The Threads Are Identified
August 14th. Thread one: Clark National Park.
The frustrated Park Rangers radio-tracked the old bear to within a mile of the park boundary, but no further. They had set out earlier that same morning to find out what the problem might be before the battery in its radio-collar died.
It had not moved for two days—unusual for this bear—so they needed to investigate. It was either dead, or was on a kill. They had hiked steadily for three hours from the nearest road, and were close to the bear’s last known position.
Melissa counted off another hundred steps on the hard climb up the forty-five degree slope of sheep-track that zigzagged back and forth above her. She stopped for ten seconds as Scott, ahead of her, also paused. She stretched, checked where Hal was, behind her, and then continued for another hundred steps. She’d climbed this way for the last two hours, feeling sorry for the young summer student, foisted on her and Scott just that morning, and bringing up the rear. She could hear his wheezing as he desperately fought to drag air into his tortured body, unused to this kind of exercise, and she knew how desperately he needed to stop and rest, but there would be no stopping. In another two hours they would have to turn back. Without Hal slowing them down, she and Scott would have been close to the bear’s last position an hour ago.
She was hot and irritable, as well as nervous. But for Hal, she would have taken off her shirt at the last small dribble of water, some few hundred feet below them now, and wet it down before putting it back on, and Scott would have done the same.
Scott was standing in the trail, fifty feet above her, waiting patiently for them as he looked around. He looked fresh. Nothing seemed to bother him.
The bear’s tag number was CP023. Its Latin name was Ursus arctos horribilis: aptly named, a horrible arctic bear, a northern brown bear, or more commonly: a grizzly. They knew it as Houdini, because of its propensity to wander off and escape all of their efforts to corner it, sedate it, and change its collar. It kept out of open areas during the day. They could have darted it from the helicopter except for that. It was more than six hundred pounds of meanness, bad temper and unpredictability. All of that was true of most bears, but doubly so for this one.
Where any other bear was curious, and chose to advance, this one melted away. It had an instinct for avoiding well-baited traps, as well as for taking you by surprise.
It was almost as though the bear knew that it was time to replace its collar again, which they tried to do about every three years, especially on a difficult bear that needed close watching, as this one did.
This bear was at least 20 years old, one of the first bears tagged. It was close to the end of its life in the wild, and it probably knew it, yet was hanging on. It had become crafty with age and experience, and knew enough to avoid others of its kind as well as humans.
The last time Houdini had wandered off, they’d recovered him from twenty miles outside of the park, after he’d killed a pet sheep in its paddock, in full view of the family who had raised it, and he had eaten much of it.
Scott would have shot him before now, after the incident with the sheep, but Melissa held him back, saying something about the law of unintended consequences, thinking of the incredible natural damage done, when wolves had been mostly eliminated from Yellowstone National park. She, was the boss. She had decided that rather than shoot him, they would keep a tighter watch on him. He was an integral part of the constantly changing imbalance of the ecosystem.
Melissa signaled that they would stop and rest when she saw Scott looking back on her progress, and had moved his head in that way that he had. He often looked back at her, and watched her for a time. She knew why, and was glad of it. They kept a close eye on each other, and always smiled at those moments when their glances met, which was often, each knowing what the other was feeling and thinking, and watching each other’s progress.
There was something about being out in this pristine wilderness that got to you. They would have made love already, possibly twice by now on that walk up here, but for Hal.
They both resumed their observation of the brush around them, listening to what the Jays or other birds could tell them from their carefree singing, or their alarm calls. Or by their silence. Scott had seen bear-scat at least two days old on the track they were climbing. He had silently pointed to it, so that she would take note of it when she got to where he had been.
She needed to pause, no matter how briefly. They all did. It had been a hard climb, and the sweat was trickling down her back like a trail of insects, pausing every so often at some minor obstruction, a hair follicle, her bra strap, or the fabric of her shirt, before continuing its intimate journey into her panties and down between her cheeks if it were not gobbled up first by the thirsty, lascivious cotton of her shirt, or shorts.
“It’s Hal’s last week with us. Take him with you and show him what it means to go looking for an animal like that one. Give him something to talk about when he gets back to college.”
It had been easy for Scrimger to suggest. He wouldn’t have to carry the kid back down if he twisted an ankle.
Melissa hooked her thumbs into the side of her bra, and eased it away from where it chafed. It was driving her crazy. She rarely wore one, except in the office. She had deliberately left her hat in the truck, so she could sweat properly from her head. Her hair was cut short to allow that.
She knew Scott was watching her. He always watched her. Everything about her turned Scott on, no matter how she looked. She took care of her appearance, and there was no fat on her. But for Hal, this could have been a pleasant day, and they would already be half way down, heading back home. They had set a slow pace, deliberately, though Hal did not know that. All he could think about was why did they have to set such a killing pace?
Damn Uncle Alec for sending him out with these two maniacs.
Scott saw Hal’s difficulty, and signaled that they would rest for a while before they crested the last rise above them. Hal brought up the rear. He carried the new radio-collar for the bear, and the tranquilizer gun, which Melissa had let him carry (not loaded of course). He could brag about that when he got back to college. Melissa had the darts for it. They would not choose to use it on this, or any other bear except from unassailable cover, from a vehicle, or from a helicopter. That had been a hard-learned lesson for Melissa.
Hal, thirty feet lower than them and fifty feet back, had turned his back to them when they stopped and was relieving himself. His shirt was wringing wet. Fifteen extra pounds of body fat didn’t help. He was a pampered city kid, sweating like a bull, with his hat holding the heat in close to his head. He was a candidate for heat stroke. He flopped gratefully onto a nearby rock to ease his screaming muscles, fighting for breath, while his companions showed few signs of exertion other than the sweat streak down their shirts.
He’d never choose this job again for his summer break. He didn’t like the exertion, or the thought that they were on the trail of on awkward grizzly that sounded downright dangerous. He’d thought it would all be patrolling campsites, and meeting young women in need of his help to set up a tent, or to get a campfire going, except he mostly found he was dealing with protective families, and most of them knew more than he did, and soon let him know it. It had been a humiliating experience.
There was only a little water left in his second bottle while Melissa and Scott both had their second bottles to work on. He’d better not sit still for too long or his muscles would set, with all the lactic acid in them, and he’d never be able to continue.