To the Patient, a Blackpowder Pronghorn
By Gary Lewis
Sagebrush. Sand. Water. Waves of heat shimmered a veil across the distance and his eyes, squinted against the glare, closed...
There was no sound except that of a dog lapping water. It registered.
Tracy Cook opened his eyes and there indeed was a dog – a coyote – taking a drink. 27 yards. He weighed the consequences of a shot. Normally, he would take the shot, take the chance that the sound wouldn’t spook the herd. But... It was day two and if he perforated the predator there would be scent all over that might make the antelope reluctant to come to water.
Its thirst sated, the little prairie wolf trotted off, lost to the sage and the heat. Another hour and a half, if the antelope were on schedule. Maybe two hours.
On a flat somewhere south of Wagontire Mountain, upon a desert that shimmered with mirage, Tracy mopped sweat from his brow and then was still once more. In all that vast sage-gray silence there was no sound, no movement save a few small birds at the water’s edge.
On the horizon, the Diablo Mountains shouldered against the sky. Over all that gray-green parched land, the sun bore hot. Heat lay like a blanket on the plain.
Before him was a waterhole, a half-acre of milky sustenance with teardrop-shaped antelope tracks in the dark mud where the water had receded against the August heat. Around him was a shelter, a ground blind he had built with a Gerber saw and the only construction materials at hand – the sagebrush. A 54-caliber Cabela’s Hawken lay on the ground beside him, the muzzle at the edge of the blind.
Tracy looked to the percussion cap beneath the half-cocked hammer for the hundredth time – still seated. He had learned to give the cap a squeeze before he put it on the rifle. It seemed to hold better that way.
He had settled on a load that consisted of 95 grains of powder and a 415-grain conical bullet. At 70 yards, he could hold a three- to four-inch group and he had decided that would be the outer limit, his effective range.
This muzzleloader tag had come in the mail after seven years applying for a rifle permit. Now he wondered if he had made the right decision to burn his antelope points for this hunt. He had grown up with a centerfire rifle in his hands, not this pioneer smokepole.
And yesterday. He had tried a stalk down a narrow ravine and had closed the distance to 90 yards on the nearest doe. But the buck was another 15 yards out. Too far to shoot.
Tracy’s friend, Bob Woodard, waited back at camp. They had found this waterhole, a tiny spot of blue on a sand-colored map. Now here they were in the desert. His thoughts turned to another land of sand. For the last few years, his life had been ordered by the desert. In between tours in uniform in the Persian Gulf, he found himself in eastern Oregon, wearing the same camouflage.
A buzzard wheeled against the brassy sky, turned its circles, ever higher, disappearing in the sun. Warmer now, on the way to 90 degrees. Tracy closed his eyes.
Out on the flat, in an act as old as time, a pronghorn buck pushed a group of does toward water, then turned and whirled to chase off his rivals. One smaller buck got away with a doe. Another one ran, then feinted and turned. The herd buck lowered his horns, made him turn tail and run. The chase went on for 20 minutes – horns, hooves and legs churning. Finally, the rival got away and went to water.
Tracy pulled the rifle against his shoulder, propped up the fore-end with his left hand and eased back the hammer, a quiet click against his cheekbone. 26 yards.
The blade front sight slid into the notch of the rear. He found the pocket behind the foreleg and ran the pad of his finger along the curve of the trigger. A caress of steel, four pounds of pressure, and the brass of the buttplate rocked.
Woodard heard the crack of the rifle. He joined Tracy at the water’s edge and they ran their fingers through the hollow hair on the animal’s flanks. Later, the horns would stretch the tape to 12 inches and 12-3/8 inches. For now, as the mercury climbed to 90 degrees, Tracy and Bob worked fast to remove the hide and get the meat into the cooler.
It takes patience to pursue antelope: patience to draw the tag, planning to map the hunt, and perseverance to wait for the right shot. It is a hunt that harkens back to a simpler time. For Tracy Cook – soldier/citizen/hunter – the memories he carried, of Oregon and antelope, family and friends would sustain him on the other side of the world.