"The Shot" by Ernest Hemingway
True Magazine, April 1951
Mr. Hemingway understands hunting, whether in Cuba or in the high country of Idaho. This is a story about how it's done--but especially about how a sportsman does it--by one of our greatest living writers.
We were finishing lunch by the swimming pool. It was a hot day for Cuba because the breeze had fallen off. But the pool was cool where the trees had made shade over it and it was cool and next to cold if you went down deep enough into it at the deep end.
I didn't see these two Negroes until they were by the table where it was set under the arbor to be in the shade. I had been watching the reflection of the bamboos and the Alamo trees in the pool and when I looked up and saw these two by the table I knew that I was slipping. They had come up a piece of dead ground but I should have seen them come around the corner of the shower house.
One was very big and tough with a face I remembered. The other was his guardaspaldas. That is the man who keeps you from being shot in the back. He doesn't have to be big, very big and he is always a little behind and turns his head like a pitcher watching a man on first with no one out. Guardaspaldas, it is usually shortened to that, get the same kind of neck that pitchers get and that fighter pilots are afflicted with if they stay alive if there is a real fighter opposition in the air.
This man, who looked like an oversized Joe Walcott, had a letter to me. It was from himself. He was a little hot, it seemed, and he needed to go to a certain South American republic very fast. He was unjustly accused of being in the second of two cars which had killed two and wounded five in what is known as the old one-two. The first car comes by the house of friends whom they have checked are there and wish to surprise. They shoot the house up as a gesture. The friends swarm out, unhurt and bearing arms and full of defiance, and the second car comes by with the mains and wipes them out.
This man was falsely accused, he explained to me, of being one of the mains. He had been falsely accused many times. But he claimed to be a friend of a friend of mine who was shot dead in the street with thirty-five cents in his pocket, and never a nickel stolen and no personal fortune, while he held a government post. I suppose you know, gentlemen, what that means in these times.
This friend who had been shot dead had been a beautiful backfield man on the university team. He was a fine quarterback and he could play halfback. He was director of sports of the republic when he died. No one has ever been punished for the killing. This friend of mine was supposed to have been a little triggery; but I never heard of him killing the wrong people. Anyway, when they killed him he had thirty-five cents in his pocket, no money in any banks, and he was unarmed.
So what this man, who claimed to be his friend, and whose face I remembered, needed was $500. I told him it was two. I hope he doesn't get falsely accused of anything before he emigrates.
So with a background of this sort of shooty-shooty, I'm going to write 2,000 words about an antelope hunt where you kill one antelope that can't shoot back.
There are two ways to hunt pronghorn antelope; maybe three is juster. One is to shoot the buck that has been hanging around the back pasture and who believes himself to be a member of the family. He is shot on the opening day of the season by some dude who has been enticed to Wyoming by an outfit that advertises "Antelope Guaranteed" and has scouted the country closely for guaranteeable antelope. Oftentimes he is gut-shot and makes an effort to get away with a hole in his belly or a broken leg. But he is in that pasture, gentlemen, and what a trophy his head must make.
Then they hunt them on the flats and in that broken country of Casper and Rawlins, Wyoming, with the aid of command cars, these carry more hunters; jeeps, out of which only a few can hunt; weapons carriers, plenty hunters, Jack, but just about as uncomfortable as a weapons carrier always was. But you are after antelope, men, and shots are guaranteed. These vehicles will put you in range of the ferocious beasts and your marksmanship can be proved or unproved. Hold your breath and little big; put the peak, or the spike, or the cross hairs of the reticule low down on the shoulder and squeeze off. It's a trophy, men, if you glassed them right and took the biggest buck and didn't shoot a doe mistaking ears for horns. It is probably shot through both shoulders too and is still living and will try to get up, looking at you, as you come with the knife. From the eyes you can tell that the buck is thinking, "What the hell did I do to deserve this?"
Then there is the third way where you hunt them in high country on foot or on horseback and no antelope are guaranteed. The author of this article, after taking a long time to make up his mind, and admitting his guilt on all counts, believes that it is a sin to kill any non-dangerous game animal except for meat. No, with low-temperature refrigeration, you can keep meat properly and the amount of hunters has greatly increased. It has increased to such a point that you are lucky if some character does not loose off at you or your horse at least once in any three days of shooting. There is only one answer when this starts. Loose off quick yourself, shooting low. Because antelope, deer, elk and moose never shoot back and the character who opens fire, however undeveloped he may be in a sporting way, understands this basic principle. And if you should hit the son of a bitch it is only a hunting accident anyway. Shoot back if they shoot at you.
Don't run up any white flags. They might take you for a bald eagle. Or, if you waved your red bandanna that we wear around a Stetson since shooters became really at large, they might think it was a fox maybe or even a subversive element. But so far I have never seen one return the first when you shot back. Especially if you shoot back at where you figure their feet will be.
Of course a hunter could go into the hills with a megaphone strapped to his back, and when shot at simply shout through his megaphone, "Please cease firing, brother shooter and fellow sportsman. I am the animal that walks on two legs and pays income tax and there is no open season on us this year... You fooled yourself there, boy."
Or he might make it shorter and more sporting and say, "Desist, brother sportsman. It is I."
But until they issue us with the proper megaphones at the time we purchase the licenses, I figure to shoot back quick if any brother sportsman shoots at me. Because he might not even be a brother sportsman. He might be an old friend or some companion of early youth or childhood.
Now about antelope in the hills.
This was a funny hunt. Three of my kids were along and one, Jack, who is a captain of infantry in Berlin, is a fisherman; so he wanted to fish the Pahsimeroi for salmon. (No salmon.) Of the other two boys one stayed the pace all the way and the other joined Jack in Operation No Salmon.
We figured to find the big bucks high up in the draws above the timberline. Somebody had spooked them. Anyway there was something wrong and for keeps wrong. They were in broken country; could see you for a mile and were nervous and watching.
We were sleeping, down on the Pahsimeroi, in the cabin of a character known as the Old-timer. This was before the days of DDT or of bug bombs and the Old-timer had been raising the more hardy insects instead of cattle. He called Taylor Williams who was then in his later fifties "Young Man" and he called me "Kid." He said, "Kid, you're going to make a rider and you can shoot pretty good and I'll be proud if you get some place."
He said, "Kid, if these are really your boys they ought to have something to drink." Then he added, "What have you got?"
We had come from Sun Valley, Idaho, and were a little softened up by the swimming pool, nights in The Ram, and the wheels of Ketchum; but the Old-timer fixed that. We rode to the top of the range where we could look over all the way into the Middle Fork of the Salmon, across the loveliest mountains that I know. We rode down the mountain, across the mountain, back across the broken ground and down into the foothills and flats. All the time there were antelope; but they watched you from a mile away and moved. Taylor was mounted on a white horse and the Old-timer started to refer to him as, "The young fellow on the white horse. Scares antelope to death."
The night of the first day was Saturday and that was a big night at Goldburg where they had some sort of a mine and always a big Saturday night. The Children slept in the car and Taylor Williams and I and a boy named Wild Bill, who could hit like Stan Ketchell with either hand, went to Goldburg. The Old-timer stayed home to care for his insects.
It was a rough night although I bypassed all the fights. You might have fought ten or twelve times if you weren't pacific. Taylor never fights because he does not have to anymore and I try never to fight. Wild Bill, however, who was horse wrangling for us, spotted the Sheriff's boy from one of the nearest towns who had turned King's Evidence or something corresponding to that, one time versus Wild Bill. Wild Bill asked him outside and demolished him. Wild Bill could certainly hit. Every time he hit Sheriff's boy you could hear something go. Sheriff's boy fought well; but it wasn't any courtroom. Finally Sheriff's boy went just like the things you had been hearing go. We gentled down Wild Bill and gave first aid to Sheriff's boy and drove home. The fight had, in a way, quieted down the happiness in Goldburg.
The next day was like the first day. Only now they looked back over their lovely brown shoulders at a mile and a half and then you would see the white ruff on their rumps when they would take off. We rode to the top of the range. We blocked several draws and turned them. We crisscrossed the mountain, staying in dead ground and coming up on the ridges dismounted, and crawling to the edge of the high ground and glassing the country.
We rode downhill, uphill and around hill. By this time there was only Gigi, my youngest boy, who rides a horse as though his mother had dropped him into the saddle; Taylor Williams, the old Kentucky Colonel who will kill you dead at 300 yards with a borrowed rifle; the Old-timer who you had to keep windward of, and whose scent was possibly driving the antelope out of the country; and me, on a nice mare with more brains than I had. She was an old rope horse.
So that was the second day and when we hit the shale and then the pebbles and rode over the wooden bridge and through the cottonwoods the moon was up. It was a nice night at the Old-timer's to be off-horse and hear the no-salmon fisher's stories and we had brought some lemons and made whisky sours. The Old-timer said he had never tasted a mixed drink but would try it this once.
"How old are you, Old-timer?" I asked him.
"Son," he said, "when they killed General George Armstrong Custer on the Little Big Horn, I was getting along in years."
This was obviously impossible so I asked the Old-timer how old he thought Taylor was.
"He's a boy," he said.
"What about me?" I asked.
"You're just starting."
"What about the boys?"
"They're all false except that one was poured into a saddle and stuck there."
"Where you come from, Old-timer?"
"God knows, I forgot."
"Were you ever around Montana way?"
"Were you in Wyoming?"
"I was there for the Wagon Box fight when we were snaking timber to the Fort."
This was impossible so I asked him if he knew Tom Horn.
"Tom? I heard him say, standing up there before they put the hood over him; no; they didn't put any hood over Tom. What he said was, 'Gentlemen, all I want in this life is a pair of heavy shoes and a long drop. And I forgive all my enemies. Amen!' Everybody was crying but Tom never cried. He stood there looking sort of distinguished but he wanted a heavy pair of shoes and a decent drop so he wouldn't resist the rope. I see them hang since I was a boy and it ain't no good. Not for him that is hung nor for anybody. It's just a sort of legal vengeance."
The next day we were out at daylight with the horses saddled and our guns in the gun buckets and Wild Bill's hands sore and him sort of ashamed. We knew the Sheriff's boy couldn't really fight a lick and he remembered that in the middle of the night. It made him feel bad because he was a fighter and would have fought anybody. Besides, he broke the Sheriff's boy's jaw and we all heard it go. And he had his sore hands to remind him. He wasn't riding with us. He was just staying back at the shack and corrals with break-jaw remorse.
So we start early and there is a little mist over the flat and then we start to climb in the sage.
"How does it look to you, Colonel?" I asked Taylor.
Gigi is asleep in the saddle and letting the horse do all the work.
"I think we've got them," Taylor said. "We haven't shot at them and this is the third day and they are getting used to us and some of the big bucks will stand. they don't know what we are not and they have curiosity and want to find out."
We did the usual; gained our altitude, worked the draws, the pockets, and the ridges and then started to move down and across.
Then we jumped a bunch that were sleeping, or feeding, in a draw and there was only one way for them to go. I got off the horse and pulled the old .30-06 out of the bucket. We hand them forward. Then I started to run for where they would have to pass. It was about 200 or 250 yards. I picked the biggest buck when they came streaming over the edge of the hump and swung ahead of him and squeezed gently and the bullet broke his neck. It was a very lucky shot.
The Old-timer said, "You no-good kid. I knew you would amount to something sometime."
Taylor said, "Do you know how far you ran and how far shot him at? I'm going to pace it."
I didn't care, because nobody ever believes shooting stories ever, and the pleasure had been in the run and trying to hold your heart in when you swing and hold your breath sweet and clean, and swing ahead and squeeze off lightly with the swing.
So end of antelope story.--Ernest Hemingway