I recently had to say goodbye to the man who introduced me to firearms. While I’m new here as a writer, I hope that in the weeks and months to come, I want to do this man justice for teaching me everything about guns that he did. That man was my dad.
One of the simplest, most uncomplicated men I’ve known, he was one of the last real, great cowboys. Don’t get me wrong; there are plenty of excellent horsemen and cowboys (both men and women) who put their heart and soul into their livestock. But he was one of the last to still sleep in his bedroll with his head on his saddle alongside a fire out with the herd. Out under the stars, as his horse grazed in hobbles nearby, he would snooze lightly to make sure the cattle entrusted to him stayed together and safe.
During the day, he rode across mountain passes and valleys, across sagebrush-dotted plains on land that didn’t have fences as borders, when open range grazing was typical. He worked on Cowan’s place north of Big Sandy, Montana; the Cross L and Split Rock west of Casper, Wyoming; the PK ranch outside of Sheridan; the 28 north of Kaycee, Wyoming; Rocky Point Grazing Association, Wyoming; the 2 Bar West of Casper, Wyoming near Bate’s Hole; Johnson’s Ranch, Glendo, Wyoming; and probably a few others over the years I’ve never heard of.
He was never without an old .30-30 in his saddle scabbard to hunt meat for himself and use in case a mountain lion or other predator threatened the livestock. A good horse and good livestock were his passions.
I won’t forget the day last year that dad called me to excitedly tell me he purchased a .357 Magnum revolver. He was so proud and couldn’t wait to shoot it. He’d been fascinated by my GLOCK 19 Gen 4 but said he wanted a revolver because they were just more natural to him. It’s a beauty, too. Nothing fancy. Straightforward and practical; just like him.
When he had a family, he had to adapt and eventually put his cowboying days behind him. Ranching was changing from the way he’d always done it, and it’s hard to raise a family on a cowboy’s income. I remember he was still at it when I was in kindergarten, and he took me on many hunting trips.
Most of the time we hunted rabbits near our home and would eat them later that night. One of his favorite stories was when a game warden pulled up and asked if dad had a license. He didn’t but asked the game warden if he thought it likely that he’d successfully shoot anything with a five-year old, her dog and her cat in tow. The game warden laughed and drove off. Unbeknownst to the warden, we managed to bag a couple of rabbits every time we went out.
I can’t say exactly how young I was when he first let me shoot. I know it had to have been with his .22, but I can’t remember many specifics until I was about 10 and got to shoot his .30-30.
I was so excited when he took me to the range, and we would shoot round after round, with him teaching me proper technique and form. He was so proud of my natural ability and would show my targets to the other men at the range. While I probably lost some hearing with that old rifle and usually ended up with a sore shoulder after several hours of shooting, they were the some of my favorite memories.
We also made some trips to Kaycee to shoot prairie dogs. It was a blast shooting those little buggers, especially when I knew how hard on the valuable pasture they were. I loved honing my marksmanship while knowing I was helping my great aunt manage her land a little.
On my first deer hunt, he guided me every step of the way and helped me bag my first small buck. It was one of the proudest days of my life, and I suspect his, too.
The first day of my hunt, however, was a tough one . I had come upon an incredible buck and dad helped me control my breathing and place an excellent shot, or so we thought. The thud of lead against flesh was audible, and the deer bolted up the hill.
I had shot across a creek, but dad was confident I had made a clean shot and that the buck had probably run to the top of the hill and laid down to die. But after making the trek up there, we found the area where he had laid down, some blood, but no buck.
We followed the trail on foot for hours. The tall greasewood and rolling hills kept us from seeing very far, but we’d occasionally come across a spot of blood on the sagebrush.
As time wore on, I was sick that the buck was wounded and beat myself up for making a bad shot. We tracked that buck for seven hours. and tracked. Finally we topped a small rise to see my buck and two does bounding off into the sunset. I breathed a sigh of relief that he was mostly okay, but was furious that I knew he was still slightly wounded.
I felt like I had no business hunting. My dad reassured me that most great hunters have at least one that gets away. He reminded me that hunting still gives us good meat, and helps keep deer populations stay in check. He pointed out how healthy the buck looked, even after so many hours, and reassured me that he would more than likely be fine.
He didn’t let me give up and I bagged that young buck next day. A couple of shots and he was down. We field dressed him, my dad holding the heart out to me, teasing me to take a bite.
Dad later saved for months to take me on my first elk hunt. A few weeks before we left, he broke his foot, but wasn’t about to go to the doctor. Years of horse and cow wrecks had broken most of the bones in both of his legs, so he knew it was probably in poor shape. Still, he was adamant that we were still going to going on that hunt.
He preferred hiking for miles a day when elk hunting because he believed it was the best way to get up on them. While he said we might not be able to walk quite as much, he assured me we’d still have fun. He was true to his word.
I remember watching him take painful steps over felled trees and rocks, through knee-high snow in pursuit of various elk herds in the Bighorn Mountains of Wyoming. I was thankful for his sacrifice. We were out there about five days and while I didn’t get an elk, I wouldn’t have traded that time for anything.
We saw beautiful scenery everywhere, amazing views from Sheep Mountain Lookout, heard a lone wolf howling one night, and saw a herd of more cow elk than I have ever seen in my life. The peace and serenity I felt in those mountains then — and still do when I visit today — with snow lightly falling and the herd nimbly jumping over the fence, will stay with me forever.
While he had his struggles, as most of us do, he was my dad and I’m grateful for the time my sisters and I had with him. He was a man of a great sense of humor and a faith stronger than most. I will be writing about our adventures shooting his firearms he left me in the weeks to come.