Excerpts from Eye of the Bear (Book 1, California Gold Trilogy)
Copyright © 2001 Naida West. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
He took a squat-step around the manzanita, closing the gap between himself and the most powerful creature on earth. A grizzly’s nose and ears were exceptionally keen. The giant grunted. To Badger Warrior’s sensitive ears it sounded like a roar and nearly knocked him off balance. But a tracker maintained his calm. The animal didn’t move, but the noise was a warning; he must act quickly.
He took the last squat-step. Now he was an arm’s length away from a mountain of brown hair rising and falling in easy rhythm. He placed his left palm on the tips of the fur, applying no more pressure than a dragonfly. Absorbing the animal’s power, he pressed slowly and gently until the fur surrounded his fingers. The hair felt coarse and soft at the same time.
He took one last squatting step and slowly closed his fist over a handful of fur. With his other hand he took the knife from his teeth. Holding the hair secure, he passed the blade over his fist. But the hair was tough and somewhat matted. It moved away from the blade.
He considered. The touch was coup enough, but he had come for the hair. Stone-still, heart pounding in his temples, he tried again. After what seemed an eternity of delicate cutting, almost hair by hair, he had what he wanted. It contained so much power it burned hot in his hand.
The mountain erupted to life. The bear emitted a loud coughing bark. It stopped his heart. He squat-jumped back behind the manzanita, gripping the knife. The bear rolled toward him, paws in the air. Why am I behind a see-through bush? Why not running? Had panic stopped him? He watched in horror, realizing that no matter where he stabbed the bear, the animal would kill him.
Successive thuds shook Badger Warrior’s bones as the bear’s legs, belly and head cascaded to a rolling stop, the reek of the nostrils blowing into Badger Warrior’s face. He held the knife at the ready, but the mountain of fur settled and became still, snout resting on a paw like a huge dog, the dark slits of the eyes positioned to see Badger Warrior the instant they opened.
Had he run, the sound would have brought the bear into angry pursuit.
With his heart kicking in his ribs he slithered away as he had come, like a snake, one scale at a time. He looked back as often as forward, but felt growing elation to have avoided the mistake of most animals, who revealed their positions by running prematurely. Maybe he had absorbed enough power from the touch that he saw the bear’s spirit. Maybe his own spirit had known the bear was only turning over in his sleep. He widened the distance, crouching, then straightened to a walk.
When he felt safe he exploded into a joyful run. With the knife in his calf-thong and the fistful of hair in his hand, he leaped over rocks, zigzagged around trees and jumped from the tops of boulders, tearing downhill. He wouldn’t step on a rattlesnake. He was lucky. He had succeeded beyond his dreams. The most powerful of all animals was his spirit ally!
Long into the night, dream people step-toed around and around a fire to the song of the flute. He felt a touch, assumed it was one of the dream people or Dog catching up, and continued dancing with the dream people.
Later the smell of willow came at him, mixed with her scent. He opened his eyes. It was dark. An owl whooed nearby — bad luck. He held his breath and listened. It seemed that two people were breathing in the hut. Heavy on his left, lighter on his right. Was this a trick of a sorcerer? Or was he still dreaming?
He moved his hand slightly and his fingers touched warm soft flesh. He blinked hard, trying to wake up. But he was awake. His thoughts swirled like leaves in a funnel wind. It was her scent. She had followed. Her father and uncles would assume he had arranged it. They would follow too. Or would fear of the black hats hold them back? It didn’t matter. Banishment could await his return and he would lose her. Why hadn’t she listened to him? With anger rising in his belly he lay stiff and silent, then carefully sat up and crawled outside without touching her. She had risked everything.
Beyond the dark willows and cottonwoods father sun was still in his eastern house, only a wash of gray light suggesting his coming. A night animal rustled. How much time before Red Sun and his brothers arrived? Fortunately, no reasonable person traveled at night.
He found a bush suitable for scattering urine and returned to the creek for a drink, kneeling and scooping cool water. Each handful clarified his thoughts more. He must take her back. She couldn’t go by herself. She had already tempted the loose souls of the trail by coming this far alone. Then if Red Sun met them, he would see that Grizzly Hair was sincere about leaving her. Then he and Bowstring could go on their way. Relieved to be clear in his purpose, he stood up and faced the coming dawn.
A slim dark figure separated itself from the shadow of a tree. Oak Gall. In a sudden tumult of tenderness — she had braved the night to be with him — he stepped toward her and all anger dissolved.
Her hands moved over him. Mother earth, transformed to airy softness, came up to meet them, and he joined Oak Gall in a magic dance of love, their moves as light and easy as two hawks on a thermal. He soared and soared with her into the salmon dawn, drumming with the power of joy and love. Then his pent-up breath came out in a rush and he let himself float in a feathery downward spiral, snug with the woman who made him whole, the air still beneath them. He never wanted to feel different from this moment.
Vaqueros who had been waiting inside the corral converged on their horses with whirling lariats. They quickly immobilized the bear while the crying bull sat in his intestines — a dazed and beaten animal with an eye hanging loose. He was lassoed and pulled out of the corral trailing his innards.
Now what would happen? The bear had won the fight, yet he stood fighting the loops around his neck. People were pointing. Grizzly Hair followed the fingers. Another bull was being brought! Pulled by the ropes around his horns, this bull was fresh and sleek and rested, his horns even wider and sharper.
Sickened by the unfairness and the bloodthirsty crowd, Grizzly Hair watched the skillful vaqueros tie the new bull to the bear, drop the lariats and back their horses to the fence.
The crowd went silent as O-se-mai-ti, on three feet, gauged his new enemy. Yet the real enemy remained the same. This was a bad dream of Condor. Neither bear nor bull moved. People yelled. Men threw rocks over the fence, pelting both animals. Still nothing happened. A San Jose man hurled a flask, which landed on the bull’s rump in a spray of red liquid.
Apparently driven by that and the thunderous crowd, the bull finally charged. The bear, rising to his hind feet, stepped aside and grabbed the bull’s tail exactly as he had done to the previous bull. He threw him into exactly the same place in the fence. Grizzly Hair saw it shake loose from its posts, and knew what would happen. Estanislao was pushing into the crowd.
As the bull struggled for footing the bear bit into the bull’s lassoed leg. Spitting out the hoof, he emitted a spine-tingling roar and hurled himself into the weakened fence. With a loud snapping and crackling, the timbers gave way and the bear rampaged into the carretas.
Horses reared and dumped riders. Carts turned upside down, wheels spinning. Women screamed. The pain-crazed bull also smashed through behind the bear. With a twist of his horns, he charged into the scattering crowd and a woman flew up kicking in her billowing skirts. A fusil thundered amidst the screams and yells from the crowd.
Meanwhile, trailing ropes and parting the herd of horses, the bear loped for the hills on three legs. Excited neophytes ran after him, or the scattering of horses. Grizzly Hair ran with them, hidden like a bird in a flock.
He glanced over his shoulder and saw a scene like the one Padre Fortuni had hung on the pillar — a mass of people in the Devil’s fire. Here, father sun colored the people red. Men on rearing horses wheeled this way and that as they tried to chase the charging bull. Mouths were stretched wide in horror, and the screams were deafening though no individual could be heard.
In the fading light Three Legs vanished over a rise and disappeared in the trees. Thanking him for the message, Grizzly Hair veered away from the chase and followed him to freedom.