Three men—two retired Special Forces operators and a retired Airman—hunt the Idaho wilds for elk. What they discover will change them forever.
I idled my truck just shy of the water’s edge.
“That’s the bridge?” I asked.
“Looks like it,” Mike said.
“You might call that a bridge in Afghanistan, but stateside, we call that a river.”
My bumper hung over the edge of the Yankee Fork at a spot where it rushed across an unnaturally flat plateau of river rock. The water ran so clear I couldn’t tell if it was two or 20 feet deep.
This was our last afternoon in Idaho. Sunlight filtered through icy clouds to cast weak shades of gray around us. It was cold, and the river’s water dripped down into icicles off the willow branches along the creek. We were following a local’s tip that took us across the river, up a mine road, then into a secluded stretch of mountains and valleys. I questioned her idea of a bridge, but she’d given us our last, best chance at finding a bull.
“Well, they say God hates a coward,” I said.
Mike turned to me and grinned. “Sure does.”
I’d picked up the phrase from him like a stolen melody. He’d said it to himself three times that week, so low-key and routine I doubt he knew he’d said it once.
I let off the brake, and we eased into the river, touching rock with my front tires just as the water rose to panic level. I pushed on the accelerator until we were bucking out of our seats. Twice, the rear-end bounced up and was carried downstream several feet. I clattered up the far bank like a scared horse and stopped.
Mike looked at me. “I thought we might hydroplane for a minute there.”
“I thought we might die for a minute there.”
Mike leaned forward and looked up a deep crease carved by a creek as it weaved through towering mountains. “If we have to go high to find a bull, that looks like the place to do it,” he said.
I turned to Little Dave. “Dave, you up for a climb?”
“Is that the only answer allowed in the Army?”
He winked. “Yep.”
We piled out and geared up, chambering rounds and slipping water bottles into our backpacks. A little sizzle of excitement ran through me as fabric hissed and snaps clicked into place. The familiar buzz it gave me made me wonder what Mike and Little Dave felt gearing up for missions. I didn’t ask. I’d learned during our week together that war carves private places into men, and you don’t ask to enter them. You wait for an invitation.
I’d met up with Mike and Little Dave in the parking lot of Stanley’s only gas station. Light rain fell as we walked toward each other. Mike walked with his usual stiff gait and Dave with the deep limp he picked up in Iraq along with a Bronze Star. He was as battered as he was decorated—a Ranger, then Green Beret and Special Forces sniper and jumpmaster. Dave was a short man, especially among Spec Ops operators, and his coworkers were quick to name him Little Dave. They are also quick to tell you Little Dave always “fought ten feet tall.”
“Oh man, this place is beautiful,” Little Dave said.
The Sawtooths jutted up from behind the tiny gas station.
I said, “Now I know why Hemingway picked this place to spend his last years.”
“Really? I love Hemingway,” Mike said.
“Yep. Lived down the road in Ketchum. He spent his last years hunting right around here, writing and drinking whiskey, until he shot himself with his favorite shotgun.”
Mike and Dave stared at me and blinked, then squinted, bothered by what I’d said.
“There’s more rain on the way,” I said. “We’d better set up camp while we can.”
They lit up with the idea of work and a mission.
“Give me a minute. I need some cigs,” said Little Dave.
“I’m gonna grab something for my little girl.” Mike jogged up next to Little Dave.
When they came out Mike had a big stuffed moose and Little Dave held a brown paper sack under his arm as he stripped the plastic off a new pack of Marlboros.
We raced the next band of rain, set up the wall tent, unloaded our gear and lit a fire in the stove. The camp took shape and the wood stove saturated the tent with a dry warmth that calmed us into our chairs.
Dave looked at Mike and said, “That toast?”
“Sure,” Mike said.
Little Dave reached into a bag and pulled out a small bottle of Irish whiskey and three cheap shot glasses he’d bought in Stanley. Full glasses in hand, we stood in the center of the tent facing each other.
I took the lead.
“To Camp Gratitude 2016. In gratitude for your service and your sacrifice.” We raised our glasses up high then emptied them.
Little Dave and Mike gave each other an awkward, questioning look. For the second time on the first day, I’d put my foot in my mouth and didn’t know how.
Little Dave poured another round.
“To Tim Hankins.” Little Dave raised up his glass. We repeated, “To Tim Hankins,” and we raised ours. We emptied the glasses. Mike took them from us and ducked through the tent flap to rinse them out in the river. Dave went back to unpacking. I started dinner.
The rain and cold raked our tent as we fed the stove wood and sorted our gear. These guys were gear nuts. They were packing flashlights and knives, rope and carabiner clips, and Mike had a first aid kit as big as my head.
“What’s in that thing?”
“Everything,” Mike said. He unzipped the pack and rattled off an inventory that would rival an emergency room.
Little Dave said, “That man is trained to keep you alive when you should be dead, on the move, under fire, returning fire, in a chopper, in the sand. Surgery if you need it, with anesthesia if he likes you.”
Mike shrank under the glare of Little Dave’s bragging on him. “I liked most people,” Mike said.
Special Forces teams didn’t have the luxury of bringing along a dedicated medic. Instead, a member of the team was trained to snap into the role if needed. So, before Mike trained as a medic, he became an operator—one of the most lethal soldiers on the planet. Only then did he go through the most advanced and difficult combat medic course in the world. After two years, he was mission-ready, and in short-order his reputation as a fighter and medic spread until all the elite teams were requesting him. As a result, Mike spent most of his 17 enlisted years “in it up to his eyeballs.”
“Look at these babies.” He held up a pair of worn, tan combat boots that looked more like sneakers.
“What did that?” I pointed at wide, smooth grooves worn into the instep of each boot.
Mike stared at the grooves, sorting through words, running them through protocols.
He looked up and said, “Ropes.”
“Ropes.” He grinned.
“And you’ll tell me all about it when they unseal the records in 20 years.” I’d heard it before from Mike.
“Yep. About 18 years now.”
Mike’s eyes were steady. Despite all they’d seen, not a flicker of temptation.
I pictured those ropes uncoiling from helicopters in the black of night, straightening as men slid down, weaving invisible, sinewy strands into history.
While we talked, they sorted gear and filled their daypacks as if we might be stranded for weeks. I knew they’d regret the weight but didn’t dare correct men whose profession it was to gear up for danger.
Professionals, I thought. Like plumbers and pilots and engineers, they were professionals. Somebody must fix the pipes, fly the planes and build the roads. And someone has to do the killing. In every civilization, someone does the killing.
Mike pulled his jacket on and left the tent to get his rifle out of the truck. Little Dave leaned forward and lowered his voice.
“We have to watch out for Mike. He’s in bad shape. He looks good but he’s always hurtin’—bad lung, bad back, neck, leg, hands. Pain shoots through his back and leg every so often and takes his breath away. Listen for it.”
“When I met him he was in a wheelchair and they didn’t think he was gonna live…” He choked up and his eyes went pink and glassy. I looked away and around the tent. We sat in silence until Mike came back in.
Mike stepped in with a gun case and opened it on his cot.
“Holy cow! What is that?” I pointed to the rifle’s thick barrel.
“Bull-barrel .308. This thing drives nails.” He picked it up and admired it.
“Let me see that.” Mike handed me the rifle and the weight of the barrel pulled me forward until I swung my hand up the stock toward the end of the barrel to get on the other side of the center of gravity.
“This thing is heavy!”
“Yeah, but it performs. Shoots lights-out, and you can fire 80 rounds before you have to let it cool.”
“If we need to fire 80 rounds tomorrow, something has gone terribly wrong,” I said.
I handed the rifle back to Mike. Little Dave stepped out to smoke.
When the tent flap closed behind Little Dave, Mike lowered his voice and said, “We need to watch out for Little Dave. He’s in bad shape.”
Rain turned to snow during the night. The thin white blanket calmed the rustle of the trees so the river sounded like it had crept closer to the tent as we slept. We sipped coffee and soaked in the stove’s heat and the smell of sausage and wood smoke. A lantern hissed overhead.
I looked at our packs by the door with our rifles leaned on them and felt a knot tighten in my gut. My best chance of finding Mike and Dave a buck or bull lay as far away from roads as possible and as high as possible. The elk were above 8,000 feet this time of year. They’d be higher if the mountains were taller. My desire to guide them to an elk and my desire to not kill them in the process pulled against each other, and the knot got tighter.
My plan the first day was to hunt up about 1,000 vertical feet then turn into the wind and follow the contours, peeking into each crease hoping it held antlers. I ran the plan by them as we made our way to the trailhead, beams of light bobbing and swaying from our headlamps. The first light of day met us at the base of the mountain.
“You guys up for a climb?”
“I’m good,” Little Dave said. He stood up straight and hoisted his rifle up a few inches to
We used tufts of grass and bigger rocks for toe-holds as we zigzagged up. Even though the switchbacks flattened our ascent, the incline stopped us over and over to catch our breath and rest our legs. Mike’s good lung worked overtime and Little Dave’s left leg, shortened by a surgical repair, alternated between a hindrance and a perfect fit depending on which way he was turned on the incline.
The higher we climbed the slower and quieter we moved until we’d eased into an instinctual calm—taking a few careful steps, stopping, scanning, listening. The cold air, the quiet and the smell of pine laid bare our senses. Then I heard it. Every few steps I heard a muffled gasp from Mike that might’ve gone unnoticed if I hadn’t been told to listen for it.
At the next switchback, I looked back just as Mike grimaced and held his breath, without breaking stride. I noticed something else. Every few steps Little Dave turned back to check our back-trail, his body and rifle cutting a small arc across the ground we’d just covered. The move was smooth but repeated, like a graceful nervous tic.
I stopped to roll deer droppings over with my boot. They glistened, fresh and slick. I pointed down at them and then over the next ridge. We crept forward and up. As we crested the ridge, each inch we rose exposed a large swath of landscape on the other side, until we could see the entire draw. No deer, but they couldn’t be far. We relaxed and stood up straight to rest our tense backs and legs.
“Maybe the next one,” I whispered. Mike and Little Dave nodded in agreement. We walked down to the bottom of the draw and started up the other side, slowing as we approached the next crest. Mike drew up to my side as we peeked over just in time to watch four does trot over the next ridge, their bone-white rumps dancing around each other as they picked out their footholds on the mountainside. Mike and I froze. We heard Dave moving behind us and Mike held up his fist to signal him to stop, but he didn’t. We looked back as Little Dave was in the midst of sweeping our back-trail—ever vigilant for threats to his friends.
Mike walked back to Little Dave. He spoke in a careful tone. I made out just one fragment. “…buddy, we don’t have to be tactical out here.” Little Dave nodded, embarrassed.
I turned away from them and surveyed the drainage, which held patches of old snow. It had also held four deer a moment ago, but no buck. Maybe the next one, I thought as I stepped down onto a rock. My boot touched down and set him off like a landmine. The big buck exploded in a violent swirl of power—chest out, rack high, rear legs pushing to full extension as his front legs tucked to his chest. A young buck, with antlers that swept around his head like the crown of a prince in his prime.
We scrambled to gain our footing, jerking our guns up and trying to find the buck in our scopes as he shot through one gap in the trees then another, then another, flashes of gray and shiny black hooves, then gone again, there, gone again, there and gone.
And just like that, we were kids again, thrilled, talking over each other and pointing. “Where did he come from? Did you see that? Oh my God, he was huge!” The buck had materialized out of the leaves, dirt and trees—a magic trick that makes me doubt my eyes and shake my head every time I see it.
Lanterns lit, stove burning, I warmed chili while Mike and Little Dave lightened their packs.
I filled our bowls and settled into a camp chair.
“This is great,” Little Dave said. “Your guests will love this, and it’s just what those guys need. We just have to get ‘em up here.”
“I sure hope we can,” I said. It struck me that Little Dave seemed to exclude himself from that group.
“Have you talked to Ryan lately?” Mike asked Little Dave.
“His wife called Simon on Tuesday and said he’s ready to suck-start a shotgun.”
“Ryan? I thought he was good.”
“I know. Simon and Pops are on it. They won’t leave him alone.”
I drifted outside the conversation, listening as they swung from person to person who worried them—friends fighting PTSD and depression, broken bodies and marriages, pills and alcohol, alone and afraid as it all slips through their fingers like desert sand. Mike talked about it like it was a town where he once lived, like they were streets and alleyways he’d walked. A place he’d left just in time.
I asked him once how he was injured. “A hard landing,” he’d said.
“A hard landing. Is that so?” I told him he looked like he’d left the Army through the windshield of a helicopter. He thanked me, and said he would tell me all about it in 20 years, when the records were unsealed.
Along with his physical injuries, Mike suffered brain trauma. He once described the result as “having the dial on your brain cranked up to a 10, day and night.” It was maddening. Unbearable. He and four others were invited to participate in a new shock treatment in Texas. Normally, the hard part for the doctors was getting a patient to hold onto the conductors long enough for the electricity to “realign” their brain’s electrical currents. They decided to try putting the five vets in a circle so they faced each other. The hard part then became convincing one of them to let go first, as beads of sweat dripped off their noses, their knuckles turned white and their eyes darted from person to person in the circle. Mike said it worked and probably saved his life.
Little Dave opened the door on the stove, fed it two pieces of wood and closed the door. He turned around and backed up to it. The wood crackled and orange light flickered through the vent and onto his pant legs.
“Ryan’s a great guy.” Little Dave’s eyes fell to the floor, wide with remembrance.
“We were in Iraq together once. He was the new guy; I was the old guy. We lost someone, and Ryan was dead-set on saying a few words before they loaded him on the chopper.”
Mike made a noise like a chuckle that signified he knew where the story was going.
Little Dave looked up at Mike and nodded. “Yeah. Exactly. I said, ‘Look Ryan, we gotta move. The guys that killed Richie wanna kill us too.’”
He looked at me. “If a few of us could line up at the door as they loaded someone—we always tried. Sometimes we could do that.”
His halting words hung in the air around us and would’ve hung there forever if Mike hadn’t thought of a graceful transition.
“I knew a Ryan. The son-of-a-bitch left me hanging in a live-fire training exercise. We were clearing a building and Ryan yelled for a medic on the second floor. Red dots are streaming through every window, shots and flash-bangs going off all over. So I round the corner and Ryan is firing through a window, straddling a bloody mannequin on the floor, wired for sound and screaming. I move in to cover the window with him and as soon as I start firing he turns to leave, without briefing me. I yelled, ‘Hey! You’re not leaving here until you tell me what’s wrong with this fucking dummy!’”
We all rocked back in our chairs and laughed, Little Dave and Mike at the tight spot he was in, me at a screaming dummy popping up in the story.
“He left.” Mike caught his breath as we wiped tears from our eyes. “I am proud to report, however, the dummy pulled through.”
He had to save it, I knew. It represented a soldier, or a friend, a captive insurgent, a child.
Insurgents in Iraq hid and fought among women and children. More than once, as his unit cleared a building after a firefight, he heard, “Mike, need a medic. We got a kid in here.”
I lay in my cot that night and watched the firelight dance on the wall, picturing Little Dave in a firefight, watching over his shoulder as his friend’s body is loaded into a helicopter. And then I saw Mike reaching for the bloody mannequin and felt his quiet panic as he kneels over an Iraqi child, his fingers searching and slipping as he clamps and squeezes, then leans in with direct pressure, the child’s eyes searching his.
“Hang in there buddy. I’ve got you. You’re gonna be okay.”
The blood would cool on Mike’s hands.
“Hang on buddy, stay with me.”
He would check the child’s neck for a pulse and slide his hand up to the boy’s cheek.
“I’m sorry, buddy. I’m sorry.”
The boy’s eyes fixed on the ceiling, Mike’s ears would tune to gunfire again, muffled, distant, then closer, then upon him where it had always been.
“We gotta move, Mike.”
His teammate would shake his shoulder. “Let’s move, bud.”
The next day we left Mike on the river so he could fish a while before he hunted a ridge alongside it. Dave and I walked a trail that snaked into the Sawtooth Wilderness. About a mile in, the trail passed through a draw on the north face that never saw direct sunlight and protected a patch of snow.
We stopped where the tracks of a cow and calf elk crossed our trail in the snow. The edges were rounded by the day’s warmth, so they had passed through during the night. In and around each hoof print were the tracks of three wolves. We squatted down and studied the wolf tracks, neat little autographs of Idaho’s villains.
We followed the tracks into a stand of aspen where two more sets of wolf tracks joined as the cow led them all into a high canyon.
“My money is on the wolves,” I said.
“Want to follow them and find out?”
Yes, I thought. Dave would have done it, too, but the week was wearing on him.
“No, let’s see where the trail takes us. Tell me about those scarves you and Mike wear.”
“Shemaghs,” Little Dave said.
“Yep, shemagh. Keffiyeh, to the Arabs. Keeps you cool in the heat, warm in the cold. I taught a course on using them in the field. They’re good for sand storms, slings, tourniquets, and of course you can make a garrote and kill someone with it.”
“Before a fight, we’d tie it into a loop and wear it around our shoulders and behind our necks so
you could grab it and pull someone to cover if they went down.”
He ran his thumb across the fabric and said color schemes and patterns were unique to different groups. Special Forces wore tan with a black-checkered pattern.
“It’s not issued. Someone gives it to you.”
He stared at his shemagh, his mind in another place, with someone else.
“So, just how tough is it to earn the right to wear that tan and black shemagh?”
“Twenty-three months of hell. You fail any one event and you’re gone. Lots of timed events, which sucks if you’re short.” He grinned.
He swung his shemagh around the back of his neck and tucked it into the front of his shirt in a motion that required neither thought nor attention. We walked.
“I was keepin’ up. Then one day, it was over. It was a 52-mile march with full rucks, for time. At mile 12 I rolled my ankle and broke it. I sat down and watched everyone march out of sight. I was out.”
He paused to collect himself.
“I didn’t know what to do. I untied my boot, pulled the lace as tight as I could, and retied it. I was a few hours late, but I delivered my ruck, with everything in it.” Tears filled his eyes.
“The instructors were lined up waiting when I finished. The commander took my pack from me. He said I was right on time. They all shook my hand and congratulated me.” Tears rolled down his cheeks.
“They’d been watching me all day, from the bushes.”
We left the trail and climbed a knoll overlooking the river which turned north and disappeared around a sweeping bend. The sun kissed the tips of the mountains and shadows pooled on the valley floor.
“Were you deployed a lot?”
“Probably more than I should’ve been. Our schedule was nine months in theater, six months home. But I’d get home, get settled in, and someone would call from another unit and say he was going over with some new guys and needed experience. He needed someone to get ‘em through the transition from training to the real deal. What was I gonna do? Sit home wondering if some new kid got shot today because I wasn’t there to tell him to get his head down? I always went. I might be home a month and I was packing again.”
The shadow of the mountains rose up the knoll toward us as the sun slid down the sky.
Little Dave laughed. “I’ll never forget, we rolled into camp with some young guys. They’d been talking big all the way over. Ready for action, they said. The doors dropped just as the field came under attack—bullets kicking up sand, knocking chunks outta walls, mortars. They stood there like they were watching a movie. I said, “Those bullets are real, boys. Shall we get to work?”
I saw movement on the tree line near the river. It looked like a buck moving down to water, but it would’ve been a hard 20-minute hump to get to it before dark.
“I was mission-ready for 18 years. Afghanistan, Kosovo, Africa, but mainly Iraq. I did 89 missions in Iraq. Not good for my marriage or my health. But it was my job, you know?”
Little Dave looked at me. I considered several answers, but decided the question was rhetorical. It felt like he was moving pieces of his life around but couldn’t get them to fit together right.
The mountain’s shadow climbed our knoll like rising water.
“You know what the toughest thing was? You go through 20 years of all kinds of hell with your brothers, and you expect to retire with them. But not when you’re medically retired. They stick you in a medical unit and one day you sit at a desk, sign a few forms, and some civilian slides a box with a flag in it across the desk and says, ‘Here, this is yours.’
“You’ve got to be kidding.”
“It happens to lots of guys.”
Dave leaned over and picked up a small rock. He flipped it down the hill and it rolled and bounced until it hit a tree trunk.
“From my experience, you try and make it 20 years in the field in Spec Ops, and there’s about a 90 percent chance it’s gonna end bad. Dead in a fight, medical discharge, divorce, suicide.”
The color drained from the valley and the air stood still. The deer by the river was in the open now, but the muted light faded him into a blocky blur.
“I might as well tell you, I’ve got CTE—Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy.” He articulated each syllable with care.
“It’s what boxers and football players get from blows to the head. Three doctors gave me three years to live, and it won’t all be good time. It’s like Alzheimer’s.”
I considered feigning surprise, but it would’ve been a lie.
“I know, Dave.”
I knew it was ending bad. I knew the steel inside Humvees had rattled his brain. I knew his chute failed to open on a drop, and his spare slowed him down just enough to save his life. I knew, like Mike, he’d had his facial bones wired back together at least once. I knew about him leading his team out of an open field with mortars raining down around them. I knew he was running, yelling at the new guys to move, move, move, when a mortar hit in front of him, lifting him up, throwing him back 10 feet. Dave laughs when he describes opening his eyes, unable to hear but seeing two of his men yelling at him to get up. Well, he thought, if they want me to get up, I must still have my legs. Fluid seeped from his ears after that concussion.
“I know, Dave,” I said again.
I looked for the deer on the river, but my eyes wouldn’t focus.
“What happened to Tim Hankins?”
“Tim shot himself the day before we met you in Stanley. Probably with his .45.”
“Damn. Damn, Dave. I’m sorry.”
We sat and sifted through thoughts.
“You lost friends in the Air Force. It happens.”
“Yeah, but in a flash and a puff of smoke. You guys die for years.”
We sat, quiet, for a long while. We were submerged now in the shadow and it was cold. When we both shivered, Little Dave stood and walked to a big pine and stripped a handful of needles from a branch.
“Did you know every part of a pine tree is edible?”
“Try this.” He handed me half the needles and put the other half in his mouth. “Citrus.”
I chewed the needles and a mild, pleasant citrus taste filled my mouth.
“I’ll bet this tastes great after not eating for a couple of days.”
“After five days it tastes like a T-bone.”
We laughed. The sound of it filled the space around us, and we stepped into it together. The deer feeding along the river probably raised his head and looked our way, then lowered it again, keeping his big fuzzy ears pointed at us as he nipped at the grass.
That night Little Dave fed the stove until the smoke stack glowed red, and Mike stirred a big pan of stew. I sat in a camp chair and watched them work since they’d taken all the chores away from me. No one felt the need to speak.
I was looking at two of the toughest men alive, I thought, but something was missing—the swagger, the bravado, the pride. It had been chiseled off by combat, maybe, or stripped away by the sand and heat, or by the loss of friends or children in the crossfire. With that crust gone, there was a softness about them that I tried to define but could not nail down. Fatigue, maybe, or a numbness from years of stress. Then it came clear to me that what appeared to be softness was honesty, every wall knocked down, every filter burned through. Each seemed to be at peace knowing they were all the man they would ever be, and it was enough. I thought of Little Dave’s ability to look a man square in the eye and cry. I looked to Mike’s cot at the stuffed animal he’d bought for his daughter. He had slept with it for the last five nights. Maybe I was looking at some advanced form of courage.
Aside from the bravado, something else was missing. My heart dropped and my mind raced back through the week, through days of walking and talking, through our toasts over Irish whiskey, back to the moment we shook hands in Stanley. Not once that week had either of them talked about killing a man in combat. Not once had either of them been flippant about death, as I had been about Hemingway’s death when we met in the rain, six days before. The hurt looks on their faces came back to me, rain drops hanging off their noses. And I saw, for the first time, Hemingway in his farmhouse just down the road in Ketchum, alone, pressing his favorite shotgun to his forehead.
The knot in my gut returned as we stepped into our last afternoon together. I led us up a faint trail that zigzagged though the trees until it appeared to straighten out and continue west across the mountain’s face. I pointed up the mountain and looked at them. They assured me they were good, of course, so we left the comfort of the trail and climbed. The wind calmed but the snow continued to fall. The only sounds were of our feet pressing into it, of Mike’s good lung laboring, and of Little Dave’s fidgeting any time we stopped for more than a moment. Gotta keep moving, his instincts told him. We’re exposed.
We yearned for the ease of the trail as we climbed, and every lip we peeked over turned out to be another false horizon. We pushed up and over the next crest and spilled out onto the trail we’d left an hour before.
“I’ll be damned,” I said.
“Well,” Mike arched his back and groaned, “that puts the Lieutenant in Lieutenant Colonel.”
“Well, you’re the Green Beret following a pilot through the woods.”
“Well,” Little Dave laughed. “I don’t care how we got here. You guys can pick me up on your way down.”
He studied the area then backed into a downed tree, pulling brush in and around him, laying prone with his rifle propped on his pack. He draped his shemagh around his head, bunching it around his eyes, and like the magic trick I’d seen days before as a buck materialized out of the earth, Little Dave dissolved into it.
“You need my jacket?”
“I’m good.” He smiled a broad smile, the sniper in his element, happy as I would ever see him.
Mike and I churned up the mountain through fresh powder as more fell. When we stopped to strip off a layer of clothes I caught a glimpse of a garish tattoo on his shoulder.
“Holy smokes. That’s some tattoo.”
“Heinous, huh? There’s nothing like a bad drinking problem and a good friend with a tattoo gun. After they retired me, I drank a bottle of whiskey a day for a year. My wife told me to knock it off or she was leaving, so I knocked it off. She’s no bullshitter. I keep these ugly things to remind me.”
We stuffed the clothes we’d shed into our packs and shouldered our rifles.
“How’s that bull-barrel .308 feeling today, Sergeant?”
“But hey, if we need to fight our way off this mountain, it won’t overheat. We got that going
We cut the tracks of a good buck and followed it until it turned downhill. We couldn’t make ourselves give up elevation. We both looked uphill and pointed, thinking the same thought—we were hunting a bull or the top of this mountain, whichever came first.
“You think Little Dave will be all right until we get back to him?”
“Yep. He’s good.”
“Do you think Little Dave knows he’s a guest up here?”
“Nope. I don’t.”
“I don’t either.”
“I’m not sure he’ll ever admit to himself that he was a guest up here. My bet is he’s telling himself
he’s staff, getting it ready for next year. The hardest thing in the world for us is to admit we’re the one
who needs help. Most never see it. Tim Hankins never did.”
Mike took a few steps and stopped. He adjusted his rifle sling so the rifle rested higher on his shoulder. He took a deep breath, looked up through the branches, and exhaled.
“I hate knowing Tim was alone.”
Light was fading as we crested a ridge and stepped into the tracks of a lone bull. I knelt and touched the edge of a track. It flaked off like flour and fell into the print. We slipped our rifles from our shoulders, nodded at each other and stepped forward along his trail. It led us to a half-hearted rub on a pine and a melting pee spot, then meandered over the top of the mountain and down its back side.
Cueing off each other, we slowed our pace, certain each move forward would uncover the bull behind a tree trunk or deadfall. The bull’s tracks straightened. He was now walking with purpose. They led us toward a rock outcropping that jutted off the eastern face of the mountain.
We followed them onto the rocks and up to the edge and stopped. We looked left, right, behind, then over the edge. It was like he’d flown off the mountain. Stunned, we looked for tracks over and over in places we’d already searched.
I decided to circle around and drop down to the base of the rock ledge while Mike went back up to search along the ridge. Nothing. I looked up at the rocks above me and down at the snow. I picked up a rock and flung it down the mountainside. It skipped off a boulder and thudded against an old hollow log, striking a chord that reverberated like the last note of a sad song. Why did I do this to them? Why would I drag them through an elk hunt in the mountains?
I scanned the trees one last time and walked up toward Mike.
I crested the ridge where I expected to find him but saw only ragged tree stumps and stubborn, crooked trees clinging to the slopes. Then I saw Mike, a stubborn snag, standing still and uneven among the stumps. The scene was serene, ethereal. I watched him for a long time, until, for a terrifying moment, I convinced myself he’d died but hadn’t fallen over yet. The moment passed, and he was alive to me again, and strong, and stubborn, at peace.
Some light lingered in the clouds. I reached up and pulled my stocking cap off my head. As the air wicked heat from my damp hair, my spirit lifted.
Maybe, I thought, we weren’t really hunting elk today. Maybe we never were. Maybe God uses elk to draw men into high places, where we can be still but not fearful, alone but not forlorn, where a moment stretches out and yawns before us and we’re able to sort through our lives and push the pieces together again, if only in that moment.
The next morning, they would pack and thank me, and I would protest because I was also grateful. With grim resolve, Little Dave would admit he was a guest. I would glance down at the fierce grip with which he held his shemagh and shake my head. This is yours, he would say, and press it into my hands as his tears ran down into his smile.
Mike Stolt is a 23-year veteran of the U.S. Air Force. He is a writer, family man and founder of Camp Gratitude. This story is dedicated to M Sgt Timothy John Hankins. Dec 29, 1975 – Oct 8, 2016.
Camp Gratitude was created in 2016 by Mike Stolt, himself an Air Force veteran of 23 years. The camp’s mission is to afford disabled veterans the chance to chase elk in Idaho’s mountains while enjoying the relaxation, peace and camaraderie of elk camp.
Little Dave, Mike and the author are very grateful to Roy Davis of Davis Tent and Awning for providing a wall tent for Camp Gratitude, Idaho.
Little Dave and Mike graciously agreed to the publication of “In a High Place” with one request—that it be emphasized that there are thousands more just like them.
Inquiries about Camp Gratitude, Idaho, may be directed to [email protected]
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