by Roger Fritz, 3-7-02
Nobody but Charlie cared when Clem killed his partner, but Charlie had liked the young man, Jake Persnobspot from Tennessee. He'd even taught him to speak a little Cherokee.
Charlie was a rich man. He had a large teepee and two wickiups, and they housed a thriving business as a trader that he called Charlie's Trading Post. He was set up on the outskirts of town, and he even had a grand-daughter to help him. She wasn't really his grand-daughter, but Charlie took care of any Indian woman her age as though she were a relative. She was called Sarah by the townspeople, though her real name was Feather Grass.
Charlie's real name was Laughing Bird. He was a short, wiry old Indian with long black hair and skin like dark leather. He wore his hair in a braid. He had come through the time of great dying that startied when De Soto and his band travelled through the villages. The white men had been welcomed, but they'd brought diseases, and Laughing Bird watched 95% of his people die and his civilization vanish into smoke. He'd been living in a village in what's now Georgia when the calamity began, and he'd somehow survived what followed, though the storm had blown him north into the plains and into a different way of life.
Laughing Bird met Clem Wilson for the first time when he came in to buy some candles, a shoval and some canned food. Charlie could feel in his gut that Clem was a dangerous man, and so he was attentive to the point of obsequious.
"What's that you're sitting on?" Clem grunted, and Laughing Bird launched into the long version of his story about the fight with the bear. He pulled up his shirt and showed Clem his scars from the mauling, but Clem lost interest and left the tent with his goods.
Clem had moved into an abandoned cabin ten miles out of town and started a trap-line. Town consisted of two saloons, a dry good's store, a post office, a livery, and a laundry, all in tents. And Charlie's Trading Post. Jake Persnobscot had been Charlie's assistant for awhile, but he'd decided to take up trapping before the big beaver ran out. So he partnered up with Clem, and less than a month later he was buried out behind Clem's cabin.
Laughing Bird didn't do anything about it. He didn't make it a havit to interfere in the lives of others. But then Clem tried to rape Feather Grass, and he knew Clem had come into his own life.
Clem had trapped Feather Grass out behind the Chinese laundry tent and jumped her. She fought like a wolverine and screamed like a cougar, and people heard her even over the noise from the laundry and came running. Clem left her with torn clothes and bruises, and walked away laughing, buttoning his pants. He knew no one would care, and after Laughing Bird talked to the local constable, he knew it too.
He came home to find Feather Grass mad as a mink, wanting to go after Clem. Charlie agreed, but he suggested that they have a counsel of war first. They sat by the fire, and he poured some coffee into enameled mugs. Only after they'd made plans did she begin to cry.
When she fell asleep, Charlie stayed up, watching the fire and thinking of all the people he'd known. While the hours went by, he carved the left and right pawprints of a bear from pieces of scrap lumber, and attached leather straps to them.
At two in the morning by his pocket watch, Laughing Bird woke Feather Grass, and they dressed for a ride. At four in the morning Clem was jolted out of sleep by the thudding of something large and heavy against the wall of his cabin. He grabbed his rifle. It thumped again, and then the hair on his neck lifted when he heard the roar of a large bear. He crouched by his bed for five silent minutes. Then the door creaked, like a vast weight was leaning against it. Clem fired three slots through the door, and after that the silence went on and on. He stayed awake the rest of the night, and when he went out the next day he found bear tracks.
On the way home, Laughing Bird showed Feather Grass how to use a piece of leaf held between two thumbs to make the roaring sound. When they got tired, they stopped and curled up in the woods for a few hours sleep. Surrounded by the beauty of nature, they dreamed they were animals loping through the mountains of dreamtime.
Clem talked all over town about the bear, and was universally told, "There's no bears left in these parts." So he went home and slept off a drunk, and the next day he set off to track the bear. The tracks led down to the river and disappeared. He couldn't find where the bear had come out of the water, though he looked till dark.
The next day he cast about in the forest beyond the river, and in the middle of the afternoon he found bear sign. Excited, he loped along the trail, leaping over logs. The tracks were faint, but he followed them into a clearing, and suddenly came up short when a huge shadow rose out of the bushes ahead of him, roaring like an earthquake. He could see the claws as long as fingers as he fell backward, firing his rifle in a cloud of blue smoke as he fell, and rolling into a crouch.
The bear was gone. Clem scouted the woods for a hundred yards in every direction, and he found no blood anywhere, and no sign of the bear.
Laughing Bird trotted through the trees to where he'd left his horse, his bearskin rolled up under one arm, laughing to himself in the language of the Blue Jay. He'd tossed aside the sticks he used to prop up the bearskin's head and arms, and been gone before the smoke had cleared. Grand-daughter would be pleased. She'd spent the day making tracks around Clem's cabin, leading off in several directions into the forest.
When Clem showed up in town with more wild tales of grizzlies in the woods, folks were starting to openly laugh at him. He looked haggard from lack of sleep, and he claimed the bears' roaring was keeping him awake almost every night. Laughing Bird commiserated with him when he came into the teepee, and happily sold him the largest traps he could locate.
All that winter Clem set out traps for the bear, even after the roaring and thudding against his cabin had dwindled away and stopped, even after he stopped finding tracks. By spring he was such a laughingstock in town that he packed his gear in disgust on two pack horses and left, heading west. His horses were skittish, and several times he could have sworn he sniffed the rank smell of bear on the breeze.
Laughing Bird and Feather Grass watched from the shade of a boulder as Clem's horses wound into the distance. Laughing Bird was smiling, but grand-daughter was too young to see the humor. "You would rather have killed him?" he asked, and her expression said she would. "I think we have condemned him to a worse fate than the afterlife," said Laughing Bird. "I think we can let him go."
Here's a version of Stalking Bear you can download: