Tracking the bear that afternoon was, indeed, an easier proposal than had been their failed trek across timbered slope and boulder field earlier in the day, and they followed him without difficulty up around their rocky overlook, Liz out in the lead, at Einar’s insistence. It was, after all, her bear, as he’d told her, and she needed to be the one to follow its trail to the end, but that fact did not keep him from matching her pace quite precisely as he walked close behind her, ready to step in at a moment’s notice should the situation turn dangerous. Einar was glad of the climb, both because it meant that their hauling of the meat, hide and fat would all be a downhill affair--a rather significant advantage, considering the impressive heft of the creature--and because the work served to warm them, much needed after their long cold morning moving slowly through the wet brush in search of a trail that proved not to exist. Not for their eyes to find, at least. Good as it was, the welcome warmth generated by that climb, Einar knew that he had again worked himself into a position where he was only one more misstep or two away from finding himself dangerously exhausted and of little use to either of them, and with the days of hard work that lay ahead of them in hauling that bear back to the cabin and processing it, he knew he’d best manage his resources carefully. Well, carefully as he was able. Circumstances had a way of making their demands on a person, and quite often those demands must be met and answered immediately, with little regard to considerations such as the last time one has slept or had a full meal. He’d be fine. Just needed a few ounces of fresh bear liver, and he’d be good as new. Now, enough of that. Got to pick up the pace here, can’t let Liz get too far ahead, or she may end up stumbling on a not-quite-dead bear critter without you there to back her up! Which was more than enough to get his mind off of his own lack of resources, and back on the current situation.
Just over a quarter mile above the cabin, the bear had left the rocky spine of the ridge and made its way into the deeper timber of the adjoining slope where, Einar figured, it had probably been instinctively drawn to seek out a sheltered, hidden spot where it could crawl in, hole up and wait unseen and unmolested for the end to come. That was the way of so many wild creatures, and Einar could not help but admit that he himself had more than once felt the urge to find just such a spot, curl up and dig his hands into the good soft welcoming earth as he waited for nature to take its course with him. Hadn’t done it, though, had resisted that call as well as he was able and often a good bit more strongly than had probably been reasonable, considering the dire nature of his circumstances, and in so refusing to heed its words had learned to know the bitter joy--gift and curse, all entangled inextricably together as one--that is man’s ability to rise above the sort of instinct that had driven the bear to ground in that jumble of boulders off to the left, to make the decision to keep going when every fiber of one’s being testifies to the utter futility of continued action, and--sometimes--to prevail.
The bear had faced no such quandary. He’d holed up in the rocks. Blood trail led straight to him. Straight into the black shadows where the larger half of a massive boulder--thing must have been a good twenty feet high, and as big around as a small house--had calved off and ended up in two pieces, both leaning rather solidly against the remainder of the original rock. Great spruces grew up around the rock formation--great for that elevation, which meant that they just reached up past its top--giving the entire place a rather close, dark sort of feel, water dripping still from branches after the past day’s rainfall, a soft padding of moss growing soft and vibrantly green on rock and ground alike and short grey curtains of usnea hanging like hair from the evergreen boughs to dampen and absorb sound, leaving the place almost eerily silent. A fitting spot, Einar decided, to meet and challenge the great beast, though he dared not speak the thought aloud, lest Liz make some objection… Einar couldn’t see a thing as he approached the giant wreck of a boulder, was reminded of the first time he’d ever crawled blindly into a cave--though it had been a mine, that time--after a wounded bear, back during his first autumn on the run when injured, closely pursued and desperate for food he’d gone in like Beowulf after the dragon, spear-armed and sure he was about to die, but without the luxury of caring. Bear had proven to be dead, that time, shot as it had been by hunters down in the valley and left to its fate when they had been unable to quickly locate it, but the minute and a half it had taken him to find that out had been one of the longest in his life. This would be different. The space was less confined, far less deep and in addition, he was in the fortunate position of knowing approximately how badly the bear had been wounded in the first place, and exactly how long ago. Creature ought to be dead by then, or rapidly approaching it, but he knew that to take such for granted would be to put both of them in grave danger. He motioned to Liz to get an arrow ready, and she did it. Crouching, face within inches of her own, he spoke in a whisper.
“Good tracking, Lizzie. You found him. My turn now. Have to go in after it. May be dead in there, may not, quite, so you keep well back from the opening here, up in these rocks where you’ll have places to hide yourself if something goes wrong. Don’t hesitate to do that if he seems to be coming for you, understand? Just wedge yourself way back in between some of these rocks, and he won’t be able to get at you, big and fat and ready for hibernation as he is. Better just wait here for now where you can see the opening, and be ready with an arrow in case he’s more lively than I think and comes charging out overtop of me. Don’t intend to let that happen, but the reality is we’ve got to be ready for it. Unless I’m mashed into the ground real bad I’ll be very close on his tail if anything like that does happen, so you can count on some help real quick if that first shot doesn’t end him. Got it?”
She didn’t get it. “Mashed into the ground? No, that doesn’t sound like a good idea! How about we throw a rock in there or something and see if there’s any response, before you go crawling in with the spear and maybe getting mashed into the ground? See if we can get him to come out, if he’s still lively.”
“Nope. Better to let him stay in there where he can’t get a good swat in at us or take off running again, finish him off in there, if he needs finishing. I’ll be Ok. Done this before. Anyway, ground’s real soft here, so no big problem if I do get mashed into it.” With that--last statement accented by a wild-eyed, mischievous grin that seemed to Liz rather too casual considering the situation--he left her, creeping silently towards the dark mouth of the bear’s final refuge, spear in one hand and the other ready to grab for his knife.