Not a lot of chuck wagons trundled this far out from West Bridge, and mine was the only that kept a dog under the seat. Customers enjoyed posing for my photographs, having watched the dog sit pretty and beg. The kids would run out from the cabins that squatted in a U shape facing the sawmill, each one of them demanding the dog repeat its trick. The mothers would also appear, lured from their menial tasks. A crowd would gather and crowds meant business, and business meant one step closer to the ring on the finger of the lovely Helen.
I knew that Anthony enjoyed the wan sunlight filtering through the forest. Break time was always taken out in front of the engineering shop, and whenever I came up to his mill, I'd sit down with him and his crew after making some money from my photographs. One of the new guys, from down south, tells me his job is harder than mine. He has a big dumb-shit leer as he's saying it. I shrug and reply something along the lines that my Thornton-Pickard camera blanks out if things get too ugly, and emphasized the point with a wink. The crew laughed through a couple more coffees, and Michael from down south simmered through it all. On the way home, not far from the mill, Michael ambushed me. He'd cut some branches across the track, and in the fracas busted one of my teeth. I landed an uppercut, but he was bigger than me and something in the blows that rained in on me suggested he wasn't wrong in the hardness of his work. As I was on the ground fumbling to cover my head, the dog growling from his box under the seat, Michael kicked my gut, and I felt the bile rising in my throat. I then watched silently as he smashed and splintered my camera under his boots. He went back to work and I lay on the ground.
I got home and scrubbed the blood out of my shirt. I'd taken beatings before. My dad, bless his black soul, used to whack me with his dirty great coal mining boots. They were covered in mud and by the time he'd finished thrashing me, I'd look and smell like an eight-hour muck man at the coal face.
Now though, I had a problem. The camera was replaceable, but I didn't have the money and Helen wasn't going to wait around, she was that kind of girl. I considered walking straight into the lake. Its turbid waters would fill my lungs, but the thought of the dog miserably howling my demise changed my mind. I didn't really have much choice. Dad never really explained the rights and wrongs, he'd just smash me with his boots, and so my stealing through childhood reached a culmination of jail time in my early twenties. Nothing too long, but enough for a taste that I could survive a return trip, if needed.
Anthony's sawmill plant was high up on the spur, overlooking the short plains and the ropey river that meandered its slow way to West Bridge. I'd left the dog at home and he'd dropped his head and retreated to his kennel, pushing his nose under the tip of his tail and looking at me, pleading for a safe return. I felt the burden of responsibility for both him and Helen as I tied my horse to the tree and cradled the rifle, making my way quietly through the forest.
Between periods of stillness in the forest, I heard quiet murmurings a short distance away. I slowed my pace and raised the rifle. Twenty meters away, next to a red pine, a man in a blue shirt was kissing a woman. I made a decision. Pine needles cracked under my boots as I ran and burst into the clearing. There was silence. Michael's mouth gaped and his instinct was to loosen his arm from the woman's grip. The woman's face suddenly glowed white like she'd just seen an apparitional snake. She uttered my name, as there had been many a time when I'd had dinner with her husband, Anthony and their two kids.
"Well, this is a fine mess, isn't it," I said and narrowed my eyes. Rosie started tearing up, slowly moving away, her hands outstretched, and I gestured silently with the rifle that she should be on her way. She took one last look at Michael and then pitched off through the forest.
I faced Michael at a distance of four paces and I smiled with a quiet ferocity.
"So, you sneaked up on me," Michael said, his eyes baleful. He made a slight movement and I thrust the rifle forward.
"No, you don't. I'm going to settle with you. I need money and you're gonna get it." I outlined my plan, it was simple. He had to get money from the sawmill's takings. I mentioned the crew's salaries were kept in a small room next to the engineering shop, and as there was only 30 minutes before lunch ended, he'd better hustle. "I'll be waiting here."
Michael's face went livid, but he realized he was backed into a very tight corner.
* * *
It had been a week since Michael had delivered the takings from the sawmill. Even now, as I set off in my chuck wagon, I recall Michael's lack of fight. His quiet recognition of defeat like the heavy arch of a tomb, as he'd handed the money over. I slowly smile, the small town of West Bridge at my back as I cross the plain, the morning light licking the horizon. I laugh at the prospective arrival at Two Creeks and the thought of parading through the main street with dough in my pocket, and Helen on my arm, her cheeks flushed in delight.
I make good time and at the day's end, the mountains begin to rise around me. I know this is the beginning of a long and treacherous journey. It begins to rain, slowly at first, but then gushing in torrents as I reach the summit of a ravine. As I begin the steep run down into Bear Creek, I push hard on the foot brake lever, but it doesn't hold. I pump desperately, but nothing. It had been vandalized. The coach starts rocking from side to side and my dog yelps, jammed to the side of his box. I pull hard on the reins and the horses momentarily lurch back, but the wagon keeps rolling, careening over the stony ground, picking up speed and ahead, I can see a sharp bend, and beyond that a vast, empty rocky canyon.
In a split second, my mind's eye plays the outcome. The horses will make the corner, but the wagon's weight will pull them into the chasm. I throw myself out and left, airborne for a moment and crash into the ground, elbow first and roll forward. Out of the corner of my eye, I see glimpses of the wagon as it pitches left, scraping the corner, the horses pull, but gravity spins everything over the edge of the cliff. The horse's eyes are rolling as they are flung over, and my dog howls until they are all smashed on the rocks below. My body is a blur of movement still rolling forward, and I can't stop myself as I pitch over the edge. Instinctively, my hands reach up grasping frantically some brush and I stop, suspended 100 meters above the ravine.
I close my eyes and take some deep breaths. Nothing seems broken and I start kicking the rock hard, making footholds and start pulling myself up, centimeter by centimeter until I slide my body up and over the lip of the cliff and lay in the dirt, the rain lashing my aching body.
A lot of whys are running through my mind and I lie long enough for the rain to start puddling around my body. I realize I need to move in order to survive. This is bear country and they will be hunting in the evening. Suddenly, I hear the crack of a rifle and a sudden searing pain lashes my thigh. I scream and roll over on my back. My leg is throbbing and things start going dim around my periphery. A slap to my face forces me to focus.
A revolver's barrel pins me back into the ground. Michael pushes it hard into my cheek, his face a terrible grimace and he yells at me.
"At this range, your brains will be spread all over the county."
I'm helpless and I seethe at my losses. Michael pokes harder and grits his teeth spraying spittle. "I'm done for. Rosie spilled the beans. I'm running from the law, but before I go down, I'm gonna make damn sure that it's lights out for you!"
I see the look in his eyes and realize I need to do something. In the back of my mind a vision of Helen floats, her brown hair that curls at the ends, and the laugh that is easy and intelligent. I feint with my right hand, trying to push the gun away, and with my left hand, grab some soil and fling it into his face. He stumbles back and fires. I feel the bullet grazing the air and pinging harmlessly into the dirt. Pushing up onto my knees I lunge at him, the pain like a knife through my legs, and Michael falls. He drops the revolver, but kicks out with his leg, catching me flush on the jaw, and like lightning whips another revolver from his holster. He stumbles to his feet and waves the revolver at me. "Get over the edge, or I'll drill you with so many holes you'll float all the way to the bottom of the ravine." I swallow hard, the pain drumming my head, and consider my very limited options. What happens next is a blur of ferocious lethality.
A thunderous growl gives Michael seconds to comprehend what will become of him. A huge brown blur breaks cover from the forest behind him. I marvel at the muscular speed of the grizzly over the ground as it suddenly stops a meter from Michael and effortlessly lifts itself from its thick forelegs and a standing position, towering over its prey. I look around desperately for the revolver, just as Michael fires off a shot. In a furious downward thrust the grizzly's claws embed themselves deep into Michael's chest. I gape in absolute horror as, jelly like, he flops to the ground, and in seconds the bear is over him. The grizzly bites and worries the body and the attack is too frenzied for Michael to scream. He is like a doll, shaken and tipped by a tempestuous child, and a cold sweat drips down the back of my neck, as I realize the bear may start onto me. By the time he has finished with Michael, there is blood everywhere. Not a single part of his body hasn't been gouged or scratched. I can see the revolver and quickly consider using it, however the massive shoulders of the bear turn in my direction and I suddenly freeze.
I don't even dare to blink and I try to lower my breath, but my heart is thudding in my chest. The grizzly sniffs the air, swinging his enormous head backwards and forwards. He suddenly lets out another roar and I piss myself. The forest is silent, the rain has stopped and the high pitched caws of the vultures beginning to circle the pickings at the bottom of the ravine draw the attention of the grizzly. He then looks down at Michael, gives him one more vicious cuff and then saunters back into the forest. I breathe out suddenly. I grab the gun and point it in the direction of the grizzly. It makes me feel safer, although I realize, as my eyes are drawn to Michael's body, it will be of no help against the savage mammoth. To my right amongst the pine trees, Michael's horse whinnies and I know I must find the strength to ride out of this terrible place and down to Two Creeks, so that I can at least recount to Helen the dangers I have trod in order to win her over.