Saturday, October 09, 2010

The Last Hunt

It was late in the 1980's, my father (whom I had always address as "Pop") was 75 years old and his bones and his eyes were both getting old.

Pop and I had been hunting Antelope since 1963 .. first in the Owyhee Reservoir in Eastern Oregon, then in the Steens Mountain region west of the Malheur Wildlife Reservation. But when the draw for Oregon Antelope Hunts had become so fiercely competitive that it was virtually impossible to reliably get tags, we began buying tags for the Antelope hunts near Rawlins, Wyoming.

By the middle 8o's it had become apparent that all of the 'good' areas even in Wyoming had been taken, so even though the Western Cheyenne area was not a highly populated Antelope area, we decided to spend another week, another thousand bucks, and drive a thousand miles each way for a last Father and Son Hunt.

We both bought 'felt hats' (his was brown, mine was dark grey) and brought matching .41 Magnum revolvers to the hunt. Mine was the original 'iron sights', his had a 6x optical scope which was firmly mounted by copious amounts of glass-embedding compound which he had used in his stock-making business.

On the first day of the Wyoming Antelope season, we found a nice draw beside the forest service road in( whatever the National Forest immediately West of Cheyenne was named), and set up a make-shift camp with our cheesy tow-along trailer/camper. We had two-and-a-half days to hunt before we had to start back, so we got there early and after a hard trek up a 60% hill we found ourselves glassing a high prairie covered in knee-deep yellow prairie grass. We saw lots of antelope, be we knew by our experience they would be scattered the next morning.

The first day we mostly loafed around. Tried to sight in our GoatPistols ... Pop's scope mounts failed after two shots (the glass bedding compound was not able to withstand the pounding recoil), so no telescopic sights for his pistol. He would have to settle for his hand-made 6mm-280 rifle. A fierce weapon for the thin-skinned "Prong Horned Antelope" but not what he would have preferred. He wanted to take "The Goat" after overcoming a challenge.

Little did we know then how much of a Challenge it would be to take meat, let along an edible beast.

So our first morning was devoted to haphazard shooting, with no expectation that any game in the area would stay put while we were plinking.

But Antelope are both fickle and curious creatures, and one can never know what will cause them to move away ... or stay ... in an area where there is shooting going on. Unlike Deer, Antelope tend do graze where cattle graze, and if the cattle are not concerned by rude noises, sometimes the Antelope stay in the same area "anyway".

Later that day, I found myself laying on my back in a shallow gully, trying to stay still while a herd of Antelope grazed nervously around me. I suppose I should have shot one of the, but I was so enthralled by their propinquity, and their beauty, that I could not bear to disturb them.

Later in the day I had a head-shot at a decent buck at either 20 or 90 feet; took a shot with the revolver and hit him right between the horns ... and about two feet high. No trophy here.
Even later, what was probably the same buck jumped up and ran left-to-right across a big open area; I took either two or six shots at him, missing him every time. The term "Buck Fever" was invented for this kind of situation. Pop was standing behind me, laughing quietly. I didn'tmind; I wasn't expecting to take an antelope with a pistol; hoping, yes. Expecting, no.

The second day of the hunt, we were getting more serious. And this is where the disappointment of the hunter entered the picture.

Middle of the day, I found the King Buck Antelope standing broadside in the tall grass less than 200 yards away .... proud, arrogant, and a perfect target for the 6mm-280 that my father was carrying. I pointed the buck out to my father, and he could not see it. At all.

I got behind Pop and moved his six-power scoped rifle as close as I could to the antelope. Pop still couldn't see it.

In frustration, pop said "I can't see it .. why don't you take it?"

"No", I said. "This is your antelope, Pop. Either you take it, or we'll walk away. You choose."

He couldn't see it, and the antelope walked away. And so did we.

We went back to the camp, chased our hats which had been blown away in the afternoon predominant Westerly Wind. We ate a light meal, and had a drink, talked until dark and got to bed early.

The next morning the third day of the season, I awoke early. Tried to wake Pop and he said
"I don't really don't feel like getting up; why don't you just go hunt without me?"

I didn't really want to hunt without him, but I did. I tried out my home-made "snake load" rounds from the .41 Magnum on a telephone pole about 10am. It made a nice pattern.

Just before noon, a pretty little doe pranced up onto the ridgeline I was wandering along, and then stopped in (again) the classic broadside pose. Less than 100 yards away, and although I had never knowingly killed a female of any game animal, I took the shot. We had "any sex" tags, so it was legal and ... well, I couldn't bear the though of coming home without any meat, so I dropped her as clean as I could, which was not much of a challenge for the .25-06 loaded with 117 grain Nosler boat-tail bullets .. which I had used successfully at five times the range, several times.

Field dressed, I guess the sweet girl weighed about 70 pounds, so it was no great chore to drag her the 200 yards or so to the truck. I boosted her onto the rack on top of the cab, and we skinned her out at the camp.

That night we made it as far as Evanston, a few miles short of the Western Wyoming border. We got a motel room, and just as we walked into the restaurant the power went out. We sat down n what was (as it turned out) the dining room. We sat there for an hour while we listened to the folks in the bar laughing and enjoying themselves; if we could have found it in the dark, we would have had a better time. The bartender obviously know the location of the 'good stuff', and it was all free. We never had a drop.

But we had a good dinner, eventually, and went back to our room for a good night's sleep. At 6am the next day we awoke to 4" of snow and that sweet doe was frozen stiff from there, thru breakfast at Salt Lake City, and on into the cooler at Schwaggart's Frozen Foods in Pendleton by closing time.

We got a hide, and from that a couple of pairs of soft gloves out of the old girl. Oh, and about 40 pounds of good Antelope steaks after she was boned out. Pop wouldn't take any of the meat; said it was my kill, my meat, and I hadn't the heart to insist that he take any of it.

Because the truth was, Pop really wouldnt have been able to stomach any of it. He had his chance for a good trophy Antelope, and he just couldn't get the job done.

I ate every bit of that she-goat, over then next year, and as much as I enjoyed it I would much rather he had taken an equal share.

The trip cost us at least $1,000 each, which when prorated over 40# of meat made it the most expensive meals I had ever eaten.

But the expense, the meat, the trip .. none of that was the point.

The point was that my father never went hunting again, and he died a few years later from a combination of Diabetes, Cancer and Alzheimer's, never having enjoyed a bite of the meat and ... if his memory had been intact ... knowing that he didn't take one of the best shots of his life.

But he had the hunt, he had the time with his son, and he never voice more than a passing regret.

Me? I wanted him to have that shot. Hit or miss, I had guided him to one of the best animals he had ever not-taken.

This is the man who, on my first antelope hunt 15 year earlier, took the best antelope out of the herd right out from under my sights on Opening Day, because dammit .. he had the shot, and I didn't.

He taught me everything I know about hunting, about sportsmanship, and about shooting. And in the last months of his life he didn't know who I was. For all that, he didn't know who his wife was.

The perfect end to this story would have had him nailing that buck in the tall grass, but it just wasn't what fate had in store for him.

It may be the last good lesson he had to teach me; disappointment, and how to deal with it. I didn't want to learn that lesson quite so early, but it has served me well in the ensuing years.

It always hurts. Disappointment always wounds. But I have learned to just ... let it go, and move on.

I'll probably not be able to teach this lesson so well to my own children. God, I hope not!

But if I could, I could wish no better wish than to teach this most bitter lesson by simply ... sleeping through it.

There was a man.