My first shot at an antelope never even made it out of the gun. I was sitting in the truck eating a sandwich, when my brother-in-law noticed something coming over the hill. It looked like a little white dot mixed in with the sage brush, and as it came closer we all knew it was a buck antelope. He was all alone, which is not normal for bucks this time of year. There was another truck in the distance, where a man was sighting in his rifle. The antelope stopped in the field and looked at us. I hadn't used my dad's 7mm rifle in several years, and I could hardly remember how to even work it. I fumbled out of the truck, leaned over the hood and realized there was no bullet in the chamber. By the time I figured out how to load the gun, the antelope was standing between us and the other truck. I waited to see if he would move away from the truck so I could take a shot, but his slow walk turned into a trot, and before I knew it he was over the hill.
Lesson #1: The shot in front of you may be the only one you get.
The second shot made it out of the rifle, but it only hit dirt. We had been driving around a pretty large section of state land when we saw a small herd of antelope lying in a field. One buck and four does. They were much too far off to take a shot. Joe suggested we come around on foot, sneak up the hill and try to get a shot. This seemed like a good idea, so we got the gun and our cool orange caps and started off across the plains. As we crested the hill, we could see the antelope still lying there. I moved around the left flank and got on my belly. There had been snow the night before, and the ground was still mostly frozen. Any natural instinct a person may have about distance is quickly distorted when you are crawling on your belly across the frozen plains with a high-powered rifle in one hand. I could have sworn I just crawled about 100 yards, but when I looked back at Joe, it was clear I went about 30 feet. I crawled a little more, but I could tell the buck knew something was askew. I got rifle ready, looked through the scope and tried to take aim. My heart was beating so hard I could feel the blood rushing in my ears, and I felt like I might hyperventilate. I paused, took a deep breath and aimed again. I was still having a hard time steadying the rifle, but I did my best and put my finger on the trigger. When I thought I had a good shot, I squeezed the trigger and sent a round flying somewhere over the antelope's back. The herd of four took off running and I watched the second buck of the day escape to live another day.
Lesson #2: Style points don't matter if you can't close the deal.
The next day involved a lot of driving. We drove around different roads looking for public land. We drove around plots of public land looking for access. We drove between, among and around some different areas looking for any signs of life. Most of it was just on the other side of fences, resting peacefully on private land. Our driving eventually brought us to the edge of the hunting area, so we took another road heading back to Buffalo, where we were staying. The GPS told us when we were entering and leaving public land, and we plodded along. I took another shot at a doe on the edge of some public land, but she was moving and I was never able to get my aim. We drove a little further and came across another pretty large herd. Most of them took off as soon as we slowed down, but one of the bucks just stood there and looked at us. I knew we were close to public land, so I decided to take my shot. I leaned over the open door, through the window. I steadied the rifle and took a deep breath. I squeezed the trigger and watched the buck drop to two legs. He got back up and walked over a small hill. I grabbed the rifle and couple more bullets, walked over the hill and saw the buck just standing there. It was at this moment I realized I was about to partake in that most ancient of rituals: the exchange of one life for the continuation of another. I can't explain how I knew this, but it seemed my wounded friend knew it as well.
I walked back up the hill to the truck where my dad and brother-in-law waited for me, and I didn't quite know how to respond. I knew I was not going back to Texas empty handed, but I also knew this was a clumsy, messy hunt. We loaded the buck into the truck and found a better place to field dress him. As we drove back to Buffalo to the meat cutter, I let the whole experience sink in. I was a hunter. Though I had spent many years of my life living among a wide array of wildlife, I had just taken my first communion in this age-old fraternity. The experience was profound and humbling.
Lesson #3: You may not be sure whether or not the animal you just shot at is "the one," but once you hit him, he's the one.
The next day, Joe got his buck in almost the same exact place at almost the exact time of day. His shot was a beauty, with lots of style points and much celebrating afterwards. It was a great way to end our hunting excursion, and I'm sure it will look great hanging on Ella's wall in a couple of months. With any luck, the horns from my antelope will be hanging in the boys' room someday.
I am still not passionate about hunting. Oddly, I feel just about the same about it as I did before. I do intend to look into hunting here in Texas because it is something I would like the boys to do as soon as they're old enough. It may take hold of them like it has my dad and brother-in-law, and I think that's great. I don't know if it will take hold of me, but I want to do it again. When do you get to hang out with other guys for a three days driving around some of the most beautiful country in the world looking at wildlife? Not from an office, that's for sure. This puts the office into perspective. And grocery stores and every dish that contains any kind of meat.
Lesson #4: The Hunt has very little to do with shooting bullets at animals, and more to do with slowing down time, sharing stories and being part of God's creation.