Crown of horns

An encounter with an injured bull elk, and the meaning of fatherhood.

  • Craig Childs holds up a ram's skull.

    Craig Childs

Overcast afternoon, adobe badlands, hill-and-gully country laced with spot-melt snow where I had come to walk for a couple of hours. Sometimes I get wrapped up at home, too many days spent in one place, going out the door only to move firewood inside. Changing baby's diapers, tirelessly rattling at a keyboard, listening to a little boy shouting for attention, I sometimes forget there is a world outside the walls.

I came into a draw and scared a herd of elk from the gully below. They posted up a hill of sage, snouts lifted haughtily in the air. Their bull came up from behind, his head crowned in heavy antlers, tips grayed from the rut. He looked to be six or seven years old, prime of his life, alpha in these parts. But he had a terrible limp. His hind left leg had been cut off at the knee, and the ragged end of a bone was exposed. Either he had been hit by a car or clipped by a poacher. Maybe he twisted up in a barbed wire fence and broke his leg struggling to get free. It was painful to watch as he stabbed the ground with the raw break, his severed leg jerking for purchase. He tried to catch up with the herd, but the soft-shouldered cows turned and trotted into the next gully before he could reach them.

He stopped at the hill crest, turned, and assessed me. Making eye contact, I was brought immediately to my senses. I was being watched by an antlered patriarch, father of all he surveyed, soon to die. Hounded by coyotes, he would weaken, and winter would finally reach into his breast to extinguish his heart. Come spring, I would find his torn-up carcass in one of these gullies, his skull and antlers left like a shrine. I did not want to waste the remainder of his energy. I backed off and lost sight of him.

Soon I crossed a barbed wire fence and reached a paved back road between two nearby towns. Not much traffic, maybe a truck or two every few minutes. Wearing the wool serape I'd grabbed when I shot out the door, I must have looked like a roadside gnome, my hood pulled up into a peak.

A beater GMC slowed behind me, window cranking down as it approached. A teenage boy put out his elbow, making sure I could see the beer can in his hand.

"Hey, whatcha doin' out here!" he shouted, sounding like the kind of kid who likes to smash mailboxes with a baseball bat.

"Walking," I said, without stopping. I was not in the mood to talk. I had few enough moments to myself these days, and I was still savoring the bittersweet encounter with the elk. The truck kept pace with me, and I could see the driver, a snickering young man with a cowboy hat and a bud of chew bulging behind his lip.

"You don't got a car?" the driver shouted, and the guy at the window laughed.

I stopped and looked into the cab at the two punks. "Either of you got kids?"

Their faces went blank as the truck stopped.

"I mean, are you guys fathers?"

Driver, laughing nervously: "Hey, I'm only 18."

"Hell, no," said the closer one, trying to sound cocky.

"Well, I'm a father and that's why I'm out here. You guys are probably going to be fathers someday, and it's going to be a big surprise," I said. "I don't care how much you plan ahead, you're going to have shit and vomit on you, your wife is going to be pissed off at you, and you're going to be wondering what the hell happened."

They both stared at me like they forgot what to do with their mouths. I rambled on for a minute, saying it's hard to know how exactly to be a good parent, and you're always wondering if you're doing the right thing. To take the sting off, I added that I've never been so damned happy in my life, that the feel of a little kid crawling into my lap and falling asleep is like nothing I ever imagined. Being a father is like doing what you were principally designed to do. It satisfies a primal urge.

"In fact, right now I'm heading back to them. You know why? Because I want to be there. I'm their father."

I started walking again and the GMC picked up.

"Thanks, man," the driver said.

"See you around," said the passenger, tentatively raising his beer to me. They drove off.

Well, I thought, that got rid of them. I felt triumphant, ready to go back home and once again put on my helmet of antlers.

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