I've been walking hunched over like someone looking for a lost contact lens and crawling on hands and knees through a tangle of low-hanging branches and deadfall for what seems like an hour, but is likely only half of that.
Sweat runs out of my stocking cap and down the back of my neck, working its way south beneath two layers of fleece and Under Armour as I sit against a tree to rest and give this little adventure some more thought.
It's nice in here. Where the mixture of Western red cedars and Rocky Mountain junipers grow close together, the ground is mostly free of snow thanks to overhead branches that interlace like fingers. While a 25-mile-per-hour wind out of the northwest hustles through the canopy and bends tree tops in the direction of South Dakota, I can barely feel it against my face.
If I were a cottontail rabbit, this is where I'd hang out – out of the wind, out of the snow, and somewhat veiled by vegetation from the keen eye of the great horned owl we flushed awhile ago.
Wildlife biologists will tell you that cottontail rabbit populations are cyclic, meaning they build from low to high, before going back the other way. I don't know where we currently are in the cycle, but judging by the number of fleeing rabbits we've taken shots at, they're somewhere on the low end.
Sitting here out of the wind against a tree and contemplating the population of an overlooked animal that we want to shoot and stew feels good. Not a bad way to spend a Sunday afternoon in January with a .22-caliber rifle resting on my lap.
Patience, however, is a virtue my 10-year-old hunting partner doesn't have. He hollers into the trees, questioning when I plan on continuing the hunt. His rump is getting wet, he hollers again, from sitting and waiting in the snow. Like a good rabbit dog, I sling my .22 over my left shoulder and get back to work.
While I've passed the random cluster of small round pellets, signaling that there's a rabbit or two around here somewhere, droppings increase as I claw my way through thicker cover.
I stop often, sit on my heels and look through, around and under the maze of limbs and downfalls for movement, anything that will give a nervous cottontail away. My hope is that any rabbit I push from hiding will break from the trees and offer my son, armed with a 20-gauge and light loads, a shot.
When I look closely into the maze of dormant grasses and fallen, dead evergreen branches, I can make out in places the network of narrow trails the cottontails travel between resting places. It's like looking at sign left behind by white-tailed deer on the move, but on a smaller scale.
Maybe my mistake is tip-toeing through the evergreens and ground clutter as if we're hunting deer, quietly looking for the horizontal body of an animal in a mostly vertical world of trees.
I pick up the pace and literally kick every promising-looking brush pile as I pass. On my fourth or fifth brush pile, it happens.
Two rabbits break from their hideout, split and race in opposite directions in a seemingly choreographed retreat. It takes me longer to thumb the rifle's safety with a gloved-hand than it does for the rabbits to disappear.