurries back to bed, to nod off under the glowering glass eyes of the big gone bison. We climb into the jeep and head for the Skalkaho Country.

The climb is not nearly so fearsome this morning, despite the fresh snow that slicks the tracks. Mel has the same faith in the surefootedness of his jeep as the oldtimers had in their ponies, and it is faith more than anything that makes for good driving. Roger even dozes off during some of the steeper stretches, with the jeep swooping down horse trails like a World War II Stuka with its dive-brakes extended. Harold chatters on and on about his eldest son, a 17-year-old who has broken his back three times in car crashes. In the most recent one he hit a tree at 90 miles an hour. "He's a hell-raiser like his old man," Harold self-congratulates. "Like they say, only the good die young." Another son, 15 years old, is a nationally ranked high school wrestler. Harold is proud of him, too.

We top out on the mountain with the dawn. Mel eases the jeep in four-wheel drive and low-low, and with the brakes virtually locked, down what he claims is a trail but which looks more like a cliff. We cross a creek, red in the light of the sunrise. Then we follow a logging trail beside it. Deer and elk tracks spot the fresh snow; we may be pushing them ahead of us. At the end of the logging trail Mel parks the jeep. To our left the mountain rises higher still, straight up it seems, its slope (if such it was) studded with ponderosas.

"At the top she levels off," says Mel. "It's fairly open along the ridge line, but there's thick lodgepole tangles on either side the shoulder. The elk are lyin' up in them jungles there. You and Roger climb on up there and then split up and work down along the ridge line toward the east. Me and Harold'll go back down to the end of the ridge and come up slow, in case you push anything ahead of you."

"And if you don't know which way's east," adds Harold, "I can loan you my North Dakotian compass." He pulls out a woman's powder compact and opens the mirrored lid. "It don't show you where to go, but it shore shows you who's lost!" Haw, Haw.

The climb is a killer, but thanks to the new snow there is inspiration at every halt. Elk sign galore. Vast stretches of raw dirt mixed in with pine needles where the bulls have been tussling. Mounds of fresh droppings, some of them still warm at the core. Saplings rubbed raw earlier in the autumn when the bulls were polishing their antlers for the rutting battles, the red bark of the skinny trees dangling like a teen-ager's braids. At the top we halt. The sun is just coming visible over the rolling rock ahead of us. The big red ball again.

"I'll drop down here to the right," Roger whispers, "just over the crest of the ridge. You stay just on this side of the crest. Let's move along real slow and easy, like you'd still-hunt the swamps up near Eagle River in Wisconsin. Stay about a couple hundred yards apart. I'll whistle every now and then to let you know where I am, and you whistle back."

I push out along the ridge, pausing five counts for every five steps I've taken. The old angst rises along the back of my neck—air prickles, my skin as sensitive to sound as a fever victim's to the touch of a breeze. All the senses peak in moments like this, all the tastes come flooding back to distill themselves on the tongue, blood and breakfast. My eyes seem to widen and deepen in my head, huge light-suckers, vacuums that draw in every color, every shadow, every movement. The tension on the nerves and muscles—latent death—rises with every step and redoubles with every pause. If a man were to live his whole life with the taut senses of a hunter at the end of a stalk, he would die at the age of three....

The first crashing sound hits me like a truck coming around a blind corner. I wonder for an instant if Roger has fallen off a cliff. Then the bull elk tops the rise, galloping like a horse, and swings his huge head to look at me. I stare into his big brown eye and he keeps right on going, watching me watch him go, the wide rack steady over his hammerlike head, his neck low—and I don't even get the rifle to my shoulder before he's gone. Damn, I'm thinking, they don't run like deer at all.

And then the second bull appears, half a second behind the first one. He's smaller by a bit, and he pauses in his gallop to look at me, slowing to a trot. I snap off a shot and kick dirt under his belly. Off he goes, and I start to curse myself—what kind of a hunter am I, stupid, no-good....

And then the third bull appears. The third bull! Someone loves me! Unconsciously I have moved up the ridge toward the spot where the animals are crossing, and now as this bull slows to stare at me I have dropped to one knee and the rifle is steady and the crosshairs touch the spot behind his shoulder and as he moves I swing with him and the rifle goes bang. I see the guard hairs fly over his heart. He leaps ahead, down the mountain, out of sight, and I can hear his jumps—one, two, three, four, five, six, then a pause—and then a heavy thud that seems to shake the earth....

Over the knoll ahead of me, snow hazes down from a pair of quivering spruce trees. I move up quickly and quietly and look downhill. The elk is down. In his dying flight, out of control, he crashed through a dead tree and somehow twisted his way through two others—the ones that produced the snow shower. He lies on his left side, his legs flexing. He is big as a horse, umber-colored, touched with cream and dark brown, dying. As I stand there watching him die, the big feeling washes over me again: bigger than guilt and pride, though akin to them, bigger even than love and loss, though their brothers, and I flash on down through time to the men who crawled deep into the earth to paint their prey by torchlight on the wet, cold walls, and then crawled out again to kill meat, their god.

Roger comes over the rise and looks at the dead elk.

"Hey!" he says. "You got one!"

The rest of a day like that goes slow, gutting the game, dragging it down through a mile of stumps and gullies and fallen timber. A creature that size takes its own small revenge for its murder, in the form of barked shins and skinned knuckles, and you start to wonder if the oldtimers weren't right in their meat-hungry philosophy: eat it as it lays. But all of that is the malaise of anticlimax. At the bottom of the mountain I stopped and lay on my belly in the snow and drank from the stream—the water clean and brassy cold. I walked back up to where the bull lay. Steam rose from his open body cavity, sweet in the cold. Mel looked at him, deadpan behind his rusty beard. Harold stroked his own scruffy chin.

"Couldn't have picked a nicer bull if you tried," he said. "He ain't the biggest, but the rack is perfectly even. You don't find that too often in a young bull. And the meat will be good eatin', which you don't find in the Boone and Crockett class. You'll have the head mounted, of course?"

Of course. And now, with the head on my wall and the meat in my freezer, the Montana elk hunt is complete. My neighbors may think of me as the meanest son of a bitch' in the valley, but I still have my flashes intact: Mel, Harold, Jan, Roger, and a country even meaner than I. A country that, if hammered flat, could cover the whole Pacific Ocean. I hope it never happens.

ILLUSTRATIONILLUSTRATIONThe elk is down. In his dying flight, out of control, he crashed through a dead tree and somehow twisted his way through two othersILLUSTRATIONHarold lopped off the dead coyote's tail.