Chapter 12

Kat giggled as he pretended to shoot an invisible animal. ‘Boom’ he spoke as he pulled back on the gun, causing pressure on her shoulder against his own body. She stepped forward away from him and swung the gun up over her shoulder leaving Stephen standing by himself and a little bewildered.

“Got it” She gave him a thumb up and took another second step forward to begin the hike.

“I’ll lead” Stephen quickened his pace to get ahead of her and began the walk into the darkening woods. The sun was setting behind them, making the trees ahead of them glow with the last light. Kat could hear all types of sounds, just out of eye sight. She heard tiny scratchy paws scurrying on the woodland floor and nails digging in as they clung to the sides of trees. Stephen had three separate bags strung across his back; a tent bag, a hunting bag and a food bag. His gun hung on the left shoulder, the barrel facing the heavens above. His hands in front of his body were busy ripping apart smelly apples that were past due into bits to bait in the bear. Kat was shocked to see him laying bait at night, but never questioned it. She had already embarrassed herself earlier in the evening asking about how to call a bear.

Their foot steps were alarmingly loud in the echo of the trees. Stephen seemed to not mind, so Kat went on walking normally. Allowing her feet to fall as before; crunching of last years leaves which had been hidden under melting snow. The now snapping of dead twigs were potentially alarming every animal for miles. The brush was not thick, but occasionally, she did put a hand up to stop a branch from smacking her in the face. Stephen didn’t seem to slow his pace as he pushed through the thick layers of forest.

He listened intently to the smaller forest habitat sounds, they would signify if there were something larger nearby. He could hear Kat’s footsteps; almost immature how sloppy they were but the reminder of her warm body closes to him allowed him to forgive her quickly. He used his switch blade pocket knife to cut apple pieces as he walked, throwing them in every direction. He knew that baiting a bear was nothing compared to stumbling into one, chances are they would not even see one on this trip. They were more skittish of people than anything and with this amount of noise…. a wolf cry broke his thoughts. He stopped to listen, and another wolf cry echoed the first. He could feel the tension rising in Kat directly behind him, he held his hand up to say be quiet. Her breathe was coming out harsh and fast. He could nearly hear her heart pounding as well.

There was a twig break in the woods to their left, Stephen raised his gun but saw nothing. The sun was fading faster and the sprigs of light coming through the trees had faded to a cool gray washing over them. Outlines appeared in the trees everywhere, the mind began to pick small brushes up as a predator. The trees mocking animals, tall standing; ready to pounce animals. Movements high in the branches warned of mountain lions and falling pine cones threatened of angry bucks plowing their antlers into trunks.

Another wolf cry, then suddenly they sounded to be all around Stephen and Kat. He was even swinging his gun from one direction to the next, looking through the scope to find the wolves. It sounded as though some were just cubs, possibly they have stumbled into the wolf den and soon the parental wolves would attack out of defense.

“Stephen” Kat stammered behind him, he had turned his body to face the left where the twig had broken. Kat had stayed facing straight and seemed to be frozen in her footsteps. Thankfully she did have the gun up to her shoulder now, she was unsure it would be any use to her, but she could at least look like she would use it. Stephen lifted a finger to his lips and took a few steps away from her. She reached her hand out to grab his shirt and not let him leave her, but he had already moved out of her reach. She stood and watched him silently tip toe away from her, leaving her exposed to the cry of the wolves that sounded to be coming closer. Her heart was slamming against her chest so hard that oxygen had no room, she wasn’t sure if she was still breathing. Maybe her lips were just pretending to breath now, her heart was taking over the show. Her eyes were no longer focusing on Stephen as he walked away, they were swimming from the slam of her beat. Sparkles of light floating in her vision, threatening to make her pass out from extreme adrenaline rush. Her whole-body swaying from the race of nerves, the muscles in her legs involuntarily twitching; screaming at her to run.

Stephen was watching Kat from the corner of his eye, he did not want to tread too far away. He had to keep her in sight, she would easily get lost in these woods if he walked too far. Another twig broke and suddenly the howling of the wolves stopped, dead. Eerie silence fell over the forest blanketed area. His own heart quickened a pace as he realized there were only a few things that would cause wolves to stop howling, dinner for the wolves. Or a larger predator that was threatening them. He doubted they looked at him as a threat. He stopped walking and tried to listen. His ears picked up another sound, a low huffing. A thick swagger through the trees accompanied by heavy exhaling, he could almost hear the trees moving back from this angry animal approaching. An animal that was puffing and huffing, as if to blow the piggy’s house down. The twigs snapping grew closer and he began to turn his head toward Kat to signal a warning. He began to fear it was a bigger predator than a wolf, right when it hit him.

The paw came down heavy and fast, he saw the 3-inch razor claws connect with his chest and tear through his flesh. He yelled out loudly in pain and fired his first shot into the tall brown bear. Standing nearly a foot taller than his human counter part and his shoulders were nearly as wide as Stephen was tall. When he opened his mouth to snarl at Stephen, he imagined half his torso would easily fit inside the knife-like teeth.

He heard Kat scream behind him, but her scream did nothing to deter the bear. His ears were ringing from the pain emitting from his chest wound. Realizing he was on his knees in front of the bear, he cocked his gun and fired a second shot straight up. Hoping to connect with the bears chin but without even looking up he knew he missed. The bears other paw swung out of the dark night and collided with his head, slamming him flat on his back to the ground. His left shoulder colliding with a sharp rock and making a loud pop, he echoed a painful growl to the bear and fired his third shot into the bears guts. He didn’t see if the bullet made contact, but he knew now his rifle was empty now. It could only hold three shells. He had three more affixed to small pockets on his rifle strap, but his hands were shaking now.

Stephen’s left shoulder screamed in pain and his chest throbbed, he felt as though his lungs were collapsing from lack of oxygen. The heavy bear landed hard with his front paws down onto Stephens legs and the huffing was some mere inches from his face. He could fell the heat of the bears breath as he opened his mouth. He felt his hand sliding along the gun strap trying to locate the extra bullets, but he couldn’t seem to find them. Confusion ensued as he questioned if he grabbed extra. This was it, he figured. No bullets left he had not planned this bear hunt well at all. The confusion deepened as he heard a fourth shot echo, shattering the chaos that was over taking his mind. He looked up to see the bear stagger backwards, relieving the pressure off his legs. Another shot fired, and the bear landed on his back 10 feet away from Stephen who himself was now fear frozen to the ground.

He allowed the rifle to roll from his hands. Putting a cold gloved hand to his chest, there were small smears of blood producing through his hunting jacket. Thankfully the jacket was thick enough that the wound was not life threatening. It stung like nothing else he had felt, but the bleeding was slow and steady, not quick and killing like he originally feared. He bent his head backwards, leaning more into the wet mud of the forest floor. Searching for the woman’s face in the dark that had now rescued his life. Finding her fear twisted face, she did not boast a life saving victory that he expected. Her mouth was wide open as the Van Gogh painting and her face apparently stuck in the same scream like state. She dropped her rifle and the third shot rang out from her gun.

“Woah lady” Stephen gestured toward the rifle that had just been discarded to the ground, and accidentally fired.

“Oh my god, I thought you going to die! You’re bleeding! Stephen you’re bleeding” Kat’s voice was getting louder with each word, her body crumpled like paper on his side. She began running her hands over his chest as a Reiki healer would with small stones. Not quite touching but trying to assess the situation.

“You dropped your gun” He chuckled, still shocked that she had just thrown the loaded rifle to the ground. “You killed the bear” He realized in the next breath and looked to her.

“Your bleeding” She repeated, not even looking in the direction of the bear.

“Get these bags off me, will you?” He shifted his weight off his back, so Kat could remove all three bags. The sudden weight of them seemed to be crushing down on his chest. She pulled them off, gently. Trying her best to not touch his open wounds. The sun was long set into the night, stars were beginning to appear above them creating a new light. A slow smile spread across Kat’s face.

“I killed the bear” Her voice emitting pride and her smile grew as she realized the capacity of what just transpired. She had saved Stephen’s life and killed a bear, having never shot a gun before in her life.

“I guess it’s my turn to say thank you” Stephen smiled back at her, flashing her the most handsome smile he could muster through his pain. He opened one of his bags with his right hand, his left hand had gone numb. He knew as soon as he hit the rock that he had dislocated his shoulder, but first things first. The cuts had to be addressed. He began pulling supplies out of his hunting bag.

“Here, let me” Kat commandeered the small camouflage bag and produced the antiseptic detergent and bandages. The air was cooling quickly with the sun gone. It was refreshing however, as the drop-in temperature was working to calm her nerves. Also, with so many gun shots firing off, the sounds of wild life had stopped completely. The cry of the wolves was so far gone, they were possibly on the opposite side of the river by now. Katarina unzipped Stephen’s jacket slowly and pulled his right arm out. His shirt was now covered in blood and the left arm sunk deep into the back of the jacket.

“My arm,” He began, and Kat met his eyes. They looked at each other for a moment, as old friends would when they could read each other.

“I know” She said softly and continued to get the clothing off his right arm, so she could clean his chest wounds. She meticulously wiped the blood away from his chest and was careful to not cause him more pain. He winced and sucked air deeply a couple times, but never once moved from her touch. The bandages were too short for the size of the claw mark, she had to double them up length wise and then tape them on. She smoothed the tape with gentle hands on his chest, allowing her palm to touch his naked skin. The layer of chest hair soft and subtle under her finger tips. Her eyes had turned blazing green again, even in the moonlight they sparkled bright. The rush of adrenaline from shooting the bear had flushed her cheeks to a cerise red and the contact of her hand to Stephen’s chest now made her heart beat even faster than before.

“I have to plant my shoulder” Stephen spoke suddenly, breaking the moment that Kat was so lost in. He was still in pain with his left arm and had to relocate the bone into it’s socket. Kat helped him to his feet and watched him walk to a nearby tree. The darkness of the night shade enveloping them made him appear as just an eclipse in the night, outlined by the starlight. Kat watched in silence, sitting on the very rock that had caused him such injury. His left arm hung too low from his shoulder, the picture made her stomach feel ill. He lifted the swinging arm up a fraction and slammed his own body into the trunk. The tree wined from the impact and the shoulder snapped into place with a cracking pop, but Stephen made not a sound. He fixed his shirt and jacket and zipped the clothing back up. Outlining the fresh bandages under his jacket that now appeared through slits in the material.

“Well, let’s see what we got at least” He walked to where the bear had crumpled into a dead ball.

“I can’t believe I hit it” Kat was still in awe of her first kill shot, or first shot period.

“You were pretty close, I would be more shocked if you missed.” Stephen replied, and Kat was unsure if he was cracking a joke or being serious. She shrugged the comment off and followed him to examine the bear. By the time she had caught up behind him, he had already affixed the round light of his flashlight onto the bear’s body. The bear was a huge mound amongst the small snow tufts and mashed leaves, protruding up and appearing as a large dirt pile. As if a farm machinery had been here, scooped one large load and plunked it just here. Dark brown, he had black markings throughout his fur. His long angry snout showed an old age full of hardship and cold winters. His teeth sticking out of his open lips still shouted ‘danger’ even in his death. His claws had red evidence of how brutal he could be, curtesy of Stephen’s flesh. She stood and watched as Stephen flicked his knife open again and sank it deep into the bear’s cavity.

“Ugh” Kat involuntarily moaned at the smell produced as soon as the knife was pulled down through the animal. Stephen worked quickly. He was tired and hungry and could only imagine how Kat would feel once her adrenaline wore off. She was making gagging noises behind him as the guts rolled out of the beast, they made a gurgling flop sound as they rolled onto the ground. Sitting in a bright red stomach lined pouch, they emitted a heinous smell.

“I’ll need your help to pull him away from the entrails for the night at least. It should still get cold enough that the meat won’t rot” Stephen stood up again and brushed the fur bits and smeared fresh blood on his pants. Kat tried to only breath through her mouth but then she was forced to taste the smell of the metallic blood lingering. It was becoming overwhelming for her, the back of her throat pinched, and she feared she would vomit. Stephen held a hind leg up and instructed Kat to grab onto it, reluctantly she complied. Not wanting to feel useless all the time. They counted together to pull and still the animal hardly budged. They had to attempt several times to pull the bear before he started moving with their foot steps.

“Just a little over here” He spoke as he pulled with all his strength, trying to alleviate how much work Kat had to do. They were both having to hunch forward to counter the weight of the bear and after a dozen fitful steps, they stopped. Stephen dropped the leg to signify this was far enough. Kat let out a loud sigh of relief. The cadaverous over sized dog smelt of moldy bread; the kind that had a full green mold piece at the bottom of the bag and you don’t realize until you stick your nose straight into it. Kat held her sleeve up to her nose, the smell seemed to be everywhere. In her hair, on her clothes; she couldn’t get away from the stench. Even as they hiked out of the area to set up camp, the scent followed her. It was seemingly in her nose for the night. The area that Stephen chose for camp was a nice clearing 100 yards from where the bear laid. On top of a short hill, it was likely far enough away that if wolves appeared to eat the bear, they would not bother the humans. He dumped the gear on the ground and she stood uselessly watching him. The tent was a small pop up one-man tent, she doubted they would both even fit in it.

“Do you have sleeping bags?” Kat asked once the fire came to a roar, it lit the whole area and put a warmth into her bones. It drove out the stench of the dead bear and replaced it with a pungent smoky charcoal smell. Kat settled on a stump by the fire and immersed herself in the smell, it drew her in like an old fond memory. A friend that needed no name, but was always reassuringly there for you, the smoke from the fire encircled her. It teased her mind with forefront pictures of ghosts from her past and almost willed memories to unveil themselves. She could almost make out faces in the smoke, the white plumes drifting up then seemingly disappearing before completely forming. She stared at the flames lapping at the night sky, How the ashes floated up in the air on wings of angels into the stars above. She allowed her mind to follow the ashes and she felt something coming, she felt an emotion or thought emerging from the flames.

“No,” Stephen’s voice broke her memory recall. He sat down beside her on the wet earth and produced a bowl of cold beans, handing Kat one spoon and keeping one spoon for himself.

“But I do have an emergency blanket that will keep us both warm” He shoveled a large spoonful of the brown beans into his mouth. His breath coming in small spurts of steam between his chewing, trying to warm the beans in his mouth before they hit his sensitive teeth. Kat looked at him then back at the fire. She wasn’t sure this was where she was meant to be. It was a beautiful country scape, the trees the mountains, the snow; all very majestic. A voice crept in her mind and said it wasn’t meant for her.

“Us?” Kat mirrored Stephen’s word choice. He said nothing and went on eating the cold beans, staring into the fire. Kat sighed and dug her spoon into the chilly food bowl as well, swallowing it dryly to get into her belly. She was tired and stood to stretch. Although she wasn’t looking forward to sleeping on the frigid ground with spiders potentially crawling up her pant legs during her sleep. Stephen built the fire up higher to keep them comfortable during the night, he also said it would help to protect other predators from the dead bear. He had not enough strength to hoist the 500 pounds or more bear into the air, to hang it protectively from wolves. They could still sneak through the night and steal the carcass.

It had been hours now since the last gun shot, and Stephen was a little worried the wolves might return. Throwing large logs onto the fire and watching the bursts of ambers into the sky. Lighting the surrounding area up with firework type cracking and sparks. All he could do now was hope the prize kill would still be resting the short hike from camp in the morning. He could get a year’s supply of goods from town with that beast. Stephen knew he didn’t want to keep the meat, but lots of town folks would like the meat; either for their dogs or for sausage. Bear was not very good eating, it was tough and had an after taste of pencil shavings for some strange reason.

Kat seemed to be hypnotized by the growing fire, so he turned himself in to the tent. He knew she wouldn’t be far behind, her eyes cloaked with fear again once he mentioned wolves taking the bear in the night.

He picked out every rock he could find from under the small tent, at least there was no snow left on the ground this deep into the woods. The trees had warmed and drank all that wetness, now it was just dirt and last years leaves mushed in the moss. It was soft, not warm or dry but soft. He laid down and made sure to leave enough room for the woman’s body to be next to him.

He knew there was no way she would want to sleep under the stars by herself and he fought to keep himself from being aroused thinking of her that close to him. The way she had looked at him, while bandaging his chest made him fight arousal more. The front of the tent ruffled, and she crawled in. The space was very small, no room to stand or even turn around. She awkwardly placed herself in the small area between his body and the opening of the tent. There was no zipper on the tent, creating more of an open feel but he could tell the way he body tensed that it scared her to be looking at the openness. Even with the large bond fire several feet from the opening, all around the glow was pure darkness.

“Would you like to sleep on the back side?” He offered.

“I think so, yes. Thank you” She replied and after several minutes of awkward shifting and crawling and kicking inside a small one-man tent, they had finally laid back down. With having completely traded positions, Stephen now was the protector of the opening to the tent. Kat laid down again, now with her back to Stephen. He rolled towards her however, closing the gape between their bodies. He watched the side of her thin rib cage rise and fall with each breathe.

The amount of cotton between them seemed to be an evil trick, with how close he was to her yet how far. Her hair was loose again down her back and he wanted so badly to reach out to touch it. He wanted to smell her hair and pull his fingers through the strands. No longer being able to resist himself he lifted his hand gingerly and rested it on her side. In the concave of her side where the skin was unscathed from life; just before it swelled back upward into her womanly hip and her bottom. When laying his hand where it rested now however, Kat had held her breathe for a moment. It was now coming out a little strained and Stephen sensed his hand was not welcome where it laid.

He resorted his hand back to his own body and fought off the arousal that had shown itself again. Stephen took a solemn inhale and sadly resorted to closing his eyes to sleep.

Kat laid awake for hours, unsure how she felt about the touch Stephen had offered. Thinking through her own feelings when she herself had touched his chest. Staring at the tent material wising in the soft night breeze. Listening to the creature sounds just beyond the thin nylon of the tent. Frightened of how easily a second bear could trash through the side and cut her own torso to pieces. Jumping at the crunching and cracking sounds of the fire. Yet her mind kept going back to the feeling, the feeling of Stephen’s hand on her side.

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