The side-by-side ATV is parked behind the steel-rimmed tank when we round the final bend in the faint track. Two camouflage-clad men come to attention as we emerge, my friend, Jason, drives the ATV suicidally, slewing around corners and jolting across washouts. I see one of them turn and speak to the other, realizing the one spoken to holds a tree stand. The stand belongs to Jason. The man drops the stand and starts toward his ATV in a slow saunter. Jason guns the motor and slides to a stop, cutting him off from his machine, killing the ATV. Jason vaults from the ATV and is in the man’s face revealing a side of Jason that I’m completely unfamiliar with.
The man Jason berates outweighs him a good 30 pounds but he doesn’t seem to have taken that into account, listing the indictments against him, slipping hands into leather gloves retrieved from a hip pocket while locking eyes with the obviously alarmed man. It’s amazing to observe how lucid Jason’s accounts follow. The other man simply offers pointed curses in way of denial, veins in the man’s neck beginning to stand out as fury replaces shock.
I step from the ATV as the guilty party’s partner approaches slowly, cautiously, eyes narrowed in a gesture I discern as menacing. Then there’s a scuffle and I hear a meaty impact–I don’t know who swings first–and whirl to see Jason and the man going at each other, landing powerful blows until they fall into a messy pile, gouging and grunting. The other man’s coming faster now, bigger than I’ve realized. It’s too much to comprehend. It’s complete lunacy. I step to place myself between him and the dustup.
Jason moved down from Idaho a couple years ago to take over the environmental end of things. Jason was brand new to the mine when I was called to handle some mechanical difficulty, malfunctioning pumps or such. That’s how we met. I noticed an archery catalog on his desk and we started talking, soon sharing stories about elk hunting. He had a lot more to tell, coming from Idaho where you can actually hunt elk every year; a concept as foreign as glaciers to Arizona residents. I hadn’t drawn an archery elk tag in something like 10 years. In any case Jason and I became immediate friends.
Jason became eligible for resident status the following spring, submitting a separate application because I had all those preference points and he didn’t want to hurt my odds with his zero status. Then he drew a tag and I didn’t. No one ever said fairness was part of this hunting thing, but seriously, a Unit 9 tag on the very first try for god’s sake? Hell yes I was jealous.
By summer’s end we could find our way to Williams in our sleep, spending our free time traveling to and scouting that South Rim country. By early August the drought situation had turned dire and our trips north had become water-hauling missions, keeping a steel drinker Jason had settled his hopes on filled and available to thirsty elk. We’d even brought up parts to install into the float mechanism and make it function more efficiently, so it fed water smoothly and without waste from the holding tank that a surplus satellite disk fed during infrequent rains.
Supplying this water involved rolling filled 55-gallon drums onto Jason’s ATV trailer until its axles groaned; driving the actual machine into the rear of the truck because there was no room after all the water had been loaded. Once in nine, pushing as far as we felt the heavily-burdened trailer could go without busting an axle, we ferried that precious water one barrel at a time to the “trick tank” on the rear rack of the ATV, slowly, carefully, its tires pushed flat. It was difficult keeping pace with those thirsty elk. But late one Sunday night, with five hours of driving and Monday jobs waiting, Jason returned to the ATV talking in stunned whispers. He’d spotted a monstrous bull. The bull.
We returned the first weekend of September, hauling the usual water but also picks and shovels, axes and saws and several tree stands. Jason felt it was time to stake claim to the watering site. Jason also had a couple other spots in mind, just in case something went wrong with his number-one. The first order of business, as usual, was filling the drinker’s collection tank. This was a day-long operation, one barrel at a time under a brutal sun. That night, sleeping under a furry sky littered with stars, we heard a distant elk bugle, surely the most inspiring sound in all of nature.
Our trick-tank site was ringed tightly with scrubby cedar and piñon, but one of those pines was just big enough to cut into and hang a stand, perhaps 12 feet off the ground, but perfectly situated to accommodate predominate winds. It offered a clean, 25-yard shot to the tank. In the event of a non-typical wind we had sweated out a deluxe pit blind on the far side of the tank, brushing it over so it resembled a dark cave inside a naturally-occurring clump of cedar. The stands we hung and blinds we assembled on other watering sites that day were not placed with such care and loving as the first. I wondered why we bothered at all.
The trouble started the following weekend. We arrived for a final look around before actual hunting began. We were not alone. Many of the other tag holders (we assume they had tags) had shown up to churn every available road to dust with ATV’s, bugle at bulls just beginning to show interest in rutting, in short, create general mayhem. We’d accomplished the day-long mission of providing the trick tank its ration of water, a bit disconcerted to find ATV and boot tracks around the watering tank, but also buoyed by a cattle-yard abundance of elk sign.
“Late one Sunday night, with five hours of driving and Monday jobs waiting, Jason returned to the ATV talking in stunned whispers. He’d spotted a monstrous bull. The bull.”
“Well, I can tell that whoever it was looked around saw my stand and blind, so they know it’s already been claimed,” Jason offered after a long silence. Only then did it occur to me he’d been studying the human sign as a way of reading intention and actions, not merely noting boot tracks as I had without wondering what they had been up to other than simply existing.
Even so Jason strung a rope across the deeply-rutted, nearly non-existent track a mile back from the tank, festooning the entire thing end to end with bright surveyor’s ribbon. It was as close as he planned to drive to it until he’d killed his bull or the reservoir ran dry.
Early the following morning, tooling past the water-tank turnoff, headed to a knoll overlooking the area in hopes of spying elk, we observed ATV tracks turning in from the south, leaving the same direction. Jason skidded to a stop, backed to hover over
the tracks. “Same quad as yesterday,” Jason said. I looked and realized I’d observed yesterday’s tracks without noting of tread pattern.
The rope was gone. So was Jason’s tree stand. He was furious, muttering curses and inspecting the tracks around the water closely. “Same guy alright,” he finally offered in way of something comprehensible. Then he spotted the pit blind, ransacked and caved flat. “What the… Why wreck the blind?” Jason demanded. “The stand I can almost understand; it’s worth something. But destroy the blind? I don’t get it.” I didn’t say a thing, sensing Jason’s anger mounting. “Maybe anti-hunters? I really can’t see another hunter doing this.”
That afternoon Jason replaced the stand, adding the double-looped aircraft cable and heavy lock that protected the trailer’s spare from theft in civilization. “I can’t believe it’s come to this,” he said, looking the new stand over carefully from ground level. “It’s bad enough you have to lock things in town, but out here? He replaced the rope and surveyor’s tape as well, adding a polite note informing any who might wander down the inconspicuous track of his intentions. Even so, we took great effort in brushing out any evidence of the track’s existence with cedar boughs, tossing rocks and dead wood along its path in way of camouflage.
It would be a long week at work, a busy week, as always seems to be the case when you plan to cut it short, get out of Dodge early. Jason and I saw each other little that week, talking on the telephone nights in preparation for the big assault. I could only be away three days. If Jason still hadn’t scored, he would be on his own the remainder of the season. It seemed quick success was assured, that all the work we’d invested justified it. Still, it was difficult to ignore the implications of the missing stand and the wrecked blind. Was this one-time harassment or something else entirely?
“The parameter of the steel tank was a litter of sharp-edged elk tracks and Jason smiled, stooping occasionally to look a particular print over more carefully. “Bull’s been in regular.””
We arrived the day before season, setting up a tidy camp before setting out to check Jason’s watering site and cabled stand. The trail to the trick tank was not treaded and we turned off the machine and listened for traffic before restarting and turning off the main road, letting the machine idle while we ran back to brush out our tracks. We parked at the rope, hiking down to water carefully, hearing a faint bugle well off, stalking around the last bend to see the stand still in place. The parameter of the steel tank was a litter of sharp-edged elk tracks and Jason smiled, stooping occasionally to look a particular print over more carefully. “Bull’s been in regular.”
With first light, sitting on the knoll vantage, I could make out long strings of elk emerging from the point of trees Jason occupied and understood he must have had troubles installing himself on stand. Tan blobs wove through scattered cedar and oceans of sage. They were becoming sharper with coming day, until I could just make out antlers, even across the great distance. At least one of them might represent the behemoth that had so rattled Jason weeks ago. Across the void an occasional errant note of sharp-edged bugling reached my ears. It was turning into another unseasonably-warm day and the world was seemingly void of elk by 8 a.m. I wouldn’t pick up Jason until 10:30, as per instructions.
As I idled down the track slowly I met Jason coming up the final hill, hair plastered flat with sweat, shirt unbuttoned to allow cooling air to circulate. “So?” I asked.
“Never made the stand this morning. Elk all over it. Though they were out of there with daylight.”
“Pretty much what I saw,” I offered.
“Dogged them a good ways, watching that bull. Could of pushed it and tried to get in; would have pushed it if I didn’t have that water to look forward to. Watched him fight with another monster bull. He’s something else.”
We arrived about 3 p.m., well ahead of a reasonable hour any elk might be expected to move in this hammering heat, but Jason wanted to get settled in, allow his scent to dissipate well before elk arrived. When we arrived at the inconspicuous turnoff the wide-set, checkered ATV tracks were as plain as bold print–one set in, nothing out.
Jason and the big man scramble back onto their feet, breathing heavily and swinging wildly now. The other one’s nearly on me and I set my feet, raising my fists. The sheer size of him has me beat before I’ve taken my first swing. He arrives, oddly nonchalant, arms swinging at his sides, simply flinging me aside as he passes. I spin, expecting the worst. He’s grabbing his partner from behind in a bear hug, lifting him off his feet to swing him away from Jason. He is bigger then he’s appeared. “Control your friend, will you?” he shouts over his shoulder to me, Jason still in pursuit. The big man drops his friend and slugs Jason in the mouth, sitting him back on his rear where he looks slightly dazed. “Now, you stay where you are,” the big man says calmly to Jason. “Hear me?” Jason nods and says nothing.
The big man turns to his bloodied friend, who is leaning against the ATV, looking as if he’s emerged from an overturned car. “What’d I tell ya?” he demands. He turns back to Jason, who has gotten back on his feet, feeling the corner of his mouth with the back of a knuckle. “You okay? Didn’t want to hit you but you seemed to need a reality check.” Jason nodded again. “My idiot brother here,” he jerks his thumb over his shoulder, “comes back to camp last week with a tree stand says he swiped off a waterhole he’d staked out. Says someone’s trying to horn him off it.”
“When we arrived at the inconspicuous turnoff the wide-set, checkered ATV tracks were as plain as bold print–one set in, nothing out.”
“We’ve been hauling hundreds of gallons of water up every weekend for a couple months keeping this thing working,” I interrupted. “That’s why he’s,” pointing to Jason, “so worked up. He’s got a lot invested.”
The big man nods in understanding and turns to take in his brother with a hard stare before turning back to adress us. “Listen, I’m really sorry about all this. My brother had me convinced someone was horning his hunting; not the other way around.” He says the latter over his shoulder. “You get that stand back up and we’ll get out of here. I give you my personal guarantee you won’t be bothered again. I’ll leave your other stand back at the rope when I get this way again, behind a tree but where you can find it. Again, I’m sorry for all the trouble.” He offers his hand and Jason reluctantly shakes it. The men climb on to the ATV and drive away. A great cloud has lifted. “Nice fat lip,” I say.
Jason smiles, winces a bit, pulling the leather gloves off and touching his bottom lip with finger tips. “Yea, it’s gonna hurt.”
The hunt doesn’t come off quite as Jason had envisioned. Jason gets
his elk, a gorgeous six-by-six as big as anything he’s taken to date, but not the Booner he’s hung his hopes on. He’s all alone by then, the bull slipping into the tank late one evening with time winding down. He calls on his way in as soon as he finds the bars necessary for cell service. “I owe you big-time,” he says after telling me about it.
“Yes you do,” I say, laughing. “I’m drawing this year–then your time’s all mine.”