Predator & Prey

Of good fortune, blind fate and hunter hunting hunter.

Luck’s a beautiful thing. There’s no accounting for it, really. Why is one hunt, one hunter, charmed while another’s utterly cursed? Therein lays the mystery. Call it levied karma, call it whatever you choose, but luck’s something any bowhunter appreciates.

Fate must be securely tied to all this. How else would you find yourself watching a huge muley buck ambling through the saddle you had every intention of walking through at that very moment. “If I hadn’t stopped to tie my boot lace back there, would I be skewering that buck right now?” It’s all so enormous, you’re probably better off not thinking about it too long for fear of short circuiting something. But luck and fate is what makes bowhunting tales. 

It’s easy to think along these lines when something magical occurs afield. I was supposed to join Billy Lee and his hounds for a cougar hunt weeks ago. I was supposed to hike 15 miles from my side of the divide to meet him for the hunt. But I was delayed by a blizzard, and the next day, when I tried again, stuck the truck in drifted snow, that ultimately I said the hell with it and began bowhunting my backyard intending to arrow the first meat buck I encountered. And I did encounter that buck but missed him due to dead rangefinder batteries and long range. He would become an obsession keeping me afield longer than I’d anticipated – all of this was the work of fate.

I guess all this needs further explanation.

I’d missed him at 63 yards, then at 65, distances determined after stepping them off while gathering arrows. One of these misses involved bouncing an arrow off his back.  Around these misses I’ve blown several stalks in relatively open country. The buck is typically accompanied by 20 or more does. These deer are crazy spooky, for reasons I cannot yet explain. The January rut’s on, but they’re jumpy. He, “him,” is the big buck, of course.

With only a couple days remaining in the season, more black clouds spill over the divide creating the formative Black Range, the wind coming in grass-swirling gusts.  Occasionally cold, wet raindrops smite or errant snowflakes whirl past crazily. I’ve found my big buck through my old Zeiss binoculars, still clear as designer vodka. I’m looking at him at 100 yards, marveling anew at his impossible antlers, an alchemy riddle assembled from cactus, rock, and dry desert. He’s a wide 5x5 scoring maybe 170 inches.  That’s a lot of antler in the low deserts of southwestern New Mexico. I also study terrain, every subtle fold, cedar, or blue oak, planning my approach. 

The deer snap to attention, studying adjacent hillside, he, three does and a forkhorn, ears cupped severely, stomping hooves, bobbing delicate heads. I see nothing, expecting additional deer that will cut me off from the only plausible avenue of ambush. I seek them with glass.

There’s movement counter to waving grass, a slithering against yellowed straw. I don’t comprehend that I’m observing a ghost until my eyes focus on a long tail, and following this, understand the movement’s stalking cougar—an actual wraith right before my eyes. It enters a cluster of thorny brush, vanishing. 

Glancing back to my deer I find the big buck has calmed again, feeding deeper into stalking cover. I have him—finally I have him where I want him…

I ponder the brush the cat has vanished into. I’m fairly certain the cat has slipped away somehow, though I’ve watched carefully, but this is a cat after all, and anything’s possible. Still, there’s nagging doubt, and I tell myself, “Carry on as if the cat’s really there – just in case.” There are loose, porcelain-tinkling stones to negotiate and dry, rattling grass to sidestep. I make my way across a shallow gully and then around the slanting hillside on faint game trail. Eighty yards from the brush shelter I glass deliberately, fighting to steady the Zeiss as gusts hit me. There’s a patch of red that might be cat, but again, it could be rock of the same color observed all around. 

“Humor me,” the little internal voice pleads. “Pretend. Pretend the cat’s still in there. Just in case…”

 On hands and knees, I place my bow ahead carefully, moving slowly to it before moving it again and proceeding as before. A jut of yucca spears disguises me, but every movement seems clamorous, despite covering wind and rattling grass. I reach yucca, set my bow aside carefully and reach for binoculars. Through them there’s nothing, but then the tail again, twitching nervously. Following the tail, the cat is suddenly just there.

If my pulse raced, my heart jumped, if I gasped involuntarily, I don’t recollect. I do remember ducking, deliberately slipping my hand into the wrist sling, nocking an A/C/C, drawing, reemerging. The basic problem is there’s an awful lot of brush between the cat and I, small limbs and grass stems, only small patches of hide showing. My 20-yard pin’s hovering while I contemplate vitals, which hole is largest. The cat’s head turns, its green-gold eyes piercing right through my 3-D camouflage. I find a hole with the glowing pin and let the string slip away. 

The cat springs straight up, and for a brief moment I’m looking upward while it seems to hang and I grope to observe a wound somewhere vital. The cat hits the ground and the world transforms from slow motion to fast, the cat vanishing like a wisp of smoke. I scramble to peer over the lip of open ridge, the only motion deer running like the devil himself is in pursuit. I return to the bush and find my arrow coated in thin blood but no evidence beyond. Cats don’t leave tracks in hard, rocky ground.           

When heavy drops of rain begin to hit me I turn and run toward home, pushing to the edge of cardiac arrest before bursting through the front door after a two-mile sprint, dripping sweat. My black Lab, Kody, is happy to see me. 

When we reach the cat’s trail Kody moves ahead at a dead run, the wind in his face. By the time I’ve topped the ridge he’s stretched out, balanced on his toes sniffing warily.  It’s my cat, dead as old bones 60 yards below, shot neatly just behind the right shoulder. All I can do is fall beside the great feline and stroke its soft pelt, watch the weather, contemplate fate and the completion of dreams that leave me feeling empty and grasping for purchase. I’ve dreamed of this day as long as I have bowhunted; taking a cat on the ground without hounds. Now that I’ve accomplished it, I don’t know what to do with myself. 

In time I’ll affectionately rough Kody a bit, shoulder the cat, grunting and staggering, and head toward warmth and shelter.  At the last ridge top I’ll pause to catch my breath.  Snow squalls begin to envelope the village as a whole, and I can no longer see my house, and I drop into the valley, and toward home.

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