The last thing I remembered before falling asleep were the stars through the skylight. Bright crystal, clearer than I’d ever seen them. I tried my best to sleep, and when the tinny beep of our alarm clock rang, they looked exactly the same as they had before I’d closed my eyes.
I checked the clock. Four thirty. Doesn’t matter, I thought to myself. I couldn’t sleep, anyway.
Ben was already up and out of bed. He stirred the embers in the wood stove, laid another piece of wood on the fire, and set about boiling water. I got dressed as the smell of coffee filled the yurt, pulling on my pants, jacket, and bright orange vest. Ben finished with the coffee and poured me a cup as I was lacing up my boots. I watched the steam rise in the lamp’s dim glow as Ben unfolded the map he’d brought and set it on the table.
“Where are we going today?” I asked, sitting up, wrapping my cold fingers around the tin mug.
“Here,” said Ben, pointing at the map. “The next drainage over. It’s kind of a climb, but it’ll be a lot better than down here. Here’s where everyone else is gonna want to hunt.”
“Sounds good,” I said, taking a sip.
“Have you ever hunted elk before?” he asked.
I shook my head no, blowing the steam from my cup.
“You’re in for a treat,” he said, smiling.
We drove to the next valley over, talking only occasionally, mostly advice on hunting elk. There isn’t much else to say at five in the morning. When we got out of the car, the sun was rising just enough to fill the sky with a dim yellow haze over the mountains. We made our way up the hill to the meadow, hauling our gear in silence.
It was cold. I sat on the edge of the empty meadow, shivering as we passed the binoculars back and forth. There are, supposedly, over 280,000 elk in Colorado. More than any other state. But, as I sat in the damp brush in that cold dark drainage, I could almost believe that they never existed. That someone had made the whole thing up.
I was sitting there, shivering, thinking about our luck, when Ben set a hand on my shoulder and raised a finger to his lips. He passed me the binoculars and pointed across the meadow to the first stand of trees. I looked—there, right where he was pointing, was the shadowed silhouette of some great big something, slipping into the trees. My heart lurched. I passed the binoculars back to Ben. Quickly, quietly, we shouldered our guns and made our way along the meadow to where we saw the animal vanish.
We followed the tracks upwards—elk, sure enough—into the dark timber, cutting up the steep wall of the drainage. The sun was rising, bringing everything into focus in a cool, blue light. My heart beat so loudly in my ears that I figured I’d drive off anything we were tracking before we even knew it was there.
Ahead was a clearing. I could see it through the trees; the tall green grass shone in the morning sun like glimpses of emerald. I looked to Ben, who lifted a finger to his lips and pointed further up the slope. We followed the rocks until we found a vantage point, and looked down into the clearing.
There he was. The elk, standing in the tall grass. His flanks wet with dew. Massive. Majestic. Totally, unbelieveably still. I lifted the gun from my shoulder and adjusted my scope, barely daring to breathe.
“The chest,” muttered Ben, from behind me. “The heart.”
I looked through my scope and breathed out, blood pounding in my ears. The elk, the giant, with antlers as wide as the bushes around him, turned towards us. He looked at me. He tensed. I pulled the trigger.
As we made our way back to the yurt later that day, I kept checking the bed of the truck, disbelieving. Ben and I both had big, dumb smiles on our faces, even though we hadn’t bagged anything else all day. We didn’t need to.
“Damn good luck,” said Ben again, for the umpteenth time. I just smiled, and shook my head.
We reached the yurt before sundown, chatting about this and that as we unloaded. When we finished, we went inside. I built the fire back up as Ben dug out the good whiskey. He poured us each a glass, and we both sat, watching the fire and talking until well after the sun had set.
That night, I slept the best I had in months.