By Michael Conroy
One with the wilderness, the lonely man stands silhouetted above the Great Plains by the setting of the sun. His far off sight wandering across the flatlands of the frontier to the town that lies behind him now, and further onward to the distant hills on the horizon. Turning, he mounts and moves on again, leading the other, riderless horse behind him.
On towards the snowy forests of the mountains, on towards the thing he seeks. The skies are darkening and coyotes are yipping, wolves howling.
He should set up camp, continue in the morning. He has far to go and the night is lonely.
Tying his horses to a nearby tree, he starts a fire, makes a bed for himself. Suppering absently on some small vittles he had packed, he sits awake and watches the sun go down, sombre orange skies giving way to a navy blue darkness. The fire crackles quietly, as he toasts his bread, and warms himself.
Eyes ponder over him in the dark, eyes that hunger. They howl, an ominous midnight chorus, one at first, but more and more until they are all singing to him. The horses stamp the ground and express their concern. As the howling stops, as their music gives way to snarling, he fires his pistol out into the night, when he sees their teeth in the gloom.
He draws a blanket around him, moves closer to the fire.
At dawn he packs up, putting the fire out of its misery, and leaves, moving on again.
As the road becomes steeper, the grey-brown earth becomes blanketed with snow, only in places at first, but becoming so thick in others that even the horses struggle to make their way.
Another day, another night, he continues on his journey of redemption, of revenge. He is close now, this place is familiar. The trees stand aloof to him, talking amongst themselves as he finds the first sign that will lead him to his quarry.
Tracks in the snow.
On he moves, on into the wilderness, until a sound meets him on the still air, that familiar, monstrous wuffing and huffing that echoes even now in his thoughts. There is no escape from the memory, no waking salvation for him. Only in sleep can he forget, for he no longer dreams, and there is only the memory.
It had gone for the boy first, tossing him aside violently. Then it came for him, charging forward like a locomotive, and with one sweep of its giant paw he was felled like a tree, arm and shoulder torn open in a tangle of bloody flesh, his shirt left in ribbons. Knocked down as though he were nothing, the cold wet snow stabbed at his wounds and soaked into his coat and trousers. While he bled into the pale earth all around him, steam rose up from the melting floor like a phantasm.
Disbelievingly the bear nudged its dead companion with its nose, licked at the wounds where the bullets had entered, where the life left it. The animal let out a mournful cry that sent birds flying from their treetop hiding places and foxes scurrying from their burrows. Sensing life in the man still, it turned on him then, in distress. In anger. Wuffing, huffing, baring its teeth and growling, it made a move to charge but he shouted at it and it backed down. Moving forward slowly, it sniffed at the
boy, rolled him over with its paw. He kept shouting, tried to hurl a fistful of snow that should have exploded against its face, instead landing only at its feet. It kept nudging and sniffing at the boy.
“No, no, get away, from him, get away, you damn animal, get away,” the man screamed, sobbing as he lifted the rifle weakly, pain clawing at his arm and shoulder, to let off a shot. “Get away!” White fire cracked through the air. “Leave him alone, damn you! Leave him alone, leave him, leave him alone . . .”
It left him, lumbering hurriedly back into the forest.
“I – I think it’s gone,” he said reaching over to the boy. “Jonathan? Jonathan, are you alright?” he said, shaking him as best he could. “Are you hurt? Jonathan, it’s gone, you can stop pretending now, y’hear me? You can stop pretending. It’s time to wake up, now, time to wake up. Please, wake up, Jonny, come on now, wake up for me, wake up for your Pa, please, please wake up, come back to me, boy . . .”
A hunter found them. He brought the boy and his father, and their two horses, back to his cabin. But by then the man had become delirious before blacking out from loss of blood. The hunter had tended to his wounds as best he could, but he was no physician. He rode for a day and a half to find a doctor who could fix him up properly.
“A close call, often happens, more than you’d think,” he’d said, “when a bear gets startled like that. Them monsters’ll eat anything, y’know. Don’t care what they kill. Just animals after all.”
The man recovered, though he was weak in the shoulder and that right arm ever after. The boy had suffered grievous injuries, blunt head trauma among them, but died of shock. The doctor said:
“Powerful animals, them bears, big as a house and strong as a bull. He was dead before he hit the ground, poor boy. There wouldn’t have been much pain, dying so quickly like that.”
His anger, his loss, his grief, they had all given way to hatred, to grit, and determination after that. His resolve was all-encompassing, there was nothing else left of him, not the father, not even the man. All the joys and sorrows of his life had bled out of him into the snow, and were lost. As he lay there dying beneath the sky, he became cold; a sort of chill had crept into his heart, and it was all he could remember when he woke again. It was all he knew now. If he were to survive, then, he would have only one purpose.
There it is, at last, this Neolithic monster, unchanged since days of yore. Shuffling along slowly, deceptively through the snow, a thousand gigantic paw-prints in its wake.
Where is it going? What drives it? This beast, this great majestic creature. What sense of purpose, what hand of destiny has brought it to this place? Does it remember what happened here? He doesn’t care, he doesn’t want to know. What he wants he cannot have, for it was taken from him. He will settle for one thing only now.
He dismounts, absently stroking the horse’s mane, thoughts empty of all language, only the trauma of his memory to remind him, as it does every day, and the old, primal sense of justice that must now be exacted. Cocking the Winchester, feeding the cartridges into it, he trembles with anticipation, hardly able to believe that he is finally here, that everything has led to this.
There it is, wandering, trudging along aimlessly between the trees, cold kept out by its thick insulating hide, its dark brown fur.
It spots him.
It looks straight at him, deliberating, perhaps, about this lonely man, and the riderless second horse he leads behind. His heart begins to race, as the horses whinny and neigh with consternation, their large eyes wide with fear. The bear cocks its head, merely snorts and grunts at first, but then, as if sensing the danger present, issues a louder, more aggressive vocalisation. It bares its pink gums, its humungous yellow teeth, and roars at him. Standing up on its hind quarters defensively, it rises up like some terrible behemoth before stomping the ground before it, leaving two large impressions in the snow.
It makes a sudden move to charge but doesn’t. It hesitates, shifting its weight onto its front limbs and then back again, as though pondering the futility of such action. It sweeps its great paws about desperately, the large claws tearing at the ground, casting up plumes of snow like white dust clouds. Again it roars, but it is not a sound of aggression. It is strained, and weak; it is a sad, lonely sound.
He takes aim, one eye closed, with the other looking straight through the sight and down the barrel, towards his quarry.
He doesn’t pull the trigger. He can’t. But he must, not for himself, but for the one he lost.
The bear continues to cry, a wailing roar that makes him shudder and wonder what thoughts or feelings, if any, are at home behind those dark ochre eyes.
At last, the animal ceases, and a look of recognition, of resignation, appears across the bear’s face. Planting its rump down firmly, it sits there on the snowy floor against a tree, still looking at him, its head lowered, no longer fearful of the man, awaiting only that which must inevitably come next.
But he cannot do it. His hatred leaves him, is replaced by empathy.
He lowers the rifle, his shoulders slump. He cannot do it. Understanding perhaps, or merely seizing the moment to escape as instinct would dictate, he watches in awe of her as the animal moves off between the trees.
Shuffling along into the distance it turns around again, almost as an afterthought, and looks at him, perhaps only curious, but perhaps thankful too. The pangs of grief come flooding back to him, as its inquisitive amber eyes meet his own. He remembers, now, the joys of parenthood, the laughing times and loving times that a father shares with his son, and has with the animal a moment of tenderness, of respect, and shared grief, until it turns once more and leaves. The horses stop whinnying and calm down again. The wind rustles though the creaking trees all around him. The cold sunlight looks down on him from unimaginable distances. The malice in his heart is assuaged, and he falls down on his knees. He lets the rifle drop to the floor.
As he watches the animal disappear finally, along with his cause, his single purpose which had given his life meaning these past months, he finds himself uncertain and afraid. He wished that it would stay, that she would not leave, that he not be left alone.
Michael Conroy is a 3rd year English and Creative Writing student. He particularly enjoys the Gothic genre, and is a big fan of Russian literature. He is also currently looking for an agent to help get his first novel published.