“It’s not like I won the lottery, dude,” says Brent. “It is a fucking lottery. There’s just over four hundred elk licenses this year and like twelve thousand guys applying, plus if you’ve struck out before, your name shows up more times–the more years you signed up and whiffed, the better your chances.”
“But you nailed it on your first try.” Wayne Lee drives the Camaro like he always does, like it’s a fucking stock-car race.
“Not only that, I got an ‘any elk’ tag. Two-thirds of the guys who scored have to whack something without antlers.”
There’s a light rain and some wind, typical funky Dakota weather, but the forecast has it clearing up. Wayne Lee already has the orange vest over his camo outfit.
“So this Okie from Muskogee–”
“He’s from Drumright, west of Tulsa, and he’s looking to stick a dozen wells on the rez.”
“And you want the service contract–”
“At the least,” says Brent. It’s been a bitch setting this all up, feelers out to ranchers in the E 2 unit, nonresident permits for Mutt Miller just in case they run into a game warden with a hard-on, salting the mine far enough ahead of time. He needs Wayne Lee for a buffer, make it all seem like guys just out having fun. “What I want is for Mutt to go away convinced that nothing happens unless I put in the word with Chief Killdeer.”
“So he depends on you–”
“So he sweetens the pot a little. Maybe puts me in for a percentage of one or two of the wells.”
“He’d go for that?”
“Hey, when I told him I got an elk tag he was the one who hinted he’d like to be the trigger man.”
“Not a stranger to a little larceny–”
“More of an old-fashioned wildcatter than a corporate type. You’ll like him.”
Mutt Miller is parked by the post office across from the Catholic church in Grassy Butte, pretty much all there is to the town. Wayne Lee swings in and honks lightly, pausing a moment for Mutt to get back into his Crystal Red Caddy DTS and follow them to the ranch.
“Give the guy a break,” Brent says to Wayne Lee. “Keep it under eighty.”
“My only problem with this state is not enough curves.” Wayne Lee glances at the speedometer, probably for the second time in his life. “That and the weather and the food and that there’s nothing to do and not enough women.”
“You ever been to Oklahoma?”
“Arrested in Okie City for a bar fight.”
“Maybe keep that one under your hat.”
They swing over and up past Medicine Hole, then hook left onto Gap Road. The rain stops, and by the time they pull off by the east gate into Jesse Gilmore’s place there’s a bit of early morning sun peeking through the clouds.
Mutt looks like a catalogue ad, wearing Bone Collector camos new-bought from Scheel’s in Bismarck, silver hair curling out from under an Oklahoma Thunder gimme cap. He looks like some actor Brent can’t remember the name of, played a lot of generals.
“Looks like a good day for it, Mutt. This is my buddy Wayne Lee–”
The men shake hands and Mutt pops his trunk open with the remote on his key ring.
“What you pack for me, Brent?”
“Remington 700 with a Leupold variable scope,” says Brent, lifting the case out of the rear of the Camaro. “Shoots a 30-ought-six–”
“So I’ll be good for what distance?”
“It’s a tack-driver from way out, but I wouldn’t try anything past four hundred yards. Tracking wounded elk is an acquired taste–”
“That you never acquired.”
“Exactly.” Growing up, Brent always had the Marines in the back of his mind, but his second state jail felony nixed that option before he got properly motivated to sign up. He’d read the Corps training manuals though, put himself through an equivalent to Basic without the top sergeant growling in his ear, and feels like he could do pretty well anywhere you dropped him on the globe with a canteen, a decent rifle, and a K-bar knife. Mutt, on the other hand, brags about shooting wolves from a helicopter up in Alaska.
“Step over here, fellas,” the old boy says. “I need to show you something.”
It is a muzzleloader, a Knight Mountaineer, which he lays out with great reverence.
“Damn,” says Wayne Lee, “we’re heading out with Jeremiah Johnson!”
“He used an old Hawken, and this here’s an inline job.” Mutt spreads all the loading gear out on a blanket. “I’d like to do it traditional, flintlock or cap-and-ball, but those old grizzly hunters had too many misfires.”
“Inline or not, we’ll have to get awful close to put a bull elk on the ground with black powder,” says Brent, as if getting close will be a problem.
“That’s the sport of it,” says Mutt, tamping powder down the barrel with the rod. “It’s all about the stalking.”
He pushes the bullet into a sabot and rams it down, makes sure the safety is screwed out. The cap will go in at the last moment, so he can carry it loaded. Mutt pulls some Saran Wrap over the muzzle and fastens it down with a rubber band. “In case it rains again.”
“Keep your powder dry,” says Wayne Lee, who has never hunted in his life.
“Keep your powder dry and your nose to the wind.”
The idea is for Brent to carry the center-fire rifle and Mutt his muzzleloader, pretending that he and Wayne are only along with Brent as spotters. They both hang binoculars over their necks while Brent unlocks the gate and pulls it open.
“Gentlemen,” he says, “let’s go harvest a monster.”
“Harvest, hell.” Mutt carries the Knight without a sling. “I’monna kill the sumbitch.”
Jesse Gilmore has provided Brent with a map of the property, a hundred-twenty acres of it okayed for hunt-through. Brent has planned for a bit of hill and dale that will bring them to lunchtime before he heads straight to the spot where the animals are supposed to be hanging. He’s got dinner reservations at the hotel in Yellow Earth and does enough cross-country in his workout.
“Rancher says we’ll need to go in a ways before there’s likely to be any action, so it won’t be silent running right yet.”
The game people schedule a couple informational meetings for tag winners, public invited, and he met Jesse there, bearded dude with a help-I’m-drowning look in his eye. The spread belongs to his parents, who are in Florida for the winter, and it turns out he got paranoid about flyovers while doing prescription drugs one night and burned down his own patch of homegrown and quite a bit of innocent ground cover while he was at it. Happy, then, to take product rather than cash for the whole set-up.
“You try for a tag too, young man?” Mutt asks Wayne Lee.
“No sir. Only way I’d ever get an elk is to chase one over a cliff on my dirt bike.”
“Not very sporting.”
“Try it some time. There’s never a good high cliff around when you need one.”
“You work with Brent?”
Wayne Lee nods. “Dispatch vehicles, fill in as a driver when needed.”
“You look like you’re in good shape. Rig workers make a lot more than drivers–”
“Skating up on that platform in a seventy-mile-an-hour gale with a half-dozen pieces of equipment that can knock your brains out swinging around–”
The oilman smiles. “It can get a little hairy, now and then. That’s the fun of it. I done some roughnecking when I was your age.”
“And still got all your arms and legs.”
“Been electrocuted twice, which I don’t recommend, but other than that it was an excellent learning experience.”
They come over a rise and see a stand of trees ahead, a creek running behind them. Jesse warned that there’d be some beef cattle wandering around, not cold enough yet for them all to be gathered at the pens, and so far a couple rabbits and a pheasant have flushed out ahead of them. It all looks pretty much the same in every direction, flattish and yellow-brown, and Brent understands why Jesse might want to alter his consciousness on a regular basis. He said he’d been married and living in Rapid, but that had turned into a real disaster and he needed a little porch time to get his head together. Weed smokers always have a plan–the fuzzier the better.
“Brent asked the Chief about hunting on his reservation,” says Wayne Lee, opening his end of the pitch. “But they only get two tags a season. Can you imagine that? All those Indians–Native Americans, whatever–and only two of them allowed to bag an elk.”
“Wapiti,” says Mutt, putting the accent on the first syllable. “The proper name is wapiti, from the Shawnee word for ‘white butt.’”
“And you don’t have ’em in Oklahoma.”
“We’re lousy with elk. Indians too.”
“No shit. I thought you’d just have a lot of jackrabbits, like Texas.”
“We even got a couple mountains, you look hard enough.” Mutt calls up to Brent, who is playing the pathfinder today. “You ask the Chief about that thing I mentioned?”
“He said it’s under consideration.”
“A moody bunch, those redskins,” says Wayne Lee, trying to help out. “But Brent plays the Chief like a violin.”
“I’m a quarter Cherokee myself.”
Wayne Lee stops to look Mutt over. “Yeah? Which quarter?”
Mutt laughs. The great thing about Wayne Lee is that he seems like more of a lightweight than he really is. At least when he’s straight.
“The thing with Killdeer is he doesn’t like to be pushed,” says Brent. “You can bring him around, but it takes some finessing.”
“My outfit’s got a whole pile of finesse sitting in the bank.”
Brent’s turn to laugh. He’s right about this guy–not afraid to push the envelope here and there.
“The thing about elected officials,” he says, “whether you’re talking Washington, D.C., or the Three Nations, is they always got to have deniability. So maybe it’s a favor that gets done for a third party who the official owes for something else, and the chain of evidence is impossible to establish–”
“You been watching cop shows–”
“I been working at the edge of oil and gas for a number of years. Seen how laws get passed, how other laws get enforced selectively–”
“I’m sure we’re gonna be able to work something out.”
Which means Mutt has talked as much business as he wants to for the day.
“What’s the biggest thing you ever put down?” asks Wayne Lee, picking up the vibe.
“Brahma bull,” says Mutt. “Must of gone two thousand pounds easy.”
“He got a disease or what?”
“Broken leg. A little rodeo at Guthrie, I was buddies with the vet, and he give me the honors. Got a thick skull, your brahma, so I put one through his eye.”
“How was the rider?”
Mutt considers as he strolls with the muzzleloader held low. “Well–we didn’t have to shoot him.”
Mutt, it turns out, is not in terrific stalking shape, so Brent calls lunch a half hour earlier than he planned. The trick to the white hunter thing is to give the client the feel of a chase even if the trophy is a cripple that never wanders from the same half-acre patch of terrain. He’s stopped several times in good downwind positions to have them glass the surroundings, started to whisper and signal instead of talking out loud. They sit on a shelf of rock on top of a middling ridge, the sun countering the nip of the wind, and eat the sandwiches Wayne Lee bought at the Supervalu in Watford City. Mutt drinks two beers and takes his boots off.
“Haven’t had time to break these in,” he says. “Left all my usual gear back home.”
“I lived in Colorado, I used to break in new boots for other people. Had my flyer on the info wall at REI.”
Mutt looks at Wayne Lee’s feet. “What are you–?”
“An eleven. But I could go a size smaller or two bigger, just pull on more pairs of socks.”
“Pay worth the blisters?”
“Not bad, considering you just go about whatever you were up to anyway. And it was easier on the nerves than my previous employment.”
“Pharmaceutical escort service.”
“He means a drug mule,” says Brent.
“I had a regular truck run going from McAllen to Monterrey and back. Took on some extra cargo.”
“He was young and stupid,” Brent interjects, not wanting Wayne Lee to get bragging on their shared history. “Now he’s just stupid.”
“The thing is, I was never uptight crossing the border. But making the pickup and paying off–damn. Lots of crazy pistoleros down there, looking for an easy score. You ever been?”
“Got enough Mexicans back home. Seems like everywhere there used to be a Chinese restaurant, now it’s Burritoville. Stuff don’t agree with me like the chop suey did.”
“Binds me up. Alla that cheese.”
“They go a lot lighter on the cheese south of the border.”
“I’ll trust your word on that.”
Mutt looks all around, nothing moving but weeds in the wind. “It ain’t pretty,” he says, “but there sure is a lot of it.”
“You should check out Teddy Roosevelt Park while you’re up here,” says Brent. “Got some variety to the landscape.”
“But no hunting.”
“Oh, there’s a load of elk get shot over there, just not by hunters. The staff and a few volunteers culled a couple hundred out of the herd, a lot of them females and juveniles, just a couple weeks ago. Ecological balance or some shit like that.”
“Park rangers shooting wapiti.”
“They get used to tourists so they’re not people-shy. You can walk up and shoot most of them from a couple yards away.”
“I guess the meat goes to charities, once it’s been checked for the wasting disease.”
“Probably the healthiest thing those people eat all year,” says Mutt. “I saw a fella at the Cenex in Tioga the other day, Native guy, trade his food stamps in for Pringles and Little Debbie Donut Sticks.”
“The white man killed their buffalo,” says Wayne Lee, his face solemn, “but at least he brought them reconstituted potato flakes.”
Mutt goes to take a leak then, and Brent scoots closer to strategize.
“Should be only fifteen, twenty minutes from here,” he says, keeping his voice low. “I got no idea if this guy can shoot or he expects to take the elk out with his breath, so be ready for anything. If you see the herd with your glass give me the nod so I can be the first to spot it–”
“Brent Skiles, master of the bush–“
“That’s the idea. He wants to negotiate with the game, he’s got to go through me.”
Mutt comes back then, face a little red from the beer or the pissing, and picks up the Knight.
“Onward, gentlemen,” he announces. “I hear the call of the wild.”
Technically it’s against NDGF rules to provision or bait anything you’re hunting, but they cut a lot of slack to private property owners. Jesse says he’s been laying out elk candy for two weeks, and sure enough, there’s a small herd in front of the gappy thicket of trees right where he made the X on the map.
Brent comes to a sudden halt, claiming to have a “feeling” before he lays out on his belly with the field glasses to his eyes. Mutt is already putting the cap into the muzzleloader, screwing the safety to off, as if they’re only seconds away from the moment of truth.
“Check ’em out,” Brent whispers, handing the binoculars over. He exchanges a look with Wayne Lee while Mutt scans the herd.
“I see three bulls,” says Mutt, louder than he probably should. “Awful nice racks on them.”
“There’s a six-by-six looks to be in charge. That’s who we want to go for.”
Mutt brings the binoculars down. “You bring a caller?”
“Nope, but Wayne Lee does a pretty good cow-in-estrus.”
“Bugling won’t do us much good when they’re on their feed like that. We’ll just keep low and work our way closer.”
Wayne Lee carries the muzzleloader, giving Mutt both hands to steady himself with, managing to get his head low while his butt remains stuck up in the air. They ease from clumps of bunchgrass to a sprouting of chokecherry bushes, laying down to glass the spot and be sure the herd hasn’t moved. Mutt has begun to sweat and breathe hard, and Brent wonders if his heart is okay. They’re two football fields away when the cover gives out, nothing a chipmunk could hide behind left between them and the browsing animals. Wayne Lee looks like he’s gotten excited about the hunt, golden eyes big and shiny, always up for anything that feels like you shouldn’t be doing it. The whispering helps.
“We can try to move around to the left and risk spooking them,” Brent whispers, “to get you a shot with the Knight. Or we can stay back here and hit him with the Remington.”
The muzzleloader has iron sights on it, Daniel Boone style, and Brent doubts Mutt can hit anything past fifty yards. Mutt adjusts his binoculars, takes another gander.
“It looks awful far away. Even for the Remington.”
All hat and no cattle, as his cellmate in the Hightower Unit used to say. Brent guesses that Mutt is more exhausted than nervous, that it’s been a long, long while since he’s had to climb up on a drilling platform.
“Tell you what,” he says. “See that mess of chokecherry over there? High enough for you to get up on one knee for a good shot. We’ll move over there and dig in while Wayne Lee works around to the other side of those woods, make a little noise–just a little–and see if he can goose that herd a little closer to us.”
“You gonna be shooting in my direction?” Wayne Lee is fearless to the point of stupidity, but this is not his world.
“Find yourself a nice thick hunk of elm and stay behind it.”
Wayne Lee moves off first, and Brent is relieved to see he’s taken the muzzleloader with him, not just to keep it from getting underfoot, but because Mutt packed enough black powder in it to re-sink the Maine, and he doesn’t want to be anywhere near if it goes off. He carries the Remington and Mutt follows him, on hands and knees, to the edge of the little cluster of chokecherry, growing about four feet high but insubstantial enough to see through easily.
“Get the feel of this baby,” Brent says, making sure the safety is on and giving the Remington to Mutt. Mutt brings it up, points it at the herd, squints through the sight.
“My guy is blocked by a couple of the young skinheads.”
“If Wayne Lee can flush them, he’ll come clear.”
“He’s sure taller than the other sumbitches.”
The big bull is raking his antlers against the bark of a tree, the sound coming, faintly, after the sight of it, like dialogue in a dubbed kung fu movie. Mutt is breathing shallow and fast through his mouth, and Brent wonders what he’s killed besides a crippled rodeo bull at point blank range.
“The Plains Indians,” he says, hoping to calm the man, “would bury themselves in whatever the ground cover was and wait from sunup till sundown for their game, if that’s what it took.”
Mutt’s shoulders relax a little. Better if he shoots and misses than if he hits it where it can’t kill. Days getting short this time of year, tracking will be shit pretty soon.
“Must have had their cell phones on vibrate.”
Still in a good mood. Tranquilizers in the elk bait, thinks Brent, that’s what we needed here.
Mutt has laid the rifle carefully on the ground beside him, waiting comfortably on one knee, when there is a distant explosion and the herd scatters. They are in ten different places, all of them out of range if not out of sight, by the time Brent gets the field glasses up.
“What the fuck?”
Then Wayne Lee steps out from the woods and waves his hat. Not in triumph.
It is another huge bull, tongue out, head skewed sideways with its antlers jammed against the bole of a tree, fur at the base of its neck column slick with blood.
“I was just coming in here,” says Wayne Lee, his voice still a little shaky, “and I run right into it. Like, it could have gored me with those prongs.”
“You were walking with your finger on the trigger.” Brent has the Remington in hand now, making sure Mutt doesn’t shoot his idiot friend with it.
“I don’t think so–”
“Then how did it get there?”
Wayne Lee looks like he’s trying to re-create the moment in his head. “Self-defense?”
“I shouldn’t have left the safety off,” says Mutt. It is a statement, not an apology.
Brent tears the appropriate month and day from the tag provided with his license and fixes it to an antler with the rubber band holding the remnants of blasted Saran Wrap at the tip of the muzzleloader. He thinks he can see black powder burns on the huge animal’s chest. Make a note not to do any armed bank robberies with Wayne Lee Hickey.
“There’s still pretty much light–you think those other ones went far away?” Wayne Lee knows he has fucked the pooch six ways from Sunday, and is wearing his best innocent little boy look.
“You know why they call it a once-in-a-lifetime license?”
“It doesn’t refer to the elk’s lifetime,” adds Mutt, who has squatted down to look in the glazed eye, tilting his head this way and that like he’s searching for his reflection.
“What do we do now?” Wayne Lee staring at the dead bull with something like awe. Like he might have to bury it.
“Mutt and I,” says Brent, standing up, “are going to walk the ten minutes to the ranch house and have a drink or three. While you,” and here he unsheathes his Outdoor Edge skinner and hands it to Wayne Lee, “are going to stay here with the kill.”
Wayne Lee looks at the knife in his hand. “You want me to, like, gut it or something?”
“Just sit here with it. If a pack of coyotes or a bear shows up, use that to slit your throat.”
JOHN SAYLES is an independent director and writer. His large body of work includes the films Matewan, Eight Men Out, Lone Star, and Amigo, the short story collection The Anarchists’ Convention, and the novels Union Dues and A Moment in the Sun. Yellow Earth (from which “Stalking” is excerpted) will be published this fall by Haymarket Books.
image: American Elk Wapiti, p 224 of Birds and Nature, 1900, A.W. Mumford