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 didnt 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
bucks 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 wed 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
I pointed across the open space. "Shall
we try the Bovine Simulation Technique?"
"Yeah, I think were far enough
away. Lets 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 werent 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 bucks shoulders I shot. He dropped, and the does ran up
the side of the far hill, stopping to look back at the fallen buck. Eileens .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 Eileens, 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 wed 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 wed untangled our rifles from the packframes,
shed 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, Id 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