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.