The Shot Not Taken
“Dada, Dada did you get a elk?” called my four year old from the front door as I slid from the pickup into the icy, floodlit driveway. I used to greet my Dad in much the same way, I realized, when he returned from a business trip, hoping he’d brought me a toy or fun memento.
“No son, I didn’t,” I replied smiling and trying to keep the weariness and disappointment from my voice. “But I had a great hunt.”
“Ok,” he said, sounding only slightly deflated, “Will you tell me the story?”
“Sure.” I said, suspecting that bedtime had been extended just for this, and that it might help us both to let the memory live somewhere beyond my own head. “Let’s get cozy by the fire first.”
“Did you see the elk?” he prompted as soon as we were situated in front of the woodstove.
“I did,” I began. “They were far, far away. It was snowy and windy all day, so I couldn’t see much of anything. But then, in the afternoon, it cleared for a just a few minutes, and I looked up, and I saw them… a band of eight elk climbing in line through a big snowy bowl and over a saddle.”
“How far?” he asked, leaning his chin onto his little fists.
“A mile and a half,” I guessed. “and way high-up on top of a mountain.”
“And then what?”
“Then I started hiking. I hiked up that mountain through the wind, and the snow, and the drifts. It took a long, long time.”
“How long?” he asked, grinning, and leaning farther forward.
“Two hours, maybe more.”
“Uh huh. And then?”
“Then, when I got near the top, up where I’d seen them go over, I crawled.”
“You crawled? That’s silly!”
“Not silly! Because do you know where those elk were?”
“Um, where?” he asked, breathless with anticipation.
“They were on the other side of the ridge!”
“Oooooo,” he squealed and wriggled on the floor.
“That’s right. And I didn’t want them to see me. So I crawled up the last little bit, and then…”
“Then I saw them!”
“Well, not exactly. They were across a canyon, about five hundred yards away.”
“Five hundred yards?”
“Four ninety-eight in the range finder.”
“Yeah!” he whispered, eyes twinkling. “And then?”
“Then I watched and I waited.”
“Waited for what.”
“Well I wasn’t sure exactly. I thought maybe, since I’d seen them walk right by there earlier, maybe they’d retrace their steps at the end of the day, and come right to me.”
“Yeah,” he agreed. “Um, did they?”
“No. They just stayed put and chewed cud in their daybeds.”
“So what’d you do?”
“I looked around for a way to get closer without them seeing me.”
“Uh huh, uh huh!”
“But I couldn’t find one.”
“Oh…so then you shot one?” he asked, apparently forgetting that he already knew how the story ended.
“No, but I sure thought about it.”
“Cause why not?”
“Well, five hundred yards is a really far shot, too far for me to be confident. I almost talked myself into it though. I had a great rest, really sturdy, and those elk looked bigger than I expected in the crosshairs. So I thought about it for a long while.”
I’d thought about how long the season had been, how light the freezer was and how few chances I had left. I’d thought about my frozen hands, aching legs and the next four a.m. wake-up. I’d thought about the banner that hung in my college weight room: “Integrity is doing the right thing when no one is watching.” Mostly I’d thought about him, and how I’d answer the string of questions he was sure to have waiting for me when I got home.
“I thought it wasn’t okay to wound an elk, and lose her,” I said. “So I watched, and waited and hoped, until it got dark. Then I hiked to the truck and drove home to you and Mom.
“Yeah,” he sighed. Then, after a contemplative pause, “Its ok Dada. You can shoot one next time.”
Sheltered from the elements by four sturdy walls and bathed in soft, flickering firelight, I was surprisingly comforted by his consolation. And I didn’t even know yet that he was right.