We pause at the crest of Deer Mountain, Roger to glass the country for game, I to catch my breath. My knees have turned to water with the climb and, despite the cold, most of it is squirting out through my sweat glands. In this thin air, not yet acclimated to the altitude, I stand about as much chance of catching my breath as I would of catching Frank Shorter in the marathon. Roger, by contrast, is fresh as a sprig of alpine rue. He quit smoking years ago for just this reason.
"Nothing moving but an eagle," he says, putting down the glasses. "Away over there, across the valley. You know, if you hammered Montana flat and crimped it down a bit around the edges, you'd have a perfect lid for the whole Pacific Ocean."
We split up and swing across the shoulder of the mountain, hoping that one of us will push a deer, or maybe even an elk, out of its bed and into range of the other. The wind up here groans like a god with a bellyache. The ponderosa pines and Douglas firs—some of them mature giants, uncut during the big logging boom of the 1890s because of their remote locations—sway and clatter and yowl under the push of the north wind, but at ground level the air is still. Except for a few ravens that croak their ragged way overhead, bitching at the wind that keeps pushing them off course, and an occasional camp robber, the mountain seems empty of life. I see some old deer sign and the tracks of a coyote that came through the previous afternoon when the snow was still wet with the afternoon's relative warmth; the doglike prints look as big as a wolf's, but are blurred and splashy around the edges.
Then I catch a flicker of movement in the lodgepoles below me. Sitting, I glass the thicket with my scope. The gray twitch resolves itself into an ear. Then a wet brown eye leaps out of the neutrality of the background. Then I see the animal whole: a mule deer doe. It always amazes me when they snap into focus that way, and I wonder how many I have passed, and how close, that I never did see.
Mel said to take 'em—either sex. My mind does its quick rationalization number: I sure could use the meat. I bring the crosshairs down the crease behind her shoulder, a nervous optical caress. She is at least 300 yards away. The scope is jumping rhythmically, just the faintest of up-and-down movements, but enough to ruin my shot if I take it. I expel my breath, but the jumping continues. My heartbeat. I start the squeeze anyway, and just as the trigger reaches the breaking point I see out of the corner of the scope another muley behind her—a buck, only a crotch-horn, a two-pointer, but a buck—and in that instant the rifle goes bang. The snow jumps. The two deer disappear.
A clean miss. My hands are shaking.
There is no blood in the snow where she stood, and I see where the bullet dug a trench in the dirt beneath it. It's a deep hole, like the kind we used to shoot marbles at in the schoolyard. Marbles and murder: I'm glad I missed her.
Back at the jeep, Mel and Harold are building a fire. They drag up a few snow-sodden pine logs, drench them with gasoline from the spare jerrican and flip a match into the heap. Kapow! Instant bonfire. I wonder what Bridger would think of the technique, as opposed to flint and steel. He'd probably approve. Those men were nothing if not pragmatic. Later, Roger tails in with two blue grouse dangling from his belt. He surprised them in a brake down the mountain, and when they flew up into a nearby ponderosa he headed them, one, two, just like that. Just like Mel said.
That night, skunked, we hit the saloons of Hamilton to recharge our depleted spirits. Most of the patrons are ranchers and drovers. They shake their heads solemnly at Mel's account of our failure, offering suggestions for the morrow. "Use to be a lot of big old bulls down thereon Hog Trough Creek, on the backside of Black Bear Point." Too durn early for that country. "How about Water Sign Meadows, or farther on down by the One Tooth Cabin?" Too durn far. White Stallion, Two Bear, Sawdust Gulch, Railroad Creek—all have their drawbacks. We sulk over our beers, listening to Merle Haggard on the juke. "I'm a Lonesome Fugitive...."
The light in the bar is warm and minimal, the colors from the jukebox paint rainbows on the walls. I get a kick out of the signs on the walls of backcountry saloons—a form of Americana that has largely disappeared from the cities: