Before January, there is work. The haying equipment must be cleaned and greased, shuttled from barn to shop and back again along ice-packed roads marked with orange dowels, so as not to be lost under coming snows. Chains go on the tractors, the snowplow is fastened to the big truck, and everything is parked neatly in the equipment shed. Electric fences are strung tight around the dwindling stacks of hay to protect them from the elk that are drifting cautiously down from the vast, ragged heights of the Bitterroot mountains, where winter is already an established condition. As the herd builds, these fences will be snapped and trampled into the frozen mud or dragged away into the nearby thicket of alder. The doors on the barn are braced with rows of cheap two-by-fours and fastened with a length of log chain. If the winter is long and hard enough, the big bulls will tear these down, too, to get at the loosely-packed hay on the floor.
During January, there is little to do but watch. The glass doors of the caretaker’s house look out over the greatest part of the ranch, and one can keep track of the slow, deliberate movements of the whitetails in the afternoons and the elk at first light whenever a storm is gathering. The uneasy drop in pressure before a storm makes them linger in the alfalfa fields; otherwise, they come and go in profound darkness.
December’s salary is for the most part spent. I am essentially unemployed until April. Bills take on new significance, fluttering like flags on their magnets against the refrigerator door. A disturbing whine in the bowels of the pickup is listened to with the attentiveness normally reserved for the symphony. Driving to town costs three dollars. Once there, you can decide between a pizza or a case of second-rate beer, or you can go to the grocery and buy enough food for three days, if you are precise and unfettered by notions of taste.
I get up before daybreak out of habit and study the herd of elk silhouetted against the snow by the light of the waning moon. They could not be mistaken for cattle. They walk with a gait honed to perfection by thousands of years of granite and deadfall, paw the snow away from the alfalfa with powerful delicacy, and collapse in the cleared spaces as if in exhaustion.
The bulls of the herd are seldom seen in repose. They skirt the others, dipping their heads to graze and then jerking upright, eyeing the house and each other, nudging the cows to sniff them, and making short rushes at the adolescent males.
I sight the rifle on them, studying through the scope the juncture of neck and shoulder, and a point eight inches back that lies directly over the heart and upper lungs. It doesn’t feel right — it’s like putting the cross hairs on a much-admired horse or dog that has won your friendship. There is no illusion on my part that I am merely looking, as if through binoculars. I have killed far too many fellow creatures with this rifle to disassociate the view through the scope from the muzzle and its only purpose.
It is illegal to shoot elk or deer at night, or at any time during the month of January. It is also wrong, for in January they must gather the energy to sustain them through the time of the Starvation Moon that rises in late February and marks the crest of black winter. They should be left unmolested, to struggle in peace in what remains of their territory.
The sun appears in the notch of Ambrose Saddle across the valley. Under the dim, lead-colored light, the bulls grow restless and take to the woods in a loose, bristling group, trotting slowly in the locked-down cold of first dawn. The cows and calves stumble to their feet splay-legged and follow, shaking from rump to head. The herd disappears in an odd, orderly single file. I put the rifle away, frustrated and relieved, and go out to do my few chores.
In the late afternoon of that short, bitter day, I take a last look in the empty refrigerator, then take out my rifle and lean it against the rear of the house, careful that my dog doesn’t see it. I call him into the woodshed on a pretense, lock him in, and am halfway up the hill with the gun before he begins to howl.
I walk toward a long, eroded gully clogged with willow where I have seen whitetails almost every afternoon for the past two weeks. My filthy jacket, my only one, emits little puffs of feathers when I swing my arms. Worse, it is stained with hydraulic fluid from the tractor. I can smell it clearly, so it will be overpowering to the deer. I try to pick a spot upwind from their trail, but I have little skill at judging wind direction despite years of hunting.
Forty-five long minutes pass. The cold leaches out of the ground and up my legs into my lower back. I tell myself I’d better move, that surely by now my scent has pooled around me and down into the gully, like gasoline vapors on a humid summer day. I have used this rationalization all my life to justify not sitting still when I’m hunting.
The deer emerge wraithlike from a clump of willow, much farther away than I had hoped. The lead deer, a big doe, scratches her ear with a graceful hind leg, unperturbed. But just behind her a young, antlerless buck is unnerved. His tail, whiter than the surrounding snow, is half-raised, the long hairs stiff. He strains his head upward, testing the breeze. If this were deer season and I were a legal hunter, I would line up and shoot now, before his suspicions spread to the whole bunch. But the range is too great for the perfect shot that I, as a poacher, need. If the bullet strikes too far back, he will run, and if he crosses the property line I cannot follow him without grave risk of being turned in by my neighbor, who cannot help but hear the concussion of the .308, and who despises poaching, as I do. I have been jailed a few times, but never for anything so humiliating as poaching.
I try to convince myself that the shot can be made with ease, and I sight on the lead doe as she crops a tuft of grass around a fence post. In the low-power scope she is just a dark mass, and I lower the rifle too quickly. The little buck wheels about to face me, tail up and curved along his back. He stamps hard with his thin foreleg, as if to flush me from hiding. They are all gone then, tails fluorescent white in the granite-colored cast of remaining light.
“Good luck,” I say in a loud voice. “Good luck to all of you.” But it is a hollow, sentimental cry, with an unpleasant hint of boastfulness and condescension that I hope I do not feel. I am glad to move on, glad to be free of waiting to do a thing I do not want to do. Failure is a relief from killing, or from cold, tedious work avoided, or from fear of being apprehended by the warden. Which of these it is I wish I knew, for it would be a step toward a larger and necessary comprehension.
There is still some light on the western hillside, and I head along the tractor road for our highest irrigated hayfield. In the summer the field is a striking rectangle of deep green. Now it is marked by the snow-covered wheel line and with great bare circles made by the elk. The snow around the edges is stained yellow by gallons of piss and mounds of droppings. At the mouth of a wash leading into the field, groups of wind-battered cottonwoods have established themselves along the water line of the last field sprinklers. From these twisted little trees, a doe mule deer emerges, almost trotting as she moves into the field. She is so much larger than the whitetails that at first I mistake her for an elk, but as she comes closer I see the wide ears, the pale rump patch. She stops no more than eighty yards away and begins to crop the alfalfa with near desperation. She raises her head, stares in my direction, goes back to eating.
I have never seen a mule deer this far down from the mountains, and I have never seen one alone. She is thin and fearful, driven here by some trouble, taking risks forced upon her by the bleakness of the season. I put the rifle across the wheel line, thumb back the hammer with my left hand over the mechanism to muffle the metallic click, and sight at the point where the twin muscles of her chest merge into her neck. She has her head down. I whistle, short and low, and when her head comes up, ears pricked toward me, I touch off the shot. I am vitally aware of the echoing blast that follows, as I never am during legal hunting season. The wave of noise rolls out from me, pinpointing my position, seeks the walls of gullies and the far side of the valley, and returns much reduced to pinpoint me again. I have a vision of everyone in the valley looking up, startled, and rushing to their phones to dial the warden’s house as he is sitting down to supper.
The doe is down, kicking in a sideways parody of escape. I jack another shell into the chamber, sit back on my haunches, and watch for several minutes. She does not make any serious attempt to rise; the kicks grow feeble but do not stop. I walk across the field to her, feeling terribly exposed in the open, listening hard for the sound of a vehicle on the steep approach road. The lights come on in the neighbor’s house a couple of miles off and I crouch, heart pounding, and wait to see if headlights appear on his equipment road. There is no movement but for the deer at my side.
She is looking up at me, wall-eyed. I cannot see the resignation that we are so diligently taught to expect. The bullet has ranged back into the spine, well above the heart and lungs. She is fully, acutely conscious, but cannot stand.
I take my knife from my back pocket, shaking a little with haste or horror, open the broken, dulled blade that I use daily and close it again, fumbling for the blade used only for skinning. I kneel on the deer’s head, pinning it to the snow, bring the knife under her throat, and pull upward hard, through the thick winter hair to the skin and below. The blood issues like steaming water from a faucet. My other hand is tight against her hot shoulder for balance and leverage. It is the touch I would offer a good friend in time of grief. The pupil of her eye gets very wide and dark, then immediately begins to offer up its light.
“I’m sorry,” I say to her, still holding her down, though the muscles beneath my hand and knee are loosening with the steady release of blood. The words in the gathering darkness are even weaker than my earlier “Good luck.” The loud suck of air through the severed trachea mocks me — though mockery, with its petty human connotation, is as out of place here as a shout of laughter. I tap her open eye with two fingers and there is no response.
It is fully dark when I drag the doe into the cottonwoods to “clean” her, “clean” being a euphemism for disembowelment. The air is still, brittle with a clear cold. The darkness and the low, gibbous moon rising without much illumination over the Sapphire Range make me feel protected from any harm. A glance now and then toward the approach roads is sufficient, since I could see headlights coming for more than a mile. No one could negotiate the gullies above me without some sort of easily visible light. I cannot be surprised; I cannot even be found within this thicket.
I make my cuts, carefully taking out stomach and bowels and cupping the bladder in my hand to prevent its breaking. I have ruptured nothing with bullet or knife, so the rising steam carries only the smell of heat and vibrant life momentarily suspended. I detach the heart and liver and lay them, twitching, on clean snow. The warmth of the body cavity draws the stiffness from my fingers like poison sucked from a snakebite, and with reluctance I remove them and flip the carcass onto its stomach to drain it of blood. I take off my coat, hang it from a limb, then hoist the deer over my shoulders.
When I am home, I find the dog has punched out one of the shutters and is stuck half-in and half-out of the shed window. I put the deer down and free him, and he rushes up to the carcass and laps at it, suddenly tentative. He has been punished for chasing deer many times and now, presented with a dead one obviously shot by me, looks at me as if I have finally come around to reason and we are in total unwavering alliance. I try to think of a way to tell him that this is in no way true, but I just push him away. Pursuit and death are his greatest loves. I know, without granting him more than his due, that he is shocked that I have hunted and killed without him.
I hang and skin the deer carefully; the mushroomed bullet drops out from back near the saddle. A long piece of the right tenderloin will be damaged and end up as supplementary dog food. Without head or hide, the doe is finally just so much meat, and very welcome at that. I shoo the dog away just as he stretches forward and gets a bite of haunch.
I go inside. The house is warm and tight; the pan of water on the wood stove steams just short of boiling. After the great breadth and quiet of the winter night, the cabin is constricting, its warmth not nearly so welcome as anticipated. The refrigerator makes an annoying airy hum. I scrub the blood from my hands and forearms with dishwashing liquid and a Brillo pad and, hands still soapy, take a long, unhurried drink from the bottle of whiskey on the counter. The confines of the room ease outward a bit, and the heat of the liquor and the solace of the meat hanging outside bring me truly inside, the night that had been my comfort barred on the other side of the glass doors.
I take another drink and rouse slowly from the state I entered when I first rested the rifle across the wheel line. It is a state that I impose upon myself at such times, a suspension of thought in favor of impartial and necessary action. Though the ease with which I enter it frightens me because of its potential applications, I must sometimes use it to keep from being throttled by compassion. As I leave it behind, I feel the absence I have created; I think of a snow-shrouded copse high in the hills that will be empty come morning, a path that will be a little less worn in the spring. I have made a small cut in one part of the net of living things that covers the valley and tied a simple knot in another, the space occupied by myself.
Before I go to bed, I open the door and call for the dog. He is gone, trailing me back to the high field by the scent of my boots and the spaced droplets of blood. He will return before morning, I know, full of offal, happily flatulent and forgetful of his earlier, dramatic disappointment.
My wife, an early riser, is sleeping. I get into bed, brush her hair away from her neck, and trace the length of her backbone with my finger. I lie down behind her and cup the point of her hip in my hand. She is used to these maneuvers and refuses to awaken, though she stirs. I lie awake for a short while, listening to the rush of heat in the chimney flue and, through the barely opened window, the maniacal jabbering of coyotes.
In the morning, I go out to chop kindling in the dark. The dog comes from the shed, doing elaborate yoga-like stretches. I hear the elk moving in the orchard below the house, hear the crunch of them walking the road behind the workshop. One of them gives the strange bray of warning from far out in the field, like a straight low note played on a flute. The dog stands transfixed; he has been trampled by them and no longer attempts chase.
With the first ring of my ax on the log, the whole herd spooks. The stragglers must all be down from the mountains now, for the thunder of unseen hooves is heavy, throbbing, continuous. They pass on both sides of the house. It is a sound I have never actually expected to hear — the soundtrack of films set in the African grasslands, the echo of our own vanquished and diminished plains. It is the fundamental pulse of all that is lost, and yet at hand. I lean on my ax, bow my head.