Elza searched for warmth inside his tattered Mackinaw while a bitter wind sliced across Rabbit Ridge. Smothered by years of campfire smoke and ranch dirt, the blue plaid coloring of the coat was barely more than a smudge. His Stetson was covered with grease stains and water spots, except where a rangy mare had chewed out a piece. The old hat and old coat had protected Elza from the extremes of Montana weather for decades.
Elza dropped to one knee and studied the ground closely, more interested in the rocks than the snow squall that swirled about him. There, a red splash. Elza reached out a gloved hand and carefully touched the blood sign; his finger came away sticky. He unconsciously sucked in a gulp of winter air and realized they were getting close to the wounded grizzly.
"What'd ya find, old man?" The voice was as sharp and hard as the shrill wind. "More blood? More sign?"
Jim stood a few feet away, ignoring the snow pellets that shot by like white shrapnel. He was dressed much like Elza—droopy Stetson, dirty Mackinaw, leather chaps and old cowboy boots. He cradled a .50 Sharps in his arms and a Bowie knife hung on his hip. He was thirty years younger than Elza but thirty times more cocky.
"This is a bad 'un, Jim. We've tracked him for five hours, but he doesn't show any inclination of layin' up or slowin' down. He jes' keeps movin', like he knows we're back here, like he's leadin' us somewheres."
"Show me the blood!" Jim ordered. He moved closer, hunched over and studied the rocks till he saw the red splash. He touched the drop, stared at the blood on his glove and shifted his stare to the ridge above. Jagged rocks, slabs of boulders, cliffs and steep canyons stretched across bleak landscape. The mountain was a gray hash of granite, truly the Devil's Kitchen.
"We're gonna get that bear before dark, old man. I'm gonna shoot him in the guts and watch him die slow, just like he gutted my mare and started eatin' on her before she even quit kickin'."
Elza stared at Jim a moment, then let fly a long, brown stream of tobacco juice. "I say we turn back now and head for the ranch. Storm's comin' in and that bear is getting meaner by the minute. You got blood fever just 'cause it killed your damn horse that you should have put in the barn." Another brown stream arched through the air to emphasize Elza's disdain.
"Damn you, El. Just track the bear! The sooner you start tracking the sooner I'll kill it. Then we'll go back to the ranch!"
Elza squinted at his cocky nephew and turned up the ridge. He wondered who would kill whom when the time came.
The trail faded to solitary drops of blood and disturbed rocks. Elza studied the mountainside to imagine where a wounded grizzly bear might travel. They scurried over ledges, skirted rock outcrops and climbed up the narrow draws following the scant trail. Snow squalls enveloped the two hunters, cutting visibility to just a few yards. The white powder never rested, though, as the wind blasted it into Wolf Canyon far below.
Elza was skirting another outcrop when he found a drop of blood still flowing down a rock. He glanced up to see a rump of brown fur slip silently behind a boulder less than thirty yards away. He stared hard at the rock, ignoring the wind that stabbed at his eyes. Trailing behind, Jim sensed something and scrambled to catch up.
"There," Elza whispered. "Up the draw behind the big rock." Despite the freezing wind, he could feel beads of sweat on his forehead. Jim moved ahead two steps and pulled back the hammer of his buffalo gun.
"Don't see nuthin'. You sure?"
Elza wanted to knock some respect into Jim's cocky head, but there wasn't enough time. The bear was close, too close. Elza responded by flicking off the safety of his own rifle.
"He's there. Probably watching us right now."
There was no way to get around and above the wounded grizzly. They would have to follow the narrow draw. Jim's eyes met Elza's. "OK, I'll go first. You watch and holler if you see anything. Remember, I'm the one in the Mackinaw." Jim cracked a wicked smile at his little joke while Elza silently stared at him. God, Elza thought, he's actually enjoying this.
Jim began his climb up the rock chute. A single pebble ricocheted down the draw from above. Jim shot a knowing glance back at Elza, flashing his wicked little smile again. He continued climbing and swung out of sight atop a ledge thirty yards above. Elza held his own rifle to his shoulder searching for the slightest movement. He knew grizzlies often did the unexpected, especially wounded grizzlies.
There was a scream, barely audible above the howling wind. Elza listened again but could hear only the wind crashing against the rocks. A small avalanche of pebbles and stones cascaded down the draw.
"Jim! You there?" Only the howling wind and a few more cascading stones answered Elza. "I'm coming up." He began climbing as fast as his 62-year-old body would allow. "Jim! Answer me, damn you!"
Elza had nearly reached the ledge when he saw a cowboy boot slowly rocking back and forth. He shouldered his rifle and inched his way forward, all the while expecting to be charged by an enraged bear.
He did not recognize the bear at first. Elza was hypnotized by the bloody chunk of meat that had been Jim a few minutes earlier. The coat had been ripped off the body and Jim's back was raked with deep claw marks. Blood pumped out of the wounds on to the rock ledge. Jim's head had been crushed as though it were a fragile eggshell. Only then did Elza notice the great silvertip bear sitting on its haunches a few yards away. It was looking at something on its chest. Elza saw it, too, saw the handle of the Bowie knife sticking out of the bear's body.
Time froze on the mountain. Elza did not move, did not squeeze the trigger. Jim did not move, would never move again. The bear stared at the hilt of the knife in its chest. A dark silence settled over the mountain as the storm reigned in all its fury. The grizzly slowly rolled to its side and lay still; it would never move again.
The blood of the young man and the old bear flowed together in the crevice of the rock. It was all the same color, the same red liquid that had once meant life. The wind gusted again and ripped at El's face sending a tear down his cheek.
"Damn wind," Elza muttered. Only then was he aware of the second bear, another grizzly. Elza was conscious just long enough to feel the cruel teeth crush his neck, conscious long enough to smell the rancid breath of the silvertip. Then his own blood pooled in the rock crevice.