I did not like Virgil Mayhew. Not one damn bit. Our stubborn noggins collided for the first time about 1983 or so. I thought he was cocky and full of politician stuffing. I was living in the heart of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado engaging in self mutilation with various power and hand tools to pay the rent and to ensure the big boss had plenty of cash to wave around in Cancun every other month or so. Our foreman, Maurice, hailed from the bowels of North Dakota, and was most obnoxious tyrant to ever walk the planet. I was glad he had a queer name. We were remodeling some cabins and preparing them for the tourist season that was still six long months away.
At nine thousand feet above the Cancun water line, we had three seasons, last winter, this winter, and next winter. Other than tracking animals or the neighbor that stole the beer out of your shed, the picturesque layer of back-breaking abundance was nothing more than an unending obstacle for practically anything but bladder art. I can write my name in the snow in cursive and regular. That only entertains you for a little while, and then you are back longing for a day or two when you are salting your watermelon instead of your driveway.
Virgil impressed me for the first time one cold morning after another three foot dumping of the fluffy nuisance. He was belly aching about elk hunting instead of working. He claimed he had a 7 x7 bull patterned up by Flattop ridge. Well, Maurice called in sick, so I figured the bug in his butt musta been molting. Virgil was left in command of the lumber delivery. Knowing the amount of snow pack, knowing the height of the lumber truck, and knowing how bad he wanted to go hunting, the only logical option was to direct the truck around behind Wapiti cabin. This happened to be where the temporary power lines were. It was brilliant in its simplicity. He cleared out the power, poles and all. No one was killed. Virgil went hunting, and we all headed to Grumpy\’s Saloon to wash away our â€œnear-deathâ€ experience. Honest honey, it was horrible. I better stay awhile to help the boys get through it, call ya again later. Virgil didn\’t show for work the next day. He was butchering a 7 x 7 bull.
I\’m not exactly certain when Virgil drifted from extreme repulsion to my lying next to him in a cornfield drainage ditch at twenty below zero hunting geese. Spending countless days and nights around a campfire or in a goose pit with a person gives one a pretty good idea when it comes to analyzing a person’s merit ( just for the record, neither of us had ever laid next to another man in a ditch without a shotgun). What evolved was a cherished friendship with one of the most intriguing mortals to scuttle the planet. He was a hell of a teacher.
One of the more painful tutorials I endured was deer hunting up a steep slope about two miles where we were camped one day on Cave Creek. Virgil’s gotta plan look lit up his expression. “Wait here”, he said. Over the years, I found it wise to heed his instructions. Like the good student to the master, I waited. And I waited. A few hours went by until it was way too dark to shoot. At precisely the same moment I swore I would never forget my flashlight again, the mental heavyweight that I am, figured he wasn’t coming back. An hour and a half or so later my spent carcass and battered shins stumbled back into camp. Virgil was sitting next to a comfortable fire with a cold beer and warm elk steak.\”Where the hell ya been?” Virg asked. “You told me to wait there”, I meekly responded. ‘You mean you sat on the side of that mountain the whole time? That was dumb!” he howled. Well, that was our little joke after that. “Wait here. I swore I’d never fall for that again, wait here¦”
If you went hunting with Virgil and had any hopes of him asking you to go again, there were a few things you may want to ponder. It may be a good idea to structure a three year workout program at the Olympic Biathlon Training Center in Fort Kent, Maine, as you will be required to remain in his wake at fourteen miles per hour for countless miles without emitting a sound. The glare you endure after snapping a twig attempting to shadow the Ghost Boy, made your football coach look like Richard Simmons. I would suck it up and attempt my best at avoiding twigs and a coronary. In the event I did go into cardiac arrest, I knew to do so very quietly.
Virgil liked to be all set up two hours before official sunrise in Denmark. I believe it was like hunting foreplay to him. Canada geese for instance, aren’t nocturnal, so to me this ritual is equivalent to sitting on the hopper three hours before you have to crap. In Virgil\’s world it was far better to be six hours and nineteen minutes early than four minutes late. I got to his house at 3:04 one morning. The taillights I saw three minutes and fifty-nine seconds ago looked eerily familiar. There\’s only so much you can do with a thermos of coffee and a twelve gauge at 3:05 am. I went back to bed. With Virgil, you either filled your tag or left the woods when the owls told you to get the hell out. He was pretty much a legend around our little valley, and points beyond I found.
I was driving through Amarillo, Texas late one afternoon. Hunger was now at the wheel searching for fulfillment when we (hunger and I) spotted a steak house just off the expressway. There\”s nothing more satisfying than a seared slab of Texas bovine and a beer to cleanse the pallet and wash down the dust of Oklahoma. I can\’t recall the name of the place, but it was one of those trendy establishments with free peanuts and saw dust on the floor. If that weren\’t enough, they will gladly pay for your meal provided you order the 23½ pound Colonator (or something to that effect), and could somehow manage to shove the entire thing down your throat in any reasonable amount of time under eleven minutes. I think I ordered the Junior Buckaroo Fillet and a beer.
On the way out, just beyond the decaying cashier with the blue B-hive, the lucky patrons are treated to a pictorial exhibit of all nineteen robust carnivores that conquered the Colonator without lap chunks or ruptured stomach linings. The saw dust was now making sense. Of all the noble warriors in the photos that successfully saved themselves $12.99 plus tax, only one was smiling and weighed significantly less than 420 pounds. Staring back at me deep in the heart of The Lone Star state was Virgil with a Colonator grin on his face. The Granny Clampett impersonator informed me that he was the only one to eat the grizzle too. She remembered him well. They gave him a jar of pickled eggs, paid for his beer, and gave him a coupon for the next time.
Speaking of culinary treats, I got my first taste of Prairie Shrimp bow hunting antelope with Virgil on the Pawnee Grasslands. Anyone that knows much about antelope can tell you that on a clear day they can see the back of their heads. Getting into smoke pole range is a trick, but a twenty yard shot with a bow requires Pottawatomie-Ninja type skill. Virgil had it down. Anyway, being bow season, it was pretty warm and we ran into a few fat Western Diamond backs. My manhood/ coward louvers meet on an agreeable twenty yard perimeter mandated by my inner sissyness for most snakes. Virgil preferred to catch them live and plop them into a day pack till supper, because prairie shrimp are best eaten fresh. I think he was ashamed I didn’t know that. Well, head whack the heads off; of course reminding me to bury me deep, cause they stay alive for a day or two. Don’t want to sit down and take a couple fangs to the south side. We all know how that story ends.
He skinned them out and tossed them in a pan. Sliced methodically in six inch segments, Satanâ\’s, little serpents were still squirming for their lives, right up till about medium-well. It kinda creeped me out, but thanks to Jim Beam, I was only traumatized for two or three shots. I cooked mine a while longer, poked it with a stick, and threw it on my plate. I must admit, it was pretty damn good. Canâ€™t remember what he seasoned it with, more than likely a unique blend of salt, pepper, gun oil, and doe urine. We never let him cook much. Sometimes hed sneak a rattler in his pack, and then asked me to grab something out of it, just to hear me scream like my sister. I didn\’t like him as much some days.
Virgil was half Chippewa Indian with the other half being a gumbo concoction consisting of family man, bloodhound, philosopher, mentor, and the most instinctual, rugged sportsman any of us in those mountains ever knew. Strong as a Brahma bull, he only stood about 5â€™ 8â€ with one of those drop down mustaches that was usually a pretty good indicator of what he ate last. He had the leather face and hands of a hard working mountain cowboy. Toughest human I ever knew. Just to the aft of that mischievous, boyish grin was a magnificently polished soul. It was buffed to a shine with unselfish kindness, integrity, intelligence, and redneck wit. He was once described as â€œa cross between Grizzly Adams and Larry the Cable Guy. Im thankful for all years we trudged through waist deep snow, called turkeys, slept in cornfields (again, armed), tracked deer and elk, snuck up on antelope, or just watch him catch his limit before I got a damn bite. He was my friend and professor. He taught me the wilderness; my buddy, Buffalo Fenderson, however, taught me the right way to drink beer on horseback. For that skill alone, Im eternally grateful to Buffalo.
Virgil filled his tags every time. Legal and ethical, he never ever place pride over quarry. A clean shot with no suffering was the rule. You can pass up a trophy, but you can\’t pass up your conscience. Strictly from a personal standpoint, I found in hunting with Virgil, a projectiles intended target versus its actual course could mean another ten mile (very quiet) death march at 10,000 feet with a pissed off Chippewa. I spent a lot of time at the range.
I moved out of state a few years back, but visit every chance I get. There is nothing as comfortable like time with folks back home. Virgil was always my first stop. We talked on the phone a lot, whenever I could get a hold of him. He wasn\’t much for being places where those things worked. On the rare event I found him at home, usually when his wife Anita had him stop in for DNA testing and an updated photo for future recognition, we talked and laughed for hours. Our trips to the back country never came soon enough now that we were in separate states.
Greg Burkman called me one Friday evening last summer, and told me Virgil was in the hospital. He had some kind of virus. The only thought I could muster was how on earth the medical staff is going to keep him corralled in a bed. A virus, come on. I personally pulled a three quarter inch hunk of Ponderosa pine stuck three inches deep in his lower back after a bear chased him over a twenty foot cliff while testing the effectiveness of his new coyote call.
Over the next week, I got daily updates. Some good, some not good, but this was Virgil. I sent him a card at the hospital, it was a copy of a painting our highly talented comrade and hunting pal Greg did of one of our favorite places to hunt geese.
My phone rang on a Wednesday morning. I could hear the surreal sound of Buffalo’s voice floating from the hunk of plastic in my hand that simply echoed “Mayhew kicked the bucket.” To attempt to somehow craft the words to capture this moment in your life and his death is beyond any literary capability. Somewhere amid shock and disbelief is an emotion that has yet to be defined. It\’s numb, but doesn’t hurt yet. Even as the horse drawn carriage rolled out of the fairgrounds that next Saturday morning with my friend, it seemed I was still somehow cheating reality.
I have a quarter of a century or so of Virgil memories, some I’ll always remember and some I can’t forget. A couple years have passed since Virgil’s been gone. I still cry sometimes, but I still laugh sometimes. I still see and talk to him a lot. He was a frog on my muzzle loader last deer season; he landed in the oak tree in my yard the other day. He never was able to read the card I sent him, the hospital sent it back. I miss my friend
This story is dedicated to Wendy Adams, who’s worked so hard to keep Virgil’s memory alive-MSH