If the reader thought Part 1 of this story had a lot of emotional ups and downs, you’d better fasten your seat belt for Part 2 of this continuing saga. Emotionally, it turned out to be the most violent roller-coaster ride of my entire hunting lifetime. The drama of Part 1 can hardly compare to the drama of Part 2, and I would urge the reader to take in the previous story first, if he or she has not already done so.
Day 20 of my remarkable 30-day desert bighorn hunt started like most all the others—driving “the” road, and glassing the high country from periodic vantage points along the way. About an hour after sunup, Gary found three junior rams, one ewe, and one mature ram feeding again quite low down on the mountain. We watched them patiently from the road until they finally fed up over a ridge-top and bedded just on the other side. They were only some 1,200 to 1,400 feet above us now, and the time was exactly 11 a.m. Repositioning our pickup out of sight a bit farther down the road, we made a mad dash up the backside of their ridge, hoping we could arrive in time to find them still bedded.
As we neared the crest, Gary had me stay back at first, while he inched forward on his belly to peer over the convex curve of the ridgetop, in an attempt to determine the exact whereabouts of the sheep. Soon he crawled his way back into view with a big smile on his face. They were still bedded, and not far away. Fortunately, Gary had had the presence of mind to grab the cardboard sheep-decoy and carry it up the mountain with us. He swung the head-neck section up into position and proceeded to whisper his game plan to me.
“Here’s the deal, Dennis,” he said. “I’m going to hold this decoy straight out in front of me and walk slowly right at those sheep. I’ll have my whitetail grunt-tube in my mouth. With your arrow on the string, I want you to walk directly behind me, using me for cover, and you’ll need to come to full draw the instant you hear me blow on my deer call. As soon as you’ve settled into your anchor, step directly to my left, then forward one stride. With any luck, the decoy and the deer call should combine to buy you two or three extra seconds, but you won’t have long to get the shot off. Just find the big ram as fast as you can and let fly. Be mentally prepared for a shot of around 50 yards, at no more than 20 degrees downhill.”
Gary had been very precise, and I had no questions. Only a steely determination to execute the challenge at hand as competently as possible. I knew I wasn’t likely to have many more chances.
Everything happened in a blur. First, the sentry ewe went bonkers at the sight of Gary’s outsized decoy. Then all hell started breaking loose below us, but—as the grunt tube sounded and I drew my bow, while stepping out from behind Gary’s back—I saw the mature ram jump up on a little boulder about three feet high and turn his head uphill for a better look at the biggest set of ewe-cheeks he’d ever seen. That gave me just the extra time I needed to take aim and release my arrow.
The shot wasn’t perfect, but—as I watched it disappear right through the base of the ram’s neck, perhaps an inch-or-so forward of the front shoulder—it seemed good enough! Between the top of the brisket and the nape of the neck, the complete pass-through had appeared to take place around one-third of the way up. The ram broke off his new courtship rather abruptly, and within mere seconds all five sheep had vanished over the top of the ridge we’d just come over. As my dedicated guide was just about to disappear hot on their trail, I shouted after him at the top of my lungs (with all the jubilation I could muster), “Gary, we’re going to Alaska!”
For the first 20 days of my 1999 Nevada desert bighorn hunt, Gary Coleman and I had been hunting for a live ram. The last 10 days of the season were spent hunting for a dead one. As soon as my arrow passed through the base of the ram’s neck, I knew he was not likely to survive the hit. The only question in my mind was whether or not we’d be able to find him in whatever place he chose to die. While Gary went running off over the ridgetop to try and keep the band of sheep in view, I began an intensive search for the arrow. It had been a downhill shot, and—30 yards below the rock the ram had jumped up on—there was a cliff that fell away some 100 feet into a chaotic jumble of boulders. An hour-long quest yielded nothing. This really bothered me, because I desperately wanted to examine the arrow to get a better idea of the nature of the hit.
Finally giving up on the search, I climbed back up to where the sheep had been bedded at the time of our ambush. In short order, I located Gary about 300 yards around the side of the mountain. He was down on all fours trying to distinguish in the dry, rocky soil between hour-old tracks and day-old tracks. He had seen the group scamper out of sight over the top of the second ridge (where we were at the moment), but he’d not had any glimpse of them after that. We were discussing a strategy for continuing the search when a sudden clap of thunder interrupted the debate. One look up at the crest of the range revealed a huge, very black storm front moving rapidly in on us, and we suddenly realized that all tracks on the mountain were about to be washed out completely. Retreat seemed the better part of both valor and wisdom, so down the mountain we scurried—like two rats that hadn’t even been drowned yet. That would change, however, before we reached the pickup.
The thunder-and-lightning deluge lasted nearly an hour. Not long before sundown, the skies cleared enough for us to start driving the road once again. As a rosy twilight descended on the range, my guide announced from behind the eyepiece of his spotting scope that he had found our band of sheep feeding on top of the next-door peak, just down the chain from the one where I’d shot my ram.
“Your ram is missing, Dennis,” Gary blurted out with real excitement in his voice. “I see the ewe and the three small rams, but the one you arrowed is no longer with them.”
We agreed this was a very positive sign and returned to camp to map out a recovery strategy for the following morning with Mike Hornbarger, our outfitter. The long night passed fitfully for me, but shortly after daybreak, Gary Smith (another of Mike’s guides) arrived in camp to help in the search. We were also joined that day by one of the four Nevada residents who had drawn a sheep tag for the Stillwaters. The only one left with an unfilled tag, Leonard Gleason, was kind enough to take a day out of his own hunt to help me locate my downed animal, and I was most grateful to him.
We didn’t know with certainty that my ram was already dead, but we strongly suspected so. I had arrowed him on the northeast flank of White Rock Mountain—one of the largest peaks in the range—so we realized the search would not be easy. Beginning around 8 a.m., and splitting up to look in different directions, the five of us scoured every nook and cranny on that part of the mountain until late afternoon. It was a clear, warm day, and we began checking the sky regularly for the sight of birds circling. We thought the odds were excellent that—if our ram was, in fact, dead—the eagles, hawks, or ravens would find the carcass sooner or later. To our huge disappointment, we all came up empty on that first day of searching.
The second day yielded no better results, and our search party had been reduced to three. The third and fourth days were no more fruitful than the second. Up until then, by climbing into the high country each day, Gary and I had been able to keep track of the little clique of sheep of which my ram had been a part. In support of our conviction that we would eventually prevail, the fact that he had never rejoined them was a source of great encouragement. On that fourth day, however, another band of nine joined up with the lonesome foursome, and the larger group of 13 sheep headed farther north along the crest of the range—never to be seen (by us) again.
Despite all the mounting frustration, Gary and I kept telling each other that my ram just had to be lying somewhere on that mountain—in an expired state—waiting for us to discover him. Every day, we continued to search the sky repeatedly for signs of birds circling. As time wore on in our hunt for the dead ram, we started looking farther and farther afield from the original search area. During the final few days of the season, Mike provided us with a four-wheeler that made it possible for us to explore a lot of the backcountry up high, as we had to start each morning from the valley floor. The access routes for the four-wheeler, however, were only two in number: a miserable excuse for a road some 20 miles north of White Rock Mountain, and an even-more-wretched remainder of an old road that had turned into mostly a stream-bottom along the southern margin of White Rock itself.
My arrow had passed through the base of the ram’s neck on the second day of December. On Saturday, December 11, the day before the season closed, Gary and I managed to get our four-wheeler far enough up Steam Shovel Canyon, on the south side of White Rock, to connect with another old road higher up that we hadn’t known about. This allowed us to search a vast new area where our ram might have sought refuge—had he, indeed, been able to make it up over the main, western shoulder of the peak about 1,500 feet above where I’d shot him. There was a skiff of snow on the valley floor that morning, but much more high up on the mountain. Although we did find fresh lion, coyote, and sheep tracks in the snow that day (as well as the next), nary a critter did we see.
The 10-day search for a dead ram was both exhaustive and exhausting. The two trips back down Steam Shovel Canyon had both taken place after dark, aided by headlamps. When Monday morning arrived, Mike, Gary, and I broke camp with leaden hands, and still heavier hearts. The drive back to Fallon, where we had to report in with the Nevada Department of Wildlife, was about as solemn and downbeat as a Quaker funeral. With nothing to celebrate save defeat, everything worth saying had already been said. Knowing that my odds of drawing another nonresident desert sheep tag in some other Western state were virtually nil, I found it hard to wax philosophical in my conversation with Mike. Indeed, I didn’t even try. Neither of us felt much like talking. All I really had to show for my gargantuan, 30-day effort was a weight-loss of 18 pounds, and a sickening feeling in the pit of my stomach that wouldn’t go away.
When the sheep biologist saw us coming through the front door, he bounded out of his corner office and right up to the front counter to greet us.
“Well, boys, did you finally get him? We’ve been wondering about you!” he blurted out, all in one breath.
Unable to return the broad smile that lit up his friendly face, I stated, “No, sir, we didn’t. I did arrow a nice ram on the 20th day of the hunt, but, unfortunately, we’ve spent the last 10 days of the season looking for him, without success.”
For a few seconds, there was stunned silence across the counter from me. Then came the words I shall never forget: “Holy mackerel, son! By God, I think we know where your ram is!”
Now it was my turn to be stunned. I believe Mike could have knocked me over with a feather!
“What do you mean you know where my ram is?” I stammered.
“Well,” the biologist continued, “I know this sounds crazy, but half-an-hour ago we got a phone call here in the office from a Chukar hunter who reported that, on Saturday morning, he found a dead ram lying right up against the wall of a canyon-bottom he was hunting, out northeast of here in the Stillwater Mountains. He said it was covered with a trace of snow and appeared to have been there for some time, because the eyes were rather sunken in their hollows.”
Mike and I gasped and looked at each other—our hearts catching fire with renewed hope and excitement.
“Where in the Stillwaters?” I asked immediately.
“Right at the base of White Rock Mountain,” came the reply. “The bird hunter said his dog discovered it about three-quarters-of-a-mile up the canyon from its mouth, where he’d been forced to park his truck.”
“Hallelujah!” I shouted. “That’s just got to be my ram, then, because that’s the peak I shot him on!”
Grinning from ear to ear, the kindly wildlife biologist came out from behind the counter, put his hand on my shoulder, and said, “Well, Mr. Dunn, let me take you down the hallway and introduce you to our local enforcement officer. He’ll no doubt have some questions for you, and I know he’s planning on driving out to that canyon tomorrow morning. Any chance you could stay overnight and go with him?”
“With this kind of news, you couldn’t pay me enough to leave town!” I replied, with a big smile finally engulfing my face. After being right down there on the bottom of the barrel, emotionally—all of a sudden, I was on top of the world! Who could have ever dreamed up an ending like this one? What I didn’t realize, however, was that the roller-coaster ride was far from over.
Once the introductions were finished, the game warden sat me down and started explaining more about the surprising phone call they had just received.
“This bird hunter said he was calling in to find out if it was legal for him to go back and take the horns off the animal,” he said. “We told him it was, because of Nevada’s ‘pickup’ law, but we told him not to do so for 24 hours—so we could get out there and examine the carcass to determine cause of death. Since he gave a precise description of where to find the ram, it shouldn’t take very long. You and Mike are welcome to come with me tomorrow morning, and that way we can recover your trophy together.
“I just have two questions for you,” the game warden continued. “Where do you think your arrow struck the ram? And how old do you think he was? Describe him and his horns as fully as you can.”
“Okay,” I answered. “He was probably a six-year-old—five at the very least—and his right horn was broomed back about three inches more than his left. Also, I’d say his pelage was a bit darker than that of most of the rams we saw during the hunt.
“As for the hit,” I continued, “my arrow passed through and exited the very base of the neck, no more than an inch or so forward of the crease with his front shoulder.”
“Thanks, Mr. Dunn. That will be very helpful and gives me all the detail I should need,” replied the warden. “Meet me here at 8 a.m. tomorrow, and we’ll go find your long-lost ram.”
As far as I was concerned, morning couldn’t come fast enough. Mike and I checked into a local motel, and I proceeded to change my return flight home from that Monday evening to Tuesday evening.
By 9 a.m., the three of us had arrived at the entrance to Steam Shovel Canyon. Without a four-wheeler available, it would be all on foot from there. The Chukar hunter had reported finding the ram about three-fourths of a mile up the canyon, lying amongst the sagebrush bushes tight up against a black, left-hand wall of the gorge. With our friendly warden leading the way, it didn’t take more than 20 minutes to reach the carcass. I could hardly wait to hold those handsome horns in my hands!
When I heard Mike exclaim, “There he is, Dennis!” I rushed forward to get a better look. Nothing could have prepared me for the sight that greeted my eyes. There was the carcass, all right—tight up against the canyon wall—but minus its horns, head, and neck! There wasn’t even a stub of a neck left on the body! My trophy had been stolen from me, and the thief had even gone to considerable trouble to take with him all the evidence of the animal being a bowhunter’s kill. Otherwise, the carcass was intact. Because it was so well hidden where it lay, no predators or birds of prey had ever found it. All at once, I was right back down at the bottom of the roller-coaster one more time, and the feeling in my stomach wasn’t any better than it had been when the season closed Sunday night.
The three of us stood around for a few minutes just staring at what we’d found. What a miserable way for my hunt to end, I was thinking! Finally, as the shock began to wear off, I bestirred myself to take a photograph of the truncated remains—purely as evidence of the theft. Not that an illegal act had been committed, but a true picture of the shoddy behavior that had taken place was starting to coalesce in my mind.
On the very morning this bird hunter had found my dead ram, Gary and I had passed within 10 yards of the carcass—four-wheeling our way up into the high country! We had bumped along right past it in the rocky streambed, without a clue that the treasure was so close at hand. Yet we had noticed that morning not one, but two, sets of fresh boot tracks in the light snow on those few short sections of old road that still remained in the canyon-bottom. There had been a set of fresh dog tracks, as well.
On the hike back to the warden’s truck, the conversation centered on the probability that the caller Monday morning had already removed the horns, head, and neck the previous Saturday. He had no doubt wanted to find out what kind of legal ground, if any, he had to stand on before he started showing the horns—or talking about them—to his hunting buddies. Perhaps he hadn’t been able to comply with the warden’s request because the deed had already been done! Of course, we had no proof of this conjecture, but it seemed more logical, more likely, than the idea that some third party had also stumbled on the dead ram between Saturday morning and Tuesday morning.
Because Taureans like myself never give up easily, I started composing, during the drive back to Fallon, the text of a possible ad it had occurred to me I ought to run in the northern Nevada newspapers. At least my ram was no longer in the possession of Mother Nature. It was in the hands of humanity. That meant somebody had it; more than one person knew about it; and—just maybe—even a dishonorable purloiner of my trophy might be human enough to yield to a bribe, if I offered to pay a ransom! The more I thought about it, the more my hopes began to revive.
Our first stop in Fallon was the local radio station, where I made arrangements with the very cooperative staff for a series of short public service announcements. The second stop was the local newspaper. By then I had finished writing the ad, which promised a $1,000 reward for the return of my trophy head and horns, and a $300 reward for information leading to the return. Next, Mike and I headed west to Reno so I could fly home that evening—but not before visiting the offices there of the Gazette-Journal, northern Nevada’s largest daily.
Their ad people were most helpful—even coming up with a graphic of a live bighorn ram, which they placed inside the ad box above my text. They explained that every Friday edition of the newspaper carried a special, expanded Fishing and Hunting section, and they suggested running my ad on that date. After I prepaid the bill, Mike drove me to the airport, just in time to catch my flight back to Seattle. The last thing he said before putting me on the plane was that he would personally place the same ad in the local newspapers of both Lovelock and Winnemucca. The way we worked things out, the ad was to appear in Fallon on Thursday and in the other three newspapers on Friday. With huge hope and more than one prayer, I flew home to await the results.
Around 7:45 on Saturday morning, the phone rang. My wife and I were just starting to think about getting up, and I confess that, when I picked up the receiver, desert sheep were not on my mind. Mike Hornbarger’s voice on the other end of the line hurtled me back into reality (and into the front seat of the roller-coaster once again) with the words “Dennis, we’ve found your ram!”
If our neighbors were still sleeping, they probably weren’t any longer after the war-whoop I let out. This was truly unbelievable! Sixteen days after I’d arrowed my Grand Slam ram, and after all hope had been abandoned more than once, he had turned up as a result of a newspaper ad!
“Dennis, listen,” Mike continued. “This guy responded to the newspaper ad this morning, but he’s not the same guy who phoned in to Nevada Fish and Game last Monday. They’re possibly friends or hunting partners, but I think you should call this fellow right away and thank him for answering your ad—before he changes his mind, or decides he wants a higher ransom. I’m in my truck right now, heading for Sparks, where he lives, and I’ve taken a thousand bucks out of a coffee-can buried on our back forty. I told him I’d be there in about two hours with the money. I think we need to get our hands on those head and horns as soon as possible, and—if I were you—I’d call him immediately to nail things down.”
I thanked Mike for the “make-my-year” phone call, hung up, and started dialing the number he had just given me. For reasons that will become clear to the reader later in this story, I don’t intend to use this man’s real name in recounting the final chapter of this remarkable saga. Let me simply refer to him as Mr. Gee.
“Mr. Gee,” I said, when I heard a hello on the other end of the line. “This is Dennis Dunn calling from Seattle. Thanks so much for coming forward and responding to my ad. My outfitter is already on his way, and he should be there in less than two hours. In the meantime, do you mind if I ask you a couple of questions?”
“No, go right ahead,” replied Mr. Gee.
“Okay, thanks! With regard to the $1,000 reward, is there any chance you might be persuaded to accept less than that amount for the return of my Grand Slam ram? Since I hunted for the entire 30-day season with the services of a guide, this thing has turned into a really expensive proposition. The newspaper ads alone cost me over $1,000.”
I waited patiently for Mr. Gee to formulate an answer—knowing that his response would tell me everything I wanted to learn (or not learn) about the nature of the man I was dealing with. It didn’t take him long to confirm my worst suspicions.
“No, Mr. Dunn,” he drawled, “I reckon you should pay me what you offered in the ad. It’s certainly worth that, or more, and I’m not willing to give it up for less.
“Very well,” was my reply. “Just thought I’d ask. Mr. Hornbarger has the cash with him to pay you when he arrives.
“Let me just run a couple more questions by you. When you found the dead ram in the bottom of the canyon a week ago, did you examine it for cause of death? Did you not find the entry-hole and exit-hole of a three-bladed broadhead arrow right through the animal, Mr. Gee?”
“Oh no, Mr. Dunn,” came back the mendacious response. “If I’d had any idea that animal was a bowhunter’s trophy ram, I would have reported finding it right away to Nevada Fish and Game!”
“Fair enough,” I said. “One last question. When you took the head off the animal, at what point on the long neck did you make your cut?”
What followed were several seconds of uncomfortable silence, then a rather vague, stammering answer that went something like this: “Well, uh, I…uh, er I guess—uh—I guess it was just a bit below the head.”
“Okay, Mr. Gee,” I said. “No more questions. Thanks again for coming forward to help me complete my Grand Slam. I really appreciate it. Goodbye!”
No sooner had I hung up the phone than I dialed Mike’s cell in his truck. Fortunately, he had good reception where he was.
“Mike!” I exclaimed. “I just talked with the guy. When you pay him his ransom money, I think you’re going to find that the head will have only a stub of a neck attached to it. I didn’t tell him you and I had even seen the carcass. After carrying it all the way to his truck, they must have completely disposed of the neck. Call me later today and tell me if I’m right.”
That evening, Mike did call to confirm my hunch.
“I can also tell you,” he added, “just how it was your ram died. One blade of your broadhead must have put a slice on one side of his trachea, because there is a faint red stain running from his nostrils down to the top of his upper lip. I’m back in Winnemucca with your head now, but I’ll have to wait till Monday morning to take it in to the local Fish and Game people for plugging and registering. They will undoubtedly want to call the boys in the Fallon office to get the full story, but I really don’t foresee any obstacle to their registering you as the hunter of record and releasing the ram to you, via my custody.”
Mike went on to ask what I wanted him to do with the skull and horns, once the Wildlife people were finished with them. Obviously, if the head were going to be mounted, we’d need to find a new cape for it. He suggested I let him deliver it to Greg Koehl’s Taxidermy in Reno, and that Greg might be able to locate a new, fresh, or frozen cape. It sounded like a good plan to me, so I authorized Mike to do just that.
Some three weeks later, my phone rang one afternoon, and it was the taxidermist calling from Reno. Greg had just located a fresh cape over in Utah. It was for sale at $2,000; did I want him to buy it for me?
“Sure,” I said, “why not? What’s another two grand—after all the other money I spent on that ‘hunt from hell?’ Besides,” I added as an afterthought, “don’t you imagine all those other dollars would take offense if my desert ram ended up with anything less than a permanent head-and-shoulder mount?” Greg agreed, and the issue was settled. At long last, my emotional roller-coaster had finally come to rest at the highest top of the rise.
Editor’s note: This article is the forty-fourth of the BAREBOW! Chronicles, a series of shortened stories from accomplished hunter and author Dennis Dunn’s award-winning book, BAREBOW! An Archer’s Fair-Chase Taking of North America’s Big-Game 29. Dunn was the first to harvest each of the 29 traditionally recognized native North American big game species barebow: using only “a bow, a string, an arrow—no trigger, no peep sights, no pins—just fingers, guts, and instinct.” Each of the narratives will cover the (not always successful, but certainly educational and entertaining) pursuit of one of the 29 animals. One new adventure will be published every two weeks—join us on the hunt! You can learn more about the work, and the various editions of BAREBOW! available, by clicking here: http://www.barebows.com/. You can also follow BAREBOW! on Facebook here.
Top image courtesy Dennis Dunn