“Starsky, where are we?”
“What do you mean, no idea? You’re leading.”
“Only because you wanted to watch my excellent ass.”
“It is a fine ass to watch.”
“How can you tell? Backpack’s coverin’ it.”
“Not entirely. You’re walking uphill, Starsk, bent forward a little. Your buns show quite nicely. Those sweet, round cheeks, hugged by that faded denim I wish was my hands.”
I stopped in my tracks, turned and studied him. His grin became almost salacious when his gaze lowered to what his words and sexy tone of voice were causing in my jeans.
“Keep that up, Hutchinson, and we’re not going to find a campsite before dark.” I did my best to sound prim.
He took his hands off the shoulder straps of his backpack, put them on my hips and turned me forward again. “You’re right, partner,” he said, his voice reeking with sincerity. “This is bear country. Wouldn’t do to be bare in bear country.”
“You’re a real comedian, Blondie.” I started up the trail again.
“The Sammy Grovner School of Hilarity turns out only the best,” he said, sounding like an advertisement.
I glanced back, aiming my patented baleful glare at him, and he winked. What? Hutch never winks. I do sometimes, but he almost never does. He must be feeling really good today! Which made me feel really good. I smiled to myself and continued up the hill.
We found the creek first, a narrow, sweet running watercourse that promised fish! Hutch stood at the edge, close to the base of a pine.
“Look, Starsk," he whispered, pointing toward a shaded pool. “See them?”
It would have taken a blind man to miss the two big rainbows, lurking under an overhang, just waiting for a bug to land on the surface. Or maybe some unlucky smaller fish to swim by. Were trout cannibals? Hutch would know but I didn’t want to increase his feeling of superiority right then.
“No place here to camp, though,” I noted.
“Nope,” he agreed. “We’ll find a spot nearby and come back.”
He led the way this time and, within a quarter of a mile, I followed him out of the woods into a natural clearing at the edge of a cleft in the ground.
“Plenty of room to pitch the tent,” he said, scanning the area. “Lots of fallen branches and dead wood. We won’t need to cut any.” He pointed to the center of the space. “Someone was thoughtful enough to leave their fire pit and ring, too. We won’t have to dig one. Look! They even left a grill for over the fire. With a clear running stream nearby, what could be better?”
I was still a novice hiker and camper but even I could see the benefits of the location. “What do we do first, Kimosabe?”
He tried to smother a grin. “The Lone Ranger didn’t do much hiking, Starsk. He and Tonto stayed mostly in the low country, as I remember. Silver and Scout would not have enjoyed that trail.”
“Picky, picky,” I snipped. “You wanna be Sundance then? Or Butch?”
“Anything where the partners were equal,” he replied, happily.
“You’re the blond, you be Sundance."
“Keep thinkin’ Butch. That’s what you’re good at.”
I shed my pack, feeling as if it weighed more like a hundred fifty pounds than the seventy-five I was pretty sure I’d started out with, and rolled my shoulders. We’d been hiking since eight that morning, four hours almost without a break. After a three hour drive. Although I’d been officially back to work for six months, I hadn’t tackled a mountain before. Dobey’d given us the weekend off because we’d closed the Grady case. When Hutch said he thought we should try this, he must have figured I was ready. I felt like I was holding up my end, so far.
“You okay, Starsk?” Hutch asked, concern in his voice.
“Just a little ragged. Nothing a little sex wouldn’t cure.”
“That will, unfortunately, have to wait, partner,” he countered. “If we intend to have fish for dinner, there’s an awful lot to do first.”
“You point, I’ll fetch.”
“Gather as much dry kindling and branches as you can find easily." He looked around, studying the clearing and the trees. “Don’t go far, though. I’ll rig some lines and hang our packs until we get back. Don’t want some adventurous bear to plunder the site before we’ve had a chance to enjoy it.”
“You weren’t kidding about this being bear country?” I asked, trying to keep the fear out of my voice.
“Don’t worry, buddy,” he assured me. “As long as we keep the food sealed up and out of reach, they won’t come into camp.”
“From your mouth t’ God’s ear,” I muttered.
“What was that?” he asked, sounding a little irritated.
“Nothin’, Hutch,” I replied quickly. I really didn’t want to piss him off. This was the first chance we’d had to get out of Bay City in a very long time and I wasn’t about to mess it up. I loved my partner and if being in the woods made him happy, I was more than willing to be in the woods.
I watched him loop a couple of lines over branches of two trees and begin to fashion a sort of hammock to raise all our gear well off the ground. It looked good to me, but what do I know? I started gathering the requested kindling, branches and logs, and stacking them next to the fire ring. When I got to the rock cleft at the edge of the clearing, I stopped and looked over. “Hey, Hutch,” I shouted.
“Watcha got, Starsk?” He tied off a line and hurried over to me.
I pointed down into the narrow fissure. “A latrine!”
From the subtle but definite odor, campers had been using the crack as a disposal location for their bodily eliminations for years.
“Sure hope the breeze stays in the south,” Hutch commented, dryly. “Don’t want to have to give up this perfect camp.”
I punched him lightly on the arm. Then, because neither of us had taken a potty break all morning, we unzipped and added our contributions.
“Okay, Sundance,” I said, cheerfully. “What now?”
“Well...” Hutch was clearly pondering, “since neither of us has had this kind of exercise in a long time, I suggest we have some lunch, and maybe a nap, before we go catch dinner.”
I thought I knew what he was doing and I sort of resented it. “I’m fine, Hutch. Really!”
“I know you are,” he said, kindly. “You’re in better shape than I am. You damn near ran all the way up here. But I’m tired.” He turned back to a couple of sandwiches he’d left out of the slung packs. There were two apples, too. Unwrapping a roast beef, he offered it to me.
“You’re tired, huh?” I thought maybe he was just faking it for my sake, but I took the sandwich and sat down on the ground, my back against a huge tree.
He stretched out and put his head in my lap, unwrapped his sandwich and took a bite. “You bet I am. Glad you found that stream when you did. I couldn’t have gone another mile.”
“Right." I was unconvinced.
“Starsky...” He chewed and swallowed. “We’ve got two whole days all to ourselves. I don’t want to wear either of us out in the first few hours.”
“Okay.” I ruffled his silky soft hair and took another bite of my sandwich. Huggy could make a culinary delight out of plain ol’ bread, roast beast and cheese. Or maybe it was the altitude and the exercise.
I finished mine before Hutch and started on my apple. By the time I’d eaten it, core and all - the seeds are supposed to be good for you, right? I realized Hutch was asleep. I took what was left of his meal and wrapped it back up, stuffing both items in my pocket. I leaned my head back against the tree, left my fingers in his hair, and was asleep probably in less time than it took to think about it.
When I woke up, he was looking up at me. “How long have you been awake?” I asked.
“Only a few minutes.”
“Are we late?”
“No, Starsk,” he said, twining his long fingers around my right hand on his chest. “We’ve got all the time in the world.”
“Sex now, then?”
He laughed and jumped to his feet, reached for my hand and pulled me up. “Later for that, Butch.” He smiled at my pout. “When we’re all nice and full of trout and snuggled in our sleeping bag, we’ll pleasure each other all night long, if you want.”
“I want!” I said, emphatically.
He laughed again and kissed me lightly. “Survival first, buddy. We have to catch fish!”
“I’m all hooks and flies,” I responded, eagerly.
He shot a look at me as if to say, wha'?
I had no idea what I’d meant so I just shrugged. Within a heartbeat, his expression was Explorer Scout enthused again.
“Come on, Starsky,” he urged, picking up our fishing rods from where he’d leaned them against a tree. “Time and tide, partner.”
“No tides here, Hutch,” I whined, just to make him feel good.
I snatched up the creel that had been with the rods and followed him toward the stream.
Hefting the creel, I tried to judge the weight; two pounds apiece if they were an ounce! “These’ll be enough for dinner, right?”
“We’ll catch fresh ones in the morning.” He was three feet ahead of me on the trail. “Didn’t want to keep any more tonight.”
“I know, I know,” I muttered. “You’re a founding member of ‘Spare the Trout’.”
“It’s ‘Save Our Streams’.”
“Oh yeah, I forgot.”
He’d been so quietly happy while we were fishing, I had only wanted to sit and watch him. Hutch was in his element at that stream, standing like a statue so the trout wouldn’t notice him in the shadows. He had cast right where he knew a big one was hiding, played the strike and landed the fish. Both fish. I didn’t want to do anything except soak in the sight of him. My partner. My best buddy. My lover. Could life get any better than this?
Guess I must have been daydreaming because he stopped and I stumbled onto his heels. “What th…?”
“Sh….” A finger was across his lips. “Listen.”
The sound was the strangest thing I’d ever heard. “What is it?” I asked, softly.
“It sounds like some sort of animal, keening." His answer was equally soft.
“Crying.” He was keeping his voice down, barely whispering.
“Why would an animal be crying?” I automatically matched his voice level.
“Hurt. Lost. Afraid.... All kinds of reasons.”
He began to creep forward, making no sound I could hear. I did my best to duplicate his silence.
“Sounds like it’s near the camp."
Hutch stopped at the edge of the clearing and I stepped up next to him.
A black bear… brown bear? It was whatever the hell kind of bear lives in these parts. I knew it wasn’t a grizzly, no hump. But it sure looked big! It, she, I guess, was pacing the top of the cleft, the keening sound definitely coming from her. A tiny cub was scrambling along at her feet, mewling frantically. I had the sudden fear that he’d get stepped on.
“I think there’s another cub,” Hutch whispered, so softly I could hardly hear him over the mother’s wailing. “It’s down in the crevice, and she can’t get to it. I’ll bet they were all investigating our new scent and the baby fell over.”
“Come on, Hutch. We gotta get outta here. That bear’s gonna be on a rampage.”
Hutch didn’t move. The expression in his eyes was the one he reserves for when he’s trying to get me to help him help the helpless. I don’t even know if he knows he does it, but it works every time. God! I was so scared I was babbling to myself.
“We can’t leave, Starsky. Because of us, there’s a cub down there. It’ll die if we don’t do something.”
“You don’t know it’s because of us, Hutch, it could be…”
He didn’t bother to argue with me, continuing as if I hadn’t interrupted. “She can’t reach it, and the cleft is too narrow for her to climb down.” He stared at me, willing me to agree with him.
“Do what?” I asked, reasonably. “What do you think you can do, Hutch?”
“Not me, buddy. You.” He put his rod on the ground. “I’m going to distract her. You go down and get the little guy.”
“What?” I tried, I really did, but I couldn’t keep the fear for him out of my voice.
“I’m going to scoop up the second cub and run like hell.” He might have been reciting a plan for a bust. “She’ll follow me.”
“If she catches you...” I enunciated every word, doing my best to keep my voice down, “she will kill you!”
“Then I better not let her catch me,” my incredibly brave, unbelievably- stupid-sometimes partner said, blandly.
“I’ll run in a circle.” He knelt to re-tie his boot laces. “Get the little one out of the crevice, then call me. I’ll put my cub down and split. When she figures out he’s okay, she’ll come barreling back.” He stood up and unzipped his jacket part way. “Get clear as soon as you holler at me. You don’t want to be anywhere near her baby when she gets here.”
“You’re right about that.” Something told me this was a really bad idea but I knew better than to try and talk Hutch out of it. His mind was already made up and I just had to do my part.
He took the rod and creel out of my fear-stiff fingers and put them with his own. “Neither of us can afford to be encumbered for the next few minutes.”
I put a hand on his arm. “Are you sure about this, Hutch?”
“No,” he answered, truthfully. “But I can’t stand to hear her cries. And the trapped one. They’re tearing me apart.”
“That better be a figure of speech, partner.” I said it as seriously as I’ve ever said anything in my life.
“As soon as she comes after me, go get the cub.”
He didn’t give me a chance to say ‘good luck’ or some other equally inane remark, like ‘I love you.’ He ran toward the pacing bear, keeping out of her line of sight. I think I read somewhere that bears don’t see very well. Sure hoped that was true.
Hutch scooped up the bundle of fur and stuffed it in his jacket. It let out an ear-splitting shriek.
The sow turned quickly, her poor-sighted eyes finding the figure running away with her frightened offspring, its panicked cries trailing behind. I thought I could actually recognize conflict in the creature’s expressive face: stay with her trapped baby? Or go after the one that’s been stolen?
With a shattering roar, the bear took off after Hutch.
I ran to the cleft and looked over. Instead of the one trapped cub I expected to see, though, there are two! They were huddled together on a shallow ledge about six feet below ground level. The sow’s arms hadn’t been long enough to reach either one of them. And they couldn’t crawl out by themselves.
I could hear Hutch crashing through the underbrush on a circular course maybe a hundred yards from the clearing, the bear vocalizing and thundering behind. Please, God, don’t let her catch him, I prayed silently.
I climbed down into the fissure, grabbed the first youngster by the scruff of the neck, straightened up and tossed him lightly over the rim. Bending down again, I snatched the second one. This one struggled and screamed, scratching at me with soft little claws. Shoving him inside my jacket for the moment, I climbed back to the surface.
“Hutchhhhhhhhh,” I hollered, putting the second cub with its sibling in the center of the clearing. “I got ‘em, Hutch. Put yours down and get away from her! Please?”
I jostled both cubs gently. “Call your mom, guys. She needs to come back now.”
The small bundles began mewling and crying. The vocal one growled.
I backed away to the edge of the clearing, near the tree Hutch and I had eaten our lunch and taken our nap under. I could hear the sow coming, audibly giving no quarter to any obstacle in her path.
She exploded from the trees and made a beeline for her youngsters. Sitting on the ground, she gathered both rescued cubs into her arms. After about a minute, the third little one stumbled out of the underbrush and scrambled to his mother. She pulled him into her embrace, too, and I smiled at the happy scene.
Where was Hutch, though? He should have been close behind the bear. My heart dropped to my boots. He wasn’t back and I couldn’t hear him. Hutch!
I crept around the edge of the clearing, trying not to catch the attention of the sow, who was suckling two of her cubs. The third lay, apparently exhausted, in her lap. She seemed content, for the moment.
I backtracked the trail through the woods, having no trouble following the path of destroyed shrubs and seedlings. It was farther than the hundred yards Hutch had said.
He was crumpled beside a pine, his legs out stretched, his left side leaning against the tree. He wasn’t moving.
I ran. “Hutch.” I dropped to my knees and did my best to keep the panic out of my voice.
“Got caught in the underbrush."
His right shoulder and upper arm were ripped by four parallel claw marks. The bear had apparently swiped at him with her right paw. She hadn’t gotten a good enough hold to bring him down, but her claws had raked across his back after she lost contact with his shoulder.
My eyes instinctively traced the trail of his blood back into the trees. This was as far as he’d gotten, trying to make it back to camp.
“She heard the cub, though.” His breath was shallow and I could tell, from the clenched hands, and pale, sweating face, he was in an awful lot of pain. “Good thing your little guy squalled when he did.”
I wasn’t really paying attention, I was staring at his injuries. “God, Hutch, you’re bleeding bad.” I choked the words out.
“I know." He straightened a little. “Cut my jacket and shirt sleeves, please? Roll them up so I can hold the fabric against the cuts I can reach. Can you bunch the rest and put pressure on those back there?”
I was already digging my pocket knife out. My hands were shaking so badly, though, I couldn’t get my thumbnail in the tiny groove.
“Breathe, Starsk,” Hutch said, softly. “It’s going to be okay.”
“You’re the one that’s hurt, pal, and you’re trying to comfort me?” All my fear was in my voice.
“You’re my champion, babe. You’ll get us through this.”
The love in Hutch’s eyes was enough to melt my soul and it gave me the courage I needed to get myself under control. I opened the knife and, with steady hands, cut the sleeves. “Hang on, buddy. I’ll get you back to camp. The bear and her cubs should be gone by the time we get there.”
“You got him, right, Starsk?”
“There were two of ‘em.” I rolled the sleeves carefully and positioned them so that Hutch could hold them in place with his left hand. “First one was no problem, probably scared out of his gourd.” Pulling the shirttail out of his jeans, I folded it and the jacket up until they covered the slices across his back. I put my arm around him, pressing the homemade bandage in place. “The second one didn’t like me at all. He’s the one that called his mom away from you.”
“I’ll be sure to thank him, if I ever see him again.” Hutch was plainly trying to put as much ‘normal’ in his voice as possible.
“Can you stand up?”
“Not by myself I don’t think,” he admitted.
“Never by yourself, Hutch,” I told him, firmly. “Never.”
I got him to his feet and, keeping my arm firmly around his back, his left arm over my shoulder, helped him negotiate the trampled path back to the clearing. We had to stop once so he could rest, but we got there.
The bear and her offspring hadn’t left. She was apparently sound asleep on the north side, her back against a tree, the three cubs nestled in her lap. They, too, seemed to be asleep.
“I don’t know what we’re going to do when she wakes up,” I said, softly. “We can’t leave until I get the bleeding stopped.”
“We’ll have to wait and see what happens, Starsk.”
I got Hutch over to our luncheon tree and eased him down on the ground, on his left side. Lowering the hammock as quickly as I could, I grabbed both our packs. Rifling through mine, I found the first aid kit. I knew there wasn’t much in it that was going to be of any real help, but I opened it anyway. Four gauze patches. Some tape. Four Bandaids. Tweezers. Kid scissors. A snake bite kit. Terrific! A small bottle of Tylenol and a tube of antibiotic cream.
“There’s a clean white t-shirt in my pack,” Hutch said. “See if it’ll stretch across the cuts on my back.”
I found the shirt. Lifting the rolled, slashed fabrics away from his still bleeding back, I couldn’t keep a grimace off my face. Unfortunately, he saw it.
“That bad, huh?”
“It ain’t good, buddy,” I told him. “But don’t worry, I’ll think of something. You’re going to be okay, Hutch. I promise.”
“I know." Damn if he wasn’t smiling. “You’ve never let me down before.”
“Ain’t gonna start now, either!”
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw movement, spun on my knees and almost fell over. The bear was shuffling slowly toward us across the thirty foot clearing. I scrambled for my pack and pulled out my Beretta. Before I could cock it and flick the safety off, Hutch put his hand on the gun.
“Don’t hurt her. None of this was her fault.”
“But Hutch --”
“Look at her ears. They’re forward, not laid back. She’s not angry anymore. She’s curious.”
“She smells your blood.”
“Undoubtedly. But her eyes are calm,” Hutch pointed out.
“What should I do?” I asked my best friend, having no ideas myself.
I put my hand on his hip. “Not gonna happen. I’m stayin’ right here.”
“I have a feeling about her, and I need you to trust me,” he said, firmly. “Move away. Please. Gather up the cubs and try to keep them occupied. Don’t let them distract her.”
“Please, just do it."
I’ve never been able to deny him. Especially when I didn’t have a better idea or thought. I leaned down and kissed his temple. “I won’t go far.”
“Counting on that."
I stuck the gun in the back of my jeans, crawled around him, stood up behind the tree and moved parallel to the bear’s approach until I was out of her peripheral vision. I gathered the three cubs into a clutch in the middle of the clearing and, fastening my eyes on Hutch and the bear, rolled the small bundles of energy around on the ground, encouraging them to tussle with each other.
The sow went down on her elbows and knees next to Hutch, her long nose sniffing at his bloody shoulder.
Hutch looked at me, all his love in his eyes, and rolled slowly onto his stomach, closer to the bear.
I sucked in my breath and waited, my right hand absently playing with the cubs, my left gripping the weapon in my waistband. What good I thought it would do I have no idea. I simply needed to feel the familiar shape.
I was seeing stars from lack of oxygen by the time the bear finally moved. She nosed the blood soaked t-shirt and jacket remnants away and sniffed. When I thought I might scream from the tension, she extended her long, supple tongue and licked Hutch’s shoulder. Emptying my lungs, I sucked in another breath and held it.
“It’s okay, Starsk,” Hutch whispered. “She’s trying to help. Stay there and play with the little ones.”
The bear inched closer so that she could reach the long slashes on Hutch’s back. Carefully, as gently as I’d ever seen a mother animal tend her baby on Discovery Channel, or anywhere else, that sow bear licked each individual wound. Wounds she, herself, had inflicted.
“She doesn’t remember, Starsk.” Hutch had apparently read my mind. “She has no idea I was the one who stole her cub. She only knows my scent is on him, and he’s safely back with her. She also knows I’m hurt and she’s doing what her instinct tells her to do.”
The huge brown carnivore continued to lick Hutch’s shoulder and back while the sun sank behind the trees.
“Saliva has healing properties,” Hutch said, his voice sounding stronger. “All kinds of animals are known to lick their own injuries and those of others in their family group.” He lifted his head a little and looked at me. “Remember what we read about that new movie, ‘Quest for Fire’? It’s supposed to have a scene where the cave woman licks the wounded arm of her companion.”
“We should go see it, Hutch.” I was trying to sound positive.
“We will,” he said, firmly. “Can you leave the cubs long enough to go get the fish, and the gear?” Hutch asked, keeping his voice low and smooth.
“I think so,” I answered, not sure at all. “They’re roughhousing, as if they didn’t have any memory of what they’ve been through.”
“They probably don’t.”
“You need food,” I said, walking slowly to where Hutch and I had left our dinner and equipment. “I’ll cook the fish into a soup. Hopefully you’ll be able to keep it down.”
I went to the fire pit and began arranging kindling and small logs, just as I’d watched Hutch do on every camping trip we’d ever taken. I didn’t have any newspaper but the sticks and twigs were so dry they’d probably catch right away without it.
The cubs seemed inordinately curious about what I was doing. I had to keep gently shoving them away and encouraging them to play with each other. My attention constantly returned to Hutch, though; the bear was still ministering to his injuries. He almost appeared to be asleep.
“Hutch?” I whispered.
He opened his eyes and, when he smiled, he looked peaceful.
“Are you doin’ okay?” I asked, softly.
“Better than I’d have thought possible, an hour ago,” he answered. “You should feel this. It’s like moist suede!”
“Pass,” I said. “I sincerely hope never to have the experience. But,” I relented, “I want you to tell me all about it. When we get home.”
“I’ll have to make up some new words, I think. I’ve never felt anything like this before.”
The sun had set and the western sky was showing off by the time the sow finished, or tired of her actions.
I had gotten the fire going well and put a pot of water on top of the grill. After I’d cleaned the fish, cutting them into small chunks, I’d dropped them in the steaming liquid. Making sure I’d crushed the bones to mush first, I’d offered the scraps to the cubs and they had gobbled them all.
Mama bear got up and meandered over to her babies, seeming to be totally disinterested in me, for which I was extremely grateful. The younglings followed her to the tree she’d been leaning against earlier. When she sat down and rested against it, they scrambled up into her lap, fighting each other for a teat. Two were successful, the third would have to wait.
Dipping a cup into the thick soup I hurried to Hutch, who was trying to sit up. I put the cup down, dug a clean t-shirt out of his pack, spread it across his back and helped him lean against my chest. Pulling out a blanket, I threw it over his legs and lower body, tucking it under his arms.
I left the shoulder slashes uncovered, for now, and couldn’t believe the difference in their appearance. The bleeding had stopped and all four cuts had closed up, their edges seated against each other. No doctor could have done better with sutures. I couldn’t help wondering if anyone would believe our story when we got back to Bay City. Hutch had the injuries to prove the encounter happened, but the bear’s attentions? Nobody would believe that!
I held the cup to Hutch’s lips while he drank half the contents. His hands came up, weakly, and covered mine.
“That’s really good, Starsk.” He tilted his head up to look at me. “We’ll make a wilderness cook out of you yet.”
“Nothin’ to it, Hutchinson,” I waved casually with my free hand. “Water ‘n’ trout, some salt and pepper.”
“Could have used a little dill,” he said, smart alecky.
“I’ll mark my recipe."
I dug the Tylenol bottle out of my pocket, uncapped it and put four into his palm. He didn’t say anything and swallowed them with the rest of the soup.
“We need to get you off this mountain, Hutch,” I said. “We don’t have enough of the right kind of supplies. And mama over there notwithstanding, you need medical help.”
“I know.” Hutch shifted to get more comfortable against me. “But we can’t leave tonight. I’d never make it.”
“I didn’t say tonight.” I stroked his left arm as soothingly as I could manage. “I’m beat. This post-adrenaline letdown ain’t no fun. We both need sleep.”
“I do, Starsk,” he admitted. “That’s for sure.”
“Okay, that’s settled,” I said, forcefully, and he chuckled. “Yeah, the tenderfoot takes charge. Who’d of thought, right?”
“You’re doing great, partner.” He put his hand over mine.
“Thanks,” I said, sincerely. “First thing tomorrow, I’ll catch breakfast. Maybe you’ll be able to eat a little solid food by that time. Then I’ll make a travois.”
He looked up at me, wincing a little at the strain on his wounds. “That’s a good idea, Starsk. I didn’t realize you know what a travois is.”
“I saw ‘Centennial,’ Hutch,” I reminded him. “We watched it together.”
“So we did.”
“We’ve got enough long branches around here. Plenty of lines. I’ll stretch the tent between the poles and put the sleeping bag on top. You can curl up in it and catch some z’s on the way down.”
“I’ll keep the backpacks with me,” he offered. “That way, you won’t have to carry either of them.”
“You’re reading my mind, partner."
“That’s ‘cause you make it so easy.” He gifted me with his first smile since lunch.
“You’re feeling better, aren’t you?” I asked, returning his smile.
“I really am. And I’m still hungry. Is there more soup?”
“Plenty.” He managed to sit up on his own. I got up and poured two full cups from the pot still on the fire, went back and got Hutch settled in my arms again. He took his cup and drank it without help. I wouldn’t have believed the improvement in such a short time, if I hadn’t seen it myself. I slowly drank my soup while he did the same.
“Think you could try the rest of your lunch?” I dug the two items out of my pocket.
He shook his head. “Not tonight. You eat it.”
“Okay. But I’d like you to finish the soup, if you can.”
“Bring the pot over here then, so you don’t have to keep running back and forth,” he suggested. “And so that I can have more time in your arms.”
He smiled up at me and I kissed him. “You got it.”
I ate his leftover sandwich and apple. He drank the rest of the liquid trout.
We woke up before dawn and the pale eastern sky was light enough for me to check Hutch’s injuries. His back and shoulder were extremely stiff. The slashes, though, were all closed up and, unbelievably, there was no sign of infection. He didn’t seem to be running a fever and his color was good. When he took his own pulse, he said it was ‘normal.’ I helped him crawl out of the tent and get to his feet.
The bear and her cubs had slept against their tree all night, zonked out themselves. Hutch’s and my stumbling around didn’t wake them.
Hutch was moving better than I would have dared hope when we made our way to the cleft. But he seemed a little weak and hesitant, as if he was in a strange body. I kept my arm around his waist, to make him feel secure. When I realized he had no strength in his right hand, I helped him unzip. I could tell it embarrassed him, so I played it light. “Gonna be a beautiful day,” I said, “perfect for a jounce down the mountain on a travois. Doncha think?” I got him ready before concentrating on my own business.
He seemed grateful that I wasn’t paying any attention to his ineptitude. He fumbled for a minute, after he’d drained the lizard, finally turning to me, a childlike vulnerability in his eyes. “Need your assistance again here. Please.”
I smiled my love at him. “Hutch, after all the stuff we’ve had to do for each other over the years, this is nothin’.” He returned my smile as I helped him get himself back inside and all closed up. “Arm’s not cooperating this morning, huh?” I asked, concerned.
“It’s just a little stiff,” he assured me. And maybe himself.
“After what it’s been through,” I said, in all sincerity, “I’m not the least bit surprised.”
Back at the tent, I put the double sleeping bag on the ground. Carefully, he laid down on it. I spread a blanket over him and tucked him in.
“Leave the blanket loose over my shoulder,” Hutch requested, quietly, “so that she can push it back if she comes to investigate again.”
“And you’ll let her, of course."
“Do I really have a choice?”
I didn’t bother to answer, since I didn’t have one. “Are you going to be okay here while I go catch some fish?”
“I’ll be fine, Starsk,” he said, reassuringly. “If she didn’t shred me yesterday, when she had the perfect chance, she won’t do it now.”
Not feeling the least bit comfortable with the situation, but having nothing else to suggest, I went fishing.
I got back to camp with six rainbows as the sun was cresting the trees.
Mama bear was awake and two of the cubs were suckling. The third rolled around on the ground, making cute little cub noises, waiting his turn.
Breakfast was as much broiled trout as Hutch and I could eat. Neither of us thought the jerky or canned stew we’d brought would be a good idea. The fish was nutritious and filling. Hutch seemed to enjoy it, even without dill.
I packed some of the leftovers in the Saran Wrap from our sandwiches, for the trip home. The rest I put down near mama bear, who was feeding number three.
She dumped the kid unceremoniously and ate the fish ravenously. After she cleaned up the last morsel, she corralled her children and led them into the woods, presumably to do their business and morning ablutions. About ten minutes later, they were all back. She shuffled toward Hutch, who obligingly, rolled face down on top of the sleeping bag.
My fears were contained this time but I kept a wary eye on the pair while I broke camp and entertained the siblings.
The sow licked Hutch’s wounds thoroughly and carefully again. She seemed to be lingering over her chore as if reluctant to complete it. I knew I shouldn’t be attributing human emotions to the animal but I couldn’t help myself. She was being so damn… kind.
Suddenly, I felt like a cartoon character in a comic strip with a dialog balloon over his head. ‘Why the hell didn’t I think of it before?’ was printed in bold black on the white oval.
Reaching into my backpack, I unzipped the innermost compartment, taking out my camera. I snapped picture after picture of my partner being tended to by the wild animal that had injured him. Now people would believe us!
Hutch smiled at me and I captured his sweet expression of wonder and contentment.
Finishing the roll, I took it out of the camera and placed the canister safely in the padded compartment. Couldn’t have anything happen to that treasure.
I finished breaking camp. When I had everything packed up and ready, I set off to find the two long poles I’d need, plus a couple of cross pieces. It took longer than I thought it would, to get them all trimmed and cut to the correct lengths. By the time I got back to the clearing, I’d been gone over an hour.
Stopping at the edge of the trees, I stared. Mama bear was leaning back against our pine, clearly asleep again, her legs stretched out in front of her and her arms hanging limply at her sides. She looked as if she didn’t have a bone in her body.
Hutch was in her lap, his undamaged left side leaning against her chest. His long legs, bent at the knees, were off to her left side. His hands were under his knees, between calves and thighs. The position probably acted like a sling for his right shoulder, but it also provided a snug space for the three baby bears that were balled up in his lap. My partner and his charges were softly snoring.
I laid my poles on the ground and went to my backpack. Getting the camera out again, I loaded a new roll and shot every frame. Since my subjects were asleep, I didn’t worry too much about disturbing them. I crept around and took long shots and close ups from every angle. This roll, too, went into the inside pocket of the backpack.
Hutch and I would laugh, make love, and remember yesterday and today for the rest of our lives with these pictures all over our house. When we got a house.
I spread the blanket lightly over Hutch’s back and shoulders because even with the sow’s body heat warming his left side, his right was exposed, and it was a chilly morning.
I loaded my last roll of film into the camera, just in case we ran into Bigfoot on the way down the mountain. You never know. Then I made the travois.
By the time I’d finished, Hutch and the critters were stirring. Mama twitched and lifted a paw to scratch her nose.
Hutch awoke with a start, thankfully aware enough of the situation not to make any sudden movements. He took his probably-numb fingers from under his knees and flexed them. Looking over at me, he had an unreadable expression on his face. “Guess I fell asleep.”
“Must be that tree.” I grinned. “I think it’s enchanted.”
“Something around here sure is.” Hutch gazed down at the small lives curled in his lap.
“We need to go, partner.” I got slowly to my feet. “It’s going to take hours to get back to the car. And then more hours to get home.”
“I know.” Hutch gently scooped the cubs up and laid them in their mother’s lap, getting carefully off her legs.
The little ones began to claw their sleepy way up the sow’s chest, always hungry.
We made our final trip to the crevice, my arm still around Hutch’s waist. He was moving well, his shoulder didn’t seem as stiff and his hand was working better. He didn’t need my help, before or after, this time.
“We can’t ever come back here, Starsk."
“I know. I thought about it while I was fishing,” I replied. “And we can’t tell anyone where it happened, either.”
Finishing up, we headed slowly back.
“If we identified this place in any way," Hutch continued, “the curious…”
“The adventuresome…” I contributed.
“The trouble makers…” he added, realistically.
“Would come swarming up here,” I finished.
“They’d want to get a close look at her.”
“And her cubs. Bet they’d even try to pet her.” I shuddered.
“And her cubs,” Hutch added.
“Somebody’d get killed… Or shredded.”
“In either case,” he went on, “the rangers would have to put her down.”
I stood with my arm around him and looked at the peaceful bears. “Nope, can’t tell anyone.”
“We claim total ignorance, right?"
“Right,” I agreed, wholeheartedly. “We have no idea where we were. I was leading and got us completely lost.”
“Could never find our way back.” Hutch’s soft smile was conspiratorial. “It’s especially important that we don’t mention the privy.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I’ll bet every hiker who’s ever been on this trail knows about it.”
“It’d be a dead giveaway.”
“I think maybe I led us into Nevada,” I said, facetiously. “Didn’t we pass a state line notice somewhere on the trail?”
“Nevada would be good,” Hutch agreed. “We’ll have to think of a reason why I needed to kidnap one of the cubs, making the mother come after me, while you rescued the other two.”
“We’ve got all day, Hutch, you’ll come up with something.” I was sure he would; he always did.
I got him settled on the travois, while Mama B. nursed her babies. We were almost ready to leave and I was wondering how Hutch would react, not being able to say ‘goodbye,’ when the sow shook off her cubs and got up.
With the little ones trailing, she lumbered across the clearing toward us. I stood as still as a doorpost, the travois poles on either side of my feet. Hutch was cocooned behind me. The bear stopped next to me and sniffed my hand. I wanted to reach out and pet her so badly I could almost taste the need. I managed to restrain myself but it was a close thing.
“Starsk?” Hutch couldn’t see either the bear or me.
“Shhh…” I shushed. “She’s right here,” I whispered.
The animal took a few shambling steps and stood next to Hutch. Lowering her huge head, she sniffed his hair. Apparently satisfied with his scent, she stuck out that beautiful tongue and licked his face.
After that, she ignored us completely. She growled at her cubs, cuffed the most rambunctious one lightly and headed into the woods. The three bundles of fur scrambled after her.
“Damn good thing I’m not the jealous type.” I picked up the travois poles.
Behind me, Hutch chuckled and it was the most glorious sound I’d ever heard.