THANKSGIVING BEAR

By James Strauss

Angoon, Alaska

Angoon, Alaska

The cut was two and a half miles wide. That’s what the data beamed down from the satellite told Straight when he’d first checked two years before. The short distance across the cut was vital because the tide was fast, hard, vicious, and, at times, completely unforgiving if you caught it wrong. Angoon, the Tinglet Village where Straight wasn’t welcome, was his main source of supply. Given that he was a ‘Gussuk,’ or non-native person among a whole village of Eskimos, had made his settling across the cut certain to cause quiet derision, doubt, and distrust. About the only thing Angoon had going for it, aside from the weekly ferry, which ran up and down to Juneau, but only in the summer, was that the town was the largest community in Alaska that didn’t have an airport. Bush pilots flew in and out all the time to suit hunters and fishermen, but they were undependable and unscheduled in appearance as well as departure.

Straight had been a waiter and deck watch aboard an expedition ship that had taken the cut in mid-summer, when the supposed adventurers aboard the ship could take in the breathtaking scenery while sitting on the fantail with a glass of wine. When he got off the ship, after making such transits back and forth from pole to pole enough times, he’d decided to squat along with the cut on the Skagway side. There was nobody in the world out in the heavy, nearly impenetrable forest and that fact suited him to the ultimate degree.

The cabin he’d taken a summer to build was sparse, hard hacked, and carved from the forest’s edge itself. He’d pushed deep into the trees in order to avoid anyone stopping by, which was unlikely since he had no dock, but it was always possible.  Straight had a generator for when he simply had to have real power, but he also had some solar and even a little paddle thing hidden down among the plants near the water, taking advantage of the fast current caused by the great tidal movements twice every twenty-four hours. He collected as much freshwater as he could use by funneling every bit of moisture down from his metal roof.

What he’d been unable to cut, saw and hammer himself from the surrounding forest, he depended upon getting from the Eskimo town, and primarily the General Store located there. Angoon had no bank, but the store had an ATM. The town, only eleven miles distant, also had a single cell phone tower.   His Apple laptop, linked through the phone, gave him enough speed on WiFi to know what was going on in the outside world. He worried that he might one day be traced or found through that electronic link, even though he’d given all bad data to have it. Straight’s government disability payments were deposited every month, so there was the problem of withdrawing money from the ATM, as well.   What would he do if he was found and sent on his way, or worse? He’d reached the end of his rope, the last card played and not even drugs or alcohol to dim the pain.

He went down to the cut’s edge, gingerly approaching the fast-moving water. It was mid-day, so the tide was running high, coming in. He looked up and down. It only took a couple of seconds to make sure that there was nothing on the water. He could see both ways, north, and south, for at least four miles. Straight went to the indistinct pile he kept his skiff hidden under. The flat bottom boat was only twelve feet long, so not meant for high waves or rough waters, but then the cut never evidenced those things, not even in the wildest of storms. The water simply moved back and forth, ceaselessly, every day at a speed that was way too fast to outswim, unless going in the direction the water was running or swimming when the tide was briefly still, but then the water was always way too cold to swim in anyway.

He pulled back the brush to expose the boat, which was sitting on a thick base of pine needles. He didn’t get a chance to take note of and check, the two outboards he’d attached to the stern of the craft. One was a twenty horse Mercury and the other a five, just to get home if the twenty failed. The twenty had a battery, which Straight had to keep charged up because the motor just took too much out of him to pull start with a rope. The five was easy and had no battery.

The bear was what drew his attention. It lay there, collapsed perfectly in the space, out before the single board seat that traversed the beam of the boat back by the motors. The huge creature filled his boat almost completely.

“Come on,” Straight said, whispering toward the bear.

The bear looked up at him, not moving its muzzle as if to say, “what do you want?” It had been coming to sleep in the boat for almost a month, as the summer had ended, and fall began to have its effect. There’d been no snow so far, but it was in the air.

“You can’t hibernate, or whatever the hell it is you do, in my boat,” Straight complained, raising his voice to try to get some positive reaction from the great animal.

The bear didn’t move, merely closing its eyes and ignoring him. “I need the boat,” he went on, but stopped when the bear looked up, and then slightly raised its head higher.

“There, that’s better,” Straight said.

He wasn’t afraid of the bear. It was a brown bear, except for the hump on its back and claws that were at least four or five inches long. Straight had guessed that the bear, which had shown up at his front door, his only door, two weeks before, was a grizzly from the claws and from the hump, but it didn’t seem to have the disposition Straight had been told grizzly’s had. Grizzly bears were usually mean and brutal because their own lives were so hard. They normally stayed in the mountains or high in the hills where food was less available. The bear was the first bear Straight had seen since he’d settled and built the small cabin the summer before.

Straight sighed, lowered the canvas and plastic cover, and went back to the cabin. He went directly to a particular cooler. He stored only packages of hot dogs in the container. On top of the cooler were boxes of saltine crackers, stacked neatly, waiting to be moved so he could get the hot dogs out. The crackers were for the seagulls and the hot dogs for the bear.

He took the cracker boxes down, and then opened the box and removed three packs of the hot dogs. One pound of hot dogs in each package. It was the 'pact' he’d somehow come to work out with the bear in order to not have any trouble, although he worried that the presence of the animal might somehow get noticed by some hunter and then Straight might be discovered. Shayne Tompson, the owner of the Angoon Trading Company (the grocery store) ordered an overly large mass of the hot dogs just for Straight, and the man was so silent and inward he had never bothered to ask what Straight was doing with them. It took three pounds of the hot dogs, served up every morning, to satisfy the bear. The bear never seemed to want more. He would sit up and wait for the packages to be opened and then nod his strange-looking muzzle, half of the hair gone on one side from some fight or accident, Straight was certain.

Sometimes, Straight would have to feed him an extra pack of the dogs because the bear would wake himself mid-day and trundle all the way up to the cabin. He wasn’t quiet, so Straight always heard him coming. The bear would sit at the far end of the heavy pine bench Straight had laboriously carved from a downed tree, and he’d wait there for Straight to sit on the top slat of the same bench. Twice, Straight had run out of hot dogs for the creature. His front door had two sets of one-inch-deep scratches running up and down nearly its full height from the incidents. Straight kept the cooler full. The hotdogs were only sixty-nine cents a package and his disability payment was three thousand four hundred and five dollars a month from the Marine Corps.

Straight knew the bear was okay, as a fellow lone animal in the bush. He just didn’t know how he knew. He talked to the bear all the time, and when the creature disappeared for a while Straight worried about, and missed him,

When Straight stepped out of his front door and walked the thirty yards, or so, down toward where the bear had taken up, a pan of the hot dogs in his hand, he couldn’t believe his eyes. A sailboat was wedged into the shore, its stern rapidly twirling around, as the current grabbed the boat broadside and twisted it around. A man was on the rough shore, holding a long rope and obviously looking for a place to tie it off.

Straight set the stainless bowl down and ran. He reached the man quickly, grabbed the rope out of his hands, and raced to a nearly hidden big rock not far from where the boat, fiercely in the grip of the passing water, was already being pulled from the shore. Straight wrapped the rope several times around the rock before securing it with four half hitches. The boat quickly pulled itself broadside into the shore again. Three people came out of the craft’s center hatch and leaped, one by one into the bracken along the water’s edge.

The man ran to help them. Straight didn’t move, his eyes going from the four sailors to the place where his own boat lay covered under an assembled pile of tree branches and the heavy canvas. His eyes moved back and forth slowly, but the bear did not make his presence known. The man, the woman, and two seemingly teen-aged kids loped toward him. There was no path, as Straight had religiously made sure there was none, so no one cruising by in the cut might notice that there was someone living in the forest or frequenting the area.

“Quarter-inch aluminum hull,” the man gasped out, stopping just as he reached Straight. The grounding won’t bother it at all.”

Straight looked into the man’s eyes, wondering why he might think Straight cared at all about the condition or survival of his boat, but he said nothing.

The woman had slowed to a careful walk, clad in shorts and sandals, clothing not truly suitable for moving around along the rough shore, or the mild cold wind. The two kids were attired similarly.

“Is there somewhere warm?” the woman asked a little hurt in her tone, with worry showing in her facial expression. “Not for long. We don’t need much. If you have a tent or even a sleeping bag…” her voice died away.

Straight’s mind raced. He looked out at the boat. The man was right, Straight ought to be truly concerned about the thing’s condition. If it stayed where it was for long then it would attract attention, until finally, someone would show up to check it out. But the vessel seemed secure, bobbing away against the rocks and debris that made up the course run of the side of the cut Straight lived on. He sighed. He was cold too. He’d intended to feed the bear, return to the cabin, get his Carhartt coat on and then sit with the animal if it chose to make its usual appearance up at the bench. The afternoon wind had picked up and summer was long gone. By nightfall, the temperature would be near freezing, with a wind chill Straight did not normally go outside in. Living on the cut meant living with the constant hard wind, occasionally brutal, as it likely would be in the night if his computer was correct. Juneau weather wasn’t his weather, forty miles away, but its online predictions were usually close.

There was nothing to be done about the boat, Straight knew. The afternoon was coming on and the light would disappear before they knew it. Getting them out first thing in the morning had to be his goal, and then he simply had to hope for the best. If the bear ate them then there was nothing at all to be done. His life would finally be over. Which almost made him laugh out loud. His life had been over for a while, he knew, down in his heart of hearts. He had a rifle, a special Weatherby 30-378, which would take care of the bear, but he wasn’t about to either bring it out or use it. He hunted for game every day, and sometimes in the night, but only using traps and snares. The quiet protected him. The lack of gunfire, or the usage of any weapon, also kept that part of his mind, body, and soul quieted

.“Come,” he said, instead of showing any expression at all, before turning and walking uphill into the forest, and then toward the cabin.

“You can stay here for the rest of the day and the night,” Straight said, unemotionally, opening the cabin door and leading them into the small three-room interior. “Bathroom works but no shower. The bucket of water is for the toilet flush. One bed for the woman and sleeping bags and blankets in the storeroom there. Why are you here?”

The man caught the last sentence like he’d been waiting for it.

Mast cable went, left without the damned outboard working. Didn’t figure to need it, just making the run down, with the tide, from Juneau to Sitka.

“No control,” Straight replied. “Got it. You’d still make it down the cut on the tide but never come back around the point to Larch Bay. Sure as hell no coming back up to Sitka. God knows where you’d have ended up out in that ocean.” Straight noted that the man’s motor was exactly the same kind and model of outboard he used so successfully on his skiff.

“Thanks,” the man said, sounding sincere, and then echoed by the woman and two kids, which surprised Straight.

“It’s Thanksgiving so we owe you our thanks,” the man added. The woman nodded, while both kids smiled.

Straight was startled but didn’t show it. He’d forgotten about Thanksgiving.

“Anything to eat for Thanksgiving dinner?” the boy asked. “Nothing on the boat as we were headed for grandpa’s in Sitka.”

“Hot dogs in the cooler,” Straight said, pointing. “No buns or bread. Just a sack of potatoes. Angoon ferry’s been out for two weeks. The trading company there is outta everything.”

“Okay,” the woman and the teenage girl said, as one, both with a bit of a grudging tone. “What’s your name?’” the man’s wife asked.

“Straight,” he replied, wishing instantly that he’d thought of some other name.

“Funny name,” the teenage girl replied, with a slight laugh.

“Military,” Straight said, “I shot really well over there so, my first name really being Arlo, they called me ‘Straight Arrow,’ and then after that just Straight.”

Straight knew at that instant that he hadn’t been around other humans enough. He’d lost control of what he was saying, and that was after saying only a few words.

“Gotta go do something,” Straight mumbled, as he heard the man ask quietly where he’d served his time.

He went through the door, then turned back to tell the family to stay inside until he got back.

Straight walked down to where his own boat was. The sailboat bounced against the rock shore down the cut as before. The bear was gone. The food in the bowl uneaten. Straight looked around, trying to think. He’d once had a tough old barnyard cat named Harvey. The way Harvey thought was almost exactly the way the bear thought, Straight just knew. That bear was a predator, but curious and self-entertaining all the same. Which mental mode he might be in wasn’t predictable by any human, not even someone who’d grown closer than probably anyone else, like Straight.

Straight went back to the cabin. It was quiet inside. The boat incident had been taxing on the family. They all lay in the sleeping bags, even though it wasn’t dark outside yet. He wondered how long the boat had bounced along down the shoreline of the cut, with a potential watery death possible with every bounce. The cut had no friendly, or easy gentle eddies, or water holes.

He got his coat and went back outside, to keep watch for the bear. The sixteen or seventeen-hundred-pound animal might scare the entire family to death, even if it didn’t attack. He thought about getting the Weatherby down, just in case, but he couldn’t do it. Evening came on quickly, with no sounds coming from inside the cabin.

“Hot dogs and potatoes, not much of a Thanksgiving dinner,” he said to himself, as he entered quietly back through the door.

He took off his coat while the family slept, peeled the potatoes, found some cans of cut green beans and a pound of bacon. He was about ready to wake the family when he heard a familiar scratching at the door. The scratching wasn’t as loud as it had been at other times, however.  Straight opened the door. There was nothing there, he stepped out but tripped and almost fell over a soft obstacle at his feet. He knelt. It was a full-grown deer. A doe. The neck had been bitten through. There was only one animal in the forest that could do that within thousands of miles.   Straight jumped up and looked around, to no avail. The bear was gone. He went back inside the cabin and got his cleaning tools, a skinning knife, and a pair of pliers. He returned to the dead deer and went to work. Butchering the deer took almost no time at all. He took a rear quarter inside, leaving the rest outside the door, after the butchering and cleaning.

Building a fire in the fireplace took just a few minutes, and Straight did it in silence. The coals would take more time to form, he knew.   When the time was right, he put the hindquarter of venison on a rough homemade grill, then went to prepare the cut-up bacon and beans, and on to peeling and getting the potatoes ready to boil.   Once everything was cooking, and time seemed right, he awakened the man,

The man looked around, blinking his eyes, only a bit of light from two gas lanterns and what came from the cooking fire illuminating the room. The man awakened the remainder of his family, while Straight cleaned off the wooden main room floor and threw a blanket over the rough-sawn planks.

The woman helped serve the meal, only allowing Straight to cut the venison into thin slices. Straight hauled out two hidden bottles of Cabernet he’d been saving for a time when some woman might stray into his cabin. It’d never happened. He didn’t drink anymore but all four of the family members imbibed. The kids sang some songs after dinner, and the four talked of their team and non-team sports, and life back home down in Seattle. They all cleaned the room together. Straight left the fire burning down to ashes, letting them get back into their blankets and sleeping bags.

The bear wasn’t there, nor anywhere Straight could make out, although tracking anything in the rough surfaces of old debris and branches he’d purposely left surrounding the cabin made tracking anything nearly impossible. He uncovered the skiff and went to work. It was three in the cold and blowing morning before he was done. His outboard had been laboriously exchanged on the stern of the sailboat for the family’s non-running one. He’d even started the motor, which had run immediately and smoothly.   He crawled into the skiff, pulling his coat and some of the canvas over him. Morning came only a few hours later. He was awakened by the bear. The animal’s muzzle was against his own face. The bear licked him across his left cheek. All Straight could smell was raw venison. He jerked back, then retreated from the skiff and walked back to the cabin. The bear followed, and then slowly moved to take its place next to the bench near the left corner of the place.

Straight sighed to himself, looking at the bear, the wet place where he’d left the remainder of the deer, and even the empty bowl. The bear was insatiable. Straight knew it hunted all the time but, since the parts of the forest where the bear went weren’t capable of being crossed or hiked by a man, never went himself.

The family came out. Straight stood and pointed at the boat, explaining what he’d done to help them out, and how, next time they came through the cut they could exchange his outboard for their own. Everything went fine as they headed down to the shore until the young girl looked back.

“Mom, there’s a bear sitting by the house,” she said, her voice low, tinged with fear.

“Just a visitor from the forest,” Straight replied lightly, gently trying to usher them all down to the sailboat, which eventually he did.

“That’s no normal animal,” the man said, before getting aboard, “and I mean, at all!”

Straight looked back and up at the bear, agreeing, but with nothing to add out loud. Instead of saying anything, he untied the rope from the rock and then threw it up and over the boat's upper deck. The boat immediately was pulled into the current, the tide having run the other way all night, but once again grabbing and immediately taking the sailboat out and down the cut at speed.

“Happy Thanksgiving,” the four yelled back over the stern of the boat, waving.

Straight stood looking at them go, unable to even wave. He realized he didn’t even know their names, that his outboard was probably gone forever, even though the five-horse would do, and they also might not be able to keep from telling everyone they met about him and the bear. He hiked back up the low hill and sat down, this time closer to the bear than he’d ever sat before. The bear didn’t seem to mind.

“What war were you in?” he asked the bear. What war are you in…are we in?” he went on, “or is it all over and we’re finally back...and how’d you know to bring the deer for Thanksgiving dinner?”

Straight reached over and patted the bear on the top of its huge forehead. The bear didn’t move it's head an inch, merely looking back at him like Harvey the cat had many years before, no doubt thinking about biting the hand off, or eating the human behind it, but letting the hand alone and the human too because even bears need entertainment and love, and Thanksgiving was a good excuse for experiencing both of those things.