We spent the remainder of the morning and early afternoon touring the Hornady factory and putting together a special web presentation on how a bullet gets made. (Look for the show online soon!) Having warmed up thoroughly, I’m feeling much more human…but even more nervous. We only have a couple more days to hunt, and I’m really hoping I don’t mess up any more opportunities.
Getting back into the ground blind is more pleasant than it was this morning. Steve puts his personal T/C Contender with 50-cal. muzzleloader barrel in my hands—“I love this gun,” he murmurs, “I promise it won’t hangfire on you”—and we settle in to wait. He’s picked an awesome spot to set up. We’re concealed in a stand of cedars, smack in between a feeding area and a bedding area where a row of trees funnels the deers’ movements into a manageable space.
The light goes hazy and yellow. We have about an hour to sunset, and there is something in the air. Something anticipatory. Something like the four does nosing their way gently out of the trees, 120 yards out. And I’m not tired, now, and I’m not cold, and I’m not afraid.
Time slows for me as every nerve cell in my body goes on alert. My heart swells, counting a bass cadence as I settle the Icon’s fore-end on the shooting sticks. I find the largest doe in the scope, centering the crosshair on its shoulder. Silently, Steve reaches over and thumbs the hammer back. Wendy, you’re an idiot whispers a distant part of my brain. The more immediate part—the part that is in control now—simply acknowledges that we are now ready to shoot. “Do you have it?” murmurs Steve.
“I have it. I have it. I have it,” and I am squeezing the trigger. The gun roars.
I lose them in the sight picture as the gun comes up in recoil, and great clouds of smoke billow up. When I come back down out of recoil, they are gone. I look at Steve. “You got it!” he cheers. “You did it! Great shot! Awesome shot! Double-lung at least, and I think you broke the shoulder too!”
A goofy grin finds me, attaches itself and won’t let go. “YES!” Only later do I realize that I didn’t care at all how silly I looked or sounded.
After the Shot
Although I’ve delivered a fatal shot, the deer has powered away through the snow on pure adrenaline and the oxygen left in its muscles. “It won’t go far,” predicts Steve, “no more than 50 yards.” We decide to give the round, a 250-gr. SST-ML in Hornady's Low Drag Sabot with two Hodgdon 777 pellets behind, some time to do its job while we set up to film a short how-to segment for tracking deer. The fun part about this is that I’m learning at the same time as the viewer, being coached through the process. It’s so cold that the blood trail has already frozen, gaudy rubies spangling the tracks. The snow has made our job easy. We find the doe within minutes—as Steve predicted, no more than 50 yards from the hit.
I approach her slowly, wonderingly. I am falling back on the things I have been told, the years of stories and articles. I know to approach cautiously from the rear. I know to poke with the muzzle, making sure the animal will not rise.
I drop to my knees, and I rest my bare hand on the deer’s shoulder, still warm, and this is when the tears come to me. I didn’t want to cry. It felt shameful, somehow, but the adrenaline letdown and the bittersweet wave of emotion have crested and I can’t stop. Tears slip down my cheeks, already icy in the deepening sunset. With an act of will, I force them back down. We take our photos of me and the doe, and then it’s time to load it onto a sled to get back to the truck.
We’re halfway there when Kyle and Tom come jogging out of the treeline. “Did you get one?” they call. “We saw four does come in, but only three came out! Did you—you did! You did!” They thump me hard on the back, grinning hugely.
"So, did you cry?” asks Tom.“Yeah,” I admit. “A little.”
We’re friends and we bust each other’s chops, but this time nobody said anything. A note to you gentlemen readers: If you want to get and keep women in the hunting fields and woods with you, please be cool about this stuff. It makes a big difference.
Steve Johnson, our contact at Hornady Manufacturing, and my guide for this trip, whispers, “The deer are going to be moving now, I can just feel it. Let’s get you into a blind, then I’ll take Kyle and Tom down to their blind."
Just then, Steve frantically gestures to me. I stare at him, uncomprehending. What does he want? “Hurry” he hisses. “Big buck up here! Let’s get you one right now!” I wasn’t prepared for this. Not now. Not yet. Buck? Now? Already? But…You can do this! I chide myself. Don’t be a princess! Get up there!
“Use the fencepost as a rest,” Steve coaches. “Don’t forget to cock the rifle…”
I take a step onto the snowy field, only to sink up to my thigh into an invisible depression. I lose my balance.
Years of training with guns leap up. Don’t muzzle the people behind you! I scream to myself. And then the other foot slides off into the dip, and I rock back into a crouch on my heels. Stand up, my brain commands my legs. For the first time in my life, a body part responds to my brain. Here’s what my legs said: Nuts to you! I was standing in 30 inches of snow. I finally find the fencepost, lay the gun down and cock it. I look down the scope, and see…the buck’s flag flipping me an insouciant “buh-bye” as he skips off into cover.
That Sinking Feeling (Again)
Steve installs me in the ground blind he’s set up at the base of a stand of cedars. “If you see a deer,” he says, “go ahead and shoot it. I’ll be back with you as soon as I can.”
I sit back. I doubt I’ll see another deer before Steve gets back, but I keep my eyes peeled all the same. Ten minutes go by, then 20. I’m starting to relax a little when two does appear from my right.
I steady my breathing, and bring the muzzle up. I whistle softly, hoping to get one to pause. Sure enough, it does, turning its narrow face towards me, presenting a beautiful broadside shot. I center the crosshair just on its shoulder, let my breath out a little, and squeeze the trigger. Just like I’ve been taught. Ffffff-BANG roars the muzzleloader.
When the gun comes back down, the deer are gone. But this didn’t feel right. Was that a hangfire? I wonder. Did I miss? Oh, no. Did I wound it? I take a deep breath.
I get out of the blind, head over to where the does were standing, and begin to follow their trail. No hair here; no blood. But I know from reading that they don’t always start bleeding right away. I need to keep following these tracks. Half an hour later, Steve appears behind me. Together we retrace my steps, combing the trail the deer made, finding nothing. Steve agrees that I missed the deer clean, and theorizes that my gun did hangfire. He sees my downcast look. “You can blame this one on the gun,” he grins.
“I always thought it was a cop-out when writers did that,” I gloom back. He just laughs.
Though my clothing has done the best possible job in these extreme conditions, I'm starting to get cold. And I've had a lot of coffee. Not to put too fine a point on it: I need to answer the call of Nature. Right out here, in the middle of all this Nature.
I believe I left this particular fear off the list of my fears earlier in these journals, but it's a real one, and if I had to guess I'd say it's a big part of why some women hesitate to join their male friends and loved ones in the field. It's harder for us, and we'd like to maintain some dignity and some mystery if we can.
But Mother Nature will not be denied.
"Um, excuse me, Steve?"
"I. Um. Need to go around that hill. For a minute. Um..."
"That's fine, see you in a bit," he replies breezily.
Well, that went better than I'd expected. (Gentlemen readers, take note. If you want to get and keep women in the field, be cool about this stuff.)
I get to the crest of a little hill and note a copse of trees that will serve as cover for me. But as I start heading down the hill, I realize that the snow has drifted here. First up to my hips, then my waist, then my ribs.
Oh, you pathetic little princess, I scold myself, you are going to break your fool neck.
Then I notice that the snow has developed a firm crust in the subzero temps. Perhaps it will hold my weight if I can just...distribute my weight a bit. Thighs groaning at the effort, I lever myself onto the surface, on my hands and knees. Then I just slow-crawl to the bottom of the hill. I've gone several yards before I realize just how ridiculous I must look. Perhaps I am shedding my "princess persona" after all.