IN THE MONTANA BADLANDS – At eight minutes before sunset in the shadow of one butte among thousands I dropped my pack onto the cold ground and sat on it. The remains of the day were bathed in deviations of gray, sandstone, clay and snow white as the evening’s chill settled over this desolate land.
Looking for mule deer, I scanned through binoculars near to far the gullies and ravines that pockmark the rocky terrain, also the ridges that divide its sharp depressions.
My son Trevor, 25, and I had hiked these public lands since morning, seeing no other people, and when shooting-light’s last glimmer fades to dark, deer or no deer, we will backtrack 3 miles to our truck, weaving upslope among mesas and gullies while climbing unstably to the tabletop country high above, a handheld GPS leading the way.
A few minutes earlier, we had spotted three does in the distance, and Trevor had gone ahead alone, hoping his singular figure would allow him to advance on the animals undetected.
He hoped also a buck might be with the does, obscured from our long-range view.
On a previous late afternoon, I had shot a buck perhaps a quarter-mile from where I sat. Trevor and I had located three animals serendipitously from about 600 yards while perched among rocks, glassing with binoculars.
Alternately crawling and half-crawling toward the deer, we reached a ridgeline separating them from us, over which we peeked to see that among the three deer was a buck.
To lighten our packs, we had carried only one rifle, a Browning long-range X-Bolt Hunter chambered for 7 mm Remington Magnum. His mother and I had given the rifle to Trevor three years ago when he graduated from college in Missoula, Mont., where he still lives.
Unstrapping the gun from his pack, Trevor extended the legs of its bipod just over the ridge, positioning the rifle’s barrel in the direction of the deer.
Any shots we would take in this country would be while prone — long-distance accuracy required it — and in addition to the bipod for stability we positioned beneath the rifle’s stock a heavy support bag about the size of a softball.
Crawling up into the rifle, and shouldering it, I found the two does in its 4-16x50 scope, but not the buck.
Lying next to me, Trevor pressed a range finder to one eye to assess the animals’ distance.
“Hang on,’’ he whispered. He was double-checking. Then, softly, he said: “198 yards. Hold dead-on.’’
With my naked eye, I could see the buck expose itself on a narrow ridge. But I still couldn’t find the animal in the scope’s crosshairs.
Feverishly sweeping the scope up and down the ridgeline, finally I said, “I got him.’’
Trevor turned to whisper, “Let me cover my ears.’’
But I had already clicked off the safety and squeezed the trigger, sending a 150-grain Barnes Tipped TSX Triple Shock copper bullet toward the buck, which was quartering slightly toward me, left to right.
This freaky clay and sandstone geologic landscape, with its rock spires and toadstools, hoodoos and cathedrals, was covered eons ago by a vast ocean, and dinosaurs once roamed here, including Tyrannosaurus rex, whose fossils were first found in Montana in 1902.
Today, in addition to mule deer, elk and bighorn sheep roam parts of these dry badlands, munching whatever grass they can find, while golden eagles and prairie falcons soar above.
The mule deer I had targeted was dead before he hit the ground, tipping onto his right side and lying akimbo briefly on the ridge top before tumbling antlers over hooves into an adjoining deep ravine.
By the light of our headlamps, we skinned, quartered and deboned the 200-pound animal. Then Trevor loaded the meat into his pack, all of it, and I took in my pack the head and antlers and our other gear.
A coyote howled beneath a cold sky as we angled step by step toward higher ground.
• • •
Having disappeared to the other side of the large butte in whose long shadows I sat alone on my pack, waiting, Trevor would either find an acceptable buck among the deer we had glassed, or he wouldn’t.
In the former case he would have to sneak undetected into a position close enough to make a shot, range the buck’s distance and, if necessary, use the trajectory calculator on his phone to adjust his scope.
Meanwhile, through binoculars from where I sat I watched as the three does Trevor and I had spotted were joined by a buck.
Trailing the female deer, the buck, whose 4x4 rack spread widely, tiptoed hesitantly, his head oscillating, as if on a gimbal.
Had I been on top of the butte, or around its other side, I would have seen Trevor lying on his stomach scantily hidden from the buck and three does by a slight rock outcropping and by his position above the animals.
I would learn later he had ranged the buck at 292 yards and that his trajectory calculator advised a scope adjustment of 1 minute of angle to compensate for the expected bullet drop.
Dialing his scope accordingly, and double-checking that sufficient legal shooting time remained, he played the cards he held, exhaling deeply to still his heart, and his mind.
Then he slammed the rifle’s firing pin toward its explosive fate, and the buck’s, and his.
Hearing the shot, as instantly through binoculars I saw the mule deer crumple dead.
This was a big animal. Our loads were heavier than when we packed out my deer. Also the wind was stronger, and the going slower.
We had been into our packs for about an hour, picking our way upslope among rocks and crevices, destined for the higher flat land that was faintly outlined in the distance by a crescent moon, when we stopped for a long minute, dousing our headlamps and resting, hands on our knees.
Against the blackest sky ever, a million stars shimmered overhead.
“This is the hard part,’’ Trevor said. “But we won’t be here again any time soon. We should enjoy it.”
Dennis Anderson firstname.lastname@example.org