Ernie Gibbs stared
at the track pressed into the soft earth beside the tiny
stream. After a long time, he looked away from it to stare
off into the heavy growth of spruce and pine surrounding
the trail. It was a ridiculous track to find in these mountains,
in this day and age. A hoax? Maybe in Montana, or northern
Idaho, but not likely even there. Certainly not in the south-central
mountains of Colorado, not in the twenty-first century.
Not even in the
nineteenth century. This track was the size of a dinner plate,
a large one. The claw-marks extended four inches and more
from the toe-pads. The track was deep, more than twice as
deep as his booted size ten beside it. A grizzly track, a
damn big grizzly track, when there hadn’t been a grizzly
in this part of the Rockies in half a century.
He cast about
and found other marks. Concealed under the thick, springy
layer of pine needles were three others. The needles themselves
still had a trace of bear musk under their loam-and-pine
scent. It wasn’t a hoax, then. The bear had been drinking
from the little stream, and not long ago. It was at least
Gibbs had been
hiking, hunting and guiding in these mountains since he was
a kid. He certainly hadn’t expected to encounter anything
like a grizzly on this trip. He was two-and-a-half days from
the trailhead and a three-day walk from the nearest road.
This bear could only be trouble.
“It must have
wandered down from up north,” he said out loud, talking to
himself in the manner of men who spent much of their time
alone. But what did it eat? A big grizzly took a lot of feeding
and the mountains this far south were sparse pickings for
it. Fish, berries, deer, elk?
Sure, the mountains
had all those. Just not enough to feed a ton-plus eating
machine. More plentiful would be cattle, sheep, hikers, skiers
and snow-mobilers. And garbage, lots of second homes and
cabins up in these mountains now, and none of them grizzly-proof.
It was early summer, how would such a monster have come so
far with no one noticing?
The forest was
quiet, but not too quiet. He could hear the rustling of squirrels
in the trees, the soft calls of day-time birds, the inevitable
tinkling of the water making its way over rocks. Gibbs himself
was a quiet hiker, a habit formed by years of tracking and
hunting in the trees. If there was a grizzly here, it probably
hadn’t heard him, though it might have smelled him.
That didn’t matter,
Gibbs decided. He was near the bottom of a small, narrow
valley between two shoulders of a mountain. It wasn’t much
of a valley and he had no desire to share it with some monster
of a bear. Gibbs was armed, he seldom went into the back
country without a rifle, but he was hardly loaded for bear.
His old aught-six could kill a grizzly, maybe, but not with
certainty and for sure not quick enough to reliably see him
through a close encounter.
He needed to get
out of the valley. Up the switchback trail before him, through
the spruce and juniper, past the tree-line and over the shoulder
of the mountain into the next valley, his intended path.
Or back the long trail he’d just climbed.
He’d seen no bear-sign
until he got to this stream. Of course he may have missed
it; he’d no reason to scout for claw-marks ten, twelve feet
or more up a tree. No, he trusted his woodsman eye; he’d
seen no sign coming.
Still if there
was a bear—and he was staring at proof—it would most likely
be down in the tree cover. There was fuck-all for such a
beast to eat above the tree-line. There was little enough
down here. Which meant getting up-slope should get him out
of the bear’s territory quicker than back-tracking down the
Gibbs pulled out
his cell-phone and turned it on. The phone was hunter’s orange;
his wife had thought that would make it harder to lose. It
had no signal—they never did this far out in the mountains,
well, sometimes, higher up. What it did have was a camera.
There was no way the rangers down at the Forest Service would
buy a story about a giant grizzly this far south, not without
Complete story available in
the print edition of Big Pulp Winter 2010