Over the Ridge

He pulled his rifle and rucksack from the trunk of his Buick, then stepped out of the abandoned cattle shed and into the sunlight. To the south, a rusty barbed-wire fence separated ranch land from public domain. He scanned the hills beyond the fence. A local rancher had told him mule deer grazed just a few miles over the ridge. He headed in that direction.

After hiking for half an hour up a choppy trail, he dropped his gear under a juniper tree, lay down against his ruck, and wrestled his canteen from its frayed pouch. The sky was a white-hot distortion. He looked back down the trail and saw the cattle shed in the valley below, the rear bumper of the Buick glittering in the sunlight. He rested his head on the frame of his ruck and let the hum of the cicadas lull him to sleep.

At mid-afternoon, he awoke and continued on. Another mile up the trail, he reached the lip of a butte. He passed an old coyote den, entered a ravine that cut through to the opposite slope, and walked quietly to the far opening. In front of him lay a bowl-shaped meadow thick with sagebrush and wildflowers, a blue pond sitting in the heart of the circle.

He stalked another fifty yards, then paused to study the ground. Embedded in the soft sand were deer tracks, probably left there by a large doe. He followed the tracks into the underbrush and found spoor not more than half an hour old, but he lost the trail over rocky ground. He figured the deer might be sitting tight in a patch of scrub oaks fifty yards away. He climbed back up to the edge of the plateau and positioned himself facing down into the draw. From here, he had a clear view of the entire area. If the deer bolted, it would expose itself on higher ground in every direction, clearly within range.

Two hours passed, the only movement a jay or sparrow flickering from branch to branch, the only sound gusts of blistering heat. If the deer was down in that meadow, then he just needed patience, but he was beginning to wonder. He thought he might have missed it by fifteen or twenty minutes, or maybe it was waiting for nightfall to slip away into the darkness.

He laid his rifle down gently and tried to slide his canteen from its pouch for another drink, but it hooked on a stringy piece of nylon, slipped from his hand, and bounced off a rock, breaking the silence like a clap of thunder. He heard a loud rustling in the draw below. A mule deer shot out of the bushes and bounded toward the opposite ridgeline. He snapped up his rifle and sighted in his target, seeking the perfect lead, but perhaps because of the surprise of the encounter, the muley sprang onto a rock on the reverse slope, froze, and just stared at him, its ears pointed at him like radar dishes, its body as still as stone. He stared at it through his scope for several seconds. Finally, he shouted, “Go on!”

It leaped up a ridge. Leading her slightly as she bounded from rock to rock, he squeezed off a round, a perfect shot that struck her right behind the shoulder near the center of her torso, a mist of blood spraying through the air from the exit wound. She flew backward and crashed into a cluster of cactus, dead where she lay, her legs twitching. His ears were ringing. He collected his gear, shouldered his weapon, and headed back down the trail.