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We take a table inside. A matronly waitress with red lipstick and an easy smile drops two menus on the table.
"Would you like something to drink?"
Lisa orders a glass of red wine.
It's been a fine day. I'm a fortunate fellow. Pushing the envelope of cosmic favor, I ask if they have any dark ales or porters on tap.
"What's that?" our server responds.
"Oh, yes, we do have beer on tap. Why didn't you ask? Bud and Bud Light. Could I bring you one of those?" she asks sweetly.
Whatever my luck, it's obviously run out. I replicate Lisa's request for red wine.
Lisa seeks my opinion on the culinary offerings, something I can't recall her doing on any of the several occasions we've dined in downtown Manhattan (New York, not the Gallatin Valley). I advise her to stick with beef and avoid seafood.
"What's a hamburger steak?"
"A thick, rectangular patty of ground beef cooked like a steak," I reply, pleased to expand my sweetheart's knowledge of cuisine.
Later, at the motel, the stout, dour proprietress confirms the availability of a room.
"Turn the TV down," she shouts into the living quarters behind the counter where a couple of kids are staring at the tube.
"Ain't smokers are ya?"
"Got any pets? We don't take no animals and there's a cleaning charge if you sneak one in."
The room is nondescript, but very clean. In less time than it normally takes to fall asleep, the alarm is chirping. Outside, the eastern sky glows faintly as we hop into the chilly rig and putter across the street for two cups of hot, honest coffee and a box of doughnuts. Aided by caffeine and the vehicle's heater, my metabolism comes to life as we wind our way back to the area where we spotted the antelope the previous evening. Around mid-morning, I spot a herd bedded near the base of a butte prickled with ponderosa pine, its sides striated with several deep ravines. Napping on a section of state land, the animals are in a perfect place for a stalk. I turn the vehicle back down the dusty road and park out of their sight. I look at Lisa. A smudge of powdered sugar whitens her lower lip, begging, it seems, for a kiss. While I've been looking for antelope, she's eaten the last doughnut.
I part the barbed wire near the "walk-in only" sign on the fence, pressing one strand down with a boot, elevating another with my hand. Lisa slips through the opening. I hand her rifle across the rusty top wire. We hike westward, happy to stretch our legs on the hard prairie.
Keeping below a bulge in the butte we reach a vantage point about 250 yards above the resting antelope. Then I make my first blunder. Lisa is as natural a marksman (marksperson?) as I've ever seen, but I fail to remember that hitting targets or piercing cans on a range isn't the same as shooting a live animal, and the span of this shot is considerable for a novice shooter. Lisa trains her rifle on the black-horned buck at the edge of the herd, exhales slightly and fires, missing cleanly. Unaware of our position, the antelope bolt in a blur, then stop, heads twisting in all directions.
"Should I try again?"
We watch the pronghorn trot in a large circle. For several long minutes they stand, then one by one settle to earth. When a last vigilant old doe takes her bed and begins grinding her molars, I carefully mark their position. We retreat, then swing around the back of the butte.
Scaling its steep shoulder brings a burn to my legs, but haste is in order. Reaching the summit, we spy the bedded antelope, then quickly slip into a ravine that obscures our approach. Easing around the end of a bulge in the butte's base, the antelope come into view, a scant 80 yards away. Rifle resting on a bipod, Lisa aligns the crosshairs on the buck as it rises and turns to stare in our direction.
"You need to shoot ... now," I whisper urgently, knowing the buck will bolt at any moment. At the shot, the does sprint to safety, but the buck stays behind, dispatched more swiftly than a fly flattened by a swatter. Lisa is shaking slightly from an overdose of adrenaline, smiling and very happy.
After admiring the silky coat and twin pronged horns of the buck, Lisa notches her tag, but lets me gut her prize. We hike to the road, retrieve a game cart from the vehicle, then return to the antelope. As we wheel it back toward the road, the familiar, rolling staccato calls of migrating sandhill cranes sound overhead. Looking north, we see several large flocks winging our way. The rush of atmosphere on feather mingles with the cacophony. Captivated by the cranes, I'm suddenly more aware of Lisa standing very close to me, the radiance of life on her face, the intensity of her eyes trained on the long-necked throng, and the bond between us, stronger for this shared adventure.
Rubber hums on asphalt as we make the westward journey on Highway 212 back home. Amid the celebratory chatter, Lisa pauses to give my arm a playful pinch. "Do you think that next year I might get an elk tag for my birthday?"
For once in my life, I'm sure there's a birthday present I will not forget.