Reputation is an idle and most false imposition; oft got without merit, and lost without deserving. ~ (William Shakespeare)
Firstly, it was s'posed to be an elk hunt. And I sure didn't mean to let the dad-gum thing get away from me, either, scarin' my partner outta three years' growth when I did. But as it turned out, that misfire wound up addin' more to my reputation, such as it is, than if I'd dropped him straight off, because Slim had to go and tell everybody about it, and…ah, heck, let me start from the beginnin'.
Ain't a lot of big game left in our part of Wyoming Territory, most of it has moved on up north, away from the towns and the railroads. So when my partner's kid brother come bustin' in that afternoon to tell us about the largest doggone deer he'd ever seen, way off up in the hills past the lake, it took Andy repeatin' himself a few times before Slim and me realized what it was.
"Elk," said Slim with a happy grin on his face. "Hasn't been one of them around in three years."
"More like five, I'll bet," I put in.
People think this is the wild frontier and they forget that there's been white men settlin' here since the thirties, first the fur traders and the Army, and later the ranchers and railroad men. In fact, its gettin' plumb crowded - and the wild things become scarce when humans move in. So even though there's still plenty of deer hidin' back in the draws and the timber, any local hunter worth his salt's goin' to prick up his ears when he hears about an elk.
We made plans to go out the next day but one, not wantin' to let that elk get away from us. It wasn't the most convenient time to leave the ranch but we calculated we could bag him and get back within a day or so, particularly since Andy couldn't come with us on account of him and his pony had a difference of opinion and he got tossed into a big patch of poison oak. Andy's a good kid and we'd've let him tag along but Slim and me wanted to move fast. So we painted Andy up with calamine lotion and warned him not to scratch, before we headed out just after dawn, ridin' a couple of our spare horses and with Dodgy along to pack the meat out.
Dodgy is a mule, Dodgy bein' short for Dodgy Knees. Yeah, it's a funny name, but he was left with us as part payment for Slim's havin' guided a dude that came out on a huntin' trip last year. It was the dude gave Dodgy that name, why I don't know because there ain't nothin' wrong with his knees that I can see, him bein' a mule it's more like his temper that's unregulated, you might say. But when Slim asked the dude if the mule was lookin' for an honest hunter and the dude said no, an honest guide, they both laughed like it was funny.
I guess you had t'be there.
Dodgy's not a bad mule as mules go and it anyway wasn't him that set off the whole series of events, it was the cayuse I was on. We'd picked those spares careful, young horses needin' some schoolin' an us wantin' to give our usual mounts a few days off, but it appears we didn't look close enough because Slim and me weren't but two hours up into the hills when my horse pulled up lame and come to find out he'd thrown a shoe. We were pretty close to the Breitmann place by that time so we decided we'd stop by the ranch house and see if we could borrow me another horse.
That was our second mistake.
The problem of course was that we were handin' Beefy Breitmann a chance to come with us on a silver platter. Beefy, he's what you might call a Jonah. Every time we go huntin' together, somethin' happens and his wife has started givin' Slim and me the stink-eye whenever we show up particularly since Beefy would rather go huntin' than do almost anythin' else includin' work. Especially includin' work. So Mrs. Breitmann greeted us with the good will most women feel for their husbands' bachelor friends and stood there with a kind of pinch-y look on her face while Beefy allowed as how he wanted to go after this elk, too.
She was helpin' us to coffee at the time, and for a minute I thought she was goin' to pour that whole pot over Beefy's head. Or maybe Slim's for bein' the cause of her husband's strayin' off the reservation again. I started rememberin' the fit she threw the time we went out after deer and all Beefy brought back was what was left of a squirrel that he'd nailed with his 30-30, and I was glad I was on t'other side of the table. But Beefy won out, promisin' her that whatever it was she wanted done would get finished as soon as he got back. He caught up one of his horses and his oldest boy threw my saddle on another one and we started off again, towards the high places.
Beefy was happy as a kid at Christmas about the prospect of gettin' an elk, and he kept tryin' to pick up the pace but Slim was firm and made him go last. Nobody with any sense rides downwind of Beefy since among his other bad habits he chaws tobacco and never stops to look before he spits. 'Cept in the house and I can't figure out how Mrs. Breitmann broke him of it but I'll bet a month's pay it took a lot out of her. Women like Mrs. Breitmann always seem to wind up with men like Beefy which is prob'ly good for society in general but kind of hard on the woman.
By midafternoon we'd reached some pretty steep and tricky country, the kind that elks are partial to, and we went ahead and found a place to stow our gear and tether the horses before continuin' on foot. I spotted it first, a deep, clear set of tracks headed straight into some thick thorn brush. And as I looked at the brush, sure as Sunday there was a quiver right in the heart of it, like some big critter was stirrin' around. I put my hand up to stop the others and we started plannin' in low voices on who was goin' to do what.
We decided that I would swing wide to the left, circlin' to try and come out on the far side of that particular thicket while Slim and Beefy closed in from below. With luck, I'd get behind the elk before he suspected anythin' and if I didn't have a good shot at him, I'd still be able to drive him back down and into their sights. I whispered to them to give me at least twenty minutes head start and took off, steppin' as quietly as I ever have in my life.
The wind was in my favor and I made it to the back of the thicket without seein' any sudden movements from our friend the elk, so I started to edge into that underbrush, bit by bit. It was a little taller than my head and after a few yards I lost sight of everythin' but the bushes in front of me. I took to stoppin' every couple steps and pretty soon I heard him movin' around just up ahead. It sounded like he was comin' in my general direction, so I froze in place, holdin' my breath, just waitin' on that elk.
Only it was a bear.
He was moseyin' along through the thicket with probably nothin' on his mind but honey and blackberries and lady bears, and admirin' the scenery at least until he noticed the scenery included me. I don't know which of us was more surprised.
I was holdin' my rifle a bit careless and when I met Mister Bear my finger sort of tightened on the trigger and I sent a bullet deep into several inches of Wyoming mountainside. Which left me in a pretty bad way because an experienced bear knows that he can tear a hunter's face off in the time it takes to chamber a second round. This bear must've been a young'un not wise in the ways of men, because instead of standin' his ground and givin' me a maulin', he got spooked and took off down the slope.
Straight for Slim and Beefy.
Slim's a level-headed cuss but when six hundred pounds of black bear comes chargin' outta the brush at close range it can be a tad unsettlin', 'specially if you're expectin' an elk. He took a step backwards, caught his heel on a fallen branch, and went over onto the end of him that don't wear a hat. And danged if he didn't lose his grip on his Winchester and it skittered away into the tall grass.
And Beefy? Well, Beefy clean forgot to chaw his wad of tobacco and swallowed it instead. Right away he lost interest in Slim, the bear, or anythin' else but heavin' the tobacco back up, which probably saved his life because the bear didn't know what to think of this big ol' human down on his hands and knees makin' noises like somebody stranglin' a cat.
So instead the critter went for Slim, who was actin' normal, or as normal as a man can act when he's flat on his back with one boot heel stuck in a tree branch, no rifle, and a bear comin' after him. I reckon there was about two or three seconds durin' which it was runnin' through Slim's mind that his ticket had been punched, for sure.
Lucky for him it was about then that I got free of the thicket, trotted up behind the bear and dropped him with a shot through the back of his skull. He was so close that when he fell, his forepaw hit Slim's foot and the look on my partner's face was one I wish I could've gotten one of them new-fangled photographs of.
"What took you so long?" Slim asked, pretty calmly considerin' the circumstances.
"You're welcome," I said.
"I heard two shots?"
"Missed 'im, first time." I left him ponderin' that while I went to check on Beefy.
We never did find the elk. Dodgy wasn't too happy about havin' to carry that bear down the mountain but we finally got it back to Breitmann's and I gave Beefy's wife the bearskin, since Slim decided he didn't want it for some reason. She had it made into a rug and actually is pretty happy with it but I can't say it's changed her mind about us. When I ran into her in town the other day she gave me a hard look and muttered somethin' about widows and orphans and we ain't been huntin' with Beefy since - I think she's keepin' him on a pretty tight rein right now.
I got nothin' out of the whole adventure but some scratches from that thorn patch. Slim, on the other hand, got a good story. Accordin' to him, I am just about the boss hunter of this part of the territory.
"So there he is, facin' a black bear in brush so thick he can't move, let alone run. He snaps off a shot and misses. That bear takes off and what does Jess do? Goes right after it! Gets him on the second shot, clean as a whistle and saves my bacon in the bargain."
Wish I had a dollar for every time he's told it.
"Cool as a cucumber," I heard him say to Mort Corey. "He just jacked another shell into the chamber and kept a-comin'. Nerviest thing you ever saw - the man's got ice-water in his veins."
You know I don't mind Slim braggin' on me but I s'pose I'll have to tell him what really happened.