This is the eighth chapter of `Bear Hunter'. A new chapter will come out every week. Any comments or questions can be directed to the author at nothlit(at)hotmail(dot)com

This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to real people or events is entirely coincidental.

Bear Hunter
Chapter 8

    Matt was quick. He got a flashlight out of somewhere, and right after he yelled, 'bear!', he shone it right at me, and also at the thing approaching. Turned out to be a very big, very mean-looking bear.
    At the same time, Matt grabbed something that I would later learn had been his boot, and threw it right at the bear's head. Not the smartest thing to do, but right then, it worked. The bear sort of yelped, although it wasn't anything like the sound a dog would make, the boot to its face, together with the sudden light, managed to scare it. Before I really had a chance to do anything, the bear turned around and loped away, disappearing into the forest so fast that I was still trying to process it when the sound of its escape through the woods died away.
    "Are you okay, Sven?" Matt asked, coming closer.
    "Yeah," I said, squinting under the bright light. "Quick thinking, Matt."
    "I didn't have time to grab my gun. I wasn't even sure it was Ben, but I think it was. No use following him now. He'll be gone by the time we even get going. Also, it's dark. There's a reason why people don't hunt bears in the dark."
    "Yeah. I can see why," I said, remembering how I had frozen up when the bear approached. It was weird.
    "Come on," Matt said. "Help me get this tent back up. I don't think the bear meant to crash into it. Bears can't see very well. He was probably just as surprised to see us as we were to see him. He must have smelled some of our leftovers, and come to investigate."
    "Yeah," I answered mechanically, helping Matt to bring the tent back up.
    When it was ready, we crawled inside again. I was still thinking about the bear, and the way I'd acted. I think Matt noticed, because he said:
    "Hey, Sven?"
    "Something on your mind?"
    "You sure?"
    I sighed, bringing my arms up so I could rest my hand on my hands, lying on my back as I was.
    "I froze up," I told him.
    "Hey. It was a bear. That's a perfectly normal reaction."
    "It's not that. I wasn't afraid. I mean, sure, it was startling to see the bear up so close. But I wasn't about to piss my pants or anything. I just... I don't know."
    "Hey. Don't worry. When we find the bear for real, under our own terms, it will be something else. Tell you the truth, this is the first time I've heard of a bear crashing into a camp at night like that. They are usually a lot shyer than this. Good thing we managed to scare it away, or it might have panicked and attacked us. That would've been bad."
    "You mean you managed to scare it away. All I did was stand there doing nothing."
    "Stop beating yourself up, Sven. It was your first time seeing a bear up so close. Trust me; I've seen grown men wet themselves in the situation we just were in. You were only surprised, you said it yourself. Next time, you'll be ready."
    "Yeah, I guess."
    After that, we slept. I had no trouble falling back asleep, and Matt was the one who woke me up the next morning. I yawned, and stepped out of the tent, rubbing my eyes.
    In the light of day, we could clearly see some tracks that belonged to a bear all around our camp. They led north, a fact which Matt noticed right away.
    "That's Ben," he said. "I wasn't sure yesterday, but no other male around here has paws that size. He's heading north, too, which means that we weren't too far off from his trail. He's probably looking for more winter food, and that's why he came so far south. If we hurry, we might be able to catch up to him today. Depends on how fast he is going, and how much food he finds along the way."
    "Okay. You lead the way, Matt."
    "Let's pack up and get going."
    We had a quick breakfast of canned food, packed up the tent and most of our things and stashed them in the backpack. It was my turn to carry it, so I picked it up and slung it over my shoulders. Then we left, following the direction of the tracks that Ben had left. After a while, the tracks disappeared, but Matt was not in the least affected by this. When I asked him, he said that since he knew the direction the bear had taken, the tracks were only a general indication for him. All we had to do was keep going until we found something that told us that Ben had been around there. I kept my eyes open, but I didn't see anything. Once or twice I saw a couple of broken twigs and such, but Matt quickly dismissed them, since they obviously had not been left by a bear.
    We walked tirelessly that day, getting further and further away from civilization the more we walked into the forest. I began to wonder just how fast a bear could go, since they usually seem to be such slow-moving creatures. Matt ended up telling me that a male bear can cover many miles in one day if he has somewhere to go. That appeared to be the case with Ben, and so we were left with having to walk for miles and miles, playing catch-up.
    Even though it was an uneventful morning as we walked to the wilderness, I wasn't bored. There was something to this forest, and to Alaska in general. Maybe it was the way the silence in the woods seemed to envelop you softly, swallowing even the sound of our footsteps through the thick carpet of pine needles. Maybe it was the deep blue of the sky above our heads, visible every once in a while through the canopy of the evergreen forest. Or maybe it was just the sensation that Matt and I were the only two people around, and it was just us and the wilderness that surrounded us. Once I saw some scared rabbits hop away as we approached, and another time I heard the cry of a bird of prey high above our heads. Probably a hawk, or maybe even an eagle. Either way, it was a great walk. And just about to get better.
    Matt led the way up and down a few small hills that rose around the place we were crossing, covered with trees. The trees grew so thickly, that when we finally came to a clearing, I didn't see it until we were practically there. But when I did, it took my breath away.
    "This is Miller's Lake," Matt told me, as he led the way down the gentle slope to the shore of the lake that stretched as far as the eye could see.
    "Wow," was all I could think of saying.
    "This used to be my father's favorite spot. He would bring me here to go fishing and such. Not many people know about this lake, and those that do know don't usually come this way since it's very hard to reach. You basically have to walk most of the way, which is a big deterrent for most."
    "It's huge," I said, as we walked close to the shore of the lake. The waters were very calm since there was no wind, and they acted like a natural mirror for the trees that grew right up to the edge of the lake, for the few white clouds that floated above us in the sky, and for the bright blue color of the sky itself. It was like one of those typical postcards you see of Alaska at a gift shop, only a million times better. I could not see the  far end of the lake, since it was much longer than it was wide. I could see the other shore on the eastern side, opposite from where we were. Everything looked unspoiled, just as it might have looked thousands of years ago, before there were any people living around here.
    Matt led me around the tricky part of the shore, and from there to a spot where a tree trunk had been washed up onto the rocks by the water's edge, a long time ago by the looks of it. The wood had been whitened by its exposure to the elements, and its surface was surprisingly smooth. Matt sat there, and I sat next to him. The air smelled fresh, pure. The silence was all around us like a presence, but is was welcome. Nothing moved. It was just us, and nothing more.
    I don't know how long we sat there, but I do know that for the very first time in my life I felt something approaching complete, enveloping peace. I felt that I could spend the rest of my life in those woods, and it would be okay. The fact that this breathtaking beauty was so short-lived, giving way to the icy majesty of wintertime every year, made it even more astounding, more humbling to watch. I didn't know why I was feeling this way, but I didn't question it. I welcomed the feeling that there were no questions and doubts whirling around in my head. Here was simplicity. Here was nature's beautiful and cruel hand. If you could not survive here, you died, simple as that. But if you could, then this place was yours to enjoy. I think that right then I finally understood why some people would want to move to such a remote place as this. There were really no words to describe everything I was feeling... but I did smile.
    Next to me, Matt was silent, lost in his own thoughts. Eventually, I became aware of him again, and the fact that this place was probably bringing him lots of bittersweet memories. I wanted to say something, but again I didn't know what to say. I'm not very good for 'moments'. Even so, just knowing that Matt was here with me made everything better, and I hoped that it was the same for him. I waited respectfully until Matt's faraway look became focused again, and he met my eyes.
    "Sorry," he said, "I was just remembering."
    "No problem," I told him. "This place is amazing. Thank you for showing it to me."
    Matt grinned in a certain way for me, and I felt... something. Warmth. A kind of tug in the middle of my chest that was a surge of emotion. And suddenly, before thinking it through, I leaned forward and kissed him.
    Matt was obviously surprised, but he returned my kiss, hugging me with his big, strong arms. I held him in mine, and it was a perfect moment. It felt right.
    It was also over too soon.
    "We should keep on tracking him," Matt said, standing up.
    "Yeah," I said, standing up too, a bit awkwardly. I picked up the backpack, feeling closer to Matt somehow. I was with him in this hunting expedition, but for me at least it had become about something more than just killing the bear, or making amends for everything I had done to Matt. I couldn't really explain it, but it was suddenly a lot more important that I help Matt close this chapter in his life. I grabbed my rifle, and nodded at Matt, signaling I was ready. He nodded back, and we went back into the woods, searching for the bear.
    "How is it like here, in winter?" I asked Matt as we walked.
    "About what you'd expect," he answered, picking his way through the forest. "Lots of snow, cold. Nothing much to do except stay home and work out. Sometimes I can't even cross over to the town if the weather is really bad. Last year it was just my dad and me in the house, but the way he was acting, it might as well have been only me. I suppose this will be the first year I am all alone in winter. Might be good to have the house to myself."
    "I just can't imagine everything around here covered in snow," I said, looking around at the green forest all around us. "Does the lake freeze?"
    "I guess," Matt said. "I don't usually come this way much during the wintertime. It's not far from my house, but trust me: a surprise blizzard is all it takes, and then you're a dead man."
    "Life is harsh around here," I observed.
    "Yeah. Nothing like your farm down south, huh?"
    "No. Down there, we didn't even have snow most of the time." I scratched my beard. "I like this place, though. I like the way it feels. I wouldn't mind putting up with the weather to be able to live around all this awesome nature."
    "I kind of figured," Matt said.
    "What do you mean?"
    "It takes a particular kind of person to come and settle in Alaska. Not many come, and from those, only a few really stay for good. You got that look about you. Like you can take whatever nature throws at you."
    He grinned, and clapped me on the back.
    "In fact," he said, "if you hadn't pulled a gun on me in the first five seconds after I met you, I might have even bought you a beer. Maybe started talking a bit."
    "Huh. Really."
    "Yeah. I guess."
    I wondered what would have happened if things had gone the way Matt was suggesting. Would he have been only a one night stand for me, like all the others? Probably. I've never been good with relationships, and I wouldn't have known how to act. I guess I was glad with the way things had turned out. It had been unexpected, but in a good way.
    Matt and I continued walking for the better part of the morning. We were climbing a large hill, and the trees did not grow so thickly on its slope. We stopped for a little while and had some food, then continued climbing. As we ascended, the terrain began to get rockier, and the slope of the hill was pretty steep in some places. Looking back, I could see over the top of some trees, and look out over a sea of green. Far away, the lake gleamed in the sun of midday. Ahead of us, the hill continued upward for a while yet. To the right, the slope descended gently into the forest. To our left, a rockier side of the hill was dotted with rocks and steep drops down below. I thought I saw what might have been a cave on that side of the hill, but there were lots of places that were covered by the huge boulders, so I couldn't be sure.
    As we reached the rounded top of the hill, Matt stopped suddenly, and I bumped into him.
    "Quiet!" he hissed. At the same time, he pointed down, at the slope on the far side of the hill. There, amongst some low shrubs that were dotted with berries, was a big, black shape.
    The bear hadn't seen us, or heard us. Matt did some kind of thing to test the direction of the wind, nodded, and dropped down into a half-kneeling crouch, rifle in hand. I imitated him, and put the backpack down as quietly as I could, so I wouldn't be carrying it for the hunt that was about to begin.
    "What now?" I asked Matt.
    "We get close, slowly. It's him all right. Remember: try to get the lungs. If you don't have a clear shot, don't take it. If we scare him, he might come for us, or he might get away. We don't have any cover here, so we better hope he doesn't come for us."
    I nodded, and followed Matt down the slope of the hill, quietly and slowly. The bear still didn't know we were there, since he was very busy eating the berries off of the shrubs that grew around him. I noticed that the wind was blowing in our faces, which Matt had mentioned was important so the bear wouldn't smell us coming.
    Because of the way the hill descended, we had to edge towards the left as we went down to avoid alerting the bear of our presence. That brought us dangerously close to the rocky side of the hill and the drops below. The hill wasn't very high, but still, I couldn't help but notice that, should the bear decide to charge us, we wouldn't have anywhere to go. I was a pretty good shot, and Matt was probably pretty good too, but with bears you never knew. That made me uneasy.
    I looked at Matt as he descended noiselessly, his eyes fixed on the bear. There was a look in his eyes I hadn't seen before, a completely focused look of pure anger directed at the bear. He was grabbing his rifle so hard that his knuckles were white, and I think he did not notice that his breathing was coming faster, too. Almost as if he were already fighting with the bear in his mind. If possible, I decided I should let him take the killing shot. I was only there for backup, and besides, it was important for Matt to kill the animal. Maybe after he did, he would find peace for what had happened to his father. I sincerely hoped he did.
    It took us maybe ten minutes to get into proper position, and after that we spread out, with Matt going lower downhill and me staying on higher ground to cover more terrain, in case the bear changed position or decided to go somewhere else. I hefted the rifle and took aim. I didn't have a good shot, since the bear was facing away from me, partially hidden by the shrubs. Matt on the other hand should have had a much better shot. I spared him a quick look as he finished getting into position. He seemed to have forgotten I was even there. He was so focused that I doubt anything else existed for him at that moment but the bear.
    I held my rifle steady, waiting for an opportunity. Matt seem to be doing the same, and he was patient, like any good hunter should be. In fact, there was only one bad thing about being so patient. You gave the unexpected time to happen.
    There was a sudden change of wind, and I felt it blowing from behind me now. Over where the bear was eating, the change was instantaneous. He stopped munching on berries and stood up on his hind legs, sniffing the air. A second later, he dropped on all fours and began to walk away.
    That's when Matt fired.
    The shot echoed over the wilderness, shattering the peace all around us. There was a loud growl, and I saw that Matt had hit the bear—it actually dropped to the ground, momentarily invisible amid the shrubs. I thought he'd killed it, but the bear wasn't dead. Only a moment later, it was on all fours again, and it was angry. He was coming right for us. Right for the source of the smell.
    There was a point where I didn't know if the bear was coming for Matt or for me, but this time I didn't freeze. I took careful aim, and when the bear was close enough, I fired. My shot was true, but the bear changed direction and the shot got him on the shoulder. The bear roared in pain and anger, and his loping gait became a rolling charge, deceptively slow-looking. He knew where we were now. And it was coming for the kill.
    I saw the bear coming right for me, and I tried to take him again, but he was moving too fast, uphill, and the second shot I fired missed. The bear was maybe a hundred feet away when Matt's shot boomed across the hill, striking the ground an inch before the bear's paws, spraying earth everywhere and getting the bear right in the face with the sharp debris. Confused, the bear stopped and turned to look in Matt's direction. When he saw him, the bear charged for the new threat.
    My heart was pounding so fast that my fingers slipped as I was trying to reload the rifle, and by the time I managed to get a third shot ready, it was already too late. The bear had reached Matt impossibly fast, and Matt didn't have time to get off another shot. I saw him drop his rifle, and run.
    "Matt!" I yelled, forgetting to shoot. They were too far away anyway. I got up, and ran to them, rifle in hand. I knew I was too far away to help, but I had to try.
    I saw Matt back off, forced to go to the steep side of the hill by the charging bear. He threw his rifle at him, and the bear was briefly distracted by that, enough to give Matt time to start going uphill. When the bear saw him, he forgot about the rifle and went right for the man. I was fifty feet away when the bear caught up to Matt. I saw it rear up on its hind legs, waving his head from side to side in a strangely terrifying manner. Then it roared again, and lifted one of his paws to strike. He had Matt cornered; behind him, there was only a sheer drop. In front of him was a bear trying to kill him.
    The bear swung its paw in a murderous arc, and struck Matt before he had a chance to react. The blow had such terrible strength behind it that it flung Matt backwards like a rag doll, out over the drop downhill. The bear, seeing him fall, prepared to go down in pursuit.
    "Hey!" I yelled. "Hey BEAR!"
    I shot blindly. I missed but the noise made the bear aware of my presence. It turned, saw I was barreling downhill toward it, and growled again.
    I stopped. I reloaded faster than I've ever done it in my life, and shot again. I got the bear in one its hind legs, I think, and the bear's growl turned into a moan. It dropped again on all fours—and left. It loped away, going downhill, leaving a few blood spatters behind him.
    For a second, I only stood there, unable to believe my luck. I was alive—after charging an angry bear.
    I couldn't move. I just watched the bear go away, grabbing my rifle like it was trying to get away from me. Then, suddenly, I remembered Matt.
    "Matt!" I yelled, running down to where I'd see him fall. "MATT!"
    "Here!" he answered, his voice closer than I would have thought. When I got to the edge, I saw he was already climbing up. He was only using one hand, though. His left arm hung limp on his side.
    I dropped the rifle and jumped down to help him up. It was hard going, but we finally managed to get back on level terrain. Matt, panting, lay down on the grass.
    "Are you okay?" I said, genuinely worried.
    Matt grimaced. "Fuck. The son of a bitch got me, Sven."
    I looked—his arm was a mess. There was blood dripping down his forearm, and the mangled remains of his shirt up above the elbow were dark red with more blood. He was bleeding a lot, actually, and I was afraid that the bear's claws had severed an artery.
    "Sit up, Matt," I said. "Let me have a look at this."
    He nodded, and sat up slowly on the grass. Blood began to drip from his elbow down on the green grass blades, slowly but steadily.
    "I'm going to have a look at the wound," I told him. "Hold still."
    "Okay. But do it quick."
    While Matt steadied his arm using his other hand, I grabbed the tattered remnants of his shirt sleeve and tore them open in a single quick, hard motion. Matt grimaced at the tug but did not cry out. With that out of the way, I had a clear view of Matt's upper arm, at the spot where the bear's claws had gotten him.
    I breathed a sigh of relief. The wound was bleeding a lot, but it was superficial. There were three ragged, parallel marks on Matt's skin. The middle one had gone deepest, and that's where most of the blood was coming from. A minor vein might have been cut or something. I couldn't really tell.
    "Hold your arm up," I told Matt. "I have to bind it so the blood stops flowing."
    Matt complied, and I suddenly realized that we didn't have any bandages or anything that might be useful in binding a wound like that. I had dropped the pack somewhere, but there weren't any bandages there either. I'd have to do with what I had.
    I grabbed the bottom part of my shirt and brought it up to my mouth. I used my teeth to make a rip in it and then finished the job by tearing out a long strip of the shirt, yanking it loose when it was long enough. I tied it a little above the wound, wrapped it tight around Matt's arm, made a knot with it and then pulled. Matt gritted his teeth, but took it well as I tightened the makeshift tourniquet to exert pressure on the wound and stop the bleeding. The blood flow slowed down right away.
    "Son of a bitch," Matt said. "I'm going to get him."
    "First we got to wash that wound," I told him. "If not, it might get infected."
    Matt looked briefly at place where the bear had disappeared deeper into the woods. Then he looked at his arm. "Okay, but let's hurry up. We got his trail now. I want to catch him."
    Leaning on me slightly, Matt stood up and followed me as I went downhill to pick up his weapon and mine. Then I let him back to where the pack was, and from there we walked back to the lake. I didn't know of any other streams nearby, and Matt didn't either, so that was our closest source of fresh, clean water. It didn't take as long as I feared, although it worried me that we hadn't washed that wound already. For all I knew, the bear's claws had been dirty before Ben had attacked Matt, in which case Matt would need some antibiotics to prevent an infection.
    Either way, we made it to the lake. Once there, I led Matt to the water.
    "I'll wash that wound," I told him. "Come on."
    I made him sit by the water's edge. First I washed my own hands, and then I tore another strip of fabric from my shirt. I washed that, too, wishing we had a fire going so I could boil the water and use it on the wound. That would take too long, though, so all I did was wash the fabric thoroughly, and then use it to begin cleaning Matt's wound.
    I cleaned the blood away gently, and Matt did not protest even once, although it must have hurt like hell when I began to clean the actual claw marks on his skin. The rag I was using got soaked in blood pretty quick, but I washed it as best as I could and continued. By the time it was done, both my hands were red with Matt's blood, but the wound was clean. I washed my hands in the water and then looked at Matt.
    He was examining the wound with curiosity, holding his arm up and looking down to get a better view. The bleeding had stopped entirely, which was a good sign.
    "I'll try loosening up the knot," I told him, walking up to where he was. "It's looking better now."
    I loosened it up, but the wound in the middle began to bleed again, so I tightened it up once more.
    "I wish we had some disinfectant," I said. "For now, just don't move that arm too much. You should be good."
    "I didn't know you were a doctor," Matt said, grinning.
    "You got any idea how often people get hurt while working on a farm?" I asked him. "Most of the time it was only my grandfather and me. We both had to learn how to take care of one another after my mother passed away. So yeah, I got a pretty good idea of what I'm doing."
    "Well, thank you, Sven. If you hadn't been there, Ben would have probably come right for me."
    "I guess that's it for hunting for now, right?"
    Matt shook his head. "No way. Not when we are so close. I'm okay, and I want to keep on looking for that bastard. We're close, Sven. We can take him out. Today."
    I considered objecting, but the look in Matt's eyes convinced me that he was going to go after the bear no matter what. Realizing that, I also knew that I was going to go with him. I wasn't going to let him hunt a bear alone, hurt like he was. I was mildly surprised to realize I was a little worried for him. For his safety.
    "Okay, Matt, but I'm going with you."
    "Thanks, Sven. Now let's get going."
    We retraced our steps back to the little hill where the bear had attacked us. From there, Matt followed the clear trail that the bear had left, his rifle loaded and ready to fire in his right hand. I was carrying the pack, and also the other rifle, and I was much more alert than last time. I now understood just how dangerous and fierce a bear could be. I had seen it firsthand, and I did not intend for the attack to be repeated one more time.
    We went downhill, following the bear's trail, down into the forest once again, underneath the cool shadows of the pine trees that grew all around us. The forest was strangely quiet, and there was a cold wind blowing, but our pace was fast and I did not feel the cold's bite. Like Matt, I was completely focused on finding our prey. Here in the forest, we had to be even more careful. The bear could be hiding in a cave somewhere and we wouldn't see it until it was too late.
    "This way," Matt told me in a low voice, pointing to an almost invisible splotch of red on a rock. The bear was still bleeding, then. That would make it easier to follow him, but would also make him much more dangerous.
    The initial adrenaline rush that I had felt as we began our pursuit one more time faded slowly as the hours went by. We crossed another stream, past more dark trees of the forest, and then began to climb another hill that was on our way. I wondered how long we had been walking, and also how far we were from Matt's house. Not that it mattered. We wouldn't be going anywhere until Matt had had his revenge.
    Matt's scowl only deepened as the hours went by and the bear was still ahead of us. I could tell his arm hurt him, and he probably wanted to rest, but he wasn't allowing himself to think about anything else but the hunt. He wasn't paying attention to anything other than the bear's trail and he even seemed to have forgotten that I was with him once again. He was completely focused on his goal, every sense alert for the faintest sound of the fleeing bear.
    We climbed a hill and then came back down. We were now going downhill on a very rocky slope where not a lot of grass was able to grow. Matt actually stumbled as he tried to go over a particularly large rock, and he instinctively tried to stop himself with his wounded arm. He cried out involuntarily at the sudden pain.
    "Are you okay, Matt?"
    He didn't answer me. He just stood up and continued going downhill, following the clear trail of blood that bear had left behind.
    I hurried up to catch up to him, and I saw he was breathing fast, and he was also looking a little pale. I realized that he hadn't had anything to drink or eat ever since the attack, and he had bled a lot. He needed to get some liquids into his system, and he also needed to eat something that would give him energy.
    "Matt, we need to stop so you can eat something."
    "We are close. I'll eat after we have him."
    "You lost a lot of blood," I said. "You might pass out a few don't eat something that has a little sugar, at least."
    "I'm not hungry."
    "Then at least drink something. You must know if there is a stream around here. Let's go there, and then we'll continue the hunt."
    "I'm not thirsty."
    His parched lips said otherwise, but Matt didn't slow down at all. He kept going, and all I could do was follow. Eventually, the sun began to go down. We still had not caught up to the bear.
    "It will get dark soon," I observed. "I don't think we want to run into the bear at night."
    "Over there," was Matt's answer. "His backup winter cave."
    I followed the direction Matt was pointing at with my eyes, and I saw a rock formation that stood out from the gradual slope of the terrain, maybe 200 feet away or so. At the very top of the formation was a dark hole, barely large enough for a bear to fit through. Actually going up to the cave was difficult, since the rocks offered little purchase and only something very big or very small could actually make its way up to the cave mouth. It was a secure place, and some of the whitened rocks leading up to it were stained with blood. And at the top, lying on its side but looking down at us, was the bear.
    I froze again when I saw it; it was involuntary. However, I snapped back to attention right away, dropped the pack I was carrying and readied my rifle. Matt was doing the same, hefting his weapon up firmly and approaching slowly, his aim on the animal, doing his best with a single arm. There was complete silence for a few seconds as Matt walked closer to find a better angle to take his shot. I stood back, covering him in case something went wrong again. From the look of Matt's face, though, I knew this time he wasn't going to let anything happen.
    Matt took careful, shuffling steps as he approached. His eyes never left the animal, and the bear was looking at him, sniffing the wind. From where I stood, he didn't look badly hurt, and when he saw that Matt was approaching, Ben stood up on all fours, assuming a guarded position. There was nowhere else for him to go; he was cornered, and I knew that if Matt didn't kill him quickly this time, at least one of us would probably die when the bear attacked. I hoped it wouldn't come to that, but the thought did not help the rush of adrenaline coursing through my veins now that the moment had come.
    I glanced quickly at Matt. He was looking even paler than before. He was sweating, too, and his hair was matted against his forehead. That, coupled with the big red bloodstain on the left side of his clothes, gave him a haggard appearance. He looked like a desperate man.
    Matt was getting closer. I shifted my focus on the bear again, and I almost missed it when Matt suddenly tripped over something.
    The first thought that raced through my head when I saw Matt drop to his knees was that he had fainted. The movement was sudden, and even the bear gave a low sort of growl when he saw Matt fall.
    "Matt?" I said. "You okay?"
    Matt didn't answer me, and I risked shifting my focus to him quickly. He hadn't fainted at all. He had dropped to the grass and was picking up the thing he had tripped over, dropping his rifle carelessly to the side as he did. I was so surprised at seeing him do it that I couldn't think of anything to say. A cornered, wounded bear was standing not a hundred feet away, and he had just thrown away his only weapon. I didn't understand, until I saw the object he had picked up. It was a cap.
    It was very dirty, and it looked like it had been out in the open for quite some time. It was partially torn and covered with mud, so much so that I couldn't be sure of the original color of the cap. However, Matt obviously recognized it. He held it in his hands as though it was the most precious thing in the world.
    "Matt? Are you okay?"
    "You took him from me," I heard him say, his eyes on the cap and his voice husky. He wasn't speaking to me; he was talking to the animal. "He was only trying to help you, but you took him from me."
    He looked up, at the bear, and I was shocked to see that Matt was crying, holding the cap tightly in his hands, the cap that had obviously belonged to his father.
    "Why did you do it?" he demanded, his voice rising in volume. "Huh? Why? You stupid animal. You can't even tell the difference between someone who's trying to help you and someone who's trying to kill you. He was trying to save you! Did you know that? But you killed him, and now, here I am, trying to kill you. You fucking son of a bitch. You're not getting away!"
    Matt stood up, grabbing his rifle with his good hand and keeping the cap in the other.
    "He could have defended himself," he said, fearlessly walking closer to the bear. "But he didn't. You know why, bear? Because he was stupid enough to believe that an animal like you would be noble enough to do the right thing. But you don't understand that. You don't even understand a word I'm saying now."
    The bear, feeling threatened, reared up on its hind legs, presenting an even wider target for Matt. It gave a warning growl, and stood his ground. He had nowhere else to go.
    Matt's wiped the tears from his cheeks, leaving a smudge of dirt behind. He stopped, and took careful aim.
    "You can't get away now," he told the bear. "I'm getting revenge."
    I forgot to breathe. I expected the loud bang of a shot, and I was ready to follow it up with one of my own if needed, but the shot didn't come. A few seconds went by. Still nothing. I risked looking at Matt, and I saw his grip on the rifle was shaking. He was literally shaking with rage.
    "Stop looking at me like that!" he yelled at the uncomprehending bear. "I don't care what my father would say if he knew I was going to kill you! You murdered him, you deserve this!"
    He was speaking to convince himself, but for some reason he wasn't being successful. I saw his internal fight play out on his features, the anger wrestling with whatever was holding him back from shooting. He was panting, struggling to keep his temper in check, but finding his father's cap had shaken his conviction to the core. I didn't understand what he was going through, but I could tell it was tough. Very tough. In that moment, three lives hung in the balance, our fates dependent on the next thing Matt would do.
    At last, the tension inside him reached a tipping point. Matt's eyes opened wide, and he fired.
    "FUCK!" he exclaimed, his voice breaking. "I can't! I can't do it!"
    My eyes dashed to the bear, but the shot hadn't even come close to hitting it. Matt had fired into the air, and now he was sinking to his knees again. He threw his rifle away, much farther than before, leaving himself defenseless if the bear decided to charge. He closed his eyes, crying.
    "I can't do it," he repeated. "This was my father's life. He was my father's life. I can't... I can't destroy it."
    His shoulders shook with the sobs that he was trying to control, and I was torn between the desire to go and comfort him and the fact that I had to stand my ground in case the bear—
    A loud roar settled the issue for me. The bear dropped back on all fours, scared by the sound of the gunshot. Its eyes were fixed on Matt, who was defenseless.
    The bear growled low in its throat, and then it charged.

    Just one more chapter to go. The final chapter will come out next Tuesday!
    If you like this story, make sure to check out my other Nifty story, `Learning with a Man' at: