Getting Wild

Wapiti Wild Dad is the hunter. Mom is his cheerful accomplice. Before the Cities, I accompanied Dad, chasing pheasants I could rarely mark, using Mom’s multicolored shotgun. Once, I tracked a whitetail with Dad. We crawled yards that November day, dragging our bodies along scrub. Dad cut a crablike path leading to a perfectly triangulated shot at our resting game. Long after, I felt like a weakling for popping the rifle trigger and aiming way low, blasting the South Dakota prairie in the face to spare the doe her life. Her coal eyes had fanned pity in me; I couldn’t take her, snuff her out. I don’t know if he was aware I pardoned the whitetail, spoiled the kill. Now, we were driving west to track larger game. The Sioux call them “wapiti,” Dad told me. Mom called our truck “White Magic Bus,” with I-90 west miles tumbling behind us.

Lurching out of White Magic Bus, the wild takes hold. Mountains crowd the forest, cloaked in swirling fog. Mom stays in the bus, playing the anchor. As dawn slowly tints dark washes of sky, the old hills hold their pitch in stubborn silhouette. My thoughts are greeted by Dad’s voice. First step in all intimate encounters is communication, Dad observes. He unpockets his wapiti caller and bellows red-faced into the plastic neck, sending a wobbling yell bouncing over sooty conifers. The silence after his bugle burst is solid. A breathless fifteen seconds lapses, and there is a mournful report. Its echo booms toward us, ending just beyond the gravel, almost in our hands. There is a second caller. Closer. I feel like primeval man, our animal greeting is met with enthusiasm. We were invited to follow the wapiti.

Dad and I dance upward, playing “Marco Polo” with the twins, following their taunts, pausing at bends to catch breath on a tree, chug canteen, reorient ourselves to their location. Forest animals move deftly, even those of size. For all our tracking, we only glimpse the bulls. A hind leg disappears behind mirrors of stone. Some nearby crashing fades to the morning gossip of birds.  We stake them out but they are gone when we rise to creep up. Stalking them, the wapiti seem forever ahead of us, or silently at our sides, below, or far behind. The sun now vaulting, we hasten our clip and emerge at the bald, tarnished butte of their hill.

What we found on the hilltop in paha sapa that wet morning was “Wild,” as Dad has since told us, with a capital “W.” No sign of the leader twins, we were alone with a sun-bleached skeleton, half draped in wrung-out hide, picked clean of flesh, odorless. In protracted silence, we contemplated its peeling “W” jeer. I started when Dad took out his field hacksaw to scalp the hollowed-out creature. Hold the rack, Dad said. I protested momentarily, but then complied. Dad: There is a reason we found this wapiti. Rodents had keened the tips of its antlers, so I held tight to avoid a gash. His thick cranium snapped off like a walnut in the end. Nothing inside. We had that wapiti’s bone dust in our noses for days.

Carefully, respectfully, we packed out our find on the drying game trail, rejoined the White Magic Bus. These days when I go home, Dad and Mom greet us in the garage, where the king wapiti’s crown hangs in memoriam. Son! Dad always exclaims. Remember when we found that big bull. That was Wild.  I know he is right, and I wonder how long that Wild thing will follow us.

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