Cabinet Wilderness: October
No one knew better than Walter Rice that the only safe place was away from other people. Safe for them, that is. The only problem was that he still needed them, needed the sound of human voices and laughter. To his shame, he sometimes hovered on the edge of one of the campgrounds just to listen to the voices and pretend they were talking to him.
Which was a very small part of the reason that he was lying belly-down in the kinnikinnick and old tamarack needles in the shadow of a stand of trees, watching the young man who was writing with a pencil in a metal-bound notebook after taking a sample of the bear scat and storing the resultant partially filled plastic bag in his backpack.
Walter had no fear the boy would see him: Uncle Sam had ensured that Walter could hide and track, and decades of living alone in some of the most forbidding wilderness in the States had made him into a fair imitation of those miraculously invisible Indians who had populated the favorite books and movies of his childhood. If he didn't want to be seen, he wasn't-besides, the boy had all the woodcraft of a suburban housewife. They shouldn't have sent him into grizzly country on his own-feeding grad students to the bears wasn't a good idea, might give them ideas.
Not that the bears were out today. Like Walter, they knew how to read the signs: sometime in the next four or five hours there was a big storm coming. He could feel it in his bones, and the stranger didn't have a big enough pack to be prepared for it. It was early for a winter storm, but this country was like that. He'd seen it snow in August.
That storm was the other reason he was following the boy. The storm and what to do about it-it wasn't often anymore that he was so torn by indecision.
He could let the kid go. The storm would come and steal away his life, but that was the way of the mountain, of the wilderness. It was a clean death. If only the grad student weren't so young. A lifetime ago he'd seen so many boys die-you'd think he'd have gotten used to it. Instead, one more seemed like one too many.
He could warn the boy. But everything in him rebelled at the thought. It had been too long since he'd spoken face-to-face with anyone...even the thought made his breath freeze up.
It was too dangerous. Might cause another flashback-he hadn't had one in a while-but they crept up unexpectedly. It would be too bad if he tried to warn the boy and ended up killing him instead.
No. He couldn't risk the little peace he had by warning the stranger-but he couldn't just let him die, either.
Frustrated, he'd been following for a few hours as the boy blundered, oblivious, farther and farther from the nearest road and safety. The bedroll on his backpack made it clear he was planning on staying the night-which ought to mean he thought he knew what he was doing in the woods. Unfortunately, it had become clearer and clearer it was a false confidence. It was like watching June Cleaver roughing it. Sad. Just sad.
Like watching the newbies coming into ' Nam all starched and ready to be men, when everyone knew that all they were was cannon fodder.
Damn boy was stirring up all sorts of things Walter liked to keep away. But the irritation wasn't strong enough to make a difference to Walter's conscience. Six miles, as near as he figured it, he'd trailed the boy, unable to make up his mind: his preoccupation kept him from sensing the danger until the boy student stopped dead in the middle of the trail.
The thick brush between them only allowed him to see the top of the boy's backpack, and whatever stopped the boy was shorter. The good part was that it wasn't a moose. You could reason with a black bear-even a grizzly if it wasn't hungry (which in his experience was seldom the case), but a moose was...
Walter drew his big knife, though he wasn't sure he'd try to help the boy. Even a black bear was a quicker death than the storm would be-if bloodier. And he knew the bear around here, which was more than he could say about the boy. He moved slowly through the brush, making no noise though fallen aspen leaves littered the ground. When he didn't want to make noise, he didn't make noise.
A low growl caused a shiver of fear to slice through him, sending his adrenaline into the ozone layer. It wasn't a sound he'd ever heard here, and he knew every predator that lived in his territory.
Four feet farther and he had nothing impairing his view.
There in the middle of the path stood a dog-or something doglike, anyway. At first he thought it was a German shepherd because of the coloring, but there was something wrong with the joints of its front end that made it look more like a bear than a dog. And it was bigger than any damned dog or wolf he'd ever seen. It had cold eyes, killer's eyes, and impossibly long teeth.
Walter might not know what to call it, but he knew what it was. In that beast's face lurked every nightmare image that haunted his life. It was the thing he fought through two tours of ' Nam and every night since: death. This was a battle for a blooded warrior, battered and tainted as he was, not an innocent.
He broke cover with a wild whoop designed to attract attention and sprinted, ignoring the protest of knees grown too old for battle. It had been a long time since his last fight, but he had never forgotten the feeling of the blood pounding through his veins.
"Run, kid," he said as he blazed past the boy with a fierce grin, prepared to engage the enemy.
The animal might run. It had taken its time sizing up the boy, and sometimes, when a predator's meal charges it, the predator will leave. But somehow he didn't think that this beast was such an animal-there was an eerie intelligence in its blindingly gold eyes.
Whatever had kept it from attacking the boy immediately, it had no qualms about Walter. It launched itself at him as if he were unarmed. Maybe it wasn't as smart as he thought-or it had been deceived by his grizzled exterior and hadn't realized what an old veteran armed with a knife as long as his arm could do. Maybe it was aroused by the boy's flight-he'd taken Walter's advice at face value and was running like a track star-and just viewed Walter as an obstacle to its desire for fresh, tender meat.
But Walter wasn't a helpless boy. He'd gotten the knife from some enemy general he'd killed, murdered in the dark as he'd been taught. The knife was covered with magic charms etched into the blade, strange symbols that had long ago turned black instead of the bright silver they'd been. Despite the exotic fancy stuff, it was a good knife and it bit deep in the animal's shoulder.
The beast was faster than he, faster and stronger. But he'd gotten that first strike and crippled it, and that made all the difference.
He didn't win, but he triumphed. He kept the beast busy and hurt it badly. It wouldn't be able to go after the kid tonight-and if that boy was smart, he'd be halfway to his car by now.
At last the monster left, dragging a front leg and bleeding from a dozen wounds-though there was no question as to who was worse wounded. He'd seen a lot of men die, and he knew from the smell of perforated bowel that his time had come.
But the young man was safe. Perhaps that would answer, in some small part, for all the young men who hadn't lived.
He let the muscles of his back relax and felt the dried grass and dirt give way beneath his weight. The ground was cool under his hot, sweaty body, and it comforted him. It seemed right to end his life here while saving a stranger, when another stranger's death had brought him here in the first place.