Chapter 1 –The bear and the angel.

Looking up at the sun I estimate that I've got about an hour before darkness, maybe a little more. Long enough, anyway. The tracks in front of me are fresh, and it would be good if I could bag a deer before I make my way back home. I got a couple of birds earlier and they're tied to the knapsack on my back, but they won't go far with so many hungry mouths to feed.

Besides, Pa is just about ready to string me up in the hog house for coming home drunk again and I need to do something to get back in his good books. He's been threatening to send me to live with my brother John, and that won't be any fun at all. John's a cranky bastard who works me like a dog and his wife, Adeline, can't cook worth a damn.

I'm right about the tracks. Just a little way ahead there's a small rise, and getting down low I slide up it on my belly to peer over the top. I know there's a small grassy clearing here, and sure enough there's a small herd of deer feeding peacefully. I silently slip the knapsack off my bag and bring the shotgun up in front of me, sighting along the barrel.

I've got a line on a mid-size doe when I see the buck moving in the edge of the trees. Damn, he's big…twelve points on him, and the fur sleek with good food and health. If I could bring that down and get him home to Pa I'll be forgiven a lot. The meat will feed us all for a long time, and we might even be able to sell a skin that size. If not there are a lot of pairs of mittens and boots in it for the little ones. I can't deny I want that rack too, as I see it clearer- twelve points looking symmetrical and undamaged. None of my brothers have one of those, I think with a grin.

I hesitate for a moment, because the shot I've got lined up on the doe is a sure thing and the distance and trees are going to make the buck a hard prospect, but since when have I ever taken the safe option? I swing the shotgun around and squint as I focus in on the buck. He's still in the trees, and I bite my lip as I consider taking the tricky shot or waiting to see if he moves out and risk missing him.

I'm so focussed that I don't hear what's coming up behind me. Damned stupid of me not to be paying attention, especially considering I've been carrying a couple of dead birds around with me for hours and they're starting to smell pretty ripe. But the first I know of anything is when I hear a low growl. Then I can smell the bear behind me and I forget all about the buck as I roll over, bringing up the shotgun as fast as I can. Shit. I'm in trouble.

The bear is just about on top of me, aiming for the knapsack lying at my side, and my fast movements have surprised her. She swats a paw at me angrily and catches the end of the barrel and instead of felling her, my shot hits the animal in the arm. The bear roars, and whatever trouble I was in before I'm in ten times more now, because she's furious and as she drops down her paw lands on the arm holding the rifle and I hear the bone snap.

I scream, and the bear snarls at me. She moves off my arm, but the broken limb is useless so with a bellow of pain I try to get my other hand over to the shotgun, knowing that I'm fighting for my life now. But I'm not fast enough, and I scream again as her claws catch my skin and tear me open. I'm fumbling in my pocket for my knife, wishing I'd gone for it instead of trying to get the shotgun because it's my only hope now, and then the claws rake right across my chest, ripping through my shirt and my skin like paper. Jesus, the pain of it makes light flare in front of my eyes and I claw desperately at the ground, trying to pull myself away but my body isn't doing what I want it to, and then the bear is on my leg and I feel and hear another bone snap. I realise, as I smell all that blood and pain explodes through my body, that I'm going to die here out in the woods and I shut my eyes so I don't have to see my own end.

But the end I'm expecting doesn't come. I'm braced for another blow from that massive paw and lethal claws, but instead I hear another snarl and the sound of a scuffle. Oh great- now there are two of them fighting over what's left of me. I start to hope I am dead before they start pulling me apart. I feel a rush of wind across my face, taking away the rancid smell of bear and filling my nose with the scent of summers on the river and my mama's cakes. I open my eyes in surprise and then I know I've fallen through the veil of death because crouched beside me is an angel.

Sweet Jesus, look at her…I've never seen anything as beautiful as this angel with her glowing skin and gleaming blonde hair. She bends low over me and the delicious smell of her fills my senses making me dizzy, and I wish I could see her face again. As if in answer to my unspoken wish she sits back on her heel, and then her head tilts and she meets my eyes and I think I'm smiling but I don't even know, and all I can do is whisper. "Angel…"

She looks shocked, which kind of surprises me coming from an angel. Maybe I'm not supposed to know what she is? I mean, she's hiding her wings and I can't see a halo and she's wearing a plaid shirt and some kind of skirt instead of robes like the angels in books at Sunday school. There's even a smear of my blood on her lip where she's pressed it to my neck. Angel.

The next thing I know she's pulling her shirt off and tying it around the worst bear wounds on my body. She's only wearing a camisole now, and it's pink and lacy and shows off the swell of her breasts. If I wasn't already dead I'm pretty sure God would strike me down for thinking such lewd things about an angel, but I can't take my eyes off her.

"Don't die." Her voice sounds like the chime of bells. "Hold on…I'll take you home. Carlisle will fix you." She stares at me, and her eyes are as golden as moonshine whiskey and I think death isn't going to be that bad, not if I get to look into those eyes for eternity. She scoops an arm underneath me and for all she's about half my size she picks me up like a baby and then she must find her wings because the next thing I know we're flying through the forest.

I have to say though, this isn't quite what I thought death would be like. I'm still bleeding, and everything hurts a lot more than I would have expected. Then there's this pretty angel who is holding me in her arms- she isn't exactly serene and smiling. In fact, as more and more blood soaks out of me and it gets harder and harder for me to focus on her, she starts looking more agitated and…well, pissed off, if I'm honest about it.

"Don't die on me now!" Her voice is as beautiful as before, even with the note of fierceness in it. The darkness is closing in on me until all I can see is the golden blur of her face, but as my eyes start to roll back she slaps my cheek, which had been about the only part of me that wasn't hurting. "Don't you dare die! We're nearly home…just hold on!"

Geez, who would have thought an angel would be so bossy? And what does she mean, don't die? Aren't I already dead? But before I can puzzle this out there's a bump and pain shoots through my body and darkness descends.