Excerpt from Chapter 8 — Caine
I stood on the perimeter and was as still as I could be upward of two hours. I found that watching the sky and ignoring the cold as it stung my frostbitten feet offered a strange sense of peace and comfort.
Daniel was near Jimmy.
We didn’t talk for two hours.
I let my eyes roam the area. Above were the tops of pines, aspen, and conifers. I memorized the delicate fan-shape of the pines, the translucence white branches of the aspen, the intricate conifer needles—and the way these were outlined individually and in massive shape together against the blue cold sky. I stood in a small grove of silvery snow-covered aspens, with their branches like bones, and could see Daniel’s red and black flannel jacket about 40 yards over to my west. To the east I could see the outline of the frozen creek. Frozen like my toes. On the ground were dead leaves and branches, hard-packed snow, and silence.
We all tensed when we heard our familiar wolves howl, but they were far away. We just didn’t want them to scare off our bear. Then we heard branches breaking to the north of us, and we all stood as still as possible. It could’ve been an elk or mountain lion even, if they were still in existence. I wasn’t sure what was around these days. But by and by, our bear emerged from the woods and did not seem as aggressive as she had been a few days prior. Jimmy nodded to Daniel, who pointed the blowgun at the bear, but the bear saw this too and stood broadside.
“Get her now, Danny,” Jimmy whispered. It was a panicky moment for me, as I had my rifle pointed toward the bear—and I could see up above that Leo had his gun aimed from the tree. We weren’t going to shoot unless the thing charged, and then only to scare it. I’d had some shooting practice growing up on a ranch, but Leo said he never had. Maybe that’s why he was up in the tree.
Daniel was quick to tranquilize the bear and got her on the first shot. Jimmy had said the drugs would just anger the bear for quite a bit and we should be prepared to stand ground and defend ourselves for a while if needed, but I wasn’t ready for the riotous actions of the bear, who became angry and charged our camp.
I emerged from the perimeter area and shot my gun into the air. This proceeded to scare the bear, but now it was confused and acting in self-defense. She took a swipe at Jimmy and missed; then he stood up undeterred, and though he wasn’t taller than the bear, he was more determined, for he waved his arms and hollered at it and said, “You think you’re special? I’ll show you!”
He started hopping around like a madman and pulled out his flask in such a quick motion that I could hardly see it myself, and managed to splash the bear’s eyes with whiskey. At this point the bear was pretty mad, but also hurt, and began to limp away. “Let it be,” Jimmy said. He was sweating and took a shot of whiskey, his hands shaking.
We waited and waited. The bear crawled out into the forest. We had to follow it. Leo, stunned and silent so far, climbed down from the tree. We formed a steady line of warriors following our objective into the woods. The animal couldn’t run faster than we could follow, but out of respect and not wanting it to try to run, we walked slowly and non-aggressively.
It was a good while before the bear stopped in its tracks, laid down, and groaned.
“We got it!” Jimmy said excitedly.
The dose had been strong enough on purpose. Now down to business. The idea was to fix its wound where I’d knifed her the other night and insert a yellow button tag on its ear. But Daniel surprised us by aiming a shotgun at the now sleeping bear. His face, which had been stony since the death of Cameron, showed new life as well as pert anger. His jawbone was so tense it looked contorted.
“Whoa there, son, you do not want to do that,” Jimmy said.
But Daniel stood there as if we weren’t there and he was alone in the world with that bear. The look on Daniel’s face was that of a killer. Not all men had such instincts. But I knew that, given certain situations, any man could become a killer. If someone or something threatened your life, I figured. If they’d been somehow responsible for directly or indirectly causing the death of your child, for example.
I once read how animals killed only to eat or out of fear. Many humans stuck to similar instincts, too. But others of our species went beyond animalistic compulsions, beyond nature, and killed for other reasons—for revenge or perceived differences and misunderstandings. Or because they saw the Other as being inferior due to skin color or religion or gender or sexual orientation or any reason. There were many reasons people killed, and when I looked at Daniel, his face reflected calculated intent. This bear was not threatening us, nor was it trespassing on us. We’d come into its territory. Fran’s and Elena’s fathers had written down laws for mountain survival. You do not kill another species, they said. You share the land and respect boundaries. The Wild Mountain gives, and the Wild Mountain takes. It is the way of life. Without other species, humans would not survive, they warned.
Daniel didn’t move, despite Jimmy and Leo and me telling him to put the gun down right now. I reached down to my belt and felt for my knife. I knew what Daniel was experiencing, sort of. I had known the fear, but not the hatred. There was a difference. I could tell he wasn’t going to give this bear a fair go.
It seemed like an eternity that we stood there. I had been wondering why I was still with these folks. Outside of Daniel’s current and rare behavior, I had started coming to the conclusion that these mountain folks really cared for each other. They weren’t out to harm each other. I couldn’t say that’s the kind of people I’d met in the new world. Everyone was scared and defensive. And many had taken that extra step that animals don’t take: they grew neurotic and hateful. I had been running into and away from drifters for a long time. I’d had a knife pulled to my stomach and almost bled to death. Little did these fine folks on Wild Mountain know that the same knife was in my possession now or that the person who pulled it on me was dead. It was the same knife I’d used on this bear.
During my journey from Florida up to Idaho, I’d had people steal my pack if I slept too close to the road. I’d almost been raped last summer by a wandering sociopath. I’d been stolen from and cheated and used by a number of people throughout the past several years, though in the past few months it’d gotten worse.
My mind went back to the night I acquired this knife. The more I watched Daniel’s face—his expression fighting with himself, whether he should or should not kill this sleeping bear—I could see myself in him, just a few months prior.