I saw the elk at about two hundred meters; head down feeding. He must have been digging a long time to get through the ice and snow. He was down on his front knees, legs folder down under his chest, his hind quarters almost sticking straight in the air; It was a long reach from the surface of the snow to the grass at the bottom of the hole he’d dug.
It just broke my heart to take him; wasn’t even fair chase. He was mostly skin and bones; but I have a number of people to feed and a couple hunting dogs we need to keep fit as possible. He was chewing and pushing snow away from the grass at the bottom of the hole he’d dug and didn’t even hear me approaching through the deep snow. I stopped about twenty feet away and just watched him for a few seconds. I had to admire the effort he was putting out for just a few mouths full of food. I pushed my hood back to open my field of view; no telling how many other predators were watching. The wind pushed rock hard shards of blowing ice into my face; the shards cut like glass, frozen to a hardness never heard of before. I pushed my goggles tight against my eyes; we’d lost one hunter to ice cut, he’s blind in one eye and cut to out of focus in the other. I quickly stepped forward and jammed my spear into his chest; he tried to back out of his hole and stand up, I pinned him down with the pressure on the spear buried deep in his chest; he fought hard to pull himself out of the hole he’d dug but he was too weak and I was engulfed with adrenalin fighting for mine and others belly’s to fill. It was over in less than two minutes. I prayed over his body.
I was a hunter back before the world changed; elk, deer, antelope, bear, even got a cougar once. I hunted geese, ducks; fished, got really good at catching salmon. Those were the days; I use to field dress a kill right on the spot where they lay. Now we have to use every piece of their bodies; no waste is allowed these days; lives depend on using every fiber of our kills.
It’s kind of funny; I’m not a Captain, never was. Peoples free army? very funny; but for some reason it make people feel better to make up names for things. Doesn’t help keep you alive any longer but I guess it makes people feel like they are a part of something, gives the sense of order when there isn’t any. The group of us just kind of found each other. Sometimes the wind and weather just push you to an area by wind current and maybe a little less snow to fight through. I followed the scent of a wood fire; losing it the blowing snow and ever changing currents; Blowing this way and two minutes later blowing the opposite direction; didn’t really matter; I was just getting away from the killing fields of the cities; if I froze to death I figured it was better than dying at the hand of some punk gang member. I stumbled on the small wooden shack hidden in heavy timber by complete accident. Bumping into trees, stumbling over twisted fallen trees and brush; running into something that I didn’t just bump and bound off of, couldn’t just roll off and continue bonking from one tree to another in the blinding howling blowing snow, it was wide and solid. I pulled my hood back and was looking into a window at faces looking back at me. I pulled off a glove and gave them a peace sign. They waved me in. Five days later I shot two porcupines out of a tree with my revolver and became Captain Tom Nash; hunter and first Officer of the People’s Free Army. Those porcupines fed us all for three days. I didn’t argue about my new title; Captain Tom Nash without a single enlisted man to order around; happy days.
I covered the elk with two feet of snow and packed it down real tight after cutting off one hind quarter hair and all; I carried as much as I could. The extra weight was all I could handle on my snow shoes; shoes we built out of tree limbs and coat hangers from the cabin. We’d be back to the kill as soon as I reached the cabin and dropped off what I carried. I picked two of our strongest men to return to the kill with me. Jason Cain and Brian Smith, both city slickers but quickly learning how to survive and live under the conditions we now lived with. My turn around time was well under twenty minutes; five miles or so through the woods with my quarter; drop it in the snow at the cabins front door. Pick Jason and Brian, suit them up and out into the snow as fast as we could make it. The woods were full of predators which would quickly eat my kill to the bone in minutes if it was found. This was dangerous work; bears, cougars or both would run to the smell of a kill and defend it with their lives; the kill meant life to whoever finds it and has the power to keep it.
Three months into being the new Captain Tom, I made the decision that our hunters would hunt alone. I had to shout down the out pouring of voices disagreeing with me; “it’s too dangerous to hunt alone” “You’d have no backup” “What if you were hurt, you’d be alone” on and on until I’d heard enough. When you’re in charge you have to make decisions that are hard, they might not make sense to the average person; but when you’re in charge and you have a number of people you’re try to keep alive, it changes the way you think and see things. I explained the risks, I explained that the number of animals in our area where dwindling fast; we’d either hunt in two directions from the base or hunt in all four directions; too live we had to make use of all the chances for a kill we could find. Possibly losing one man vs. finding game to feed all of us only made sense at this time; we had to use our limited man power to cover as much ground as we could.
In a short single file line the three of us hurried along trying to follow my trail back to the kill; the snow was quickly covering my tracks and it was getting very hard to see even the slight depression in the snow where I’d packed my way back to the cabin with my load. Four miles into our hike I began to hear the bark and howl of wolves; they sounded as though they’d smelled the kill or were on an animal in the direction to where I’d hidden my elk. I waved back at Jason and Brian to close the gap between us; blowing snow limited what I could hear or see and I went minutes without seeing either Jason or Brian because of the falling blowing snow. I realized the large pack of wolves was actually stalking us; I’d stopped, waiting for the white out to clear enough to see Jason and Brian again, or for them to catch up with me; I heard screaming from down the trail. I ran back as quickly as I could through the snow; two wolves ran along each side of me no more than fifteen feet away paralleling me waiting for me to stumble and fall. I saw through the white blowing snow a pile of wolves two deep on top of what would be Jason, they were ripping at his clothing and pack, digging biting towards his flesh. I kicked them off of his body and yelled at the top of my lungs; they backed away only far enough that I couldn’t hit or stab them with my spear. It was a deadly standoff for at least ten minutes before the lead dog decided that he didn’t want to lose a pack member fighting a human only to eat a skinny human; they disappeared into the blowing snow. Jason had fallen but covered his face and head in the deep snow. He had a single bite to the back of his neck; he was freezing solid in my arms. I yelled and yelled for Brian; I never heard him or found any trace of him. I dug through Jason’s pockets and took what we could use from pockets and pack; I left Jason where he had fallen.
I headed back to the cabin with a broken dead heart.
I cancelled all hunts for three days in the hope the pack of wolves would move on and leave the area.
Five days later after a rough couple days of storms dumping four additional feet of snow on the already deep pack snow I took Mike Miller and we headed out for the elk I’d killed, now nearly a week old. I had little hope that the elk would still be there but we might have a chance at another animal on the way. The snow depth was now incredible; I’d never seen it even half this depth. We were walking at half the height of the scrub pines; their bases were buried feet below our trail. Two hours into the hike I called it off; I’d never be able to find the kill in these conditions. We hadn’t seen a single track in the snow; I was starting to believe we were alone in the woods. No grass eating animal would be able to dig deep enough to survive in this snow and ice.
I had a lot to think about as we trudged home. I announced we would be having a meeting as soon as the other hunters returned from their hunts. I ask everyone to write inventories of all their possessions and have them ready for the meeting. Jim Thompson arrived back to the cabin just at dark; he reported that he too hadn’t seen a single animal track. Well after dark Bob Nelson stumbled into the cabin half frozen and exhausted; not a single track and he’d covered about eight miles in a large sweep. I gave them both two hours to rest, eat and inventory their property.
It was morning before we came to a group decision that nearly everyone would buy into. We all had reservations about abandoning the cabin; but without a source of food we were doomed to stay here.
There are nine of us; four of us fit men that could hunt and pack supplies, Pete Sands ice cut to nearly blind but could pack supplies, Jan West and her daughter Kim 11yrs old, Beth Spear and her son Bobby 7yrs old. We’d load the women lighter along with the kids, but everyone would have to carry their weight. We worked two long days and nights making packs and snow shoes for everyone. We fashioned smaller spears for the women and kids; we’d all have to fight for our lives if we were jumped by wolves or worst.
On the morning that we were to head out the women made a huge breakfast while the rest of us finished loading packs. Pots and pans were cleaned and packed with the rest of our supplies; as much as nine could carry. At about ten am we were ready to go. I led the group out heading due South towards what I hoped would be warmer weather and it just happened to be the direction of my elk kill; we couldn’t waste a single chance at picking up anything we could eat.
We all took turns breaking trail; pushing snow to near exhaustion with heavy packs didn’t take long. I made sure I was breaking trail when we were in the area I had left Jason Cain dead. I’d leave a wide margin between where he’d died and our trail. I didn’t want anyone to happen to stumble over him and I really didn’t want to know if the wolves had come back for him.
We made slow advance in the deep powder snow; and only just made it to the area of my elk kill as the hour to make camp before our first night away from the cabin came. As I’d figured I couldn’t even guess where I’d buried the elk. There must have been six or seven extra feet of snow since I buried him; that would make the carcass somewhere between eight and ten, eleven feet deep in hard packed snow.
Two and a half hours to make temporary shelter to protect us over night. I carried some dry moss and a few sticks of wood to help with a fire. I’d have to replenish my supply as I found pieces along the way. I didn’t plan or even realize the problem of building a fire on top of feet of snow; it was going to be a long cold night. We lost Pete sometime in the night; Jan discovered him dead early the next morning when he didn’t get up from his pad to eat. He must have had a bad heart or maybe just was heartbroken from his loses and losing his sight and gave up. We left him wrapped in his pad. His useful belongings were spread out to everyone’s packs. One less mouth to feed, but heavier loads for all; I really just wanted to sit down and cry. Jan, Beth and the kids were silent; they put on their packs and stood waiting to get in line for the days march. We all felt the loss; Pete brought in a scraggly deer just after we’d finished every piece of my porcupines and were completely out of food. It wasn’t until after we’d all eaten that we’d discovered the heavy price Pete had paid to get that deer back to camp. We covered both his eyes with gauze and without any medicine had to hope for the best; it wasn’t going to come.
The next few days match took us miles south; everything looked the same. Deep snow and ice, blowing winds whipping the snow into blinding clouds; just trying to keep us heading due south was demanding.
I was third in line when I smelled the faint smell of burning wood smoke. I stopped everyone and hid them while I and Mike slowly moved forward to find the fire. Fire meant people and we couldn’t just assume that they’d be happy to have eight people walk into their camp. It was a short walk when Mike stopped and slowly turned and pointed to a tree ahead of us. I looked where he was pointing and saw it too; a body hanging in a large tree, rope clearly around its neck. We quickly turned and headed back to our group; we missed it as we were sneaking forward, but going the other direction now it was hanging in clear sight. We’d walked right under another body hanging in a tree over our heads. We whispered the bad news and made a large circle around the camp. We could hear loud angry voices and it was clearly a camp to avoid.
We stopped just long enough to put white sheets over our heads and packs; luckily the powder snow was quiet and we skirted the camp without being discovered. The next couple days we moved very slowly looking for hunting parties from the camp.
We came down into a long narrow valley; flat as a pancake the full length of the center with large humps every hundred or hundred and fifty meters or so. We’d found a freeway; a freeway full of vehicles buried under the snow. We dropped our packs and in groups of two dug down to the vehicles one after another. After digging out the tenth we found what we were looking for; a small sized box van with “Joe’s fresh meats” written on the side. All eight of us dug in; the hole was huge to get the snow cleared from the back double doors of the van. Dropping into the hole and packing the snow sides tight we pried the doors open and discovered a single box of frozen prime ribs sitting on the front shelf of the van; a mutual gasp came from all of us. This was enough to feed us all for at least a week. We were all in heaven. It was close to four in the afternoon; it was decided we’d camp in the back of the van over night and cook fresh frozen prime rib for dinner.
They came in the night; Duke woke me up with a low growl, I patted him on the head; but he continued staring at the back doors of the van. I shoved Mike; he was awake in an instant. We’d positioned ourselves at the back of the van, as close to the doors as you could get without the blowing wind pushing snow in your face. A man dropped into the hole and threw open the rear doors to the van. Mike was up and on him in a flash of movement. A spear ended Mike’s fight from above and an instant later a rope loop fell over his head and he was gone, pulled from the hole by the rope around his neck. Another man jumped into the hole and they grabbed and pulled Jim out of the van still in his sleeping bag, into the snowy hole we’d dug. The first man jammed a spear into Jim’s chest. I was grabbed from the rear by Jan; she trust a small gun into my hand. She’d been keeping it quiet that she had it the whole time; my revolver was empty and thrown away as extra weight long ago. I brought the little gun up and shot the first man in the forehead; he dropped like a rock. Two more men dropped into the hole with spears slashing into the van. I shot both leaving one man pinned under the two when they dropped; Jan sent a spear into his chest just missing my right ear. Spears rained down from above ricocheting off the floor and bounding up into the depths of the van compartment. Bobby went down with a spear to his throat; the van floor was slick with blood; our, theirs and wet snow. We retreated to the front of the van compartment. It was quiet except for the growling from Duke for ten minutes; then an avalanche of snow feel into the pit, four men with it. They stormed the van compartment with spears slashing in front of them; three fell from the slick floor landing in a tangled pile; I shot the standing man as he drew back to launch his spear into my chest. I turned the gun on the three men wrestling on the floor; only clicks answered my squeezing of the trigger. Jan and Beth jammed spears into any part of their bodies they could find. The van was rocking and men were screaming with blood lust and pain. Kim, Jan’s daughter stepped through our jammed bodies and pinned the last man to the floor with her short little spear; the last charge was over in seconds. Ears were ringing from the little gun and screams; little Kim twisted her spear in the man’s chest and smiled up at me. I realized I didn’t know where Bob Nelson was; I could just make him out in the front of the van compartment sitting on the floor spread legged with the body of Turner our other hunting dog dead; pinning his legs to the floor. Bob was ashen colored and had a finger pushed into his femoral artery which had been laid wide open by a bouncing spear point. I could hear voices above the van in the blowing snow; we had no choice but to ready ourselves for another attack. A half hour turned into an hour; Kim was crying at Bob’s side; everything else was dead quiet. The moon had risen and was casting bright moon light straight into the van compartment. It was a ghastly sight; a pile of dead men half way into the van blocking the pile of dead men where they had fallen in the snowy hole at the back of the van. Bobby was lying at the wheel well dead with both hands wrapped around his torn open neck; Rivers of quickly freezing blood ran down the rough floor dripping into the white snow at the doors. Bob Nelson died in Kim’s arms as we waited for more men to attack us.
Morning came without any further attacks; we pushed the dead men; ours and theirs into the snow and made a four foot high pile of bodies; filling the hole half way to the top of the snow. Whiffs of snow blew into the doors pinned open by the bodies; snow started covering and ending the sight of blood and gore.
We’d lost four to their eight; I heard at least four voices earlier up in the snow above the hole. The camp we passed must have found our trail and followed us. If we’d camped in the open that night we’d been over ran and all killed; again a few of us had survived by dumb luck. How long our luck would hold out I didn’t want to think about; we’d lost over three quarter of our numbers to this point; death is stalking us day and night.
The next morning came and all was quiet. I climbed up from the van into bright clear skies; the first for over a month. I counted six sets of tracks returning to the trail heading back towards the camp. I stood guard while a meal was prepared and repacked our packs, dividing up what we could carry. The four of us set off somewhere near noon; I wanted to put some distance between us and the van. Not knowing if they’d limped back to camp defeated or for reinforcements; we needed to move and move fast.
We pushed on well past dark; dangerous as hell but no more dangerous than not getting enough distance. If they were coming for us again, they’d be on the run mad for revenge. We camped under a large tree that made a sunken hole under its big branches; we flatten out the snow, ate and climbed into our sleeping bags hoping that we wouldn’t be surprised in the night. Morning came and we finished our left over steaks. I managed to get a smile from Kim by making faces about the cold meat; we didn’t dare make a fire and signal how far ahead we might be. Duke got part of my portion since he had saved us two days prior. Just as we had our packs on Duke growled a warning; something was in the area and he could either smell them or heard them. We dumped our packs and huddled together under the tree, backs to the trunk. I shushed Duke and we listened as snow was pushed and crunched under boots.
A loud “Hello” was shouted; we didn’t make a sound. “Hello is anyone there!” “I mean you no harm” It sounded like a single person; I peeked out from the branches of the tree and saw a young man standing looking away from our tree. He turned back and forth looking for what he’d heard or smelled. He was carrying a carbine rifle with a scope on it. We would have no defense against the rifle; I looked at the three women and rolled my eyes; Nodded towards where the man was standing and stood up. He spun around looking me straight in the eyes no more than thirty feet from where I’d just appeared. He stumbled back and fell in the snow. “Fuck me” was what he said. “A little help please” I walked over to him; he’d fallen in the soft powered snow and his head was down, his feet just showing at the top of the hole he’d made. I reached down and pulled him to his feet; he handed me the rifle as he shook the snow from his clothing; when he was done I handed the rifle back. He offered me his hand and I shook it. "Johnny Walker" he said his name was; and added "don’t laugh". I did anyway; the women stepped out from the hiding place and walked to us. I introduced all of us. He said he was from the small farming community just about two miles from where we stood and said "we all looked like we could use a good meal and a shower".
Three months we’ve been in town; town if that’s what you want to call it. Only five houses and barns in a small valley is enough for me to call a town. We’ve made our selves useful and both Jan and Kim have new boy friend’s; I think we are going to do well here; it’s safe; they’re a self sufficient little community and heavily armed; they know and are ready for any bad camps.
They all call me Captain Tom; go figure. Sometimes there is happy endings.
From the Ramblings