There are worse things than bears up in the mountains.
The cabin in the woods had been abandoned for years, but one night, a candle burned in the window. I assumed it was a couple of local teenagers - the place had been a make-out spot back when I was in high school. It had smelled of damp and decay even then, but beggars can’t be choosers. I made a note to check back later, make sure the candle was put out properly. It would be a shame for the place to burn down, decrepit as it was. I vividly remembered my first time, right there on a filthy bare mattress surrounded by the stale smell of beer and piss. Must have been, what, twenty years ago? Her sweaty hair spread wildly around her shoulders, the red of her lips as they parted with every moan. Ah, for the thrills of youth. Such bittersweet nostalgia.
I continued on up the trail towards my summer cabin, pausing occasionally to check my traps. No luck that night, but it was still early in the season. I was in no great hurry, my pantry was well stocked and I had my latest book to finish editing. It felt good just to be back in the mountains again, where the air didn’t trigger my asthma and the scent of pine needles and life surrounded me like a comforter. Here I could breathe, here I could write… here I could be my truest self.
I checked the doors and windows before I went inside – habitual since an unfortunate encounter with a particularly determined Grizzly bear. I guess he saw me as an easy meal – it tickled me to think how close the hunter came to being the hunted. Lucky I was holding my shotgun that day, or I wouldn’t be here to write about it now. I patted him on the head as I hung my keys from his paw as I walked inside. $500 well spent, having him stuffed and mounted like that. It does one good to be reminded of their own mortality once in a while.
The rest of the cabin was more tastefully decorated. I have a fondness for Mid-century minimalist; teak wood and sleek lines everywhere. My kitchen was the focal point, of course. It was here I created my most inspired dishes, using foraged herbs, berries and mushrooms that I gathered on my daily walks. I remember that night I was carrying my basket, filled with some tempting morels and sprigs of chives, rosemary and black garlic. The first of the wild strawberries were ripe too, tiny and tarter than their store-bought cousins, far better in a savoury dish. I sang along to the music blaring in my headphones as I set up my workstation, muddling the berries with a dash of balsamic vinegar to make a quick salad dressing. The garlic I roasted whole, sprinkled with sea salt and coated in olive oil. Mouth-watering, if I say so myself. If it tasted half as good as it smelled, this one would be in my next cookery book for sure.
I sat on the porch to eat, turning off the music so it didn’t distract my other senses. I made a mental note of potential wine pairings that might compliment the dish. It would taste better with fresh meat, of course. Something was always lost in the thawing process, the texture not quite the same. I planned to set more traps further down the mountain, where the bigger game tended to be found.
I was about to head back indoors when I heard a scream. Female, high pitched and clearly terrified. It came from down trail. I dropped my napkin and grabbed my hunting rifle and shotgun, hurrying towards the panicked cries. Dumb kids, wandering about the woods at night without a care for all the predators lurking in the shadows. Probably attracted the attention of a mountain lion or something – there was a mother and cubs in a cave not more than mile away. If they were lucky I’d reach them before they lost anything too vital.
The cabin was dark as I ran by, the candle extinguished now. The screams came from deeper in the forest, somewhere down towards the stream. I cursed my luck; the stupid kids must have stumbled into one of my traps.
I reached the tree line and observed them for a minute. The boy was unconscious, his mangled leg trapped in the jaws of a bear trap. The girl was shaking him, blood all over her shirt, panic in her eyes. So scared, so alone. What kind of a parent allows their children to run wild all over a mountain like that? She was right to be scared. There were worse things than bears in these woods at night.
I turned on my flashlight and called out to her.
“What’s going on? I heard screaming! Are you okay, Miss?”
Just the right level of concern. She smiled, wiping tears away with the back of her arm.
“It’s my boyfriend! Jake got stuck in this trap, and I can’t pull it off! He’s bleeding bad, please help!”
I pushed her gently to one side, using the barrel of my rifle to prise open the trap. The teeth glinted wickedly, blood dripping from every jagged point. I set it to one side, focusing on the boy. Holes in his leg pumped thick scarlet blood, his face was almost grey. I took off my belt, using it to make a tourniquet. The bleeding slowed, then stopped. Beside me in the grass, the girl was quieting down, her cries just soft hiccups now.
“Will he be okay? Why won’t he wake up?”
“He’s in shock. These bear traps are pretty brutal, his leg’ll be shattered to pieces, no doubt. What were you kids doing in these woods at night? Don’t you know how dangerous it is?”
She looked down, a tear trickling down her dirt-streaked cheek. “We didn’t mean any harm. We just wanted to have some fun.”
I looked them over, trying to decide what to do. Jake was pretty big, muscular. A football player, no doubt. She was a perky little thing, probably barely 100lbs soaking wet. Locals, too. What a mess.
“This trap looks ancient,” I lied. “Probably set by the people who owned that old cabin up the path a ways. Let’s head back to my cabin and radio the ranger’s office for help.”
She stared up at me with wide eyes. “We can’t leave him!”
“Well, we can’t carry him, either. He’s gotta be 250lbs at least. You can wait here if you’d rather, but you’d be safer with me. There’s a lion lives just over yonder. Got cubs to feed.”
She shivered, hugging her arms around herself protectively.
“You coming or not?”
She nodded, following as I led the way back up towards the footpath. It was 20 minutes before we reached the cabin, and I smiled to see her fear when she saw old Grizzly guarding the door.
“He can’t hurt you, kid,” I told her, locking my guns back in their case. “Not anymore. Doesn't even have his claws. Let me put the kettle on, you could use a hot drink.”
While the water boiled I radioed down to the rangers. Lenny was on duty, he and I go way back, played baseball together as kids. He promised to send the helicopter out and I told him I’d bring the girl down safely next morning after she’d rested up a little.
She huddled on the couch, and I gave her a cup of herbal tea. She grimaced as she took a sip.
“I know, it’s bitter. But it’s good for shock. Drink it down, you’ll feel better for it. I’ll go find you something clean to wear.”
When I returned she was asleep, sucking her thumb like a baby. She looked even younger than before, and as I stripped her bloody tee-shirt off her and saw her ribs poking through her skin, I knew I’d made the right decision. I’d take her into town in the morning, hand her over to her worried parents and be a local hero for a while. The fancy chef from Manhattan who saved the star football player and the pretty cheerleader. I’d tell the local paper that it was dangerous for kids to play in the woods, who knew what old trapper equipment was still out there? For a while the mountain would be mine again, to enjoy in solitude.
After all, my pantry was full, and the tourists would return any day now, plump from a winter of inactivity. Hunting Season was almost here.
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Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!
Original narrative & well developed characters