"Are you sure you want to do this?" Barbara, my wife, said, glancing nervously toward the end of the Jeep trail. From there the headlights of our vehicle illuminated a single track, which crossed a stream and disappeared into some willows. "What if you get lost?"
"I'll make camp," I said as she helped me put on the heavy pack. Hiking on a moonless night seemed foolhardy, yet it was necessary, which was indication enough that this elk hunt had already been characterized by bad luck. My plan had been to start hiking much earlier in the day, at 3 p.m., with Richard and Jack (as I shall call them), but I'd missed the morning flight from San Francisco, where I'd been to a wedding, to Boise. Richard and Jack had waited until dusk, then left exact directions with Barbara and started up to camp. Now, at 8 p.m., I had to hike up a dark, unfamiliar canyon toward a spike camp I'd never seen.
Richard had said it was a 2½-hour hike in. I switched off my flashlight to conserve the batteries, let my eyes adjust to the dark and began working my way uphill.
I had tried for eight years to draw a permit. Typically it was a bulls-only hunt limited to less than 75 tags. Those lucky enough to have their names drawn for a permit always regarded it as the equivalent of winning big in keno or roulette—undeserved, capricious good fortune—so when mine appeared in the mailbox, I was elated.
Because I wasn't wearing a watch, I didn't know how long I'd been hiking. It might have been an hour since the trail forked through waist-high rye grass onto a shale slide. I had used the flashlight sporadically at first and constantly later, and now its weak beam cast a dim orange light on the faint trail. Just when I decided it was foolish to go any farther in search of my friends, a light flickered beneath a large spruce to my left. Camp.
I had known Richard for eight years—since my first winter in Ketchum, Idaho—and I still couldn't separate his reputation from reality. He was tall, blond, blue-eyed and had built a life-style around living dangerously. Even in Ketchum, a ski resort town where taking risks is the rule rather than the exception, Richard was in a class by himself.
We'd met when he was my upstairs neighbor in a condominium complex within skiing distance of the River Run lifts. One night Richard threw a party, and the noise was deafening. Full of self-righteous indignation, I marched up to complain. What followed, of course, was the comedy cliché in which the angry neighbor emerges two days later wearing a lampshade on his head.
Since then we had fished, skied and hunted together, and if we weren't best friends, we were certainly very good ones—members of a close group that had postponed career and children to enjoy winters skiing in a first-class resort. I was looking forward to this hunt for the companionship it offered nearly as much as for the stalk and shot.
"How'd you find us?" Richard whispered as he helped me off with my pack and put a cup of hot soup in my hand.
"Blind dumb luck and perfect directions," I said, glancing at the two pitched tents. Richard had already hunted alone with a bow for two weeks out of this camp. Hunting elk with a rifle on foot is difficult enough—with a bow it's nearly impossible. Elk are smart and wary and have excellent eyesight, hearing and smell. To approach within effective bow range requires an extraordinary degree of patience and skill as well as a great deal of luck. If Richard had the first two in abundance, he came up short on the last. In two weeks he hadn't gotten a shot. He'd eventually hiked out, picked up Jack and gone back in to try again. As I sipped the soup, I listened to his story. His frustration was obvious.
"Where can I put this?" I asked, indicating my Weatherby .270.
"Lay it on the tarp." His flashlight showed two other rifles side by side on the green plastic. I froze as I calculated what those two rifles meant. Richard hadn't drawn a tag. Jack had one, but he'd never been a serious hunter. Later I learned that Richard had encouraged him to put in for a tag. They had an agreement: If one was lucky in the draw, in exchange for a hindquarter, the other would go along to help butcher and pack out. It's a common enough arrangement—one that meets the need for a companion to share the work. But Richard, it seemed to me, meant to carry the deal a step further—if he could he would fill Jack's or even my tag. That it was illegal didn't appear to matter.
"Jack didn't have a rifle so I loaned him one," said Richard, who had read the message in my reaction. "And I bought a bear tag, so my Remington's legal."
I regarded the rifles and told myself that whatever agreement Richard and Jack had made didn't concern me. In the morning we would head in different directions. Still, I considered hiking back out. Was I overreacting? How often had I heard about hunters tagging game they hadn't shot? It happens, and no one makes a big deal out of it. Should I?
I should have. Richard had offered me an opening, but I didn't want to seem hard-nosed or ungrateful; he had put in a lot of time organizing the hunt, and, besides, I couldn't think of exactly what to say. "There are elk all around us," Richard whispered, pouring boiled stream water into our canteens. "In the morning they'll bugle north there. And I've seen a six-point twice in a meadow along the ridge. Both you guys stand an excellent chance of getting a shot."
I didn't sleep well. I dreamed that Richard shot an elk while I waited on a stand. The dream woke me and for a long time I lay listening to the stream. Ice crystals had formed on the tent, and cold air pushed past my head into my down bag. If I kept quiet the next morning, I was certain Richard would shoot an elk. My silence would guarantee it. And that same silence would force me to tag it.
An hour before daybreak I heard Richard loading his day pack. If I didn't say something now, I wouldn't get a chance later.
"Richard, I appreciate all you've done, the scouting and the setting up of camp, but I've waited a long time for this hunt and I don't want you to shoot my elk." Inside the other tent, which Richard and Jack had shared, Jack stopped moving. "It's important that I do it myself."
"If I get a shot, you don't want me to take it?" he said after an uncomfortable pause.
"No, I don't. Not for me...."
"If that's what you want, all right," he said as he stood and shouldered his pack.
Then I thought I must have blown things out of proportion. Maybe he was after a bear. Maybe I had misjudged him and, if I had, I must have looked petty.
"Settle in against that tree," he said, pointing to a distant fir barely visible in the coming dawn. "If I spook any elk out of that gulley they'll move uphill toward you or Jack, who'll be on that ridge over there. Good luck." Then he and Jack headed off.
I didn't want to shoot an elk on opening day. The season would last five weeks, and Warm Springs was less than 20 miles from my front door. After waiting eight years I wanted to savor the hunt.
The hike through alternating stands of spruce and open meadow wasn't hard, and half an hour later I settled against the fir that overlooked the open hillsides below and took out my binoculars. To the east a first golden tint signaled the dawn.
At that instant Richard's 7mm mag cracked below me. A second later another shot echoed out of the gulley. I wasn't surprised to hear the shots. I had half-expected them. Had Richard known elk would be in that gulley? I steadied my binoculars and watched a tiny clearing above where I'd heard the shots. A six-point bull appeared, glanced downhill and then with a tremendous leap disappeared back into the forest. A second later three cow elk entered the clearing, hesitated, then followed him.
Another shot echoed out of the gulley. Could he have missed with the first two? Yet another shot. Two more cows broke across the clearing. What was going on down there? Was a cripple crashing downhill? I waited for a fifth shot. When it didn't come, I collected my pack and rifle. For that morning, at least, the hunt was over. I could see Jack's red vest moving along the ridge. Ten minutes into the season and he had his elk.
I was still waiting for him when Richard stepped out of the trees and approached me.
"Get one?" I asked, any reason for silence gone now.
He held up two fingers. Two? Something was very wrong.
He was still climbing toward me when he began to explain: "Ten minutes after I entered the gulley, I saw a cow watching me. A second later a spike bull stepped out from behind a tree." Richard stopped 20 feet away and looked at his boots. "I shot him behind the left shoulder, staggered him, and then dropped him with a neck shot. If the four-point hadn't stood up...."
I wouldn't allow myself to make sense out of what he was telling me. I refused to acknowledge that what I feared was true.
"Even if the four-point had stood up first and the spike second...." He stopped talking and watched Jack make his way toward us.
"What happened?" I demanded.
"I saw a cow and then a spike bull...."
"You shot two elk?" As I said it, I wanted him to deny it. He could have missed with two of those four shots, could have hit the animal in a bad place and finished it poorly. But he didn't say a word. He just kept watching Jack walk. I knew it was true.
"Jesus, Richard, what were you thinking when you pulled the trigger?"
"I guess I wasn't thinking," he said sadly, shaking his head without looking at me. "For two weeks all I wanted was a rifle, and look what happens when I finally get my hands on one."
"Sounds like the season's over," Jack said as he crossed the last rise to us. We walked over to the dead elk.
They were lying within 30 feet of each other in the gulley where they'd bedded down the night before. It was full of signs—wallows and rubs, fresh droppings and deep trails. Two weeks was long enough to discover where they bedded. Richard had known they would be there, but how could he have shot them? After 14 days of solitary, unproductive hunts had he felt a subconscious need to even the score? And when he had the elk where he wanted them, had he suffered a breakdown? Could he be innocent by reason of temporary insanity?
I didn't have any answers. Richard transferred his gaze from one carcass to the other, waiting for someone to break the awful silence.
I didn't want Richard to poach the elk. He wouldn't ask me to tag it—and he would understand if I didn't. I had no doubt he'd butcher it, pack it out and, if he was caught, accept his punishment without complaint. But why did I feel I had to cover his mistake? Hadn't our agreement that morning freed me of all responsibility? Somehow it didn't, and angry and sick, I notched my tag and wired it to the four-point's rack. Jack silently did the same on the spike bull.
Beyond the bare communication required to field-dress both animals and block and tackle them into adjacent spruce, we didn't speak. There was no telling and retelling of the stalk and shot that would have followed a companionable hunt. We simply cleaned the body cavities and then wrapped tarps around the midsections against flies. Because of the weight of the carcasses, we would need to return in the morning with horses to pack out.
It was almost 3 p.m. when we broke camp and started down the trail. For the first mile we hiked together, but Jack gradually increased his speed and soon was out of sight. When I stopped to adjust my pack, Richard stopped with me.
"I know you won't get over this," he said in a controlled monotone. "I know I can't make it up to you. I can try, but I know I can't...."
"You're right, you can't," I said, knowing it would be three years before I'd be eligible to draw again. "Richard, weren't you listening this morning?"
He shook his head and said, "This is going to sound lame, but I've always hunted for the meat. If we had two tags, it didn't matter who filled them. I never hunted with anyone who felt the way you do about the experience."
My anger spilled over. "I wanted to do it myself. I wanted the adventure you stole from me. What I got is a carcass. For all it means to me, I could have bought a side of beef from a butcher. I wanted that moment when the bull stood up in the meadow. I wanted to remember how he looked through those blue spruce, surrounded by cows. Now, because we're friends and I had to cover for you, I'll never know."
"I feel awful," I heard him say quietly behind me. "It was a stupid, unthinking thing to do, a terrible mistake. I'm sorry." Then his voice cracked and he couldn't continue. I sat with my pack against a Douglas fir listening to him—remorse, guilt and shame shaking his strong frame—and I recalled the opening of duck season a year before.
It was a bluebird opener. Early we managed to down a teal and a hen widgeon that flared above our set on Silver Creek. As dawn turned to midmorning the high flights slowed and then stopped. We were starting to pick up when someone in a blind downriver staggered a mallard drake that set its wings, passed low over our decoys and dumped into the rye grass above the high watermark. I waited a minute and then crossed with my Lab close to where I'd seen the duck auger in. My dog went in, I clicked off the safety, and a bird got up, all color and speed. I leveled my Remington, started to squeeze the trigger and thought, "Pheasant!" Then the gun went off.
The opening of pheasant season was still three weeks away, and I had taken a shot. Providence had made me miss. It had been a dumb, unthinking act, and for the rest of the day my hunting partners made me wallow in guilt. What I wanted most then was forgiveness. But there was none, and the sight of that cock pheasant off the end of my barrel stays with me still.
"I can't make it up to you," Richard said. "All I can say is 'I'm sorry.' "
Our hunting days together were over. We knew that. But I never thought I'd see Richard cry. That, more than anything else, made me wonder if it was right to erase eight years of friendship because of the events of one miserable day. But could I forgive him?
"I'll tell you what," I said. "If you'll try to forget about it, I will too." I offered him my hand.
Richard looked up with surprise, hesitated, and then took it. "Neither of us will forget this," he said. I knew that. But perhaps we could learn to live with it. He helped me to my feet and led the way slowly back down the trail.