The Crumb Trail, Life’s Journey #1

Matt sat in a daze; the sound of the tractor trailer wheels and whistle of the air had lulled him into a very relaxed, meditative mood. As the miles and hours passed memories seemed to wash over him. He thought of his parents, children, friends, and his husband. He remembered his military career and both the good and bad that came along with it. Finally, he settled into a self-loathing pit of doubt and worry, but he knew he had to shake himself out of it and get back on track. He had to stay focused, sharp, and prepared.

In life, whether it be destiny or fate, everyone is working toward their eventually end; all parents hope to prepare their children for whatever may come in the future, hoping to equip them with some skill or talent that will help them achieve a higher step in the staircase of their lives. Matt had often thought of and thanked his parents for the skills they had gifted him in the past, whether it was learning the importance of meditation from his mother or sparring with his father. His thoughts drifted to the long hours spent training on Saturdays, followed by their father son trips to the local pub where he would play ‘fight’ with his father’s friends. These friends often included foreign ex-patriots who hung around after WWII to marry local girls and start their own families; they formed Matt’s extended family and he mourned each of their deaths. The lessons they had taught him stuck with him throughout his many years and saved both his and many other’s lives on more than a few occasions. They had earned him many accolades throughout his military career, however, now that career was over, and it was merely another grain of sand in the hourglass of time.

 He slowly delved deeper into the pit of his mind, dragging him back with frightening clarity to his last injury. It was the injury that finally placed him in the Unable to Deploy category and forced his exit from active duty much faster than he had planned; there was no need for a soldier on active duty who couldn’t keep up with his squad. His inability to keep up and his removal still caused a lump to form in his throat; it had been debilitating, internal, and hard to describe to his fellow soldiers; the hardest injuries are on the inside under the skin, beneath bone, sweat, and pride. These are the worst to recover from. He tried to dig himself from the pit he had begun to wallow in and focus on positive thoughts but, even though his send off at his retirement had been nice enough it still left a gaping hole in his life. He always knew he wouldn’t be able to stay in the service forever but he loved what he did and the difference he made. He had protected people, he saw to their needs helping them through whatever their struggles were. It had been motivation enough to power him through multiple severe injuries including twelve titanium screws, several plates in numerous major bones, more stitches than he could count and enough sprains that it had become a running joke between co-workers, friends and family.

From outside the squeal of brakes snapped him out of his reverie and back to the present. His ride had finally stopped at the Petro Canada truck stop in Chase. After the rig found a parking space the driver let him out of the trailer, wishing him well. He had been riding in the empty cattle car since the truck’s cab was full of the driver’s family; they were planning on continuing their vacation after dropping of their load of cows with Chase being their final destination. In a short stroke of luck in Matt’s favor the driver was also a retired military veteran who had recognized the sage colored fleece he has been wearing, along with the tattered, dirty chevron still affixed to it. It turned out that they had both been deployed to the same locations, albeit at different times. They shared stories over coffee at the truck stop café, shedding tears for their lost brothers and sisters. They also talked of the beauty of the people they had met and the places they visited. It was as if Matt had been reconnected with the family he had formed with his fellow servicemen, and he realized that without that family he was having a hard time finding his way in the world. The search he was on, in his mind, was his last shot at happiness.

He stood slowly, his body cracking and snapping from sitting so long, and stepped out in the cold air. It cut through him to his bones, causing deep aches wherever the pins that held him together were. It reminded him of every fall, bruise, break, and sprain he had ever had. After grabbing his pack and slinging it over his shoulders he made his way across the street toward the service station office. The area around the station was pretty, fairly typical of what he had seen in the other Canadian towns he had visited; the grass was well trimmed and lush green and the people were friendly.

 “Hi, I’m looking for maps of the area and lands to the north of here,” Matt asked the very burly, hairy attendant.

“Over there under the coffee counter,” remarked the attendant, not even looking up from his texting as he pointed.  Inside being dismissed like that angered Matt.  He stuffed it down and just let it slide.  Getting upset was a waste of energy and unneeded in this situation.

“Thanks!” Matt smiled and walked over thinking that the politeness that the attendant gave him was mixed with some guile and repulsion.  Its easy to forget how ragged you look when you haven’t shaved in weeks and showered even less.  A little chuckle escaped Matts lips as he walked over.

 After looking over several of them, he chose a forestry map that showed logging roads and trails.  This would be very helpful.  He also picked up a small tube of toothpaste and a bottle of hand sanitizer while he was there.  “Hey, is there a local job board in this area and a shelter I could crash in for the night?” he asked the clerk, locking he gaze, determined to not be the first to break the eye contact.  That was a sign of weakness and this was not Matts way.

 Looking up at him, the clerk smirked, “Up the street six blocks, take a left.  The job board is part of the shelter.”  “Thanks, hey one more thing … have there been any bear sightings recently or within the past year?” Matt locked eyes with the clerk, determined to win. “Bears, you say?  No … no, I’ve lived here for a long time; we haven’t seen any bears in this area for some time. Why do you ask?”  “Oh, I’m searching for a location mentioned in several stories I read.  I guess I’m on a fact-finding journey,” Matt said, never breaking eye contact.  They smiled at each other; the clerk wished him well and told him to be safe as he exited the store, looking down at his phone, tapping keys loudly.   After exiting the store and walking a few hundred feet, Matt turned and looked back at the clerk.  The guy was husky, to say the least, looked to be in his late 40’s maybe early 50’s, and wore a red button down shirt with black suspenders. He was handsome and reminded him of Luke.

As Matt walked he thought back to the argument with Luke a few months before.  It was bad, the worst they had ever had.  Luke was upset with Matt’s obsessions over finding locations and people mentioned in the stories.  Luke dismissed the stories as online-fiction and passed the whole thing off as coincidence.  He thought Matt’s focus needed to be on their business, not this silly search. Finding these locations and people had led Matt to call in favors and shrug off his household responsibilities.  He would spend hours online looking over the data and cross-referencing every fact he could.  It would have been easy with the tools and resources he had before he retired, but being a civilian had its drawbacks.

 Matt gathered land sale data from open records searches across the United States and Canada.  He even cross-referenced animal sightings in relation to the mentioned locations, using them to determine bear movements.  He poured over aerial photographs and forestry survey charts.  Matt contacted a friend that worked at the CDC in Washington to gather death statistics for missing persons.  Matt went further; contacting park rangers and animal control officers to inquire about bear sightings and unexplained deaths.

Matt did as he was trained to do; he extrapolated the data into core facts, adjusted for human error and displayed the data out into a visual model format.  Even after seeing all the evidence and validated data that Matt gathered, Luke would not even consider believing him.  He had begged Luke to come with him during their seasonal work break to visit the locations to see if it was fictitious or if Matt had really followed a trail and found something.  Luke had harshly refused.

 A passing police car snapped Matt into the most painful of the memories from the last few months.  He remembered Luke telling him to leave, saying he was going to take his daughter, Susan, and raise her since her father was a nut case.  Luke told Matt that he had lost his mind and that the military should have committed him two years ago, and then told him to leave.  Luke had exploded, shoving Matt into a wall.  A momentary flash of anger had crossed Matt’s face.  Luke yelled again, told him that it was only a matter of time until he cracked.  Matt, as a defensive mechanism, shut off his emotions, became stoic and gave in.  Luke was everything to Matt.  Luke was the reason he survived his last tour.  That night, Matt left.  He took his laptop, bug-out bag, passport, all the cash he had and walked out.  Matt knew he would return eventually, vindicated or dead, but either way he was going to find the truth and see where the crumb-trail ended.

 Matt arrived at the shelter and checked in.  The attendant was nice, and Matt had another light conversation about why he was in the area.  After he grabbed a bite of hot food he was shown to his cot where he slept fully clothed, with his pack strapped to his chest.  It was peaceful, but still he felt vulnerable in this space.  It reminded him of so many transient deployment-holding areas.  Lines of cots, no security, and people piled on top of one another.

 When Matt slept, the dreams came.  The dreams had been more and more intense since Matt left home.  Matt had rationalized it was the separation and intense focus on survival and discovery.  Although it had been a horrible experience, it was a liberating one as well.  He was becoming self-confident again.  Matt was gaining back his physical prowess, and it felt good.  His mind and senses had sharpened, and he actually felt his body being re-tuned.  In the dreams, bears of all shapes, sizes, and colors would walk past him, look over at him and then continue walking. They were always walking away from him, leaving him behind.  As the bears passed, he heard the jingle of bells.  The bells would become louder and louder until Matt woke up.

 The morning came, and Matt woke rested, but somehow deeply restless.  Something was tugging on Matt to go faster, to go search, to be anywhere but where he was. After thanking the shelter supervisor, he left to find an ATM.  On the walk over to the local bank, he was struck with the feeling he was being watched or followed.  Matt pushed that thought away, looked behind him a few times and kept walking.  Finding the ATM he withdrew his last $20.  It would be that way until his pension hit the bank.  He would have to buy staples, and stretch the funds as far as he could.  It would seem that trapping, catching, or scavenging the remainder of his food would have to suffice.  It was going to be a long nineteen days.  Taking out the local town map, he oriented himself and started to make his way out of town.

 Along the way, he stopped at several diners and service stations, asking if anyone had seen the pond he was looking for; or if any Bears had been seen in the area.  At the edge of town he spied a coffee shop nestled beside a service station, almost unnoticed except for the sign, which was a tree of life with two Bears walking under it. Curious!  Entering, the waiter looked up and motioned for the small man to sit at the end of the counter.  Walking up, the waiter looked directly into Matt’s eyes and asked if he needed to eat.  Matt nodded but said nothing.  The waiter brought back a large bowl of cereal, whole milk, fruit and coffee.  The waiter asked a few more questions about Matt and why he was in such a remote part of Canada. The waiter’s voice was soothing him, calming him, putting him at ease; the scent in the shop was inviting and somehow nearly intoxicating.  Through the conversation, the waiter was pulling much more information out of him that he would have usually given up.

At the end of the conversation the waiter grabbed Matt’s hand tightly locking eyes with him, “Whatever you are looking for, I hope you find it.” Matt nodded smiling but kept his silence.  Matt noticed that the waiter was actually the owner and was an average height, hairy guy.  His beard was closely trimmed, and his hands had just as much hair as his chest and face.  Something about the man put Matt at ease.  Matt’s crotch twitched, and he had to reposition himself, blushing as he did so.  In the months since Matt left Luke, he had not had a single orgasm.  He only had eyes for Luke, but something about this man piqued his interest. Before his mind distracted him further, he finished his food and quickly got up to leave. Grabbing a pen from the counter, he wrote “Thank You!” on a napkin, laid $10 under it and left.

Outside the air was cool and crisp; which brought Matt back into focus.  While making his way out of the town and toward the mountains, Matt passed a grocery store where he noticed that he was being watched by a local police officer.

“Hello Sir, do you have a few minutes to talk?” Matt asked, bending forward so he could look into the window of the cruiser, deciding to make the first move before the officer could question him.

“Yes, let me get out so I can talk to you,” replied the officer. Matt noticed two things; the man was just as hairy as the men he had met in the diner and service station, and just as attractive.  He was at least six feet tall, broad shouldered, and had a belly but he carried it well.  “So what can I do for you?”

“Um … I’m looking for a pond, stream fed and clear, with a sand beach around its perimeter … it might be on someone’s property.  Also, I’m curious if there have been any Bear sightings over the past year or so?”

 The officer looked Matt in the eyes silently, before answering his question.  “I don’t recall any location fitting that description, but I’m not an outdoors kind-of guy, so I wouldn’t be the best to ask.  Bears … well, we haven’t seen any close to town in a long time,” said the officer.  He was about to speak again when his radio chirped to life.  The officer hastily excused himself, climbed into his patrol car, and sped away.

As he left, Matt watched the car intensely.  He was struck that the answers he had gathered through the day were similar and expected.  What bugged him was that of the three places he visited the answer’s seemed to match almost exactly, like they were rehearsed and part of a cover story.  A car honked, and Matt realized he was standing in a daze, in the way of parking lot traffic.  Blushing, he excused himself and walked into the store.  His last $10 would not go far; hopefully it would be enough for some dried meat and beans.

The Ascent

  Matt cautiously left town, after the morning’s activities his nerves were on fire and he found himself suspicious of every shadow. He found his way to a deserted rest area with only a few empty cars parked along the road.. He took a few minutes to reset his gear, checking both his maps and laptop. Matt lived by one very simple rule, always check twice. Rustling through the maps and scrutinizing his years of collected image data caused memories to resurface of his hunt for information. A conversation with an old friend, and brought a smile to his face and a pain in his heart.

  “Jason Mathews please,” Matt waited on hold nervously tapping his notepad with a pencil. He was calling on an unsecured line and he knew that every one of these calls was logged; someone would have a record of this for sure. As innocuous as this was it made Matt wish he was still in the military. 

“This is Jason,” a familiar voice came on the line. Matt caught the telltale clicks of the recording device clicking on. 

 “Hey Kangaroo-Cowboy, what’s shaking?” he quipped not wanting to use names or anything that would send any analyst a red flag. He waited patiently to see how this was going to unfold. A debt was owed to Matt by jason, but even after the war ended many just went their separate ways. The things that were done, the missions that were accomplished, just  too distasteful for most of the veterans involved. 

 “Matt, you f-ing asshole, you still owe me big for the last time you called!” Jason laughed heartily, “That’s it, I’m tracing the call and I’m going to collect the cash myself!” Matt noticed the clicking of the recorder had ceased..

 “The same place as last time, Jackass. You can trace the call if you want but you know where I live,” he retorted, a little more at ease now that he wasn’t being recorded. The number would come up but nothing more. He sighed internally his nerves relaxing a bit.

 “I know, I know, just screwing with you. So, to what do I owe the honor of speaking with the infamous Raven Security Specialist? Wait! Don’t tell me; you need something, am I right?” Jason asked, the line crackling with his soft chuckle. Matt cringed as Jason called him out; good thing he wasn’t being recorded. Those words would have definitely set off an internal investigation on Jason’s end and at least a drive by of an agent on Matt’s.

 The Ravens were the dirty ones, long forgotten at the bottom of the barrel. Not on any official radar or budget document and stationed all over the country and world.   They were called in quietly to be back up crew on missions. Totally invisible to the laymen in uniform; all the while they had targets and most often, a fairly wide discretion to get the job done. They were the lowest paid and lowest ranked of any of the special operations forces in the military, and the most expendable.  A throw-away group. Matt had been part of this group for most of his military career.  A ragtag bunch of killers that would never be remembered, always expendable, and always outnumbered. 

“Um, yeah. I need topographical and image data on a few locations. Before you ask, all of them are unclassified. Yes, I can find them on Google and yes I have already searched NOAA and SAT-TRAK,” he kept his voice direct and calm. Matt knew what he was asking for. They spoke in code, asking in a manner that indicated exactly what the intended outcome was.. Matt knew that he would get much more than what he asked for if Jason came through. 

“Well, now that those bases are covered;  MAP data, huh? Tell me the locations. Wait no, just send the locations to my email, I’ll pull what I can find and send it your way when I get into research time this afternoon,” Jason said in a hurry. He caught the message and he would do what he could. Sending them to his personal email meant that Jason would be going off net to get the info and send it. MAP data meant Mission Action Parameter, reserved for information that could could get someone killed. 

“Okay, it’s on its way. I owe you brother, I really do,” Matt spoke with a little tremble in his voice. He knew exactly what he was asking Jason for but he was out of options. The pieces just would not fit with the data that he could gather on his own. He needed a little help. 

 “Not even a little bit, brother. A life saved is a debt owed. Giving you some map data will hardly make up for my debt but it’s a start,” Jason answered, his voice bland, making it obvious to Matt that it was time to go. 

“Thanks brother. Give lots of hugs to Anna and Justin, see yah!” to avoid the question and answer session that was sure to start, Matt hung up the phone sighing loudly. His hands trembled from the anticipation, hopefully Jason would be able to find him what he needed.

 The data Jason collected and sent was invaluable in locating the landmarks mentioned in the stories. It contained more detail than civilian maps and provided up-to-date geographical information; Jason’s data had been the key and the stroke of luck that gave Matt the needed connections allowing all the pieces to fall into place. It showed locations that Google had missed as well as revealing smaller details and landmarks that weren’t on the current maps. The stories had intentionally left out key points, but he had spent hours reconstructing and sometimes fabricating them from what he knew. It was finally time for him to get moving.

 After surveying the maps and calculating the walk time he concluded it was going to be at least a two day hike. Not wanting to waste any more time on nostalgia he repacked his gear, rigging both the pack and gear for an aggressive ascent. He hung his solar charger out the top and filled both the back bladder and his extra water bottles. The charger would ensure life for both his laptop and flashlight, while the water would be needed the higher he climbed if he was unable to locate any water along the way.

 He cast one final glance up at the mountain, “Here I come. Whatever you are, whoever you are … here I come.” He felt himself slide into mission mode; a quiet focus that he developed as more of a defense than an offense. It helped him block out the pain in his legs and hips, while letting his focus on direction and safety remain sharp.   

The ascent was surprisingly pleasant he found that there were several foot trails which helped him make much better time than he had previously thought he would. The trails were wide with hand holds on the steep parts and gravel paths wash outs on just about every stream head. Several of the people he met were kind, curious folk surprised by his interest in such an obscure location. He had turned on his charm and let the excitement he was feeling come through. He asked them a few questions in these conversations, mostly about the people they had seen in the area, but he had no luck matching any of the other bits of information from the stories. In the back of Matt’s head, a little doubt had started to creep in; this was the only shot he had and it was time for him to make it count.

 As the day rolled by at a very nice pace Matt let himself enjoy the mountain and the beauty it held. The first night in the woods came quickly so He found a suitable location and started striking camp. As he gathered wood and kindling for a fire he could feel the wildlife in the area. He had always been a little bugged by this radar he seemed to have. He could tell when anything living was around him. He thought to himself, ‘I am the intruder it’ll be an interesting evening.’ Along the way his training kicked in and he decided to tie a few sound signals, Jingle-Lines. He placed them in a rough circle around him about fifteen meters away. If anything large approached he would at least be able hear it coming before it ate him. He chuckled audibly and talked to himself as he went about his task, another of the little nervous habits that Matt was prone to. Talking to himself when alone helped his focus his actions, calm his mind, and relax his internal fight or flight response. 

 Matt wasn’t carrying any weapons but he did however have his utility hunting knife, field saw, multi-tool, and spade. They were the extent of his available defensive capabilities. His father had always taught him to think outside of the box and that everything could be used for defense if it was used correctly. Dad was fond of bringing home boxes of miscellaneous items and giving him the task of building or creating objects from the contents of those boxes, something he missed greatly.

 The night passed in three-hour blocks, Matt would wake to put more wood on the fire and then fall back to sleep again. In the late morning he broke camp, and went about the task of collecting his Jingle-Lines. While inspecting and removing them, he noticed several animal tracks outside of the lines but none inside the perimeter. He thought it was odd, but it wasn’t unheard of for local wildlife to find something new and avoid it. He assumed that his scent had warded them off, he hadn’t showered at the shelter and was sure he smelled like road kill.

 After re-packing his gear he continued his ascent. Along the way he picked berries and nuts to soothe his hunger; the meal at the coffee shop had long worn off and his tummy had stopped growling and had instead started to bite. Along the way he found some wild cabbage and a potato in a abandoned garden; he ate the potato as he walked but saved the cabbage to add to a future meal. He still had some food and materials put away but those were all he had left and he didn’t have any money left to buy more. ‘Heck, it’s not like like there is any way to buy more up on the mountain.’ Matt did notice the air was becoming much thinner than he was used to as he ascended. He was quickly winded and had to stop quite often to catch his breath. 

Along the way, he couldn’t shake the feeling that he was being watched or followed. It wasn’t an uncommon feeling and is actually considered normal when isolated or alone; at least that’s what his field survival instructor had kept saying. He did, however, take out his monocular and scan the area each time he stopped, just to be sure. At one stop he thought he saw movement across a gully but could not make it out with the trees and ground foliage blocking his sight. He found tracks along the way as well but he was no good at identifying them. Some things Matt could recall from memory with ease but for some reason animal tracks had always eluded him. A few looked as though they could have been dogs and larger animals, he thought a couple of the larger prints may have been Bear but he wasn’t sure. Still he snapped a few pictures for later and made a note on the pad he always kept handy. Matt wrote just about everything down,. He had developed a code, a shorthand of sorts to mask the scribbles.    

 Cresting the summit of the first mountain his lungs were on fire. He could no longer ascend more than a hundred meters without having to stop and rest. He was sure that a normal healthy person would not find this hard at all but his lungs were damaged during his last mission and sometimes simple tasks were a major effort for him. Looking back he could see why people fell in love with this area, the majesty of the ancient towering trees, the breathtaking mountains, sighing wind, and a gentle peace that beckoned to your soul. It was magical. Looking at his watch he noticed it was only half past two in the afternoon. He checked his map, his current location was about three-fourths of the way to his goal so he decided it would be good to find a base camp to fall back to incase of an emergency. He walked a bit further and found a slight clearing surrounded by trees to the north and south but cleared to the east and to west. He thought it curious but was not going to let this bit of luck go. He dropped his pack and went about making camp preparations. 

 Tonight a shelter and with a proper fire pit could be built. Sometimes the extra effort makes all the difference in comfort. Finding what he needed was pretty easy. He stripped branches for the supports and ribs of the shelter and tied them with stripped bark and vines. He used branches that had fallen and the leafy ground clutter for the back and sides. They would provide good insulation. The fire pit was next. He dug a shallow pit and connected a longer narrow hole to the bottom of it. It would allow air to enter at the base of the fire which meant it would burn both cleaner and hotter. This way he could have the pit closer to the shelter. It was pushing six in the afternoon when he stopped to survey his work. The shelter was made, an ample supply of firewood had been gathered and separated, and water was drawn from a little brook. Matt decided it would be a good night to cook his food.  He took out his mess kit, a couple small pots, and measured out his rice and beans. He decided against using the dried beef and instead used the cabbage he found. He would save the meat until he needed it. He started the meal cooking and made a little hot tea. Even if he was roughing it, Matt would still have his tea. 

 While dinner was cooking Matt unrolled his sleeping bag and laid it out on the ground cover he had made. Then he took out a solar sheet and attached it to the underside of the shelter. This would further reflect the heat forward and down onto him as he rested. ‘The Devil is in the details.’ 

Sipping his tea, he was once again struck with the feeling that he was being watched. He shoved the feeling back and surveyed the area again. It was getting dark so he quickly rigged some Jingle-Lines around the camp, hoping they would help calm his worked up nerves. He remembered what his instructor told him many years ago, “Fear is your friend and your enemy. You must learn when to hug him or slap the living shit out of him. When you do, do it quick.” So there he sat behind the fire with his back to the shelter it was very warm and helped him feel more secure. He pulled out his laptop and started to catalog the day, taking note of the tracks he spotted and what had happened the previous night. Since leaving home Matt had made it a point to journal his thoughts, feelings, and the happenings and details of his journey. As he worked, a subtle scent wafted in. The scent of pine mixed with leathery musk floated on the air. As pleasant as it was, the hair on the back of his neck still stood up. But then, as suddenly as it had come, it was gone. He tapped a few more lines and studied the maps again, he made several location marks to gauge his pace confirming he was still going in the right direction. Tomorrow he would visit the place that had drawn him here, the place that had caused such a terrible split in his relationship, the place that turned his life upside down, chewed it up, and spit it out again. 

After making a few more marks on his map he looked up and surveyed the ascent ahead of him. He hadn’t packed any hiking poles so he would have to find something that could work in their place. Matt searched just outside the Jingle-Lines and found a fairly straight, thick branch. He broke it free of a downed tree and took it back to camp. He stripped the bark from it and used the cable saw to smooth out its surface. He dug around in his pack until he found some parachute cord; the cord would do nicely for end wrapping. He notched the ends and used the fire to heat and treat the wood. When complete, the staff would be harder on the ends and flexible toward the center; making it a good walking staff as well as a defensive tool if needed.  When he was done with the staff, he powered down his laptop and stowed it securely back in his pack. He snapped a few pictures of the awesome sunset, then stowed the digital camera as well.

While he was eating his dinner the feeling of being watched passed. He thought it must have just been a sugar imbalance in conjunction with the thinner air. The warm food, full belly, hot tea, and fire were just what Matt needed. He had washed up in the brook after dinner and left his clothes to dry by the fire while he sat, almost nude, relaxing as a cool breeze blew over him. With the warm glow from the fire radiating down from the solar sheet, Matt quickly drifted off into a light sleep. 

In his very relaxed sleep state the dreams came again, this time the Bears were walking toward him. A man stood before the Bears; tall, naked and furry, holding a staff. The tall man would raise the staff and hit the ground jingle, again he raised it and let it drop, jingle. Again and again, louder and louder. The dream faded away slowly as he woke to cold feet. The fire had almost died out and the site was dark. In his groggy, sleepy state he threw more wood in the pit, warming his toes as the fire began to come back to life. As the fire grew and the area was easier to see he could tell that the ground had been disturbed around the site. None of his gear had moved but beside where he had been sleeping were smudged prints. ‘I could have made those when I was walking around. I did have my boots off and the majority of my clothes were drying by the fire.’ Still, it was curious. As the fire grew and warmed him again he snuggled into his sleeping bag and drifted back to sleep.

The morning came without incident. Matt had slept peacefully throughout the night getting the best night’s sleep since he had left home. He thought he must have been exhausted to have slept so long, but he wasn’t going to complain about his newfound energy. He left the fire burning and packed up his gear. If he didn’t return the pit would let the fire burn itself out without a problem and the next traveler would have a great head start on a pleasant campsite. He checked the map orienting himself again and off he went. He found himself rushing almost as if he was in a hurry to reach his destination. Matt was excited but also deeply scared. If this was all a figment of his imagination then he was crazy and Luke was right. If it was true he couldn’t help but wonder how was it going to turn out. He had no idea so for now he stuffed down the excitement and instead thought of caution first.

 As he made his slow but steady ascent it struck him that he may be trespassing on someone’s property or even into a completely different world than the one he left in the city below. There had been no sign of power lines or roads for the better part of the ascent. Also, it was becoming apparent that what he was searching for might not want to be found, this one fact  scared him more than anything else. Was the crumb trail he had followed a hoax, was it really just fiction? Had his already fractured mind latched onto and connected random details in an attempt to make a coherent picture? Matt was starting a downward spiral that wouldn’t end well.

 “Stop it, the maps and data points don’t lie.  It’s there, you need to find it.”  he spoke aloud, almost shouting at himself as a means of stifling the negative speech. After a short time, he realized that he was about to emerge from the trees and enter a small clearing that preceded a rocky outcrop. He stopped, took out his monocular and surveyed the area. Then a familiar scent wafted around him; the same subtle hint of pine and leather he had smelled before. He did a full turn and then the hair on the back of his neck stood up. Another turn. Nothing. His gut was telling him to get ready, that something was coming and his mind was screaming for him to run. He stood his ground. Whatever was here with him had tracked him and he was going to confront it. He mentally noted that he had not tried to be stealthy or covert, never bothering to hide his trek up the mountain. He thought back to the prints he had found around the Jingle-Lines and inside the camp. He was not alone. He licked his pursed lips and kept turning slow circles, letting his vision vary from near to far taking in the details and looking for differences.

After a few minutes of tense waiting and turning circles the scent vanished taking with it Matt’s feeling of panic. He froze and listened for any hint of a noise. Whatever that feeling was it must have been a warning. His inner guide was telling him to run. Rather than the direct entrance Matt skirted the trees around the pond picking a spot to seat himself and waited. He was on edge and knew he needed to dial it down and calm himself but his left hand continued shaking as if reaching for a weapon that was not there. He silenced himself and analyzed the area around him, took in the smells, the sounds, everything. He tried to memorize and catalog each of them so he could pick out any differences or changes, a survival technique he had learned many years ago.

 Standing, he took out his compass and checked the directions. He took off his pack and reconfigured his gear. He moved the utility knife to his waist pack which he secured on the outside of his coat. His nerves were up and his gut was tight. They told him to be prepared. He also added his trauma kit, quick clot bandages, fire starter, water purification tabs, and signal flare to the waist pack. Everything else was stowed inside. There were no dangling straps, all his gear was quieted and snuggly strapped down. He hefted the pack and proceeded on leaving the shelter of the trees.

He made his way into the clearing keeping the tree line on his left. He walked around the rocky outcrop bringing the pond within his line of sight. Taking out his compass he confirmed the pond was stream fed and lead off to the south. He saw a formation of rock that could have been used as a cooking area. It was real, this place was real! It was real and he was standing in it. Excitement exploded in his mind. He had found it. He had found it! Though, just as quickly as the excitement came, it left. His gut tightened again causing a panic to shoot through him. He looked around and although he didn’t see anything his mind was screaming for him to run. The panic he was sensing clashed strongly with his excitement. He walked gingerly around the pond, absorbing it all and locking in the data points, becoming increasingly excited. If this place was real, what about the Bears? Were they real too?

Slowly he realized that he was standing right in front of a major clue from the stories. He stood staring at the manmade eating area which from a distance would have appeared as just another rock formation. It was the barbeque pit and eating area from the stories. The charcoal had long since been used up but there was evidence of food lying around as well as several beer bottles scattered across the ground. They were old, their labels barely legible and almost completely worn off. The grass had grown long around them, swallowing up the trash, completely untouched by any man or beast. This place has been used before but by whom and where did they go?

 Matt’s mind started to stack all the facts just like he had been trained to do. Several items fit the stories but there were no trails to speak of in or out of this place causing him to question how all this was built without the help of any heavy machinery. The pit was made from a solid piece of rock. As he looked around he noted that the trees were too close to the water for a helicopter to touch down and they were uncut and looked to be between forty and eighty years old. Whoever had packed the tools in would have had to pack them out again but still, there were no cleared trails to speak of. An ATV or 4×4 could have made it in but with the snaggle of brush and trees around the lake even that was pushing it. Looking around he noticed several areas that had been dug up and then filled again; the grass and ground lichen were much shorter in these areas. The pit kind of resembled early native grave sites but it wasn’t uncommon for trash and debris to be buried or burned in remote areas like this. Still it was curious.

 As he made his way around the pond it was obvious to him that this was the place from the stories, but there were parts that didn’t fit. First, there was no house within ten miles; even at his most brisk walk it would have taken several hours or more to reach the nearest homestead, a home was on the image data he had gathered but had not shown on Google. “Thirty minute walk, my ass,” Matt snorted. He took a seat on the pond’s sandy bank so he could take it all in. This place was beautiful with stunning trees and the pond, which was cool and clear. This was a magical place.

As he looked up and watched the passing clouds, the wind changed directions and the scent assaulted him again. This time it was strong, almost overpowering. He jumped to his feet and began turning circles, training his eyes on the surrounding trees ready for a fight. Gathering his nerves he yelled out “OK! Whatever you are, if you want me come and get me! I’m not running anymore!” At the pit of his stomach he knew that something was about to happen. Stillness came over the pond and silence filled the air around him. He could hear his heartbeat echoing in his ears. Everything stopped. The wind, the sounds of nature, even the clouds seemed to have stopped moving. It reminded him of the eerie, tense, few seconds before a firefight broke out. He had felt it many times in his travels, but this was somehow different, primal, this felt … unexplainably real. 

 SNAP! — a sound from the trees behind him. Matt instinctively reacted, whipping his makeshift staff in front of him and lowering himself into a semi crouched low defensive posture. Three Bears came out of the tree line toward him at a rapid pace, not quite running but fast enough to close the distance between him and them. His thoughts faltered, “What the heck? How could they get this close without me hearing them, or … even seeing them for that matter? I’m seriously losing my edge,” He had to think fast – he knew things were going to get ugly quick. ‘The rocks!’  He knew he had to make it to the rocks if he wanted to survive.  He took off at a wide angle toward them, gaining distance away from the Bears; his training was quickly taking over. ‘Increase the distance from the enemy and lessen the chance of a direct hit.’ In his life Matt had relied on his training to save him, now that was going to be tested to his limit. Inside he knew what was happening. He had written and thought through a Bear encounter a million times during his Journey. Now, here it was.

As Matt ran, his mind registered sounds from behind. Barks, growls, and grunts made it to his ears. Another advantage of being brought up by a WWII Vet were the lessons in awareness. His father taught him from a very early age to always gather information on the situation and that often the smallest detail could be the one that save your life. He knew it was communication, and not normal Bear vocalization. He had listened to hours of Ursine sounds, this was different. ‘They’re talking to one another? Freaking hell, Bears that communicate? I’m seriously screwed.’ He ran giving it all he had but he could tell that one Bear or, hell, maybe all of them were closing the distance fast. ‘Plan B? Did I even have a plan B? Or even a plan A for that matter? I’m so screwed!’ He grunted as he ran, his stride stable with his pack. He had done well to rig it for an ascent, another totally automatic response was that Matt configured the pack where he could run with minimal bounce or movement.

Before he got a chance to turn around to confront them, one hit him with a swipe from its paw. It caught his pack and attempted to throw him to the ground onto his left side. The pack’s straps held, but its contents spilled out onto the ground around him. He rolled with the impact, keeping his grip on his staff. Coming out of the roll onto his feet he turned just in time to see the large brown Bear lunge at him. He planted one end of the staff in the ground, and ducked. The staff impacted the Bear, just to the right of its chest on the inside of the its shoulder. To Matt’s surprise the staff held and didn’t break, it was a small token of luck. The Bear’s momentum catapulted it over him and into a tumble. Matt snapped erect and turned to face the other two bears that had begun circling him. ‘Bears aren’t pack-hunters, what’s going on? Okay … stay calm. I got one Bear down, only the smaller white one is between me and the rocks, time for offense.” He charged straight at the white Bear, a battle scream roaring from his throat. He watched as it took a few steps back looking a little puzzled, swung its head left and right, and then returned Matt’s charge. ‘The bear is unsure of what to do, it hesitated.’ A quick glance over his shoulder told him the other darker colored Bear was almost on him, ‘Just a few more meters.’ Matt grunted internally as he readied himself for action. This scene had been written in his mind long ago, and it was happening pretty much as he was expecting, but much faster.  He jumped left, right, and left again, then spun with all the force he could muster bringing the staff around in a close ark, as though swinging a baseball bat, turning his back on the white bear. CRACK! He scored a lucky hit square on the Bears nose shattering the staff. As Matt tumbled backwards to a stop both bears collided, getting tangled together.

His lungs were on fire; the thin air was wreaking havoc on his body. He looked up to see the two Bears getting up while the first Bear starting to charge him again. ‘Damn it! Still not close enough to the rocks to climb, plan C it is,’ he slipped further into survival mode. His mind quickly worked out the angles and the vectors that he could use for his defense or offense. His options were limited … fight or flight? ‘Fight!’

Dumping what was left of his pack Matt took out his knife and signal flare from his waist pouch. “This will only work once. I don’t have a plan D,” he spoke aloud, crouching down and digging in with one foot. He charged at the Bear with the loudest scream he could manage. He fired the flare at it when they were within meters of each other. As it turned its head up and away to avoid the flare, he plunged his knife upwards into its neck as hard as he could. His five-inch utility blade wouldn’t do much damage to its thick fur and hide but he only needed to slow the big Bear down. As he tumbled away and came up, so did it. Matt caught a heavy paw across his left shoulder. It threw him a few meters to the ground and shredded the sleeve of his jacket. 

The impact knocked him closer to the rock. ‘Almost there,’ Matt scrambled to his feet.  Wobbling, he made a dash for them. As he ran his vision began to blur and tunnel. The sound sounds of the Bears became distant as the only sound that filled his ears was his own heartbeat and gasping attempts at breathing. Running, he felt the blood from his wound trickle down his arm and onto his hand. He could tell it was bad, his fingers were already tingling from the blood loss. Reaching the rock he climbed as best he could but his hands were slick and his feet felt heavy. He knew that the tunnel vision was from the lack of oxygen in the thin air. He was losing blood and by the looks of the blood smears he was leaving, it was happening pretty damn fast. Climbing, he made it to a ledge, pulled himself up and rolled into a seated position, pulling his knees to his chest. .

He didn’t bother to look over the ledge, but he could hear the Bears growling and whining below him. Then from below his feet came a roar that scared and shook Matt to his core. He closed his eyes and hugged his knees backing as far into the rocks as he could. Then his fear took hold of him. He shivered and coughed uncontrollably, cried and screamed. In the cold, ensuing quiet and calm his fear passed slowly leaving him a mess on the ground; the bears below him had stopped their roaring and silence filled the air. He opened his eyes, looked up at the waxing moon and exhaled deeply, bringing his body and mind to a place of calm. He had survived the encounter, he had made it this far, he was not about to give up. As he sat quietly, breathing deeply  the moon seemed to glow brighter, pulsing in time with his pounding heart.

“Gods, Goddesses, Spirits of the forest, give me clarity of vision and resolve this night,” he muttered just above a whisper. His vision had started to clear, but the pain and bleeding from his arm hadn’t.  It was time for some first-aid. He reached down and patted his waist pack. A long sigh escaped his lips and he was overjoyed that is was still intact after the encounter. Taking it off Matt clipped it around his neck and removed his jacket. Pain shot up from his arm and shoulder. Nothing felt broken, but fractures and breaks can be deceptive at times. ‘Go easy, if its already clotted, let’s not break it loose.’ It a miracle he had even managed to keep hold of his knife. He cut off his blood soaked shirt sleeve and surveyed the damage. Wincing and grumbling he slowly took stock of his injuries. From what he could see he had a deep gash in the meaty part of his shoulder and several smaller cuts on the front side of his bicep. From below him another roar echoed up the rock face. Aggravated, Matt yelled back. “No, I’m not dead you freaking asshole Bear! I didn’t come here to hurt any of you, you freaking assholes! When I finish patching myself up I’m going to go down there and kick all of your furry ASSES!”  then he gave them a roar of his own. The sounds from below promptly stopped.

Taking out his first aid kit, he popped the top on the single-use antiseptic spray. Hands shivering, he knew this was going to hurt and it was going to hurt badly but the risks from not using it were too high. His hand trembled as he held up the little aerosol bottle and engaged the spray. His mind washed in colors as the spray hit the open, bleeding wounds. He thanked the Gods for the numbing agent that was included in the spray. However, he still leaned over and vomited the contents of his stomach over the rocks. After he recovered, he opened one of the gauze pads and cleaned around the wound the best he could. The bleeding was slowing from the spray, but it was still pronounced. Next was the quick clot bandages; these came from a trauma kit that he lifted on his last tour before retirement. “Something told me these would come in handy,” he spoke aloud. These quick clot bandages were designed for one-handed use, an ideal application in this situation. They would do the trick and stay in place, but he still secured the bandage with the duct tape he always kept in his kit. He used the cleaning wipes from the kit to clean the smaller wounds on his arms, gut, knees and hands and covered those with Duct-tape as well. 

Sitting with his back against the rock, looking up at the moon, Matt sighed long and deep. With most of the bleeding stopped and the first aid complete he slid the bloody, shredded jacket back on and surveyed his options. It was almost dark. Had it not been for the moonlight it would have been impossible to see. Surveying the rock ledge he sat on, he calculated that it was about four feet wide and ten feet long. It was covered overhead by a small outcrop about five feet up. He had to crouch to walk, but could stretch if needed. If it rained the outcrop above would provide some shelter. A few sticks and leaves were in the corners and some dried grass and plant life were on each side of him; several dried trees hung over within his reach. He also noted that the Bears below didn’t pursue him up the rock face. He thought it was curious, but it wasn’t out of character for Bears to climb up rock faces or trees. 

He knew he wasn’t going to climb any higher or leave the safety of the rocks without some form of defense. He eased towards the edge of his ledge and looked down at the ground. The big brown Bear, a Grizzly, was still below him sitting on its rump, looking up at him as though it was waiting for him. Matt cursed the Bear and sat back. ‘I won’t be your dinner that easy, you asshole.’ Slipping further into a survival and combat mode, Matt’s mind started to look at his situation, void of emotion, fear, and doubt. He always seemed to find himself involved in intractable tactical situations and he remembered what several instructors had said to him over the years. ‘The choice to fight or take flight is a simple choice to make. Living with the consequences of that choice is often much harder than you think. Take time, look at all the possibilities. Examine all the angles, find the best avenue and take it. When you do, commit to it, give it your entire effort and you will succeed.’

Sitting quietly he considered his options. Running was out of the question. The Bears were faster than he was and could track him at night. They had the natural territory advantage, night vision, and hell, they were Bears; they are the Alpha predators in this area. His defensive options were limited; distance, time, and terrain were all Matt had, unless he could improvise something. The compass and maps were lost somewhere in the scuffle and most of the gear that was in his pack was now scattered on the ground below. He would have to wait until first light to move and make a run down the mountain toward the campsite. He had a general idea where it was and what direction he had come. It would be a rapid descent down the mountain and he would move better and faster on his way down than he had during his ascent. It wouldn’t be the first time he had to run for his life; humans were one thing, but Bears were the complete opposite side of the spectrum. “Here I am again, fighting to stay alive in a hostile environment, why does this always happen to me?” Matt spoke to himself, just over a whisper. Defending himself against a Bear attack was something he was NOT trained for, but he never backed down from a fight or a challenge. “This was definitely going to be an adventure.”

  The situation stood with the terrain and natural advantages going to the Bears. However, Matt was lucky and managed to sneak away. It was odd, the Bear still sat below the ledge as though waiting for Matt to come down; this couldn’t be normal behavior. The three Bears seemed to be acting in a coordinated effort. If this were true, Matt would have to break that coordination and create an opportunity for action. The larger brown Bear and smaller dark Bear seemed to be the aggressors while the white one acted as an observer. It was either acting as overwatch or unskilled in this setting. In any case, that would be something Matt could use. 

It was time to dial up all the lessons his dad taught him, everything he had learned in training, and in his travels. He leaned back over the ledge and saw the Bear again, still sitting looking up at him.  “Asshole!” he yelled again over the side. He needed some light and warmth. He reached over and grabbed a few small branches, some pieces of kindling and anything else he could find that would burn. On the right side of the ledge he built a small fire. On the other side, he found some larger, thicker branches; he shredded his already ripped up shirtsleeve from earlier to fashion three torches and set them aside. Then, he unearthed several stones from the rock wall behind him Searching his pockets he found a few lengths of parachute cord, a small bottle of hand sanitizer, rescue sugar tabs, a power bar, a plastic wrapper from a sandwich he had several weeks ago, and a small spool of fish line.  Not much with these odds but it would have to do; he settled down to work.

He took the rocks he had found and chipped at one until it became a rough square shape, with a small point to one side; he also cut branches from the trees above and using the parachute cord he bound the branches together, lodging the square stone at the top. He secured it all down with the parachute cord and ta-da! Now he had a club. He didn’t want to kill any of them, just get away. His defensive weapons were now plus one. He took several rescue tabs and crushed them in the hand sanitizer. “Look Mom, napalm,” he chuckled and worked it back into the bottle and placed it in his outside coat pocket. This could be used as a sticky fire type weapon. The sanitizer would catch fast and the sugar would crystallize and stick to whatever it was on. Sitting back he put more branches into the fire and took the time to rest his body and mind. The adrenaline from earlier had passed and his body was insisting that now was the time for rest. He took out the power bar, broke off a piece and chewed it slowly. It was nasty and had been in that pocket for a long time, but it was nourishment. Then he popped several rescue tabs to keep his sugar up. With all the blood that he had lost in the last exchange, the higher sugar levels would help him stay focused, if only for a short time. It would also help clear his head; the release of insulin in the body was a natural anti-inflammatory that helps with pain. Looking up at the moon again, Matt made the decision to move and to commit to his course of action, to take whatever outcome would be dealt him. He would move with purpose and clarity. As he looked at the moon, it seemed to pulse again in time with his heart. Something was happening, things were moving, the world was coming into focus. His hearing intensified as the light of the moon grew brighter and Matt was set into fight mode.

Leaning over the ledge again, he saw that big brown Bear was looking up at him and licking its lips. “Asshole,” Matt cursed again. Looking to his right, he noticed that the ledge he was a lead up to a gentle climb to the top of the outcrop; either the other Bears were waiting for him up top or they were in the woods waiting; either way it was time to speak his mind before he moved.

Gathering his things, he stood on the edge of the ledge looking down at the big brown Bear below him. He gathered his nerve, cleared his voice and spoke to the Bear below, “I came to find you and your kind. I followed the crumb trail in the stories; I followed the trail here, to this place. I destroyed my life to find the truth. So, when I arrive, this is how you greet me … your kind tries to kill me? You assholes! I’m not looking to expose you. I want to join you!” Emotions long buried came to the surface as the compartment of his mind they were locked in broke open. “I have searched my entire life for something, for anything to fill the void in my heart. I have tried to find a people and a group to call my own. I have a partner that I love dearly, I couldn’t bear to lose him, but I put everything I have on the line to find you. I have to find the end of the trail.” Matt spoke through angry, fiery sobs, teeth clenched, muscles tense. “You know … I’m out of place with my own blood family. I traveled the world searching for that closeness, the sense of family that I found in those stories. I put the clues together and now I’m here … on this ledge. I’m about to fight for my life and prove that I’m worthy.  Let me draw a line in the dirt. If this is a test let me tell you, I’m so going to kick your furry asses!” Matt roared, the emotions, heat, anger, pain, longing, loss edging up with every word he spoke. He stopped, took a step back and realized the other two Bears were just to the left of the larger Bear, just at the edge of his sight. “Good, stay there,” he growled, his mind lapsed fully into fight mode.

He gathered the last of his things, he stowed the club in his waist strap and put two of the torches in the rear pouch of the coat. Lighting the third, he stood up, turned, and kicked the fire down toward the big Bear. “Let’s go asshole! come and get me!” he yelled and started climbing. From below, a mighty roar echoed up the rock face. Matt climbed with everything he had. He reached the top, and eased himself up slowly. Not seeing any Bears, he quickly got to his feet and made his way in the direction of safety. As he strode across the top of the outcrop, he found a picnic table. He walked over to it and surveyed the area the best he could. Distracted, his mind locked in a few more of the details. The table had scratches in it, deep ones. It was sturdily built to withstand and support a massive amount of weight. The grass was grown up over the legs further proof that it had not been used in some time. A sound snapped him back to his surroundings.

The sound had come from behind him. Turning torch in hand … the glint of wild eyes caught his own. Damn they were fast. The large brown Bear walked into the torchlight and stopped. To its left the smaller white Bear and dark colored Bear emerged. Matt edged his way backward and bumped into a fire ring. He quickly glanced down into it; it was loaded with logs and dried wood. Taking the second torch, he lit it and then laid it inside the fire ring. The wood must have been totally dry since the fire took off quickly and further illuminated the area. As the area lit from the light of the growing fire, he could better see the Bears. The brown Bear was massive and the other two were smaller, but still formidable. He swallowed hard taking in the situation and working out the possible angles for him to escape.

  He eased back behind the fire ring as the three Bears made their very slow approach. They spread out to a loose line, the big brown Bear in the lead, the smaller white Bear in the center and the dark Bear on the far left. ‘Standard fire-team pattern, what the hell is going on?’ From behind him he heard a sound and spun around on his toes. A black Bear was standing on its hind legs almost on top of him. For the second time that day a Bear had got the drop on him.

“Crap …” he muttered as it raised a paw high above him. 

“Oh no you don’t, I’m not that easy to kill. You may have numbers but I still have some tricks.”  He dropped backward and rolled over as the Bear swiped at him. He lunged forward with the torch and the black Bear, now back on all fours, turned its head to avoid the fire. He swung forward his other hand with the back of the stone club. The weapon smashed into the Bear just behind its right ear. The impact stunned and dropped the Bear to the ground where it moaned and pawed at its head.

Matt wheeled around the fire pit as all three Bears started to advance toward him.

  With the fire in the ring burning brightly, Matt ditched the torch and took out his blade. It was time for some offense; he charged at the big brown Bear knife in hand ready to strike. Matt had studied Bear combat tactics and movements while he was gathering up the breadcrumbs from the stories. From his study he learned that a running Bear had to stop and push off with its front feet in order stand upright. They could swipe with their front paws while on all fours, but only as high as their head. He needed to even the odds and separate the Bears from each other so he could fight with better odds and break up their coordinated effort. 

As the Bear ran toward him, Matt ran for the picnic table. When the two met he took a leap off the table and over the advancing Bear. The big brown Bear collided with the table and took it over toward the fire with it. As Matt landed, he could hear growls and grunts from the brown Bear as it tangled itself in the upturned table. 

The dark one charged forward next, but Matt kept the ledge on his right and let the Bear close the distance. As it closed Matt tried to jump over the smaller Bear, but it moved faster than him and smacked him out of the air. He hit the ground hard, but swung his arm around with the stone club and caught the Bear at the elbow of its forepaw. It yelped in pain and crumbled into a heap on the ground. Scrambling to his feet he grunted in pain, and looked down to see the bottom of his coat shredded at his left thigh and hip with some blood mixed in. His waist pack was missing along with the last torch… this was not going well.

  He struggled to stay on his feet, turning just in time to see the big Bear charging. He kept the ledge at his back and with his club and knife ready, he screamed and charged at the advancing Bear. He only made it a few meters before they met. He attempted to slide under the massive Bear and brought the club down as he slid, hitting the Bear in the muzzle. He sunk the knife into its neck stunning the Bear. It crumbled and tumbled on top of and then over Matt. As the Bear went over, its rear paw and claws came down and into Matt’s chest, shredding his jacket, clothes, and skin. Matt screamed as he was stomped into the ground. The world blurred, his ears hummed and the world seemed to slow down…

Struggling to get up, Matt could see the shreds of his jacket and the blood coming from them. His vision was blurry and his right arm was not working, instead it just hung by his side, twitching. He still had the club in his left hand and looked around, gasping for air. The Bears were circling, grunting at him. The white one stopped and started walking toward him. Growling and snapping at the others as it did so. Matt’s eyes met the eyes of the white Bear. “… Kermode,” Matt whispered to the white Bear. The Bear seemed to glow in the moonlight and light from the fire. 

Matt had given it everything he could muster, he brought all his energy to the table. He had used all his skills to survive but the outcome was really never in question, it was written before the first scent of pine and leather wafted by Matt’s nose. This was not a fair fight, four large Bears against one loosely armed human. As skilled as Matt was Bears would always be different than humans. His body was just too weak to match the Bears in a one-on-one fight. He doubted if he had been armed that it would have mattered the way they came after him. Whatever the Bear’s intentions, Matt had nothing left.

As he stood watching the white Bear approach, the shivers started. He knew it was the blood leaving his body and the exertion, he knew he wouldn’t be conscious much longer. He could see his breath in the air, coming in rasps. Mustering the last of his strength, he stood as straight as he could and spoke to the white Bear. “I meant you no harm by coming here. I came to join you …  not harm you,” his voice faded as he dropped the club, dropped to his knees, and then to the ground. The world went black. He could hear sounds of the Bears around him, grunts and growls, roars and barks. He was being sniffed, moved and then … nothing.

The Void

Time stops in the void of nothingness, awareness drifts in and out like a feather on the wind. Matt’s trained mind was trying to bring him back; to shake him from the state he was in. His awareness came back in sparks, feelings, and jolts. It was like he was being shocked repeatedly by an unknown force. He was being prodded back to the land of the living, pulled back across the river Styx, and thrown back through the gates of Valhalla into the reality he had only just left. It was not his time, this was not where he would meet his end, and he would not join his family at the dinner table today. 

He could feel his body being moved, hear the crunch of his bone, and feel the warmth of the animals around him. It was warm … so warm. The pain he had felt before was drifting away like a dream. He could see Luke and Susan, the dogs, and the home they had just built. They were waving at him. He saw his father standing before him. He had his staff in his hands. Then the jingle of bells came … louder and louder … in the void Matt reached to cover his ears, but his arms wouldn’t move. Louder, the bells continued to chime … he felt something wrap around him and felt himself being rolled over. He felt his arms and legs being moved and twisted again; felt his head being rolled around and something close around his throat. He smelled pine, leather, earth, and blood.  Then the void came again … blissful nothingness wrapping Matt in its consuming embrace.

Time has no bearing in the void; sounds came back to Matt as whispers, ghosts in his mind. As feeling came back to his body, he focused on staying still. He tried to control his breathing. He also focused his awareness on his body parts and tried to get a reading on how badly he was hurt and what was going on. The voices he was hearing sounded familiar, but it was hard to place them. It was like an itch he couldn’t scratch, a memory just on the edge of remembrance.

“No, you can’t change him.”

“You heard him just like I did; he said he wants to join us.”

“I said no, you are not changing anyone. Not until he wakes up and can talk with us.”

“Not even then am I’m going to let you change anyone. Maybe one of the others wants a new Cub, but not you two.”

“Is he stable?”

“Yes, he is. His body is badly damaged, he’s lost a good amount of blood, but his aura and life energy are strong, they seem to be sustaining him. I have never seen this before in a human. In Bears yes, but never a human.

“He is still human. It’s going to take some time for him to heal. You three beat the hell out of him.”

“The human started it. Not us.”

“That human did not start this. You tracked him since town; you three wanted to see what he was up to. So you didn’t come and get me first and now this guy is beat to hell and you three need to have your asses kicked for it. Damn Cubs all of you.”

“He feels like a Bear, but he’s human. He needs to be changed before he dies.”

“That human is strong, his scent is that of a Bear, but he is not one.  We need to talk to the Elders.”

“I thought you were an Elder?”

“No, I’m not. Any clue who he is?”

“I have his wallet. He’s an American living in Virginia. Looks like he is retired United States Military. He only had $2 left, I see receipts for the grocery store in town and the gas station where you know who works. Also, there seems to be a trail leading from California to Montana, and then north.”

“This human came looking for us, but why alone, why like this?  It was like he was searching for something. The way he moved through town … who he talked too.”

“Gather his things from the field and bring them here. The way he fought, it reminded me of something.” 

“What did you say he called you?”

“He called me an asshole.”

“That’s about right.”

“Okay, I have his laptop; give me a few and I’ll see what’s on it. Nothing is too badly damaged from his pack. He had the important stuff in the center. So when he got whacked nothing was really damaged. Whoever he is he’s smart and he’s skilled. “

“You do that. Now tell me again how it started and why you decided to kill him rather than run him off like the others.”

“Hey everyone, I have something. It’s the only file on his desktop; its title is “Bears, Read This First.” 

“Well? Go ahead and read it.”

‘Ok, here we go- Hello, I have been searching for your kind for about a year now. I mean you no harm, I have come unarmed, and in search of the truth. I feel compelled to find you from the stories I read online and the tug in my heart. Contained in several files on this hard drive are the journals of my travels and my background. If I’m worthy, I hope to join you. I have considered the ramifications of giving up my humanity and have already made the choice to either find you or die trying. That is my choice and this is my life to give. So, if you are reading this, either I have given it to you or you found it after something happened. Please read the rest of the files. Thank you. Matt Owens.’

“There you have it, he wants to join us.”

“It’s not that simple, we need to talk with him before any of us do anything else.

“Okay, looks like we are staying where we are for the night. Let’s gather more wood for the fire and settle here. If he survives till dawn, we will take him back with us.”

Despite the stillness Matt was attempting to maintain, his heart leapt and the smallest of smiles creased his face. He quickly re-attained stillness and let himself drift back into the void. It was so warm, so incredibly warm and safe. 

In the void, the dreams came again. These were starkly different than the last. His father and mother visited him; Dad was dressed in his Military Uniform and Mom in her jeans and button down shirt and they beckoned him toward something. As he walked along with his parents, they led him through a forest and into a cave. The sound of ringing bells was ever-present and getting louder as they walked. The cave was vast and as they walked, Matt could make out paintings on the walls. They depicted great battles with Bears and men, sometimes fighting beside one another and in others against each other. As they walked, the cave opened into an alcove within was a Bear, sitting on an outcrop. The ringing stopped as they entered the cave and the Bear raised its head looking at its visitors.

Looking back at Matt, his parents smiled. Turning, they bowed to the Bear and pushed him forward. The Bear rose and lumbered toward Matt. When it reached him, the Bear inhaled deeply. Its green eyes seemed to penetrate Matt and stared deep within him, as they looked, they saw fear, longing, and respect. They saw sacrifice, strength and a thirst for knowledge. They saw a fractured soul that needed to be healed, commitment and love; they saw mistakes, wrong turns and strife. They saw a human. They saw a human in search of its destiny. 

The Bear roared in Matt’s face and reared back raising a mighty paw above its head; Matt accepted this action and took a step toward the mighty creature. As the paw came toward him, time slowed and morphed. Matt could make out every muscle in the Bear’s body, he could hear the Bear’s heart beating, and he could feel the heat radiating from its body and breath. As the paw reached Matt’s chest, it passed through him. The Bear looked once more at Matt, then turned and walked away. The cave was becoming brighter, its image fading. Matt turned to look at his parents, and saw that they were smiling at him. He started to move but found that he could not. He started to speak, but no words could escape his lips. They faded from sight, as did the cave. Voices reached Matt’s ears.

“His energy and aura are even stronger now. What’s going on? His wounds aren’t healing, the blood isn’t stopping, and it’s beginning to ooze through the bandages.”

“I’m telling you both, he feels like a Bear. He feels like you and I. Why don’t you understand that?”

“He is still human, but he smells like one of us.”

“We need to speak with an Elder.”

“No one is around, we will have to call.”

“Okay, go as fast as you can. Go now and make the call, have the Elder come ASAP.”

“He’ not going to last that long.”

“No. You are not changing him.”

“Damn it! You read the entire journal, this guy found us, he is alone, and he wants to be one of us. He fought all three of us, and damn nearly won! If this guy doesn’t have what it takes to be a Bear, then let it be my responsibility. He spoke to me like he knew me.”

“No. You are not doing that.”

“Listen, it’s been some time since we changed and how we changed is clouding our judgment. All of us were changed accidentally. This human wants it. He has searched for it. He has prepared for it. Are we really going to let him die?”

“Yes. Yes, we are. If we do this without permission of the Elders, it will make everyone’s life harder.”

“I think it’s time we grew up.  If this human is not worthy of being our Cub, then who would be? Some scruffy human off the street?”

“That’s not what I meant and you know it.  It’s a one-way ticket to Beardom; there are plenty of responsibilities and things we have to do.  This is not a free ride.”

“Look. I never said it was. This human traveled largely on foot, scavenged food, hitchhiked, and did whatever he had to do so he could find us. Become one of us. Doesn’t that count for something?”

“Both of you need to stop. I don’t think he is going to make it till nightfall. We need to speak to an Elder now, while we still can.”

“You see? He’s not going to make it. We need to change him.”

“I said NO! You are not going to change him, unless we speak with him. Now stop it, if he cannot wake up and speak with us, then this is his fate.”

The voices faded again as the void pulled Matt back into its ever-consuming embrace. This time it was sudden, a violent shift in environments. Matt found himself in a high altitude free fall like he had been kicked out of an aircraft. He could tell it was high as he passed through the layers of the atmosphere. He could feel the rush of air pass him, the whistle of the air as it changed density and the crackle of static electricity as it passed through his body. He could tell the ground was coming up as night turned into day; while he looked at the stars naming the constellations. The ground was getting close, the chute alarm started to chirp and Matt reached for the ripcord. There was none. He reached for the reserve chute that should have been there but that too was missing. The alarm chirped higher. 

Matt had a two choices, life or death. He chose life. Glancing at his feet, he noticed he was wearing a wingsuit. He flipped over and attempted with all his strength to flatten his body. He pulled his knees up slightly to change the angle of his fall from a line to an arc; this would help slow his descent. He scanned the terrain; it was mountains, trees, streams, and small lakes.  Damn … Ah-ha … off in the distance Matt spied a pond or a small lake with a wide stream leading into it.  That would have to do. He needed to stall his descent; he curled into a ball and flipped in the air, then opened up his arms and legs as wide as he could.  He thanked the gods for the reinforcement in the suit, if not for it his arms and legs would surely have been torn backward on his body like an action figure. He completed this maneuver twice more as the lake loomed closer to him. Exhaling as much air as he could, he lined up on the stream and tucked into a ball.  IMPACT! Pain seared through his body as every nerve ending lit up; he skipped across the water like a smooth rock on a still pond. 

The pain washed over him in waves and arcs of light, blackness and bright flashes.  Matt’s body would not move as he gasped for breath trying to stay afloat on the water. He gulped in air-attempting desperately to stay afloat.  His legs dangled under him and his arms hung at his sides, not answering his calls for action.  Slowly, water filled his clothing and pulled him under the water. It was in those last moments that he summoned all his energy into a single effort.  Matt screamed, ‘NO!’ he roared from the deepest parts of his being. He screamed for his life, bellowed that he was not ready to walk through the doors of the great hall, that he was not ready to speak to the boat master and he was not ready to join the gods among the constellations.  In a blinding flash Matt was back; he escaped the void and once again he heard the voices.

“I think he’s awake?”

“Did you feel that rush of air?

“Yes, the wind is picking up what’s going on?”

“Guys? His aura is getting stronger, and he’s hot to the touch.”

Matt could hear them; if this were his last chance he would take it.  Exhaling deeply, he focused all his energy on waking up.  He must regain awareness; he must shake himself from death’s grasp. The reaper would not be claiming him this day. 

“You fight like Bears …” Matt whispered with a smile.

“Um … yeah.  Who are you?”

“I’m Matt Owens, I came to join you, not harm you.  I want to be one of you.  I hope I have proven myself worthy of your company,” his human voice was cracking; his eyes were covered with something.  As he attempted to move, the pain returned.  In a violent jolt, pain shot from his shoulder to his navel and radiated throughout his entire body. 

“Stay still, you are badly hurt.”

“You see? He wants it. Now that we have talked with him?”

“NO! I said no.  Not until we talk with an Elder.”

“He is not going to make it that long.”

“If I’m to die this night, let it be after you hear my plea to become one of you,” Matt said as he went through the events that had led him to this place.  He spoke of the entire trial he had gone through and what it meant to find them.  He spoke of love and loss.  He spoke of understanding and commitment.  He spoke his heart to the beings that were in his company.  The Bears asked no questions. 

  

Choices

Matt finished his story and the Bears watched him silently.  He could feel his energy ebbing away and his body was starting to cool off.  He had laid everything out as clearly as he could, now all his of life force was used up.  The choice rested in the hands of the Bears around him.  In the growing silence, Matt could begin to hear the bells again.  They were growing louder as feeling faded from his body.  He couldn’t focus his awareness on his body any longer; he could not force himself to remain conscious. He slipped quietly back into the void, following the sounds of the bells.

“His aura is cooling; as is his body guys. He is dying.”

“I need to change him.”

“No you are not, this is his fate.”

As the Bears argued with each other, the wind picked up around the clearing.  It circled them, bending trees and throwing debris.  A swirling vortex of wind and electrical static enveloped the Bears and Matt’s unconscious body.  They looked out into the wilderness searching for the source of the disturbance.

On the wind a scent came to the Bears, all of them perked up noses to the air. It was powerful, old, and wise; with it the scent carried an air of respect.  It commanded the respect you would give an older family member; a reverence that demanded obedience.  From the trees stepped a Grizzly Bear of epic size who moved with stealth unmatched by any creature.  It moved silently through the campsite, leaving no prints in its wake.  As it approached it looked at each of them, peering at the Werebears as they stood in awe.  As it approached the others backed away from Matt; all but one Bear, Rusty, who stayed by his side refusing to move. Approaching without sound, the Grizzly Bear stopped at Matt’s dying body. It sniffed him intently, and then laid a paw on his chest.  Looking back at the Bears the Grizzly Bear chuffed at them and then leaned down, pointing his nose at the Bear who stood by Matt’s sided.  It chuffed softly once more and the Bear at Matt’s side nodded and bowed.  The Great Bear turned and walked back into the woods.

The wind calmed as the Grizzly Bear vanished into the woods, a ghost on the wind.  The Bears stood silent for a few moments, unsure of what to do.

Breaking the silence Rusty turned to his family, “I am Kermode, and I will change him!  The Great Bear commands it.  This one is destined for his service,” His body began its transformation as he spoke in a voice that demanded respect from those around him. He was a Spirit Bear, and he would be respected. 

The Great Bear had called Matt to this place and chose these Bears to be present at his change. A Spirit Bear would change this human. The others stood back as Rusty poured his essence into the human, none dared to come close to them. As Rusty changed the human the sky cleared, the wind picked up, and animals of nature came to the clearing. None of the Bears understood what was happening or why, but inside his soul Rusty knew Matt was special, the Great Bear told him so. 

Matt followed the bells as they increased in volume. He walked through a dense forest, over trees and around rocks picking his way through dense brush. The bells grew louder the deeper he delved into the forest. Almost frantic to find the source of the sound he ran, tripping and flailing over the terrain. As he burst through a clearing, Matt found himself facing a tall man holding a staff. He had hair of golden blond, body of matching fur, and eyes that were a deep midnight blue. Beside the man walked a Grizzly Bear, with deep green eyes that seemed to reflect the canopies of the trees above them. Together they watched Matt as he walked toward them. As he reached them the man stopped dropping the staff, finally ceasing the ringing of the bells. They stared at Matt and the man smiled while the Bear lowered itself into a bow before him. In a smooth motion, that Matt could not counter, the man struck him in the chest with the staff, sending him back into the brush. He jolted awake suddenly to the smell of bacon cooking and the gentle sounds of nature.

“Great, you’re awake! I’m Rusty and we have a lot to talk about.”

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