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Walk Softly

An excerpt from the novel A Man Of The West by Randall Stickrod

The wind poured out over the prairie in a steady surge, a wind that had its origins somewhere in the Arctic, far to the north, for it was a cold, sharp wind, and he leaned into it as he walked softly across the tundra-like landscape. He could smell snow in the wind, a clean moist smell that came from deep in the sky and mingled with the smell of earth that the wind scoured from the prairie and the flanks of the Rocky Mountain front.

The ponds came into view as he came up over a gentle rise, a ragged trail of potholes gouged out of the earth by the last glaciers that passed ten thousand or so years ago. They unfolded before him, directly in front of him, as he began to descend slightly, and even as he squinted against the wind to look for waterfowl on the surface of the ponds, a battery of Canada geese swooped low overhead, gliding toward the water below.

To his right a phalanx of mountain, dark and impenetrable, rose abruptly into the blustery sky. To his left the prairie broke downward in stages and then rolled smoothly to a horizon that stretched endlessly to the east. It was a day when the colors of late September had been rudely interrupted by a sudden premonition of winter, a day when the pale browns and yellows of the landscape merged indistinctly with the turbulent grays of the sky.

The cold braced him, shrinking him deeper into the heavy coat, and he silently thanked himself for the decision to wear the heavy oilskin ranch coat instead of the light mountaineering jacket that he usually wore on these solitary outings. He had come hoping to see wild swans -- and in the presence of the majesty of wild and beautiful creatures, to assess the state of his life.

Far to his right, above him, almost to where the western horizon jutted up into the first rampart of mountains, something caught his eye. Something just slightly out of place in the wind-whipped bleached straw of prairie shortgrass, sprouting from a covering of lichen-covered granite and pale shards of sandstone, a backdrop gray as the sky. Two hundred yards, maybe a little more, he thought, squinting and visually triangulating against nearby landmarks to secure a frame of reference.

There was an impression of brown, a rich vibrant brown, and it was moving in a way that had nothing to do with the wind. A cow, he thought, or perhaps a horse or maybe a large dog. No. It was nothing domesticated - instincts cultivated from a childhood growing up in this country told him that in an instant - and as that insight struck him, he stopped with the numbing realization that it could be only one thing. Grizzly bear. Ursus horribilis. The vivid imagery of the Latin name always leaped to mind when he thought of grizzlies. He had never seen one in the wild before, though in his youth he had always hoped to. To see one out in the open like this, though, this rough expanse of prairie and brush, out of the mountains instead of secreted within them - this was so unnatural and so unexpected that what should have been an instinctive response of apprehension and fear was replaced by a spontaneous curiosity, and he leaned forward with the wind, blinking and focusing his eyes. From this distance there was an impression of roundness of form, and a shimmering wave motion as the wind blew through the thick fur of a freshly acquired winter coat, the vibrations that shook the whole body as it did - what? It seemed to be digging in the middle of a broken thicket of juniper and buffalo berry, and as he watched, creeping forward, reason crept coldly into his consciousness and made him take inventory of his immediate environment to assess his vulnerability. At once he realized there was no refuge, no escape route. The only trees in sight were scattered limber pine and subalpine fir, few much taller than himself, and there was, of course, no other shelter.

The creature stood up suddenly on its hind legs and looked directly at him. He startled and immediately thought of the wind, and realized that the prevailing wind was driving his scent, his pungent and unmistakably human scent, in great invisible clouds of complex molecules directly along the slope and into the path of the bear. Was it a large bear? Male or female? For all his years of wilderness lore, his thoughts were empty, his mind spinning futilely with the struggle to be analytical. All the standard rules rushed through his mind in a barely coherent jumble - don't run, move slowly and avoid stimulating the bear's natural predator response, and in the worst case, faced with an actual attack, try to get up a tree, since grizzlies are not adept climbers. Remember that even a grizzly won't usually attack unless provoked, unless threatened or cornered. He thought of the substantial distance between the bear and himself and the vast open space between them, and thought - what bear would venture out across this amount of open terrain just to attack a hapless and inoffensive two-legged creature like me? At the moment, however, there was no comfort in that thought.

The bear dropped to all fours and began violently digging up earth, sending great clods and showers of dirt and rock flying all about it. Its mane shook roughly, and even from this distance he thought he could feel the vibrations of the bear's efforts in the earth. He assumed the bear was digging for a ground squirrel or marmot, or maybe tearing into an ant hill. Keeping his posture ramrod-straight, he began backing up as quickly as he dared, but after only a few steps the bear suddenly shot up erect again. He stopped, his heart pounding. He felt some fear, but mostly he felt a thrill at this confrontation that was almost sexual, like a voyeur peeping on some forbidden act. He realized that the sense of despair that brought him wandering out here on a day like this had vanished. He had been thinking of death, but here was an unexpected affirmation of life in this extraordinary confrontation, and in the adrenaline flooding his nerves and the blood pounding in his chest and temples. In a few seconds, he thought, it will be over, the bear will resume its foraging and I can simply back out of here and safely out of range.

And then the unthinkable. The bear was suddenly moving toward him at great speed, directly, inexorably toward him. At first it was as if the space around him were simply shrinking, diminishing the distance between the bear and him, some trick of relativistic physics in which both space and time were contracting while he stood, a helpless observer. It came at him down the slope and across a slight rise in a rolling motion, like a dark boulder tumbling down in a long arc at breakneck speed. The urge to turn and run was excruciating, but he knew better, knew that the bear was running absurdly faster than he could ever hope to, and he knew that flight led only to one sure outcome - that the bear would run him down and almost certainly kill him.

But why was it coming like this? It made no sense. His mind scrambled in a paralytic slow motion, trying to make sense of what he was seeing, wanting to process the whole thing as if it were a dream. But the space separating them was less than fifty yards now, and the furious rhythm of planted forelegs and driving hind legs was clearly articulated, and the muzzle of the bear was distinctly visible. It gave the impression of an engine, a powerful machine operating at its highest speed. He desperately scanned the ground around him for a large chunk of deadwood, a big rock, anything to defend himself with. There was nothing.

In the space of a microscopically small interval of time, less than a second, two images burst upon him from deep in his childhood memory. In the first he was ten years old, dreamily walking through a shallow coulee on a spring day on his grandmother's ranch, following a coyote track across a thin mud wash, when the peace was stunningly shattered by a shorthorn bull smashing violently through a nearby wooden gate and thundering toward him. He had stood paralyzed with fear as the bull roared past him by a few feet, and he could only remember what seemed to him an expression of rage on the face of the bull and the shaking of the earth - and the spontaneous release of his bladder as he wet himself shamelessly. In the second, it was a few years later and he was checking his trap line for muskrat on a frigid and windswept February day where the crunch of his footsteps through wind-packed snow made stalking impossible. In one of his traps he found a bobcat. Though they were far from scarce, he had never seen one before except momentarily caught in the headlights of a pickup on a remote road at night. He had never seen anything so perfectly wild as this trapped creature, flying spasmically from one chain-length of its tether to another, screeching and hissing and scrabbling to escape. The wildness and savagery in its eyes had haunted him ever after and he gave up trapping shortly after that. A charging, enraged bull and the ferocity of a bobcat -- this is what occurred to him as the bear closed on him.

He had only a second or two to accept that the bear was not going to stop and settle for a threat display, or swerve aside in a false pass, but that it was going to hit him. In that second he dropped to the ground, crunched himself into a tight tuck with his forehead against his knees, and grasped his hands behind his neck. It seemed to him that there was a great deal of noise as the bear closed on him, a deep huffing and grunting, the pounding of its weight on the earth, the noisy scattering of rock from its great paws. And then the bear simply hit him, running into him at full speed and flipping him end over end. He never knew how long the attack actually lasted, though he was conscious during most of it. He concentrated all of his awareness, his strength and resolve, on keeping his rolled up position to protect his face and vital organs.

He was aware of the startling solidity and sharpness of the bear. There was nothing soft of the creature, just rock-hard muscle and bone, and the fierce hardness of tooth and claw. He felt massive claws tear wildly at his shoulders and legs. He was aware of teeth ripping across his hands and digging into his neck and scraping harshly across the back of his skull. But mostly he was aware of the stunning weight of the animal as it jumped on him, pounded on him recklessly with its dense body mass, crushing and maiming him, pounding all the breath from him. It seemed to go on endlessly, and in his only token resistance, he screamed at the top of his voice at the bear, at the obscenity and injustice of what was happening to him. It was all he could do. Just before he lost consciousness he knew that he was shattered, broken and ruined. He thought fleetingly of all the years of hard work he had invested in building up his strength and fitness, his remarkable physical health. All for nothing now.

Randall Stickrod is a long-time technologist and magazine publisher whose credits include Wired and The Readerville Journal, as well as BOOM, a new magazine for the baby boomer crowd to be launched this spring. He has published several short stories and his essay The Real Thing is available on VerbSap.

Walk Softly is an excerpt from the first chapter of his novel A Man Of The West, which is currently in the hands of his agent.

Photos courtesy of Freeimages.co.uk.



 


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