Friday, November 18, 2011
Tracking, 500 yards in 5 hours/Ralph Bartholdt
NORTH IDAHO—So there it was.
Plain as night’s fast approach.
As the dearth of snow.
Plain as distance – as in too far, or time’s outpacing what was once considered sort of a gift, a solid streak of good luck, or the ability to pencil wind, yardage and bullet drop into a Sudoku block.
The buck was broad and two swales out.
It was a criss-cross moon we call it. The time when the moon’s magnetic pull loosens the muscles and slows the reflexes of big deer as if it were martini hour.
It gets them in the open shedding their boardroom ties and donning cackles like drunken pirates.
It’s up to you to pull the trigger then.
Criss-cross moons are when most Pope and Young animals are harvested. It’s the time to be in the woods.
I had slithered past two does who saw me hunched in a thicket of goldenrod, the flowers gone to seed and the blooms turned from honey to chocolate.
They stared my way as I inched downwind and around a peninsula of buckthorn and elderberry bushes that bent heavily over the trail I had chosen for its noiselessness.
When I made pasture’s edge, I rose to my feet out of their sight and moved quickly toward my starting point, the place I had spent an hour rattling and calling earlier, before the sun cracked the clouds like lava breaching basalt, slipping into the wide open sky like a volleyball on fire.
Here was the memory of a warm autumn slowly disappearing behind a mountain, casting the late afternoon in umber.
I hurried along the trail and saw the buck.
His head was down. He nudged a side hill,browsing the last green shoots that clung to the warm soil under the yellow field grass.
When he lifted his head looking uphill to the bedding area where a doe now emerged, I stepped lightly. Step. Step. Step, then lowered myself.
His antlers were wide. They rose from his skull and followed the same plane in a different direction.
I lifted my binoculars. Wide, I said.
I couldn’t count tines. They were lost in the grass and light that disappeared leaving a digital crunch of poor resolution.
I looked through my scope. He was way out there, I thought, screwing the aperture from 4 to 5 to 6 to 7.
I could have waited.
But what is it that decides?
Once a half mile from this spot where the buck browsed and the doe emerged, I sat at canyon’s edge at first light having walked the distance from my house, up the road, through a forest, across a glade and the upper end of the same canyon. I climbed in and out of it in black night as wait-a-minute vines, hawthorn and young firs slapped me, tripped me, and pushed me onward.
I rounded the forest edge and the canyon as it fell south and steeply toward the river. I walked under what there was of stars and night sky to that place and stopped quietly to wait.
The wind came.
It blew in cold.
The skiff of snow that I kneeled on melted.
A fog boiled up and then the day broke like the fine edge of a skinning knife just sharpened.
Three deer moved across the canyon from the alder thickets and one held back, then pushed forward to stir the others.
Buck, I said shouldering the .257 Roberts, my elbows tucking soft thighs inside my knees.
I couldn’t tell.
So far out and no real light.
The wind huffed and receded, exhaled and quietly regained itself before blowing again.
I saw no antlers, but knew instinctively like we all know. Knew enough to decide before collectively making the decision.
I waited for wind, without thinking.
I raised the muzzle like a mortar tube. Click, click.
And without saying yes, or no, calculated the puzzle and touched off the round like Sudoku.
400 yards away, the deer jumped. It’s legs scrambled as its body catapulted downhill, into a stand of aspen, clashing and crashing until the noise, as I heard it from across the canyon, stopped.
It was a 5-point buck I discovered later, hiking down and then up between the columnar basalt, its brush, yellow pine and, on the other side, the aspens that clawed steps where soil held.
Something, not me, not decidedly, had known it.
This time was like that except for one factor: The two deer. There had been two deer in many years at this spot, or generally speaking this quadrant of field had I previously shot and lost.
All these years of cross canyon gunning, of field edge plunging, of mountain hiking and pot-shotting, and killing, running bucks, bucks that stopped to look back, or broadside bad boys. Of stalking and trailing and plunking bedded deer, or deer ready for the bed. But at this spot for some reason I was 0 for 2.
I lay now on my belly and the buck turned my way. There was nothing for him to see.
I had a clump of gone-to-seed goldenrod, yarrow and buckthorn to shield me.
He lowered his head and I watched.
I could make a stalk to the next swale, I thought. Trim off 100 yards and get a better shot, maybe, if the wind doesn’t change, or the doe doesn’t bleat.
I could slip northeast and cut 50 yards from this shot, I thought, but something like Sudoku said, just take it.
It said you’ve lost two deer here already, both of them leaving a blood trail. Both of them at this hour, just before dark; one lost in the falling snow, the other, in no snow at all.
Just take the shot.
It said two swales between you and the buck. It said 300 yards, easy.
It said .257 Roberts. Your favorite. Ned Roberts. Bear gun, elk gun, antelope gun.
It said whitetail gun and I jumped a little as the recoil snapped and my vision, through the scope saw sky for a moment, and the buck bounded north to the woods.
Chi-chink, the action said.
The smoking brass flipped back toward my shoulder.
Ruger, Model 77.
A hit, I said.
At the shot, the buck had jumped back then turned toward the woods, and the trails there, the down barbed wire fence. It disappeared in the swale of yellow grass and then reappeared, it’s tail up, bounding before the forest absorbed it.
I waited then rose and walked into the field counting paces to where I thought the buck had been before I slammed it with a 117 grain.
One, two, three, I said. Twenty-four, twenty-five … One-hundred and fifty two, one hundred and fifty-three … two hundred sixty eight, two hundred sixty-nine.
It was 278 steps and I saw no blood in the thigh-deep grass. I looked more closely.
Is this the spot? I asked.
He is in there. In the woods. Forty yards inside the forest of tamarack and fir. That's where he folded. That's where the shot, its impact, the fatal and throbbing wound sent him face down and his legs still kicking before he died.
I told myself.
I waited under a sky of unfurled curtain. Before it closed went to look.
The forest was dark. I zigzagged. I crouched futilely for dirt, hoofed, for the hulk of a buck body deadened in the dark.
There was none.
Nights are long this time of year. What was left unresolved at 5 p.m. that last afternoon will find closure today.
It was early next morning.
I made coffee at four and took inventory.
I was out the door long before first light. It was an hour walk to the rattling spot and my buck, I said.
I brought my rifle, gutting knife and patience.
I would use the most intrinsic of senses, rely on them, let centuries pass if need be like minutes as I sniffed the trail, spotting blood, crawling, keeping at it.
It was tracking time in the big woods and 0-3 wasn’t an option.
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