Civilization confronts nature; man meets an ultimate challenge
| The Bear
By Dan Cooper
The man walked out into the forest alone. He walked west, in the direction from which the marauding bear had recently been known to come. Following the signs of the bear’s passing he tracked deeply into the rolling wooded hills. He easily found the scuffed bark with traces of hair on trees where the bear had scratched his broad back. Claw marks proclaimed the bear’s ownership of these trees, of this place in the woods, and the surrounding area where man had encroached with his noise and his town.
This man and others had tried in vain to track the bear and kill it using conventional tactics. The bear was impossible to find during daylight hours. It seemed, like some sort of phantom, to live only in the darkness of night.
Deep in the woods the man found a place where the tree markings became more prolific. He knew he was within the very heart of the bear’s domain.
The dead livestock, the threatened couple on their way home last Saturday, the dogs that didn’t come back; there were enough reasons for the man to be here this night. He was here to turn back the wild. He was here to protect his community from the untamed terrors of nature, which were steadily inching closer to the artificial sanctity of human civilization.
This beast seemed to follow none of the precepts of normalcy for wildlife. It seemed, rather, to be on some sort of mad mission to eradicate man from this, the bear's personal domain. Somewhat like a rabid animal, but one with a diabolical purpose and a shrewd awareness of his goals and objectives, this bear sought out men and their influence, with a fierce intensity and strangely specific hatred.
The man was an experienced trapper. He set a line of bait to a nearby clearing, and in the center of the clearing he set the last installment of that bait—-remains of a freshly slaughtered steer—-which would bring the bear to him. Near the far side of the clearing he climbed a lone tree to gain a high vantage point from which to fire upon the target when the time was right. Now he waited.
The man felt well prepared for this encounter. He carried the largest bore, most powerful rifle in existence. It was the weapon of choice when going after really big game. It was the height of technology. He would simply conquer nature as man has always done, with his technology and his skill in mastering the environment. Tonight man, the hunter, would eliminate this menace to his small isolated town.
In the early hours of the morning on this dark night the bear came across the tempting scent of the bait. Just as the man had planned, the huge animal followed the trail, making straight toward the waiting man in his well-designed trap in the woods. But an unexpected cloud cover moved in to obliterate the moon. Its light was supposed to have given the man improved visibility and a distinct advantage over the bear in this confrontation in the small clearing in the woods.
In this new and ominous darkness the man relied on his hearing to identify the approach of his adversary. He knew he would hear the bear long before he saw it even if the moon had still been bright. He would not permit this lack of moonlight to be a serious handicap.
He first heard the bear’s movement through the trees from about 500 yards. The bear made no attempt at stealth. Instead he approached noisily, ominously growling and roaring. This was his territory. He owned it. No one else was welcome here. Especially men, with their intrusions, their noises, and their smells.
Only after thirty minutes of hearing the sounds of his approach did the man see anything in the gloom. The hulking sounds in the pitch-black night first became visually apparent as two brightly burning yellow eyes through the trees. From the moment the man first saw them, the eyes never changed direction, but seemed to look directly at the man. With an eerie shining intensity, they seemed never to blink.
Though the man had been very careful to make no sound to attract attention, the bear appeared to have easily pinpointed him in the tree. And it was just then that the man noticed the gentle breeze had changed direction. Now it struck the back of his neck, carrying his scent in the direction of the approaching monster.
The bear knew what waited for him in the tree in the clearing. It was his enemy, the intruder, man. Man had come into his woods and was now perched like a fat and flightless bird in the heart of his domain.
In the blackness it was difficult for the man to be certain exactly when the bear reached the clearing. The distance between the two burning eyes had to be judged, and the distance from the man’s tree to the other side of the clearing then factored in, together with the estimated size of the animal.
With a mind clear and focused, the man calculated when his target had reached the clearing. He had to be certain that trees would not deflect his shots. Judging the space between those eyes, surely it had reached the clearing by now. It must have. Surely the bear couldn’t be that big, could it?
The man waited to be certain his target was in the clearing. It was too dark to take chances on missing. The bear closed in more slowly and deliberately now.
Not apprehensively, but methodically, the yellow fire-eyes grew ever larger and still farther apart as the beast approached.
With a loud roar of ownership over this place, the glowing eyes suddenly moved straight up from the ground. Now they were as far aloft as was the man in his tree. With a lump of anticipation growing in his throat, the man raised the heavy steel barrel.
His heart pounding now, the man nervously began to fire the big weapon. Once, twice, three times. The bear stopped momentarily. Then roaring its ownership over this place, it resumed its approach at the same ominously deliberate pace as before.
The man judged correctly that the evil eyes were well past the meat in the center of the clearing. The man was what the bear wanted now. The man was what the bear would eat tonight.
The powerful rifle recoiled again and again, exploding loudly in the night. The loudness of its report was reassuring to the man, who drew strength from its power and its man-made sound, as he held the big gun close to him here in this loneliest of places.
The man fired more rapidly as the beast’s eyes drew quite near now. The animal seemed both unhurried and undeterred by this man-made echo in what was, very clearly, the bear’s woods.
The man gauged the separation between them at about twenty feet when the sickening sound of an all-too-quiet click emerged from the rifle. Silence. Technology was empty.
“Big enough to bring down a house,” was what the gun’s owner had said. It was all he would need to stave the wild from civilization’s doorstep. Now this ultimate weapon fell to the ground like a toothpick, as the man reached for the sidearm he carried for snakes and small animals. It felt strangely useless in his hand now. But it would be his last line of defense.
Defense? The man was supposed to be the hunter, on a mission to conquer nature. Quickly he emptied his pistol in a fast and accurate barrage of bullets. There was nothing else left to do. Nowhere to run. Nowhere to hide. And as he emptied the pistol into the looming threat, the man was left with no more options. There was nothing to do now but wait and watch as this hulking menace approached at its own pace, in its own time, and according to its own plan. The intent of that plan was clear.
The bear took only two final steps to reach the tree. The man smelled the incredible foulness of previously eaten meals, and felt the heat of doom in the breath from a final dominating roar. In that thundering sound he could feel the vibrating presence of brute power behind those two yellow lamps that burned into his soul.
The yellow fires were fourteen inches apart now, and directly in front of the man’s face. Numbed with shock he was motionless, simply waiting. He waited for the unseen sweeping swat that would pluck him from his tree. His only thought now was a hope that death would come quickly.
And in that moment reserved for death, when it was least expected, the cumulative effects of the now forgotten well-laid plan, and the abandoned power of technology, and the ever so precious distance through the clearing in the woods, made themselves known for the very first time. The monster, still invisible in the darkness behind those two glowing lamps, shook the tree as it collapsed heavily onto the trunk below.
© 1997 Dan Cooper