To the south lay Helena; to the west Lolo Pass and Butte; to the east lay White Sulphur Springs. In Helena or Butte, Bert might be recognized and shot for the bounty on his head. In his vest pocket the young cowboy carried his Wanted poster, for what reason he was not sure; maybe it was to remember his lawman father up on the Highline. He still carried a letter and a $10 gold piece his brothel mother had willed him. A father's black Stetson, an old letter, a gold coin and the Wanted poster—that was Bert's past. With a sigh Bert reined Monty eastward, preferring the open sagebrush.
Ahead lay a barren landscape of sagebrush and meandering coulees that led north to the Missouri River. Few settlers inhabited these dry flats and barbed wire was still rare in this open range country. Wild and scrawny steers—mavericks escaped from the Texas herds coming up the Bozeman Trail—grazed on the sparse bunch grasses and sagebrush, warily watching the lone rider. Bert rode slowly, hoping his lonely ride would stay that way—lonely.
Snow water still trickled through a few draws; in another month these small streams would disappear. In each draw Bert allowed Monty to drink his fill, never knowing where they would find the next water. But it was the last coulee that sent a nervous chill up his spine. Bert reined Monty to a halt while he stared into the willows crowding the stream. There was a sharp cracking of branches and the willows shook violently. A growl and a desperate scream split the prairie atmosphere. In an instant he realized what was going on—a grizzly bear had ambushed some poor settler.
Bert slipped the Winchester from its scabbard and checked the cartridge in the breach. With his spurs he urged Monty forward towards the thicket, knowing an enraged bear might appear at any instant. Perhaps his .30-30 could at least discourage the bear from whatever might be left of the unlucky settler. Another scream shattered the air, and then all was quiet and still.
Monty winded the blood and the bear scent; the horse was plenty nervous as he edged closer to the wall of willows. Bert tried to stare a hole into the dense greenery but nothing moved until . . .
. . . until the willows crashed apart and a big silvertip was charging at them. Monty spun away in terror while Bert desperately pointed his rifle and pulled the trigger. It was just luck that the small bullet hit the enraged bear in the forehead, although it never penetrated the thick skull bone. But it was enough to turn the bear away. As suddenly as the bear appeared, it disappeared back into the willows and went roaring and crashing below.
Adrenalin and fear coursed through horse and rider. As they gulped in the dry air, a loud groan filtered through the brush. Someone was still alive in the willow thicket! Bert levered a fresh cartridge into the rifle and turned Monty towards the bottom of the draw.
Another groan, softer now like air escaping a balloon, and Bert saw what he thought was a boy lying on the ground in the shadows. He had once helped butcher steers but had never before seen such a shredded mass of flesh. A soft groan hissed from the boy.
Bert slipped from the saddle, rifle in hand, and tied Monty to a low branch. All was deathly quiet in the thicket, except for the moaning of the boy. Bert knelt close beside the boy and the kid locked a dull gaze on him, lifting his hand, begging for help.
Blood gushed from the bite marks covering the boy's head. The left leg was torn open clear to the bone. Bear claws had cruelly ripped the shirt from the boy's chest leaving deep, red furrows where skin had once grown. Bert knew the boy was doomed and reached out to grasp his hand.
"I was . . . just lookin' for my . . . cow." Another cough and wheeze shook the boy's mangled body. "He . . . help me . . . pl . . . please . . . "
"Hi kid. Sure, I'll help." Bert knew there was nothing that could help except gentle reassurance. "Doesn't really look too bad. A few stitches here and there. You might not be so pretty to look at though." This managed to evince a weak smile from the boy.
"My . . . folks are . . . up this . . . draw. Will you ta . . . take . . . me there . . . after . . . I die?"
Bert was shocked that the boy already realized his fate. "Don't talk like that. What's your name?"
The boy was getting weaker. He could barely whisper. "Eli. Eli Slo . . . "
A deathly silence followed as the last gasp of air escaped from Eli's lungs. The boy was no longer in pain.
A terrible danger stilled lurked nearby. They had to move quickly and get away from the draw. There was no time to wrap the boy in a tarp or gently carry him to the saddle. There was only a panic to get himself, his horse, and the boy far away from this place of death. Bert threw the body across the saddle, lashed it in place with a rawhide thong and nervously started up the hillside leading Monty. Eli's blood trickled down the saddle to drip on the ground leaving an unmistakable trail.
Lengthening shadows covered the landscape when Bert and his macabre cargo got back up on the open prairie. Ahead, he spied a thin wisp of smoke from the ramshackle cabin he assumed was Eli's home. On the open flats and out of the draw, Bert figured he was safe from the bear.
Stung by the bullet and deprived of its kill, the bear wanted more. The wounded silvertip was known to the homesteaders as Clubfoot—a lame bear that had once lost three toes to a #6 Newhouse bear trap. The crippled bruin became a marauder and often savaged the herds and flocks of the settlers, but Bert had been the only man to put a bullet into the bruin. The crippled, clever bear scented the blood trail and began to follow.
The sun had disappeared behind the Bitterroots when Bert reached the door of the cabin. "Hello in the cabin. Anybody there?"
The door cracked open just enough to reveal the business end of a double barrel shotgun pointed at Bert. "What you want? Answer me quick."
Bert was speechless. "I've . . . I got a boy here, kilt by a bear. Said his name is Eli . . . "
The door cracked open a bit more and the gnarled head of an old hag poked out. "Yeah, I see that. So what do you want me to do 'bout it?"
"You his kin?"
"Do I look like his kin? You come up here dripping blood all the way to my front door. I 'spect Clubfoot ain't far behind neither."
"I need some help . . . "
"Kid's beyond help. Go someplace else. Don't want no part of it."
"Where's his kin?"
The old woman motioned towards another wisp of smoke further up the draw. "Go on, git out of here. Never did like that snot-nosed kid anyhow." With that she disappeared inside the cabin and latched the door.
Bert had no choice but to continue. The old hag might be right—the bear could be following them.
Clubfoot appeared in front of the cabin just as Bert disappeared into a nearby coulee. With a frenzy of pain in his head and the scent of blood in his nose, Clubfoot knew what to do. The devious bear knew the area, knew the coulee led back down into the willows. It was there he would lie in wait for the cowboy.
Before Bert realized it, he was in the bottom of a steep-sided draw. Only one pathway seemed open—down into the willows. As he slowly groped his way down the dry gulch, the sound of clacking rocks carried far into the still night, a sound recognized by the enraged silvertip.
Clubfoot lay in the willow thicket, listening intently to the approaching horse. Bert was also listening, nerves as tight as a banjo string, but no sound revealed the bear's presence. But there was one sound neither bear nor Bert heard. A porcupine was foraging for its evening meal and blundered headlong into the snout of Clubfoot. Numb with pain and intent on the approaching cowboy, the bear had taken no notice of the bristling bundle of quills. The porcupine was surprised when it found itself confronted by the great bear and instinctively whirled about to slap Clubfoot with a full barrage of quills. A roar filled the air as the bruin swatted the porcupine. For his effort more quills became embedded in his paw and another growl echoed up the draw.
Alone in the gloomy moonlight Bert froze in his tracks. There were still six cartridges in the Winchester and Bert shouldered his rifle in the direction of the growl. As hazy moonlight returned Bert could barely make out the bruin's silhouette just thirty feet away.
The .30-30 cracked and flame belched out the muzzle. Bert wasn't exactly sure where he was aiming—just at the biggest piece of bear he could see. Three more times he levered and fired as the great bear turned towards him. Clubfoot reeled from each bullet, but he was far from dead. Bert could only stand there, frozen in fear, but firing as fast as he could. Another bullet hit the bear in the chest, but it was not enough and the bear charged. Bert knew he was down to his last cartridge. He carefully aimed one last time at the bear's head. This time 170-grains of lead did not strike bone but found the left eye, turning into shrapnel inside the bear's brain. Clubfoot fell, dead in its tracks, just ten feet from Bert.
Monty was frantically scrambling to escape up the near vertical walls of the coulee while Bert collapsed to the ground staring at the bear. The horse finally exhausted itself and quietly stood nearby trembling with fear. For long minutes only the breathing sounds of horse and cowboy drifted through the darkness.
Bert was only aroused by the sound of a voice and a lantern light flickering in the darkness. "Hellooo. Who's there? What's going on? What's all the shootin'?"
Bert gathered his shattered wits. "Over here." The yellow light and the sound of cracking branches drew closer. "Over here," and a man carrying a shotgun appeared out of the blackness.
"Good Gawd! What in the hell . . . "
Bert lifted his face to dully stare at the man. "You Eli's pa?"
The man was flustered and speechless. "Yeah, what of it? How'd you know?"
Bert motioned towards Monty. "Eli's tied across the saddle. Bear got him and there was nothin' I could do. I was bringin' him to you."
Seth stared at Bert, then at Monty and its gruesome load. In the dim light, he could see the grim outline and understood. "Um, did he . . . "
"I just heard the ruckus and the scream. When I got to him, it was pretty much over. He didn't last long, jus' enough to tell me his name. Asked me to bring him to you. The damn bear jus' wouldn't give up.
"You lead the way but take it slow. My horse got pretty spooked in all this."
In the soft glow of a Montana dawn, Seth buried his son and then turned to the job of skinning the bear and jerking all the bear meat he could filet off the carcass. So much meat could help the beleaguered settler survive another bitter winter.
Bert realized all this ruckus would cause a stir among the locals, perhaps bringing recognition and a bounty hunter to collect on his Wanted poster. It was time to head for White Sulphur Springs and the country beyond.
In the soft dawn light of morning a lonely cowboy could be seen riding through the Montana sagebrush.