Gib - Prolog
The first cold front of Autumn has passed through the Yellowstone country. What was rain in the valleys became snow on the high mountain plateau of the Absaroka mountains.The peaks are frosted with a few inches of ephemeral white which will be mostly gone by the end of this day. A warming sun is dropping its early light down into the valleys west of of the mountains, etching away at the shadows below. It washes the yellow-splashed and rust-tinged lowland vegetation and pokes its fingers into the dark swaths of pine trees which lie at the feet of the rocky heights far above.
Where this valley meets those trees a huge black bull moose stands belly-deep in a dead meander, now a beaver pond, of a lost creek in Yellowstone . The animal's hump is more than six feet from the bottom of the pond and the palms of its enormous antlers are white in the morning light. A brain the size of a fist clicks insides its skull, for this is a living fossil The oldest and the most primitive of the deer family, it is a relic of the Pleistocene Age whose ice floes, more than half a mile thick, ground much of western Wyoming to powder twenty thousand years ago.
The bull is grazing on the bottom of the beaver pond in early morning light and frost is thick on the long, bent grasses at the edge of the bright water. Pink light glistens on the rime of frost on the willow leaves, and the Absaroka Mountains are perfectly imaged in the pond.
Suddenly, a beaver's tail slaps the water and the moose lifts its wet face. Water cascades from the majestic rack of horns. Dripping aquatic vegetation hangs from its mouth. The large, delicate nostrils open and the small pig-like eyes blink to clear its sight because It knows well enough to heed the wary beaver's alarm.
The rank smell of rotten flesh drifts to it on the air and an explosion of breath balloons in a rainbow mist around the shovels of its antlers. A tall ridge of black guard hairs erects along its neck and hump. Adrenaline floods its muscles as its eyes pick out another beast standing in the willows only twenty-five yards away. It is a bear. A griz. Another survivor of the Wyoming Pleistocene.
The cold, painful night has crept deep into the grizzly's spine and stiffened his damaged hip. He is making his way down to the water for a drink, joints burning with a fire that had robbed his rest. But now the pain and weariness leave him as he stares at the black hulk in the water. He is flooded with rage because the big bull is shaking his antlers, snorting, and even now is taking a couple of menacing steps through the water. Enough!
The bear dives into the water. A large wave hurries to bases of the willows, and frost falls from the leaves when the wave surges against the bank. A howl breaks from the bear's chest.and he lunges through the water. The moose comes to meet him.
Both are shaken by the impact. The shock of their enormous bodies meeting hangs in the air. Birds scatter from trees a hundred yards away.
To his astonishment the bear felt himself thrown into the air and then water closes over his head. He feels a moment's panic, but rights himself, bounds toward the bank of the pond. He shakes the water from his eyes and coughs to clear his lungs. He glances at the bull and feels a surge, for the moose is shaken and wobbling.
The bear roars and the bull turns again, lowers its massive shovels and charges a few feet, blasting the surface of the pond with his nostrils.
The bear needs better footing. Here the bottom of the pond is a rich, gooey black clay and silt. He knows that the upstream part of the beaver pond has a firm bottom so.he quickly circles, the moose spins to follow the enemy with its antlers. But the moose also chooses to begin a cautious retreatóbut it is a mistake for that means backing through deeper water.
The bear feels gravel under his feet and he digs his claws into it and begins a swooping charge straight down the gravel bar, digging powerfully into the firm footing. He sees the bull drop its head and brace to meet the charge head-on.
But at the last moment the bear sidesteps, slips his left arm under the moose's right antler, thrust his right forearm against the left shovel and powers the moose onto its side and under the dark water. The bear feels the moose's face roll up under his chest, and he lays his seven hundred pounds down on it.
He feels the bull's frantic efforts to get its hooves into the pond's bottom, feels them dig into the goo and slip. This animal is the strongest he has ever tested and he knows he cannot let it gain its feet. For the first time in his life the bear feels the limit of his strength. A muscle spasm cramps his shoulder.
He relaxes the edge of the right antler, which allows the moose's head to swivel. As he sees the moose's nose start toward the surface, the bear drives his own face, jaws agape, down to meet it.
A foot below the surface of the pond he bites through the bull's soft muzzle and feels the delicate nose bones break between his teeth The crunching sound runs up his jaws and fills his ears. He feels the big animal stiffen in shock and air from the moose's lungs shoots out the sides of the bear's mouth. The moose's legs straighten out and a monstrous shiver shakes both the animals.
When he runs out of his own breath, the bear looses his bite, throws his head out of the water and draws in a vast draft of air. He gasps then groans, begins to relax his grip.
But the moose gives a strong shudder and digs a hind hoof into the pond bottom. The bear quickly shifts his weight back and bears down. The hump on his back bulges and the muscles stand out in relief. The sunlight shoots off the silver hairs on his massive back. He looks like he's been electrified.
The surface of the pond slowly stills back to a mirror. Reflections of the snow capped mountains, the willows, and the pines reappear in it. A squirrel chatters maniacally in a nearby tree. Another joins his frantic voice and they scamper to shelter, causing pine needles to rain down upon the forest floor.
Finally, the bear moves slowly and releases an arm. He pulls a leg loose and lies there for a moment. He moves again and stands, blows water from his nostrils. He sneezes and shakes his enormous head. Then he wades slowly to the bank and moves through the willows. A wave of damp foliage marks his slow progress and he emerges into the sun. He steps over a dead log and limps to the trees. The thick scar tissue of the ancient bullet wound is burning again.
He reaches the edge of the tree line and pauses because it is chilly in the shade. He turns back into the warm morning sun and lies down, straightening his bad leg. Then he stretches out his arms and puts his massive face between them. He blinks, groans, blinks again. A great breath escapes the great bear and he closes his eyes.
He will need to rest for the long walk that still lies ahead, the one which had been interrupted by the challenge of the now-dead bull. Today he will begin his trek over the mountains and back into the territory of the ancient enemy, of the man who wounded him and handed him his one defeat. Long ago when he was young. And strong.
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