The Heart of the Game
A consideration of hunting
Hunting in your own backyard becomes with time, if you love hunting, less and less expeditionary. When Montana's eager September frosts knocked my garden on its butt, the hoe seemed more like the rifle than it ever had before, the vegetables more like game.
My nine-year-old son and I went scouting before the season and saw some antelope in the high plains foothills of the Absaroka Range, wary, hanging on the skyline; a few bands and no great heads. We crept around, looking into basins, and at dusk met a tired cowboy on a tired horse followed by a tired blue-heeler dog. The plains seemed bigger than anything, bigger than the mountains that seemed to sit in the middle of them, bigger than the ocean. The clouds made huge shadows that traveled on the grass slowly through the day.
The Hunt Is On
Former Editor Terry McDonell on McGuane's almost cinematic contemplation of hunting.Read More→
Hunting season trickles on forever; if you don't go in on a cow with anybody, there is the dark argument of the deepfreeze against headhunting ("You can't eat horns!"). But nevertheless, in my mind, I've laid out the months like playing cards, knowing some decent whitetails could be down in the riverbottom and, fairly reliably, the long windy shots at antelope. The big buck mule deer-the ridge-runners-stay up in the scree and rock walls until the snow drives them out; but they stay high long after the elk have quit and broken down the hay corrals on the ranches and farmsteads which, when you're hunting the rocks from a saddle horse, look pathetic and housebroken with their yellow lights against the coming of winter.
Where I live, the Yellowstone River runs straight north, then takes an eastward turn at Livingston, Montana. This flowing north is supposed to be remarkable; and the river doesn't do it long. It runs mostly over sand and stones once it comes out of the rock slots near the Wyoming line. But all along, there are deviations of one sort or another: canals, backwaters, sloughs; the red willows grow in the sometime-flooded bottom, and at the first elevation, the cottonwoods. I hunt here in the early fall for the whitetail deer which, in recent years, have moved up these rivers in numbers never seen before.
When I first start hunting in the fall, I'm not used to getting up so early. I won't get up that early to fish, not three or four in the morning just to be out in the middle of nowhere at first light.
The first morning, the sun came up hitting around me in arbitrary panels as the light came through the jagged openings in the Absaroka Range. I was moving very slowly in the edge of the trees, the river invisible a few hundred yards to my right but sending a huge sigh through the willows. It was cold and the sloughs had crowns of ice, thick enough to support me. As I crossed one great clear panel, trout raced around under my feet and a ten-foot bubble advanced slowly before my cautious steps. Then passing back into the trees, I found an active game trail, cut cross lots to pick a better stand, sat in a good vantage place under a cottonwood with the ought-six across my knees. I thought, running my hands up into my sleeves, this is lovely but I'd rather be up in the hills; and I fell asleep.
I woke up a couple of hours later, the coffee and early morning drill having done not one thing for my alertness. I had drooled on my rifle and it was time for my chores back at the ranch. My chores of late had consisted primarily of working on screenplays so that the bank didn't take the ranch. These days the primary ranch skill is making the payment; it comes before irrigation, feeding out and calving. Some rancher friends find this so discouraging they get up and roll a number or have a slash of tanglefoot before they even think of the glories of the West. This is the New Rugged.
The next day, I reflected upon my lackadaisical hunting and left really too early in the morning. I drove around to Mission Creek in the dark and ended up sitting in the truck up some wash listening to a New Mexico radio station until my patience gave out and I started out cross-country in the dark, just able to make out the nose of the Absaroka Range as it faced across the river to the Crazy Mountains. It seemed maddeningly up and down slick banks and a couple of times I had game clatter out in front of me in the dark. Then I turned up a long coulee that climbed endlessly south and started in that direction, knowing the plateau on top should hold some antelope. After half an hour or so, I heard the mad laughing of coyotes, throwing their voices all around the inside of the coulee, trying to panic rabbits and making my hair stand on end despite my affection for them. The stars tracked over, head into the first pale light and it was nearly dawn before I came up on the bench. I could hear cattle below me and I moved along an edge of thorn trees to break my outline, then sat down at the point to wait for shooting light.
I could see antelope on the skyline before I had that light; and by the time I did, there was a good big buck angling across from me, looking at everything. I thought I could see well enough, and I got up into a sitting position and into the sling. I had made my moves quietly, but when I looked through the scope the antelope was 200 yards out, using up the country in bounds. I tracked with him, let him bounce up into the reticle and touched off a shot. He was down and still, but I sat watching until I was sure.
Nobody who loves to hunt feels absolutely hunky-dory when the quarry goes down. The remorse spins out almost before anything and the balancing act ends on one declination or another. I decided that unless I become a vegetarian, I'll get my meat by hunting for it. I feel absolutely unabashed by the arguments of other carnivores who get their meat in plastic with blue numbers on it. I've seen slaughterhouses, and anyway, as Sitting Bull said, when the buffalo are gone, we will hunt mice, for we are hunters and we want our freedom.
The antelope had piled up in the sage, dead before he hit the ground. He was an old enough buck that the tips of his pronged horns were angled in toward each other. I turned him down, hill to bleed him out. The bullet had mushroomed in the front of the lungs; so the job was already halfway done. With antelope, proper field dressing is critical because they can end up sour if they've been run or haphazardly hog-dressed. And they sour from their own body heat more than external heat.
The sun was up and the big buteo hawks were lifting on the thermals. There was enough breeze that the grass began to have directional grain like the prairie and the rim of the coulee wound up away from me toward the Absaroka. I felt peculiarly solitary, sitting on my heels next to the carcass in the sagebrush and greasewood, my rifle racked open on the ground. I made an incision around the metatarsal glands inside the back legs and carefully removed them and set them well aside; then I cleaned the blade of my hunting knife with handfuls of grass to keep from tainting the meat with those powerful glands. Next I detached the anus and testes from the outer walls and made a shallow puncture below the sternum, spread it with the thumb and forefinger of my left hand and ran the knife up, side down clear to the bone bridge between the hind legs. Inside, the diaphragm was like the taut lid of a drum and cut away cleanly so that I could reach clear up to the back of the mouth and detach the windpipe. Once that was done I could draw the whole visceral package out onto the grass and separate out the heart, liver and tongue before propping the carcass open with two whittled-up sage scantlings.
You could tell how cold the morning was, despite the exertion, just by watching the steam roar from the abdominal cavity. I stuck the knife in the ground and sat back against the slope, looking clear across to Convict Grade and the Crazy Mountains. I was blood from the elbows down and the antelope's eyes had skinned over. I thought, this is goddamned serious and you had better always remember that.
There was a big red enamel pot on the stove; and I ladled antelope chili into two bowls for my little boy and me. He said, "It better not be too hot."
"What's your news?" he asked.
"Which grandpa?" he asked. I told him it was Big Grandpa, my father. He kept on eating. "He died last night."
He said, "I know what I want for Christmas."
"What's that ?"
"I want Big Grandpa back."
It was 1950-something and I was small, under 12 say, and there were four of us: my father, two of his friends and me. There was a good belton setter belonging to the one friend, a hearty bird hunter who taught dancing and fist-fought at any provocation. The other man was old and sick and had a green fatal look in his face. My father took me aside and said, "Jack and I are going to the head of this field"—and he pointed up a mile and a half of stalks to where it ended in the flat woods—"and we 're going to take the dog and get what he can point. These are running birds. So you and Bill just block the field and you'll have some shooting."
'I'd like to hunt with the dog." I had a 20-gauge Winchester my grandfather had given me, which got hocked and lost years later when another of my family got into the bottle; and I could hit with it and wanted to hunt over the setter. With respect to blocking the field, I could smell a rat.
"You stay with Bill," said my father, "and try to cheer him up.
"What's the matter with Bill?"
"He's had one heart attack after another and he's going to die."
"Pretty damn soon."
I blocked the field with Bill. My first thought was, I hope he doesn't die before they drive those birds onto us; but if he does, I'll have all the shooting.
There was a crazy cold autumn light on everything, magnified by the yellow silage all over the field. The dog found birds right away and they were shooting. Bill said he was sorry but he didn't feel so good. He had his hunting license safety-pinned to the back of his coat and fiddled with a handful of 12-gauge shells. 'I've shot a shitpile of game," said Bill, "but I don't feel so good anymore." He took a knife out of his coat pocket. "I got this in the Marines," he said, "and I carried it for four years in the Pacific. The handle's drilled out and weighted so you can throw it. I want you to have it." I took it and thanked him, looking into his green face, and wondered why he had given it to me. "That's for blocking this field with me," he said. "Your dad and that dance teacher are going to shoot them all. When you 're not feeling so good, they put you at the end of the field to block when there isn't shit-all going to fly by you. They '11 get them all. They and the dog will."
We had an indestructible tree in the yard we had chopped on, nailed steps to and initialed; and when I pitched that throwing knife at it, the knife broke in two. I picked it up and thought, this thing is jinxed. So I took it out into the crab-apple woods and put it in the can I had buried along with a Roosevelt dime and an atomic-bomb ring I had sent away for. This was a small collection of things I buried over a period of years. I was sending them to God. All He had to do was open the can, but they were never collected. In any case, I have long known that if I could understand why I wanted to send a broken knife I believed to be jinxed to God, that I would be a long way toward what they call a personal philosophy as opposed to these hand, to-mouth metaphysics of who said what to who in some cornfield 25 years ago.
We were in the bar at Chico Hot Springs near my home in Montana: me—a lout poet who had spent the day floating under the diving board while adolescent girls leapt overhead; my brother John had glued himself to the pipe which poured warm water into the pool and announced over and over in a loud voice that every drop of water had been filtered through his bathing suit.
Now, covered with wrinkles, we were in the bar, talking to Alvin Close, an old government hunter. After half a century of predator control he called it "useless and half-assed."
Alvin Close killed the last major stock-killing wolf in Montana. He hunted the wolf so long he raised a litter of dogs to do it with. He hunted the wolf futilely with a pack that had fought the wolf a dozen times until one day he gave up and let the dogs run the wolf out the back of a shallow canyon. He heard them yip their way into silence while he leaned up against a tree; and presently the wolf came tiptoeing down the front of the canyon into Alvin's lap. The wolf simply stopped because the game was up. Alvin raised the Winchester and shot it.
"How did you feel about that?" I asked.
"How do you think I felt?"
"I don't know."
"I felt like hell."
Alvin's evening was ruined and he went home. He was 76 years old and carried himself like an old-time Army officer, setting his glass on the bar behind him without looking.
You stare through the plastic at the red smear of meat in the supermarket. What's this it says here? Mighty Good? Tastee? Quality, Premium and Government Inspected? Soon enough, the blood is on your hands. It's inescapable.
It is New York City and the beef freaks are foregathering at Bruno's Pen and Pencil. In the kitchen the slabs quiver. In the dining room deals sear the air. Princess Lee Radziwill could be anywhere, fangs aloft to hit the meat that Bruno's Pen and Pencil's butcher's slaughterhouse killed for the Princess. The cow's head and lightless eyes twirl in the rendering vat as linen soars to the Princess's dripping lips.
Aldo Leopold was a hunter who I am sure abjured freeze-dried vegetables and extrusion burgers. His conscience was clean because his hunting was part of a larger husbandry in which the life of the country was enhanced by his own work. He knew that game populations are not bothered by hunting until they are already too precarious and that precarious game populations should not be hunted. Grizzlies should not be hunted, for instance. The enemy of game is clean farming and sinful chemicals; as well as the useless alteration of watersheds by promoter cretins and the insidious dizzards of land development whose lobbyists teach us the venality of all governments.
A world in which a sacramental portion of food can be taken in an old way—hunting, fishing, farming and gathering—has as much to do with societal sanity as a day's work for a day's pay.
For a long time, there was no tracking snow. I hunted on horseback for a couple of days in a complicated earthquake fault in the Galla tins. The fault made a maze of narrow canyons with flat floors. The sagebrush grew on woody trunks higher than my head and left sandy paths and game trails where the horse and I could travel.
There were Hungarian partridge that roared out in front of my horse, putting his head suddenly in my lap. And hawks tobogganed on the low air currents, astonished to find me there. One finger canyon ended in a vertical rock wall from which issued a spring of the kind elsewhere associated with the Virgin Mary, hung with ex-votos and the orthopedic supplications of satisfied miracle customers. Here, instead, were nine identical piles of bear shit, neatly adorned with undigested berries.
One canyon planed up and topped out on an endless grassy rise. There were deer there, does and a young buck. A thousand yards away and staring at me with semaphore ears.
They assembled at a stiff trot from the haphazard array of feeding and strung out in a precise line against the far hill in a dog trot. When I removed my hat, they went into their pogo, stick gait and that was that.
"What did a deer ever do to you?"
"I'm serious. What do you have to go and kill them for?"
"I can't explain it talking like this."
"Why should they die for you? Would you die for deer?"
"If it came to that."
My boy and I went up the North Fork to look for grouse. We had my old pointer Molly, and Thomas's 22 pump. We flushed a number of birds climbing through the wild roses; but they roared away at knee level, leaving me little opportunity for my over,and,under, much less an opening for Thomas to ground-sluice one with his 22. We started out at the meteor hole above the last ranch and went all the way to the national forest. Thomas had his cap on the bridge of his nose and wobbled through the trees until we hit cross fences. We went out into the last open pasture before he got winded. So, we sat down and looked across the valley at the Gallatin Range, furiously white and serrated, making a bleak edge of the world. We sat in the sun and watched the chickadees make their way through the russet brush.
"Are you having a good time?"
"Sure," he said and curled a small hand around the octagonal barrel of the Winchester.
"A guy in a New York paper said I was destroying you with my lifestyle."
"What's a lifestyle?"
''It's a word they have. It means, how you go around acting.''
He said, "Oh."
"The same guy said the movies gave us $400,000."
My son looked at me sharply. "What did you do with it?"
"I never got it."
"Who is this guy?"
"Name of the Village Voice."
"Is he a liar, liar with his pants on fire?"
"He's a yellow journalist."
"What happened to all that money?"
"I don't know. Somebody forgot to pass it on. Then the journalist blamed it on me."
"That Marlon Brando got it," Thomas said.
"I don't think so. All he wanted was to be an Indian. We needed more for him to be a cowboy, but he wanted to be an Indian."
"He had the suit."
"I think that was our problem. I think he already had the suit."
"Can he hunt?" asked my son.
"I don't think so, Tom."
The rear quarters of the antelope came from the smoker so dense and finely grained it should have been sliced as prosciutto. My Canadian in-laws brought edgy, crumbling Cheddar from British Columbia and everybody kept an eye on the food and tried to pace themselves. The snow whirled in the windowlight and puffed the smoke down the chimney around the cedar flames. I had a stretch of enumerating things: my family, hayfields, saddle horses, friends, thirty-ought-six, French and Russian novels. I had a baby girl, colts coming and a new roof on the barn. I finished a big corral made of railroad ties and 2 x 6s. I was within 18 months of my father's death, my sister's death, the collapse of my marriage, the recutting of a film I'd made by ham-fisted producers, and the turning of a compact Western I'd written into utter rat shit by the puffy androids of avanti cinema. Finally, the fabrications of these birdbrains were being ascribed to me by such luminaries as John Simon, masochistic New York's house Nazi, and Rex Reed, the Prince of Mince. Still, the washouts were repairing; and when a few things had been set aside, not excluding drugs and paranoia, a few features were left standing, not excluding lovers, children, friends and saddle horses. In time, it would be clear as a bell. I did want venison again in the winter and couldn't help but feel some old ridge-runner had my number on him.
I didn't want to read and I didn't want to write or acknowledge the phone with its tendrils into the zombie enclaves. I didn't want the New Rugged; I wanted the Old Rugged and a pot to piss in. Otherwise, it's deteriorata with mice undermining the wiring in my frame house, sparks jumping in the insulation, the dog turning queer and a horned owl staring at the baby through the nursery window.
It was pitch black in the bedroom and the windows radiated cold across the blankets. The top of my head felt this side of frost and the stars hung like ice crystals over the chimney. I scrambled out of bed and slipped into my long johns, put on a heavy shirt and my wool logger pants with the police suspenders. I carried the boots down to the kitchen so as not to wake the house and zapped the percolator on. I put some cheese and chocolate in my coat, and when the coffee was done I filled a chili bowl and quaffed it against the winter.
When I hit the front steps I heard the hard squeaking of new snow under my boots and the wind moved against my face like a machine for refinishing hardwood floors. I backed the truck up to the horse trailer, the lights wheeling against the ghostly trunks of the bare cottonwoods. I connected the trailer and pulled it forward to a flat spot for loading the horse.
I had figured that when I got to the corral, I could tell one horse from another by starlight; but the horses were in the shadow of the barn and I went in feeling my way among their shapes trying to find my hunting horse Rocky, and trying to get the front end of the big sorrel who kicks when surprised. Suddenly Rocky was looking in my face and I reached around his neck with the halter. A 1300-pound bay quarter horse, his withers angled up like a fighting bull, he wondered where we were going but ambled after me on a slack lead rope as we headed out of the darkened corral.
I have an old trailer made by a Texas horse vet years ago. It has none of the amenities of newer trailers. I wish it had a dome light for loading in the dark; but it doesn't. You ought to check and see if the cat's sleeping in it before you load; and I didn't do that either. Instead, I climbed inside of the trailer and the horse followed me. I tied the horse down to a D-ring and started back out, when he blew up. The two of us were confined in the small space and he was ripping and bucking between the walls with such noise and violence that I had a brief disassociated moment of suspension from fear. I jumped up on the manger with my arms around my head while the horse shattered the inside of the trailer and rocked it furiously on its axles. Then he blew the steel rings out of the halter and fell over backward in the snow. The cat darted out and was gone. I slipped down off the manger and looked for the horse; he had gotten up and was sidling down past the granary in the star shadows.
I put two blankets on him, saddled him, played with his feet and calmed him. I loaded him without incident and headed out.
I went through the aspen line at daybreak, still climbing. The horse ascended steadily toward a high basin creaking the saddle metronomically. It was getting colder as the sun came up and the rifle scabbard held my left leg far enough from the horse that I was chilling on that side.
We touched the bottom of the basin and I could see the rock wall defined by a black stripe of evergreens on one side and the remains of an avalanche on the other. I thought how utterly desolate this country can look in winter and how one could hardly think of human travel in it at all, not white horsemen nor Indians dragging travois, just aerial raptors with their rending talons and heads like cameras slicing across the geometry of winter.
Then we stepped into a deep hole and the horse went to his chest in the powder, splashing the snow out before him as he floundered toward the other side. I got my feet out of the stirrups in case we went over. Then we were on wind,scoured rock and I hunted some lee for the two of us. I thought of my son's words after our last cold ride: "Dad, you know in 4-H? Well, I want to switch from Horsemanship to Aviation."
The spot was like this: a crest of snow crowned in a sculpted edge high enough to protect us. There was a tough little juniper to picket the horse to, and a good place to sit out of the cold and noise. Over my head, a long, curling plume of snow poured out, unchanging in shape against the pale blue sky. I ate some of the cheese and rewrapped it. I got the rifle down from the scabbard, loosened the cinch and undid the flank cinch. I put the stirrup over the horn to remind me my saddle was loose, loaded two cartridges into the blind magazine and slipped one in the chamber. Then I started toward the rock wall, staring at the patterned discolorations: old seeps, lichen, cracks and the madhouse calligraphy of immemorial weather.
There were a lot of tracks where the snow had crusted out of the wind; all deer except for one well-used bobcat trail winding along the edges of a long rocky slot. I moved as carefully as I could, stretching my eyes as far out in front of my detectable movement as I could. I tried to work into the wind but it turned erratically in the basin as the temperature of the new day changed.
The buck was studying me as soon as I came out on the open slope; he was a long way away and I stopped motionless to wait for him to feed again. He stared straight at me from 500 yards. I waited until I could no longer feel my feet nor finally my legs. It was nearly an hour before he suddenly ducked his head and began to feed. Every time he fed I moved a few feet, but he was working away from me and I wasn't getting anywhere. Over the next half-hour he made his way to a little rim and, in the half-hour after that, moved the 20 feet that dropped him over the rim.
I went as fast as I could move quietly. I now had the rim to cover me and the buck should be less than a hundred yards from me when I looked over. It was all browse for a half mile, wild roses, buck brush and young quakies where there was any runoff.
When I reached the rim, I took off my hat and set it in the snow with my gloves inside. I wanted to be looking in the right direction when I cleared the rim, rise a half step and be looking straight at the buck, not scanning/or the buck with him running 60, a degree or two out of my periphery. And I didn't want to gum it up with thinking or trajectory guessing. People are always trajectory guessing their way into gut shots and clean misses. So, before I took the last step, all there was to do was lower the rim with my feet, lower the buck into my vision and isolate the path of the bullet.
As I took that step, I knew he was running. He wasn't in the browse at all, but angling into invisibility at the rock wall, racing straight into the elevation, bounding toward zero gravity, taking his longest arc into the bullet and the finality and terror of all you have made of the world, the finality you know that you share even with the Princess and your babies with their inherited and ambiguous dentition, the finality that, any minute now, you will meet as well.
He slid a hundred yards in a plume of snow. I dressed him and skidded him by one antler to the horse. I made a slit behind the last ribs, pulled him over the saddle and put the horn through the slit, lashed the feet to the cinch Ds and led the horse downhill. The horse had bells of clear ice around his hooves and, when he slipped, I chipped them out from under his feet with the point of a bullet.
I hung the buck in the open woodshed with a lariat over a rafter. He turned slowly against the cooling air. I could see the intermittent blue light of the television against the bedroom ceiling from where I stood. I stopped the twirling of the buck, my hands deep in the sage-scented fur, and thought: This is either the beginning or the end of everything.
Thomas McGuane is a novelist and director ('Ninety-two in the Shade') and a screenwriter ('Missouri Breaks,' 'Rancho Deluxe'). He lives and ranches in Montana where he is presently preparing a new film, ''Tom Horn,' for Steve McQueen and finishing another novel, ''The 'Third Mourner from the Left.' Russell Chatham is an Outside contributing artist.