The old man had seen the blot of darkness moving against the lesser darkness of the forest. He shifted the rifle carefully up as the bear came into the light, and fired.
A fiery lance of pain shot through the bear’s leg. He squalled and charged back toward the forest.
* * *
It had been six days since Tim had eaten anything but a handful of pine nuts, and now the squirrel stew was playing havoc with his stomach. He squirmed uncomfortably through the night in his pine needle bed. And he dreamed.
It was morning in his dream – a clear, Sierra morning with the great pines standing bold against the blue of the sky. Once again he had his rifle in his hands. He and his companion were crossing a meadow with the sun at their backs. The grass was wet with dew and the morning sun fell slantwise, casting their shadows before them.
From time to time he would glance at his companion. Sometimes it would be his father in jeans and cowboy boots, striding along with his quick eyes darting about. Then it would be his grandfather, whose brown eyes were nearly buried in a mass of wrinkles. Since it was a dream, Tim did not think it was strange that his companion could change from one to the other.
Across the meadow, a deer emerged from the forest. Tim raised his rifle and his companion – he wasn’t sure which one – whispered, “Steady!” Tim let the rifle settle into place for the fraction of a second it took for the barrel to become still. The deer was pinned on the rifle sight. He squeezed the trigger gently and the rifle leaped in his hands.
The deer stumbled, fell, and rose again to run. But he did not run toward safety. He ran straight toward Tim. Tim reached for the lever to jack up another cartridge, but his hands felt numb and useless. The deer’s forequarters were soaked with bright, red blood. The deer’s eyes were bright with anger; his antlers looked sharp and deadly. The skin of the deer’s chest shivered from the interplay of muscles beneath and each drop of blood stood clear and individual, carried like bright jewels on the tips of the deer’s coarse hair.
The deer’s great brown eyes held no human intelligence, yet Tim felt as if it were shouting a reproach at him for his clumsy shot. A watery weakness swept through him and he had to turn away from that calm, accusing face. And as he did, the weakness settled in his stomach and became genuine pain. He woke, chilled and sweating in his shelter.
* * *
Tim lay awake for an hour. Then he slept, and dreamed again.
This time he was in his parent’s house, and once again his father was there. It was a brief dream, almost a simple touch of memory. His father and mother sat reading and talking while Tim played on the floor. Tim slid from sleep into wakefulness and lay awake again, staring at the rough underside of his shelter roof and missing his home. more tomorrow