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“Someday they’re going to get themselves into trouble and I won’t be around to protect them,” Sitka said dejectedly. He bent a low branch backwards and waved me through. He came soon after and we continued on the dark path. I held my torch higher and frowned.
“Don’t talk like that,” I snapped. “And if you insist on being so negative at least complain quietly. We’re in the middle of the woods at night. I don’t know about you but I don’t want to get eaten by the bear that took our fish.”
Kenai had forgotten to tie up the basket again and a bear had gotten its paws into the fish. It had dragged the basket away and now the tribe had no food. Autumn was nearly over and the fruit had rotten away long ago. The birds and squirrels, in preparation for the harsh winter ahead, had gathered all the nuts and seeds. If we wanted to survive, we had to hunt.
We were told by Tanana that the salmon were most active at night. There would be nothing to eat for breakfast otherwise.
“I bet the bear is too full and happy to eat us,” Sitka laughed. “Did you see how much fish we put in that basket?”
I sighed. “That doesn’t mean it won’t attack anyway.”
I gingerly touched my right side and winced. A few days ago, a bear had mauled me and left me severely wounded. If Sitka hadn’t found me lying in a pool of my own blood far away from the camp, I would have died. I had much to thank him for.
Perhaps the bear that attacked me was the same bear that stole our fish.
I could kill two birds with one stone.
We walked in silence until we reached the stream. The water was icy and the stars were bright. I heard the salmon splashing around near the shallows. I extinguished the torch so that they wouldn’t be scared away by the light. In the darkness, they looked like eerie swimming shadows.
We set up traps and tried to catch the salmon in nets. We only managed a few at a time. They were so jumpy that we had to make sure they didn’t jump back into the stream as soon as we hauled them out. Our fingers quickly became numb and the task became even harder. By the time we had finished, pink rays of light had stretched its warm fingers across the sky.
“This isn’t enough. It won’t last a week,” Sitka said, his brow furrowed.
I nodded. “We could always come back and get more. At least we won’t starve.”
We tied the nets into bags and used them to carry the fish back to the camp.
But we ran into some trouble on the way.
“My back is killing me!” Sitka groaned. He hefted his bag of fish higher on his shoulder.
I clutched my side. Tanana had done her best to close my wound along with the help of some other healers. But now it was threatening to burst open.
I must have made some sound of discomfort because Sitka turned back and watched me struggle with my bag before stopping me suddenly.
“Are you alright?” he asked worriedly. I attempted a smile. But it turned out as a grimace.
“I’m just tired. We were up all night.”
He wasn’t convinced. “I think we should rest,” he said.
I scowled, “I think we should keep moving.” I pushed past him and trudged on. But he laid a hand on my shoulder and kept me from moving any further.
“You look like you’re going to pass out. There’s no way we’re going to make it in time for breakfast anyway. We deserve a break…especially you.”
“Yes, but our people will be hungry! They’re waiting for us to bring back food!” I argued.
“They can tolerate it for a while. They’ve handled worse.” Sitka smiled and gently wrestled the bag of fish from me. Too tired to resist, I let him take it and plopped down on the ground. He sat down beside me and whistled softly.
I felt myself drifting to sleep. The morning brought some warmth to the cold grip of autumn and I felt the warmth of Sitka close. His whistling was monotonous and the sky was gray.
I supposed it would be alright to close my eyes for just a few minutes…
I sat up straight.
“Did you hear that?” I asked Sitka.
He was leaning against a boulder with his hands laced behind his head. He opened one eye and grunted.
“Hear what?” he asked.
I shoved him roughly. “Get up!”
He grabbed his spear and shot up like an arrow. I saw his eyes widen at something behind me. I whirled around and found myself staring into the eyes of a huge bear.
My voice trembled and was so quiet that I barely heard myself whisper, “Sitka…”
I felt him take my hand and slowly pull me away from the beast. He put himself between us and whispered back.
“Walk slowly towards the fish. Don’t let it take the bags. Don’t take your eyes off it. Slowly. Slowly!”
I obeyed him, making my way towards the bags. The bear simply watched us, sniffing the air. It could smell the fish we had caught.
I bent down and picked up the bags, feeling my wound burst. I cringed as warm blood soaked my through my clothes. The bear would smell that too.
Sitka reached behind him, gaze locked on the bear, and took a bag from me. Suddenly, he turned around and grabbed my arm, dragging me with him as he ran.
“Run!” he yelled.
I shook free of his grip and outran him easily, fear pulling me onward. I realized that I was leaving him behind and felt afraid for him. I slowed down.
“Don’t stop!” he yelled. “Keep running!”
I picked up my pace once more. Sitka wasn’t some weakling. He could manage.
But after a few seconds of frantic sprinting, I stopped so abruptly that I felt him slam into me from behind. I gasped in pain, clutching my wound.
“Why have you stopped?” he asked, panting. He looked behind him and saw the bear advancing. “Are you alright?”
I shook my head and pointed and shaking finger at the looming figure in front of me.
It was another bear.
I looked from one beast to the other, trying to think of some way to escape. Sitka was doing the same. I tugged on his arm and pulled him into the thick woods to our left.
“This way!” I yelled
We kept running, glancing at the trees that whizzed by. Twice, I nearly stumbled and fell. Each time, I was caught by strong hands and steadied. Sitka tripped and fell once. I hauled him up quickly and took a moment to look behind us.
Both bears were still furiously charging at us. Their mouths open, exposing sharp teeth as their huge paws struck the earth.
Sitka grunted through gasps as we ran, “We need…to get rid of…the fish…”
I was about to protest when I realized that we’d be no use to the tribe dead. On the count of three, we swung our bags of fish hard at the advancing beasts. But to our surprise, they leapt over the bags and continued to pursue us.
“Well,” I said. “Looks like…they didn’t want the fish…”
“We need to split up!” Sitka said.
“Are you…insane?!” I shouted.
“We can’t keep this up forever!” he argued. We jumped over a large boulder and kept running. Sitka gained speed until he was slightly ahead of me. He shouted back over his shoulder.
“There’s no way we can fight off two bears! I know you’re hurt but you can at least distract one of them while I deal with the other one. Then, you can circle back and lead it to me. I’ll take it from there.”
I pressed my lips into a thin line, scowling. Sitka knew about my wound. But he didn’t notice that it had reopened.
“This had better work, Sitka.” I muttered. Without warning, I swerved to the left. One of the bears followed me and the other hounded Sitka. I yelled as I ran further and further away.
“You have ten minutes!”
“I’ll do it in five!” he yelled back.
Soon, I only heard the thudding of my own heart in my ears and the growls and grunts of the bear behind me.
My clothes were sticky with blood and I felt myself getting weaker. I was glad Sitka hadn’t noticed. His plan would have been something crazier otherwise.
I kept my gaze locked on my feet. I was leaving a trail of blood. My legs were faltering. My breaths were short and shallow. My vision blurred and everything swam before me.
Perhaps I could climb a tree.
No; how would I get down and lead the bear to Sitka?
I could just call for him from the tree.
What if he doesn’t hear me? I’d be putting him in danger if he did hear me anyway.
Could I just kill the bear myself? If Sitka could do it, why couldn’t I?
I didn’t want to risk it.
Before I realized it, I had slowed down. I tripped on a root and felt the side of my face hit the ground. I struggled to get up.
Had Sitka finished killing his bear? Was he looking for me?
Was he dead?
“Sitka!” I screamed.
Keeping my head up required more effort than I thought. I lowered myself back down onto the grass.
Then it heard it.
The bear came towards me, sniffing. It placed a paw on my shoulder blade and ran its nose through my hair. It sniffed my head and my back. When it came to my bleeding wound, it jerked its head back and let out a roar. I flinched, trying to keep still.
I gasped as it bit my deerskin top and lifted me up off the ground. I hung limply from its mouth as it carried me off.
It was too late to yell for help now.
Just as I was about to try and wriggle out of the bear’s grip, I heard a piercing cry.
He came charging out of the woods, spear at the ready. He pointed it at the bear, his eyes wild.
The bear, startled, dropped me. I grunted and scuttled away.
Soon, Sitka and the beast were engaged in battle. The bear swiped at Sitka with an enormous paw. Sitka ducked and lunged at it, spear tip gleaming. The bear leapt to the side, narrowly avoiding the stab and stood up on its hind legs. With an ear splitting shriek, it slammed into Sitka, throwing him backwards into a tree. He lay there, groaning.
“Sitka…” I rasped.
The bear lumbered over to his limp frame. I screamed, trying to get its attention.
“You big, dumb bear! Come over here! Leave him alone!”
For a split second, it turned and looked at me. Its gaze drilled into mine, cool and calm. I felt my blood turn to ice. But it turned away again, apparently more interested in Sitka than it was in me.
Before the bear could reach him, a weak snuffle caught its attention. It turned to see its companion stumble out of the woods, fur glistening with blood. It ran over to the wounded beast and began grunting and comforting it. Sitka hadn’t killed it. He merely wounded it.
I seized the opportunity and painfully staggered to Sitka. He clutched his sides and coughed. I saw long scratch marks on his face and he was bruised. His clothes had been ripped and he too was bleeding.
He shook his head as I approached him.
“You need to…run…” he whispered.
I smiled sadly. “No, it’s alright. I’ll stay.”
Sitka was about to say something when he was cut off by the angry roar of the bear. I turned to see it coming for us at full speed, furious.
“Run,” Sitka moaned. “Please,”
I grabbed the spear that lay at his side and held it up, positioning myself between him and the bear. It came at full speed. I felt the earth beneath me shake with its thundering footsteps. I heard Sitka’s ragged breathing behind me. I heard my heart drumming in my ears.
The bear stopped.
No one moved.
All was silent.
I tightened my grip on the spear, wondering what the beast had in mind. It was too dumb to pull off any sneaky tricks. What was it playing at?
It stood before me, its gaze never leaving mine. The tip of the weapon was inches away from its heart.
It cocked its head to one side and swiveled its ears.
I heard a voice in my head.
It was the bear!