This is part three of a four part series. Click here and here for parts one and two. After all the drums, the skins, the grease from the effigy pot, and the rank incense, I
After all the drums, the skins, the grease from the effigy pot, and the rank incense, I was expecting something more traditional when we got back to camp. I was wrong.
The guy I had been thinking of as Left Goon, Roger, opened the back of the van and started handing out plexiglass shields. You know those round ones the police use with protestors? He had better than a half a dozen. We all got one. Then he passed out body armor meant for riot squads, including helmets.
At the same time, two other guys were taking down the tent, but not packing it up. They carried the poles back over to the van and Roger attached metal caps to the ends. He produced a case full of wicked-looking combat knives and slipped them onto loops welded to the caps. They were spears.
I eyed the weapons. “No guns?”
Joseph shook his head as he picked up one of the spears.
“It’s shameful to kill a bear that way. Besides, it’s too quick. The evil spirit won’t die with him. It’ll escape to inhabit someone else.”
Ned glared at him.
“Don’t answer his questions, boy. He’ll get them when it’s over.”
Joseph ducked his head as he reddened with shame. I was left to wonder why a gun was so dishonorable, when being decked out in armor wasn’t.
Once armed, we started off from our base camp and skirted the mountain. As we came around its side, a second mountain rose to flank us, and soon we were going upslope, ascending a low pass.
The image of American mountains plastered all over phone and TV screens is that of the Rockies. The Ozarks, Appalachians, and Blue Ridge mountains look nothing like them. They aren’t sharp, granite gray peaks. Instead, they’re jagged green mounds, mantled in tall Southern pines with sprawling branches that break the sun’s rays, or ancient oaks that rise through the shadows like towers to catch a glimpse of sky. The storms and humidity of the South keeps the ground well-watered. Thick underbrush grows up in many places. It is a dark, green world, a wild and twilit place. It is a place for hunting.
There was a crack that sounded like a rifle shot. It echoed across the forested slopes. Ned raised his hand for us to stop.
I crouched down by Roger. “Hunter?”
He shook his head. “Listen.”
It came again, this time with a resonant undertone that was unlike any gunshot.
“It’s him,” Roger said. “The bear. He knocks on the trees.”
More cracks echoed off the wooded mountainsides.
“Shouldn’t we move towards it?”
Without even facing me, he shook his head.
“It’s a trick. Others will be waiting in ambush.”
Others? Bears weren’t pack animals. Even wolves and lions didn’t lure prey into ambushes, as far as I knew.
As the shield weighed down my arm, I looked at the others. This wasn’t a hunt. It was a war party.
That was when I recognized the look in their eyes. Being so far out of my element, these men had just seemed like threats, with the power to crush me at will, if they wished.
But there was terror in their eyes.
However strong that terror was, whatever it was they feared, it didn’t matter. They were here to fight, and the enemy was real enough to scare them.
Ned set off into the woods again, leaving the narrow deer track we had been following. Two of the men, whose names I did not know, drifted off to the right, lost in leaves. The rest of us were strung out in a line, but I could hear them shadowing us, further up the slope.
But the first assault did not come from upslope.
A stone flew out of the darkness to our left and slammed into Roger’s shield. It was the size of a bowling ball, and Roger was barely two steps in front of me. I couldn’t tell if the snap was cracking plexiglass or his arm breaking. He cursed and fell to one knee.I knew that he would die if I didn’t act. I planted my shield in front of him, facing the direction the rock had been hurled from. I expected something massive to rush us. We were met with silence.
A sharp whistle came from over my right shoulder and I turned to see the others retreating. Joseph nodded in their direction. He was guarding Roger’s back as he went, and the wounded man was already on his feet. I followed, pointing my spear back towards the woods.
“That was a rock!” My skin prickled with sweat. “What’s out there? Bears don’t throw rocks!”
“They don’t knock trees either, Jon,” Roger snarled. “Treat it like a man.”
We ended up in a small meadow where the slope of the mountain ran shallow. Roger, Jericho, and I formed one corner of a triangle. There was a knot with Ned and two other men across the glade, and the two who had gone upslope formed the third point. Everyone faced the woods.
Roger raised his shield. Something flashed out of the woods between our position and Ned’s, but instead of slamming into him like the rock, it glanced off the half-turned shield and landed in the grass. A crude spear.
As I thought these were no animals we were fighting, a roar like rolling thunder came from my other side and a dark form the size of a truck rushed out of the trees. A mass of fur and fang hurdled towards me. I jumped out of its way, turning my spear towards the beast. There was a shock of impact, a bellow of pain and anger. The mountain of muscle stood between me and the other men.
Roger was tossed down on his wounded arm, howling. It stood now, looming over him like a thunderhead, twice the height of a man. Joseph thrust his spear, but a massive paw swatted it aside. There were shouts in the distance, but the other men wouldn’t be here in time. On my side, the hollow of its neck was exposed. I thrust.
Monsters don’t die all at once. Blood sprayed, then spurted, then poured. As the beast bled, it turned on me. My spear was twisted out of my grip and a hammer blow broke my shield. My arm went numb. It roared, weaker this time, as I stumbled back. It was dying.
Joseph picked up one of the fallen spears and drove another blow home into its side. The others joined us. Its defense grew clumsy and desperate. A last thrust from one of the men felled it.
In the madness of that final fight, I was prepared for anything—a prehistoric monster, or a creature from half-remembered legends. Maybe other men. That was not what met my gaze, lying in its pooled blood with eyes already growing dull in death.
It was only a brown bear—enormous, but otherwise ordinary.