The ground didn’t seem wet at all from six feet higher up. But Tom wasn’t that high up from it anymore.
Instead, he was on it, moving slowly through the forest in short scrabbling bursts. He rested the right side of his face against the surface. He felt the sharp prick of pine needles, but he made no move to brush them away. The needles were damp, like everything else a millimeter, or so, beneath the ground cover. He fleetingly thought about how much the surface changed entirely along with such short distances.
Leaves and small broken branches in one area, and then smooth prickly needles and cones just a little further on. The reality of his situation came crashing back as pain surged upward from his damaged thigh.
The condition and appearance of the flora had been much more interesting to think about before. Before he’d been shot. Before he’d been forced to flee by crawling along weakly on this stomach. Before his life, little left that there might be changed forever.
The leg burned like it was caught inside some horrid oven. The bullet had taken him in the thigh as he’d turned to run. It had gone clean through, leaving a small hole in the front and a larger one in the back.
Tom knew that if it hadn’t gone straight through he wouldn’t have survived as long as he had. He also knew, in spite of tying the wound off with a severed strap from his backpack, that he was leaving a trail of blood for his pursuers. He could do nothing about that, except to keep moving.
“Please God, get me through this. Don’t let them find me,” he gasped out, surging forward another ten or twelve feet, dragging the damaged limb along. The three men after him were hunters. It wasn’t likely in the least that they’d somehow fail to be able to track down a bleeding man who couldn’t walk, much less run.
Tom dug both hands deep into the needles before him, in preparation for making another lurch forward.
“How about a little help here Lord,” he said out loud, his face pressed against the earth. He looked up slowly to get his bearings or find a place to hide, before moving. A bear stared back at him.
The bear was about the size of one of those small pick-up trucks made by the Japanese. The bear grunted. Steam seemed to come out both of its nostrils. Its head was no more than two feet from Tom’s own. They stared at one another until Tom buried his face back in the pine needles.
“Thank you, Lord,” he whispered, “very painful but very quick. He closed his eyes to wait for the end. In and out he breathed his chest heaving atop the wet ground. He counted to sixteen. One full minute. He brought his head up and then squinted through narrow slits to see if the bear was still there, which it was.
With a great grunt, the bear sat down, its head rising up to six or seven feet above Tom’s own. Tom sniffed the thing’s fur, it was so close. He was surprised that it smelled like pine and berries. The bear leaned down and sniffed back. Tom almost choked in fear.
“Okay,” he said, “you smell just fine. I know I smell like blood. So what are you going to do? You’re a predator and I’m the prey. Well?”
The bear regarded him, its body facing away. First one big black eye looked into Tom’s own, then the bear turned its head so the other could do the same. Tom was trying to come to terms with what he knew of bears, for the move seemed totally unbearlike, when the cub stuck its head around the big bear’s stomach.
The thing stared at him too, resting its jaw comfortably on its mother’s stomach.
“Oh great,” Tom muttered in resignation, “a mother bear with her cub. I’ve heard about this. Can things get any worse?” He turned his head up to try to peer between the branches of the trees toward where he knew God had to be watching and laughing.
The cub raised itself up and eased around the monster bear’s bulk. It trotted on all fours over to Tom. It sat down by his face, and then stretched out a front paw, pushing it once against Tom’s head.
“Human,” Tom said, weakly, but unable to keep from smiling. “The enemy.
Destroyer of forests, worlds, and even bears,” he went on quietly. The cub stared down, and then pushed Tom’s head a few more times.
A distant sound came through the silent forest. Tom wondered if it was easier to hear because he was so close to the ground. He made out the sound of a human voice.
“There’s big trouble coming this way,” he warned the bears, but the big bear had already come to full alert. Moving so fast it was hard for Tom to comprehend, the huge animal pushed him aside with one great paw, then slid its cub up against the base trunk of the full-grown pine. It then ran directly toward the direction from which the sounds had come.
Tom groaned in pain. He had been thrown a good ten feet he figured, and the process of travel had not been gentle. He curled into a ball, trying to somehow minimize the agonizing pain in his thigh. He rocked back and forth, grasping his upper leg firmly with both hands. The bear cub mewled at him plaintively.
“Great, just great,” Tom intoned, when he could get out words, “I get to babysit you until your Mom comes back to eat the stored meat. Helluva deal.”
The cub left the trunk of the tree and ambled to his side. It sat next to him and began to lick the blood from his suppurating thigh wound.
“Now I’m being consumed by a bear cub,” Tom forced out between grated teeth. “My epitaph is not going to be very macho,” he said. The cub stopped licking and then curled up to force its way under his arm.
Tom let the little animal have its way. He was powerless to do much of anything accept deal with the pain, he knew.
“I was a Marine once, you know,” he said to the cub. “I coulda taken you with one paw tied behind my back,” he tried, quoting from The Wizard of Oz. The cub was unmoved by the humor, closing its eyes to nap.
Three loud cracks penetrated the forest, followed by a human scream. The cub pressed itself deeper into Tom’s side, but did not open its eyes. Instinctively, Tom hugged the bear closer. He then waited and watched. The forest had become still, once again. Minutes passed before there was sound. A soft wind preceded the breaking of boughs and flying of broken branches.
There was no stealth in the huge mother bear’s return. When she stopped and fell to the earth the ground seemed to bounce and move. The bear lay on her side, both eyes boring into Toms. A long groan issued up from her lungs. Tom could tell that the bear was laboring badly. A trickle of blood began to stream from the side of her great muzzle. Tom shifted uncomfortably. The cub remained under his arm with its eyes closed.
“Sorry,” Tom said, looking into the big mother bear’s soulful eyes.
“I was fishing by the side of the lake back there. Another fisherman was out in a boat, about a quarter-mile offshore. Three hunters came to the edge of the water, laughing and making all kinds of noise.
They were drinking. One fella said to the other two that he bet he could hit the guy way out in the boat. The others said he couldn’t do it. I just stood nearby, my rod over the water. The one guy put his rifle up. Way up he pointed the thing. Then he fired.
It seemed like so long before the man in the boat fell sideways into the water. I stood frozen. I couldn’t believe what I’d seen. Then the hunters spotted me. And now here we are.”
Tom stared into the bear’s eyes for any glint of understanding, knowing he would find none. He wondered why he had had to say what he’d said. The big bear blinked slowly once, which caused Tom to physically wince. Red froth came from both of the bear’s nostrils.
“They got you in the lights. Lung shot. You can’t survive that out here in the wild,” Tom remarked, wondering why he could not stop talking to the animal.
The sound of breaking branches and human voices came over the rise in the direction the bear had come back from. The sounds awakened the cub, but he didn’t move from Tom’s grasp.
“If you could do something about those clowns there, then I’d be happy to care for your cub,” Tom said, tentatively, like he was bargaining with the devil.
“What do you think?” he said up to the broken sky above him, reflecting for a few seconds about how he had never spoken to bears or God before in his life, and yet, in only a short period of time such conversation seemed completely normal.
More and closer sounds came from the closing hunters. The great mother bear lurched to her feet, twisting around as she came up. Tom saw at least four bloody holes in her fur. She glanced briefly over toward Tom and the cub, and then took off straight into the bracken before her, toward where the sounds were coming from.
In seconds there were more shots, then a scream, and another longer scream. And then there was silence. No birds, no wind, not even a whisper of sound could be heard. Tom clutched the cub closer to him. The cub did not resist.
The normal sounds of the forest returned slowly. Tom waited with the cub but nothing happened. After a while, he disengaged himself from the small bear and then fashioned a crutch by breaking small branches from a larger one. Using the pine for balance he got himself erect and found he could limp. With great pain, but he could get by.
It took a long hour to reach the place he’d left the rover. The cub followed along, exploring here and there but always returning to his side. It took another half hour to reach the bait shop in the small town.
He got out of the car and then leaned against the side to gather his energy.
The cub stared through the back window into his eyes. It sat on the seat, both paws up against the pad under the window, as if it was a small thick, and well-furred human. He smiled at the animal, shaking his head, before limping badly into the store.
A young man greeted him from behind the counter. Tom used the counter for support, relieving his agony a bit.
“What happened to you mister?” the young man asked, leaning out to take in Tom’s bloody thigh and filthy exterior.
“I don’t really know,” Tom told him, “some trouble back at the lake with the fishing. I need two gallons of milk, the whole stuff, and some baby bottles with the junk it takes to use them.”
The boy ran enthusiastically to gather up the items. While he was gathering Tom pulled a first aid kit off a nearby shelf along with some extra tape and bandages.
“What’s the milk for?” the kid asked, once he had returned and finished bagging all the items. “You gotta baby with you?”
“Ah, no,” Tom said, not having thought about being asked such a question. “I got a pet. Of sorts. Kinda like a cat, a big cat, but not a cat, if you know what I mean.”
“A pet? Milk for your pet cat? What’s its name?” the boy asked.
Tom stared at the boy, taking in his open and honest appearance. A name tag was centered along the middle of the top of his crisply clean apron. The boy’s name was Herschel Stanton.
“Herschel,” Tom blurted out, his face suddenly breaking into a faint smile. “Its name is Herschel.”
“Herschel?” the boy repeated, in question and with a bit of awe, “that’s my name too.” He fingered his nametag when he said the words.
Tom gathered the plastic bags holding all the gear in his left hand, put the crutch carefully under his right arm, and started for the door. He could see the bear through the glass of the door and the rover. It sat as before, confidently expecting his return.
“Hey mister,” the kid at the counter said. “Where’d you get the name for your pet? Did you read my name tag?”
Tom didn’t turn back, but his smile became bigger as he made his way.
“Nope. Got the name from God,” he said over his shoulder.