Sleeping lightly as the rain pattered down outside, Einar kept one ear open for the return of the bear that night, fully aware that in the many gallons of bruised chokecherries piled there in the cabin, they were sitting on a mass of bear bait far more concentrated and tempting than anything the creatures would be likely to find in the wild. No bear came, Einar seeing one only in his dreams, where his mind was busy systematically working out the details of the hunt he expected to have to undertake in the morning, preparing him, in the quietness of the night, for the morning’s struggle, spear against claw, fight to the finish. After a number of hours Einar woke from his troubled sleep to greet a grey dawn, trees dark and dripping with the night’s soft rainfall and everything smelling sharp and sweet with that freshly washed spruce and fir scent unique to the high country after a gentle rain. At least, Einar thought, pulling himself a bit reluctantly out from beneath the bear hide, where Liz had finally dragged him sometime that past night when she’d tired of listening to his shivering breaths over at his post in front of the door, at least it didn’t turn to snow this time. And has stopped. All this humidity won’t be good for our chokecherry drying project, but maybe things will clear and the sun come out today, so we can get started. Liz was on her feet within seconds of Einar leaving the bed, hurrying over to him and speaking in a hushed voice.
“Is he back? The bear?”
“Nope. Far as I know, he didn’t put in an appearance at all, last night. Little drizzle like that won’t usually stop a bear who’s near hibernation from wandering around and eating all night, so it must be that dart scared him pretty well. He may not be wandering back this way. Think we’re gonna have to track him down, if we want him.”
“We want him. I’ll fix us some breakfast real quick, and let’s get on his trail. Unless you think the rain will have wiped out too much of the sign…”
“It won’t have helped, but he was in a real hurry when he took off out of here, and will have left a pretty good mark as he fled. May get tricky after the point where he finally slowed down, but once he stopped running scared he will have started thinking about food again, so we can expect to start seeing mashed down berry bushes, torn up logs, and the like. We’ll find him.
Einar laughed softly, set to sharpening his spear. “You know what. I may not be able to throw worth a hill of beans right now, but I sure do know how to brace a spear, make certain it goes in the right way as the critter comes at me. I’m just hoping I didn’t make him to human-shy by scratching him with that dart last night, or none of this is likely to work, and we’ll have to end up trapping him. Sure am sorry I messed that one up so bad. Would have saved us a lot of work to have him fall near the cabin, here.”
“It’s alright. Everybody misses, from time to time. And if it comes to having to trap him because we can’t get close enough for the spear…well, I’ve got my bow.”
“That you do.”
“And I’ve been practicing.”
“I’ve seen you. I’m glad. You’re getting real good with that thing.”
“So…how about you hold off with the spear, let me get an arrow in that bear when we find him?”
It irked Einar some, the thought of having that bear taken away from him after he’d spent the night getting himself ready for the confrontation, getting his mind in line and going over the details, tracking, finding the creature, somehow provoking it--might not take too much effort, as he might well look like a reasonable food source to the hibernation-hungry creature, a target of opportunity similar to a wounded deer--convincing the creature to charge him, catching it with the spear, taking it in the stomach…but he told himself he was being ridiculous, that as proficient as Liz had become with the bow, of course it made sense for her to try her hand at taking the bear. And her way was a good bit less risky, too, which was something he really ought to be taking into account, as much work as he yet had to do before the snow set in for good. Further injuries would only slow him down.
“Think that’s a good idea. You know where to hit him?”
“Right behind the shoulder, like a deer? In the lung?”
“Yep, center of the shoulder. Aim at the center of the shoulder--little lower than you might think at first, though, or you run the risk of misjudging the thickness of his fur and just grazing his back like I did--if he’s broadside to you, which hopefully he will be. And you’re gonna have to get in fairly close to have the needed effect with that bow of yours. I’ll be right there with you to back you up with the spear in case something goes wrong, but I bet you can do this. Believe you can.”
Liz gave him a smile, and a larger portion of breakfast than she had been intending to serve, going heavy on the honey. He would need its energy for the hunt that day, and she figured he’d earned it, besides. Couldn’t have been easy for him to concede the wisdom of her trying for the bear, back down on his already fully-formed plan to do battle with the beast on his own terms. Breakfast finished, they secured the cabin and set out, silent feet moving over rain-damp spruce duff on the trail of the bear. As Einar had anticipated, the tracking was easy at first, prominent scratchings and skiddings marking the path of its flight through the timber, downhill, of course, moving at a dead run to escape the stinging, biting fire-creature that had traced a path across its back, and then it had sat beneath a small stand of aspens, whirling round in a futile attempt to reach its own back, to swat at the continued stinging that tormented it, batter and flatten the creature that apparently remained firmly lodged up there, teeth sunk into its flesh, and in its rage at not being able to remove the offending hurt, the massive creature had slammed itself into a small aspen, snapping its trunk. Einar pried gently at the tree, turned it over. Blood on the rain-protected side where the bear had slammed it with his shoulder, a significant amount of it, and Einar realized his dart must have cut quite a trench there, though such a wound would be more of an annoyance than a danger to the creature. Just six inches lower, and they might have been skinning it out by then. Though the trail did grow a bit more difficult to follow as they descended, the bear appeared to have maintained quite a pace, resulting in his leaving significant sign behind, and Einar had no trouble keeping to his path until they reached a tangled chokecherry thicket bordering a massive boulder field. The bear was easy enough to track through the thicket, alright, as it had plowed its way most recklessly through the already-bent bushes, but its behavior surprised Einar, some.
Instead of stopping to scour the snow-matted branches of the chokecherry scrub the bear--clearly more frightened by the dart than Einar had at first anticipated it being--had taken off into the boulder field beyond, several acres of jumbled, tumbled rock, many of them as large as small vehicles and offering little in the way of sign. Einar lost him in those rocks, rain having washed away any blood that might have fallen, and after a time he abandoned the effort to follow the creature across them--gone, everything was gone, washed away in the rain, and the rocks were almost universally too large and stable to have shifted position beneath the bear’s passing weight, a clue that normally would have allowed Einar to successfully track across such terrain--opting instead to skirt around the edge of the boulder field, keeping just inside the trees as he hunted for the place where the bear had re-entered the timber, but seeing nothing. Wasn’t ready to give up though, not yet, not before he’d made one more pass around the edge of that boulder field, perhaps searched amongst the rocks themselves for a spot of blood or a claw-scuff that he had overlooked before. Ought to be able to do this. To find the trail, and finish this job.