Never did find that bear. By the time Einar, wet, cold and discouraged, finally decided to call off the hunt for the morning, he could hardly look Liz in the eye to tell her so. She’d been counting on that bear, had been confident in his ability to track it down for them so she could have a go at it with her bow, and he had failed to do so. Had given it his best, slogging through timber and half collapsed chokecherry thickets until his clothes were soaked with the lingering wetness of the rain, crawling over a good portion of that boulder field on hands and knees searching for sign he might have missed the first time through, or the second, and finding, once, a small spattering of blood where it had fallen on the rock above and dripped down into a crevice where the rain had not been able to reach and obliterate it. But the trail hadn’t gone anywhere. Bear was gone. Liz saw the sorrow in his eyes when he told her of his decision to return to the cabin, wanted to tell him that it was alright, that there would be other bears, but knew her words probably wouldn’t help matters any. She’d tried to help with the tracking, but it had been far beyond her skill to do so, and she didn’t blame Einar in the least if it was beyond his, as well, especially after that storm dumped rain all over everything all night long while the wind scattered falling leaves and in some cases even branches. Certainly wasn’t going to tell him so, though, for she knew how highly he valued his ability to follow even the most obscure trail to its conclusion, and could see that he was feeling terribly lost and dejected at the realization that he’d not been able to decipher the path of that bear.
Pride, he told himself, moving his body unwillingly up the slope from boulder field, following Liz, step by step, forcing it to keep moving, to maintain the momentum that he knew he’d not be able to regain if once he allowed himself to lose it, this is pride, and it’s wrong. You’re just upset at yourself for losing the trail, and it’s happened before, happened more times than you could count, I’m sure, and this time is no different, really, except that maybe more’s at stake… It was a difficult trail. Rained all night. Come on, you need to let it go. Tried his best to do so, but could not seem to shake the feeling that this ran deeper than simply failing to find a fleeing black bear in a boulder field the morning after a major rainstorm, which in and of itself might have almost been a forgivable failing. Seemed he was losing his skills, his sharpness, the ability not only to effectively provide for them up there, as evidenced by his missing the bear that past evening, but the means to keep them safe, as well, to keep them from the hands of the enemy, and for a moment--stopping still in his tracks, staring at his hands in near despair; help me, God, help me, I don’t know what to do--he couldn’t bear the thought of it, did not know how he could continue to exist without those things, didn’t know if he even wanted to. Liz pulled him out of it without even knowing she was doing so, stopping to wait for him and holding out a hand to help him up an especially steep portion of the slope, having herself reached the slightly more level ground above it. He took her hand, a definite departure from his usual way of doing things, made it up to her little shelf in one big stride, realizing as he did so that his prayer, for the moment at least, had definitely been answered: he might not know what to do, but she did, was showing him by her actions, and apparently the answer was to climb. Good. He could climb. Would climb.
As they neared the cabin-clearing, something told Einar to slow down, to wait, and he did, hand on Liz’s shoulder to make sure she waited, too, and after a moment of listening--didn’t hear anything, but his danger-sense told him more strongly than ever that caution was in order--he slipped past her and took the lead, easing his way silently up the remaining slope, and then there they were, peering out of the timber at the cabin, and directly at the wide black rump of a bear. Their bear. Einar could see the wide whitish streak across its back where his dart had done its work. The creature had come back, had waited until they were safely away from the area, and returned to make another try at obtaining the wealth of berried boxed up behind those walls. Probably would have succeeded eventually, had they the two humans not returned and objected to the process, front paws braced against the top of the door as the great bear rocked back and forth, determinedly wearing away at the cabin’s defenses.
Liz, afraid of the damage that appeared about to be done their dwelling, wanted to dash screaming and shouting out into the clearing to draw the bear’s attention away from breaking down their door, but Einar restrained her, eyes glowing and a barely suppressed grin trying its best to split his face. He didn’t speak--bear hadn’t yet heard them, was not aware of their presence, and he intended to keep it that way--but motioned her to follow him, stalking back into the timber and around the clearing to the right, keeping hidden and paying close attention to the direction of the wind, which was slight but definitely enough to carry their scent to the bruin, if they didn’t keep on top of it. Needed a better position from which to take their shot--Liz’s shot, and he put a hand on her bow, making sure she knew to be ready with it, but already she had an arrow in place, nodded in understanding--and he led them around until they were looking straight on at the bear’s side as it continued battering away at the front of their house, driven to distraction by the overwhelming odor of the gallons upon gallons of chokecherries contained inside. Liz glanced at Einar and he gave her a little nod, freed himself of his pack and stood off to the side, spear at the ready should the bear end up charging in their direction after getting hit. Not likely--at least not intentionally, on the bear’s part; he was pretty sure it would be wanting to get away from there in a hurry, from his past experience with black bears--but he had to be ready.
Liz knew what was at stake, and she had been practicing, training by sinking arrows into a large bundle of cut, dried grass that she had set up on a stump to act as a target, and as soon as he saw her arrow sink into that bear’s shoulder, Einar knew she had done well. The bear, who had until that point seemed to have no inkling of their presence, whirled around with a speed most uncharacteristic of such a large animal, snapping at the arrow with its teeth but unable to reach, quickly taking off around behind the cabin, up into the mix of rock and timber that led up to their overlook. Liz had fitted a second arrow but never got the chance to use it, fast as the bear had taken off, but she relaxed her hold only when Einar looked at her and nodded.
“Good. You did good, Liz. Your first bear.”
“Do you think I got him? Did I aim well enough? He took off so fast that I thought maybe…”
Einar was hurrying across the clearing as she spoke, making for the spot where the bear had been standing when he was hit. Liz caught up to him at the cabin door, which was slashed and crossed now with the claw-marks of the hibernation-hunger frenzied bear. “Oh, you got him, alright. Expect we’re gonna find him dead not too far up there. Looks like you probably hit a lung, and… Whoa, hey, hang on! Don’t take off running after him just yet. No sense driving him any further from the cabin than we have to, since we just got to haul him back down here when this is all over. We’ll give him a little while to run and tire out, then go up there and see. Here. See this blood? Pink and frothy like this it’s a pretty sure sign you got him in the lung, and he won’t be getting real far. And he’ll be easy to track, unlike this morning…”
Liz touched the small spot of blood left behind by the fleeing animal, rubbed a bit of it between thumb and forefinger as if only half believing that she’d really hit the massive creature. “But you did track him this morning, Einar! Don’t you see? You tracked him all the way down the hill and right back up here to where he was waiting for us, and it’s much better this way than if we’d shot him down near that boulder field and had to carry that heavy hide and meat…what? Two miles, probably, back up to the house here?”
A grunt and a nod from Einar--she was giving him way too much credit; he’d lost that bear in the boulder field, slogged up the hill with little hope of seeing further sign of it and not found the critter’s trail again until they were just about ready to step out into the clearing, and she had to know that, all of it--as he rose, unbarred the door and swung it open to check for damage. Still worked, and the fact that it now hung a bit crooked could easily be remedied once they’d taken care of the bear, and the chokecherry harvest that had twice lured it to their doorstep.