When Bartholomew “Bear” Cain set up camp in the Manitoba wilderness to get an
unobstructed view of a meteor shower, he had no idea he was going be exposed to
an alien element and merge with a grizzly bear. Learning to control the shift is hard enough, but when poachers steal his gear, Bear has to learn to survive.
Manon Martin, a conservation officer sent to look for a rogue grizzly, but obsessed with finding the missing man, discovers both when Bear saves her from a wild animal attack. Manon vows to keep him safe—not just from the returning poachers, or through the cold winter’s night, but into the future beyond, assuming they both survive.
Keep an eye on this site for upcoming interviews from my incredibly talented fellow contributors Becca Jameson, Lynn Tyler and Nulli Para Ora.
The highway ended a ten-minute walk from the river. In the winter, it was more like a twenty-minute tramp, but Manon Martin was going to leave her snowshoes packed and unload the snowmobile from the trailer she hauled behind her 4×4. The uneven banks that ringed the roughly plowed cul-de-sac were half the height they’d been a month ago, before the warmer weather and the freeze and thaw cycle compacted the snow. Fortunately, there was still more than enough white stuff to ride.
The other vehicle parked at the edge of the road had been there a while. The driver’s side was covered with dirty snow and ice from the plow’s spray, and snow had drifted in around the tires. It had been there since before the last snowfall, but not the one before, or the snow plough driver would have called it in. Most of the winter’s snow had fallen before Valentine’s Day; it was now the end of March. It could have been there for up to a month. Either way, it couldn’t stay. Manon pulled out a notebook and recorded the license plate number and details of the SUV.
She dropped the gate on the trailer and backed the almost-new machine to the ground. Light flakes were already dropping from the sky in warning of the major snowfall Environment Canada was predicting for the area that night. It was barely past four but she hurried, anyway, to take advantage of the daylight while she had it. Sunset wouldn’t fall until half past seven, but the clouds would darken the skies early. Manon wanted to be off this little back road and onto a major highway long before it was an issue. She zipped the truck keys into one of her ski jacket pockets and pulled the stuffed knapsack from the passenger seat. It was time to get back to nature.
Northern Manitoba had miles and miles of unpopulated areas. Until recently, nobody reported anything, because there was no one to witness anything. The Burntwood River hydro project brought a lot of jobs and city folk to the area. Now sightings of anything larger than a Golden Retriever were called in as a vicious animal about to attack.
The provincial conservation department received half a dozen reports in the last couple months of a grizzly bear roaming the area, along with the usual coyote reports. The weather had warmed up enough a bear might have come out of hibernation and wandered the river banks, but the likelihood of it being an actual grizzly were slim. Still, if the reports were
filed, a Natural Resource Officer had to check it out. It was her turn.
A trail stretched from the highway through the woods to the open water below the dam. It wasn’t man-made. Unfortunately, the packed slush had refrozen into a solid sheet of ice and there weren’t any tracks embedded in it. Manon drove slowly beside the path, steering around trees and visible rocks and stumps. The engine noise didn’t carry; it was swallowed by the snow and thick forest growth.
The riverbank was open and flat. In the summer, it would be a nice spot to fish and picnic. It still had a cover of snow stretching from the edge of the tree line to the shore, over the ice, and to the open water. In a couple more weeks, the snow would be melted down to the dirt, and the mud and fresh pine shoots and budding trees would smell like spring. Manon inhaled deeply. Right now, it smelled like the promise of winter’s end.
She parked at the edge of the tree line and inspected the area on foot. The ground was not a pristine white. The clearing was littered with signs of active wildlife: scat, tufts of fur, and a burrow in a drift under a fallen spruce. Rusty stains in the snow indicated blood in more than one area. Something had caught several rabbits or deer. Maybe bigger prey.
A low growl behind her would be one of the somethings. Manon whirled around and froze when she saw a coyote between her and the snowmobile. She quickly looked for its hunting partner without turning her back to it. She didn’t spot it. Coyotes were bad news. Not bear-level bad news but any wild predator in the spring would be more aggressive than normal because nobody likes to wake up hungry. “Git!” Manon waved her arms.
It didn’t move. It should have moved. Coyotes tended to be easily spooked. “Get lost!” The oversized ears didn’t twitch at her raised voice. The animal’s head did shift a fraction. Manon tracked its gaze over her shoulder to a new threat. A second coyote had appeared behind her, approaching from the ice. It growled at her. “Well, fuck.”
Manon slid her shotgun out of the holster strapped to the outside of her knapsack. She had a pistol on her waist as well, but that was more for stopping power. The shotgun was for noise and intimidation. She could do some damage with it, but it was better for scaring critters off when they were at a distance.
She couldn’t fire at the first coyote, not with her transportation directly behind it. If any of the shot perforated the shell she could damage the machine and leave it stranded out here until spring. Manon aimed at the coyote on the frozen river and pulled the trigger.
Ideally, the coyote would have taken off at the noise. Some of the pellets might have made it through the fur to sting it. It was not supposed to lunge at her. “Fuck!” Manon jumped a step back, ejected the spent shell and fed a new one into the chamber. She fired on her attacker again and grinned in satisfaction as it hit the ice. Unfortunately, she hadn’t checked where she put her foot down. The recoil shook her, and her boot slipped on ice hidden under the light dusting of fresh snow. She landed hard on her ass; the impact jolted her back and neck. The low position destroyed any advantage she had, and Manon heard the first coyote charging behind her.
The growling at her back turned to a bark, and then a pained yip. By the time she scrambled to her feet and turned around, a roar drowned out everything, including the thundering of her blood in her ears.
Bear. A bear! Big fucking bear. Grizzly. Bear.
It was the longest few seconds of her life. The grizzly bear had taken a swipe at the charging coyote. That’s how she read the story of the coyote that was now halfway across the clearing, bleeding from ragged tears in its side, and the big fucking bear dragging its bloody paw in the snow as if to clean it.
Manon was screwed in so many different ways. She couldn’t turn her back on the bear. She couldn’t make a break toward the snowmobile without getting within tasting distance of it, either. She couldn’t check to see if the downed coyote behind her was still lying on the ice, running away, or coming at her again. Coyote number one was out for the count but it had dropped so far down her list of concerns she couldn’t even see it anymore. She had a new number one. It deserved a bullet.
Unfortunately, the shotgun wouldn’t do more than piss it off even worse than it already was. Her pistol would penetrate the bear’s hide and injure it, but a bullet was unlikely to cause fatal damage. It was far more likely the bear would rip her to shreds before it bled out.
The bear roared again but kept its distance. It threw its head back and huffed, seeming to nod at something behind her. Manon risked a quick glance over her shoulder and saw the shot-gunned coyote slinking down the river with a distinct limp. It didn’t leave a blood trail so she mustn’t have broken any skin. It would be bruised for a few days though. She could live with that.
But the bear. It wasn’t moving. It wasn’t coming towards her and it didn’t seem to have any intention of going away. It just looked at her.
“Look, bear, how about you go your way and I’ll go mine?”
It shook its head.
“How about I go my way and you go yours then?”
Another shake. If it could have understood her, the argument would have been funny. She moved a fraction to her left and the bear matched her. They completed the circular dance, step by step, until the bear was at the river’s edge, and she was at the snowmobile. Manon watched the bear as it watched her swing her leg across the seat. She turned over the engine and retreated down her path. She kept an eye on it for as long as she could through the snow that was now falling thicker.
She drove the snowmobile onto the trailer; she wasn’t messing around. Manon threw the chains around it to keep it from shifting and slammed the gate closed, all the while watching for movement in the tree line. She knew how lucky she’d been. Now that she’d confirmed there was a grizzly in the area, she would return with backup and more firepower. They would probably try to trap and move it, but they’d do it with a whole lot more than one person, a single shotgun, and a small caliber pistol.
She stood at the driver’s door and reached to unzip her pocket.
The zipper was already open. Manon stuck her hand into the empty pocket and swore. The truck keys were gone. For once she was glad the conservation department had provided satellite phones with On-Star programmed into them. There was no way she was going back to look for her keys with a wounded coyote and a grizzly in the vicinity, when they could push a button and let her in and push another to get the vehicle started. She’d return after the snow melted with a metal detector.
Two foul words were the only response when she turned on the phone. No service. The storm must have been worse than it looked if it was playing havoc with the satellites.
She was out of options. A gust of rising wind drove the falling snow into her exposed cheeks. The temperature had dropped, changing the fluffy flakes into tiny grains of ice. She had to go back.
The shotgun rested across the handles of the snowmobile. Manon scoured the tracks she’d made less than an hour earlier, but they were already disappearing under the fresh snow fall. She breathed a sigh of relief when she found the clearing empty. A trail of blood droplets led away from the red pool where the clawed coyote had lain. Backtracking her own footprints was easy, but her keys did not magically appear.
She heard a familiar huff behind her. The bear once again stood between her and her ride. “Please, cut me a break, bear,” she begged.
The shaggy head shook. The grizzly whined at her.
“I lost my truck keys, okay? I think my pocket ripped open when I landed on my ass and they fell out between here and the road.”
The bear grunted and lumbered toward her. Manon quickly moved at an angle to keep the maximum distance between them. The grizzly scratched at a pile of snow, then backed off to its original place.
No. Fucking. Way. But there they were. She brushed the remote attached to the Jets keychain off and zipped them into another pocket, and then tapped it to make sure they were still there.
“Thanks, bear. Now, will you move away from the machine?”
Another shaggy shake.
“What do you want from me?”
A flash of light erupted from where the bear stood. Manon flinched at the
brightness. When she looked back at the bear, it was gone. The light had
replaced it with a man. A naked, shivering man on all fours in the snow. He lifted his bearded face and mouthed “Help,” before he collapsed.