“Keep your eyes on those hills, son, you just might see some game,” my dad said as we drove along the Montana highway.
These were familiar words from my father. Our family had been hunting these hills and mountains for generations, and my three older brothers and I knew this area like the backs of our hands. I immediately sat up a little straighter and squinted against the late afternoon sun beaming through the window of our old ’52 Ford pickup. As the “baby” of the family I was always proud when dad treated me like a man and didn’t dote on me like my mom or sisters did. I was 10 years old, and hated it when people ruffled my hair or spoke to me like I was a kid. And it wasn’t often having six brothers and sisters that I got a lot of alone time with my dad.
It wasn’t long before I saw a movement in the trees off the side of the highway. My heart swelled being the first to have seen the small herd of elk coming down from the tree line to feed on the sun-cured grass and drink from the cool waters of the Gallatin River. Dad slowly pulled the pickup over and we both pulled our rifles out from behind the seats. It was about a 150 yard shot, but fortunately these elk were so used to cars coming and going that they hardly noticed our pickup pulling off the side of the road. We both crept into the back of the pickup leveraging the sides for balance, and I stared down the barrel of my .30-06 waiting for my chance.
My dad wasn’t a man of many words. It was an unspoken rule in our family that whoever had the first clean shot took it. There was no arguing, or carrying on about who got to shoot first, or whose turn it was. The rule was simple: if you had a clean shot, you took it. (I did notice, however, that Dad took his time getting his gun out of its case and wiping it down, which gave me plenty of time to line up my shot.) As I continued to look down the scope at the elk coming out of the tree line I noticed a large, mature 6X6 bull coming out of the wood line. It was a beauty, and my hands got a little sweaty thinking about how proud I’d be to hang that rack on the fence back home. I had him sighted in; he turned broadside and I put a round right behind his front haunches, piercing his heart and putting him down for good.
As the bull went down, a car with a two men pulled up behind us. They scrambled out, pulled guns out of the backseat and started blasting across the river at the elk who at this point had realized something was amiss and were headed full tilt for the trees. I saw a younger bull go down as the rest of the herd disappeared into the woods. “I got him, I got him!” the man shouted, jumping up and down as if hitting a target were something new to him. I’d never seen someone react that way to something so seemingly trivial to me, but in reality, my heart was screaming the same words about my own kill. I didn’t want Dad to think I was any less of a man so I just kept my mouth shut and acted like it was no big deal. I put my gun back in the pickup, grabbed my knife, and Dad and I walked out to dress my kill.
Dad started chatting with the two men as we headed towards the bucks, learning that they were two travelers passing through the area. They had been up in the mountains hunting, and decided that a nice, warm hotel room and a hot shower were more to their liking than roughing it outside. Once we arrived at our two separate kills, Dad patted me on the back as he looked at the near perfect shot I’d made.
“Nice shot son. Couldn’t have done it better myself.”
The two men eventually meandered over from their smaller bull and made a big fuss about how big mine was, and how they wished they had seen him first. Dad listened and took it all in, and much to my chagrin offered the men an even trade — my large bull for their smaller one. Dad asked if that was okay with me, and I nodded in agreement, despite feeling broken inside that he’d ask me to trade away my prize bull for their small buck. I sullenly field dressed the smaller animal, and before too long Dad and I packed the meat into the pickup while waving goodbye to the two men (who were still up near the trees trying to figure out how to get the elk back to their car and pack it up).
As we drove back home, I suppose Dad sensed my disappointment. It was all I could do to not cry as I thought about how jealous my brothers would’ve been if I had shown up with that big 6X6 in the back of the truck. I felt like Dad had traded away my ticket to manhood.
“Boy, that old bull sure would’ve been some tough meat” he said. “I’m guessing those fellas don’t eat much elk.”
And then it clicked for me. While my kill would’ve done wonders for my reputation with my brothers and friends, the tougher and gamier the meat gets as a bull ages. While I was concerned about my myself, my dad was more concerned about the quality of food that would be on our table that night. I learned a lot that day about taking care of family, and putting others before yourself. Now that I’m older, I still use my dads words with my family. “Keep your eyes peeled; you just might spot some game”.
-Story told to Gerber by Ken, Oregon.