Short Story – The Bear
Sorry I missed last week. Fringe festival messes with my writing schedule. I’ve been toying with horror and revenge lately. There is some triggery stuff in this week’s story that involves incest and suggested rape. So be warned about that.
I keep toying with this idea as a play. Not sure if I could turn it into a 45-50 minute show as it is right now but the pieces are there for it to expand to something more than what I’ve written here.
The story itself is self contained. But I can feel there is more that could be explored with this character.
I was in Utah earlier this year so I chose the area that is now Arches National Park as the setting. I don’t typically worry about such things but I wanted to give a little bit of a sense of place.
Anyway, I hope you enjoy reading it!
A late spring storm had coated the rusty red monoliths of the Utah territory with wet, sticky snow. Come morning, the sun would likely melt everything that wasn’t in the shade. Right now, though, the afternoon light glinting off the fresh snow was magical. Clarence Smith stopped his horse and paused for a few moments so he could appreciate the moment.
As a hired gun, Clarence couldn’t afford to appreciate too many moments. He was always either on a job or looking hard for the next one.
He decided he could waste a day, though, to see the arches in Utah. In his youth, he would have been searching for his next job and his next bottle of whiskey. It was beginning to dawn on him that he’d missed much in pursuit of what had turned out to be nothing at all.
He sat on his horse chewing on a piece of buffalo jerky and pondering what forces could have created such rocks. He wondered if he could afford to camp here for one more night. It might mean skipping a couple shots the next time he was in a saloon.
Yeah. He could live with that.
“Nice day, isn’t it?”
His concentration broken, Clarence wheeled around in the saddle, his hand instinctively going for the firearm at his side. He’d learned a long time ago that you don’t draw a pistol until it is time to use one. That was the only thing that prevented him from drawing and, possibly, firing.
Behind him was a young woman on horseback with a rifle pointed at his torso. If he’d had the opportunity to draw, he certainly wouldn’t have had the opportunity to fire.
She wasn’t even twenty, he guessed. Her dark eyes and long, straight, black hair suggested she was native. But her facial features looked more European. She must be mixed. Tough lot to live with out here, he thought. Poor kid.
“No way you could get a shot off before me, old man.”
Clarence laughed. She was right. He moved his hand away from his gun.
“You just startled me, that’s all,” he explained, “old habits die hard.”
She studied him for a moment and then slid the rife back into the holster on her saddle.
“I’m looking for a bear,” she told him, “seen one?”
Clarence laughed again.
“You must be lost! Ain’t a lot of bears in the Utah Territory, miss.”
She shook her head, “I’ve been tracking it this direction for a few weeks. The trail leads here.”
“Well then, that’s a mighty unusual bear. Name’s Clarence. Clarence Smith.”
She looked at him with suspicion but eventually her shoulders relaxed a little.
“Well, then, Constance, what’s so important about a bear that would have you track it for so long?”
“It killed my father.”
Given what she had said, he would have expected a little more emotion from her. She seemed passive. Almost disinterested.
“You don’t seem too broke up about it.”
“He was a horrible man.”
“Then why you tryin’ so hard to find that bear?”
“I’d like to say thank you.”
Clarence nodded. He’d known his share of men like her father. He didn’t care to think of what that kind of man might do to a daughter.
“Well look,” he smiled, “I’m headin’ west to find work closer to Cedar City but I ain’t in no particular rush – “ a lie but not one that mattered “ – and I’ve got some tracking experience. I’d be happy to help out.”
She lowered her eyes, embarrassed.
“I’m not sure what you can do to help. I-I lost the trail some days ago and only just found it again.”
“Well that’s lucky, then! It can’t be too far.”
She allowed herself to smile a little.
“No. I guess not.”
Her smile made Clarence think of his own daughter. She’d be about the same age as Constance. He’d not seen her in over a decade. She was better off with her mother. He sent money to them whenever he could. Maybe it reached them. Maybe not.
“Why don’t I make us some coffee and you can tell me what you know?”
Clarence built a fire while Constance found some running water for the horses to drink. He wasn’t sure he believed her story about a bear. There just weren’t a lot of bears in the desert. And bears were territorial. Why would one travel so far?
Didn’t matter to him, though. For some reason, she was looking for that bear and he was happy to waste a couple of days helping her find it. If nothing else, the country was beautiful.
By the time Constance returned, the coffee was ready. They both warmed their hands on the tin cups and carefully sipped the hot liquid inside. It was very nearly undrinkable. But not quite. Same as always.
“Pawnee,” she said.
“My mother was Pawnee. My father was a fur trapper. He traded the tribe for her. They were married but I don’t think it’s fair to say she was his wife. She died when I was six. Pa wanted a boy. He took me out trapping with him. Taught me how to track animals. How to shoot a gun.”
“I thought natives were just in tune with nature or somethin’”
“That’s bullshit. If nobody teaches you how to track animals, you can’t track animals.”
She took another sip of her coffee.
“I barely remember my mother. She called me her little Kuuruks. I remember that.”
“Little bear. Kuuruks is Pawnee for bear.”
“That’s a coincidence, then. She was kind and stopped Pa from beating me more than once. She tried to teach me something about her people but he’d tell her that I was white and no child of his was going to act like a native. That nickname is about the only Pawnee word I ever heard. Until today, I didn’t even know what it meant.
“Pa was a hard man. You set a trap wrong, he’d box your ears till they rang. Miss a shot and he’d slap your behind so hard, you couldn’t sit. Spent all his time telling me how useless girls were and how my mother had left him with a useless child. Until I got a little older. Then he didn’t seem to mind I was a girl quite so much. I liked it better when he was treating me like a boy.”
“I’m sorry. I don’t know why I’m talking so much. I’ve spent most of my life trying to avoid saying anything that would upset him.”
She tok another sip.
“This is terrible coffee.”
“Sure is. Tell me about the bear.”
“I didn’t see it. I just heard it. It was night and it was cold. When it was cold, Pa would sleep next to me because he said we should share bodily warmth. Like he thought he was foolin’ someone. I was lyin’ with my back to him. I didn’t like to look him in the face.
“I heard a sound. A low growl comin’ from the woods. I knew what a bear sounded like. If a bear stumbles into your camp, though, you just keep your cool. Let ‘em take food from your packs. Nothing you can do to stop ‘em anyway.
“This one didn’t go for the packs, though. It went for Pa. I could tell it’s paws were diggin’ into his sides. He screamed for me to help him but I just lay there. I didn’t know what else to do. He stopped screamin’ when that thing bit into his neck, though. Then it just dragged him away. That night was my twentieth birthday.
“I couldn’t sleep after that. I kept thinkin’ it’d come back for me. Never did, though. I guess pa was enough food for one night.
“Next morning, I followed the trail of blood to his body. Wasn’t much left. The bear tracks seemed to keep circling the camp but they never came back inside.
“At first, I was going to head back home. We were about a week away from the piece of shit cabin Pa called a house. It was home, though. So I headed back. I slept just fine the next night. Strangest thing. It was the first time in so long I didn’t have his arms around me and it felt so nice. So nice.
“In the morning, there were bear tracks around the camp. Same bear. I was sure of it. Never came inside the camp. It’s like the thing was protecting me. Next night the same thing. Then.”
“Then it was gone. I didn’t see the tracks again. I went home only long enough to burn the place down. I was never gonna sleep in that bed again. Emptied all of pa’s traps. I’m gonna sell these pelts and maybe build me a new place to live. Land’s still mine.”
“I tried to follow the bear, though. I felt safe when it was around. Like nothing could hurt me. But it was gone. Until last night. There were tracks around the camp again. The bear is here somewhere.”
The sun was getting lower in the sky and the coffee was nearly gone. Clarence shook his head and let out a whistle.
“You don’t believe me.”
“I don’t know if I do or not,” he confessed, “but what does that matter? You sure believe it. That’s good enough for me. Maybe there really is a bear. Or maybe you killed your pa so he’d leave you alone. Either way, I ain’t gonna judge ya.”
“But the bear could be back tonight.”
“It could. So we’ll stay up together and see if we can’t…”
Clarence never spoke again. He didn’t hear the report from the gun that fired the bullet which pierced his skull. He slumped over, his hand holding the coffee cup landed in the fire and slowly turned black. He didn’t feel a thing.
Constance heard the report and looked up to see a young man holding a revolver and standing about twenty yards away. Her rifle was in it’s holster on her saddle. She just looked at him and waited for him to shoot.
“Sorry about that, little lady. I couldn’t have him shooting first. I’ll be taking your belongings now.”
She looked at Clarence’s lifeless eyes staring at her and she could smell his flesh burning in the fire.
“Take what you want,” she said, well aware that he might be interested in taking more than just things.
It took very little time for him to remove everything of value from the camp. Finally, he trained his gun on her.
“Take off your clothes.”
She sighed. Her last memories would not be of that. “I will not.”
“You misunderstand. I ain’t interested in your body. I’m just interested in selling that fine leather clothing you’re wearin’. I ain’t sick.”
“No. You only killed my friend and now you are going to leave me to freeze to death.”
“He was an old man. Would have died soon enough without my help. You’re native. This place is sacred to your people, ain’t it? Don’t they tell stories about how these arches were formed by the great spirit or some bullshit like that?”
“These are nothing but rocks. The stories are nice stories but the rocks won’t prevent me from freezing to death.”
“Well, your people are very resourceful.”
“I have no people. I have only myself.”
“Take off your clothes or I’m gonna have to shoot you. Then I’ll just take ‘em anyway.”
She stripped off the clothing she assumed he wanted and stood shivering in her underclothes. Would he want those too?
Apparently, what she gave him was enough. He tipped his hat as if he was a decent man, climbed on her horse, grabbed the lead for Clarence’s horse, and rode away.
She rolled Clarence out of the fire. The skin on his hand and arm was cracked and black and the arm of his jacket was burned completely away. He faced the eastern sky and she could see the reflection of the rising moon in his eyes. She knelt over him and began to cry for a man she hardly knew.
An hour later and ten miles away, Jack Neary rode into camp with three horses, several guns, and a whole lot of pelts. HIs riding partner Bert was building a fire.
“Where you been, Jack? You left a long time ago.”
“I was out gettin’ some water and I saw smoke. Did a little investigatin’ and found a girl and a guy. She was tellin’ a crazy story about a bear.”
“A bear? Ain’t no bears round here.”
“I know. Like I said, Crazy story. Anyway, I killed him and took their stuff.”
“Looks like a good haul.”
“Sure is. You making stew?”
“Yup. Be ready in about an hour.”
The two of them drank far too much from a bottle of whiskey they found in Clarence’s saddle bags and both passed out by the fire. A few hours later, Jack woke to the call of nature.
He stumbled off a little ways and took care of his business. He came back to the fire and probably wouldn’t have even noticed Bert had he not heard a growl coming from the darkness. His gun was still in his holster by the embers of the dying fire. He dived for his pistol and called to his partner.
“Bert! Did you hear that?”
Bert didn’t answer.
By the light of a full moon, Jack looked at Bert and Bert stared back at him. At least, one of his eyes stared back. The other had been clawed out of his face by…something. Behind the corpse, Jack could see two glowing discs staring at him.
He pointed his gun between them and shot. They were gone before he even pulled the trigger. He could hear the creature growl and move around the fire but any time he thought he saw something, it would move. He shot again and again until there were no bullets left.
Then the bear walked directly towards him. Slowly. Quietly. It seemed to him that it was supremely calm and he thought for a moment that he was safe.
Then it reared up onto it’s hind legs and pushed him into the embers. He cried out as they began to burn his skin.
The bear leapt on top of him and ripped open his rib cage. For a few moments, Jack could feel the searing hot coals on his back and the teeth of the bear inside his chest. Then he felt nothing at all.
Constance woke up the next morning. Jake had left Clarence’s clothing because it had been burned by the fire. She’d forced herself to strip his body and wear his clothes so she wouldn’t freeze to death. She tried to convince herself it was what he would have wanted.
As she stumbled out of camp, the bear tracks were there again. Going around the camp but never inside. This time, though, there was a set of tracks that led away from the camp and then back again. There were traces of blood when the creature returned. She followed the tracks for several miles until she came to another camp. Beside the coals of a dead fire was the body of man whose face had been very nearly ripped off.
Inside the fire was Jack, who had been all but torn in two.
Four horses loaded with trinkets that belonged to who knew how many people stood near the two corpses. Unharmed.
She took the horses back to her camp where she wrapped Clarence in a blanket and,with some difficulty, she threw his body over the saddle of his horse. Perhaps she could get him buried in Carson City.
Before she hit the trail, she stopped by the stream so the animals could have another drink. She took a few moment to slake her own thirst and to clean the blood from beneath her nails.
She had found the bear that killed her father.