Beads of sweat ran enthusiastically down Nathan’s face like raindrops on a double-hung window, starting quickly toward the sill of his brow line and heading as gravity dictated, slowed by a weathered screen of stubble, dirt, and yesterday’s grease paint. Here, on the ridge, nature was making him earn anything that came afterward, and requiring payment in advance.
Six days and nights had passed since an optimist had left the parking lot with a heavy pack and a sheep tag in his pocket. In another seven, if that tag was still unfilled, a very beaten pessimist would return.
The tag Nathan had drawn, finally, after nine years of playing the state’s slanted lottery, was for a daunting, remote expanse of publicly-owned backcountry wilderness that hadn’t changed since the Nez Perce haunted and hunted there. As a younger man, Nathan had ventured back into this country with an elk on his mind. Little regard was given to anything but the hunt back then- even safety and security had taken a back seat.
Now, with a number of years and close shaves between him and his starry-eyed college days, Nathan knew how to live in the backcountry. In the ever-present balancing act between weight of gear and necessity, the scales had been tipped toward safety and survival equipment. When a good job presented him with more money, he replaced his cheap tarp with a sound, weatherproof tent. And when that job begat another, better one, Nathan bought an ultra-light frame pack to replace his weathered canvas rucksack. And so it went.
Nine years after that first hunt back there, and he’d turned the tables on Mother Nature- or so it seemed. To see him on the ridge, one would suppose the opposite. His rig was in tatters, from the water filter that gave up the ghost two days in to the soft-shell jacket that wouldn’t zip any longer. And his socks were a wholly different disappointment.
The wool socks Nathan wore were, after all, supposed to be intelligent. It said so right on the label. On a layover for work in Denver, Nathan had decided to kill some time in a trendy mountaineering shop. Never mind that he didn’t need anything, and never mind that the girl who had talked him into his particularly painful footwear was more apt to eat sushi downtown than trout in the mountains. He thought she was cute, and she thought his commission was attractive. The deal was done, and he trusted her opinion.
Nathan thought about this, cursing his stupidity as he sat down for the umpteenth time this afternoon to loosen his laces and hike his socks back up. Carefully, he shrugged off his pack on the uphill side and laid it down securely. His rifle was leaning against a resilient mountain mahogany, low-slung against a bitter wind that was noticeably absent at the moment. Oh, how good a breeze would feel!
His unfortunate routine completed, Nathan shouldered into his straps and sling once again and mounted the unseen staircase toward a summit that hadn’t gotten any closer while he wallowed in self-pity. He knew the sheep were there, over that ridge. His spotting scope hadn’t lied when he saw a ram with full-curl horns and a wary disposition two days earlier, and Nathan could only hope that they hadn’t moved on. Or that they had moved on, but had come back. That seemed more likely, as the wind was the same as two days ago.
Onward and upward he went, chasing a dream that he’d first acquired on that elk hunt years before. The grayish hides and white rears had looked like shadowy mule deer through his dime-store binoculars then, and he’d paid them no mind. It wasn’t until he’d found an ewe, recently dead and half-eaten by some opportunistic cat, that he’d realized what was possible in those daunting hills. And now, cresting the ridge, he knew exactly what he’d do to make his dream a reality.
The summit sloped more gradually than he’d reckoned from below- they always do- and he’d nearly blown his chance. There, grazing casually just below the cornice-holding peak, a few small rams. Nathan hit the deck swiftly and took a moment to compose. Would they still be there when he looked up? When his eyes could again focus, and his heartbeat could be felt instead of heard? Slowly, agonizingly slowly, his senses returned to him.
When he was finally able, Nathan scanned the country above him. There they were! The desolate ground between tree line and blue sky was pockmarked with Bighorn rams. Cautiously, Nathan slid out of his straps and down the slope, allowing him to use his surprisingly rock-shaped pack as a means of cover and, God-willing, as a rifle rest. With his movements concealed, he began to search in earnest for the wary old stud he’d spied two days and fifteen miles ago.
The big ram was lying down some distance behind the group of smaller sheep, having grazed itself into a slumber on the choicest of the sparse grass and Knapweed that, somehow, managed to take hold on this desolate peak. With a steady rest and a markedly accurate rifle in his hands, Nathan figured that the worst was over. He’d spotted the rams, stalked to within 249 yards (according to his angle-compensating rangefinder,) and now had to simply wait for the long-awaited Bighorn to present a clear broadside shot.
Suddenly things changed for the worse- the sweat on Nathan’s neck began to cool in an instant. A sky that was clear blue one minute could easily be grey, black, or even green in no time, weather in the mountains being what it is and should be. But now, unfortunately, the wind whipped up below Nathan and sent a blast straight up the hillside- toward the rams. In a moment, he knew, his scent, his hard-won stink, would be on them and they would be gone. He’d have to make the shot quickly when the big sheep regained his feet, and it would have to count or all would be lost.
The smaller rams stirred about, having caught a quartering whiff of something very un-sheep-like, and Nathan had to steel his nerves and stay in the gun, in the scope, with his crosshairs trained on the big boy. Sure enough, the ram’s hindquarters began to rise. Nathan exhaled lowly. The forequarters followed. Squeeze. Just as the sheep’s head came back to level, the bullet hit him squarely in the boiler room. Nathan never heard the rifle.
His socks slipped again and again on the way down the mountain until, finally, Nathan removed them. Lived-in boots are an unfriendly place for bare feet, and by the time he got back to the truck there was a fair amount of blistering on his heels and soles, but it made no difference. Up on the mountain lay a rack of bones that once held promise for an adventurous young man. And on Nathan’s back was a pack full of meat from those bones, a full-curl skull and cape, and a bright yellow tag, stained with blood and notched in accordance with regulation. The backcountry had not beaten optimism out of him.