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Flame Bound

by Christopher T. Garry

Part 1 appears
in this issue.

After fifteen minutes of traversing the slope, as she came around a bend she immediately dropped to her knees to freeze. She was far closer than she had planned. Blast the distraction of the terrain and wandering thoughts. Before her was the landing zone, a pocket in the brush to the right that was held back on the far side by rising trees. To the left she could see up the slope where the massive animal had crushed a path sliding into the pocket.

Black streaks smeared along the way and it was an alarming amount if it really were blood. Beyond the right the pocket seemed to disappear into dark forest, over impossible brush, boulders and small trees. In the shaded middle lay the great bear, perhaps only twenty yards from her. He was faced away from her, tangled in a mass of high grass, branches and logs that followed him down the slope, covering him in a sort of shallow grave.

She was irritated with herself for stumbling so close to the area without scouting it better. Furthermore it dawned on her that she was upwind of the landing zone. Heart pounding she dared not move until she knew whether the bear was aware of her presence.

He was still. She waited.

Was it a he? At that size she could not imagine it to be a female. Even at this distance and half obscured, the animal still was an imposing presence. At home under a nearby bridge there was a concrete troll fashioned to look as if it was crushing a Beetle into the ground. Little of the car remained there, and what she could see here of the exposed brown pelt indicated something no smaller than that car. That put him at a minimum of twelve hundred pounds.

Anna ventured a look at her watch. It had been ten minutes and nothing had moved. She could not make out any breathing, but was frankly too far to see that. She elected to skirt the area to the north and see whether she could get an angle on the head. She crossed slowly, low to the ground, moving up the slope and coming finally to the landing path. A sickly smell rose to meet her and confirmed the blackened streaks were a blood trail.

She rested here, hoping the smell would obscure her presence. Her perspective on the carcass was clearer at this angle. There were several puncture wounds in the bear’s coat and she could see torn flesh. Several wounds had broad branches protruding from them.

Of course, she thought, the momentum must have propelled him to be impaled several times throughout his fall. His rear hips were at an improbable angle and she ventured a guess that his back was broken, probably in several places. She noted that his fur was silvered in places, either wet with blood or perhaps faded and tipped with gray.

Was he dispatched in a fight? Was he aged? Had he stumbled? Had he spent his life atop the mountain only to slip stupidly from a stump and fall ingloriously to this death a thousand feet below his home territory? How did bears normally die? Territorial battle? Drowned fishing? Heart attacks from geriatric strain? Or did they all die in their sleep during hibernation? As much as she knew about bear life, she did not know their deaths.

Her brow furrowed and she looked over the top of her shades. The bear was breathing. She paused and she could her sister’s voice rising with concern. “Um, Anna...?” Actually he was breathing faster by the moment. The bear had noticed her. One paw swept backwards and bashed a log. It feebly scratched for traction and then came forward again.

The head did not move but suddenly she was able to distinguish movement in the one eye that was on her side. The eye was not looking in her direction.

A low grumble reached her ears, almost subsonic at first and then finishing with a wet squeak as the bear suddenly inhaled. She tracked the gaze to the left and at about fifty yards out to a dry, barkless tree that had long ago crushed itself into the side of the slope. It seemed to be a knuckle in the very side of the mountain.

She blinked at the overly lit area outside her shade. The bone-dry wood became clearer as she tipped her head back up to see through the polarized plastic.

There was a cougar on the gnarled wood, statue-still and regarding with great intensity the landing zone and the disaster it held. The cougar indicated no awareness or interest in her, and only fixated on the bear. Anna reasoned that it had approached from downwind, probably attracted by either the disturbance or the smell of what it thought might be a fresh kill. It might be just curiosity that held its attention now, since it had probably been there for quite a while.

Anna shifted off her ankles and sat back on the slope. The cat glanced in her direction once and hunkered down, his attention immediately focusing on the bear again. His coat was magnificent and blended him to the dry grass behind him perfectly. He was small, probably less than one hundred fifty pounds and would normally never dare consider such potential prey as a bear. A single cat is no match for even a small bear, at least not a healthy one.

Anna returned her gaze to the bear, which wheezed quietly, unmoving. He was alive and was surely in pain and shock, but hardly mobile. She doubted the bear could even lift its head. She imagined the shattered bones and other injuries were draining away the bear’s blood and soul.

She would not leave it in this condition. However, if she moved toward the bear, she risked having the golden cat becoming intensely interested in her instead of the bear. If she moved away, she would be chased and caught for sure.

She looked up to try to see the original trail and the outcropping. She was under it, and the angle did not allow her to see any of the hikers who might have come to the promontory for the view from several hundred yards above her.

Anna sighed. She was essentially bound to this scene for the time being and her best option was to wait, relatively safe, sitting obscured, in the blood trail of the bear. She kept her hand on the pack and another hand on her utility knife.

* * *

The sun crept further to the right and the shadows lengthened across the cat’s log. It had been hours now since the bear had moved and the cat looked decidedly bored. However it had not retreated from its perch.

When it stood up suddenly it looked to her like a house cat stirring when his patch of sun moved. It dropped to the forest floor and the illusion was gone. The cougar crept up in range of the bear. Fluidly, Anna reached for a rock, pulled on her pack and stood nearly straight up. She was waiting for this. She knew what she wanted to do but needed the cat to make the first move.

When it was as far from the bear as she was, the three formed a triangle. The cat stopped and flattened its ears. The bear’s wheezing changed and the great paw swept across its view again.

The cat circled closer and came between Anna and the bear. The cat seemed oblivious to her still as it was so focused on the bear. The bear’s eye tracked the cat and grew furious. Blood trickled from the bear’s mouth as it finally raised its head. The cat was in full alert and growling back. It crept closer and smelled the trail just a few feet from the bear. Its mouth opened wider. The bear jerked its paw slightly and the cat roared and flew up in the air, rearing on its two hind legs and closing its forepaws on open air in front of the bear. It came down in front of him almost flat to the ground.

At the same time, in a flash of black-matted fur the bear’s other paw which had been tucked under his muzzle shot out and swung dangerously close to the cat, as the front of the bear rolled backwards crushing one of the trunks holding it in place. The lower half of the bear remained in place in a sickening twist that defied logic.

The cat lunged forward, mouth agape. The bear’s left paw that had previously only managed a feeble wave now came down on the cat’s skull pinning it soundly. The cat panicked and twisted, its rear feet coming around and striking mid-air, too slow to stop the bear’s clawed grip from dragging the cat into gaping jaws. They closed around the cat’s face in an instant, and with a crack it was lifeless.

* * *

Anna was breathless. She dropped the stone and stumbled back. The entire dance had lasted seconds. She began to doubt what she was doing. The rock was useless. The knife and rope were useless. She shivered.

She had forgotten why she had come on the hike in the first place. An argument, really? She was off the trail in coming dusk at least a half a day’s hike from either her truck in one direction or from the river exit in the other. There was blood everywhere and surely the one cougar was not the only thing that would be attracted to the bear’s demise. She felt stupid and small and alone.

Still backing up, she fell hard on her butt and stared, but the bear did not move. The cat that could have destroyed her in an instant was itself now lifeless before her. The bear was alone again after killing the only thing it thought was threatening and it was staring at her with no more regard than a bug.

What in the world did she expect to accomplish here? The bear seemed to relax at her retreat and he laid his bloody muzzle down on his right paw. His breathing slowed and he began to wheeze again. Blood pooled around him and he pushed the cat away.

Her eyes glazed and she tried to clear her head. She hated the bear for killing the cat. It was nothing to him. It wouldn’t feed him and he was dying anyway, why destroy something that soundly in your last hours?

And why did the cat act so stupidly? No cougar in its right mind would go after a bear. There was plenty of other game, it should not have been starved or crazed. Was it curiosity? Posturing? Territory?

She wondered vaguely if there was a den nearby with waiting kits in it. It was possible. How could she begrudge any animal surviving by hunting? Or defending itself?

She was in over her head. What would she do now, go snooping in holes? Reach into a motherless den and pull out tiny kits? She had done that kind of thing all her life and now look where she was. There was nothing to be done about it now. She was a bit player in a great play, on stage in full bloody color, right in front of her.

Her passion hadn’t saved her sister either. Can’t reach into burning wreck and pull out a tiny girl. Not when you are tiny and broken yourself.

* * *

With that image in her mind she clutched her temples and squeezed her eyes shut against the flames. The fire. Fire. She snapped to.

She looked up. She had to build a fire. Leaving this late for a half-day hike was not an option, and she began to plan her survival for the night. Around her there was plenty of brush to start a fire.

She cautiously eyed the bear and began to move about without turning her back to it. It paid her no attention and its breathing got shallower. She cleared a spot about twenty feet from the bear, dug out a hollow with a sharp stone and circled the pit with large stones. She filled it with brush and branches and crushed logs from the around the far side of the bear.

After lighting the fire she decided it was time to move the cat. The bear huffed only once and its paw fell limply from the cat’s back as Anna heaved it to the left embankment. There was a space there between large roots and the cat fit snugly inside. She avoided the head as she positioned it gingerly and filled the rest of the space with leaves brush and then large stones to secure it from all but the largest of scavengers.

She retreated to the fireside opposite the bear, collapsed in a pile and removed her boots. She wiggled her toes in the firelight. The bear breathed slowly but steadily, its one available eye reflecting the firelight easily. It must be in complete shock now and very close to death, she concluded. It wouldn’t be long now. She bit her lower lip and fingered the hilt of her knife, deliberating her part in his ending.

Anna waited until it was nearly completely dark. The bear was breathing so slowly that she couldn’t hear it anymore, but could only see its chest rise once in a while. She stood and, still barefoot, crept around the back of the landing zone and slowly put her hand out to the bear’s shoulder. The fur twitched and she went breathless, but unmoving. After a moment, she deepened her touch.

Without warning or sound, his great head swung around, as big as a boulder. He looked at her and she almost faltered. But she could see pain and blood and broken skin and bone and matted fur. In the eyes she saw nothing, as if he was looking through her. His massive head only lingered a moment and slumped again.

She placed both hands now on him and he exhaled under her touch. The fire swelled and she laid her head on him. Her heart pounded and she thought she would faint from the stench and smoke. She gripped the fur but to her it was her sister’s hand now entwined with hers. Her breathing slowed with the bear’s. The reflected flame in her eyes burst and blazed.

“I did it,” she muttered, and the great bear was dead.

Copyright © 2013 by Christopher T. Garry

Proceed to Challenge 522...

[Author’s note] Originally published in The Criterion 3:4 (2012) as “The Weight of Shadow.”

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