The Goat Hunter
Shale rock breaking and falling off the side of the cliff disturbed the stillness of the morning like a gunshot.
The hunter shifted his backpack into a more comfortable position and patted the soft ears of the giant silver mastiff padding silently alongside him. Her damp pawprints lingered on the trail still covered in early morning frost.
“Good girl,” he murmured.
Her tail relaxed into a slow-swaying wag. The dog wasn’t much of a hunter, but she was good company and could help carry a kill down the mountain. A butchered mountain goat could weigh a hundred pounds not including the hide or head.
The terrible beauty of the mountain loomed. In the Rockies, it was easy to imagine he was the last human being on Earth. He might be. It had been months since he’d seen another person. He used to come across hikers, sometimes climbers, but the woods had stilled. The sound of human laughter or a whistle from a dog owner no longer drifted along the wind.
Spotting fresh goat scat on a game trail, the hunter clicked his tongue.
“C’mere girl. Sit. Stay.”
He rubbed the dog’s back with the scat to mask her scent. A short time later, the sun rose high enough to thaw the thin layer of ice covering the mud on the trail, and he smeared their groins and armpits in the cold muck. He double checked his rifle and continued walking.
The mastiff froze. Her ears pricked forward. He followed her gaze to a black squirrel. He signaled her to leave it with a slicing hand gesture and when she relaxed, he ripped off a morsel of jerky and threw it to her. The meat hit her nose, bounced off, and she scrambled after it. The hunter laughed.
As they crested the next hill, the mastiff’s ears raised, alert, and faced westward. She growled low in the back of her throat. A herd of bighorn sheep were climbing a scree slope still below the tree line a thousand yards or so ahead. It was too far for a clean shot, but he doubted they’d be able to creep closer without the sheep noticing.
“Nothing gets by you.” He gave her wrinkly jowls a good scratch while he pondered his next move.
Bighorn sheep were wary of anything below them but wouldn’t expect an attack from above. Bushwhacking straight up the mountain to gain elevation was the only option. It was a steep climb. The dog wouldn’t be able to do it quietly.
“Down. Stay. Good girl.” He tossed her a piece of elk horn to gnaw on. She whimpered when he left but stayed put.
In the distance, a ram with cornucopia-curved horns raised its head. The meat would keep them fed for months, supplemented with trapped rabbits, fish, berries and other wild edibles. He had planted a garden with potatoes next to his cabin that would soon be ready to harvest. It might be enough to tide them through the winter if the dog didn’t dig up the vegetables again. She tore through most of the potatoes last year and then promptly puked them up.
“No! Bad girl! You stupid dog!” The hunter had never been so angry at her. She shrank onto her belly and peed. He stopped, swallowed, and for an hour stroked her head and cried.
Dislodging a few rocks as he scrambled up the slope, the hunter paused. A few of the sheep raised their heads and looked over but didn’t flee. He was still too far away for a shot, so he kept climbing. More rocks tumbled down, scaring the dog and she bounded to her feet and barked.
The sheep nimbly jumped across the slope and out of sight. Shit. He sighed and carefully climbed back down. The sheep sighting was a surprise, but they’re hard animals to hunt — cagier than goats.
They had been tracking a herd of nanny goats and their kids for days and were running low on food. If they didn’t catch up with the herd today, they’d have to go back to the cabin for supplies. The leaves had started to turn; it would be a hard winter without a big kill in the next few weeks.
By midday, the pair reached an alpine meadow blanketed with wildflowers. Brilliant red Indian paintbrush flowers dotted the field like a hundred tiny prairie fires and the midmorning sun warmed his face.
“Okay,” he said, releasing the dog from her obedience command. The mastiff broke into a run and rolled onto her back, shimmying on the flowers and grass in ecstasy. The hunter smiled. The meadow looked like heaven. It reminded him of his daughter. She would’ve loved this. She would’ve made flower crowns for all three of us and talked about fairies living in the woods.
He had taken his daughter and her dog hiking every weekend that summer two years ago. She was only eight, but she could keep pace for ten kilometres, chattering non-stop about her friends, about school, about a new dance on TikTok.
No more dancing. No more hikes. No more birthdays. She would always be eight.
She was eight when he bought her a puppy for her birthday — something he swore he’d never do. She was eight when she got the diagnosis. And she was eight when he checked her into the hospital for the last time. He had stood alone in the chaotic waiting room. Her mom was long dead from birth complications. It had been just the two of them until the dog.
The doctor said something to him, but he couldn’t make it out. Why are the fluorescent white lights so bright? Why are they buzzing? He blinked, said nothing and walked to his daughter’s room. He held her small cold hand until they made him leave.
After the hospital, he walked away.
He emptied his bank account. Broke his lease. Left his job at the university as a naturalist. He loaded his daughter’s dog, supplies needed to survive and family photo albums into his truck and drove into the mountains. He abandoned the vehicle at the end of a service road. It took him three trips to haul the gear up to an abandoned Parks Canada cabin he had discovered years ago on a hunting trip. He had been squatting there for over a year.
The cabin had a wood burning stove and the glass in the windows was intact. There was a picnic table and a bunk bed. He slept on the top. Daisy slept on the bottom. On clear nights with moonlight pouring in, he would stare at family photos, losing himself in memories until sleep overtook him.
The mastiff nudged his hand. The hunter looked down and took a step forward, and then another. His boots crushed the fragrant alpine grass and delicate flowers underneath. The dog followed. She always did.
By late afternoon, they reached the tree line. The scree slope beyond was barren and windswept, and nestled atop the rocks like a sparkling jewel was the glacier.
Pulling out his binoculars, the hunter spotted a large granite rock near the foot of the glacier. He headed for it, to use as a blind, and waited for the goat to show up and drink from the ice’s runoff.
Stretched out in the sun, the mastiff instantly fell asleep, whuffling and farting. Not for the first time, the hunter wished he too was a dog.
After a few hours, his eyelids grew heavy.
He jerked awake, startled by a boom. His eyes widened. Realization settled in. The ground was rumbling. He looked up. Avalanche. He scrambled to his feet and threw himself beneath the downhill side of the rock. He called for the dog, but she panicked and bolted. The snow was too strong, too fast. The hunter held fast to the rock. He closed his eyes and thought of the alpine meadow.
The avalanche took out the entire slope. The mountain was eerily still. A hawk screeched in the distance as the sun set on the spine of the world.
In the dark, the temperature dropped below zero and the hunter woke to whining. He started shivering uncontrollably and opened his eyes wide. He couldn’t see.
“Mwahh. Ugh.” His mouth couldn’t form words. What came out was a series of mewls and grunts.
The mastiff barked happily in response and started digging in earnest. He felt her hot, rough tongue all over his face, blinked half a dozen times and could make out pinpricks of starlight.
He let his eyes close and almost drifted back to sleep, but the mastiff’s barks were insistent. He realized his legs were stuck, but his arms were free. Slowly, painfully, he dug out his legs. The dog did most of the work. She scratched him, but he didn’t feel it — he was numb.
He stumbled. His legs buckled beneath him and he half-slid down the snow slope until they reached the tree line. They needed fire and shelter. The gun and pack were gone. He grabbed the first piece of deadwood he could find and crawled into a depression in the snow around the trunk of a tree.
A lighter, duct tape and chapstick still safely stored in his coat pockets saved them. Scrunching the duct tape into a ball he placed it underneath the deadwood and greased the knotty surface with the chapstick. He flicked the lighter. The tape caught.
The hunter’s shoulders dropped fractionally as he held his hands over the tiny fire. Smoke made his eyes water. As the circulation returned, his hands turned red. Gritting his teeth against the burning sensation, he broke off half a dozen lower pine branches as a makeshift bed to insulate himself from the frozen ground.
Pulling a tiny, silver, folded-up square out of his coat, he unfolded the space blanket and wrapped it around his body. Shoveling a handful of snow in his mouth, he curled up on the pine branches with the dog. They shared the last bit of beef jerky stashed in his pocket and fell asleep.
As dawn broke, he woke to the dog snuffling the ground. She stretched into a play bow and gave his weathered face a quick lick. The fire was dead. They needed to get moving.
They started the walk home. Juniper berries were plentiful, but after violently voiding the contents of his intestines, he stuck to dandelion greens. His stomach rumbled and ached the whole way. It took them two days.
Bruised, hungry and tired, they stumbled up the front steps of the cabin. The hunter took off his boots for the first time in days. His two big toes were black from frostbite. Hopefully, he would only lose the nails. Nails grow back. Toes do not.
The dog slurped up water left in her bowl, turned in a circle three times and curled up on the porch in her favourite sunny spot. The hunter watched her while making the mental calculations of how long they could survive through the winter without a gun or meat.
He made his decision.
Tomorrow, he would pack up the photo albums and any food they had left, and begin the journey back to the nearest town, back to what was left of civilization. He wouldn’t lose her too.
Sitting in his rocking chair with the dog at his feet, he looked out over the valley and exhaled slowly.
T.L. Tomljanovic is a freelance writer and communications consultant. Her work has been published in university alumni magazines, children’s non-fiction book series, and a smattering of niche magazines. She lives in British Columbia, Canada.