As readers of this blog know, I grew up in Elk County, Pennsylvania, where there is a large herd of elk. In my book The Whiskey Bottle in the Wall there is a chapter in which Oliver, my reclusive woodsman, tells Blaise, a taxidermist, about how he saved an elk's life. Today I came across a couple beautiful videos of Elk County elk so thought I would share them, along Oliver's story.
"Anyway," Oliver said, "it was a cold December afternoon – I remembered that because it was archery season. I was in Grandpop's workshop when I heard an elk. Have you ever heard an elk bugling?”
Blaise nodded. “It's not a sound you forget.”
“I recognized the direction it was coming from so I hiked up toward it. What I found was terrible. It was a young female elk. She'd been shot through the rear haunch with an arrow. The poor thing was miserable. She was trying frantically to get the arrow out by scraping herself against a tree and she'd torn open a huge part of her haunch. She just lay there exhausted and in pain. The bugling was coming from farther up the hill so I knew there was a bull nearby.”
“She was probably part of his harem.”
“That's what I thought. At first I thought I should go get a rifle and put her out of her misery before the coyotes found her. I went back to the house but then – I don't know – I just had to try to save her.”
Blaise watched him quietly.
“So I got some pliers, a jug full of water, and I took some antibiotic salve Grandpop used back when he had horses. I tore up a couple clean sheets and I took my rifle just in case. I had no idea if she'd let me near her or not but... well, what else could I do?” He looked around at the stuffed animals that seemed to be as intrigued by his story as Blaise was.
“When I got to her she was just lying there, her eyes rolling so you could see the whites. I knew she was in awful pain and I didn't want to hurt her any more than I had to. I didn't know if the bull was watching or not but, well, I kept talking to her and stroking her. It was a nasty job getting the arrow out but I managed it okay. She just held so still. I kept thinking she would die but she didn't. I did what I could to clean the dirt and bark out of the flesh where she'd scraped herself against the tree. Then I spread the whole horrible mess with salve and bandaged her haunch with sheets. I backed away slowly and watched. She was tired but she knew what was going on. It took her a couple of tries to get to her feet but she did. She just turned and limped away. I followed her for a few yards then I looked up and saw the bull standing on top of the ridge. He was waiting for her and I knew he'd take care of her.” He took a deep breath. “It's strange to say this but I think it did more good for me than it did for her.”
“I wouldn't be surprised. Do you have any idea what happened to her?”
Oliver smiled. “That spring I found the bandages in the rocks along Pistner's Run so I figured she'd made it. The funny thing was I found Toots a few days later just a few yards away.” He looked at Blaise and felt a deep sense of relief that he had shared his story. “Last summer I was coming back from town when I saw a female elk alongside the road. She had a calf with her. I'm always happy to see one but I didn't think much about it. Then, as I passed her, I saw the scar on her haunch. I think it was her.”
“I'm sure it was.” Blaise smiled. “You know Native Americans call them Wapiti and in many of their traditions they believe them to be the protectors of women. What you did would be considered a sacred act.”
He shook his head. “It was just the decent thing to do, especially after Grandpop's story.”
Blaise leaned forward resting his arms on the table. “Can I ask you something personal?”
“Sure. If I haven't spilled my guts enough.”
“Are you in love?”
Oliver looked at him momentarily speechless then he cleared his throat. “Yeah. Yeah, I am.”
“Good. That's good. You make sure you hang on to this one.”
Oliver sat still for a minute. “I want to. Why?”
“Wapiti are also the symbol of true love. I think that cow you helped has brought a gift to you."