by Craig Bradley
Bill Jensen slammed the brakes of his Prius and clenched his jaw. Through narrowed eyes he saw the bear flinch at the screeching car, then swiftly scramble out of the road. The last he saw of it was its black backside disappearing into a thicket of brambles.
He pulled onto the shoulder of the road and shut off the ignition. His hands were trembling. Jeez, he thought as he looked at the bushes where the bear had disappeared. That was close.
He had been enjoying the scenery, watching the Blue Ridge Mountains grow closer, when the big bear trotted onto the road. Fortunately, no one was behind him when he hit the brakes. The bear had reacted as quickly as he had which was surprising considering its bulk.
He took a deep breath as the adrenaline ebbed away. His shock at the near-miss quickly turned to excitement as he thought of how he would tell the story back in the city. He had never seen a bear in the wild and, though he had only caught a glimpse of this one, he was sure none of his friends had ever seen one outside of a zoo.
Hands steady now, he turned the key and the Prius quietly hummed to life. He felt exhilarated as he turned back onto the road. That was so cool. I can’t believe I saw a bear. He was especially surprised that he’d seen the bear in this area, which, though close to the mountains, was farmland fringed by woods.
Maybe the bear was looking for food. He recalled a nature show he’d watched recently in which bears were showing up in downtown Seattle because forest fires had destroyed their natural habitat. I sure hope it finds something to eat. A jolt of remorse hit him. What if he was heading towards food and I caused him to run away?
His excitement dampened by a wave of guilt, Jensen drove on. He was worried that the bear would try to cross the road again and the next time it might not be so lucky. What could he do? None of the animal shows he regularly watched had presented a problem like this.
He saw a red and white Texaco sign ahead. I’ll pull in and tell someone about the bear, he decided. He wasn’t exactly sure what this would accomplish but he felt that a local might have a better sense of how to help the bear. He parked and walked to the front door. The only sign the place was open was a glowing red Virginia lottery sign in the window. The door opened with a jingle.
An elderly man in a blue flannel shirt sat behind a counter. He appeared to be staring at something on the floor and jumped slightly when Jensen said good morning. The old man sat up straight and blinked as if to clear his vision. Jensen was struck by the man’s light blue eyes, which were nestled beneath bushy white eyebrows set alongside a beaky nose. He looks like an eagle, Jensen thought. He felt reassured by the man’s appearance; surely this was someone who would know what to do about the bear.
What can I do for you? the old man asked. I’d like to get your advice, Jensen said. I almost ran over a big black bear a couple of miles from here and I’m afraid I may have scared it off from heading back to the mountains. The old man’s eyes widened and he leaned toward Jensen. A bear you say? A big black bear?
Jensen was pleased with his reaction; the old man was clearly interested in the bear. Yes sir, it was big. The biggest one I’ve ever seen. Jensen decided not to mention that he’d never seen one in the wild before. I thought that maybe you’d know what to do. I mean, are bears common down here? If so, maybe it’ll be alright. If not, maybe we should call the game warden or someone who could help get it back to where it belongs.
The old man didn’t answer. He reached for a phone sitting on the counter. Good, Jensen thought, he’s on the case. Frank? the old man said. Get the boys and come on down here. Someone just spotted a bear. He hung up and turned back to Jensen. Now where exactly did you see this bear?
Jensen had barely finished describing where he’d almost hit the bear when he heard crunching gravel. He looked out and saw three pick-up trucks skidding to a stop. Several men with ball caps and camouflaged jackets piled out. Jensen’s heart froze—all of them were carrying guns.
The door jingled wildly as the men trooped into the station. The burliest of them walked up to the counter as the others took up position around the drink coolers. Where’s this bear? the big man barked. The old man nodded at Jensen. That fella says he saw him a couple miles east of here, alongside the road at the Bettis Farm. All eyes turned toward Jensen, who had unconsciously taken a couple of steps back toward the ice cream freezer. What direction was it headed? the big man asked Jensen.
Jensen’s mind raced as he considered the situation. It was clear these men wanted to kill the bear, not save it. What was worse, if they were successful, it would be because he was the instrument of the bear’s destruction—he would be just as guilty of its death as the man pulling the trigger. He looked around at the hard eyes boring into him.
It was big—I’d say bigger than a well-fed housecat, he said holding his hands out shoulder width to illustrate. A housecat? the big man repeated slowly. Jensen felt sweat trickle down his back. Yeah, it had black fur and a long bushy tail and… What in the hell are you talking about? the big man erupted. That ain’t a damn bear—that’s a raccoon!
Jensen did his best to look dumb-founded as the men all regarded him with disgust. Dumb ass city slicker, he heard one of them mutter. The big man glared at the old man. Next time someone claims to see a bear, get ‘em to describe it before you call us. He stomped from the store, the other men filing out after him; the last one slammed the door and the little bell fell to the floor with a clank.
Get out of here, the old man said, his blue eyes blazing in anger. Jensen walked quickly to his car. The Prius, spitting gravel, turned onto the highway. Jensen laughed as he accelerated. This would make an even better story than missing the bear, he thought. Outwitting a bunch of rednecks and saving the bear. He might even submit it to one of the nature shows that featured true tales of animal rescues.
He was working out the submission proposal in his head when a large black shape emerged from the bushes just ahead. He saw the bear as it turned to face the oncoming Prius, but the bear didn’t flinch, and he didn’t have time to hit the brakes. How ironic, he thought as the bear rushed toward the windshield.