We rode out of the barnyard leading four packhorses, on our way to retrieve elk carcasses strung up in trees on Boney Mountain. Russell took the lead, then Charles, kicking his horse to keep up, and me trailing behind. Two elk were a lot of meat and bone. Even for three riders and four pack horses. It was late enough in the day that it meant chores done in the dark when we got back—the cow bawling for milking, horses rattling the gate, the sheep moaning like women.
The afternoon was as lean as they come in November, every bit of summer pared off the bone. The sun offered a pale warmth you wanted to believe in; otherwise you had to accept winter was about here. So you believed in the sun, thin and weak as it was, leaving earlier and earlier each day, like some dissolving love.
Thinking about it now, years later, Russell probably planned to wait until nightfall to bring the elk in. It wasn't rifle season.
Russell possessed a great capacity to be unaware of the wrong in the urgent enjoyment of an act. I envied him that. When he was with me, he never thought of his wife. But I did. I was twenty three and single. The wrong and the right added up to a whole thing I carried.
There was a bunch wrong with Russell's plan I didn't realize when I saddled up. The first being Russell and Charles spent the afternoon drinking. When Charles climbed off to open the wire gate to the hayfield, he got tangled up in his reins and the lead line to his pack horse, I realized maybe the bota bag he'd been sucking on had something besides water in it.
Russell grinned and said, "Schnapps, peppermint schnapps, he thinks it makes his breath smell good to the women."
I don't know why drinking peppermint schnapps is worse than drinking beer or tequila but it is. It makes your mind sticky and Charles wasn't that quick in the first place.
The second thing wrong: I didn't like Charles much. He was one of Russell's clients from some broad flat state east of the Rocky Mountains playing hunter for a week.
"Leave the gate, we'll be back this way." Russell told him.
Charles climbed on his horse and we kept going across the field, the dead stalks of hay cracking loud and sharp with each step. We hadn't gotten snow yet. Snow would lay it down, mat the world into something quiet. Something respectful.
And the third thing wrong: I was on edge. I wasn't dressed warm enough, but there is never warm enough when you end up outside three hours past sunset in the Rockies. And you have to pee so bad but the thought of the girl squat and knowing you won't be able to button your jeans back up because your hands are so cold, and the men joking—it was better to hold it.
At the top of the hill, Russell raised his hand for us to stop. A herd of deer picked their delicate way down the opposite hill. Russell threw the pack lines to Charles, pulled his rifle out of the scabbard, jumped off his horse and fired into the herd, twice. Then he swung back up. "Stay put," he yelled and charged down the hill after the fleeing deer. Charles wanted to shoot something, anything so bad, he was wiggling like a dog and when we heard Russell bark, "Bullets… I'm out of bullets…" he dropped the pack lines and took off.
I tied the pack horses to the trees and galloped after Charles. My horse was barrel race fast, she loved to run. I trusted her, she trusted me. I let her do her job negotiating the terrain and I did mine, keeping an eye on Charles. He was bouncing all over the saddle, shouting, "Let me… let me shoot them." And as he pulled the rifle from the scabbard he lost his balance and rolled off the horse's rump in a somersault that laid him out on the frozen ground. Then I saw Russell rope the doe stumbling ahead of us, its shattered leg dangling.
Russell swung off his horse, ran down the rope, tipped the deer's head back and slit its throat. I don't think he meant for me to see it, but that's how it happened.
I rode up just in time to hear the doe bleat, see the blood gush, soaking Russell to his elbows, splashing his jeans. The sudden thick warm smell of the blood made my horse snort; Russell looked up at me and smiled. It was the same smile he had when we made love. And I realized his smile was for the lovemaking, not for me.
For a long time I refused to think men and women were different. I rode a horse better than most cowboys. I could fix fence, brand cattle, do chores, as well as any ranch hand. Yet I never treated a stallion the same as a mare, or a bull the same as a cow. So why did I refuse to see the difference between men and women, as if I was afraid different meant not as good?
Here was the difference in front of me. It would be wise to recognize it.