“You’re gonna bust those goats,” Jim Schiermiester said. He was squinting up the ridge, where a khaki arc of sagebrush scrubbed an endless blue sky. Schiermiester has owned this family ranch for decades, so he knows these pronghorns better than most. “Just one of you go.”
I followed his gaze to the top of the rise, trying not to look at my son, Jack. He had filled his Wyoming pronghorn tag the day before, and as the shot went off, I was close enough to hear his breathing. That’s what he and I had hoped for over the last few weeks while thinking about this trip—each of us sharing that moment: after the stalk, after the crawl, after you will your lungs to heel and you settle the crosshairs.
“You’re probably right,” I said. “But it’s a package deal. Been the point all along.”
Schiermiester pursed his lips, then gave a little shrug of his shoulders. The gesture was clear: Then it’s all on you.
I nodded at Jack. He grabbed the shooting sticks, and we headed into the wind.
A Change of Plans
We had rolled into camp, a deep cleft in the undulating prairies two hours east of Casper, Wyoming, three days earlier. A pronghorn was already hanging from a skinning tripod, with another on the ground in line for the knife. Jack’s brow furrowed with a mix of excitement and self-doubt. He’s taken his share of deer and squirrels, but he’s more comfortable with a shotgun than a rifle, and he was already fretting about the long-range shots common on a pronghorn hunt. I tamped down the urge to chime in with an encouraging word. Some doubts are best faced alone.
What Jack really wanted to do for his first college fall break was hunt ducks in the famed prairie potholes. We’d talked about that for years. He’d never had a school break long enough for us to freelance for migrating birds streaming south from Canada, and I’d promised him that we would strike out for the North Dakota prairies during his freshman year. But then I received an invite to chase speed goats across the Wyoming plains, bunk down in wall tents, and sleep under the prairie moon. And sure, bring the boy along, what’s one more in the truck?
He’d read up on tactics and techniques, texting me questions about bullet drop and wind drift while walking to class. I gave him a copy of Jeff Cooper’s Art of the Rifle and told him to concentrate more on trigger pull and breath control than ballistic coefficients. The pronghorn is an animal to be hunted, not sniped. They live in a world scored with creekbottoms and pocked with red rock, all of which can be used against them. Glassing for mature goats, then planning and executing a long-range stalk, is a piece of theater. From a distance, you pick apart the ground, plotting moves and countermoves, attacks, feints, retreats, and gambits on a game board that stretches from horizon to horizon. If you make it to the foot of the butte, can you cross that open country and stay out of sight? If the buck returns before you get to the does, can you drop into that creek? Can you slide unseen over the top of that gumbo bank? Can you get to the bottom of that ridge? Is the wind the same there as it is here? Meet a pronghorn on his own terrain, and it’s pretty much the most fun you can have with cactus spines stuck into your forehead.
That’s how Jack’s pronghorn rodeo played out, with a few twists. After two busted stalks on our first morning, Jack, his guide, Will Haines, and I belly-crawled to a high ridge overlooking a broad flat where a good buck was bedded down with a scattered harem. After a 45-minute wait, the antelope stood from his bed, and the guide nodded: When you’re ready. That’s when the animal turned his butt to us and sauntered off, not stopping till he had doubled the distance—231 yards. My heart sank. I could feel Jack’s sweat.
A few feet from my son, I watched through binoculars. When he shot, the bullet puffed dirt in the red bank behind the antelope, and for a heart-sinking moment all seemed lost. The wind muffled the rifle report, and for a few seconds the antelope seemed confused, unclear where the danger was located. But there’s a reason why you keep your eye in the scope after every shot and focus on the animal, not your shortcomings. Suddenly, the antelope decided en masse to put some prairie between them and the bullet’s impact. They bolted—and angled hard toward Jack.
He racked another round into the Savage as Haines helped settle his nerves. “Let ’em come, buddy,” he said. “Stay with them. It’s just getting better.”The buck stopped and Jack fired, dropping his first pronghorn at 231 yards.
In a hunter’s life, there is only one first Western big-game kill, and for a hunter from the East, particularly, it carries a certain weight, a kinship with all those pioneers and big-game hunters who have stalked and crawled across the pages of countless books and magazines. Jack kept his eyes in the scope, watching the pronghorn as Haines pounded his back. A half-minute passed before his eyes found mine in the sagebrush.
Like Son, Like Father
With Jack’s buck in a cooler and the focus squarely on me, there was a marked change in his demeanor. Part of it was the way a punched tag lightens the psychic load of a hunt, but something else was going on. I sensed it in the way he offered to drag my pack when he insisted on leading the final crawl to the ridge. His mannerisms turned slightly solicitous, almost paternal. He wanted me to shoot my pronghorn as badly as I’d wanted him to connect with his. He wanted to lead me to the kill.
I had fretted about how the years would change our hunting relationship. Jack and I had bonded over uncountable sunrises. He’s been hunting with me since he was 7 years old, and in recent years was my most steady companion. But the burden was on me to let go and let him roam. He was no longer reliant on my truck, my gear, and my blessing to hunt—although a Wyoming antelope trip is a significant enticement to an unemployed college student. But in that moment, with the grit and sweat and an animal on the line, he wasn’t asking for permission. I sensed it immediately, and I thought: Maybe this was the answer. Maybe I had led the charge for so long that I’d forgotten what it was like to share every aspect of the hunt.
We walked up the slope, stooping low near the top, and then went to all fours. Jack ground his thigh into a cactus and rolled over in pain. I waited while he pulled out the largest spines, his pants spotted with blood, before we belly-crawled the last 40 feet to the crest. Schiermiester was right: There was thin cover, and what little sage fringed the ridge was barely a foot tall.
“Let me take a look,” he said. “Hold tight.”
I nodded. He moved up the last few feet, dragging his legs to keep his butt to the ground, face turned sideways to lower his profile another half-inch as he made his way to the tallest clump of sage ridge, barely large enough to hide a human head. He glassed the saddle for a minute, then slowly slid his hand down his thigh and wiggled his fingers. I belly-crawled to his side, spitting grit from my lips.
Antelope were bedded down 400 yards away. It was a near reprise of Jack’s situation two days earlier. I glassed the animals: a nice buck and three does, unalarmed, and for me, at least, out of reach. We watched the group for a couple of minutes, looking for any sign that they might be ready for a stretch and to possibly make their way closer. But they were down for the afternoon. The shot was a no-go.
“Wait,” Jack whispered. He peered through the binoculars. “There’s another one. Closer.”
He gingerly pointed, and I followed with the binoculars and dialed in the focus on an antelope-shaped blob. Black horns rose over a nice buck partially hidden in grass, half the distance of the others and just as content. I exhaled loudly and turned my eyes toward Jack. He was beaming, nodding slowly. I eased my jacket up for a rifle rest but couldn’t get enough elevation in the scope. We’d dropped the shooting sticks a few feet downslope—a stupid mistake—and they’d be just what I’d need to raise the rifle for a shot when the antelope stood. And this one was big enough, and meaningful enough, to wait out. Jack inched downslope, backward, while I watched the buck chew cud. Jack snagged the sticks with a foot and drew them to his hand, and just then, the antelope stood bolt upright.
It’s not a scientific term, but it’s the only word that works: It is absolutely freaky how a big-game animal can sense unseen danger. Jack was below the ridgeline, but there was just enough micro-commotion on our hill, just enough of a change in the distant outline on the horizon, that an animal that had evolved to discern threats from saber-toothed cats and dire wolves had had enough.
The buck stood, motionless, as if he’d been bronzed, with a sprig of grass held tightly in his mouth. I hissed, “Jack! Freeze!” as I raised the gun off the pack, drove my elbows into the dirt, and centered the crosshairs on the pronghorn’s neck. The does stood, nervous. The buck stared as if he could look me in the eye through the metal tube. When the does bolted, he turned his head to watch their flight for a scant second and then took a quarter-turn and a half-step forward, and I knew in the next instant he’d be pushing 30 miles per hour. I pulled the trigger and pandemonium broke out in the grass. Does raced across the open ground like quail flushed wild, with my antelope hard behind them. I pushed up into a sitting position, racked the bolt, swiveled left, and locked my elbows into the angles of my knees. The buck faltered on the run, trailing behind the does as I tracked him in the scope. He stopped for a moment, sagging. I fired again. After the months of planning and the days on the hunt and the long minutes in the dirt, the end always seems to come so quickly.
After we had gutted the antelope and cleaned the blood from our hands, I stood off to the side as Jack paced across the prairie bottom, 50 yards away. He was talking to his mom on the phone, recounting the stalk and crawl, the shot and the kill. I could see him gesturing wildly, his animated voice rising above the wind. A few minutes later, when Jack handed the phone over to me, Julie asked if I’d gotten ahold of myself. Jack was taken aback by my reaction when the antelope fell, she said. I’m typically reserved at the moment of a kill. I rarely fist bump. I’m not much of a hugger over a corpse. I try to stand where the animal was standing and look back to the place where I took the shot and understand on some deeper plane that moment when one life lent itself to another.
“Mom, you should have seen Dad,” Jack had told her. “He went nuts. I’ve never seen him like that.”
I smiled. He was right. When the antelope went down hard, a bit of crazy came out. But it wasn’t a celebration of the kill so much. I’d stalked and crawled and killed a pronghorn with my son at my side. With my son taking the lead. I’d crossed a dreaded Rubicon, and the view on the far side seemed as grand and promising as the country that lay behind.
Jack was right: I’d never been quite like this.