Hemmed in by low-lying clouds that lay along the towering brow of the Elk Mountains on the Gunnison River drainage of the White River National Forest, Eldon Merrill trailed his father as they traipsed up the game trail that threaded through the tall, spindly Blue Spruce trees. It was Eldon’s first elk hunt. Now fourteen years old, Eldon was no longer a child. Having waited for this day for years, the boy, tall and lanky for his age, looked like a grotesque scarecrow swallowed up by his hunter’s vest. Though lanky for his age, he was still a full head shorter than his father. Mincing forward, carefully planting his feet in his father’s footsteps, he crept forward trying to make as little noise as possible, which was not easy in the ice-crusted snow that covered the slope they were ascending, the boreal forest. As if soldiers storming an enemy stronghold, they were both approaching the prey bent at the waist. He cradled the old Remington Model 700 rifle his father had presented him his last birthday. The rifle had been Peter Merrill’s for years, one which he proudly displayed in his study when not hunting elk on his annual sacramental pilgrimages. Though old, it still shot true. Many were the hours he had spent on the family farm outside Riverton target shooting, the empty beer bottles exploding, and the corroded tin cups – corrupted like the constellation of acne covering his face – crumpling into the arroyo that formed his practice range. The detritus of the impact of the Remington 200 bullets left little after their impact. Despite the red, checkered wool coat, the wool pants, high-top leather boots, the long-johns and the fleece-lined leather gloves and cap, Eldon’s teeth were chattering and his fingers and toes were numb in the freezing front that made for perfect hunting weather in the West Elk Mountains of Colorado. Only two days before, a northwesterly front had blustered through, depositing its burden of precipitation as rain in Riverton, as snow in the higher elevations where the elk browsed, driving them down lower, far below the timberline.
Crossing a fallen tree that his father had just stepped over, Eldon lost purchase of the earth and tumbled to the ground, his rifle falling to the snow. He was panting, his breath mist ascending to the heavens. His father turned.
“Eldon, be careful,” Peter Merrill whispered chiding the boy. “That’s a loaded weapon you’re carrying. Never drop your gun. Step where I do.”
“I’m trying to. Dad I need to stop a minute and get some circulation in my hands. I need to catch my breath too.”
Rising from his stooped position, his father said, “Start swinging your arms to get the circulation going again.”
Eldon complied, wind milling his arms. In a few moments the fingers woke painfully, the warmth of his body oozing into them.
“Okay?” asked his father.
Nodding, Eldon picked up the Remington, and they slowly proceeded up the trail that tunneled through the tall Blue Spruce trees. Inching forward another couple of hundred yards they came to a small meadow no larger than a tennis court. His father held his right hand up. Then he waved at Eldon to come up. There were hoof prints from a couple of elk.
Testing the terrain, Peter pointed out the fresh scat, still not quite frozen.
Searching the borders of this plot in the forest, the snow was mashed down where the trail resumed.
“Eldon, take a good look. This is where they bedded down for the night. There were at least two of them.” He pointed to the nearest spruce, saying, “See, this is a branch they’ve broken off.”
Continuing up the trail, the snow got deeper and deeper to the point that it brushed above his ankle to his distant calf. The air growing colder, the mist that they had seen from their camp that morning began becoming murkier as it descended upon them.
They walked another hour. Tips of the Blue Spruce were not as tall, stultified by the sheer cold of the long winter. Eldon’s fingers had long since gone numb again and he couldn’t feel his feet. Suddenly they reached a ravine that fell steeply away from the igneous rocks forming the flank of the mountain. Upon reaching it, the mists parted. On the other side of the precipitous ravine was a buck elk presenting his left loin to the father. His father turned and held up a finger to his lips indicating for Eldon to be quiet. At the same time, he waved him to come up to him. Reaching his father, Pete Merrill said, “Your first elk, Eldon! Just shoot like I taught you. Aim for his chest right behind his shoulder.
Holding his Remington to the crook of his own shoulder, Eldon swept the gun with its scope towards the beast that could not be more than thirty yards away. Seeing the left shoulder in his sights, he squeezed the trigger. The noise sprang like a clap of thunder, but the bullet went wide. The buck reared and sprang on its hind quarters attempting to get away. But then came a second burst of thunder, this one definitive, this one dropping the elk before he had taken more than two paces. The bullet that brought down the buck issued from his father’s own rifle.
Eldon was shattered at not bagging his first elk. Realizing this, his father said, “C’mon, sport. We need to dress him out. No longer worrying about making a sound, they trampled on the thick talus that blanketed the ravine. The buck had been browsing where the trail picked up on the other side of the defile.
He was a six-point buck. He’d be the biggest buck that Eldon would ever see again in the mountains when he hunted every year with his father and, after his father passed, his son when he came of age.
Upon the death of his father, Eldon could not make a go of the farm, the corn and potatoes strangled by the enveloping patches of caliche. With two sons, a daughter, and a wife to support, he went to work. Selling the farm, the Merrill family moved west of Riverton to Appleton, where his wife taught elementary school and he toiled on the drilling rigs. Working on all manners of rigs, he worked far from home, usually ten days on and four days off. Money was good, but being away from family for such long periods weighed heavily upon him.
When he was on the thin side of his fifties, he quit working as a rough neck. The last drilling contractor he worked for, a Mr. Bill Cummings, offered him a part-time job maintaining some oil pumps on a section of insipid shale desert in Utah, just across the state line from Colorado. Late each morning, Eldon headed out to Harley Dome, an anticline of the Great Southwestern Desert where the oil pumps and their attendant oil tanks sprang from the corrugated desert like an old plane wreck, the propellers still slowly spinning. Approximately twenty miles north of Interstate-70, he rode down the road that was merely shale in his GMC four-wheel-drive pickup. Climbing the tanks every day to record the level of oil from each well, Eldon never missed a day out at the site. Cummings, who was still drilling in eastern Utah, often kept a water truck out at the site along with various twisted pieces of drilling tools.
All that could be locked away was, but early one spring, when the desert’s topsoil was still moist and some of the arroyos still damp, vandals started damaging the water truck, and shooting off the locks to the openings of the top of the oil tanks. Eldon intensified his patrols, but as much as he tried, he could not catch the vandals.
But one day in mid-May, he stumbled upon them as he passed a small hillock. He saw their parked pickup, and then he saw a pair of young men stealing one of the tires from the rear of the water truck. Stomping down on his brakes, he jumped out of the cab and grabbed the Remington. He fired one shot straight into the air. Startled, the boys who squatted next to the tire looked around and saw him. They sprang for their vehicle a good hundred yards from Eldon. Eldon fired one last warning shot over the cab of their pickup as they sped away. He didn’t see the glass of their window shatter. He didn’t notice the two heads that had popped up in the cab of their pickup as they became one. After checking the site for damage, he drove back to Appleton and notified Cummings.
“I know. The sheriff came by. You shot one in the head. The driver got him to the emergency room at St. Vincent’s before he expired.”
By Joseph Dylan