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 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 damage done when wolves had been mostly eliminated. 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.
Scott stayed on his feet, looking around where he could see everything. He was always vigilant and still damnably fresh. He was as wiry and as tough as old leather. He saw everything of importance, while Hal saw nothing.
He knew what they could be walking into. He’d told Melissa, matter-of-factly, that if he needed to shoot the bear, she should lie down if the bear charged. She already knew that, from bitter experience. It had worked out wonderfully for her in the end, once she’d recovered from the horror of seeing a mountain of angry bear coming at her through the bush at unbelievable speed, snapping off small trees in its dash to get to her after she had darted it from what she thought had been good cover, and from more than a hundred feet above it.
Scott would get its attention if he didn’t kill it outright with his first shot, which was when it should lose interest in her or anything else except him; the perpetrator of this other more terrible pain. The relatively low velocity, hollow-point bullets, which he loaded himself, and which were the only ones in the clip he had in the gun, would tear an exit hole three inches wide through whatever they hit.
He might get off one or two shots; three if he was lucky. After the first one, the angry bear, if still on its feet, would be coming straight at him like an express train.
He wanted it that way. He’d taken on Grizzlies, twice before, with the blood pounding in his ears fit to burst his eardrums. On both occasions he’d ignored his own primal urge to run, as he had focused on what he needed to do, to do it quickly, but to do it right the first time. Another’s life depended on him keeping his wits about him. It would take him three seconds for his first shot, to be sure of hitting the moving bear at a distance, two for his second, and a second and a half for each shot following that as the bear got closer and he could be sure of hitting it wherever he needed to. After six seconds, it would be over for one of them. Six seconds of eternity. The difference between life and a very violent death.
The second shot would bring it down or kill it. His third shot, if he was lucky enough to get a third one off, would finish it.
Melissa knew all of that. She trusted Scott. He didn’t miss. Ever. She trusted him with her life and had done so more than once.
She knew the exact, terrifying moment she had fallen in love with him, three years previously. That had been because of a Grizzly like this one. Scott had moved between her and the charging bear, which didn’t even see him in that first anger-filled moment, but was focused only on her.
He had killed it with his third shot. It was coming straight for her after she had fired that tranquilizer gun into it, and it had finished up no more than five feet from them both, still charging, but with Scott’s third shot from only twenty feet away, having blown its neck and half of its head off. She had never been so scared in all of her life as she was then; so scared, and trembling, she couldn’t walk for a few minutes. She couldn’t say anything, but had just dropped to the ground, her legs no longer able to support her.
It gave you a new respect for nature when it unexpectedly came close to turning the tables on you like that.
Scott had always regretted killing that bear. He regretted having to kill anything, but sometimes it was necessary to protect those you loved. Not everything went according to plan, and you had to be ready for those times.
As they recovered enough to talk, he suggested, with a wry chuckle as he’d reloaded the clip, that next time she should maybe try and fire that sedative from a place where it would make it harder for a bear to get to her before the tranquilizer took effect. Preferably from a helicopter, or a vehicle, or at least from where the bear could not detect where the dart had come from.
She hadn’t believed anyone could laugh about that, after what had happened, while she was crying, but by then she was just glad to have Scott there, holding her, feeling her trembling, speaking to her consolingly, and smoothing the hair back from her dry forehead. He had hugged her and kissed her, telling her that he wouldn’t know what to do without her, so to please be more careful. She wasn’t sure, and couldn’t remember very clearly now, but Scott might even have been trembling himself, and shedding a tear at how close he had come to losing her.
Having a man cry over her as he held her close and telling her how much he loved her, was a first, for her. He’d asked her to marry him at that same moment, and she’d accepted.
It had been a cathartic necessity that they make love after that, for the first time, by the still-warm body of that bear.
Scott had then removed several of its claws, extracted one of its teeth as they had planned to do after it was sedated; took a few blood samples, and then radioed in, to report what had happened. The helicopter would be with them in another hour to take out a dead, rather than a sedated, bear. Until then, they waited, sitting, holding each other, and talking about many things, but mostly about each other. Then, they had made love again.
There had not been a day since then, when they had not shared their every living moment together. She never regretted marrying him just a month after that, despite the ten years difference in their ages, and the different way they each saw the same things. Marrying him had been the best life-changing decision she had ever made.
They approached the bear’s last known position, cautiously, and silently, ready for anything. They knew about this bear. He was a crafty bugger. If he was injured or guarding a kill, he might just charge them to intimidate them if they got too close to him, and then change his mind about stopping. The birds in the surrounding trees gave no warning of any danger, other than to object to their being there.
Scott searched the hillside on the other side of small gulley, through those binoculars he always carried, frequently taking them from his eyes to be sure that danger was not closer than where he was looking. Sometimes the birds didn’t even know where the real danger was.
He’d spotted something. He walked over to Melissa, looking back to see where Hal was. Fortunately, the kid knew enough not to shout or to ask anything without being within touching distance, but he was too tired to be curious, and just wanted to get back down to the vehicle where he could rest his aching muscles, and drink.
Hal was catching his breath, utterly beat, his back to them, inattentive to everything. He would be let go in another week, if not before.
He could impress his equally naïve fellow students with his exaggerated adventures that summer, while avoiding describing the small humiliations that just kept mounting, the torture of tired muscles, the never ending flies, the heat, the outdoor privy, or the chemical toilets with their gut-wrenching smells. Then there were the wasps that had built a nest in that one toilet. They’d been harder to clean out than he expected. Most of all he missed the electricity that he had grown so dependent upon. He would never tell them about the horror he had felt, of feeling hunted, when he had left his tent to go to the toilet late one night—one without wasps, fortunately—and had locked himself in, not daring to leave until it was first light, and hearing voices close by as he had listened to a large animal snuffing around outside. He wouldn’t be doing anything like this, ever again. Once, was more than enough.
Melissa took the binoculars Scott passed her as he pointed without saying anything, his hand resting on her waist, holding her steady and close to him. He could feel the sweat streak on the gentle curve of her back as she looked over to where he had pointed. His arm slid around her just above her belt, with his fingers intruding into a space where there was a button missing, to rest on her warm skin. She leaned back into him. It excited him to touch her like that. It excited her too. With her sighting along his arm, and his other around her, he took the opportunity to kiss her under the ear, and then to tease at her ear lobe with his lips as he breathed into her neck, and groaned in frustration. He wanted her, she could feel that about him, and she would have loosened her shorts, and helped him take her just like that, but for their companion. She knew what he was feeling and rested her hand on his for a moment.
Hal, inattentive to everything, would not see that, or would think that Scott was sighting along his arm for Melissa.
She swore at what she could see, despite that welcome display of Scott’s affection for her. They didn’t need to be so very cautious about that bear now, though Scott was, knowing that it could be anywhere, even behind them. But that was him. That’s what made him so right for this job, and why she loved him. He’d never trust this, or any other bear. Anyone who thought they could predict how a bear might react was living on borrowed time. They’d found that out more than once when they had been called to the scene of an attack. Some stupid visitor, trying to impress his kids with how brave he was by feeding the bears from his open car window, had paid the price. It had cost that man his arm, and very nearly his life when the bear had lunged, its jaws closing tightly on his hand, pulling him against the partially open window as it tore his arm off against the glass edge. His screams had been heard for half a mile.
They found the collar caught on a stub of a branch only four feet off the ground. One side of the tree trunk, low-down, was polished smooth from animals rubbing against it over the decades, while above, it had been torn and scarred by Grizzlies using it to sharpen their claws. There was a large patch of reddish hair on the torn-up ground beneath it. That bear had pulled against the collar caught on that stub, and lost hair from his head as he had slipped out of it. He was now free. It had just been a matter of time before that collar would have come off him anyway. He was losing condition, and weight.
They recovered it from the branch, intact. There were several more clumps of hair on the sharp ends of nearby dead branches, and some signs of blood, left there as he had struggled to free himself from where his collar had been caught.
Scott looked around. “Stay put.” He spoke to Hal, knowing that he was in a safe place, and he and Melissa followed the trail just out of sight as though wanting to be sure about something.
They were not gone for long, appearing after only five minutes. Both were smiling. They felt relieved, and Melissa had another damp place to contend with, but at least they had got rid of that frustration for a while.
He spoke, mostly for Hal’s benefit. “He went west, toward Hudgin’s Mills. Forty miles. A couple of days ago. He’s not injured in any way that leaves a trail.” Scott sighed and glanced over to Melissa, smiling at him, and looking like the cat that got the cream.
“Two days head start, and no way to track him now. He’s off the reservation again, and no saying where he will wind up. He could be four miles away, or forty.”
Or watching them.
Melissa should have let Scott shoot it the last time, after the incident with the sheep.
“Then we wait.” She didn’t continue what she was now thinking, with a growing dread of what they would wait for: news of it killing again. Maybe a human next time, and it could all be laid at her door for not letting Scott shoot it when he had suggested he should.
Hudgin’s Mills. She had relatives over there. She’d make a few calls when they got back, and let them know to keep an eye open for a big bear gone off the reservation, and to let her or Scott know if they heard or saw anything.
The law of unintended consequences could work either way, and might come back to bite her.
August 22nd. Thread two: Twin Falls.
“Are you going to accept that teaching job at the school up at Hudgin’s Mills?
The speaker’s son, Doug, paused from what he was doing, scraping down a shelf. He knew it would come up for discussion eventually. His father had been too quiet.
“Yes dad, I decided I would. I already accepted. It’s just for a year, or it could be less if Uncle Phil recovers quickly.”
“Waste of a good Physics degree, isn’t it, going to teach in a high school of all places, and taking you away from university? And why would they take on a twenty-year old like you with no teaching experience?”
Doug knew his younger sister, Mary, sixteen, was listening to their exchange. She was taking inventory before they restocked the shelves in that section of the store.
“Teaching, is not a waste of time, Dad.” His father hadn’t meant it to sound like criticism. “And they gave me a year off to finish my PhD.
“I have some teaching experience and good references. That’s why they offered me the job.
“I would like to help out Uncle Phillip while he’s in hospital, recovering. He helped me enough. He got me where I am, so I’ll return the favor and protect his job for him.” Doug’s father knew enough just to listen. He was proud of his son (as well as both of his daughters) and the unbelievable progress Doug had made in just the three years he had been at university.
“I filled in at the Jesuit high school near the university on a part time basis for two terms, and they appreciated it. I enjoyed it. I learned more than they did. They were bright kids.” He was still a kid himself in his father’s and mother’s eyes. He was painfully shy, and they would always want to protect him, but he didn’t need protecting now. He had learned to look after himself.
All the way through school, and for the first years at University, he had been the odd one out. He still was. He’d been two-years younger than anyone else all the way through school and university. Intellectually, he was far beyond them, and even beyond some of his teachers and lecturers, but psychologically inferior, for a while.
When he had gone to teach in that Jesuit high school for boys, filling in for another missing teacher, albeit for only four hours a week, everything had changed for him. He had then been looked up to by the students he taught; respected for once; top dog. Rooster on the top of the manure pile of his own small empire. It felt good to be appreciated.
He never met any of the other teachers at that school, and he was glad of that. He had entered the school, had gone straight to the classroom, and then had headed back to university when the class ended. The Principal, a calmly confident intellectual in his own way, and with few prejudices or hang-ups about anything, entrusted one of the appreciative students to pass Mr. Haldane an envelope containing a modest check, once each month.
Doug’s father said nothing more to put him off. He was proud of his son. His son had the world by the tail and would make his own way in life. He’d already got a good start on it, and would be back at university when his Uncle Phillip got out of hospital and had recuperated.
“When do you go?”
“School starts the seventh of next month. Just over two weeks. I’ll walk there for the hell of it. I need the break. It’s a couple of valleys over. Only fifty miles. It will give me a week to settle in before school starts.”
It would be a tough fifty miles.
“Why?” His father paused in his restocking the shelves. “Why would you want to do that? I can drive you there in a few hours, or Phoebe can drive you. Mary has her license too. It’s only a hundred miles by road.” (Phoebe was his elder sister by four years, While Mary, was younger by four years.) However, he knew that once his son had made up his mind, not much would change it.
“I need a break, Dad, and I enjoy the fresh air and good exercise.” His father knew better than to argue with him. Young men had their own way of doing things, and needed the freedom to do so. Especially his son, so he accepted Doug’s decision.
Doug continued. “I wrote the Principal last week; Prentise, and told him I would be there on the fifth to get signed in. They sent me the contract to read. It’s all boilerplate, and pretty straightforward.”
Mary said nothing of her understanding of what that contract meant. She’d read it. You had to sign your life away.
’No inappropriate interactions between teacher or student at any time… (‘inappropriate’, translation: No screwing around with the female students at any time, no matter how encouraging, insistent, or willing they might be when they cornered you in a classroom. Some of those girls had no shame, or restraint).
It also applied to the female teachers, with the boys and their importuning, as the boys would if they could get away with it. But only if the female teacher was young enough and pretty enough. And susceptible.
She kept those thoughts to herself. Some of those girls would try to take advantage of her brother, and his easy-going nature and naiveté when it came to the opposite sex, unless she was there to keep an eye on him and to keep them in line. But she said nothing of that thought, just yet. There had been a lot more in that contract: …something about ethics, a confidentiality agreement, a non-disclosure agreement, proper dress, deportment, and language. And another about use of alcohol outside of laboratory experiments. There could be no disparaging the school at any time; no press statements that did not go through the proper channels, and all teaching materials and course contents were to be approved by the school. They also became the property of the school. It was mostly just innocuous-sounding language, but there were a lot of hidden hooks in there that needed a sharp mind to spot. If the school felt the need to get rid of you for any reason, they would have no difficulty, and the teacher would have little recourse.
“Let us know your route, Doug, and then if we don’t hear from you…”
“I’ll be okay, Dad.” He had an afterthought. “There are a couple of cases in my bedroom, and two cardboard boxes of books I’ll need. If you could get them up to the high school, or Uncle Phillip’s place, by the fourth or fifth, or see they get on the bus before then. They are already addressed.”
Mary spoke up. “I’ll go with you, Dad. Or I’ll go with Phoebe.” Of course she would. They might let her drive back, and she wanted to see the school for herself, and make up her mind on that other matter about a new school. She decided to float that trial balloon and see what reception it got.
“Maybe I can change schools for a year, and have my own brother teach me. I’ve heard good things about that school and the physics lab up there. The physics teacher where I am is a dead loss, and doesn’t know anything. I could go and live in Uncle Phillip’s house with Doug. Uncle Phillip won’t mind.”
No one said anything to put her off, but maybe they hadn’t realized that she was being serious. Or they knew that arguing with either of the Haldane girls, or even with Doug, only caused them to dig in deeper, like jiggling a fat tick that was well embedded on the edge of a dog’s ear.
August 28th. The Third Thread: Hudgin’s Mills Lake.
Susan Whitcomb’s eighteenth birthday, and that of her brother, James, six years younger, was on the same day, tomorrow, Saturday, but the weather forecast suggested that they’d never get out in the boat then for the fishing trip their father had promised his soon-to-be twelve year old son. He had already cancelled their camping trip for that long weekend, putting it off to the next weekend, and would now have to move the fishing trip too, to that Friday.
They decided to make it a family outing to rescue their daughter from herself and her anger with the world, all because of her friends.
They would all go out on the lake today, and rest at home on Saturday for their usual birthday celebrations as a family, and then on Sunday, the rest of their close relatives could join them for Sunday dinner.
Susan had not liked the idea of the boat outing. She was in one of those moods that young women took into their heads when things turned against them. Some of her friends at school had fallen out with her, for whatever reason (she wasn’t saying, but she was feeling it). She had not wanted to go out with her family that day, but her mother had been able to persuade her. The alternative was to stay home, become even more depressed, and mope. The boat trip had been the lesser of two evils.
After a hurried lunch, they’d motored down to the bottom end of the lake, where it went into the gorge, but half a mile above that noisy maelstrom, dropped anchor, and had fished for a while, but nothing was biting.
George’s wife and daughter were both patient with this male dominion, sensing James’s excitement every time something nibbled at his line. Another ten minutes and then they’d head home. There would be other days for fishing.
That was when the wind caught them by surprise. It swept in over the trees, tearing twigs and leaves off them, and swirling them around like a tornado, as it also kicked up the waves.
The anchor started to drag, and then it let go. It had never done that before.
Mr. Whitcomb moved to the engine, which he had left ticking over, and twisted the throttle.
For the first time ever, it stalled. He swore and pulled at the starting rope. Nothing. He tried again, and again, several times, and then primed it. He did not know why it would not start as it always had before, except it must have flooded.
They couldn’t paddle against that wind as the boat had a modest superstructure that caught any breeze. Without the engine, and with no anchor, the boat was heading in only one direction, picked up by the current. They were being pulled into the gorge.
“You two,” he pointed to his son and daughter with urgency, clearly about to tolerate no argument from either of them, “get into the cockpit.”
They knew what was going to happen, and obeyed. Anything that went into that gorge did not come out in one piece.
“What can I do, George?” His wife was aware of what faced them, and was as concerned as he was.
“Nothing, Dora,”—he smiled grimly—“except hang onto me, and anything else you can hold onto, get low, and pray.”
They could see what was happening, but were helpless to do anything about it as they were sucked down into that giant boiling maw, which generated its own clouds, its own rainbow, and its own local weather: ‘incessantly stormy’. How they would come out of it, was the next unknown.
Part way down, was a whirlpool. In the days of sending logs down the river to the sawmills near the coast, there were tales of logs arriving from that gorge, sharpened like a pencil at one end from the swirling action against the bedrock of the river, after being caught in that, and dragged down. With luck, they would make it through, though with the water level this low….
The Lesser Hell’s Canyon Gorge was fifteen miles of boiling, churning, aptly-named, hell. It was an obstacle course of rocks that would smash a fiberglass boat into shreds, and had done, often enough. Fortunately their boat was aluminum, so might just get banged around but would stay in one piece if the welding held and the metal did not tear. What it would do to them, inside it, was another story.
The first thing to go was the motor; torn off the transom, along with most of the wood it was fastened to, and taking the gas tank with it in a giant arc, lifted out of the boat.
George took his wife into his arms and they huddled low against the small forward bulkhead, and next to the crawlspace where their son and daughter had taken refuge, for all the good that might do them, and they hung on.
One thought went through his mind.
Hell of a day for a birthday celebration.
It might be the last day any of them would see.