Ready for Wild
“The mission of men there seems to be, like so many busy demons, to drive the forest all out of the country . . .”
—HENRY DAVID THOREAU, THE MAINE WOODS
“Forget it. Luck is with me today, I can feel it.”
“Luck? Take a look at this face. It was meant for television.”
“Age before beauty, you two. And pass the donuts.”
The partially closed doorway to our conference room muffles the voices inside, yet I’m able to overhear just enough of my coworkers’ conversation that I stop short outside the door. Luck? Television? Age before beauty? The donut talk, though, is familiar.
When I open the door and step inside, nothing in particular looks different. The small, stuffy room is windowless and always reeks of burnt coffee and something sickeningly sweet. Today’s culprit is an open Dunkin’ Donuts box in the middle of the conference table where my three game warden colleagues—Julia, Drew, and Egan—have
settled in, each wearing a khaki button-down uniform shirt embroidered with the Colorado Parks and Wildlife logo. Since the Dunkin’ box is already half-empty, it’s likely that everyone at the table is already working on their second artery-clogging snack of the morning, washing it down with their third cup of bad coffee.
All of this is what I expect to find in this room when I make the drive from my base in Hotchkiss to the main office in Grand Junction for staff meetings with our boss. And yet . . . something isn’t right.
Today, the mood in the room is different. Instead of mumbled conversations and not-quite-awake expressions, everyone’s energy is off. As in, wild-eyed-and-eager off—and it’s making me twitchy.
I don’t fucking like it.
Julia looks my way with a donut in her hand. A few flecks of granulated sugar fall from her chin when she pins me with a grin that’s way too animated, even for her. With her short auburn hair in rumpled curls, a soft build, and the out-of-style eyeglasses she keeps on a chain around her neck, Julia always brings to mind my elementary school librarian—a woman I couldn’t help but love with all of my little-kid heart because she was the keeper of the books. As a result, I find it nearly impossible to frown on anything about Julia, even when that grin makes me nervous.
“Morning, Braden!” Julia calls out.
“Morning,” I answer flatly, warily taking in the equally jolly expression on Drew’s face.
Drew is fresh out of college and probably too good-looking for his own sense. And this might be the seventy-five-year-old cantankerous asshole who lives inside my thirty-two-year-old body talking, but with his precisely trimmed beard and his square-framed glasses he looks like every cliché hipster you meet in a craft brewery taproom. The kind of guys that make things in their spare time—like
reclaimed-barn-wood cornhole boards or bottle openers fashioned out of recycled mountain-bike chains. Junk that only sounds ingenious to other bearded guys of his kind. I still haven’t figured out how Drew ended up working as a game warden instead of doing something with, I don’t know, websites. Or apps.
Even Egan, the seasoned veteran of our group, looks less like he’s merely counting the days until retirement. The first thing he does each morning is draw a big red X through today’s date on the calendar he has in his office for exactly this purpose, ticking one more day off of the two years remaining until he’s eligible for his full pension. Today, though, he’s smoothing the front of his shirt and sitting up straight in his chair, opening up a spiral notebook on the table as if he’s planning to take notes.
Again, I don’t fucking like it.
I keep my eyes shifted their way as I walk toward the coffee brewer, waiting to see if one of them is about to jump onto the tabletop and break out into song, or anything else just as bizarre.
When I step up to shove my travel mug under the pour spout of the coffee brewer, I nearly knock over a huge color photo that’s been set up on an easel just off to one side. The photo wobbles, and I reach out quickly to keep from sending it to the ground. Once it’s steady, I train my focus on figuring out what the hell it is and why it’s here, in the goddam way.
I step back and scan the photo. A woman with a big smile, big curls of blonde hair, and bright blue eyes stares back at me. She’s dressed in a hot pink camo-patterned tank top and a pair of impossibly short white denim cutoffs, while holding a compound bow in one hand. She’s also wearing some sort of high-heeled sandals, one hip cocked out in a way I think must be an uncomfortable position to stand in for longer than ten seconds. All of this, while posing in the middle of a sagebrush-covered field, a ridge
line of snowcapped mountains in the background. Along with what I think are Photoshopped whitetail deer and some mountain squirrels lingering about behind her. At sunrise, of course. Like she’s some half-dressed, witless Disney princess.
But, who cares, because an outfit like that obviously makes sense if you’re headed out to do some shooting on what looks like a cold morning. Forget jeans, a sweatshirt, a ball cap, and some decent boots. Just throw on as little clothing as possible and bumble out there in some heels. I’m sure the wildlife won’t notice when you fall down every other step and make enough noise to send them into the next county.
Ugly text is splashed across the top of the photo in varying shades of hot pink and carbon gray, in a garish, almost unreadable script font.
Watch RECORD RACKS every Sunday
Exclusively on the AFIELD CHANNEL
My nose wrinkles and my lip curls. I point my index finger accusingly at the photo, my gaze now frozen on certain areas of the blonde’s tank top I feel a little pervy staring at but can’t quite bring myself to look away from.
“What. Is. This.” I growl.
Behind me, Julia claps her hands together like a seal cub and makes a strange chirping sound.
“You don’t know? That’s Amber Regan. She has a hunting show on the Afield Channel. Isn’t she gorgeous?”
I grunt by way of answering the obvious. Even though she’s dressed like a ridiculous, sexed-up advertising cliché of a sportswoman, I can’t deny that something about the image hits me hard, and in ways I haven’t felt in a long time. So much that if I hadn’t decided a few years ago that my Chesapeake Bay retriever dog,
Charley, is the only female I’m interested in sharing my bed with, I’d consider making some room for Amber Regan.
Unfortunately, she has a hunting show. As if the killing of an animal should be both exploited and glossed over, edited until it looks like responsible hunting is something that happens in twenty-two minutes and includes obnoxious whispered voice-overs. And I don’t say that because I’m antihunting—it’s the opposite. It’s because I am a hunter.
But I still hate hunting shows. Because they make all of us look like bloodthirsty morons hell-bent on nothing but a new mount for the living room wall. Those shows are just one of the many reasons I don’t have cable and only rarely sit my ass in front of my crappy television to watch the one channel I pick up with an antenna. Even reading hunting magazines is sometimes more than I can stand, simply because they spend too much time writing about success and too little time on the reality of what happens in the field.
In reality, sometimes you don’t get a shot, never see hide or hair of what you’re looking for. Sometimes you take a shot and you miss. Even when it all goes as it should—good shot, clean kill—you still have to walk up to a dead animal, stand over its now-limp body and own what you’ve done. That is the truth of hunting. And if you don’t feel that responsibility so intensely your heart hurts and your eyes water, then you shouldn’t be a hunter. Just keep your hands clean and buy a steak at the grocery store if you’re unwilling or unable to feel anything about the meat on your plate.
I peer at the photo and decide Amber does look vaguely familiar. Her bow is the same brand I shoot, so I must have come across her image before in a magazine ad. None of this, however, explains why she’s on display here—in all of her poster-sized, sleek, high-res glory.
“Her being gorgeous and prancing around TV doesn’t explain . . .” I swipe my hand through the air in front of the picture. “Whatever this is. Or why it’s here. Blocking the coffee.”
“Everybody here?” Our boss, Tobias, strides into the room before anyone can reply to my rant, taking quick inventory of the room and answering his question for himself.
Tobias drops a stack of folders on the table and drags out a chair, watching as I make my way over and drop into a seat across from him. He shoves up the reading glasses perched on his nose to sit atop his head, smoothing down his bushy Magnum, P.I. moustache with one hand.
“Let’s get the obvious out of the way. I figure if we don’t, none of you will pay attention to anything else I have to say.”
His hand slips to the breast pocket on his uniform shirt, removes four skinny plastic straws that have been cut into varying lengths, and taps them on top of the file folders.
“As I think most of you already know, I received a call last week from the Denver office. Amber Regan, star of the show Record Racks on the Afield Channel, is interested in featuring an archery elk hunt in Colorado this season. She and her team will be out next month to scout locations, and they’ve asked that CPW provide some guidance on the area. I need one of you to spend the day with them, show off public lands in your units, and offer insights on herd population.” He holds up the plastic segments. “Hence, the straws. It’s the fairest way I could think of. Short straw wins.”
Julia seal-claps again and leans forward, her hand already outstretched and reaching toward the straws. Drew and Egan follow her lead. I stay rooted in place, something near rage rising in my lungs, filling them so much I can’t take a full breath. You have got to be shitting me. Amber Regan. Here. Bringing all of her TV-show bullshit to town and managing to somehow drag the state into the mix.
Tobias works the straws so that the tops are in a straight line, obscuring the bottoms from view. “OK, everybody in? Draw your straw and—”
“Wait,” I bark.
All eyes cut my way and Tobias lets out a tortured sigh. My feelings about this sort of thing are nothing new to him, but the look on his face says he was secretly hoping I would play along this time. Not so much.
“Why do we have to play dog-and-pony show with her? And why is she even looking at units around here? Send her up north so they can show off their trophy bulls. Better yet, let whatever high-dollar outfitter she’s in bed with do this for her. All she’s supposed to do is show up and shoot, anyway. That’s how this crap works.”
Tobias pinches the bridge of his nose with his free hand, draws in a calming breath.
“She’s supposedly taking a new tack this year. Going on DIY hunts that aren’t a sure thing, getting her hands dirty and doing the work herself. But this comes from the top, so we don’t have a choice either way. And she is hitting up other areas in the state, so who knows where she’ll eventually end up. It’s only February, so she has some time to think it over before her hunt this fall.”
Tobias cuts in. “No more discussion. Just draw. We have other things to cover today, and I’d like to get through it all sometime this century.”
My chest clenches tight as if someone’s attempting to wrestle my heart out of my rib cage. This—the way I can’t gather enough breath to keep from feeling a little dizzy—must be the sensation that comes with selling your soul.
Not that anyone else seems to care. They’ve already each snagged up a straw and started comparing lengths. Egan’s face
falls when he sees he’s out of the running, and all that bright-eyed light from five minutes ago goes dim with a harrumph. Julia thrusts a fist up when she beats out Drew, leaving him scowling at his straw.
“Not so fast.” Tobias turns to me with the last straw still in his cupped hand. He jiggles it my way. I shake my head.
“No. Consider me a conscientious objector to this whole thing. I don’t want anything to do with it.”
“Just take the damn straw, Montgomery. This needs to be fair and square. I don’t want you coming back later whining that you didn’t get to play.”
With a scoff, I narrow my eyes. “No chance of that. Trust me.”
“Braden, come on. Don’t worry about it, I’m destined to win. Luck is on my side,” Julia crows.
Luck. Like that matters one bit. I don’t believe in luck or fate or divine anything. Luck is for suckers and romantics, dreamers and believers.
I do believe in draw odds, however—the statistical factors that drive so much of my job. Only so many hunters who apply for certain tags to hunt are granted one, all based on how the population of whatever species they’re after is thriving and what best serves long-term conservation. Part of my job as a game warden is to keep an eye on those hunters who do have tags and make sure they’re playing by the rules.
As for my odds right now? Those aren’t in my favor. Four people in the game, two of them already out. I’m at fifty–fifty. It’s simple math. But Tobias is clearly running out of patience, and I like my job, so I’d prefer to keep it.
With a grunt, I snag the last straw from Tobias’s hand and hold it up.
All measly two inches of it.
My jaw drops and Julia’s does the same, all while Tobias tries to rein in the shit-eating look on his face. Fucker. Boss or not, that’s what he is in this moment. Because he knew exactly what he was holding.
“Congratulations,” Tobias deadpans, and a chorus of groans from the rest of the room follows.
I might believe that luck is for suckers, but right now one thing is for sure—today, I’m the sucker.