To see how this journey began, check out Rocky Mountain Redemption: Part 1.
We return now to where this story started, set up in the last ounce of available cover with a good piece of real estate between us and what looked to be the biggest buck in the unit.
I dialed a bit of elevation into the scope and took notice of the wind situation, which was a non-factor. The buck was looking directly away from us, undoubtedly watching his back trail for the group who had chased him from his breakfast. I started with a hasty kneeling position but wasn't as steady as I wanted to be and eased down into a supported sitting arrangement.
The pressure of months of reflection and practice mounted as I considered the situation: I'm not going to say that I was willing to give up hunting if I didn't make this shot, but things were nearly at that point. As the buck turned to flee, it was now or never — with him quartering slightly away, I pushed the doubts from my mind and leaned forward into the sticks, exhaled completely, and began to mentally talk myself through the two-pound trigger pull.
As the rifle fired, I knew that I hadn't blown it — calling your shot is a key component of marksmanship and my brain told me this was a hit.
A blur in the scope told me that the buck hadn't taken a step and D'Arcy confirmed excitedly that he was down for the count.
I went from months of morosely challenging everything that I'd loved to being on top of the world in few tenths of a second. The relief was physical.
When we approached the buck he was actually bigger than we'd thought, 15" tall with tons of mass and prongs that looked like triangular tortilla chips. I'm not a guy who worries much about inches but he was green-scored at over 80, which is a great buck anywhere.
The morning temperatures were still cool and the buck was alert but unrushed so the meat was likely to be in prime condition. We could barely wipe the smiles from our faces as we turned the buck into steaks and roasts and loaded him into the packs.
By lunchtime, I'd pointed my rental car south and was headed for Colorado — it was time to focus on elk.
Less than 24 hours later, I hiked up a gentle slope toward a high meadow in the extreme northwest corner of the Centennial State, where the ragged sage deserts of Wyoming crash into the steep hills and aspen-covered mountains of Colorado.
As the first crack of daylight broke over the mountains and transformed black to gray, Aaron's bugle tube broke the still morning. The call was met by silence and we continued our slow hike into the wind.
This stop, call, hike sequence went on a few more times before the morning air exploded with the sound of a bull's angry response. It was less of a bugle than it was a growl.
We took hasty positions among the trees that formed a perimeter around the meadow and I quickly found a fallen trunk that would work as a shooting rest. The herd arrived silently and we began to see cows and spikes moving though the trees at 300 yards.
As they eased cautiously toward what they thought to be a rival bull, a 5x5 emerged and stood patiently broadside at 250 yards. As much as I wanted him to be a shooter, his body and antlers told me that he was an adolescent — the growling bugle repeated and he was not its author.
After an eternity, the larger animal emerged and weaved his way through the treeline.
It was like a scene from a painting, the white trunks and golden leaves of the Aspens framing the blonde bull, parts of him black from the mud wallows nearby. His chocolate horns were tipped with ivory and everything about his demeanor told me that he owned this mountain.
My brain instantly switched from observer to predator and I brought the Shrike into the pocket of my shoulder. A crumpled stocking cap in my left fist gave me the elevation that I needed and my reticle barely wobbled thanks to my Aspen bench rest.
Remembering that my chamber was loaded with an SST rather than a Failsafe, I put the reticle just behind the shoulder instead of on it and eased into the trigger.
The shot rocked the bull and he lurched forward like a bronco out of the shoot. He cleared the trunk of another aspen and I put a second bullet high into his lungs before he disappeared.
Aaron blew furiously on the bugle to calm the herd as they spooked from the gunfire. His tactic was effective and they began to move slowly away rather than stampeding over the next mountain with the wounded bull among them.
I called my shots and we crept slowly into waist-high grass looking for blood. An all-too-familiar feeling began to churn in my gut as we spent the next few minutes searching for evidence of a hit. We went back to where he stood when I fired my first shot and moved into his direction of travel.
No blood, no hair, nothing to indicate that I'd done my job.
Had I hit an unseen branch?
Had the bullet somehow failed to penetrate the massive animal?
We fanned-out looking for sign as the doubt built-up in my mind.
"There he is," said Aaron, and once again my emotions shifted on a dime.
The bull hadn't gone ten yards after my second shot; we'd simply misjudged the terrain and were looking a few yards too far downhill. Both shots were exactly where I said they'd be and the first hit was as fatal as the second.
The bullet destroyed both lungs and clipped the aorta before coming to rest on the offside of the bull and the second shot destroyed more lung tissue and offered identical penetration. As I admired the bull's mud-caked antlers, I was reminded why we do this.
Two states, three fatal shots, and two great animals had restored not only my confidence, but also my fire for the chase that had been suppressed by so much doubt.
If hunting was always successful, always easy, it would be as unrewarding as shooting a cow in a pasture. It's the hard work, the preparation, the high highs and the low lows that make it special.
Back home with one more elk tag on my desk and a shooter whitetail buck on my trail camera, I can't wait to do it all over again.