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Around mid-July I went online to check the antelope drawing results for myself and my two sons. Bingo. But those were the easy, resident drawings. With some trepidation my quivering fingers typed Lisa's ALS (Automated Licensing System) number onto the Web page, which had a herd of 13 mule deer arrayed in a banner across the top, the number of animals doubtlessly chosen by a designer with a sly, sick sense of humor. But bad omens in Montana license drawings evidently don't apply to pretty girls from New England. The moment I clicked the "get status" button, another page cycled onto the screen with the blessed words, "successful, 2009 antelope license."
Though it was nearly midnight in New England, I immediately dialed her number.
"What are you doing in October?"
"The usual. Hiking, writing ... why did you call at this hour to ask about my schedule three months from now?"
"Better add antelope hunting to the list."
The drive in mid-October, aimed at the scattered parcels of public land northwest of Broadus, acquaints Lisa with the various savory routines that accompany a trek to the antelope pastures. We stop in Hardin for a Wilcoxson's ice cream sandwich, carefully motor through Busby, and scan the roadside for not-so-streetwise mongrels, spotting only two canine highway fatalities. Then it's on to Ashland, with another requisite stop for gummy worms and a pint of sweetened ice tea. Some 20 miles farther east on Highway 212, we veer north at Pumpkin Creek Road, stopping a couple of times en route to glass wild birds and distant ungulates.
Through it all, Lisa's lively green eyes dart curiously over the novel landscape of pancaked prairie prickled with yucca and sagebrush, punctuated with protrusions of soil and stone into whose bowels the steely roots of long-needled pines burrow for nutrients and moisture. Her fingers twine in mine. She asks questions and offers commentary, none of it directly related to killing an antelope. Many men speak of hunting primarily as a means for a greater appreciation of the world outdoors. Women, I think, are more prone to actually feeling it.
"Those are deer, aren't they?"
More accustomed to the shorter-eared whitetails of the East, Lisa has spied a considerable herd of mule deer with their namesake appendages jutting from their heads. Two small fawns turn ears that seem larger than their diminutive gray bodies toward our slowing vehicle. As we stop, a magnificent buck, with antlers that spread beyond the fuzzy tips of his hairy hearing aids, strides to the crest of a berm in the hayfield. It's a sight I've seen hundreds of times, but it never fails to stir my senses with the wonder and vigor of autumn, when hoofed mammals are fat and sleek from summer's bounty, tracking through a world of crimson skunk brush, radiant yellow ash trees and flaxen grasses, oblivious to the coming lean months of winter. Though other hunting companions sometimes become impatient with my penchant for parking to observe animals other than our quarry, Lisa stares delightedly at the curious herd. After many long moments it is I who suggest we motor up the road in search of antelope.
We spy a smattering of pronghorn, all on private land. An unbroken canopy of bloated gray clouds sags nearer the earth, dimming the landscape. Then, as if on cue, a herd of some 60 antelope trots across the road in front of us, drifting from private land on the east side of the road to a block of state-owned real estate on the west. Easing the Tahoe into the barrow-pit, we wait until the last animal crests a ridge that takes them from sight. Then Lisa uncases her rifle, and we ease the doors closed with scarcely audible clicks.
When we gain a vantage point to view the prairie ahead, I can see the herd is well out of range, still drifting westward. Our chances of overtaking it with sufficient light to shoot are slim. Ready to turn back toward the road, movement on the periphery of my vision swivels my eyes down a broad ravine. Like a tan and white apparition, an antelope buck appears, walking in the same direction as the departed herd. It's a scant 150 yards away, well within range of Lisa's rifle and ability. But as we prepare for the shot, doubt arises.
Something about the animal is not right. Though there's no apparent wound on its body or noticeable limp, the buck seems a bit sickly, its strides lacking the ease and grace of a healthy antelope. It halts to gaze in our direction as Lisa brings her rifle to bear on the two-toned body, an easy shot at a standing animal.
"Let it go," I whisper, explaining my misgivings. "We'll find another one tomorrow."
By the time we reach Broadus, amber light flickers from street lamps whose enthusiasm for the night shift seems about as dim as that of a veterinarian rung from midnight slumber for a calving session. We idle down the main drag, looking for lodging and restaurant. A typical mom-and-pop motel appears with a "vacancy" sign in the window. The route bends south at a stoplight. Near the outskirts of this snippet of civilization, a dozen mud-spattered pickups, a handful of tired automobiles and a shiny Buick are parked outside what appears to be the popular eating establishment.
"Do you think I look okay for dinner?" asks my Dartmouth graduate, glancing with concern at her grubby jeans, dirt-caked hiking shoes and brown quilted vest she earned as a master's national skiing champion.
"You're perfect," I reply with conviction.