QUESTIONS — DEAN
Sometimes, I do what I am doing now. I watch him. He is holding so much back from us. For me to call this bear and the whole situation here a mystery is true, but I really don’t like the word mystery; it invites lazy thinking. But try as I do, I cannot get past the questions. Who is Kaiyo? Why is he here? What is he? Because he sure isn’t a normal bear. And, to me, the most important question is where did he come from? There are answers to each of those questions, but the answers keep eluding me.
My kind and most of mankind are alike in a lot of ways. But a big difference is my kind knows we belong to two countries. It’s not complicated—in fact, everybody, man and beast, once knew. But these days, most people just focus on their earth country; they’re almost oblivious to their other country, but not my kind. We get it, at least most of us do.
A few years ago, when I was just a cub, I was rescued by my human family. I love them. Later in the same year, when I was a yearling, I was rescued from my ignorance by a wolf. It was the same wolf, Tracker, who took me to a different country. It’s my first home. I have been back home five times since then, and I will go back again in a few weeks to continue learning.
I am Kaiyo, and Kaiyo is my only name. Tracker has another name he was given at birth, but he hasn’t used it, and I don’t know it. The name Tracker suits him well.
I have another home, and it is in this world. It’s my second home, and it is precious to me. We just call it the farm. When I am with my human family, I am happy. With them, I can be what I was made for. I am made for my family. But I am not their servant as one thinks of animals. I am too much like them, and they know it. Still, I am not quite their equal. The whole thing is easier lived than explained. And we both have enemies; we always have plenty of those.
BACK TRAILS — SAM
When Libby was an infant, we lived in a cabin on the farm. Our current house had not been built yet, and our farm was much smaller than it is today. With money always being tight, Susan and I would often hunt to put meat on the table. But with Libby joining the family, I would often go into the Eastern Wilderness and hunt alone. If people know where you are going and if they know when you are coming back, hunting alone is not necessarily a terrible idea. Hunting with others, though, is far safer.
But we had no choice. Elk season was in full swing, and the grocery bills were hard to pay. We needed meat, and the meat of an elk rivals good beef in flavor and texture. I left our cabin and rode east toward elk country. Elk were common, but we had decided not to ever hunt within a few miles of our property. In case of an emergency, I wanted elk, deer, and other tasty wildlife to feel comfortable and safe around the farm.
I left late in the morning because I wanted to camp and be in position to hunt the next morning. If unsuccessful, I would spend another night out and hunt the following morning and then start home. The day started out beautifully. I rode my two-year-old horse, Hershel, and we pulled my old pack mule named Humphrey. Humphrey wasn’t fast, but he was stronger than most horses, and he liked nice days. Typical of Montana, the sky was a vivid blue, and the air was crisp. A light breeze was in my face, and I felt good.
That day, we made about fifteen miles, and by early afternoon, I found a flat area to set up camp. Everything was nice until the next day. That was when I met two dangerous strangers named Duane and Stephanie.
I left my beloved state of Georgia because I felt called to come here. I still love Georgia, but I learned that everything good and worthwhile about Georgia can also be found here. The West has always been a magnet to those who wanted to build something for themselves, and that was what I wanted to do. Unfortunately, the West was also a magnet to awful people who wanted to steal from the builders. With people so spread out, often in remote areas, predatory people knew they could get away with murder.
Montana also attracts people who are best described as travelers. Some are good; some are terrible. They ride horses or motorcycles, they hop trains, or they just walk from here to there. This couple looked like travelers.
I had spent most of the morning hunting to the south of my campsite. I saw plenty of deer and a few antelope but no elk. I had seen elk in the area before, but on that morning, I didn’t even see any recent tracks. Hunting season has a way of changing an animal’s habits, and I guessed the elk had moved to thicker cover. So that was where I would go.
After breaking camp, I was on the move again. The trail I was taking ran generally east to west. This area had open grasslands, rolling hills, and large and small patches of timber that usually clung to the slopes. After a few hours of riding, I came up on a couple as they were breaking down their camp. They were camping along a low ledge overlooking one of the area’s year-round, clear water creeks. It was a pretty spot except for them messing it up. Both of them were dirty, and their camp was trashy. I hate that. But they did have two horses that looked well cared for so that worked in their favor. I was in a hurry and didn’t much feel like talking, so I tipped my hat and moved on.
Not thirty minutes later, I spotted them riding fast on the same trail I was on. I didn’t really want company, but my Southern roots are deep. I would be friendly.
“Hey, rider. Hold up,” yelled the man.
I pulled off the trail and waited. Like many in Montana, I kept a pistol on my hip. I made a point to take off the strap, and I placed my hand close to the butt of the gun. I usually carried a .45, and this trip was no different. It’s not the biggest or most powerful handgun in the world, but for most things, it’s big enough. They rode quickly, and it was obvious to me they were not experienced riders. But they had good gear. They reached me, and both were smiling.
They introduced themselves. Duane was older than me. He was a thick man with deep-set eyes. He looked to be more powerful than fat, though. He hadn’t shaved in days, but who did when they camped? Stephanie was younger than Duane, but she was gaunt and appeared unhealthy. She looked like she had once been pretty. She wasn’t that day. Both looked to be in their late twenties or early thirties, and everything about them told me to be careful. They said they were headed east and would enjoy some company. I said little, but I gave them my name and agreed out of courtesy to ride with them, and we headed out together. Immediately, I sensed these two were big-time trouble. As if on cue, Duane started bringing his horse over to ride to my right, and Stephanie pulled hers to my left. That wouldn’t do. So I lied.
One thing I have learned in life is a lot of people are scared of Southern country folk, sometimes with good reason. Southerners can be particularly mean fighters. They also speak in a way that annoys folks. Truth be told, I still am a bit of a Southern redneck; I’m just bilingual. Anyway, I gave them a dose of Southern.
Each region of the South has its own sweet sound. Even people in the same town can have different accents too. It all depended on upbringing, education, and the way neighbors and friends talk. I gave them a backcountry, South Georgia sound. That accent has always sounded good to me, but it definitely has a hard, country edge. For some, it’s probably like nails on a chalkboard. At the very least, I had a little fun.
“Naw, we cain’t ride like this,” I said as I pulled back on Hershel’s reins. I smiled as I said it, but my eyes never smiled. “You, see, I cain’t but barely see out of my right eye. I got hit hard there by a swinging liquor bottle, and now, I’m nearly blind in that eye. So y’all need to ride to my left, so I can see you both when we ride. There’s no sense in conversion if I cain’t see who I’m talking to. So you two ride ahead, and I’ll pull up on the outside next to Mr. Duane, here.”
With that, I slowed up, let them pass, and came around to the right of Duane. They didn’t say it, but they obviously didn’t like it. It kept me out of their reach, and it kept my gun hand free. We rode that way for another twenty or so minutes. They talked the whole time and were overly friendly. They asked way too many questions, and I spoke only rarely. Sensing it was time to ditch those folks, I simply said goodbye, waited for them to get past me, and headed north toward a range of low, wooded hills three or four miles away. I did that for two reasons. One is that I wanted to get away from those creepy people, and second, the area was close enough to where I intended to hunt, and I knew it well.
Periodically, I would look back to see if they were following me. Knowing if I was being followed was, and still is, a key to my survival out here. Wolves, grizzlies, and mountain lions are known to follow hunters and campers. The wolves, I was not so worried about, there weren’t many in those days, and they almost never killed people. Grizzlies were an issue, but any mountain lion that follows is up to no good. While I watched out for them too, I was far more concerned about my former trail mates.
Just before I got into the forest, I pulled up behind a mess of tumbled boulders. I grabbed my binoculars and climbed up on one of the bigger rocks, and after a few minutes, I saw them. They were several miles away, but Stephanie’s horse was mostly white, and unless it’s snowing, it’s near impossible to be stealthy on a white horse. Duane rode a mouse-colored horse that blended in beautifully with the sedge grass. But they were probably banking on the notion I wouldn’t be suspicious and watch my back trail. They should have known better.
I quickly got back on Hershel, and the three of us headed into the hills. I made my trail obvious. A horse and a mule make a lot of tracks. To make things even easier, I broke branches, and threw an apple core behind me. Humphrey snorted and tried to turn back to eat it, but that wasn’t the plan.
Deep into the forest I rode. I loved this place, and the northern slopes and meadows were filled with elk. I kept riding north and stayed in the forest. With the long afternoon shadows beating back the sunlight, I came to a ten-acre open meadow. There, I set up camp at the far end of the meadow. First, I led Hershel and Humphrey to a small creek so they could drink; then, I led them back, unpacked both, and staked Humphrey in the grass. I unsaddled Hershel, but I kept him handy.
I set up my small tent and even built a smoky fire. Then, I ate and stowed away my gear. When it got dark, I put out the fire and waited in my tent until I got my night vision. A person’s pupils will quickly contract in bright light, but eyes take much longer to adjust to darkness. Impatient people can miss much because they simply don’t wait to see in the dark. Sometimes, that can be fatal. So I stayed in my tent for another half hour. The whole time, I scanned the surrounding meadow. As expected, my vision steadily improved, and I was able to start seeing a few elk at the far end of the meadow. I mostly looked south though, because that was where my stalkers were.
Seeing in the dark takes a little skill. The way the eye is designed, there are more light receptors on the sides of the retina than at the very back. That means when it’s dark, looking straight at something may be the worst way to see it. A good woodsman always looks at and then around things when it’s dark. In the dark, looking just to the side of what you want to see is the best way to see it.
I followed the movement of a cow elk as she grazed near the southern wood line. If Duane was watching me, he would probably be there. I chose this place because the wind, though light, was coming from the south. If he was still in those woods, the elk would know it and soon. Keeping an eye on the elk, I made sure I had what I needed. After another twenty minutes, the cow elk continued to graze. It was time.
I stepped out of the tent and gently closed the tent flap. I mounted Hershel bareback to avoid the inevitable creaking sounds of his saddle. He didn’t know what we were doing, but he was young and smart, and he enjoyed moving. We turned south and headed into the forest on the west side of the meadow, parallel to my prior path. After another mile or so, I smelled the first hint of wood smoke. I wasn’t surprised, and I kept heading southward up a good-sized, thickly wooded hill. As I reached the crest, I could see to the bottom of the other side of the hill. Through the thick trees, I could see the flickering light of a campfire.
We McLeods believe the best defense is to act if trouble is at hand. Doing nothing invites more trouble, and I wanted no trouble. Unfortunately, trouble was following me. So I dismounted and tied up Hershel. Then, I took off my boots and put on a pair of moccasins. I had about forty-five yards to get there, and I needed to walk silently. It’s practically impossible to do that in boots. We still keep moccasins with us whenever we camp for this very reason.
With the moccasins on, I was able to slide through the woods and slip up on the couple. They were sitting around their little fire and enjoying the flames. That was their second mistake. Their first mistake was following me. But, by staring into the fire, they robbed themselves of their ability to see beyond the light and into the darkness. They were night-blind. It was not an unusual thing; people who feel safe are rarely alert for danger. Also, it’s hard not to look at fire. Fire mimics spirit and looks alive. While fire is not alive, it’s almost hypnotizing. Because of that, I was able to creep up close and remain unseen.
Hiding just out of the glow of the flames, I avoided looking directly at them or their fire. I listened as the two casually discussed killing me and stealing my horse, my mule, my guns, and my gear. If it were the Old West, I would have simply walked up to the fire and shot them both. There’s not much difference in guilt between a murderer and one who is in the process of attempting a murder. But the times are more complicated, and killing someone, even potential killers, invites enormous problems.
Still, I had to deal with the issue of two well-armed people who were conspiring to kill me. So instead of shooting them, I stood up, walked out of the darkness, and strolled into their camp and confronted them. To say they were shocked was an understatement. One second, they were alone, and the next second, they were staring into the face an intruder with a gun. They were typical jackals, and they were scared. They both started talking a mile a minute. I let them speak for a few minutes until I told them to shut up. I kept my formerly used Southern accent and smiled a lot. They were caught, and they were terrified.
I told them I knew what their intentions were. I also told them I had no plans to be a victim. They thought I was going to kill them. Their plan was to kill me, so it made sense that my plan was to kill them. I had no such intentions, though. First, I went over to their gear and took their two rifles. Then, I took two pistols I found in their tent. The couple stayed put; I never took my .45 off them. I was pretty sure one or both of them were still packing guns somewhere on them.
I asked if they had any other weapons on them, and they both profusely denied they had any more guns. They said I had found everything. My grandfather was a lawyer, and he once told me that liars always lie. He cross-examined liars for a living, so I trusted him on the issue. So I ordered them to strip to their underwear and to take off their boots. I had to. People stash knives and guns in their clothes, and I didn’t want to end up dead. Duane protested loudly, but I simply smiled and told him I’d kill him if he didn’t. Because he was a murderer and he thought little of killing others, he, no doubt, thought I would. She didn’t doubt it either.
They were fortunate to have been wearing long underwear. It’s common attire when spending outdoors out here, especially in the fall. In fact, I was counting on it. I didn’t want anyone to think I was some weird creeper. When all but their underwear was stripped off, I had them step back and away from their clothes. The old adage that most people don’t look good in their underwear was true here. They both looked bad. She was boney thin and showed the signs of some sort of drug addiction. I made Duane take off his shirt too. Duane just looked like a fool.
It was cold, and the slight breeze soon had them shivering uncontrollably. I then took their clothes. I kept their money and their wallets. I also kept the two small pistols they had concealed in their pockets and had somehow forgotten to tell me about. Even though I wasn’t surprised, finding those additional weapons angered me more than I suspected it would. I spit out commands for them to throw more wood on their fire until it was roaring. Then, I ordered them to throw their clothes in the fire, including their boots. They started to complain loudly, but I wasn’t faking my anger. They quickly obliged. Then, I threw all their extra clothes and their backpacks in the fire. I kept out a blanket, their horses’ saddles, and their horses’ saddlebags. I needed those.
With a burning stick from the fire, I walked over to their tiny tent and took it and their bedding and lit it all on fire. The couple’s mouths dropped like anchors, but they stayed in place.
They say clothes make the man. That may be true, but nakedness usually robs a person of all false pride. And it did for them. Duane, standing barefooted and in only the bottom part of his long underwear, started to cry. So did Stephanie. They both looked ridiculous. I only felt contempt for them.
I waited a few minutes to be assured their clothes and boots were thoroughly burned beyond use. Then, I spoke the truth to them. I ordered them back to the ground and stood over them. They looked like the fools they were. But they were still dangerous vipers.
“I should kill you both, but that wouldn’t be a very Christian-like thing, now would it?”
The couple quickly agreed, so I continued. “But I never have been a very good Christian, and I depend on God’s good graces all the time. So if I decide to kill you, I really think God would forgive me, especially in this situation. As far as I know, my killing you would be an act of godly justice. There’s not much difference in you killing me or conspiring to kill me. But I’m not positive of that, and if not, I really don’t want to add your deaths to my rather long list of sins. Unless I have to.”
“So here is what I am going to do. Tonight, as you shiver in the cold, be content knowing I will have your horses and your guns. I left a blanket for you so your misery will be tempered. You have ruined a hunt for me, and I do not appreciate it at all. You also still want to kill me and keep my stuff, and that won’t do. So, in the morning, take the trail to my camp. You have already scouted my camp, so I know you can find it. There, you will find one of your horses and my only can of bear spray. The only reason I am leaving that with you is so you can protect yourself from a hungry bear or lion. And as you make your way out of here tomorrow, just know I will be watching. Tomorrow, head straight to the first lawman you see and turn yourself in.”
Then, I ordered them saddle their own horses. I took the horses, loaded their saddlebags, and slipped back into the forest to where I left Hershel. With their horses in tow, I headed back to my camp. Not wanting to tempt fate, I immediately packed up my gear and loaded up Humphrey, and we left into the darkness.
I rode all night and stopped from time to time to watch my back trail. Other than riding through darkness, which I don’t like doing, I made good time. When I got home the next morning, I called the new county sheriff, my old friend from Georgia, Lee Tuttle. Tuttle came over and took possession of the couple’s guns, saddlebags, saddles, wallets, and money. A deputy later came towing a trailer and got their horse.
While Tuttle was at our house, he made a few calls, and a chopper was sent to find them. Soon, his deputies spotted the couple from the air, riding together, nearly naked, on a white horse, out in the wilderness. They were arrested shortly thereafter. We found out later that one of the pistols I took from them belonged to a camper who was found murdered in his tent in Wyoming a year before. The other guns were all stolen, so were their horses and tack. That solved several unsolved cases, and it supported my testimony at their trial about their attempt to murder me. I have always prayed those vultures would repent and get to know Jesus. I doubt they will ever get out of prison.
And that is why we always watch our back trails.
HOME — DEAN
Sometimes, it astonishes me we have a two-and-a-half-year-old wild grizzly living with us. Well, he lives here at least most of the time. From time to time, he vanishes, sometimes for weeks on end. We have no idea where he goes. We have tried to track him, but he always manages to lose us. It’s like a game to him. At first, he would leave with a wolf who would visit here from time to time and sometimes take him away. We named the wolf Big Bad Wolf at first, but it was obvious he thought the name was childish. He made it clear he liked the name Tracker when we suggested it. I wouldn’t be surprised if Tracker was his real name just by the way he acted.
The wolf is even stranger than Kaiyo, but we love him too. When Kaiyo was young, we hated seeing the wolf stroll onto the farm, but after a few abductions of Kaiyo, we came to learn our little bear always intended to come back and live with us here.
In a normal world, the simple fact that Kaiyo does live with us here defies all understanding. He weighs well over three hundred pounds now and is freakishly strong. He is also getting bigger and stronger every day. He can easily run as fast or faster than our two dogs, Moose and Major. He once broke the neck of an elk who refused to leave our fields. The elk tried to challenge him. That was a fatal mistake.
Last spring, Kaiyo stormed into a pack of wolves who were trying to kill Moose. It would seem only crazy people would live with such a creature and love him. And so we McLeods must be crazy. In fact, only crazy people would let their ten-year-old daughter sneak up and jump on a grizzly as it sleeps in the grass. But my mom and dad treat it as a spectator sport.
It’s another early summer morning, and Gracie leaves the kitchen and tiptoes down the back-porch steps. Slowly and silently, she pads through the dew-laden grass. I see the bear lift his head and spy Gracie coming at him. I see him pretend to be asleep. Gracie gets close, runs, and leaps onto the bear; and she is immediately hidden by his enormous arms. She screams in laughter as they complete another morning ritual. Mom and Dad and my sister, Libby, leave the window and walk back to the kitchen table, all chuckling. It never gets old to them—or to me. And mystery or not, I know I love that bear. And I know Kaiyo loves me right back. I also believe he is here with us for a reason. My job is to figure it all out. And sooner or later, I will.
We live on a farm in western Montana. We have tried to give it a name, but the names never stuck. We just call it the farm. Some people call this God’s country, but it takes tough people to live in it. It’s even tougher to farm it. But we do. And for all my fifteen years plus three months or so, it’s all I have known. Fortunately, I am tall for my age and stronger than normal. Mom said my size and strength are from her pure Viking heritage. Dad says it comes from his Scottish highlander roots. Knowing his family and Mom’s family, I think the strength part is Viking-related. The good thing is speed, size, and strength come in mighty handy when working a farm. Farmwork is hard and dirty, and it can smell awful, especially now it’s summer. In short, it sounds bad, but it’s wonderful. It’s wonderful for many reasons.
Farm work proves that there is an unbroken link between life and filth. A missionary in Guatemala once told my dad, “Where there’s life, there’s filth. If you want life, you will have filth.”
On this morning, I was grabbing my cap and jacket to get started when the phone rang. Having the landline ring when you live in an area that doesn’t have great cell phone coverage is normal. Libby is a pretty, seventeen-year-old, and she has a lot of friends. Most of them are girls, but a few older boys have been calling for a while too. Dad wasn’t very happy about that development, but it’s been going on since before we met Kaiyo. He’s used to it now. He doesn’t like it, but he’s used to it.
Mom and Dad have a solid business with the farm and the oil wells, so they get calls all the time from suppliers of everything a farm needs and from the buyers of what we grow or make. But calls at such an early hour were rare. Dad took the call, so I headed on out to the main barn. Libby hollered out she would join me there in five.
We have several barns and more sheds, but the main barn is the only one we call the barn. If I looked straight out the back of the house and past the courtyard made by the driveway circle, I would see the big front doors to the barn. In the winter, the barn seems far away; in the summer, it seems to be just a few steps away. In truth, it’s about a hundred feet away. Inside the barn are some amazing horses. There are also two areas set aside for chickens and guineas. They are not at all amazing, but they do taste good when Mom or Dad fries one up.
Among several jobs, Libby and I have the responsibility of mucking out the stalls of our six horses and keeping them watered and fed. Last year, Dad got Gracie a beautiful buckskin Welsh Cob gelding named Duke. A Welsh Cob is a large pony. In fact, they’re bigger than some horses. Duke is smart and very gentle. He’s fast, strong, and a capable jumper. Gracie was turning into an excellent rider too.
Some people think a ten-year-old is too young to ride, but that’s just not true. The ancient Mongols made sure their three-year-old boys could ride by themselves. For them, learning to ride and fight was often the difference between life and death.
I am proud of Gracie. Several times, the three of us have taken our horses and gone into the Eastern Wilderness. We don’t tell Mom, but I think she knows. Dad is a good tracker, and he has noticed our little trips. He just tells me to be careful and to be smart by using what I know to be true.
I notice a lot of people tell their kids what not to do. And sometimes, that’s the right thing. Little kids need to know not to touch fire or to play with mean dogs. But knowing what not to do is never the same as knowing what to do. So Dad will tell us to “be smart, use what you know,” while another parent might say to their kid, “Don’t do anything stupid.” They both mean to say the same thing, but
the message is totally different. One kid focuses on doing the smart thing, while the other one focuses on not being stupid. Not being stupid is a mighty low standard.
Anyway, since I was the first one in the barn, I led the horses into their pasture. It’s easy. I get Peyton, our enormous shire horse, out first and then open the other stalls, and the others will follow us out of the barn and into the pasture. Our dogs, Moose and Major, were already in the barn. Dogs like daily routine; it seems to make them happy for some reason. Moose and Major are the perfect farm dogs. Both are big, but Moose is really big. Major’s nose is better, and Moose is stronger. Major is a serious dog, while Moose is a happy-go-lucky dog, even though he’s dangerous to some animals and to a lot of people he doesn’t know. The farm really wouldn’t be successful without them. Their job is to make sure the deer, elk, and black bears don’t eat the crops. They are good at it too.
Kaiyo usually joins me, and today was no different. When we first brought Duke to the farm, it took Duke several weeks to get used to Kaiyo. I sure didn’t blame him. Kaiyo could smell a little stinky from time to time, and he was definitely a meat eater. He was big, and he had a swagger about him. I think every animal out there except Peyton and a few steers would have been afraid of Kaiyo.
Anyway, each day, either Libby or I would take the horses out of their stalls and take them out to pasture, and Kaiyo would usually take the lead. Duke was a smart horse, and he figured out Kaiyo wasn’t there to eat him. It was Kaiyo’s friendship with Peyton that eventually won him over. Sometimes, Kaiyo will join the horses and graze on the grass of the horse pasture. They’re usually joined by Rosie the alpaca. Rosie would follow Kaiyo everywhere if we let her. She and Kaiyo used to play when Kaiyo first joined the family. She jumps over her fence to join Kaiyo when he grazes with the horses. Friends who visit are always surprised to see that sight.
When I got back, Libby told me it was Sheriff Tuttle and Captain Stahr who had called. It seemed another hiker was missing. That was the third one this year. I suspected the Sheriff’s Department probably needed help to find him or her.
Just about each season, Dad gets asked to go into the Eastern or Northern Wildernesses to find a lost hiker or two. In the winter, he has searched for lost snowmobilers and cross-country skiers. In the fall, it’s usually a hunter who gets turned around and lost. Spring can be a terrible time for hikers. The weather can go from hot to freezing in hours, and rain or snow is always a problem.
It was late June, and this year, we had already helped find two other lost hikers. Like anybody who gets lost in the wilderness, they were lucky to be found alive. Once again, Kaiyo came to their rescue. He found them when the captain’s dogs could not.
From Monday through Friday, we have Gunner Gibbs come and help us on the farm. At first, I called him Mr. Gibbs, but he didn’t like it. He wanted me to call him just Gunner, so eventually I did. Gunner is top-notch, and he works steady, and he enjoys hard work. I think Dad saw Libby growing up and me getting involved in sports, and he knew he would need help.
Several years ago, Gunner and his family came into our lives at the right time. His son, Jack, is my best friend. We both go to the same school and play football there. I think Jack has a crush on Libby, but it’s not reciprocated. Fifteen-year-old guys rarely get the pretty, seventeen-year-old girl. Libby thinks Jack is cute, but that is about as far as it goes.
Gunner’s daughter, Kate, is not quite a year younger than me, and she’s a very pretty girl. I noticed her the moment I saw her a few years ago. Grown-ups will sometimes say odd things to me like, “Now you’re a teenager, you’re going to start liking girls.”
Seriously, I have no idea why grown-ups say such dumb things. The truth is, I can’t remember ever not liking girls. They have always been interesting to me. Kate was different. She was a better kind of different. It’s hard to explain, so I won’t. But I say all this only to explain that Gunner didn’t work on Saturdays or Sunday except during planting or harvest. During those times, we all work the weekends. And today was a beautiful Saturday, and Dad wanted to talk.
WILDERNESS — SAM
This hiker was actually pretty good. A lot of them put no more thought into a wilderness hike than they do a short hike around their town’s park. Once a hiker enters the Eastern Wilderness, a cell phone becomes nothing more than a clock and an MP3 player. Convenience stores become cherished memories. Years ago, Dean, Libby, and I watched a line of hikers walk across a grassed meadow with each of them listening to music on their headphones. They didn’t even notice the berry bushes they had just passed were concealing a good-sized, male grizzly. We watched the bear as it watched them. He probably thought they were as dumb as we did. We had to go out of our way to intercept them and give them a brief survival course. Those types of hikers are usually the type we have to go find.
Not long ago, there was a group of teenage boys and girls from some cities on the West Coast who were made to walk about twenty-five miles in an area close to Yellowstone. Their path was through known bear country as part of some ridiculous, self-confidence training exercise. They were given nothing for self-defense except a two-way radio. That was it. It was as dangerous as it was absurd. For some other crazy reason, they weren’t given any bear spray. Each hiker should have had a can.
As you can guess, they ran into a cranky grizzly about halfway through, and with them being inexperienced and defenseless, they ran. They were told not to run, but staring down a grizzly with only fists is a lot to ask of anybody, much less some green teenagers. I understood. They were unprepared and inexperienced, and bears can be frightening. The bear caught and mauled two of them severely and then simply wandered off. Heck, if they were taught to make some simple spears out of saplings, they could have stood their ground. A bear rarely would complete an attack against twelve spearmen, acting together.
We were the first on the scene, and after the two torn-up, bloody kids were airlifted out, we escorted the rest back as they completed their walk in the wilderness. We met their frantic parents in the parking area at the beginning of the trailhead. I felt sorry for the coach who put the whole thing together. He was a desert wilderness expert who had no real experience with grizzly country. The poor guy was devastated. I could only imagine the legal troubles he has been facing ever since.
But, like I said, this hiker was pretty good. His name is Landon Haldor. Landon is a twenty-two-year-old who was already an experienced hiker and hunter. He appeared to have done everything right from the beginning. Before he left, he had checked in at the National Forest Service ranger’s cabin and filed his plan. The ranger there reported that Landon’s pack was well stocked with a tool kit style of knife, a seven-inch hunting knife, a hatchet, fifty feet of para-cord, a tarp, fire starters, a small tent, clothes, and a bedroll with some other helpful odds and ends. He had plenty of food and a cheap but effective water filtration straw. He also had two cans of EPA-approved bear spray with him. The ranger had known Landon for several years, and other than a crazy penchant for hiking the wilderness alone, Landon had proven himself to be a careful and thoughtful woodsman.
Two years before, I met Landon briefly while riding the Eastern Wilderness looking for stray cattle. The breaks and draws out there often hold wild cattle or horses. I’m not interested in the horses, but the cattle are there for the taking. Landon was sticking to a well-marked path and was headed to the parking area about fifteen miles away when I rode by him. It was time to take a break, and a nearby creek was perfect for Hershel. He joined me, and we introduced ourselves. He told me he was originally from North Carolina. His mom was Cherokee, and he was born at the Indian Hospital in the mountain town of Cherokee, North Carolina. His dad was of mostly European descent. He looked like a mix of the two but by the way he had mastered the Eastern Wilderness, he acted more like a Cherokee. He was strong when I saw him, and the ranger confirmed he again appeared in top physical shape.
The sheriff told me Landon had missed his return date by eight days, and his parents and friends were panicking. A number of his friends, experienced hikers themselves, had gone out on their own or in small groups to look for him. They all came back empty-handed. I don’t blame them; who wouldn’t try to save a friend? But good hikers, even good outdoorsmen, aren’t necessarily good trackers.
Outdoorsmen, both men and women, are often good at spotting wildlife and recognizing sign. Sign means things like tracks, prints, or scat. But tracking is the next level up. Sign is used to track, but trackers need to think like the animal or person they are tracking. And that is much easier said than done. Rarely can somebody find a set of tracks and walk up on the creature that makes them. Tracking is as much about interception as it is pursuit.
His parents had given Captain Stahr some clothes of Landon’s, and the captain had put them in my mailbox. Susan went and got them and met me on the back porch. There, we had a family meeting. Kaiyo, Libby, and Dean came out of the barn, crossed the courtyard, and joined us. Gracie rode on Duke and stayed in the saddle. She was young, but she was made for the saddle.
It was time to find him or what was left of him.
Gracie was probably my most difficult child. I don’t mean in the sense she was at all disrespectful or engaged in improper behaviors because, for the most part, that was rarely the case. What I mean is she was relentless. When she wants to do something, she simply doesn’t look at my no as anything other than the first round of a one-sided negotiation. And she doesn’t go about it like Dean either. Dean goes straight for the reasoned argument to present his case, and he enjoys a complicated set of negotiations. He’s a master at using leading questions. Gracie’s not like Libby either. Libby seems to generally understand her own self-imposed boundaries, and she can lay out a good argument too. Libby can be emotional, but she understands emotions are not to be trusted.
Gracie, on the other hand, seems to always have us on the defensive. To her, nearly every boundary we establish is arbitrary, and it is our responsibility to defend those boundaries. She’s always been that way. So I knew that when I told her that she would not be going out on the search to find the lost hiker, she would not accept it. Sam and I would deal with it, but I was preparing myself for one disappointed ten-year-old girl. Truth be told, I didn’t want to be left alone here. I am a mom, and I would be plagued with worry if all five of them left and got swallowed up in the Eastern Wilderness, even if it was only a two-day trip.
I was inside, looking out my kitchen widow. There was the little huddle that made my family. My husband and my four children were looking at some clothes and a map. Gracie was on her pony listening to her dad and siblings talk and look at the map. She preferred to stay on Duke. I think the height increase for a little girl was a bonus. She was also a natural rider. She took after me in that talent. I used to love to ride, and I was pretty good. I have a few rodeo medals to prove it. In fact, I still do love to ride. Out here, being a good rider can save your life, so we made sure the kids could ride at an early age. But Gracie was a natural, and she took to riding like a young otter takes to water. She was made for it.
I redirected my gaze to Kaiyo. Everybody was looking down, but Kaiyo was staring intently at Gracie. He loved her, but this time, his expression was a concerned one. That may sound odd with me looking at the face of a grizzly bear. But living on a farm and observing body language and reading the expressions on the faces of animals can become second nature. The hard part is understanding what was observed. Animals aren’t people, and they don’t think people thoughts. Assuming an animal has kind, humanlike feelings might get you killed. Cows and pigs can look quite content in one moment and then show pure aggression in another moment. That being said, we understand that the way an animal places its ears or stares or paws at the ground is pure communication. With all that, Kaiyo has always been different, of course. First, Kaiyo was my son, and he has been from the day he came here. Second, his expressions were far more understandable. Like all my kids, I could read Kaiyo like a book.
I followed his gaze as he looked toward Gracie. She looked surprised, as if she heard something. Her head swiveled as she looked about the courtyard. Clearly, no one else was hearing anything. She looked quickly from side to side and up. Nobody else looked startled or surprised. They were all discussing their plans. Gracie then hopped off Duke, tied him to the porch railing, climbed up on the back porch, and marched inside. Kaiyo followed her in. She came to me, and she looked like she had seen a ghost.
Then, she said, “That man, the hiker, he’s lost, and he’s scared. He doesn’t know how to get home.”
I looked at Gracie. “How do you know that, sweetie,” I asked.
Gracie looked at me for a second. “I think he just told me,” she said.