Drake was far from camp. He had left in the false dawn after drinking a cup of cold coffee left over from the day before. He had hiked up the game trail that skirted Peanut Knob before dropping down the steep drainage that spilled out at China Meadows. Now he sat behind a moss-covered stump, his bow across his lap, his suede cow-elk decoy ten yards down the hill from where he sat, as he blew through the cow call. As he had come down the drainage, stepping carefully and as quietly as he could, he could smell the musky scent of elk carried on the breeze that blew up the drainage. He knew it was stupid to hunt for elk this far below camp, but he figured there’d be elk here. If he shot a cow or bull, it would take him days to get it back to camp even if he had friends to help him pack out the meat.
But he didn’t have friends. Either you were someone who didn’t know Drake, or you were not his friend.
He had first hunted elk near Murderer’s Creek in the Blue Mountains of eastern Oregon some fifteen years before when Charlie, his neighbor, had invited him to go bow hunting for elk during the rut in early September. After buying Charlie’s old bow, and after Charlie taught him to shoot, Drake practiced for weeks at the range in Washington Park until he could hit the bull’s eye at forty yards. Then he had learned to cow call, calf call, and bugle, and he had learned to watch for signs during those first few years, but he wasn’t as good at calling as Charlie was. Nobody was, really. One evening by the fire during an early September snow, Drake had complimented Charlie on his calling as he had called in a big bull that very morning, and Charlie had said, “I don’t talk English too good, but I can talk elk.” True on both counts.
Charlie had been in Vietnam as had Drake. Charlie worked as a cook in the army and Drake operated heavy equipment, so neither of them were ever in real combat, although both had hunkered down at night when there was incoming.Back in the states when they were neighbors, Drake was a road paver for the city of Beaverton, and Charlie had a mobile sawmill, so they had a common blue-collar argot, and this could make them friends. And it did. For a while. Until they got to really know each other. Rather, until Charlie got to know Drake.
Now it was late morning. Drake took a piece of jerky from his backpack, and he chased it with a long swig of water from his canteen. Quietly. He could still smell elk. Elk had bad eyesight, but they could smell you if the wind was wrong, and if you stepped on a twig and snapped it, they would take off, and the only thing you could do was stand and listen to them stampede away, busting through limbs and over deadfalls. And despite having only dichromatic vision like all ungulates, elk can see black or white so if you didn’t paint your face with camo, they might see you. Drake called again, and listened, but there was no reply. He picked up his bugle and let out a long, mournful call that echoed through the drainage, and he followed it with five quick chuckles, but it was still quiet except for the damn squirrels cutting pine cones from the tops of trees and dropping them so that, one after another, they would make a popping sound when they hit the forest floor.
There were elk down in China Meadows. Drake knew there were elk down in China Meadows. He could feel it in his bones like he could feel winter on late fall mornings before there was even a hint of snow. He had a sixth sense buried deep in his gut. He knew things that other people didn’t know. He could tell you who was around the corner even when the road was straight for miles ahead. He never questioned this. Why would he? When he ate a tart orange, he sensed the sourness. For fuck’s sake, he thought when people questioned him about knowing something no one else did. Simply, for fuck’s sake.
Now he knew there was an elk around that corner. He would shoot it and that would be a huge fucking mistake because then the work would begin. But it didn’t seem he could stop himself. He would mark it down as inevitable.
Charlie and Rose lived in a ranch house with a wire fence that separated their property from Drake’s. Drake was single, always had been. Rose had asked Charlie to ask Drake over for drinks when Drake bought the place next to the store, and that evening they sat on the patio knocking back Budweiser and shots of Old Forester until it got dark and cold, and finally Drake took his leave. After that, they were over-the-fence friends, and then Charlie asked Drake to go bow hunting, and they became real friends until Drake came home drunk and drove over Charlie’s dog, Rufus.
Then they weren’t friends anymore. Their friendship had started with a clear beginning, and it ran a clear course of five years, and it had an ending so clear that both of them knew that whatever had been between them was now over. Dead dogs do that. They simply stopped talking.
He hadn’t meant to kill the dog. It had just happened. The fact that he was drunk changed the sense of culpability, though, and the fact that Drake didn’t suffer any obvious compunction probably helped turn Charlie’s vague affinity for him into something quite the opposite. Not hate, exactly. More like revulsion. Something like that, sure. But Drake didn’t give a shit about this. He didn’t need friends. Never had.
Things got worse between the two neighbors when Drake cut down Charlie’s elm tree on a weekend when Charlie and Rose were out of town. The tree was on the property line, and every fall the tree spilled its leaves onto Drake’s yard and onto his house so that he had to clean the gutters a couple of times a week. Not only did Drake cut it down – it was a big elm, and it had provided a nice plot of shade – he felled it so that it crossed Charlie’s driveway so that when they came home the next day, they couldn’t drive up to the garage. He hadn’t necessarily meant to drop the tree in the driveway, but then where else would it fall?
Charlie parked the car, and as he turned to walk over to Drake’s house, Rose said, “Charlie, where are you going? You don’t know he did this.” But Charlie kept going – he didn’t even turn around. He just marched with both hands in fists as if he were holding something vile that needed choking, and that vile thing was now a loathing that coursed through his blood and clotted in his hands.
He didn’t knock on the door; he banged on it with both fists. When Drake opened the door, Charlie swung a right, but Drake stepped back, and the punch missed. However, the momentum was so strong that Charlie stumbled into the entryway and fell. Drake kicked him in the ribs again and again until Charlie couldn’t move. He could only moan.
Three broken ribs.
The upshot of this was a civil lawsuit which Charlie won. Fortunately for Drake, he had an umbrella policy which paid Charlie a sum so handsome that he bought a twenty-four-foot boat which he parked in his driveway. Late one night, Drake christened the boat Fuck the Neighbor. This he spray-painted on the stern. He didn’t bother to think this through, though; he was really just saying Fuck Me.
It had been three years since the tree incident and two since the christening, and they hadn’t spoken to each other once. Not even a casual Fuck You.
The wind was still in Drake’s favor as he sat behind the stump blowing the cow call occasionally, but mostly listening to the quiet beneath the rustle of the breeze in the pine trees and the popping of the cones as they hit the ground and the occasional squawk of a camp jay. He was halfway down the drainage, and he figured if he were able to shoot an elk here, it would only take him a couple of days to pack it out. And, if he shot a calf, he could do it in one day. He thought of the tender veal of a calf, and he decided that if he saw one, he would shoot it. You could legally shoot any elk in the Desolation Unit, so calves and cows were fair game. He didn’t need a big rack of antlers hanging over his fireplace to know he was a bad-ass. He already knew it. He was as bad an ass as he needed to be.
Above him, he heard a branch break. It could be an elk, but then the way the wind was blowing, it would have smelled him and taken off running. So, it might be a cougar. Except cougars walked on the breeze. He removed his right hand from the bow and slipped it down to his waist where he felt the holstered .357. If a cougar were bellying his way behind him for a sneak attack, he would be ready. He hoped.
From below, he heard a cow mewing. He listened carefully and with great force so that he could hear the blood circulating through his head. It could be a person, someone as good as Charlie, he thought, but more likely it was a cow elk. It mewed from down the drainage and soon another cow answered its call. Another possibility was that there was an elk mewing and a man calling back. He didn’t like that possibility. He didn’t want to see another human up here in the high remote. He didn’t like to run into other hunters. Two years before he had been sitting in camp next to his evening fire, just sitting and listening to the fire crackle while he sipped a beer and took pulls off the bottle of Old Forester, when he smelled elk. He had camped on the edge of a meadow, and he knew there were elk around the area because, three days before, he rose from his cot later than he’d intended – he’d drunk a lot the night before, too much really, even for him – and he went outside to relieve himself when he saw big elk prints right through camp. So, he thought at the time, this could be an elk at the bottom of the meadow, the evening breeze carrying its stink up to his camp.
That evening, he had set down the whisky and picked up his bow. That would be something, having an elk walk right up to his camp where he could shoot it and quarter it and hang it from the tree without ever having to pack it out. As he had looked down the meadow, he could see a figure walking toward him in the faint light of dusk. It wasn’t an elk. It was a man. As the man came closer, the stronger the elk scent became, until finally the man was standing just on the edge of the firelight.
“You stink of elk,” Drake had said.
“I sleep in their beds,” this tall, skinny fellow said. He was dressed in camo from head to foot, and his face was painted in green stripes across his cheeks and forehead, and his nose was painted a burnt orange. “I spray myself with elk urine and usually in the morning I have a shot at a bull nearby as they come to bed-down.”
The man looked at Drake’s beer and then at his whisky, and there was a plea in his eyes, but Drake didn’t offer him a drink. He hadn’t wanted to drink with a guy who slept in elk beds and reeked of elk piss. Drake told him, “Good luck finding a bed to sleep in tonight. You might go up top to those meadows below Silver Butte. Good night.”
The man had just stood there looking at Drake, maybe offended at the lack of hospitality, or maybe he was contemplating something else. Drake didn’t like his look. Drake stood and turned slightly so that the .357 on his hip flashed in the firelight. That was all it took to say goodbye.That and a nod and the man walked up to the dirt road, and soon he was in the dark, and Drake could no longer see him. He was no more than a sigh in the night.
Drake heard the whoosh of the arrow at the same time as he felt the fletching brush his left ear and all at the same time as he heard the thud of the arrow as it embedded into the stump inches from where he sat. All this as his reflexes had him duck and spin around to see who was shooting at him.
As he crouched behind a fir tree, he scanned the steep hill above him, the wind still rising up the drainage. He didn’t see anyone, so he stared at the same spot to detect movement. Whoever was hunting could be in camo.
He heard a bugle come thundering down from above. His first thought was that it was an elk because it didn’t sound like a human calling, but then he thought it wouldn’t be an elk because it would have winded him and run away, so it must be a hunter, and when he heard the bugle again followed by three quick chuckles, he recognized the pattern.
It was Charlie. It had to be. And Charlie wouldn’t fire arrows blindly at what he thought might be an elk. He would only shoot at an intended target, and now he realized what that intended target was.
He dropped his hand to his waist again and felt the grip of the .357 where it protruded from the holster. The touch of the gun was reassuring. Its weight on his hip suggested a sublime and impervious magic. He had hand-loaded the bullets himself, big 180 grain bullets that would knock down an adult bear if you hit him in the shoulder, and if you hit a cougar behind the shoulder where its heart was, well, you had one dead cougar.
He knocked an arrow and looked up the steep drainage. He would only use the pistol at close range – and never for an elk – but with the bow he felt comfortable hitting his target at up to fifty yards. Above that, he wouldn’t attempt a shot.
He smiled. Fucking Charlie, he thought. The guy came out here to kill me. He’d shoot me and leave my body here in this remote drainage, and before a hunter would find him during rifle season in November, his body would have been eaten by a cougar or by a pack of wolves. Fucking ingenious, he thought. He downright admired the audacity. When he was loading his rig the week before, he knew Charlie had seen him when he had gone out to get his morning paper, so he would know that he was up here hunting alone. Alone because Charlie would know that he didn’t have anyone to hunt with, and so Charlie could come up after he arrived. He would know where Drake camped because they had camped by the very same spring several years before, where they had always camped together. He would know that Drake would hunt this drainage because this is where Drake had shot his first elk on their third trip together, and this would be the ideal place to kill a man and leave his body for scavengers. The chances of being caught for murder here were pretty damn slim, he thought.
And then he thought, I can kill him here and no one would know. He smiled a smile so wide it hurt.
Fuck Charlie, he thought. Fuck him and the horse he rode in on. His mind was riddled with clichés.
Drake had never killed a man. It didn’t bother him to think that this is what he was about to do, either. It was, as the cliché had it, kill or be killed. He turned back to the arrow stuck in the stump. It was a new carbon arrow. Charlie always swore by carbon. Because of Charlie, that was what Drake used himself. Easton Full Metal Jackets. Fused carbon shafts in a gun metal black finish. A twelve pack of those babies was about a hundred and fifty bucks. And though the broadhead was buried in the stump, Drake figured it was a solid broadhead with a half-inch bleeder blade, probably 125 grains, so sharp and sturdy it wouldn’t dull even after busting through bone. Well, that first errant shot cost Charlie some serious coin, Drake thought. But when this day was through, he wouldn’t need a dime.
Drake wasn’t sure if Charlie knew he’d had an affair with Rose, though affair was probably the wrong word to use as it was a one-night stand when Charlie was in the hospital recovering from an appendectomy. This was before the tree-incident. He’d gone over to their house to drop off some mail that ended up in his mailbox, and Rose asked him to stay for a drink. One thing led to another as the saying goes, and before he knew it, he was romping on the bed with Rose, and when he finally did leave later that evening, he thought it funny that the mailman got laid. Now, waiting for Charlie to fire another arrow, he wondered if Charlie ever found out about that night. If he did, well, there was one more reason he would want to kill Drake. He smiled at this. All this over mis-delivered mail. But people had been killed over less.
He heard the cow call in the drainage above where he sat. He wondered again if it could be an elk, but as soon as he considered this possibility, he dismissed it. With the wind direction, it would have winded him, and it would be long gone by now. Besides, elk didn’t shoot arrows.
The hill rose so steeply above him, he could lean back and still be sitting up. He turned over onto his knees and let off three mews on his cow call, and a minute later Charlie called back at him twice. It was hard to gauge the distance, but he figured Charlie had to be no more than fifty yards above him as the breeze was still coming up the hill, and if he were much farther, the call would be more muted. That, and the first arrow wouldn’t have come so close to killing him. He thought of it as the first of more arrows to come.
He remembered the time he, Rose, and Charlie had gone crabbing in Nehalem Bay in a boat they rented from Jetty Marina. Charlie had run the boat, and Drake had pulled in the pots of Dungeness crab while Rose opened beers and told the story of when she first met Charlie at this very bay when she stopped with a girlfriend to buy some fresh crab.
Rose and her friend had been sitting at a picnic table overlooking the bay, cracking crab and drinking beer on a late September afternoon when Charlie pulled up to the dock in a rental boat. When he walked up the ramp with a bucket of crab, Rose’s friend asked him how many he had caught, and when he said he had caught the limit, she said, “My friend Rose here will go out on a date with you if you let us have two.” Charlie had flushed red and said he would be happy to give them two crab after he cooked them, but there was a stipulation. Rose asked what that stipulation was, and Charlie asked her if she had ever drunk crab butter. When she told him she had not, he said that he would give them each a crab if they would both drink the butter and eat the hearts. They laughed and agreed.
Charlie smiled and gave the crabs to the dock attendant who put them in burlap bags and dropped them in a huge vat of boiling water where they cooked for twenty-three minutes. After they cooled, Charlie pulled off the back shells of two crabs. They brimmed with a yellow fluid simmered from the guts. With one of the claws, he dug out the heart of a crab and held it before Rose’s friend. She smiled and opened her mouth like a baby bird. Charlie put the heart in her mouth, and she ate it and said, “Wow. It’s good.” Charlie did the same for Rose, and she ate the heart, but grimaced. Then he handed each of them a shell reddened from the boiling water, and he told them to drink up. Both Rose and her friend looked at each other, shrugged their shoulders, and each took a sip of the crab butter.
“Do you like it?” Charlie had asked, and they both said that they had enjoyed the rich liquid, and then Rose’s friend said, “Where are you taking her?”
Charlie blushed again and said that was up to her.
“And the rest is history,” Rose told Drake as he was bent over the gunwale pulling up another crab pot.
He felt the rush of air as another arrow whizzed past his head. He saw that it hit and blew through his suede decoy just down the drainage as the decoy’s head wavered back and forth. He nocked an arrow and peeked above the log behind him. He scanned the hill, but all he saw was green foliage, logs, and trees. Charlie was religious about camo and paint. He even painted the backs of his hands in case he took off his camoed gloves when it grew hot in the afternoon. Drake picked up his bugle and let out a loud call that echoed down the drainage. Then Charlie answered with his own bugle. Drake had to admit that while his own bugle was a bit tinny, Charlie’s was the Real McCoy. The man might as well have been part elk.
He set the bugle down and took a drink from his canteen. He set it aside and began bellying on his knees and shoulders, holding the bow before him. If they found Charlie with an arrow through his chest before the wolves got him, they would call it a hunting accident. He went slowly around the side of the hill, first the right elbow, then the right knee, then the left elbow, then the left knee, slowly making his way laterally across the steep drainage until he was at a safe enough distance to begin crawling up to Charlie’s latitude without being seen.
When he was about fifty yards across from where he had set up that morning, he rested before beginning his ascent. He had left his bugle with his backpack, but he wouldn’t be calling anymore now in fear that Charlie would hear it and pinpoint the source.
It took a good ten minutes to go ten yards up the steep slope riddled with large ferns, stones, logs, and all manner of broken branches that he had to be careful of so as not to alert Charlie. His elbows hurt more than his knees did, and there was pain in his lower back. Ten more minutes, ten more yards, and then he came to a huge Douglas Fir log that he would have to skirt. To climb over it would leave him exposed and an easy target, the proverbial sitting duck. He moved laterally along the log, and when he came to the root-wad, he rested behind it. It was a good fifteen feet high. He thought about where he should shoot Charlie, but it probably didn’t matter. With these broadheads, just about anywhere waist up would be lethal. When he got his wind back, he began climbing again in the same manner. Right elbow, right knee, left elbow, left knee, fifteen minutes, fifteen yards, until thirty minutes later had him at what he guessed was the same elevation as Charlie.
He lay on his back behind a log to rest. He would need a steady hand to hit his target. He had missed an elk the year before when he’d called in a bull and he hadn’t rested before pulling back the string, and his hand shook – it wasn’t bull fever, either, damn it – because he hadn’t paused to catch his breath.
When he felt he was ready, he took several deep breaths – inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale – slowly and quietly. He turned over onto his knees and peered over the log, but all he saw was forest. Still, Charlie was here somewhere. He would just be hard to see.
He waited, all manner of thoughts going through his head. He would see Rose when he got back, and he would have to be cool and calm when she told him Charlie was missing, and she would tell him he’d gone hunting at Murderer’s Creek and do you think, Drake, you could go up and help with the search party. I know you two have had your problems, but could you? You know the area. He would have to play it cool, real cool, but hey, he thought, I am one cool motherfucker. A regular old bad-ass with a bone to pick.
It was then that he heard another bugle, loud and close. He looked over the log and there, forty yards away, Charlie stood behind a tree, holding his bugle, peeking around the tree to look down the drainage where Drake had been sitting an hour before. He was hard to see with all that camo but see him he did. He wore a camo stocking cap pulled down over his ears.
Drake nocked an arrow and pulled back the string, calm and cool as ever, and using the forty-yard pin, he sighted him in, holding the string taut, willing his forward hand to be still, taking a deep breath and holding it before he released the arrow and sent it out into another world that he had never before entered, a world where tomorrows could not be conceived. It was a neck shot, and it hit home hard and true and Charlie fell, boom, down, dead.
Drake let out a long sigh, a sigh of the centuries when all of the air in the world had been sucked in and was now let out to be free. He stood for a moment and looked around him. It was quiet. Just squirrels dropping cones. But absolutely still, nothing but that sound of pop, pop, pop of the cones hitting the forest floor. Otherwise, deadly quiet.
He walked around the log and made his way to where Charlie lay face down in the ferns. Quietly, almost a whisper, really, Drake said, “You thought you were better than me, fucker, but I got the last shot.” He bent over, and with both hands, he grabbed Charlie’s shoulder and turned him over, and when he saw the man’s face, he said in a loud voice, “Jesus fucking Christ.” He said it again and again in what became a shaky voice.
This hunter was not Charlie.
It was some young man who had been hunting elk near Murderer’s Creek in the drainage that spilled out into China Meadows, deep in the Blue Mountains.