Friday, September 5, 2014

Luck Had Nothing To Do With It

Author's note: 

Last winter I sat in a booth at the local drug store and listened over burgers and fries as two friends told me the following true story of what they found on an elk hunt, and how it led to closure for a family whose father had been missing for seven years. With their permission, I recorded the conversation, and that recording inspired this short story, which may or may not be published in a collection of hunting stories in the near future.

Chapter 1: The Tag

“Todd, why is two-hundred and seventy-five dollars missing from our checking account?” The blinking amber lights in Annie’s tone hinted at the potential for danger ahead, depending upon my answer.

“What?” Panic had my mind rummaging through recent purchases. “I don’t know, did you call the bank?”

“Yes, and the only thing they could tell me was that the direct debit charge came from something called DNR,” my wife explained.

“Two- seventy -five?” I asked, stalling for time as I dug deeper into my memory.


“DNR?” I wondered aloud, as my mental shovel hit bedrock.

“Two hundred and seventy-five dollars, paid to something called DNR,” Annie confirmed, trading the blinking ambers for rapidly-flashing reds.

“I’ll figure it out and make it right,” I promised.

“Please do,” my petite but dangerous wife encouraged.

“I will.”

“And please pick up some milk on the way home,” she added sweetly.

“Will do,” I agreed.

“Love you,” she said, turning the sweetness up a notch.

“Love you too,” I replied before signing off.

I sat at my desk and stared through the heavy silence that followed our brief but stressful exchange. Such a large debit to something I had never heard of made no sense. I had long ago made it a habit to consult with Annie before buying anything more expensive than a candy bar, so there was just no way that I had spent close to three hundred dollars without her approval.

And then it hit me: Utah’s Department of Natural Resources, also known as the DNR.

I picked up the phone and called my brother-in-law.


“Peter, how much was that limited-entry elk tag we each put in for?” The words rushed out of my mouth in a tangled string.

“Well, it was ten dollars to put in for the draw…”

“Yeah, I know, but how much was it if your name was chosen?” I interrupted.

“I think it’s just about three-hundred bucks, maybe a little less,” my brother-in-law answered.
“Would they pull it from your bank account without notification, and would the charge show as coming from the DNR?”

 “You sucker, are you telling me you drew a Boulder Mountain limited-entry elk tag on your first try?”

Chapter 2: The Pressure

My father-in-law never does anything halfway; when he sets his mind to something, Howard follows through in style. Camping and hunting are no exception, and after dozens of elk hunts at his favorite hunting spot on Boulder Mountain in southern Utah, Howard’s trips have become legendary, and an invitation to participate is considered a prize among his peers. The food, which includes the best Thai curry this side of Bangkok, is enough to incite jealousy in the good hearts of those not invited, and the wall tent heated by wood stove offers top notch accommodations worthy of raving online reviews. As his son-in-law, I understood that my bunk in Howard’s tent that year was afforded to me by both my marriage to his daughter and my luck in the tag drawing; a return trip the following year was still mine to earn.

I spent the last few weekends before the hunt at the range with my .270, trying to fine tune my scope and minimize my spread. One night after venting my shooting frustrations to my father, he suggested that I try out his .306, which would give me a little more power, and that would be a good thing when hunting for a trophy elk. In spite of the thirty year old scope, I discovered that I was much more comfortable and my aim more precise with the .306, and so it became my gun for the hunt.

The day came, and Peter and I climbed into his truck to make the drive south. Howard and his other son Rob had already set up camp earlier in the week. We would meet them there, and our hope was that they would have dinner warm and waiting when we arrived.

“Gonna go get us some of that Boulder Mountain tag soup!” Peter said in a sing-song voice. He turned and grinned at me.

“You just keep on thinking that way if it gets you through the day,” I replied.

Much like his father, Peter sees things through to the end, and his dedication to needling me wasn’t unexpected. In the weeks since drawing that tag, I couldn’t recall an email, text, or conversation that had failed to end with Peter’s advice on seasoning the “tag soup” that I was sure to be cooking come the end of the hunt. I chalked it up to jealousy and tried to laugh it off, but in truth, the joy of a first-time-lucky trophy tag was overshadowed by the pressure that came along with it. I had to walk off Boulder Mountain with a trophy elk, not only to earn Peter’s respect and a bunk in that wall tent the following year, but because in Annie’s eyes, a freezer full of meat was the only way to justify the cost of the non-refundable tag.

Dinner was indeed waiting for us, and it hit the spot after a long drive with Peter and his quips behind the wheel. I dropped into my bunk that night with a head heavy from the weight of what lay ahead and a silent prayer that I be granted what it would take to measure up to my own expectations.

Chapter 3: The Hunt

After a comfortable night of curry-fueled dreams, we rose well before first light to a frosty mountain morning. A quick breakfast and a thorough gear check later, we climbed onto the four-wheelers and followed a cattle trail deep into the wilderness. After five or six miles of steady riding the trail ended, and we parked the vehicles. At that point we decided that Peter and I would head southeast down the slope, while Howard and Rob hiked west along the high ridgeline. From their vantage point they would set up a scope and spot for us, using the radio to guide us towards any elk they might find.

Once the hunt started, the teasing stopped. Peter was all business as we made our way into the valley below. After a mile or more, we stopped to eat some granola bars and check in with Howard and Rob, hoping to hear that they had spotted some elk on their way to bedding down as the sun began to burn on the horizon. They hadn’t, and so we watched and waited.

“Hey,” I whispered thirty minutes later, “I’m freezing my giblets off, how ‘bout you?”

“Yeah, I’m cold,” Peter replied, his own voice barely audible. “Why don’t we head further east and try to warm up a bit as we go?”

I didn’t need additional prompting. Peter followed as I turned and headed due east. Not a minute later, Howard hailed us on the radio.

“We’ve spotted a small group of bulls about a mile to the south of us, heading towards the desert,” Howard said.

“We’re probably a mile and a half east of them,” Peter replied.

“Have you seen anything over that way?” Howard asked.


“We’ve spotted a couple of spikes, but there are at least a few raghorns in this group, a couple of which I think might have an extra point or two,” Howard said.

“Well that settles it; we’ll make a run to the west, and once below you, we’ll slow down and resume the hunt nice and slow,” Peter decided aloud.

We took off running, the crystalized snow crunching beneath our boots in spite of our best efforts to float silently above it. As I followed Peter over fallen trees, around clumps of oak brush, and across open spaces, I imagined myself to be Hawkeye from The Last of the Mohicans, running after evil British redcoats.

After a mile of running we slowed to a walk. Peter pulled out his radio.

“Dad, do you see us?” He asked between gasping breaths.

“Yes, I’ve got you. You’re about a quarter mile north of that group of bulls, and they’re still looking to bed down,” Howard answered.

“Okay, good. We’re gonna try glassing for them and see if we can get a good look, or maybe even a shot.” Peter stuffed the radio back into his pocket and put his binoculars to his face.

I followed suit with my rifle, but the old scope wasn’t much for spotting, especially when my chest was still heaving from our run. I lowered the gun and began to scan the hillside below with my naked eyes, but couldn’t see the elk. I looked further south, but still found nothing, until I noticed some movement across the valley, up the hill on the other side.

“That is the fattest elk I’ve ever seen!” I whispered.

“What? Where are you looking?” Peter asked.

I pointed to the hill directly across from where we stood. A fat elk on hairy legs nosed its way up the slope. Peter raised his binoculars.

“That’s a cinnamon brown bear,” he said, a smile in his voice.

I took his binoculars and got a better look. “Okay, so it’s a bear. But with that blonde back and those dark legs it looks like a fat elk,” I explained.

“Tag and bear soup…” I heard Peter whisper with a chuckle.

I punched him in the arm and handed back his binoculars. “Hey, don’t forget that I’m the one carrying the gun,” I warned my brother-in-law.

“Let’s move a bit and try to get a clear line of sight to these bulls,” Peter suggested, ignoring my hollow threat and patting the pistol holstered on his belt.

We made our way to the southeast, hoping to get an angle on the elk, now bedded down for the day. After a long and quiet trek down the hillside, we realized it just wasn’t going to happen; too much brush and too many smaller ridges lay before us, blocking the view.

“Hey Peter, do you think we’d be able to spot them from across the ravine and up that hill where the bear was?” I wondered aloud, indicating with a nod of my head. The bear was long gone.

“That’s not a bad idea, let’s backtrack north and then west before we drop down into the ravine and cross over. Those elk are bedded down, but we don’t want to spook them, and this brush is too thick to cross through quietly.”

“Or at all,” I added.

Peter radioed Howard and let him know our plan, and we headed back up the slope. We then turned and hiked west until we felt we could move across the ravine without disturbing the elk, and made our way down the hill once again. The incline on the southern side of the ravine was steep, so much so that we spent some time climbing on hand and foot to reach a point that we could hike standing up again. We moved in silence, taking cautious steps and keeping the noise we made to a minimum. Soon we were just about where the bear had been, more than a mile south of Howard and Rob, with the elk bedded down three hundred yards north of us.

Peter and I settled back into the hillside and got comfortable. We could see the elk from our position, and we took the next hour or so to glass each one, looking for a rack worthy of the tag, and the shot that would make it happen. This being my first elk hunt, I would have gladly taken anyone of them and been thrilled with the result.

Chapter 4: The Shot

“Well, whaddya think, Todd?” Peter asked.

“I think any one of them will fill my freezer,” I said, shrugging my shoulders.

“Yeah, but which one will fill your wall?”

“That one to the left looks like an eight by nine to me; he’s definitely a taker,” I replied.

“He is a nice one,” Peter agreed.

“But the shot might be just a little too far for me,” I confessed.

Peter scanned the hillside below us and thought a moment before speaking. “We could try moving down the hill a bit, but that ridge near the bottom looks like it might get in the way,” Peter thought out loud.

I looked down the hill and saw that he was right; we might scamper all the way down the hill only to lose the shot in exchange for shorter distance.

“We could also come back this evening and hope they feed their way closer to us. Don’t forget that this is the first day of the hunt; you don’t have to take one today,” Peter advised.

“Yeah, but I don’t want to regret not taking the shot when I have it either,” I noted.

“Tag soup,” Peter nodded in agreement.

We sat in silence, pondering and weighing our options. The sun was high in the sky, and with a rumble in my stomach I realized that in all the excitement and exercise of the hunt I had lost track of time.

“Let’s set up a shot on that big boy, and see what you think,” Peter suggested.

“Sounds good,” I said.

I pulled out the bipod, and Peter built a stable platform for it out of rocks. I took my time getting into a comfortable position with my back settled into the hillside. At three hundred yards I figured on a four inch spread and two inches of drop, especially with my inexperience. I would have to spend some time looking through that old scope, lining up my shot and dry firing the gun a few times to make sure it felt right.

The sight of that big elk filling my scope was exciting and nerve wracking at the same time. He was bedded down and turned slightly away from us, and a little clump of scrub oak blurred my view of his chest cavity. I struggled to slow my breathing and lower my heart rate as I contemplated taking an angled shot at three hundred yards.

“Well?” Peter asked.

“It’s definitely not a straight on, broad side shot, but I think if I can hit him just behind that front shoulder blade he’ll stay down,” I answered.

“Let me take a look through the scope,” Peter said.

I handed him the rifle. He raised it to his shoulder and looked through the glass. I watched as he tried to find the elk through the thirty year old optics.

“Where is he?” I heard him mutter under his breath, and a moment later he whispered, “Okay, got him.”


“And this scope is seriously old, you are going to have to make the first shot count,” Peter replied.

“But you think it’s doable?” I asked.

“Oh, it’s doable, but let me put it this way: if you make it I’ll have to hear about your miracle trick shot on your first ever elk hunt for the rest of my life,” Peter joked, handing me the rifle.

Once back in my comfortable shooting position, I practiced relaxing my body and exhaling slowly to keep those crosshairs fixed in place just a few inches below his back and trained in on his vitals as I dry-fired several times, envisioning the moment when the resulting noise would be more than a click.

“I think I can do this, I think it feels right,” I finally declared.

Peter radioed Howard and told him to keep an eye on that elk, should he jump up and run when I hit him.

 A few minutes later, I took the shot. The bull jumped to his feet and turned to face us in an instant, and as he did I worked my bolt, chambered another round, and took a second shot.

“Whoa, whoa, slow down Todd,” Peter admonished.

“Well that one missed; I might as well have taken a hip shot,” I muttered, angered by my own impatience.

At that moment, the bull turned, giving me a broadside view of his body. The other elk were on their feet and beginning to move. I chambered a third round and took another shot, this one calm and careful, centered on his chest cavity.

Without taking another step, the bull dropped.

Chapter 5: The Bones

There would be no tag soup. I would leave Boulder Mountain with my head held high and a freezer load of meat. Annie would be pleased and Howard would be impressed. Peter would still rib me, but his jokes would now be delivered with a hint of respect, and maybe even a dose of jealousy on the side. I heaved a sigh of absolute relief, and followed it up with a joy-filled chuckle. I looked up at Peter, whose face was lit up with a smile.

“Nothing like it, is there?” he said, nodding at his own memories.

“Oh, man that was something!” I almost shouted. I jumped to my feet and improvised a victory dance.

“Thank goodness you shoot better than you dance,” Peter remarked.

And there it was; a little hint of respect wrapped inside a ribbing. It felt good.

We stood and packed up our gear, then hiked down the hill in a straight line, hoping we could navigate our way through the brush and come up the other side to where the bull lay. The terrain was rough and rocky, and we took our time, making sure to watch our steps in order to keep from spraining an ankle. Peter led the way, and as we reached the bottom of the ravine I followed him around a great big boulder that had long been wrestling with a juniper’s roots. Had I not been paying attention I would have run right into Peter when he stopped without warning.

“Todd, is that a human skull?”

I heard the words, but my brain took a moment to process their meaning. After it had, I stepped up next to Peter and followed his gaze towards the ground. The unmistakable shape of a human skull stuck up out of the dry leaves. I scanned the surrounding area and took in more bones, each of them bleached white from time in the sun.

Peter had the radio out and was talking to Howard.

“Dad, we just found bones,” Peter told him.


"No, I mean we found human bones; I almost stepped on the skull, and there are ribs, femurs, and a whole bunch of other bones half buried in leaves and mixed in with some shredded clothing and a pair of boots.” Peter shook his head as he said the words, as if he still couldn’t believe what he was seeing.

“Well, it might snow tonight; you’d better mark the spot somehow, so that when we get the sheriff in here we can lead him back to it,” Howard instructed without missing a beat.

The bones weren’t scattered much at all, although it was obvious that they had been there for a couple of seasons, maybe more. We spent the next several minutes examining the scene in subdued silence. The thrill of the hunt had faded at the sight of the skull, a shadowy reverence taking its place. Someone had died right there were we stood, and their body left alone on the hillside. It was a humbling, beautiful place to be. Upon closer inspection we found the remnants of a leather motorcycle jacket, dark jeans, and a pair of Harley Davidson motorcycle boots. Peter reached down and carefully picked up the skull. Most of the teeth were missing, and it was obvious that mice had been gnawing on those that remained.

“Todd, look at this,” Peter said, his voice soft and reverent. He turned the skull around and held it towards me so that I could get a good look.

There was a hole in the center of the left temple, just behind the eye socket.

Chapter 6: The Cleaning

We didn’t have any tape with which to tag the spot, so Peter placed the skull on top of the big boulder as a marker. We took some mental notes and snapped a few photos with our phones for good measure, so that we could lead law enforcement back to the spot when the time came. Once we felt confident that we knew the area well enough, we continued up the slope to find my elk.

As we approached the animal, the thrill of the hunt returned. I had seen elk before, as they migrated each year through the mountains where we lived, but I had never seen one so close, so still, and so massive. The excitement almost overshadowed the anticipation of what came next.

When I was sixteen I had tried cleaning a deer with my dad looking over my shoulder and telling me what to do, but within minutes I felt sick and ready to puke, at which point he had told me to go and fetch the horses. I had never fully cleaned an animal before, let alone something as massive as a bull elk. This time, I looked to my brother-in-law for guidance as I began the process, determined to complete it. I didn’t do too bad a job, and only made a minor mess of the guts. By the time my hands were bloody, Howard and Rob had joined us, and while I finished up, Peter took them down the hill to see the bones.

Since we didn’t have our frame packs with us to carry the meat back to the four-wheelers, we decided it best to cape the elk and haul the head out that afternoon, leaving the rest for the following day. We planned on driving into town that night to notify the local sheriff that we had found human remains, and if he needed to he could send someone in with us to investigate when we returned for the meat in the morning.

The first hill drained my strength. I was sweating and breathless, and every muscle in my legs was quaking as I reached the top. That head weighed at least seventy-five pounds, and in the three mile hike back to the trail head we would have to climb at least fifteen hundred vertical feet. Peter spelled me for the next stretch and then he too was spent. At that point we lashed the head to a fallen tree branch and carried it on our shoulders together. It was awkward, but it allowed the weight to be shared between the two of us. When we finally reached the four-wheelers it had been dark for some time.

Howard and Rob were waiting with dinner and the news that they had lucked out with a cell signal, and had used it to call the sheriff’s department. Two deputies would meet us in the morning, and we would show them the bones. Exhausted after a long, tough, rewarding, and emotional day, I brushed my teeth and dropped into my bunk without so much as a thought to sitting around the fire to brag about my elk and wonder aloud about the taste of tag soup. 

Chapter 7: The Deputies

I hadn’t seen a lot of The Andy Griffith Show in my time, but I knew an Andy and Barney duo when I saw one, and the two deputies that met us the next morning were heavy contenders for best tribute act. The first, (we’ll call him Andy) was tall, quiet, and commanding. Andy exuded confidence, experience, and direction. He also carried all their gear. The second, (yes, we’ll call him Barney) was excitable and chatty, eager to keep pace with Andy but physically unable, due to the only characteristics setting TV’s Deputy Fife apart from ours: about twelve inches in height and fifty pounds in weight.

We rode the four-wheelers to the end of the cattle trail, and then started the hike back to the bones. Barney was dressed in heavy coveralls, and in spite of the November cold he was soon sweating like a U.S Senator strapped to a lie detector. We did our best to keep the pace slow and manageable, but still found ourselves stopping to watch Barney catch up or catch his breath, or both. It didn’t help, the fact that in between gasps for air, Barney felt the need to tell stories about his dangerous life as a deputy.

“I probably shouldn’t be saying this, but…” Barney would begin, and with every outlandish story I caught a slight shake of Andy’s head. He must have long ago grown accustomed to the constant chatter and over share of his annoying yet amiable companion, because he never once interrupted or rebuked him.

I half-expected Barney to reach into his pocket and ask Andy, “Can I put my bullet in?”

At long last we arrived at the elk.

“Peter, why don’t Todd and I stay to cut and pack up the meat, while you and Rob take the deputies down to see the bones,” Howard suggested.

“Sounds like a plan; we may be down there some time,” Andy agreed.

Peter and Rob led the deputies down the hill, and I began to cut up the elk, with Howard guiding the process.

They spent a good hour and a half down at the site, and when they came back up the hill they carried several bags filled with the bones and personal effects they had found.

“I already asked these two fellas, but I’ve got to ask you two as well; did any of you find a gun, a knife, or any other item that might be used as a weapon?” Andy asked with authority.

“No sir, we didn’t. We looked around a bit, but we didn’t want to disturb any evidence, unlikely as there was to be any after such a long time,” I answered.

“He’s right,” Howard confirmed.

Andy stood quiet and looked us over for a long moment, as if trying to discern our propensity for dishonesty. Eventually he nodded his thanks, signaling the end of the matter.

“If you don’t mind my asking, what did you find?” Howard asked the deputies.

Barney was quick to step up to an imagined podium topped with microphones and provide a statement in reply. His hands rested on his hips and his voice deepened as he answered Howard’s question. “We found a wallet, a truck key, an undersized wrench, and a small screwdriver,” he said.

You’d have thought he had just revealed the identity of the fabled shooter on the grassy knoll.

“Was there any identification in the wallet? Do you know who he is?” I asked.

“We have a pretty good idea about who the deceased may be, but we can’t comment on that,” Andy said, before Barney could open his mouth and say something that he shouldn’t have.

The hike back to the cattle trail was once again a long and steep one, made more difficult by not only the heavy packs filled with meat, but by Barney’s company as well.

“Guys, we’re in no hurry, we’ve got all day,” he reminded us over and over again, as we did our best to make the trip a quick one.

Andy was having difficulty carrying the heavy bag of bones along with their gear, which included a rake. There wasn’t room in his pack for the bag, and so he had to carry it (and the rake) in his hands, making a tough hike that much harder.

Barney carried his gun on his hip, and presumably, a single bullet in his pocket.

After a half hour of watching Andy struggle, Peter stopped and suggested that they put the bones and evidence in his pack.

“You sure? That pack’s got to be pretty heavy with all that meat in there,” Barney asked. He was sweating buckets again, and had unzipped his coveralls and rolled them down to his waist.

“Thanks, if it wouldn’t be too much trouble,” Andy said thankfully.

It may have been a lot of trouble, but Peter didn’t complain once. We hiked our way out to the trail and rode the four-wheelers back to camp, where we parted ways with Andy and Barney after accepting their handshakes and thanks.

I slept well that night.

Chapter 8: The Closure

Ten years to the week before I shot that elk, an older gentleman from Colorado had driven west into Utah, making it as far as Boulder Mountain before parking his car and disappearing into the wilderness. The initial search to find him had lasted for weeks, during which time they hadn’t found a single clue as to what had happened to him. After six months his missing report was filed away as an unsolved disappearance.

Two weeks before I shot that elk, the missing man’s daughter had made her first call to the sheriff’s department in several years. She had been thinking of her father, and hoped there might be some news. The sheriff was very sorry, but no, there wasn’t anything new to report on her father’s case.

Two months after I shot that elk, I called the sheriff and asked him if they had identified the remains, and if the mystery of the man’s death had been solved. They had, and it had been. The man was indeed the man Andy and Barney thought he might be, the missing man from Colorado. The hole in his left temple was nothing more than the wear of time on a part of the skull that is naturally thinner than the rest, and while they couldn’t say for sure how the man had died, it did not appear that he had taken his own life. He had most likely gotten lost and wandered several miles away from his car, and unable to find his way out, had died of exposure.

That following Spring, a few members of the man’s family came to Boulder Mountain so that Andy could guide them to the site where their loved one had died. They spent a couple of hours under that juniper, reflecting on the man they had missed for so many years, and taking comfort in the fact that he had been found at last.

I still marvel at everything that led us to finding that man’s remains. The long hike in, the old scope on my father’s rifle, the cinnamon brown bear foraging for grubs on the hillside, the elk bedding down in that specific spot; they all played a part in leading Peter and me to make our way down into that ravine and around that boulder. And my first time tag drawing wasn’t even the beginning; the string of events had started long ago when my father-in-law went hunting as a boy on Boulder Mountain with his father, and that tradition of hunting on Boulder Mountain long held by his family had brought bittersweet closure to another.

You might say that luck had nothing to do with it.

The End

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