6

On the ridge road, racing for home:

John was hunched over in his seat, struggling for breath and choking occasionally, but otherwise silent. He had a twisted bunch of Virgil's shirt clutched in one shaking hand. The passenger door wouldn't latch properly, so every time Virgil took a curve too fast, it flew open, and John was thrown halfway out of the vehicle. The seat straps and Virgil's quick reflexes saved him several times from a sudden, face-first acquaintance with the road.

Then, Virgil remembered the phone. Driving with his elbow (he kept a hand on John's skinny arm, as much to provide comfort, as to reel him back in), Virgil fumbled the phone out of his jacket, dropped it, and had to feel around the bottom of the ATV. Bumped the thing, but it skittered away, again. There was a quick, C-sharp tone, then a short double beep, and his grandfather's muffled voice threaded up from the bouncing, dirty floorboards.

"John...? Teddy...? That you?"

Virgil took his eyes off the road long enough to lunge for the yellow cell phone, which had come to rest against John's left shoe. He got it, hit his head getting back up again, and nearly rolled the vehicle.

Pressing the 'send' button, Virgil babbled,

"Grandad, it's me and John! There was a bear, and we're coming back, but John's..."

Another knife-like C-sharp cutting over his message indicated that their grandfather had mashed the 'send' key on his end. Virgil released, and stopped talking.

"How bad?"

"I don't know, it's dark. He got hit in the face, and I'm driving."

"Where are you?"

"On the ridge road, Grandad. The bear...," to Virgil's frightened, twelve-year-old eyes, every briefly-lit rock, tree and thrusting outcrop looked like a vengeful grizzly.

"Quit talking, and drive. We're coming."

Grant Tracy moved in heart-jerk fast forward, collecting pretty near everyone he could find, getting the first aid gear together, and passing out rifles. No horses. They needed something faster, that wouldn't spook.

Grant was on the phone with MedEvac, as he pulled out of the yard in his big green truck and floored the accelerator. Scott and Victoria were beside him, leaning forward in the seat, as though by sheer will power, they could make the truck move faster.

Vic said nothing at all, but her small, sinewy hand was clutched white-knuckle tight on his arm. Scott kept thumping his fist against the dashboard, rapid as a scratching hound. Behind them in the truck bed, the four hired men stood up and held on, peering over the cab roof, and snapping occasional commands at the dogs.

Not two days ago, Ross had said something about a boar, 'Big sonuvabitch from the park, 850 pounds, at least', but Grant had dismissed it as casual, over-the-fence bullshit. Now those words, and 'he got hit in the face', kept slamming at him. He prayed and he cursed, and he drove, straining his ears for chopper blades, and his eyes for headlights.

At last, skidding crazy-fast around a bend in the trail, twin golden pinpricks bobbed into view. The ATV, and the boys. Or, one of them, at least. As the truck roared up, head- and fog- lights blazing, all Grant could see was Virgil, big-eyed and pale in the driver's seat, with something crumpled up beside him.

He killed the engine, grabbed the medical kit, and shoved Victoria at Scott.

"Boy, you keep hold. Don't let her loose, unless I tell you to, hear?"

"Yessir," Scott whispered, trying (and trying not) to see.

Grant threw himself out of the cab and ran forward, arriving at the ATV's passenger side an instant later. He yanked the door open (it wasn't latched right), and took gentle hold of the hunched and coughing boy, to straighten him.

'No blood...'

Grant had to work, to pull the boy's hand away from his face. John's skin was red, and his eyes clamped shut. He alternately coughed and gagged, shivering with pain, but...

"Thank God."

Sagging, bewildered relief gave way to ferocious joy. Bear spray. He'd somehow got hit in the face with damn bear spray. As the dogs milled frantically about, sniffing and baying, Grant nodded at the truck and called for water. Then, he swept both boys into a sudden, tight embrace. To Virgil's immense shock, the old man kissed both their foreheads.

Virgil tried to explain what had happened, while Grandma steadied John, and the senior ranch hand, Casey, poured gallon after gallon of water over the boy's face. Scott was on the phone. The other men (Shaun, Elliot and Big Floyd) posted themselves around the family, squinting into the darkness beyond their golden headlight circle, rifles at the ready. Ultimately, on a night like this, they were all just cavemen around a tiny fire, clutching their pointed sticks and wondering what was moving, out there.

"I'm sorry, Grandad, I shoulda fired, but..."

"No," his grandfather replied firmly, shaking his head. "You done the right thing, Ted. From what you say, there wasn't more 'n three or four feet between that bear n' your brother. You mighta missed entirely, hit John, or just wounded the critter. Damn thing woulda got pissed-off, and torn both of you to shreds. Instead, you held your fire, let your brother use the spray, then got yourselves back. I'd 've done the same."

Virgil was still embarrassed, though, thinking that he should have been more heroic, 'made the bear's mamma bleed', instead of standing there like an idiot, and losing the rifle. Grant went on,

"From now on, though, there ain't no more of these two-man trash runs. Until that sonuvabitch is caught, I go with you, or Scott does. You hear me, Boy?"

"Yes, Sir."

All at once, there was a noise, hooves clipping fast and hard on the stony trail. A quick, 4-beat gallop... From the sound and pattern, the animal was big, and somewhat heavily laden. It turned out to be Traveler, Grant's big buckskin, wearing bridle and pad, but no saddle. The gelding thudded up into the light, and Teena slid off. Twice.

Everyone looked up as the girl(s) ran forward, calling Virgil's name.

"Friends of yours?" Grant enquired.

Virgil nodded, confused.

"That's my girlfriend...," he said (kind of squeaked, actually).

Grant opened his mouth, then shut it again, and shook his head. He knew when to just look at the mountains. Casey, though, had no such compunction. As the girls rushed up... ("We followed you, fast as we could," "Pepper spray's oily, you need something soapy to take it off,")... a mischievous grin lit the hired man's blue-eyed face.

"That's our Virge," he boasted. "So much man, he's on the football squad early, and he dates twins."

One of the girls swabbed at John's face with gentle, cat-like sweeps of a soapy 'wet-wipe' clearing away the blow-torch oil. The other (from the way she jigged and bounced, he guessed it was Sharie) took Virgil's hand and kissed his cheek.

"We're sorry," she told him. "We didn't mean to lie, but folks have tried to bust us up before, send Teena one way, and me the other. We're still your girlfriend, though, if that's okay."

It was; very, very much.

The girls were nineteen, when their mother came back.