Before I blacked out again I heard another one say, “Did you see that? He did a double back flip out of that saddle, spraying blood out of his nose like one of them skywriting airplanes. It’s the most Western thing I have ever seen!”
I rode out to the trail head, holding the short reins in one hand and my leaking nose in the other, while they roared laughter at my blood loss and head injury.
Tough bunch, those cowboys.
Forget that the hunt was a disaster. The outfitter promised trophy bulls for every hunter, gourmet food, fine wines and plush backcountry accommodations. Instead he delivered no elk, inedible food and a guide who got lost the first day.
The horses had been run hard all fall on family trips. The kind where soccer moms and undisciplined kids torture the horses and make so much noise that all the elk move to Idaho.
This was the first hunt of early elk season, but already the horses were tired, worn down and jumpy as a virgin at a prison rodeo. We had two guys tossed off in the first two days. One of them was almost crushed when the horse tumbled down the hill after him. I had a rodeo at the corral and took a chewing-out from the wrangler who didn’t have the facts and didn’t want them. I didn’t do a thing, my horse was just nuts. Which should have been a warning flag.
A few days into the hunt we picked up a little snow and decided to ride until we cut fresh elk tracks. The guide liked that idea because we didn’t have to leave the marked trails. Ten miles from camp, still not finding proof of life for elk, we called it quits.
The snow had bent a large sapling over the trail and the rider in front of me raised it above his head as he rode past. Then he decided to hold it up for me and my horse to pass. It might have worked too, except his horse just kept plodding along.
I screamed at him to hold on while I tried to get my horse to turn off the trail. But the underfed knothead had decided that the sapling looked like something good to eat and ignored me.
My friend was a strong guy, but everybody has limits. The tree was bent like Genghis Khan’s bow when it finally pulled free of his grasp. It snapped back and hit my horse on the forehead so hard it sounded like Babe Ruth swatting a grand slam.
The horse erupted and started bucking like a bareback champion. I hung on for a while, proud of my skills. I was actually thinking I was going to ride it out (silly me) when he turned from the trail and into the trees. A big limb hit me while I was in midair and when I came down I hit ground instead of saddle. The horse was tangled in the branches and stepped on my left leg. The horses call that “ground and pound.” My backpack was hanging off the saddle and was caught in the brush, restricting the horse to bucking in place. As it turns out, it was the same place I was occupying. I dodged hooves until the horse finally noticed the problem, looked at the backpack and decided it wanted to eat him. The last thing I saw was the horse running away, my backpack shredded and spewing its contents like an equine-mounted snow blower.
I lay back in the snow and took inventory. Other than my leg hurting a little, I felt like I was okay. Thinking I had dodged a big bullet, I tried to stand up. Something popped in my back and the world turned white with pain. I fell face first back into the snow and started searching for my happy place.
I don’t know how long I writhed in the snow screaming that I would shoot the first cowboy who said “we’re burning daylight,” but when I looked up my partners had built a shelter and were roasting a rabbit over a bed of coals.
I tried to climb back in the saddle and, failing that, I just started walking. I don’t remember much about the next several hours, but somehow I made it to my tent.
I suppose I had insulted the cook that morning when I challenged anybody at the table to identify the “food” on my plate and nobody, including the cook, could do it. But I thought that little reason not to feed an injured man. I would have starved if one of the other hunters had not sneaked a plate of scraps to me after the cook went to bed.
It was kind of fun actually.
Here are some of them.
It’s a Drag
The outfitter had asked another guide to show us a new area the next morning, but being a bit of a jerk, the guy left without telling anybody. So we raced up the pitch black trail trying to catch him. My guide was a horse trainer and had brought a fresh, young stallion with long legs and youthful energy, so he soon pulled well ahead of me and the plodding Mongo.
A snowstorm was moving in, daybreak was hours away and it was as dark as a coal mine at midnight. True to his namesake, Mongo wasn’t all that bright and it was some time before he realized we were alone. That’s when he panicked and started running up this narrow, steep and twisting mountain trail.
Mongo ignored my attempts to slow him down and soon we were at a full gallop. I was getting whipped in the face by branch after branch, which, on a cold day, does nothing to improve your mood. Suddenly a big limb knocked me out of the saddle. I hung on to the reins while the left stirrup hung on to my boot. Mongo took that as a signal to run faster.
I was swinging beside him, trying hard not to get stepped on while I smashed into trees, bounced off rocks and splashed through mud holes. (At least I hoped it was mud. There had been a lot of horses on this trail in the past few weeks.)
I finally worked myself around where I could get some power into the reins. I was full of adrenaline and mad as hell, and I pulled as hard as I could, thinking, “This horse will stop or I’ll break his damn neck.”
Mongo, realizing he was just a pawn in the game of life, stopped. I slipped my foot out of the stirrup and lay panting in the mud for a while before standing up. I was brushing myself off and checking for broken bones when the guide came back.
“What the hell are you doing off your horse?” he yelled at me. He started saying something about “burning daylight” even though it was still as dark as Hitler’s heart, but I had reached my limit. I exploded so loudly that the guys we were trying to catch stopped half a mile ahead, turned around and came back. They said they were scared not to.
The guide was smarter than the horse and just let me rant. Which is why I was a bit upset that night when I watched him die.
He took the wrong trail, one that had not been cleared of blow-downs for years. He was behind his young, un-broke horse pushing while I pulled, trying to get the foolish beast to step over yet another of the hundreds of logs that blocked our path back to camp. When he did, the horse’s belly brushed the log and he thought it was trying to eat him. The stallion whipped his head and backed up so fast I was pulled airborne by the lead rope and I watched from an elevated position as the horse crashed over the guide, stomping at least twice on any important part. I knew it was not survivable.
“Damn,” I remember thinking. “This is going to make us even later and I am getting pretty hungry.”
But, before I could get the body tied across the saddle, it reanimated. This was before the whole zombie thing, so all I could think to do was hand him his cowboy hat. He brushed it off and put it on his head. Then he stood up and, spewing blood as well as a stream of bad words, he limped over to the horse and started leading him back to the blow-down.
Which pretty well sums up hunting on horseback: It seems like all your time is spent bleeding, limping, cussing or dodging death.
I ask you, where’s the romance in that?