Two grizzly bears were shambling across the moonlit clearing.
They were heading for me and my dying pa.
When I saw them. My hair lifted up like a porcupine’s quills & my heart started pounding like a war drum & all the juices in my body were screaming ‘RUN!’
As everybody knows, the surest way of getting a bear to chase you is to skedaddle. Nobody can outrun a bear, especially when wearing girly-girl button-up boots. Also, I could not abandon my dying pa to their hungry jaws.
I took a deep breath & mustered up my courage & stood up slowly.
When the bears saw me rise, they stopped & stood up, too. That scared the bejeezus out of me. I had never been this close to a bear that was not a tame bear.
My Indian ma once told me that if I should ever find myself face to face with a bear, not to run nor look him in the eye, but to sing him a special Lakota bear song. This tells the bear three things:
No. 1 – Where you are.
No. 2 – That you are not afraid.
No. 3 – That you are not a threat.
I used to know the Bear Song, but I am not as good at remembering things I hear as I am at remembering things I see. Also, I had not sung the Bear Song a long time. It had flown plumb out of my head.
So I sang the only song I could think of.
It was the song whose lyrics had once helped me find a poor fugitive girl named Martha.
It was the song that played day and night in Virginia City.
You might say it was the state anthem of Nevada Territory.
‘De Camptown ladies sing dis song,’ I began. My voice kind of cracked so I cleared my throat, ‘Doo-dah! doo-dah!’
At that, both bears slumped back down onto all fours. The smaller one tested the air with his nose. The bigger one turned his head a little, like maybe he wanted to hear better.
‘P.K.?’ came my pa’s feeble voice from the ground. ‘Why are you singing?’
I did not want him to worry, so I told a lie. ‘I thought a song might cheer you.’
I sang a little louder. ‘De Camptown race-track five miles long, Oh, doo-dah day!’
‘So kind…’ murmured my pa. But I did not pay him any mind. I was thinking about how to vanquish those grizzlies.
My pa and I both had pistols, but their .32 caliber balls would have no more effect than a mosquito bite against a couple of grizzlies. (My friend Stonewall killed a grizzly in December and he said it took thirteen .44 caliber rifle balls to bring him down. And that was not even a full grown bear.)
‘I come down dah wid my hat caved in, Doo-dah! doo-dah!’
I had Kepi’s big Remington New Model Army Six-shooter stuck in my belt. But it only had a single .44 caliber ball as he had not reloaded.
‘I go back home wid a pocket full of tin,’ I sang. ‘Oh, doo-dah day!’
The Henry Rifle I had taken from the Reb Road Agents also takes .44 caliber balls. But it was about ten paces behind me, in the cave.
‘Gwine to run all night! Gwine to run all day!’ I sang. (But I was thinking, ‘No, no, no. I must not run!’)
The bears started to move towards me again.
There was only one thing to do. I pulled out the Remington & cocked it & fired its last remaining ball into the air.
‘P.K.?’ came my pa’s feeble voice. ‘Why are you shooting?’
‘To attract help,’ I lied.
But my real reason for firing was to frighten off the bears.
And it worked! The bears had vamoosed.
My knees were so shaky that I had to sit down for a spell.
Sitting by pa, I could see his face looked deathly white in the moonlight. I feared he was dying.
‘Do you want me to pray with you, Pa?’ I asked.
‘Yes!’ he whimpered. ‘Pray that God will forgive me my sins.’
‘Heavenly Father,’ I prayed. ‘Please forgive my pa for all his sins. And please may he not die. Amen.’
‘Will you forgive me too?’ he said in his feeble voice.
‘I ain’t got nothing to forgive you for.’
He kind of groaned.
I said, ‘Can you tolerate me dragging you back into that cave?’
‘I reckon.’ His voice was barely a whisper.
I got hold of his ankles and dragged him towards the dark mouth of the cave, going as slow as I dared so I would not hurt him.
My reasoning was this: if we were in a cave those bears could not perform a ‘flanking manoeuver’ & come up on us from behind.
Pa groaned again, so I finished off the song to distract him from the pain.
‘I’ll bet my money on de bob-tail nag, Somebody bet on de bay.’
Once I had got Pa safely inside the cave, I grabbed the Henry Rifle that was leaning against the opening. That made me feel better until the moonlight showed me the little brass follower underneath the barrel. It was right up near the stock of the rifle, which meant there was only 1 bullet left in the magazine.
Dang those Reb Road Agents! They had not reloaded. Everybody knows you should reload once you have fired.
My pa was trying to say something so I brought my ear to his mouth.
‘Whiskey,’ he murmured. ‘Is there any whiskey for the pain?’
‘I will look, Pa,’ I said.
I leaned the rifle back against the wall of the cave.
Before I searched for whiskey, I needed to find more cartridges for the Henry or balls for the Remington. And before I searched for more ammunition, I needed to make a fire. Fire would light the cave. Also, bears do not like fires. It might keep them at bay when they returned.
For I was sure they would return.
I went and got some firewood from the stack near the cave.
Using a Lucifer match from my medicine bag, I quickly kindled a fire just outside the mouth of the cave.
When the fire was going good, I breathed a sigh of relief. It would make a useful barrier between us and the bears.
Also, it lit up the inside of the cave. Its flickering light showed me two rolled up blankets in a low, dark niche of the cave. There were also some other things, viz: two greasy decks of cards, a cribbage board, a Ledger Book, a box of Lucifers, two pencils & a small Bible.
Joy! There was a box of .44 caliber balls for a Remington revolver!
Despair! There was no powder. Too late, I remember Slouch had worn a powder horn on his belt. Now all his big Remington pistol was good for was clubbing those bears.
Nor did I find any cartridges for the Henry Rifle.
However, in another niche I found 1 frying pan & 1 coffee pot & 2 tin mugs. There was water in the coffee pot but no ground coffee nor any other provisions to fry in the frying pan.
‘P.K.?’ asked Pa. ‘Did you find anything to drink?’
‘No whiskey, Pa,’ I said. ‘But I did find a little water.’
‘Yes, please,’ he murmured.
I poured water from the coffee pot into one of those tin mugs & knelt by Pa & helped him drink. Then I eased his head down one of the rolled up blankets and covered him with the other. He winced and kind of groaned.
‘Does it hurt, Pa?’
‘Yeah. It hurts real bad,’ he said in a voice so faint I could barely hear him. Then he said, ‘P.K.?’
His lips moved. I brought my ear real close. He was saying something about his murdering pard, Tempest. Then he said something that might have been ‘Blizzard’s a coming.’
‘Don’t worry, pa,’ I said. ‘There ain’t no blizzard coming and you will see the sun once more.’
But he shook his head no & the firelight showed me tears dribbling from the corners of his wide-open eyes.
Then I quoted Malachi chapter 4 verse 3 over him, viz: The sun of righteousness will arise with healing in his wings, and after that I said a prayer of my own devising. His eyes were now closed and he slept.
I took the Ledger book out from under the cribbage board. When I opened it, I found it was a Wells Fargo & Co. Ledger Book, with only a few pages full of legitimate numbers. The Dead Reb Road Agents had filled the next few pages with scoring for their cribbage games. I saw for the first time that their names were Johnny and Jimmy.
Most of the other pages were blank, so I took that as a Sign from God that I should write an account of how I came to be here.
I sat down Indian fashion & started writing this account.
That was about four hours ago. I have been using the Squiggly Worm shorthand that I learned last November in Carson City. I have used up two and a half pencils and am now on the last page of the book.
The moon sank behind the trees a couple of hours ago and all I have is the light of this little fire, but I am almost out of wood & although the bears have stopped growling I can still smell them so I know they are lurking nearby.
Like I said before: all I have for protection against them is this small fire and ––
I just had to shoot the last bullet from my Henry Rifle in the air to frighten off those bears.
They will probably get me at dawn but it does not matter.
Nothing matters any more.
Pa is dead.
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