by Thomas Davis
Wheels churned down through snow layers
until they reached hard ground,
and then the dark green cab and truck bed jumped
forward, stopping and lurching as it slowly made
its way across cactus flats toward a hill nestled below
a higher hill where aspen provided a place
where we could pitch tents and build a campfire.
There were two of us, Howard Johnson,
a tall, raw boned kid whose uncle, Jeff Burns,
was the government trapper,
a man who caught mountain lions for delivery to zoos,
and I, more bookworm than mountain man.
Howard had decided to go hunting in Snyder Flats,
and I’d eagerly gone along, excited to feel the bite
of winds that could carve drifts six feet high
when snow mostly-covered sagebrush on flats empty of trees.
When the power wagon finally climbed the hill
the aspen grove was dark with evening shadows.
By the time we had tents pitched and a fire going
the moon was waxing full with a silver silence
echoed from the universe’s blanket of stars.
By the time we crawled into down sleeping bags
neither of us had said a word to each other for hours.
We woke before dawn when first light smudges
dirtied hill horizons east of where we were.
Howard was in a good mood, starting the fire with twigs,
joking about how crazy we had to be
fixing frozen slabs of bacon and bread over a campfire
when we could have been crawling out of bed
in a house filled with civilization’s conveniences.
A half hour later, bellies full, fighting cold’s numbness,
we were climbing the hill behind our campsite,
fighting through snow that sometimes came up to our waists.
Howard was stronger and broke trail,
but my breath was sharp as I struggled through a morning
so cold air felt like shards of shattered crystal.
At the hill’s top we walked out on rimrock towered above a canyon.
Below us drifts danced with swells in a landscape frozen into waves.
We stopped and felt wilderness’s immenseness.
“Think we’ll see any deer?” I asked. Howard snorted.
“This is Snyder Flats,” he said. “We might even see a grizzly.”
I nodded, then we set out again, keeping close to the canyon rim,
fighting the sun’s glare off glittering snow.
Hours passed. Even Howard was getting tired and irritable.
Not even a jack rabbit exploded from cover.
Noon came and went; the sun blazed orange, yellow, and red
over the western horizon. Cold became more and more intense.
By the time we found our camp again stars were out
and our feet and hands were numb from a breeze
sweeping across flats up into the hills.
The next day was like the first day. We walked and walked,
but if life was in the universe, it was hiding.
We had told our parents we would be gone four days,
and we’d have to spend most of the fourth day
lurching our way down the hill, through the flats to the dirt road
that would lead us back to Grand Junction and home.
Neither my Dad nor Jess Burns had approved of going to Snyder Flats,
so if we were late they would come looking for us,
and when they found us we’d both have to face wrath
that would resolve itself into chores best avoided.
As daylight began to wane we knew we were too far from camp.
We’d plowed through snow with a ferocity that burned lungs
and made even Howard complain about how tired he was.
By the time we gave up hunting and faced the fact
that our grand trip to Snyder Flats was an unredeemable bust,
we were miles from camp, half lost, and on the other side of the canyon
behind the hill that sheltered the hill with our supplies.
As the full moon came up, discouraged, half scared,
we were trying not to fall as we felt our way down the cliff’s face.
I had just managed to use cracks to climb down ten feet of sheer rock
to stand on solid ground when Howard grabbed my arm.
“Tommy,” he whispered.
His voice had an urgency that made my heart thump in my ears.
I looked toward where he was pointing.
Not forty feet away an immense grizzly was shambling
toward where we were standing.
Howard seemed frozen. We both had guns,
but the bear seemed to be the size of two bears.
The moon was so bright you could make out its hump
as it moved toward us, head low to the ground.
What in the hell have I got myself into now? I asked myself silently.
My stomach churned. Queasy. Unstable.
Howard stared at the bear mesmerized.
God let this be all right, I said to myself. Let this be all right.
Howard slowly began to bring his 30.06 to his shoulder.
The bear saw his movement, turned its massive head toward us
and stood on its hind legs
as if making sure it was seeing what it was seeing.
“Holy Jesus,” Howard said out loud.
No sound. Only moonlight making night almost as bright as day.
Howard seemed to have forgotten about his gun.
The bear didn’t move, but kept staring at us.
It was too dark to see its eyes, but we could feel its eyes anyway,
black, red around the edges, intense with anger at humans
and all humans had done to him and his kind.
A movement caught the edges of my eye,
and I glanced from the grizzly to the south.
“Howard,” I said.
Howard tried to look at the bear and where I was pointing at the same time.
A huge buck was standing in a clearing ten feet from us.
His massive rack seemed to have a hundred points
sprouting in all directions from where horns grew from his head.
I looked back at the towering grizzly.
It was looking away from us toward the buck.
The buck snorted. The grizzly snorted.
Howard and I stood like ice statues in the bitter cold.
“A cactus buck,” Howard said, wonder his voice.
The bear whoofed as it fell to four legs.
With a speed that seemed impossible it blurred toward the buck.
The buck leaped backward, seeming to turn in mid-air.
It bounded down the canyon, outpacing the grizzly.
Within seconds the canyon felt empty again.
Neither Howard nor I spoke as we stood in moonlight
looking toward where the grizzly had gone after the buck.
“Damned cold out here,” Howard said at last.
“Yeah,” I breathed. My legs felt wobbly.
“We’d better get moving,” Howard said.
On the cliff rim, looking down into the canyon, a mile from camp,
cold getting colder and colder, Howard shook his head.
“They’ll never believe this happened if we tell them,” he said.
“No,” I answered. “I don’t think I believe it happened.”
My stomach was still churning queasily.
We turned and plowed toward the power wagon,
tents flimsy against wilderness, and home.