WRONG TOWN (A ROAMER WESTERN)
BY MATTHEW P. MAYO
My eyes snapped open in the strange gray light of early morning as a grizzly grunted hot breath in my face. It stank of death and rancid meat. I heard Jake, my buckskin stallion, neighing and thrashing in the undergrowth, hobbled and unable to run from this certain death.
I lay on my side, my Bowie knife just under my fingertips, the handle laced down with a rawhide strip. That’s me to a T—safe at all costs. Only this time my caution could cost me my life.
The bear’s face was inches from mine. It was still too dark to see well, but from where I lay on the ground looking up I saw the outline of its massive shaggy head and beyond that the wagging shoulder hump that quivered with every move the bear made, silhouetted against the lavender-gray sky.
I hoped it was still too dark for it to see my fingertips work the simple knot and free the twelve-inch blade that might buy me a few seconds to roll away—if I landed well the first and only strike I was liable to get. To continue inhaling the rotted, stagnant breath of that primal beast as it snuffled and nosed me was one of the mightiest struggles I ever faced. I vowed if I made it out of this mess that I would give up sleeping out of doors. Or at least never again tie down my knife’s handle. I’ll promise anything in a situation like that.
The best I could hope for, I knew, was to sink a swift upward stroke at the very spot where the throat and chest meet. The growing light shone dull on the claws, curved surgical instruments a full four inches in length, as they scratched ever closer to my face. The eyes were hooded, buried deep in the big head, but its nose, a twitching creature all its own, worked at me like the trunk of an elephant. The bear grunted and a rumbling from deep within its body, like boulders crashing down a slope, grew louder the closer the bear drew to my face. If it got much closer my head would be in its mouth. I kept my eyes slitted, looking through the lashes, and didn’t breathe. It was then I noticed something odd about the grizzly’s face, almost as though it shone.
I cursed myself for having rolled from my pistols in my sleep, which I always tucked under my blanket just at my waist. They were now behind me, though how far I did not know. Nor did it matter, for any movement would trigger this beast’s bullet-fast reflexes into play and I needed all the time I could buy, even if it meant mere seconds.
The knife was free and I curled my fingers around the horn handle. I played the intended motion in my mind and knew, though it was my only chance, that it was not going to work. I would succumb right here in my damn bed, wrapped in a blanket. And then the thing would maul me and drag me off half-dead and leaking everything that I was made of, to bury me in leaves and dirt and play with me for days before I fully expired. I vowed that though it was my fate I would not surrender to it without a fight at the outset.
In one motion I pulled on the knife and yelled for all I was worth, an amount at that moment that meant considerably more to me than any sack of gold, panniers filled with provisions, or deed to a fine big ranch.
The roar that burst from the beast stifled my own. Its thickly haired foreleg, already in motion, blocked my swing. I had thrust so hard that my forearm struck the bear’s leg and the knife flew from my grasp, damaging nothing but my hopes for survival. The big foreleg arched at me, those claws slicing like knives, catching my buckskin shirt on the right shoulder as I rolled away from it and what I hoped was toward my pistols. As I rolled, kicking free my legs from my blanket and scrabbling at the dirt with my toes—my boots sat flopped by the now-dead cookfire—I grabbed where I remembered laying my gunbelt. But there was no time.
It was on me, bawling, a mouth wide and impossibly open—two heads could fit between those top and bottom jaws with their sets of ragged fangs. Its breath drove at me like heat blasting from a smithy’s forge. I crabbed backward and it advanced on me, stalking, planting massive feet on either side of my arms as I skittered in retreat. It swung its head side to side in wide arcs, its voice ranging from growl to heavy breath. For a moment it was a standoff, as if the beast didn’t quite know what to do with me….
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