If the bear got behind him, he was trapped.

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A VG Serial: Hills of Eden

Episode 20

Katie’s eyes took on a kind of whimpering light and Jess saw it, felt the coldness of morning rise up again, flow through him, jolt his bones like granny’s “arthuritis.”

He swallowed air to keep the bile in his stomach down, threw a hand in the air.

“See ya ‘fore long,” he said, knowing the words were wrong. These were not the words he wanted to say, meant to say. Ah, his throat was tight, his chest cloudy still with the nightdamp, fogged in like the hollows where the wide branch ran, the hills where the rivers flowed beneath the ghostly bluffs, under the haunting trees standing like dumb sentinels, rooted to the earth, scarred with certain parts o its history.

He could almost hear Katie say “be keerful” again, and he knew he could hear her stifled sob.

At the top of the road, where mist still hung in the poke leaves, the berry brambles, he turned, looked at her again. And the sob he heard was his own.

When he turned back to the road, he stepped into his father’s footsteps, his grandfather’s. He walked over silted footprints left by Osage Indians over a century ago. He thought of the old Lancaster County flintlock back at the house, grandpa’s, its wood eaten away by time, its frizzen balled up now with a thick spiderweb he hadn’t the heart to ream out, its ramrod frozen against the stock, swollen by moisture, its brass discolored, ravaged by corrosive rust. Heavy as a hickory limb with its long, big bored barrel, its German lock stiffened into a kind of metallic death, its graceful lines marred by the wounds in its maple stock, its patchbox dulled by a hundred years of disuse and neglect.

And the rifle in his hand turned heavy as any Pennsylvania flinter, weighted him down until his shoulder ached.

Jess smelled the scent as he knew he would. A giant paw seemed to wipe away all thoughts of Katie and the babe she carried in her swollen womb.

He stepped off the road, onto a trail where the deer crossed from ridge to ridge, down through the hollow, leaving their rubs on saplings, their musk scrapes in soft loamy earth. Leaving their shadows among the fallen skeletons of leaves, their hoofprints sunk deep in the hillside like cuneiform messages.

But the scent of bear was strong in his nostrils, and the fear too, like a cloying fragrance of deep woods where the blue clay spring eked from the rocks, where the land had not been timbered off and the hardwoods thick on steep slopes that rose to the high bluffs of the valley’s ridge.

The bear had murdered both of his beagle hounds the night before. Black bear. Old bear, probably. Mean bear, certainly.

Jess followed the scent, down trail and through thin, second-growth woods, above the hollow where last fall he had shot a 6-point buck through the heart, feasted on deer meat all winter. He had smoked haunches and ribs over a slow hickory fire, hung the carcass in the spring house until nothing was left but the skeleton.

The beagle pups, Skipper and Patsy, had chewed bones and sucked marrow until the bear had come, slaying them with mighty paw swipes until there was nothing left of them but the shrill echo of their yelps and their crumpled black and tan hides holding only broken bones and jellied bones.

He still found it hard to believe the dogs were dead. They had been fearless. Many’s the time they had chased old man Sisco’s prize bull, or Cantwell’s pigs, including Lord Randal, the meanest Poland China boar in Taney County. Maybe he should have trained them better. He might have taught them not to attack a full grown bear.

Jess’s eyes stung when he thought of the pups and his stomach knotted when he thought of the outlaw bear.

Outlaw? This border country of the Ozarks had known Quantrill, and Montgomery, and Bloody Bill Anderson. The infamous Alf Bolin. There was blood on the land, and it had soaked through time, left its smear on every sunrise and sunset so that the people would never forget the dark riders who had roamed these hills with knife and rifle, the Kansas Jayhawkers, the Unionists, the Rebels, the robbers, the refugees, the neutrals.

The fear built up in him and he wondered if he could do it, could even find the bear, and if, when he found it, kill it without thought of meat or survival, but only for revenge, only for payment in kind for the deaths of two beagle pups.

“Skippoozer,” he said to himself, a baby-talk name for Skipper. When he thought of little Patsy, Skip’s sister, he choked up, could not say her name.

She had been the bold one, always getting Skipper into trouble. Why, once she even treed a bobcat, and when it finally got fed up with the barking and jumped out of the tree to attack, Patsy skedaddled for her hiding place under the house, leaving Skipper to fight off fifty pounds of clawing cat. More than once, Skipper had wound up with the copperhead bite when he knew that Patsy had started the fight. Maybe she had tackled the bear first this time, too, and hadn’t gotten away in time.

He walked very quietly now, the bear smell strong in his nostrils. He stayed downwind, following the contour of the hill. The bear would be below the bluffs, where the spring tumbled into a deep hollow, running off a sheer chunk of rock so that it made a lacy waterfall so pretty he wished sometimes he could freeze it, take it home to Katie.

She had never come here. The climb was too steep in her condition. But, he would bring her here someday. If the bear didn’t kill him. That was the trouble with a rogue bear. It had killed two dogs, senselessly. Swiped them with huge claws as if they were gnats or mosquitoes. Such a bear would as soon kill a man. It had come close to home, and that wasn’t natural. Maybe it had come for the berries that grew along the fence. He should have checked there for sign.

He heard the crows. But they weren’t cawing at him. They were thick in the deep hollow below the bluffs. He moved toward the lower end, where it was open. The brush was thick in there. It would be like going into a box. If the bear got behind him, he would be trapped.

Hills of Eden will be published every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.

Please click the title, Hills of Eden, to read more about Jory Sherman and his books.

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