Killing the bear would not bring back his pups.

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A VG Serial: Hills of Eden

Episode 21

He saw the crows then, dozens of them, flapping like black flags through the trees, perched on saplings above the tangled blackberry bushes. He heard, too, the crashing of a large animal in the underbrush. There had been a fire here once, and the big trees had burned to ashes. Now, second growth fought for dominion in the boxed hollow. Berries grew in profusion and it was here that the bear fed.

Jess moved to the open throat of the hollow, treading softly. Brambles tore at his overalls, scratched at his hands. The crows screamed. Then, as if at a signal, they rose from the ground and from the small trees, filling the air with the sound of their flight.

It was suddenly still. Jess’s heart froze. He stopped moving, listened.

He peered intently up the hollow, looking for a black shape.

The silence seeped through him, raised the hackles on the back of his neck. He shivered with a sudden bleak chill.

To his right, the ground rose, a small hog-back of earth that was higher than where he stood. He stepped carefully through the briars, making his way toward higher ground. The steep walls of the bluffs rose above him. He heard the waterfall, saw it glisten like a silver veil in the sun.

On high ground, he saw the trampled path the bear had made. In the center of the hollow, the brush was not so thick, but open, rocky.

The bear rose up, then, its back to Jess. It looked, he thought, like an old woman in a fur coat, its rounded shoulders hunched. He dropped down, his hands shaking, his brain clogged with fear. He eased back the bolt of the rifle. The faint scrape of metal boomed loud against his eardrums. But he knew he had not made much noise. He hoped the little sound would not carry.

The bear grunted as Jess eased himself up out of his crouch. He measured the distance. Fifty yards, perhaps. Less than a hundred.

He brought the rifle to his shoulder, moving like a mime in slow motion. The barrel wavered. Sweat trickled down his face, drenched his eyebrows. Salt stung his eyes, but he dared not brush them.

The barrel steadied as he pulled the rifle hard against his shoulder. He brought the sights into alignment on the bear’s back. He took a breath, held it.

It was then that he saw the cubs. They came boiling out of the bushes above the she-bear, hit the open spot like a pair of furry bowling balls. The first one tripped, went tumbling end over end. The one following bumped into its brother and floundered backward.

Jess saw the bloody slashes on their muzzles.

In that instant, a picture flashed in his mind. He saw the beagles, Skipper and Patsy, ragging the little fellows, nipping at them. He saw the cubs fighting back, heard them squealing.

He looked at the bigger bear again.

This was no rogue bear, but a mother, devoted to protecting her young against all enemies.

A most dangerous bear.

For a long moment, Jess considered following through. His finger caressed the trigger. The she-bear, upwind, had not scented him. Instead, she was intent on watching her cubs. They sat up, engaged in a mock battle, batting each other with their paws. Jess could almost hear them laughing.

He felt badly about the dogs. They had not known about the mother bear. She, seeing her cubs in jeopardy, had probably rushed up with fire in her eyes, swatted them. His heart tugged at the thought of Skippoozer and Patsy locked in combat with the powerful she-bear.

Slowly, Jess brought the rifle down. He drew in a breath. He had stopped shaking. He pushed on the safety.

There was no vengeance in him. Killing the mother bear would not bring back his pups. Rather, such an act would be a subtraction from life. This was the bear’s country, not his. They belonged here, more than he did.

He backed down to the mouth of the hollow. Behind him, he heard the three bears thrashing in the berry bushes. Their scent was overpowering.

The cubs had wandered off, of course. Explored new territory. That was their nature. It was too bad the pups had seen them. But, he couldn’t change what had happened. It just had.

He backed out of the hollow, hunched over like a mendicant, quiet and careful where he stepped.

The rifle was light in his hands. He put it on his shoulder, walked upright through the woods. He didn’t care whether he made noise or not. These were his woods, too. The bears would just have to get used to him, or move on. They would, he knew. The cubs would grow, establish their own territories.

He reached the road, walked to the place where he could see his house. He stood there, for a long time, looking down at it. Smoke from the woodstove lazed from the chimney like a child’s charcoal scrawl.

For a moment, he forgot that the pups were one. He expected them to run up the road, barking at him, scolding him for leaving them behind.

Katie emerged from the spring house, looked up at him. She lifted her hand in a tentative wave.

Jess waved back, his heart suddenly swollen in his chest.

He worked the rifle bolt, spilled the bullets on the ground. Then, he held them up triumphantly.

He began to stride down the road, letting the gravity pull him faster and faster until he was in a lope, hurrying to take Katie is his arms.

Long before he reached her, she started to run, too, and her arms were outstretched in a lover’s welcome.

As he rushed up to her, he saw the bright tears brimming her eyes. They shone, he thought, like the sunlight on the waterfall. Someday, after their child was born, he would take her up there, to the bluffs, to the birthplace of the spring.

Maybe they would see the cubs, too, and their mother, feeding contented in the wild deep hollow that was their home.

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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