The forest was quiet. The crunching of footsteps on wet snow and the occasional readjustment of gear were the only audible sounds. The snow had ceased, and the sun was blotted out by dense cloud cover. A light breeze shook snow free from the pines. The expedition moved forward with deliberate movements, and senses on high alert.
The tracks led to a small creek and ended with a solitary print. The far bank contained a solitary print as well, followed by the succession of alternating tracks. Had the creature merely skipped across without breaking stride? The unfathomable strength was cause for confusion. How was this possible?
The expedition laid thick saplings across the babbling stream and crossed one by one with relative ease. They continued on the trail of the prints which lead them further into the dense woodlands. The fear of wild animals was still there, but their main concern was encountering what they were following. Their desire to find their friends slightly outweighed their fear. The ten men huddled together, treading softly, and scanning vigilantly.
A few hours had gone by when the command to rest was given. Men swigged from canteens and chewed on jerky and biscuits. They sat with their backs against the trees and faced each other in a tight circle. All degrees of view were covered by one man or more. The expedition did not speak, and the anticipation was wreaking havoc on their minds.
The cracking of branches in the distance broke the silence. The men grabbed their muskets and turned towards the noise. Their breathing slowed as the intermittent sounds came closer. A massive frame broke through the underbrush a few yards away. A giant bear sniffed the cold air and paused.
The expedition fixed their aim on the creature, as they cocked their weapons. Time slowed as they waited for the bear to make its move. The bear’s heavy breath and low grunts grew louder as it charged forward. Its dense shoulders shook as it galloped with tremendous speed at the group of men; the large head barreling down with jaws lolling.
A musket shot was echoed by another, as a volley simultaneously erupted a few seconds later. The dense smoke wafted upwards as the bear disappeared briefly. Men frantically grabbed for hatchets and knives. The mangled face of the bear, sprayed with buckshot and dripping blood, broke through the smokescreen and crashed into the first man within reach.
The bear, oblivious to his wounds and to the surrounding men, tore at his victim as he let out a yelp of fright and pain. Claws ripped cloth, and jaws crunched windpipe while the man went limp. Knives, bayonets, and hatchets assaulted the bear before it could release its grip on the unfortunate man. The bear fell, groaned with obvious pain, staggered to its feet and fell once more, never to stand again. The carcass was pulled off with substantial effort, revealing a lifeless body pouring blood onto the surrounding snow.
The expedition examined the mauled face and red backdrop with a hushed reverence. A minute passed before men started to head in various directions. Some shuffled towards the trees to sit down, as others sat in place, gawking at the mangled man. A burial was ordered and a shallow grave was dug as the bear was skinned.
The ceremony was brief, and a toast was given in memory of their comrade. The sun began to set, just as the liquid courage was setting in. Some drank with disregard, as others prepped their tents, and armed themselves to the teeth. Small fires were set ablaze and encircled the camp. The men huddled close to the large fire amidst the tents. Nine of them watched the embers shoot sparks into the moonless sky.
The snow began to fall, and mother nature dusted the murder scene. The tracks they had been pursuing were filled, and the chase was over. They planned to head in the general direction of the prints at daybreak. That was the most they could hope for, as none of the men wanted to follow the trail by torchlight at night.
Very little was said as the fire crackled in the quiet forest. Men peered wearily over their shoulders, expecting to catch glimpses of green eyes. Whiskey was passed back and forth which eased the tension in the air. The alcohol took hold, and boisterous laughter boomed through the trees as stars filled the heavens.
The men reminisced about their lost comrades. Stories poured forth between long pulls of whiskey. The men suckled the bottles to drown out the deep-rooted fear. Too afraid to wander to the edge of the wood to relieve themselves, the men simply turned away from the fire to do so. They began to sway and lean with intoxication. Not a care in the world.
A pile of bottles started to fill the campfire. They clinked together as another bottle was uncorked. The glass turned black and then began to melt. Too drunk to tend to the fire, the men passed out in their places, as the flames began to flitter. The last man awake leaned over onto the prostrate man next to him and fell asleep. The bottle in his hand tumbled into the snow and emptied itself.