I’m no John Wayne

   Fall colors mixed the gold of aspen with the green of fir and pine.  The morning’s coolness had added it’s
white frosting to whatever wasn’t moving.  The beginnings of a new day was lighting the horizon as I drove along
the edge of the lake.  Geese took flight after resting to continue their journey south. Griz sat on the seat beside
me impatient for us to stop and begin our hiking.  She whined and panted knowing we were getting close as we
rattling across the length of the one lane bridge.  Now a steep canyon wall was to our right while the narrow part
of the lake was to our left.  We were close to the parking area and her panting increased.  I chuckled to myself,
and it made me feel good to think she was as excited as I was to begin the day.  
     I had woken to an alarm an hour and a half earlier, cussing myself for having set it as I curled up to enjoy the
warmth and security that a bed can bring after being woke up from a sound sleep.  Griz had heard the alarm
also from her bed in the utility room and barked her insistence that I get up.  My wife asked, “are you going or
not” with a little irritation in her voice, as she pulled the covers over her head?  Griz wasn’t giving up and added
a few more barks till she heard me yell, “Okay, okay.”  From under the warmth of the covers I could hear my wife
say, “don’t wake the girls.”  Before I left the house, I checked on my three daughters and they had heard
nothing of the alarm or dog barking, and were fast asleep.
   As we turned into the trailhead, I shut off the headlights and thanked Griz had insisting.  I strapped the 22
pistol to my waist feeling like a ten year old, but holding to my promise.  I knew it wasn’t loaded, so I didn’t even
check.  It was enough of a pain just to pack it without shooting myself in the foot.  It had never been loaded
because I’m not a person who likes to shoot things whether they are moving or still.  I hate the noise.    My wife
had given it to me for protection from bears.  I agreed to pack what I considered little more than a nuisance.  I
stuffed a couple baloney sandwiches into my backpack, and then slipped on the pack frame.  Griz was pacing
back and forth.  She would run up the trail a ways and then back to see what was taking me so long.
   A thin sheet of ice crunched under my feet from a skiff of it coating small puddles.  Griz whined a couple of
barks, and I said,  “I’m hurrying,” as we headed up the steep face of the small canyon ignoring the will used trail
that worked its way up the bottom.  I had hiked the area many times in the past seven or eight years.  I had
packed a lot of antlers out of the south facing slopes, windblown ridges, and steep faced draws.  Sagebrush
grew thick and up into the timber until it was choked out by its need for sun.  It was an excellent wintering area
for deer and elk.
   I was a little light headed from pushing myself to the top of the canyon rim remembering that I had fed Griz, but
skipped my breakfast.  Catching my breath I crossed a fairly flat area before I drop into the next canyon.  The air
made my chest hurt as I tried to breath from the bottom of my lungs.   During Octobers fall, this was the best time
of day.  General hunting season was a couple weeks away, but bow season was in full swing.  I packed no bow
or assortment of arrows.  Long shadows told of the suns arrival as it crested the high ridges before me.  They
were my destination, and I had about an hours hiking before I reached the area I planned to hunt for antlers.  I
crossed the main trail that had come up from the bottom, and I had left the convenient walking of its path.  Griz
was trying to cover as much ground as possible.  A jackrabbit raced from the cover of a sagebrush and
disappeared into a tangle of cedars, but Griz missed it.  She was sniffing and pawing at the place the rabbit had
abandoned.  She caught up with me, and her head was covered with the soft brown of mountain dirt.
   I dropped into the next canyon and turned up the bottom of it to head for its source.  July and Augusts’
drought had reduced the small stream to barely a trickle.  Griz lapped at its coolness, and I found a small pool to
drink in its refreshment.  I cupped my hands under the dripping of a waterfall and splashed the cold water on my
   No game trails here, the farther up we went the denser the brush wove among the prickly needled spruce
interrupted by an occasional quaking asp or stunted cottonwood.  Rose briers clawed and raked while willows
slapped and gouged trying to keep me from entering their domain.  This was a good place to find a winterkill
buck, or moose paddle, and I stayed in the thick of it for that purpose.  Griz tried to stay out of the tangled mess
with logs scattered like match sticks exploded from their neatly packed box.
   My persistence paid off, and I was rewarded with a nice five by five deer rack that had died a couple winters
past.  Few bones were evident as Mother Nature fought to return them to their source.  Leaves had left the limbs
above me a few weeks earlier and spread their mixed bag of new carpet colors.  Porcupines had only gnawed
the set in a place or two and moss had colored the whiteness of the skull interesting patterns of green.  
   I was almost to the head of the canyon when I came across a nice elk shed that had weathered many winters.  
Most of it was buried beneath the decay that fed the roots for next year’s greenery.  There were only a couple
points that caught my eye and convinced me it wasn’t just a decaying tree branch.  I pulled it from its hiding and
wondered how many times I had walked by it in earlier travels.  It was still solid, and six of the seven points were
in good shape.
   Griz came around to sniff where the elk antler had been buried and didn’t seem too impressed.  We broke out
onto the high ridges, and I started zig zagging back and forth over small sections of them.  By noon, I had found
fourteen deer sheds and three more elk sheds.  I had stacked them in a couple different places to pick up on my
way out.
   The sun was warming the fall day, and I was down to my shirtsleeves with my jean jacket tied around my
waist.  I was enjoying myself almost more than I could stand.  I hated to stop even for a sandwich, but Griz knew I
was carrying them.  She yipped for me to stop, so we could have our lunch.  I ate on the baloney sandwich and
pulled off pieces to feed her.  Griz’s face was clean again of the dirt she had caked on it earlier.  She sat and
panted making sure the portions were divided evenly.  
   Griz stretched out and closed her eyes, but her ears never stopped twitching as noises that only dogs can
hear and solitude can bring kept her alert even in her rest.  The clearness of the day and the sun baking on me
caused my eyelids to close as I lay with my head propped up against my pack.
    I woke in a little bit of a panic, wondering where I was and how long I had been asleep.  Griz jumped to
attention trying to figure out what was my problem.  I clambered to my feet, and slipped back into the shoulder
straps for the pack while I cussed myself for drifting off to sleep when I could have been finding more antlers.  I
chewed Griz out for letting me sleep as she headed off making up for what she had missed.
   I worked a couple more ridges and had fifteen more deer sheds, a brush head elk winterkill, and six more elk
antlers.  Two of the elk sheds were off the same bull, a year old, and huge.  The sun told me it was getting close
to five o’clock.  I knew it would take me two hours to get to the car, so it would be close to dark when I finished up
my day.
   I had all but two stashes of antlers on the pack frame as I continued, and would pick them up on the way out.  
Griz was starting to tire from all her side trips and was ready to head for home.  She walked at my side most of
the time or just behind me.  I could see as she aged, her paws were getting sore, and she didn’t have the
stamina she did in years past.
There was a finger ridge I wanted to look over on the way down the mountain, so we crossed the lower half of a
rock slide to reach it.  I was a little surprised to discover a couple of lichen colored deer sheds hidden among the
boulders.  My shoulders and hips were starting to complain about the hundred or so pounds I was packing.  
Maybe I was getting a little old also.
   There was a sway-back saddle that looked inviting as the ridge disappeared into a timbered pocket.  I headed
for it with Griz on my heels.  I would have to cover the area pretty fast if I wanted to get out before dark.  There
would be other days, but I wanted to use up all of this one.
   With sweat oozing from every pore in my effort to hurry, I saw the silhouette of a man standing at the edge of
timbered shadows.  It only took me a moment to realize what he was holding.  There was no sound and no
movement as I picked up the glint off a rifle barrel.  I stopped as Griz came around the side of me.  “Stay” was
my one word command and she froze.
   I straightened as best I could and turned toward the man and the rifle.  “Hello,” I said feeling the straps on the
pack pulling back against my collarbone trying to tip me over backward.  I had taken the jean jacket from around
my waist earlier in the day and tied it on the pack so the pistol I was holstering stood out in plain sight.  As the
man took a step forward the lowering of the sun reflected of a portion of the barrel and confirmed the reality of
the rifle.  Straining to make out the man’s features, I could see he was bearded, shabby in his dress, and had
raised the rifle so it was pointed at my feet.  But his grip was so he could have it aimed at my waist and fire in a
split second.  Three words came from the bearded face.  “You the law?”  “No,” I said as I rested my right hand
on the top of the pistol grip using my little finger to flip the leather strap that secured it in the holster.
   The rifle inched up to aim at my knees.  I don’t know why I had flipped the strap.  Maybe as a kid I had
watched too many Saturday matinee westerns and played to many games of cowboy and Indians.  Somehow I
didn’t think this was real.  I knew the pistol didn’t have a shell in the barrel and even if it did, I was no John
Wayne.  Griz sensed the danger and was giving off a low growl.  “What’s your business here?” were the next
works as if they had been well thought out.  The way he said it just hit me wrong.  I was in the wild, and whatever
my business was it was mine.  I may have to answer to people when I was in their civilized existence, but out here
I didn’t have to answer to anyone.  “I’m minding my own business and “you?”  I asked with an edge of irritation in
my voice.  The pack was getting heavier by the minute, and I didn’t know how much longer I could keep Griz at
   “Dad,” came a voice out of the shadows to my left, “He’s just a horn hunter.” Griz barked at the voice and
stepped in front of me as I commanded her to “stay.”  The voice from the shadows asked “Your dog vicious?”  
With as much calmness as I could muster while the sweat was running down the crack of my butt, I replied.  “Rip
the leg off a rhino if I give her the command.”  The rifle eased in the hands of the bearded face from pointing at
my knees to angle more at Griz as she growled and snarled while taking a few steps forward.  I rubbed my hand
on the pistol grip and the rifle quickly swung back in my direction.
   The voice from the shadows sounded young, and a little excited.  I wondered if there were only two people.  
Then I thought, I bet the voice from the shadows is holding a gun also.  I felt more vulnerable than if I had
stepped naked from a shower stall into a crowd.  To my right a rifle was all but telling me to drop my gun, and
raise my hands in the air.  Know to my left someone I could not see, might be holding anything from a machine
gun to a pocketknife.  If that weren’t bad enough, there could be more guns in the late afternoon shadows that I
couldn’t see.  Griz was growling at one voice and then the other, but what if there were more voices that hadn’t
   I finally broke the silence by saying, “Sorry if I startled you.  I’m just on my way down the mountain.”  Trying to
make it sound more as a statement rather than an apology.  The voice from the shadows to my left stepped into
the light, and I could see he was just barely a teen. One hand gestured toward the dog, but the other hand was
behind his lower back.  I wondered if he had played cowboys and Indians when he was younger.   “That’s a nice
looking dog you have,” he said with genuine interest.  
   The bearded voice spoke with a scolding tone.  “You shouldn’t have let him see you.  Now we’ve got
   “No dad,” said the boy.  “This man don’t know us.  Do you mister?”  The arm behind his back dropped a little
as if to relax, but I still couldn’t see if there was a firearm clutched in its fingers.  Griz was starting back toward
me, after hearing the young man’s voice.  “No son,” I stated as a fact.  The bearded voice spoke again, and Griz
turned in his direction.  “Be on your way then.”  Nobody wanted to be on their way more than me, but I just didn’t
want to turn my back in making my escape.  “I like your dog mister, the young man quipped, and then more to
himself than to me, “I wish I had a dog.”
   The weight of the antlers seemed like they were up to about a ton by now, and I was afraid if I backed up I
would tip over backwards.  I knew I was going to have to turn my back on the bearded man.  As I started to turn I
could see the barrel of the rifle start to rise and then I heard Griz give a couple of warning barks and step
forward.  The rifle lowered as I made my turn and paused just for a second before heading back the way I had
come.  I would like to think the pause was a small act of defiance, or a hint of bravery to let the rifle know I wasn’t
afraid.  But I think it was more a waiting to see if a bullet would shatter my spine and blackness would numb the
pain.  I dropped out of sight in about a dozen quick steps and quickened my pace into the nearest shadows of
the coming of evening.  “Griz” I called, trying to keep the relief out of my voice.  She came running as I waited for
a rifle shot.  As tired as I was from the days hiking, adrenalin had me pumped up and I dropped off the ridge like
a rock.  I was all most half running as the weight from the pack pushed me down the steep face and into the
creek bottom below.  I passed through the tangled maze like a bull moose in a flower shop.  Tree limbs clawed at
the antlers on my pack as dead falls tried to trip my stride.  I would have none of it as I plowed my way with the
snapping of green limbs and the breaking of dead branches announcing my departure.  
   I covered a mile or so in record time and finally had to stop before my lungs bust.  Griz was right behind me
and as I caught my breath she scanned our back trail with low growls.  When my breathing finally turned to
something less than gasps I replayed the past events in my mind while bent over with my hands braced on my
knees in an effort to take some of the strain off my shoulders.  I could feel the straps cutting into my shoulder
muscles and noticed there was no feeling in my hands.  
   “This is a crock,” I said to myself.  No one s going to run me out of what I considered my country.  I still had
two stashes of antlers to pick up and I was going to do it.  The sun was about to rest on the mountain range to
the west so I knew I didn’t have much time.  After dropping my pack and climbing to the opposite side of the
canyon, I kept to the timber.  I was mad for feeling afraid, but I wasn’t stupid.  Griz looked at me as if I was some
kind of a nut.  She thought we were headed home.  I found the first stash and then within a half mile the second.  
I carried them in my arms back to the already over loaded pack frame. With the swiftness of an overzealous boy
scout, I hurriedly tied them on with more fear of the arrival of darkness than a bullet.  
   I had a real load now, maybe a hundred and fifty pounds or more.  As I was picking up the two stashes I
stumbled onto two more elk antlers.  I lifted the pack up on a fallen log, so I could hoist it up on my back easier.  
The weight caused me to sway a little and I realized how tired I had become.  As I started for the car I wished I
had taken the time to get a drink while running my tongue over dry lips from a mouth absent of saliva.  I hit the
main trail and hurried along as the sun disappeared from sight leaving the horizon enhancing its own fall colors.
   Griz kept stopping and growling.  Twice I had to stop when I could go no further and catch my breath that
refused to stay caught.  My shirt was ringing wet with a sweat that was turning cold and breathing that came with
a rasp from deep in my throat.    Griz knew what I knew.  We were being followed.  The trail stayed mostly in the
open and I didn’t like the idea, but it was the quickest way.  I was bent over so far from trying to keep most of the
weight on my back that if I would have stumbled, I would have broken my fall with my face.
   I was thankful when I came to the rim above the canyon where the car was parked.  I left the trail and dropped
off the side with knees so wobbly I didn’t know if they were going to hold me up.  I reached the car with barely
enough daylight to see and fell to the ground beside it to disengage myself from the pack.  I usually spent time
untying the antlers and then loading them in the car but this time I slit the strings with my pocketknife.  I pitched
them into the trunk and back seat with little thought of gouging or tearing fabric.  Griz kept a watchful eye on the
ridge above us as I hurried.  I opened the diver’s side door to get in and Griz leaped in ahead of me.  She had
had enough; it was time to head home.
   I started the car and turned on the headlights.  Backing up I noticed something stuck in the windshield wipers.  
I got out and retrieved it.  With the car door open to keep the dome light on I read the scribbling.  “If someone
asks, let my mom know that I’m okay.”  I threw the note on the dash and started for home.  Griz lay down in the
seat and started licking her paws.  I wished I could lay down with her, but I had an hour’s drive ahead of me.  
   I called the sheriff the next day.   When I told him about the man and boy and gave him the note, he told me
that the man was the boy’s father.  I never said anything about the rifle.  He had taken the boy from his mother
and was living in the mountains.  They had formed search parties to look for them a few times but hadn’t had
any luck.  He would probably bring the boy out when winter came and drop him off at the boy’s mothers.  It had
happened before.  I told the sheriff where I had last seen the two of them, knowing they would be someplace else
when the sheriff arrived.
   A few years later there was a kidnapping and murder in the same mountain range and the boy and his father
were the prime suspects.  They avoided the law for a few months in the ruggedness of the wilderness before
being captured.  Tried and convicted, one is still in prison and the other is back in prison. I often wonder if my life
could have been saved that day by the boy who liked the dog or the threat of an empty revolver.
-Jim Phillips