"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...."