Authors: Kimber White
Lord of the Bears
Wild Ridge Bears Series
Copyright © 2016 by Kimber
No part of this book may be reproduced or
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a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events,
and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a
fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual
events is purely coincidental.
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Table of Contents
I wasn’t technically lost. Just, well, geographically challenged. A
little. I swiped my smartphone screen with my thumb to pull up the compass. The
little red pin pointed north. Straight ahead. If I headed that way, I’d
eventually come out of the woods and find my way back to M-28. That is if I
didn’t fall and break my neck or something first.
An owl hooted above me, hidden somewhere in the vast canopy of maple,
birch, and red oak trees. If I had to guess, the little fucker was expressing
doubt about my abilities to find my way back to civilization. I kept heading
west, undaunted. North wasn’t going anywhere, and neither was my car. I had a
job to do and I would damn well get it done. A cool, spring breeze kicked up,
rustling the leaves all around me. They were the entire reason I came out here.
With the midday sun poking through, some of the larger maple leaves shimmered
like jade. I slowly raised my camera’s eyepiece into position and snapped
“God,” I sighed. “It’s glorious.” It really was. I came out here to get
pictures for a promotional calendar my boss wanted to put together. I worked
for the Vista Foundation, a privately funded conservation group as their
Director of Online Marketing. Which was really a fancy way of saying I ran
their Facebook and Twitter accounts, at least for now. I had bigger plans. My
real passion was photography, but my parents insisted I get a marketable degree
first. A fair point, but it didn’t keep me from racking up a mound of student
loan debt and working in a job I didn’t always like…until today, that was.
I came to a clearing where a rotted log had fallen over a trickling
brook. I crouched low, zooming in on a gray-green pattern of moss over the
gnarled wood. Snapping the shutter, I smiled. I could literally point my lens
in any direction and come up with something spectacular. The hard part would be
deciding which shots to use back at the office.
I checked my phone again. Nearly two o’clock, I’d been due back almost
two hours ago. I couldn’t help it though. This part of Wild Ridge Forest seemed
untouched. I could imagine mine were the only human footprints ever left here.
Maybe they were. A whiff of sassafras filled my nose, intoxicating me. I kept
Northeast of me, I knew I’d find the ridge that gave this part of the
world its name. Towering cliffs overlooked the crystalline waters of Lake
Superior. The Vista Foundation was partly responsible for keeping that stretch
of coastline free from tourists, unlike other parts of the Michigan’s Upper
Peninsula. It was one of their crowning achievements. It was also the other
reason I was out here this morning. The last profitable copper mine in the
state operated about ten miles west of me. We had reason to believe the Wild
Ridge Mine had started secretly harvesting lumber from protected areas. The
calendar gave me a good cover story in case I ran into anyone. But, if I could
find proof of deforestation where there shouldn’t be, the camera around my neck
would provide a weapon. So far, though, I saw no evidence of anything wrong. Just
lots and lots of tall, healthy trees.
As I hopped over the fallen log, my phone vibrated in my pocket,
jarring me out of the sense that I’d walked back through time. I hadn’t gotten
a clear signal for the last hour but must have hit a clear spot. A text came
through from my boss, Damon Spence.
“Status? Did you get lost? Aaron’s worried.”
Sighing, I pressed the phone to my forehead before trying to think of a
good answer. Aaron was Damon’s son and board Vice President. He’d helped me get
the job on account of the fact last year we dated for a while. Everyone told me
it would end badly, and it did. But, I liked my job even if I didn’t care for
the boss’s son that much anymore. With good reason. Aaron gave a terrific first
impression, but once you got to know him, he was nothing more than a spoiled,
entitled rich kid. Sometimes he was downright mean. I knew eventually this was going
to cause me more problems. For now though, I was hoping I could keep it handled
at least until next semester’s tuition came due.
“Great stuff for the calendar,” I texted back. “Taking a bit longer
than I hoped, but I should be heading back within the hour.” I hit send, but
the progress bar got stuck halfway when the signal dropped again. Sighing, I
tucked my phone in the back pocket of my jeans and trudged forward. Just a
little bit farther. I could see another clearing about fifty yards ahead. It might
even be an old hiking trail. There was supposed to be one around here.
Adjusting my camera strap over my shoulder, I quickened my step.
Spruce branches blocked my path. The needles stabbed into my forearms
as I pushed through. When I did, the ground shifted beneath me and I tumbled
down a short drop over tangled tree roots. I landed hard on my left hip but
managed to protect the camera. The cost of doing so was a scratch across my
cheek from a low tree branch. My flesh stung hot. I pressed the back of my hand
to my face. I was bleeding. Not badly. I was lucky I hadn’t poked out my eye.
Tucking an errant blonde curl behind my ear, I dusted myself off and
started to stand. When I looked up, my breath caught in my throat. I wasn’t
Or at least, this wasn’t the barren wilderness anymore. Ahead of me, an
ancient, weathered log cabin nestled amid the birch trees. Stumbling forward, I
raised my camera and snapped away.
“Holy shit,” I whispered as I approached. I ran my hand along the side
of the structure, crudely built with round logs with the bark left on. It was
old. I was no expert, but this was probably here during the pioneer days. Some
of the logs suffered from rot, and part of the thatched roof caved in. But what
a find! I took pictures from every angle. Even as I did it, I felt like a
trespasser. Surely whatever Michigan pioneer lived here was long gone. But,
called this place home. It might seem strange to say, but it
was almost as if I could feel their ghost watching me. Not unfriendly. Not a
threat, but a presence nonetheless that made the hair on my arms stand on end.
I grew bolder, peering in through the window. There was just the one,
the glass long gone. The frame itself bloated and cracked from decades of rain.
I couldn’t see much inside but shadows and piles of rotted leaves. But an
intricately carved stone hearth took up the center of the room, its chimney gone.
I tried the front door. It wouldn’t budge, not locked, but the
rain-swollen wood jammed into the frame. I could crawl through the window, but
if I hurt myself, I was all alone out here and miles from my car. I took my
phone back out of my pocket. My battery was nearly dead, but I had a weak
signal and hoped it would be enough. It was. I pinned my location and stood
back to take more pictures.
The ground vibrated beneath me. A low, rumbling thunder came from all
around. Scanning the sky, I saw nothing but bright blue and sunshine. I raised
the camera to my eye again. The thunder reached a crescendo and came from my
left. I froze. Something was happening. It was as if I could hear it with more
than just my ears. My nerves crackled and gooseflesh rose on my arms. With
dawning clarity, I realized it wasn’t thunder at all. It was breathing.
Slowly, I swung my camera back over my shoulder and turned toward the
noise. I should run. My brain told me that. But, my body told me something
different. I took slow, gingerly steps in the direction of the sound. I
couldn’t see anything but more trees. At least, not at first. When I got closer
to the largest red maple I pressed my hand flat against the rough bark. Just
beyond it, a huge, petrified oak tree arched back at an angle. I followed its
trunk to the ground. It had torn away from the earth, leaving a natural alcove.
I don’t remember moving. I don’t remember making a conscious choice to
go to it. Nevertheless, I found myself standing directly in front of that
massive, ancient tree and its twisted roots that had long ago erupted out of
the ground. The thunderous growl shook the leaves in the surrounding trees and
sent a spear of heat straight down my spine. There was something in that
hollowed out ground. I moved toward it, half remembering to lift my camera.
But, I couldn’t focus. I was breathing. I had to be. And yet, it felt like the
air had been sucked right out of me.
Trembling, I got closer. At first, I just saw shadows and leaves. Then,
the form in the hollow began to take shape. A lump of massive brown fur.
Something dead. My heart stopped.
It was a bear. The largest creature I’d ever seen. It had huge, black
paws stretched out in front of it. Even lying motionless on its side, the thing
came up nearly to my waist. God. What could have killed such a thing?
Then I realized it wasn’t dead at all. The ground shook again as it
took a great, slumbering breath and its fur rose and fell. Not dead. Sleeping.
Without thinking I snapped the shutter. Too afraid to take my eyes off
the giant in front of me, I took pictures blindly. Again, the voice in my head
told me to run, swift but quiet. And yet my feet seemed to take root just like
the knotted trees all around me. The bear exhaled again.
This wasn’t right. This wasn’t natural. Bears aren’t supposed to be
this big. Are they? I should have been terrified. But, I wasn’t. Instead I
was…enthralled. That was the best word I could come up with to describe it. It
was if that sleeping bear held some kind of power over me, making me stay. I
needed to be close to it. I was meant to be here. I was crazy.
I wanted to touch it. No. I
to touch it. With trembling
fingers, I reached forward. He was just a foot away. Yes. He. The certainty of
that knowledge filled me as I stretched my arm forward. Coarse bristles brushed
against my fingertips. Heat flooded through me, making my pulse trip as if I’d
received an electric shock. The bear felt something too. Because the instant I
made contact, one hooded eyelid snapped open. The great, black orb beneath it
clouded over for an instant then went clear, focusing straight on me.
I took a staggering step backward. That huge eye blinked once. Twice.
Then he raised his head, his movements lumbering, unsteady. I took another step
back, my heart pounding. He crawled forward and turned so we faced each other
straight on. I took another step back. At the bottom of a small hill, I had to
step up to step away. He put one giant paw forward, then the other, kicking up
wet leaves and earth as he did it. He let out a chuffing breath that blew hot
across my skin.
I reached behind me, grasping for something to swing at him in case I
needed it. A branch maybe. He tilted his head from one side to the next as if
he were shaking the cobwebs loose after his long slumber.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered. It seemed important. “I didn’t mean to…”
He was up now, standing on all fours in front of me. God, he was huge.
His head hung inches above mine. He staggered sideways, and I knew this might
be my only chance. So strong with powerful haunches he could have split me in
two with one swipe of those deadly front claws. He arched his back and craned
his head forward. Taking one great breath that seemed to kick up the wind all
around me, he let out a thunderous roar, his lips curling at the force of it.
The sound filled the world around me, rattling tree branches and vibrating down
to the marrow of my bones.
A declaration. A warning.
Only then did I scream. Only then did the urge to run overtake whatever
power compelled me to touch him. Turning, I tripped over tangled branches and
clawed my way up the side of the hill before me.
He roared again, the sound disturbing the birds and every other living
thing around me. They knew to get the hell away from him instantly. Why hadn’t
I? I ran past the log cabin, heading toward what I hoped was north as fast as
my legs would carry me. But it wouldn’t be fast enough. It could never be fast
enough. I stumbled and fell, scraping my knee against the bark of a fallen
branch. Another piece of wood stabbed into my hand where I broke my fall. Blood
pooled in the well of my palm and poured down my wrist. I found the strength to
haul myself back to my feet and keep on running.
I looked behind me, one of the millions of mistakes I seemed to have
made that day. Some detached voice in my head told me those mistakes would be
what killed me. I had no one to blame but myself. The bear roared again and it
seemed so much closer. I chanced a look behind me. He’d woken with a fury and
came toward me. He didn’t run. He didn’t have to. Stumbling backward, I watched
him rise to his full height on two legs. Oh, God. He was a monster. He seemed
more than twice as tall as any man I’d ever known.
I screamed again. Hot tears streamed down my face and mixed with the
blood from the scrape along my cheek.
I lost my way. The woods spun around me. The trees themselves seemed to
come to life, gnarled branches pointing the way in every direction and none of
them right. I took one last look over my shoulder and saw a blur of brown fur
as the bear closed in.