TOBY

We just sort of hung out together for the rest of that pleasantly warm day. Anyone walking by, not knowing any better, would have assumed the dog was right where he belonged. As the afternoon wore on, I cooked dinner and gave the dog another bowl of food. I was trying to be cautious about feeding him — didn’t want him getting sick from too much, too soon after his time of near starvation — but he seemed able to handle whatever I gave him.

There are signs all over the region declaring it “bear country.” They were displayed prominently in the campground. If you’re smart, you cook and eat early when camping in bear country, before the bears become active for the night. Fortunately, this was before the most recent drought cycle took hold in the western states, so the bears weren’t starving and desperate enough to be aggressive in campgrounds. Nowadays, having food with you at all amounts to having a target on your back.

That particular summer the only people who had trouble with bears were the ones who did truly stupid things with food, and they generally suffered only property damage and occasionally the fright of their lives. I’d seen two bears by then, or the same bear twice, and then only from a distance. Both times the animal was in the campsite of someone learning a lesson. I knew they wandered through the campground early in the evening, and on into the night, and had even heard one huffing and chuffing in the dark, but that’s as far as it had gone. I was sufficiently unconcerned about local bears that I spent most nights dozing in the hammock. I always ate dinner in the late afternoon, while the sun was still up, and had everything cleaned and stowed away before dark. It was simple fare with a couple of beers when I was feeling mellow. Stronger stuff when memories intruded, as they did far too often.

After eating, cleaning, and putting things safely away that night, I popped open a captain’s chair and settled down to read one of the books I’d brought along. The late afternoon faded into evening. Swirls of sunset color made a backdrop for the ponderosa pines around me. The faintest of breezes brought the scent of pine and something being barbecued. I could hear other campers talking and laughing. One of my neighbors played his guitar each evening; didn’t mind it a bit, as the lad was quite good. I suppose the beer in my hand was technically a violation of the food rule I mentioned, but apparently it wasn’t as effective as bear bait as cooking a meal over a stove or charcoal. A bait someone nearby was advertising on the evening breeze.

This had become my routine, since setting up camp. Reading a bit until it grew too dark, then sitting alone with my thoughts, sorting things out, enjoying a measure of peace. Yes, memories intruded on some evenings — okay, most evenings — but they seemed easier to cope with in that setting. California was a long way off by then. It was almost as if the trial and divorce had happened to someone else. Almost.

This time there was a dog involved; he seemed to think it was a fine plan, and was content to doze at my feet. Now and then he would come halfway up, staring in the direction of some sound I hadn’t heard. More often than not he would settle back down, but twice he surged to his feet, tense and alert. I peered into the gathering twilight, saw nothing, and gave him a pat on the rump, saying the sorts of things one does to a nervous dog. Each time he settled back down after giving me a long, hard look. I was apparently clueless regarding dangers in the dark, but I was the human and we’re always in charge, right? I didn’t react, so he just settled back down, even if he remained watchful. No doubt such caution was part of the reason he was still alive. His gaze followed me as I got up to turn on the lantern, turning it down low to make it easier on the eyes, and to conserve the battery. It never became completely dark with a nearly waxing moon shining high in the south. It was a warm, beautiful summer night.

When I could no longer keep my eyes open, I prepared the hammock for the night’s sleep. The dog’s head came up as he watched me as I did that. His tail thumped the ground if I looked his way, but he otherwise stayed as he was, to all appearances calm and content with his current situation. I wondered briefly if I should secure him to something with the leash, or lock him in the truck, but for some reason it just felt unnecessary. Having decided to trust me, the dog gave no sign he was restless, and I didn’t want to give him a reason not to trust me. Apparently sleeping in my campsite felt far more secure than whatever safety and shelter he’d found in the woods on previous nights.

It was inevitable, of course. I’d no more than settled for the night when those beers caught up with me. “Idiot,” I muttered. The dog peered up at me in the moonlight. “Not you, bud. I always do this. Really should know better.” I strapped on the hiking sandals and shuffled off to the restrooms, not bothering with a flashlight. I knew the way and the moonlight was more than adequate. No surprise, the dog got up and followed silently along. There were lights of various sorts in the campsites scattered around me, including the comforting flicker of campfires, but there wasn’t another soul in sight at the comfort station when I arrived. When I came back out I realized immediately that the dog had wandered off. For a moment I was caught between feeling alarmed and annoyed, then I saw him a few yards up the trail toward the campsite, sniffing the trunk of a tree.

“Thought you’d abandoned me,” I said as he turned and trotted back toward me.

Less than ten feet from me the dog stopped and froze. A sound came out of him, the prelude to a growl. It was followed at once by the real thing, and that was followed by nothing less than a snarl. His head lowered and he set himself as if about to charge.

“Hey, buddy,” I said, more than a little alarmed. “Hey, take it easy. I thought we were friends here?”

The dog’s growl rose in volume and by the light of the moon I could see the gleam of bared teeth. The growl was punctuated by the short barks of a dog about to go to war. I started to take a step back, wondering if I could get up the nearest tree in time, when I finally realized that he wasn’t looking at me.

He was looking past me.

“Oh, shit!” I did not turn, not right away. My heart felt like it was beating under my chin. “It’s behind me, isn’t it?”

The dog never took his eyes from whatever drew his ire. I turned slowly and, sure enough, there was a bear on the trail with us. It stood there much too close for comfort, a dark mass with no real details to be seen, just a shadow in the moonlight exuding a sense of size and power. Just once I caught the gleam of moonlight in its eyes. It took a step forward, and then paused as the dog barked twice. I stepped off the trail, hoping the bear was just passing through. It didn’t seem to be challenging us, just waiting to see what we would do. I had good reason to assume this was all about right-of-way. I’d been in a similar situation some years before, in bear country of a different state, and yielding that right-of-way had been enough. I held my breath and hoped that was all it would take this time. But the dog didn’t know the rule, and he seemed frozen in place. With short, stiff steps, he put himself between me and the bear, then held his ground.

“Hey! Come here!”

The dog did not respond immediately; I stood there absolutely still, almost afraid to breath. Finally, without taking his eyes from the bear, the dog moved toward me, walking slowly backward. His head was low and he was ready to fight, but miracle of miracles, came when I called, and then moved further off the trail when I spoke to him again. It was excruciating, we gave ground so slowly, but at last we backed our way across some invisible line and the bear turned away from us. It sauntered away, with an occasional backwards glance.

It sometimes works that way. Give the bear the right-of-way, let it have the trail. Sometimes. We were lucky that night. If the dog hadn’t come when I called, the bear would have killed him. Might have attacked me, too, and we all know what happens to a bear that injures or kills a human being. But that night everyone got lucky, and everyone went on with their lives.

Went on with my life? Well, yes, but from that night onward, nothing was ever quite the same for me. I didn’t know it right away, but my aimless wandering was done, and I was no longer traveling alone.

Posted August 20, 2022 by underdesertstars

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