Authors: Win Blevins
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His fantasy was filled with those things that he read, of enchantments, quarrels, battles, challenges, wounds, wooings, loves, tempests, and other impossible follies.
Miguel de Cervantes
Exit, pursued by a bear
The Winter’s Tale
Tal rummaged in his shot pouch. Somewhere underneath all these lead balls and greasy patches…
Rosie stopped. She didn’t like the hard work of carrying this boy uphill anyway, so when he dropped the reins like that, she just stopped. And moon-eyed him sideways.
“Rosie, old girl, old mulie,” Tal piped, like it was the top of the finest morning in the Garden of Eden, “we need a flag to march under, and I’ve got one here somewhere.” He spilled some patches onto the rough track, a game trail he was following up into these Black Hills. So he swung down and set his rifle on the ground and started emptying his shot pouch—patch knife, cut patches, ticking greased with bear lard, spare ticking, .50-caliber lead balls, ball-starter, ball-puller, ball-maker, a chunk of raw lead the size of his hand, flints, a spare fire steel, a folding knife, a handful of fur from the underside of a beaver—a pack-rat clutter.
Once his aunt had called out to him, as he was headed for the woods, that good woodsmen were prepared for all eventualities—called out in the condescending way she saved for children. Miffed, he’d dumped it all on the drawing-room floor to show Aunt Pitty what preparation meant. She’d gotten one whiff of the stale bear grease and strutted off swinging her full skirts and threatening to faint.
Well, Aunt Pitty, it’s one American boy’s complete, do-it-all, up-to-date survival kit. Of course that was two years ago, when he was still a boy, and a resident of civil-eye-zation.
At last he remembered—he’d used it for a bookmark. So Tal stuffed a hand into the blankets tied behind the saddle (Rosie fidgeted and flicked her mule ears) and brought out his treasured copy of Miss Jane Porter’s
. Noting the page, he took out the bookmark, bent over his old Lancaster rifle, and tied it to the wiping stick.
A silk handkerchief, orange and blue. The color of flame bordered by the color of sky. His blazon, the armorial bearing of the house of Jones.
He repacked, swung into his saddle, touched his heels to Rosie’s bony flanks, and started on up the ridge. He seated the battered rifle on the pommel and held it straight up in the air—the silk handkerchief near the muzzle, fluttering in the breeze, caught the morning sun handsomely. He pictured Robert the Bruce, riding across the heath at the head of a thousand bloody-minded Scot patriots, flying the banner of his clan in so fresh a breeze, under so fine a morning sun.
And was not his present mission, to get meat for his hungry comrades, worthy as well? Tal meant one day to set down his Rocky Mountain adventures, his modern knight-errantry, in a book. He had a notebook, and though he seldom found time to write, he often thought as he rode how he would word something, imagined just how it would sound in the ears of his readers. He had his dedication already:
To my father, David Dylan Jones, who devoted his life to the pulpit and to poesy until the day he struck for freedom—and the mountains.
Tal reached up and scratched Rosie’s gawky ears affectionately. She lowered her head to get the ears out of reach.
At noon Tal decided to have a good look around and figure out just where he was. He let Rosie graze in a nice glade while he climbed a boulder and turned his spyglass every direction.
To the northeast lay the north fork of the Platte River. Though he couldn’t see it clearly through the dust and haze, he could make out the dark line of cottonwoods that marked its banks. Running the glass along the wide plain, he couldn’t pick up any sign of his brigade, the forty fur trappers he’d left Taos with three weeks ago. Oh well, he knew where to find them—back to the river and make tracks for the Shining Mountains, where the wily beaver swims, and dusky maidens dwell. He lined the glass along the south side of the river again. Strange there should be no sign of them. Oh well.
He turned the glass toward the summits of these mountains, the Black Hills, the trappers called them. Prime hunting country, just like the other Black Hills up by the Cheyenne River. Tal made little maps of such things in his notebook, to get the vast plains and great rivers and the Shining Mountains in his head. So far these Black Hills were August dry, parched and hot in the lower reaches. The game would be up high, feeding on the little grasses made green by the high, cold alpine streams.
That was why Tal had sneaked off here. Cap’n Fitzpatrick was in a hurry—time for rendezvous was already past—and he wouldn’t stop to make meat. The men were tired of Mexican beans and jerky. Everyone wanted fresh roasts and steaks, but Fitzpatrick only smiled coolly at their complaints and said, “Forty miles tomorrow.” So Tal would surprise them with elk. The carcass would get to ride while Tal hoofed it into camp, triumphant.
He glanced at his Lancaster by his side, and at Rosie in the glade. One gift from his dad was being able to shoot—Tal could drive a pine needle or trim your mustache with a lead ball. Yes, a talent for marksmanship, a disdain for cussing, and the gift of song were his legacy from David Dylan Jones.
He put the glass back to his eye and started scouting the meadows for fat does.
And saw a man. A big man. A gargantuan man. A man tall enough to stand higher than the horse he was leading. A man with legs that were tree trunks, a chest like an ale keg. A bear of a man, and hairy as Old Ephraim—Tal adjusted the focus—his brown mane to his shoulders, his beard clear up to his cheek bones and down to his belly. Tal put the glass down and spied the fellow with the naked eye. He was not even two hundred yards away. Strange he hadn’t heard Tal coming.
The hairy fellow was stalking something. Had to be. He was creeping, near as a man that size could creep.
Then Tal saw it. About fifty yards behind Big Hairy was a bear. Tal put the glass on it. A grizzly bear. The great silvertip. Old Ephraim himself.
And the beast was watching Big Hairy. Clear as day, the bear would peer out from around a clump of bushes and spot Hairy, move back, and rear up and look over the bushes at the man. The bear was stalking the man, the hunted stalking the hunter.
Tal considered. Should he yell, and warn Hairy? Might scare Old Ephraim, and the beast was as likely to attack as run off. Should Tal ride down there? Rosie wouldn’t stand for it. Should he shoot the bear? At this range a lead ball would only annoy the animal.
What would Tal want done, in Hairy’s place? Heck, Tal would want to be left alone. If Hairy was hunting the bear, best to handle it himself. What honor would there be in having the quarry run off by a stranger? What valor in a quest ended by an outsider? No, if he were Hairy, Tal would brook no interference. He settled down to watch.
Hairy looked down, then studied the ground ahead along the lush grass, across a rivulet, and into some willows. He turned and patted his horse’s neck, got a couple of things from his possible sack. He dropped the reins and took a moment to put on a hobble. Then he checked the priming on his gun and advanced stealthily toward the willows. He was holding something Tal couldn’t make out in one hand, something dark.
At the bank of the rivulet Hairy sat down, laid his gun across his lap, and put the dark thing on his head. It was a hat, a hat—ye gods!—made from a bear head, and it covered him to the shoulders. Then he got down on all fours and sniffed the air. He sat and scratched at his shoulders, and sniffed his crotch, the way Tal had seen black bears do.
The griz was still watching from the bushes. Tal bet himself Old Ephraim thought Hairy was tetched.
Now Hairy stood up, in sort of an important way, like preachers do before communion. He raised his huge hands high into the air and danced a jig. He began to shake—hands and arms and head and belly and all quivering like crazy. And then he roared like griz, a huge and horrible sound such as Tal had never heard in his life.
Griz roared back.
Griz bounded out from behind that bush and rose high like Hairy and shook its paws and made an awful roar.
Hairy, picking up his gun, was peering into the willows with all his soul. For a long moment he froze in that position, unable to believe his ears. Then, theatrically, he slowly pivoted his head on his doubting shoulders and looked behind.
Old Ephraim, reared up and ready.
The two glared at each other. Griz roared. Hairy roared back. Tal didn’t know which of them sounded more like a bear. They were jousting with lungs for lances.
It happened too fast.
Hairy was throwing his gun to his shoulder and griz was on all fours and charging and Tal hit the ground running forward and Hairy’s shot shook the trees and the bear was almost on top of Hairy and Tal would never get there in time.
The bear ran over Hairy, but Hairy was off to one side and rolling and getting to his feet. The bear charged again. Out from under Hairy tumbled. He came up holding his pistol and kaboomed with it.
Griz rose on its hind legs. It roared as only a thousand pounds of angry can roar. Maybe neither shot hit home. Hairy jumped for his rifle. Griz didn’t move. Hairy held the unloaded gun toward the bear. Tal had the crazy thought that Hairy was going to put Old Ephraim through some dance steps. Tal was only half-way there and his chest was already hurting.
Man and bear faced other, looked each other over. Hairy circled like a boxer. Griz just stood, imposingly still. Finally Hairy slipped the wiping stick off the barrel. And with a nutty leap he closed and whacked the bear on the nose with the stick.
“Hiya-hi-hiya,” shouted Hairy exuberantly.
Tal couldn’t believe it. Sumbuck counted coup on a grizzly bear. Tal got to one knee and checked his priming powder. All gone. Tal started priming.
Griz just stood there, eyeing the man. And then, quick as a fish, moved.
Hairy swung the rifle and might have glanced the heavy barrel off the bear’s head. They grappled. They rolled over. And over again. Tal thought he saw Hairy’s hand rise and fall with a tomahawk. He watched them over his hind sight, but with the two of them wrestling, he couldn’t risk a shot.
Then he saw griz’s paws swat and Hairy hit the ground like a sack of grain. Tal had to try. He held on Old Ephraim’s head and pulled.
Griz flinched. He faltered. He stumbled. He fell on Hairy.
Tal decided to reload, right now.
Hairy stirred. Pushed. Grunted. Humped. Wriggled free.
He looked down at the beast. Griz was still as stone.
Hairy shook his fists at the sky and lifted a cry into the burning air, a cry of bloodlust, of blood-letting, of life crowing over death. His hair flowed down his back and belly. Blood flowed from under his bear hat and down his face. He was as much beast as griz.
Seating his ball, Tal raised his thin, reedy voice as a chorus to Hairy’s, a thin but avid cry of triumph.
Hairy looked at Tal. Looked at Griz’s skull, which was caved in. Looked at Tal.
Priming again, Tal smiled foolishly at the beast-man.
Hairy searched on the ground for his tomahawk. Found it. Studied Tal. Glared at Tal. Stalked toward Tal, hawk raised.
Tal jumped up. As he started to run, the hawk whizzed past his ear. It made an ugly whup-whup sound through the air. It made Tal mad.
Tal whirled. Hairy was at full run and almost on him. In one motion Tal threw the rifle up and pulled the trigger. The world roared. Shattered into light. Went black.