Fifteen feet up in a tree, Jack ignored the twig jabbing him in the cheek. His backpack was discarded at the tree base. To the left of that was Richard’s pack. A few paces away Richard lay motionless. The grizzly bear was nosing around Richard’s feet.
“Don’t say a word, Richard,” Jack hissed from his nest in the tree. “Don’t make any movements.”
The profile of the grizzly blocked Richard from view. All Jack could see were two quivering boots poking out. He flogged his memory for what he’d been told to do in the event of a bear attack. Should he shout?
“Hey!” Jack’s voice cracked. He yelled again, the lone sound carrying through the trees and up into the mountain valley and echoing back.
The bear looked up at him. Now he had its attention Jack swore at it whole heartedly and without respite. It didn’t blink. He paused to catch his breath and the bear, flicking its ears, turned and circled around to the other side of Richard. Jack resumed, but no amount of swearing could distract the grizzly.
The bear no longer blocked Richard’s heaving chest from sight. Jack’s friend’s fists we’re clenched together at his side, his face white. A bead of sweat was moving down Richard’s cheek. From his vantage in the tree, Jack smelt the acrid odor of the bear and heard the rumble of its breathing.
The grizzly nudged Richard’s thigh, then moved up to his head. Its breath made Richard twitch, and a tear escaped from a shut eye.
“Stay cool. Richard. Play dead, man, just play dead,” said Jack.
Richard’s whole body suddenly quaked. The bear stepped back, startled.
“Play dead man. You can do it. Keep it up.” Jack noticed his voice was rising.
Richard shuddered again, and the bear lumbered around, agitated. It stopped near his feet and started to paw at his boots with massive black claws.
Desperate, Jack snapped a branch from the tree and threw it at the bear. The bear didn’t notice, but caught Richard up in its front paws and pulled him to a stop several feet away. It was rumbling now. A groan come from Richard.
Jack’s voice was shrill. “Be cool. Play dead!” He hugged on to the tree, afraid he might fall. Tears coursed down his friend’s face, and then Jack could no longer see Richard. The dark mass of fur had moved on top of him, completely obscuring him from sight. The grizzly’s shoulders shook, its head went up and down. He could hear Richard’s loud sobs.
“Play dead, Richard,” Jack screamed. “Don’t move!”
The bear was growling now, and Jack saw its massive forearms grasping at his friend underneath. The mouth pulled back showing long brown teeth. It cuffed Richard violently.
Jack no longer knew what to scream. “Play dead” died on his lips, his mouth hung open, and he could only watch in terror as the grizzly mauled his friend.
Something happened in Richard then. Eyes blinked open. Fists unclenched. A howl came from deep within his chest that matched the bear’s growl. Squirming to get free, a foot pulled out from underneath. The heavy boot caught the grizzly square in the nose, and the bear recoiled. A hand thrashed out and caught the bear near the eye. It stepped back, uncertain. Jack saw his friend rise and face the bear, now taller than it. A snarl contorted his friend’s face, fingers curled like talons, blood coming from several shoulder wounds. He ran towards the grizzly. The bear weighed the oncoming threat, turned its head, and lumbered off into the woods.
Richard stopped, and turned to look up at the tree. The face Jack saw was a wolfish distortion of his friend. Panting, it licked its thin lips and watched the tree with vacant eyes. Jack hooded his own, unable to meet the wild gaze, and chose to stay up in the tree till some time later.