B.J.'s Deer by Rick Bass

The plan calls for my younger brother B.J. to fly from Austin to Spokane before catching an Amtrack that will travel east to Libby, arriving about 5:30 Thanksgiving morning. I'll drive over the summit and pick him up, and since he can only stay two days, we'll go hunting straight from the train station.

I pack our lunches the night before, and gather up gear for both of us. I go to bed excited, wake up at 3:30 and drive up and over the snowy summit, my excitement building – perfect tracking weather. B.J. gets off the train, and it's great to see him.

In the train station, he stares blearily at my hunting boots and gaiters, and tries to rally. I feel like a crazy person, an Elmer Fudd kind of fanatic, for having even dreamed that it might be. It's just that I'm so anxious to get him into the winter backcountry, and we have so little time.

"Do you think we could go out later this afternoon?" he asks.

"Absolutely," I tell him.

I drop him off at the house at dawn, and build a fire anew in the woodstove, and get his bed set up; and then I head back into the woods, for now there are only four days left in the season, and the tracking snow will be perfect, with the movements of all animals, today, revealed inescapably. If I should be so fortunate to find and follow and catch up with and take an animal today, B.J. can come help me pack it out. There is an extraordinary fullness and sweetness to taking an animal, on or around Thanksgiving.

We have friends coming for dinner, and I've told Elizabeth I'll help her cook, in the middle of the day, but in the meantime, the whole day stretches before me, and it's snowing steadily, perfect hunting weather, and I leave the house quietly, with everyone in it still asleep, and head up toward the high country.

I'm daydreaming, walking through the early morning blue light, not really hunting, and as such, I'm surprised when, only halfway up on the mountain, I spy a large mule deer, back in the timber, watching me.

I think it's a buck, but I can't be sure. The light is still dim and he's back in a tangle of brush, the leafless branches of which also look like antlers, and we watch each other, across the distance of perhaps a hundred yards or more, and then he breaks into a trot, and I see that it is a buck, and a very big one, and then he disappears into the dense forest, and the rest of the herd follows him.

I am not a careful hunter. Any animal I ever got is almost always by luck alone.

I set off up the hill after the herd, following their new tracks. I follow them for the rest of the morning, up and down and all around the mountain. I spy the nervous herd twice more, including a smaller buck, but never again that big one. Then it is time for me to head back home and cook. Weary from all the tracking, I'm glad for the break.

The house smells incredible. There's a fire going in the woodstove, beside which I can dry my boots and coat, and there is the fragrance of pies and rolls baking, fresh coffee, and citrus peels, spiced tea, and roasting garlic. The snow still slanting past all the windows. Three-and-a-half days left.

Peel the potatoes, slice and seed the jalapenos, dice the onions – prep work mostly, leaving the real cooking to Elizabeth. I do mix up some pastry dough for the dessert and set it aside to rise, and then it's time to go back up onto the mountain again. This time, B.J., who is feeling a hundred percent better, is able to accompany me.

We cut fresh buck tracks less than five minutes into our walk. They are huge tracks, and I recognize them from the deer that I followed all morning.

His tracks turn around and head back up the mountain, disappearing into the dense forest like a ghost: except that now he cannot disappear, not entirely. We follow him, leaving the trail to do so, and disappear ourselves into that seemingly impenetrable forest, passing through snowy fronds of cedars, and slipping sideways between the upright bars of lodgepoles, laboring up the hill, invisible now to the rest of the world, as a key enters the gears and tumblers of any one lock. This is what I wanted B.J. to see. My Thanksgiving is already complete.

We hurry along behind the deer, as silent in the new snow as ghosts. As long as he does not hear us or scent us, maybe he will not know that he is prey.

He is not running; he is only walking, and for a while, we're excited, thinking we've got the drop on him, because he's passing through some fairly open areas – places where, if we were close enough behind him, I might have a good shot.

The wind is quartering from south to north, so like casters or weavers, we try to follow his tracks and yet at the same time tack northerly, to help prevent him from slipping downwind. We can't assume that he's just going to keep climbing straight up, and so we keep drifting to the right of his fresh tracks, trying to get out ahead of him, and looking back into the wind, hoping to catch a glimpse of him standing stock-still in all that timber, watching us, even if only for a couple of seconds.

The fantasy we have of possibly sneaking up on him undetected, as if coming upon him while he is merely out for a stroll in the woods, this fine stormy day, lasts for about six minutes. He must have heard a stick snap, perhaps, or the thumping of our hearts, or felt the heat of our living bodies radiating through the falling snow.

His trail veers directly into the gnarliest tangles of lodgepoles, blow-down and cedar – trash available to him – ridiculous obstacles of wind-sprung root wads and the bristling dry spires and branches of trees long-ago dead.

We play his game, anyway. He has led us already into a black hole of blow-down where the only way out would be to turn around and go back down the mountain. So we follow him, trying to be as quiet as we can, climbing over and under and through, but unavoidably snapping the little twigs as we do so, and making little slithering sounds – little leafy and brushy sounds – and yet even though we know now, beyond certainty, that he knows we're behind him, and that we're following him, we persist in the myth of the stalk, as if following some extraordinarily formal code of manners.

A young mountain lion slips in between us somehow, coming in from downwind and catching the scent of the mule deer buck and the humans climbing right behind him.

It's wonderful anyway. I want B.J. to see, revealed in this new-falling snow, the inner workings of this deer's mind, manifested incontrovertibly. The deer is smarter than we are, and stronger, and more graceful. Of course we want it.

Our mother died when I was 33, when B.J. was 17. I can feel also that she is looking down with pleasure at the sight or knowledge or grace of two of her boys trailing that deer through the snowy wilderness on a Thanksgiving afternoon while the rest of the world, perhaps, sits at the table, at the feast: two of her boys threading their way through the nearly impenetrable wilderness, as unseen to the rest of the world, in that forest jungle, as she is now to us; but again, no less real, for the not-seeing. And I think it is that way for B.J., too: that there is a reassuring and empowering continuity. We hunted deer when she was living, and now we are still pursuing them after she is gone.

A young mountain lion slips in between us somehow, coming in from downwind and catching the scent of the mule deer buck and the humans climbing right behind him.

The tracks suddenly appear where the lion has come in from the north and joined in on the stalk, maneuvering itself into that compressed space just behind the deer, but just ahead of us – the new tracks heat-glistening in the pressed white snow. The lion had belly-wriggled under the low boughs of yew and cedar and hemlock, with its big padded feet, and the litheness of its spring-steel muscle, surely as silent as any single strand or current of water within a larger river, or as silent as any one thought, over the entire course of a day.

The tracks are so fresh. A big deer, two men and a lion are all jammed in together, all gathered within a fifty-yard sphere on this mountain, and none of them can see one another. Three of the four parties know of the existence of all the others, though it seems certain, by the deer's casual gait, that he still does not yet know of the lion.

Seen from above, would it look like a parade? The great deer, with his huge crown of antlers like a king; and behind him, the lion, threading the same course, and behind the lion, the two men? And behind us, what? A single raven, perhaps, following silently, flying coal-black and ragged through the falling snow?

We follow the deer for the rest of the afternoon. We push hard, floundering in the deep snow, thinking always that just over the next ridge, we will see him, even if only briefly, and our labors are made all the more tantalizing by the fact that he is out in the open now, passing across wide steep-tilted parks and meadows. Still his tracks are new-cut in the storm, still he is no more than a minute or two ahead of us, and we surge to rejoin him – to close the distance, like one river seeking perhaps the confluence of another.

He begins side-hilling, clearly tiring; but still, like a magician, he keeps always the perfect distance between us and him. The snow is coming down harder, so that he's granted extra protection beneath that cloak, and he heads around to the southern end of the mountain, and then climbs up and over the final windy ridge, and travels straight down the back side, back down into the dark timber of his home, as if trying now not just to escape, but to break our spirit we cannot help but think of how hard the climb back out will be, and with a Thanksgiving dinner engagement awaiting us, shortly after dark-but still, we follow him, almost as if hypnotized now, betranced by some mesmerizing braid of falling snow, and our own desire, and the strange weave of the deer's day-long path, like one long and convoluted wandering sentence whose meaning grows ever-sharper, tantalizingly sharper, nearing its end.

It's as if some madness or obsession has come over us, to be following him down the backside like that – into the deeper timber, and into the darkness.

It's as if some madness or obsession has come over us, to be following him down the backside like that – into the deeper timber, and into the darkness.

There was only half an hour of light left, and a dim cold blue light, at that, but finally, he ceased in his decent, and began angling to the north, and side-hilling his way slowly back up to the ridge. We are a long way from our truck.

We're getting tired and sloppy, and losing our hunter's edge, I think, at a time when it should be growing sharper, with only a very few minutes left in the day. We're looking off into the dark canyon below, and at the snowy wild crags in the blue distance, as night slides in over the wilderness; and it seems to us, in the way that the icy spits of snow are striking our face, and in our exhaustion, that we are somehow in a much wilder place than when we started out, and that it is all the more beautiful, for that extra or added wildness: and we stop and rest, looking out at the horizon, pausing to admire the sight of such wild country before the night takes it away.

Walk and run, walk and run; we close the distance, with our brute endurance, and he opens it back up again, stretches it farther once more. We never see him – only the places where, looking back, he has seen us – and finally, though it is not quite yet dark, it is time to head on back.

It's been a great hunt, with every single minute of it filled with the possibility of making game. We have no regrets.

We pause one more time to look out at the mountains, as they sink beneath the darkness and in my mind, there is a feeling like I have released the buck; as if, in my letting go – my grateful letting go, I have snipped some thread or leash that has connected us, all day long.

I have gotten what I needed; I have gotten what I came for.

It's snowing harder. We pass out of a grove of dark lodgepole and into a small opening, and I look downslope, and see, in the dimness, nearly two hundred yards away, a doe mule deer peering out from behind a tree. She, too, is about to pass on into the same clearing. Then I see the buck just behind her.

He is facing us, looking upslope, and has his head lowered, in the way that big mule deer bucks will sometimes do, when evaluating something.

Unthinkingly, as if with the echo or momentum of desire, rather than the previous burning essence of it, I raise the rifle to put the scope on him. I lift the gun quickly. Desire has now resumed its path with mine and has re-entered my steps. Even at this distance, the target of his big neck looks ample, and I squeeze the trigger.

He is gone, vanished immediately. The doe that was standing next to him is still there — prancy now — after a second, she whirls and trots away and the snow begins coming down harder, as if the sound of the rifleshot somehow punctured some reserve or restraint, some previous withholding, and I watch and wait, wondering where the buck went.

Under normal conditions, we'd sit down and wait. Rushing down there isn't going to change anything: if he's dead, he's dead. But if he's hurt, I want to know it. In this falling snow, we're not going to have the luxury of letting him lie down to die quietly.

As if we might be destined to follow him forever, like the wheeling revolutions of some one set of constellations, following eternally another set, across the autumn or winter skies, night after night, and with their distance never varying.

It is about 175 yards to the place where he was standing – farther than I'd realized. We examine his tracks. The doe ran north, while he turned and bounded down the mountain, to the west, and I can find not even a fleck of blood, nor even any hair – only air, space, white snow, absence.

The tracks look awkward to me, in a way I can't explain: not the usual choreographed dance steps of whirl-and-bound alarm, but with something else, some indecision or confusion charted in the snow – or so it seem to me, or to my subconscious. Or, perhaps, only to my desire.

We follow the tracks down the hill. Out in the middle of the steep clearing, there is one lone bush, a large leafless willow, limbs and branches stark against the snowy evening.

"Look," B.J. says, pointing to the base of the tree, where there are branches, wide branches, beneath the other branches, and a dense dark sleeping body that is being covered already with snow: vanishing already, now, except for the memory, our memory, of the hunt.

Montana writer and outdoorsman Rick Bass has authored more than 15 books. A longer version of this essay appeared in his book, The Wild Marsh. BHA appreciates the permission to print this story.

About Caitlin Thompson