Prophet of Pronghorns

On the Range

I want to be humble but there is no denying this fact: I am the prophet of pronghorns. Wapiti have whipped me, bears have left me bamboozled, coyotes have conned me and monster mule deer have written me checks I could not cash, but I own the prairie speed goat.

Before I explain my carnivorous charisma let me tell you a story that is apocryphal. Apocryphal means of uncertain or dubious origin and should not be confused with apocalyptic which is loosely defined as "holy cow, the world is ending!" Actually, if you are an antelope, either term fits the following story.

Thirty miles north of Miles City on Highway 59 sits the little post office of Angela, Montana. At one time it was also a store operated by a man named Sid. Back in the early 60s a man walked into the store about noon on the opening day of antelope season.

"Do you carry any .270 ammunition?" the man asked. Sid pointed to a back shelf where he kept boxes of ammo for the most popular calibers, including 10 boxes of .270 ammo. The man packed all of them to the counter.

"I can’t let you buy all of these," Sid said. "This is all I have for the whole season."

"You have to," the hunter said. "I’ve already used this much this morning."

Had the man already fired 200 rounds? It seems improbable but not impossible. Hunters pursuing Antilocapra americana on the vast prairies of the Great Plains are prone to certain basic mistakes. Mainly, they assume they need to take long-distance shots, including long-distance running shots. The former is often unnecessary and the latter borders on the unethical.

As a trophy, antelope hardly thrill me -- when you grow up around them they become common, almost like big jackrabbits -- but there is no animal I’d rather stalk. Antelope hunting, done properly, is outrageous fun and I could stalk them every day of the season not caring if I ever shot one.

Pronghorn are easy to spot because they usually don’t care if they’re seen. Their confidence is in their own eyesight and blinding speed. They are by far North America’s fastest land animals and at distances exceeding a quarter-mile they may be the fastest in the world. But the fleet feet of the flesh are no match for revelatory strategy.

Case in point: Some years ago a young basketball coach came to us to hunt antelope. He’d never killed one and his hunting buddies were giving him a hard time. I brought out a ranch map, pointed to a particular area and said: "Have your buddies drop you off here. Let them drive the main pasture road; you just lie there and wait. It may take awhile but eventually a herd of antelope will come running right to you. Wait for the last one in the bunch and shoot it. It will be a big buck."

That evening a hard rapping sounded on my door. "It happened just like you said," the excited coach exclaimed. "I lay there and waited. Finally a herd came running right to me and I shot the last one. It was a big buck."

No shafts of light or celestial music descended from the heavens, but I knew at that moment I had the gift. A few years later three young fathers from Wisconsin brought two sons and a daughter to hunt. After a couple days the girl was still stymied. Learning that she loved horses I had her accompany me horseback one morning to move cattle. She and I rode until noon then returned to a set of remote corrals where an uncle had left her rifle and lunch. After loading the horses in the trailer I rattled off, but first I told her to stay alert. The noise I made leaving would attract antelope, I explained. She’d barely finished a sandwich when a young buck and doe approached. Resting her rifle on a corral plank, she downed the buck.

Brimming with confidence, I pushed my position as a prairie sage to the limit with some guests from Michigan. The main hunter had an outfitting concession in the wilds of Ontario where he’d become nothing but lean grit and gristle by packing wet bear hides on his back. His two older friends were of a more sedentary persuasion. Two days of tramping the prairie with the outfitter about did them in and the older of the two was threatening to stay in his motel and watch daytime television.

"Here’s what you do," I told him one morning. "Take a good book and a lunch and make yourself comfortable in the loading chute in the corrals. Every once in awhile poke your head up and look around."

"I don’t have a book," he said.

I gave him one of my novels. When you are an obscure fiction writer, such as I, you find every opportunity to seed reading soil. That evening they checked in. The outfitter and his one friend had hike for miles and bagged nothing but blisters. The man who stayed in the corrals had shot a good buck about noon.

I should explain, though, that as a pronghorn prophet I am of the New Testament variety. I am under grace not law. In other words, sometimes I screw up.

One time while driving down a county road I spotted the lone head of a sentinel doe peeking up from a small depression of sage and bunchgrass. The fact I’d even glimpsed this head had to be providential. After parking my pickup out of sight I made a long walk to get above the doe. Through my binoculars I saw a herd of about 40 bedded in a swale surrounded by hardpan gumbo, black sage and prickly pear. From a stalking standpoint it was the ultimate challenge. Forty sets of nervous eyes and no real cover from which to approach them.

Keeping the wind in my face and the sun at my back, I made a roundabout walk up a dry creek bed, then began crawling directly toward the herd. This was not hands and knees stuff. This was a flat belly crawl through cactus. Surely, I thought, in a bunch that large there would be one outstanding buck! After what seemed like hours but was probably 40 minutes, I reached the crest of the swale and had to raise my head in order to see the prey. This, I knew, would be the moment of truth. The chances were that at least one the sentinels would see the movement. The question is, would she hesitate before coughing a warning, or would the bunch burst like a covey of frightened quail.

I slowly raised my head. To my utter astonishment there was not antelope one in sight. They’d vanished; completely and utterly gone in the twinkling of an eye. I stood and looked in all directions. Nowhere was there a sign of white rumps flashing off at sub-sonic speed. The antelope had simply disappeared as if they’d never been there.

I sighed, shouldered my rifle, and started back to the truck. The truth about being a pronghorn prophet seems to be this: it is a ministry best designed for serving others, not one’s self.