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Fiction Historical Fiction Suspense

The map was impossible to read. Even if a snow storm hadn’t covered the entire valley last night, I wasn’t sure navigating our way through it would be enough to save Bear. 

“What do you think, Bear? We keep heading down the mountain?” I shifted my head towards my shoulders so I could see his tired eyes. His only reply a slow blink and a wheezing exhale. I had been carrying Bear, slung across my shoulders, each pair of his legs bound in my hands on either side, for the better part of the morning, at least since the first light reached the sky, though we had been traveling long before that. We had crossed a thinly covered rock garden a few miles from where we camped last night, and I wasn’t going to drag him over the rough terrain, even if he was wrapped in the thickest pelt I had – bear skin, an invaluable gift from Henry before I left. He was the same friend who had gifted me this map, hand scribed it himself after exploring these mountains last year when the days had been longer, the sun warmer. He’d warned me that with winter at its peak, the topography of this land might appear too different for the map to serve us well. 

They had all warned me back home when I told them I was taking Bear out for a hunt. I knew it would be risky, to travel so far from home in the middle of winter. No one ever went further than a day’s walk away from the village alone, and even that held the risk of enduring one life-threatening night in the cold. But I had not sighted deer, or even fox, in our area in weeks. With their trade value bound to inflate, I couldn’t resist venturing out with my fierce coonhound companion.

Bear grunted. “You okay, bud?”

Another wheezing exhale. “I suppose we could take a quick rest here. But it’s gotta be quick, you hear? I don’t know how much longer either of us will make it, and we can’t risk being out here if another storm like last night’s comes through.”

I tucked the map away in my satchel, not willing to risk our only guidance, even if it was impossible to decipher. I was gentle in my movements, sliding his weight over to one of my shoulders, and catching him in my arm, his full 80 pounds crushing my wrist. With my other arm, I swiftly removed the pelt off my back and tried to lay it down flat on the snowy ground, careful to find a soft spot with no hidden boulders or bulging roots beneath it. Cradling his head in the palm of my hand, wincing slightly at the pressure on my still-fresh wound, I laid Bear down atop the fur as if he were a newborn infant. His eyes squinted and he pulled his paws inward towards his belly. The pain in his grunt stung worse than my sliced palm.

It had been wolves. Five of them. All white, merely shadows of the blizzard stepping out behind the trees, surrounding our camp in the dead of night. Our fire was hot ashes, making us blind to the midnight forest around us. Bear, of course, heard them, and woke me with his barking before I had time to realize what was upon us. Before I could get to my hatchet, they were on him. I could still hear Bear’s piercing cry when not one, but three of the wolves made contact at once. One tearing at his ears, the other at his throat, and the third at his rear. The details of how I reached the brawling canines was fuzzy, but the pain of their razor sharp teeth meeting my skin ached clearly. The red snow beneath Bear told me I barely got to them in time. 

“How ya doing, Bear?” I tried to cast worry out of my voice. Our years of hunting together made us both sensitive to even the slightest shifts in our energy. I knew he didn’t have any strength to spare, and didn’t want to risk alerting him in any way. I lifted his limbs gently to scan his wounds. I’d used any fabrics I could spare to apply a tourniquet to the worst of his injuries, but there were large crimson stripes across his stomach I had been unable to bandage. Bear had lost a considerable amount of blood and this weather, the journey ahead of us, was not in his favor. I caught Bear’s eyes looking directly at me, the gaze of a soldier with not much left to give, fatigue the only thing left in him. I lowered his leg I had lifted, and gently stroked my hand across his back, his blue-gray spotted fur warming my hand. I felt guilty taking even that bit of comfort from him. He didn’t owe me anything, yet I felt I owed him my life. 

“You’re gonna be OK, boy. Not much longer now, and we’ll have ourselves a warm shelter. Maybe we’ll even catch ya a nice squirrel for dinner, your favorite, huh? How’s that sound?” My companion blinked, and his tongue escaped his mouth just enough to curl around the top of his nose before disappearing. I chuckled at his response, wishing so badly I could pat and scrub his belly the way it usually made him roll onto his back, stretching his legs wide overhead, his tail racing with bliss. 

A brisk wind whirled loudly around us, threatening the return of last night’s blizzard. A warning from the Mother herself.

Bear shivered and winced. I quickly folded the bear skin around him. “Alright, that’s enough rest, Bear. We ought to get out of this.” Bear looked so weak, I almost didn’t have it in to me unwrap him from what little warmth he had and hoist him up over my shoulders. But I could not drag him down the steep mountain ahead of us. 

I had no choice but to trudge forward, in the direction I hoped would take us to the small settlement Henry had told me to seek out if we found ourselves in this situation – victims of the winter. I prayed my instincts would lead us to the destination we sought in time… I didn’t let the thought of death take form in my mind. A hawk, as if in response to my silent prayer, screamed above the wind. Taking the bird’s presence as a good omen, I decided to follow its path for as long as it’d guide us. 

The wind seemed to grow stronger as we made our descent, the hair’s on my face no longer flowing with its wave, but solid as the icicles that hung from the few visible branches of the pines. I was thankful for the comfort of Bear’s steady and slow breaths. Not just for the warmth they provided, but for their company. It felt as if we had been walking for half the day already, though the sun had not yet settled in the center of the sky. At least we had the hope of temperatures rising soon. And the hawk’s occasional song. 

“We’ll find it, Bear. Closer with every step.” A lie meant more for me than him.

We were nearing the end of the mountain. I pulled out Henry’s map, just for the sake of doing so, and despite what had seemed impossible, I thought I could tell where we were. If I was reading it correctly, the settlement should be about a half day’s travel, give or take a few hours if the weather worsened. We might actually make it before dusk. We might actually make it in time to save Bear.

I shrugged my shoulders, giving Bear a little shake. I sent out a victory yelp into the valley. It echoed back to us, and I felt Bear’s tail twitch, his best attempt at celebrating with me. “Hold on, Bud. We’re gon’ make it through it, just hang on.” The hawk joined our celebration, letting out another booming shriek to the sky.

But it had been a warning, not a victory cry.

I heard his roar before I saw him. Its sound was hoarse in the wild wind, but it bounced off the mountains and shook like thunder. I thought my mind was playing vicious tricks on me, for it certainly could not be what I thought I heard. And then I saw him, and I knew instantly what he was. 

Not far from us, merely 100 yards from where we stood, lurked a full-grown grizzly.

Like the leaves of fall, this animal should be temporarily extinct from the world, tucked away somewhere in dark corners, like my thoughts of facing such an encounter had been. Was this why our village had not seen many fox or deer this season? 

He had heard us – heard me, hollering – and was looking exactly in our direction. The roar had been his reply, and full of rage. The hawk, suddenly silent, was now perched atop the tallest tree, as if just waiting to bear witness to our battle. And perhaps, finish off whoever was defeated.

I knew there was no hiding, no covering the scent of blood that clung to us, and with Bear wrapped around me like a scarf, there was certainly no chance of running. I could tell Bear caught scent of the beast by the small twitch in his legs, the wrinkling of his nose, all of which I knew was nothing compared to how he would have reacted if he had been in full health. Bear had gotten his name from this beast, for his fearlessness of such a steel creature. Our first hunt together, he’d chased off a bear, ran right towards it without a second thought, albeit saving my life after frightening it away before it do its damage. But in his current condition, in the unforgivable winter where this animal should not be… Mother Nature was showing her teeth, scolding us for taking her on, for challenging her. I knew we would not win. For the first time since his attack, I was thankful for Bear’s condition. I made myself as stiff as the trees around me, willing calm through my body, and hoping it transpired to his. 

“Hold,” I whispered through my teeth, a cue that meant it wasn’t time to strike our prey. 

But as the bear took its first steps in our direction, a growl rumbling from deep in its chest, time became nothing. Whether the bear charged first, or Bear’s howl bellowed from his snout, I do not know. The ground began trembling beneath my feet, shaking the snow off the surrounding trees. It was as if whole mountains around us were vibrating from the sound of roaring. It took but seconds for him to reach us. I clenched Bear’s legs, which were now wriggling with a fighting fury in my fist, the brown giant’s gnashing teeth the last thing I saw before squeezing my eyes together, yielding my last request to God: that death come quickly.

Time was gone, but the world around me was shaking and loud. 

Shaking and roaring. Closer and closer. 

Shake. 

Roar. 

Shake. 

Roar. Closer… Then stillness. 

The lack of impact was stunning. 

If the thrumming of my heart weren’t pounding in my temples, the gunshot blasting through the air would have made me jump. I didn’t dare open my eyes. I could still feel the bear’s heavy presence before us, wavering… Another gunshot blasted. This time I jolted, and forced myself to look, to face the death that’d come for me, but all that was there was the bear, now lying on its side. His breathing struggling, and faint, before a last gurgling exhale. 

I stared, unable to move the muscles in my body, gasping for air as if the bear’s last exhale had been my own. Bear had also gone silent, now still around my shoulders. The hawk shrieked, proclaiming his departure, as he soared away, leaving us a moment of quiet peace in the lull of our apparent triumph. 

But it was just that, a moment. A rustling nearby indicated subtle approaching footsteps in the noiseless snow. 

“God Almighty, are you all right, sir?” The young man, more a boy than a man, stepped out of the trees less like a shadow, and more like a reflection. A light after all the darkness we’d endured. He held his rifle up by his shoulders, pointed at the dead beast in front of us, a gesture I took as kindness, safety, and relief. As soon as my eyes met the boy’s, I fell to my knees, speechless, with fists still wrapped around Bear’s legs, and sobbed. He strode towards us anxiously, his rifle still ready, then rested a hand on my shoulder. I wondered if he was as comforted by my solid form as I was by his. This was no dream.

“Thank you,” I managed to say.

My reply seemed to calm him. “No need to thank me, sir. We’ve been looking for that damned beast for a matter of days, now. I’m just glad I was close enough to get him before he got you.” 

I looked up at him, his rifle now slung around his shoulder. “Did you say, “we?”

Youth spread across the boy’s face as a hint of a smile appeared. “Yes, sir. There’s seven of us out here, been looking for the sleepless bear who’s been scaring away all our food this winter. We heard your dog there’s holler, followed by the beast’s nasty roar. I got here first on account of the fact that I’m the fastest one of the group, sir.” 

I just stared at him, my heart still pounding, adrenaline unwilling to surrender. 

“What is it you’re doing out here all alone, sir?” 

I told the young man and his companions, once he had finally made our way to them, that I had not been alone on my hunt. That I had taken Bear out to find the deer and fox that had disappeared. I told them about the wolves and how I had in fact been on my way to them before we encountered the bear. As if our luck was seeking balance, there was a man in the group who had remembered Henry from his visit last summer, and did not need more from me than that fact before he invited me back to their settlement, offering refuge, and what healing they could provide for Bear.

Henry had been right in his warning – the topography of these mountains and this valley was skewed in the winter. Though we had been heading in the right direction, we were little more than a half a day’s travel from their settlement. With Bear’s condition, the group determined it would be best to make no stops, and risk losing light in order to get to the shelter before another moon-fall.

“Almost there, Bear, stay with me,” I whispered close to his ears, but I received no reply, not even an exhausted grunt.

They had to wake their healer from his sleep when we arrived with only a few hours left in the night. A human doctor, who had occasional experience with domesticated animals. I laid Bear on the large table in the room, my bear pelt cushioned between him and the wood. Bear had hardly opened his eyes since we found these men, his chest barely rising. The healer listened to our story, of both beasts we’d survived, and took one look at my dog. He retrieved his glasses, and looked again before bowing his head. 

Bear had lost too much blood. Had been out in the cold for too long. Had endured too much. The doctor speculated that Bear’s howl during the bear encounter had been all he had left. There was nothing he could do, he determined. 

“That dog saved your life. Be grateful you were not alone out there,” he said, before leaving me with the near-corpse of my companion. 

I had not been alone, not once since I acquired Bear. And here, in a settlement of new acquaintances, miles from my home, I felt the tendrils of loneliness grazing my skin. I leaned down over the table and pressed my head against Bear’s, my eyes meeting his. “Thank you, friend,” I whispered.

The sun’s first light peeked in through the window, and I watched Bear’s eyes close, just as a loud shriek broke through the morning stillness, a hawk rising. I couldn't help but wonder who it might offer its guidance to next. 

December 16, 2021 21:45

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2 comments

Amanda Lieser
16:08 Sep 29, 2022

Hi Anne Marie! I picked this story since it was your first and had lots of likes, but no comments yet. I really enjoyed the sweet nature of this story. I could feel the biting cold and the reliefs towards the end. I also loved the way you built on the stable relationship between your MCs. Nice job on this one!

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Anne Marie Miles
20:43 Sep 29, 2022

Amanda, this means so much to me that you'd take the time to read this very old story of mine. It was the first short story I'd written in, oh gosh, a decade?!? I really struggled with it but it was satisfying to complete a story after so long. I'm glad you enjoyed it. I find myself struggling again this week but I will get over to your page when I can, thanks again!

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