by Dorene O’Brien
She was ambling through the woods toward Iceberg Lake when she noticed the hikers and scrambled off the path, her two cubs trailing her dutifully. Moving deep into the woods, the three threaded their way through the dense forest, the smell of salmon spurring them on, but as they rounded the bend at Sable Pass they were started by two people moving toward them. She barked the cubs into a run and attacked. As Paul Crane fell to his knees, she clenched his arm in her massive jaws and jerked her head back and forth, tearing flesh and carving deep gashes. When he stopped flailing, she dropped him and lumbered back into the woods.
The Rands, a retired couple hiking through the western park system, saw the grizzly but told television reporters that it was too late.
“We tried to drop into a fetal position like the ranger told us,” said Lorna Rand. “But the bear already had my husband in her mouth. I could hear its teeth puncturing his skin, the popping sound like air escaping. Then he passed out and the bear dropped him. Just like that.” She snapped her fingers.
“The doctor said it’s a miracle my husband lost only partial use of his left hand. Said the bear came inches from nicking an artery but God was with us. He’s pretty banged up, though,” she added defensively. “We want that bear destroyed. Hunting should be reinstated in high grizzly population areas.”
Jay Lambert stared blankly at the television screen in Moe’s office. “I didn’t know there was such a thing.”
“What?” said Moe.
“A high grizzly population area.”
Lambert was the park ranger assigned to the case, which involved closing the trail where the incident occurred, staring down a slew of angry hikers and tracking the bear.
“They want blood,” said Moe, his supervisor. “We’re going to have to give it to them.”
“The trail was packed that day. Why do you expect the bear to be more patient than the people overrunning its territory?”
“The bears have been pretty gracious, I’ll grant that,” he said. “But this one wasn’t.”
“The bears have been acting a helluva lot more rationally than we have.”
“I’ve got a retired couple on a crusade,” said Moe. “I can assign someone else.”
“No,” said Ryan. “I’ll do it.”
“I’ll meet you out there after the press conference.”
She moved the cubs toward the mountains, crossing the lake under a blanket of darkness. The air pricked her skin, foretold an early hibernation, and instinct told her that she would wean this litter in the spring to protect them from these hunters. Although they could kill from great distances, they were baffled by the whitewater rivers, marshy bogs, and thick forests she crossed with ease. The going would not be easy for the cubs, but they would learn early. She would push them until they scaled the steep, creviced mountain face that ended well above the tree line and in the safety of a den abandoned by an old boar several winters before. The ice sheets and snowdrifts on the rock wall would keep the hunters at bay, at least until after the thaw.
Fresh scat and sharply defined depressions where the bear had last bedded down confirmed Lambert’s suspicion about why she was moving too cautiously: cubs. Damn, he thought. Moe would catch up to him in a day or two and there would be no stalling. He cracked the face of his watch against a birch tree, sent glass splinters into the leaves below, smiling as he placed the broken watch into his pocket. The sun arced westward, fighting through the tangle of leaves and branches, and he knew the grizzly would take advantage of the night. Lambert made camp on a jagged limestone outcrop that overlooked a meadow and sat on the sun-baked stone contemplating his assignment. He wasn’t hungry, but he made a roaring fire and waited for the moon. “I’m here, girl,” he whispered.
The cubs were hungry, but each time they stopped to dig for grubs she nudged them forward with such force they toppled over. They loped through the dense mist, making good time across the vast meadow, three humped silhouettes gliding past the yellow disk of the moon. She dreaded mornings because the sun highlighted the great distance between them and the safety of the long sleep, and it also exposed them to the hunter whose foul smell she’d caught that evening after putting her nose to the wind and wagging her head. The fetid odor and the hunter’s fire provoked her; they would move night and day toward the harbor of the mountain and eat only food that required little harvesting, like willow shoots and flower bulbs.
Lambert broke camp after dawn and picked up a trail of dried prints; they’d made good time in the night. He wondered if they could keep up the pace. There was another meadow and two river crossings between the bears and what rangers called the Wall, a near vertical divide of rock and brush that would end his mission unless he caught up with them before they reached it. After cutting through the forest a little too easily, Lambert broke onto the meadow to see the bears skirting its perimeter. Her caution will kill her, he thought as he lifted his rifle and drew a bead on her head. She was out of range, but wouldn’t be for long. He considered the irony of his assignment; he had taken an oath to protect the endangered grizzly, and now he was on a mission to destroy the animal he had vowed to defend and leave her cubs to fend for themselves. Lambert cut across the meadow and hiked the far woods toward Eagle River, emerging from the thicket just in time to see all three bears on the opposite shore shaking water from their blond coats, their muscles rippling like waves under their fur. It would be an easy shot; he was close and she didn’t know it. He lifted the rifle, maneuvered the scope to just below her left eye and pulled the trigger as he yanked the barrel up, sending the bullet into a pine tree just above her head. The bears bounded into the tangle of woods and Lambert took his morning break.
They were panting hard, the water dead weight in their fur, and for the first time she understood that the cubs were scared. They followed her into the deep forest without complaint, oblivious to the lure of butterflies and beehives, resting briefly before the second river crossing, where the water was much faster and deeper, roiling noise and white foam flecked. The smaller cub, frightened and unsure, tapped its small claws nervously across the bank as the other bears jumped in and struggled with the current. The shore bound cub whimpered frantically, its paws drumming the rocks as it watched the other two pull themselves onto the opposite shore. Even as she bellowed desperately for the small bear to throw itself into the rapids, she understood that she must decide between fleeing with the stronger cub or facing the hunter in an effort to save both.
Lambert crossed Eagle River carefully, prepared for an ambush. Trembling, he stalked the sounds of a flushed starling and a falling leaf, imagined the sudden jolt, the slashing claws, the thick fur like sponge in his fists. He dropped her trail and circled around to avoid a confrontation at the next river and to get a better view of the Wall from an elevated clearing to the east. After picking his way through webbed undergrowth and using exposed roots to climb toward the sound of rushing water, Lambert held his breath as he neared the river with his gun steadied. He searched both shores in either direction, his view limited by sharp curves and overhanging branches, and felt vulnerable as he scanned the Wall with binoculars but saw no movement save the wind through the brush. She was waiting for him, perhaps watching him even now. He sighed, mentally reviewing his fabricated report: I pursued her vigorously, took a shot as she stood on the opposite shore of Eagle River where there’s a bullet six feet up the pine. Times estimated because of that accident with my watch. As Lambert scanned the riverbanks, knowing he would kill the bear when they next met, his binoculars picked up a faint glimmer where the sun touched the grizzly’s ruff as she approached the Wall with one of her cubs. “Damn it,” he said to the sky and the wind and the trees, searching fruitlessly for the smaller cub. He knew that he could cross the river and get off a clean shot before they reached the treacherous cliffs that confounded mere humans, but he realized how thirsty he’d grown and pulled his thermos from the pack before watching the two shapes climb through the rising coffee steam. “It’s hard to be sure without a watch, my girl,” he said, “but I think it’s break time.” He studied the bears for several minutes before glimpsing a shadow below them, a small cub clawing its way up the wall, fighting their rain of gravel.
Dorene O’Brien’s work has appeared in the Connecticut Review, Carve Magazine, New Millennium Writings, The Cimarron Review and others. She has won the Red Rock Review’s Mark Twain Award for Short Fiction, the New Millennium Fiction Award, and the Chicago Tribune Nelson Algren Award. She has also won the international Bridport Prize and has received a creative writing fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. Her short story collection, Voices of the Lost and Found, won the USA Best Books Award. Visit her at www.doreneobrien.com