In today’s world of city domination, only a relative few have ever experienced true wilderness…and the Bob Marshall is all that. By law, there are no roads. Logging is forbidden. No machines are allowed, not even bicycles. The three ATV’s used by Morse Code in their first attempt to ambush our people? Those had managed to reach their timber-covered parking spots by pure luck.
Which meant they wouldn’t be using them now. Every Forest Ranger’s ear would be tuned to the growl of a combustion engine where a combustion engine was not allowed.
True, most of the Rangers we knew had keenly developed senses of self preservation. They weren’t assuming the bad guys were gone from the territory. But that only meant the official guardians of the Wilderness would be cautious before riding through much of the Bob this year. They’d wait for the snow to finish melting in the hopes of hearing Jonathan Morse and his followers had gotten themselves offed in a bungled Los Angeles bank robbery or some such.
In other words, we didn’t figure to trip over any Smokey Bear hats while we were hunting. Any humans we encountered were 99.99% certain to be the enemy.
That, or some idiot clueless hiker.
Jack Hill was our leader. Neither Sissy nor I were qualified, for one thing, or at least not as qualified. Hill had lived alone and unnoticed in these mountains for something like a dozen years, back in the late 1800’s.
Which was our number one edge: He knew the Bob better than the renegade snake eaters could possibly know it. They were the elite of the elite, psychosis or no, but they were on his turf.
And he could track. Not like the legendary scouts of old, wind over water, that sort of thing. He was human. But I could read sign fairly well, and he made me look just plain silly.
Not that we started out following bad guy tracks. That, he’d assured us, was the surest way he knew to get dead in a hurry. Any fugitives worth their salt–and five former Special Forces commandos were worth a fair bit more than that, no matter whose side they were on–would be keeping a weather eye on their backtrail. Didn’t matter that it was two weeks old.
So what we did was, we angled east, staying well up in the treeline. The idea was not to follow our quarry’s trail, but to “cut their trail”, angling across it.
“From where they abandoned that car,” he’d explained during our planning sessions, “I’m betting it was a short hike to their ATV’s, with a route that would let them get there without tromping through too much snow. They wouldn’t want obvious tracks. But they’d want speed of exit, and that means hopping a ride for at least a little while.
“There are no ranch houses near where the car was found…but there is a brush-filled draw about a quarter mile this side of there. If they overshot deliberately, then hiked back that far–heck, double timing it, they could have made it in under a minute–they could have followed that draw clear back up into a jackpine stand a good two miles north of the highway. Could have stashed the machines there, grabbed some serious backpacks, and been back up in the thick stuff in short order.”
I’d pondered what he said before asking for clarification. “You figure they’re on foot, then?”
“Unless they got themselves some horses, yeah. I do.”
“Horses don’t seem likely.” This from Sis, who’d been listening quietly as we brainstormed around the kitchen table in Hill’s home. “I mean, the reports you got from your contacts, they don’t say anything about any of these guys being, you know, cowboy material. And there haven’t been any missing horses reported that we’ve heard about. Not to mention that horses up in the Bob might as well have signs painted on their flanks, saying GRIZZLY SNACKS.”
We’d both nodded our approval at that. When all this Hell had first broken loose, the bears were most all of ’em hibernating, but they’d be starting to come out now, gaunt and cranky and seriously ready for breakfast after their long winter’s nap.
Yet here we were, three bold fools trekking through the trees on horses, knowing nothing terrifies a cayuse like the rank smell of a close-up griz–and for good reason.
The Bob is home to the highest density of long-clawed, snaggle-toothed grizzly bears in the–well, pretty much the world. It’s got everything else, too, even wolverines, but ol’ King Griz is still the Stephen King alpha predator of Montana’s wild country.
Thanks for helping preserve all those millions of acres as serious wilderness before you died, Bob Marshall. Thanks a lot.
We traveled slow and easy. Jack took point, Sis in the rocking chair, me bringing up the rear. From the moment the trees closed in around us, we’d become different people. For anyone who’s not been there, done that, it’s something you can’t really explain too well.
There’s a reason survival in most any situation has long been described as being “just about out of the woods”.
The silence descended on us, so that we heard every quiet step of the horses along the forest floor. A squirrel chattered in the distance, and we hoped it stayed there; a squirrel shouting out warning would announce our presence to Morse every bit as quickly as it would to other squirrels. Our heads swiveled constantly, tunnel vision being a sure ticket to suicide.
And our awareness extended out in all directions, north, south, east, west, up, down. I spotted claw marks on a Douglas fir, a good ten feet off the ground, and hoped that particular bruin was still snoozing. Moss really did grow on the north sides of the trees here, which meant we were moving east as planned, at least for the moment, easing along the slope like a trio of sidehill gougers.
I felt the deer before glancing upslope to my left, catching a glimpse of a big doe standing at the edge of a brush thicket before the tree trunks interposed and I was out of range. A few hundred yards farther on, my horse flicked his ears forward, looking a bit to the right, where a vanishing flash of tawny fur told me I’d just seen my first bobcat in the wild, or at least seen a part of one.
And always, always, I and the others stretched our senses out in the unending effort to detect the enemy. If they saw us before we saw them, we were dead, three amateurs against five professional killers.
Except when you got right down to it, Jack Hill weren’t no amateur, and I guess maybe Sissy and I weren’t, either. Not really.
What I’m trying to say is, when you’re in the woods hardcore, hunting men that’ve been hunting you, there’s nothing else. The rest of the Universe disappears. You don’t think about what’s going on in politics or fashion or pop culture or even your daily working life.
You focus. 100%. Focus…or die.
Something I’d figured out–I’d never admit it to anybody else, but when it was like this, kill or be killed, no holds barred, I felt alive.
I was in my element.
Whether Jack or Sissy felt that way, I didn’t know and didn’t care to ask. This was private.
The sun was well up, though mightily filtered by the forest canopy, by the time we reached the draw the old Protector figured they’d used…and we hit pay dirt, right there. It wouldn’t have counted for much with most civilians, not even your average hunter. Just one rock, a rounded bit of granite about the size of a closed fist. Hill spotted it from horseback and got down to take a closer look. Neither Sissy nor I joined him; that wasn’t our place. Instead, we sat our saddles, scanning in every direction, scanning, scanning, scanning….
The brush choked the draw, there were full sized trees almost everywhere there was no brush, and the lone exception to all that was a big rock outcrop on the far slope that could have hidden a dozen riflemen.
If even one of the Morse Code group happened to be positioned right, he could drop the three of us in a single spray of lead…so I backed my gelding a few steps, spreading things out a bit. Just in case.
Jack straightened from his his rock inspection, looked back up at us, and nodded once.
They’d been here. Somebody had stepped on that rock on the way up the draw, slipped a bit, left a little black rubber smudge less than half an inch in length. It was all we needed to know.
They were here, in the Bob. Horace’s hunch and Jack’s reasoning had both been right.
Sissy didn’t respond, at least that I could see, but I nodded back to Jack. He remounted, mostly, I think, to avoid leaving boot tracks on any more ground than he had to, and we went on. As Jack had forewarned us, he’d already thought ahead, running through the terrain in his mind, making an educated guess as to where the bushwhackers would be holed up.
We wouldn’t go there directly. There was too much chance he might be wrong–as he’d said, he’d been wrong before–plus the fact that barging right on in did not seem like a way to keep your beneficiary from collecting on your life insurance.
Not that any of us had any of that.
The Bob Marshall Wilderness is something like 60 miles long, depending how you measure it, more than a million acres with another half million in other, adjoining Wilderness areas carrying different names. By one way of looking at it, Morse Code could be holed up anywhere in all of that.
But Jack figured it couldn’t be that hard. If this was where they’d entered the Bob–and it was–then, he said, he knew where he’d be camped if he was them. If he was right, we had a good ten miles to go…as the crow flies. With all the winding around and uphill and down and trail cutting he planned enroute, it would be more like sixty. Maybe seventy.
Which wasn’t going to happen by magic, and it wasn’t going to happen in a single day. We needed to get going.
Hill stepped back into the saddle, encouraged his mare across the little snowmelt stream running down the draw, and hit up the farside slope at an angle.
Two ridges later, we encountered our first bear…and the bear wasn’t happy about it.
The horses were none too thrilled, either. We were just about halfway up the grade, figuring to hang a left on a game trail that ran back toward the head of the draw, when Mr. Cranky suddenly stood up in the brush that had hidden him so effectively.
It was touch and go there for a bit.
The grizzly–and it was definitely a griz; you could see the identifying hump between its shoulders, clear as day–let out a whuffing sort of grunt, all reared up on its hind feet, seeming about as startled as we were.
Jack’s horse snorted and spooked sideways, which happened to be uphill. A good thing, maybe, easier for the rider to control. Hill wanted his horse to face the big beast; the mare knew Hill was nuts.
Sissy had it the worst. Her mount was closest to the bear, no more than forty feet between them–until the horse went to bucking.
No, I know it makes no sense. Horse run away from bear, even uphill, that makes perfect sense. Horse buck like rider is bear, makes no sense whatsoever. But anybody who’s ever earned the right to call himself a cowboy can tell you, horses can be stone stupid, and like two-legged people, some are stone stupider than others.
Now we knew why that caballo had been named Ditz.
My gelding handled it best, snorting and freezing in place, not petrified, just letting me make the call.
Sissy’s situation had me scared half to death. Didn’t look like she was going to lose her seat in the saddle, but her damn bronc wasn’t putting much distance between itself and danger.
I backed Steady up–which I’d decided was the horse’s name, right there on the spot. Must have, ’cause I was whispering, “Steady…steady…” as I did it. Backed him up three, four steps, reaching down slow and easy to fish out my saddle gun. Not the scoped .25-06, but the little .44 Magnum Winchester 94 carbine.
Got the gun in hand, angled Steady so’s I could shoot cross-body, eased the weapon to my shoulder–holding both the reins and the little rifle’s forestock in my gloved left hand–and waited.
For a time, it all hung in the balance. Sissy didn’t get Ditz to quit pitching a fit right away, but she did manage to encourage the critter’s jumps to move sideways a bit, up the hill and away from the bear.
Which huffed one more time, dropped to all fours, and charged.
I could have nailed it. A .44 Mag, even out of a rifle barrel, is no guarantee to stop a full grown boar griz, but I had the angle, had the hammer back, could have done it. But…
…but I had a hunch. I was taking a chance with my lover’s life, but I had a hunch…and it paid off.
The bear pulled up short, just about halfway to Sis. False charge. She’d gotten Ditz up onto the game trail, which, don’t ask me why, seemed to finally calm the animal enough that he stopped bucking. Stood there trembling head to tail, staring at that bruin all wall-eyed, but he kept all four hooves on the trail.
Sissy patted the idiot equine on the neck, tugged on the reins, and slowly, ever so slowly, horse and rider began to back slowly along the game trail, the whites of Ditz’s eyes still out there, ears laid back, sweating despite the chill air, but moving.
The bear false-charged again. Sis stopped Ditz short, holding her ground. You could see the horse wanting to bolt in the worst way, but he didn’t.
I was mostly watching the bear, didn’t notice my girl now had her .45 hanging in her right hand, on the offside. But she never pulled the hammer back, nor did she aim it at the griz.
When the bear stopped–a bit closer this time, which none of us liked, but it did stop–she tugged gently on the reins again, let Ditz resume backing…
…and this time the bear let her go.
None of us breathed any big sighs of relief, though. Sissy was in the clear, but our group was now split, with at least 800 pounds of cranky bruin barring my way forward.
Fortunately, Mr. Testy decided he’d done what he had to do. The stupid horse people who’d dared infiltrate his domain had been properly chastised for sneaking up and scaring the crap out of him. Time to move on.
Visibly relaxing, he crossed the game trail and powered himself farther on up the slope.
Just in case you don’t know: “Power” is the operative word when it comes to bears. If you’ve ever seen one–not even a griz, could be an ordinary black bear–simply ambling along, close enough that you can watch the muscles rippling under that furry hide as it moves, you know.
This is not something you want to try to arm wrestle.
The wind changed just as the grizzly’s oversized hind end disappeared among the trees. Nothing smells more perfumy than a big old boar just out of hibernation. Swee-eet!
We moved on without a word. The horses settled down, and so did we…sort of. I got back to my total-focus terrain-scanning mode but, for a few minutes, couldn’t keep a couple of thoughts from intruding.
We hadn’t been careless, hadn’t missed the presence of that bear because we were unskilled. It was simply a case of the wind blowing in the wrong direction, he must have come into the brush from the far side of the draw so there were no tracks to see, and the cover had been thick enough that no eyes without X-ray vision were going to spot him till he stood up.
So question number one: Why had none of us sensed him, anyway? We were all pretty practiced at tuning in to that sixth sense.
Answer, maybe: The bear hadn’t really meant us any harm. Could be that was it. Let’s hope so. Although that doe hadn’t meant us any harm, either, and I’d sensed her.
Question number two: If we’d already had our first fright a mere five miles from ranch headquarters, and we had 60 or 70 miles yet to go…
…I decided I didn’t want to think about it.