Is the Buck of a Lifetime Worth a Lifetime of Guilt?

A childhood lesson keeps one hunter in check for decades to come

Tarnished Trophies

offhand shots

Originally published on the back page of the June/July issue of Outdoor LifeJoel Kimmel

I was afraid the lady clerk who’d seen me pocket the package of red plastic capgun caps would come after me. Caught shoplifting, I didn’t think to put them back. Instead, I rushed out of the store, nearly running, heart pounding, and hid in the back seat of our family’s car, parked around the corner.

I’d be seen if I walked to the other stores on Main Street, where the rest of my family was shopping. Word would be out. Shopping in Sterling was a rare treat for our family, and now I, a felonious 9-year-old, had spoiled it. I didn’t want to go to prison; I wanted to go home. I hated those caps in my hand, but I was too scared to return them. Every time I pass through Sterling, even a half-century later, I still think about those caps, and I feel guilty all over again.

John Zent, guide Byron Gaswick, and I were huddled behind sagebrush deep in a Sonoran pasture, all of us studying a mule deer that another guide, Matt Schimberg, watching from three-quarters of a mile away, deemed a “slug.” He was a huge 5x5 with matching brow tines, wide and tall—the kind you see in magazines that make you ask yourself, “How come I never see deer like that?”

Well, we were seeing a deer like that. Matt had spotted him from atop the highest point on the ranch. He was perched there now, watching the buck and us through a giant 30x80 Docter binocular on a solid tripod. Matt and Byron sit on vistas like that all day, day after day, scouting deer. Chad Smith, the Vaquero Outfitters’ honcho, called them the top guides in the business.

The deer were about 500 yards away. The big 5x5 got in a shoving match with a smaller buck (and by smaller, I mean still big, a definite wall-hanger), eventually flipping him on his back and pushing him uphill, dust flying over sagebrush. A five-strand barbed-wire fence, maybe 350 yards out, ran between us and the deer. Piece of cake, I thought. We circle the back of this hill behind us, cross the fence, crawl up, and we’ll be looking right over them. I voiced my strategy to Byron. “No,” he whispered. “That fence is our ranch boundary. Hopefully, they’ll work this way.”

If Slug jumped the fence, John, who had won the coin flip, could make that shot. I had my mind made up that I’d try for the young punk that had sparred with Slug.

After the tussle, Slug lay down, his tall rack poking above the sage. We settled in, eating a lunch of fresh tortillas smeared with homemade refried beans, and passed the afternoon watching.

Near dusk, four does grazed our way, slowly. We tensed. The bucks, including Slug, hadn’t moved and showed no interest in doing so. We were losing light fast.

“Those does are going to wind us and blow the whole thing,” Byron whispered. “We have to get out of here. Hopefully, we can find them tomorrow, on our side of the fence.”

They weren’t, and we didn’t.

That all happened years ago, but when I told this story over burgers and beer in Stewie’s, a fellow across the table said, “Wait a minute. You’re telling me neither you nor the other guy pushed to cross that fence to go after that buck? Or the buck that got his ass kicked?”

“No. Neither John nor I brought it up.”

“Why not?”

“Well, I guess John figured it like I did, that no means no.”

“You never gave it a thought?”

“I didn’t say I didn’t think about it,” I said. In fact, I’ve thought about that buck plenty since then. What I’d left unsaid was what would a buck on the wall, even a buck of a lifetime, mean if I broke the law to get it? Breaking the law, after all, can weigh on a guy for a long, long time.