The wilderness in Devils Claw has four seasons. Each one carries a special purpose in nature’s cycle of life. Winter scrubs and cleanses with blowing snow and washing runoff. Spring starts fresh seedlings and babies. Summer rains offer the tender new young a cooling chance. Fall… well… fall brings a time of death in the forest. Flowers wilt and lose their color, hunters shoot, and carnivores kill to gain fat against the coming cold winter. The dying seems tempered only by conception.
A rutting bull elk screamed his evening bugle and I followed it until my finger’s perfect squeeze ended his days.
I shot from a canyon’s ridge and my bull piled up on the floor far below. Navigating the steep canyon slope covered by thorny Black Locust bushes frustrated me like a ‘final straw.’ Reaching the bottom, I felt worthless. My eyes flooded and released two year’s worth of stuffed feelings, fragile strength and support of my father — the main caregiver to his terminally ill wife. The matriarch who straightened my crooked path, brought peace to my angry heart, and leveled my tilted head; forever, she will walk the fertile fields of my soul.
My bull appeared huge as I approached, like a Clydesdale with antlers. Cloven hooves outsized my open hand, dark brown neck swollen by raging hormones. Head-on collisions with warring rivals had chipped the uncommon paddles of his palmately moose-like rack until they resembled medieval Nordic battle-axes. I wondered how many lesser beasts he had diced with his blades.
Yet my mind returned to my dad. I carried his grief with me, as much as my shoulders could bear. It is an unsaid thing between fathers and sons, the natural order of a lifelong friendship.
In his autumn years, my wilderness superhero father retired to ‘camp hound.’ No more 20-mile walks or trail-made bearskin backpacks filled with meat. Gone are the days of his wildland rescues, I can no longer count on him to suddenly appear at the buzz of a rattler or my crossing of a flooded river. It is a cheerless day when a son realizes his father is only mortal.
My radio died while transmitting coordinates to our tribe. They would find me. They are men, not suits and ties and gym club memberships, but wrinkled and weathered woodsmen, tough to their marrow and taught by my father. They spend their lives in the canyons of Devils Claw. Their straight thinking and wilderness savvy would lead them to me, sooner than later. I should have my 800-pound bull elk skinned, quartered and bagged when they found me. It was my job and mine alone.
The colors of fall dotted the huge high cliffs. The ruby maple leaves touched my heart as they fell and mixed with the oaks to tile a crisp, golden-red medley on the forest floor.
Darkness falls quick in rugged canyons. I built a small fire before the shadows hid the wood, much easier that way. A new moon gives little light. I had a lot to do before help found me.
In the nose-dripping chill of night, after finally stretching game bags around all four skinned quarters, backstraps and loins, I stoked my fire, rolled up in the fresh skin, and stared into the blaze. Seems life’s changes always surprise me.
If the men didn’t find me, I could spit emotions at flames until dawn…oh, why did I call?
A shout from the far distance gathered my attention. They searched and needed a sign. I signaled with three rifle shots into a fallen log and fed my blaze to add light to the strict darkness.
How would I hide my swollen red eyes? These men didn’t cry, not the men finding me. Not even at the death of their mom or the crash of their father. If they did, no one saw them, ever.
Then I dozed. My crew appeared all at once. I thought I would see their lanterns. I thought their laughter would ring through the forest. It did not. They were upon me, like a quiet rush of wild Indians. I wasn’t ready. “Don’t look into their lights,” I told myself. “don’t let ’em see your face.” But they were there, looking down at me, and I looked up from my elk hide cocoon and they saw my face.
I shook my sleepy head and looked again. There was only one. Only one of our tribe found me.
“Nice bull” said a proud voice I thought had left the woods forever. Through the whimsical firelight, I saw my father. He stood in his long, leather coat and hunched over his crooked walking stick as if he were a magician from the dark ages. He found me before the younger men of our tribe. He came like a faithful, old hound hunting his forgotten youth. I knew where it hid and gladly helped him find it.