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Rifle Magazine
November - December 1999
Volume 31, Number 6
ISSN: 0162-3583
Number 186
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The Ruger No. 150th Aniversary Commemorative Rifle
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Rifles & Woodsmoke

John Barsness

Tools in the Badlands

Humans make tools. A few other animals do this, usually by breaking a branch or thorn off a tree. But no other animal fits two or more different objects together to make a tool, as early humans did when tying a rock to the end of a stick, making a much more effective club than either a simple stick or rock. Anthropologists say we make and use such tools as extensions of our arms, an extension that eventually leads to nifty things like the .30-06 Springfield.

Back when Eileen and I had only been married a few years, the game we shot made a big difference in our economic lives. We existed in many ways like modern hunting apes, and our hunting-and-gathering always included a trip to the badlands of eastern Montana for pronghorns. Over several Octobers we’d found the easiest way to avoid road-hunters and find antelope was to hike into the rougher badlands. After a couple years we came to know one piece of BLM ground so well that we’d wait until the end of the first week of the season, after the lunacy of opening weekend had passed (and the antelope had calmed down again), to strap on packframes and hike into the biggest section of unroaded hills. By sunset we usually had two antelope, and since we could each usually buy an extra doe tag, we’d hunt for two or three days, taking home at least 100 pounds of boned meat. By late October the weather was cool, especially at night, so keeping the meat was no problem. Some don’t care for pronghorn venison, but when properly cooled it’s the most tender of game, tasting something like young lamb with a hint of sage.

After three years of this cross-state trip, we moved to central Montana, 200 miles closer to the big badlands. Instead of an all-day drive, we didn’t have to leave until midmorning, arriving at Soap Creek in midafternoon. By the time we had the packframes and rifles slung from our shoulders, the sun was only two hours above the eroded hills to the west. As we hiked down the long draw next to camp, a huge flock of sandhill cranes flew south along the small river to the east, following each other in huge curves like the disjointed skeleton of a prairie rattler, their faint warble sounding like a thousand flutes across the sage.

We walked between two long, low ridges, their eroded walls layered in the tan and black of sand and coal. After 20 minutes we climbed to the top of the ridge to our left, our heads hidden behind the rabbitbrush on the crest. As we glassed our hearts thumped gently in our chests, slightly jiggling the magnified view of raw and lonely country. Soon Eileen said, "There they are."

"They" were a buck and three does on the side of a grassy hill, half a mile away. The buck lay bedded near the spikes of some big yucca plants, while the three does stood and grazed. Without binoculars the white of their bodies looked like a cluster of pale flowers against the brown hillside, and the buck’s head appeared a solid black.

"Which way?" Eileen whispered. Two more low ridges lay between us and the herd, but our ridge petered out 200 feet from where we lay, and we’d have to cross 100 yards of open ground to get to the next ridge. Once there we could crawl over a low saddle to the final ridge, but that open ground was a problem.

I pointed across the open space. "Shall we try the Bovine Simulation Technique?"

"Yeah, I think we’re far enough away. Let’s do it." We backed off the ridge, then walked down to the end, pausing at the edge of the open flat.

"You want to be the head or the tail?" I asked.

In answer she bent forward at the waist, placing the top of her head in the small of my back. We walked slowly into the open, trying to wander like a blue-and-orange Hereford. The three does picked their heads up, but one by one the heads eased back down. The buck never got to his feet. In 10 minutes we were behind the next ridge, and in another 15 were through the low saddle and across the draw to the last ridge. Before the final crawl we took off packframes, eased cartridges into chambers and pulled on elk-hide gloves to protect our hands from prickly pear cacti.

There was no handy rabbitbrush or sage on this ridgetop, just cracked sandstone, so we peeked from behind two rocks. The animals were gone and, no, we weren’t in the wrong place; the tall yucca was right there. I belly-snaked forward a few feet, easing the .30-06 in front of me along the ground, and there they were, feeding in the draw 75 yards away.

It was my year to take a buck, but we wanted a doe too, so I waited until Eileen crawled up beside me. We both aimed from prone, and when the 4x steadied behind the buck’s shoulders I shot. He dropped, and the does ran up the side of the far hill, stopping to look back at the fallen buck. Eileen’s .270 thumped, the sound dulled by sage and broken hills, and the does ran again. But soon one left the herd, stumbled over a big sagebrush, then rolled to the ground and lay still.

By the time they were field-dressed, the doe strapped to my packframe and the hindquarters of the buck to Eileen’s, the sun was much lower over the horizon. We left my down vest over the rest of the buck to keep coyotes away, then started toward camp, a mile uphill.

The coppery sun almost touched the western hills by the time we sat on the sandstone mushroom at the head of the draw, for one last rest before the final saddle. The flat mushroom was just the right height to ease the weight of loaded packframes, as we’d found in Octobers past. As we sat there a "chuff!" sounded behind us, and we turned stiffly, held down by 100-odd pounds of pronghorn, to see a big doe 20 yards away, wondering what 11Ú2 antelope were doing on top of a flat rock. By the time we’d untangled our rifles from the packframes, she’d figured it out and trotted over the saddle.

We sat and rested a few minutes more, rifles still in our hands. Once through the saddle it was only a level quarter mile to camp. Rather than sling the .30-06 over the packframe again, I’d just carry it. As the breeze through my sweaty hair cooled my head, the tops of the long ridges below turned a dull bronze in the last sunlight, and the draws filled with the deepwater blue of night shadows. It was then I realized the anthropologists were only partly right, that the scratched rifle in my hands was not just an extension of my arms, but an extension of my life.

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