May is a month of unpredictable weather in the North Carolina mountains, as are the other eleven months of the year, so it's not all that surprising that mama bear and her cub were caught by the late afternoon thunderstorm on the wrong side of the river from their customary shelter. Mama bear, with her cub riding on her back, was only a third of the way across the river when the bottom fell out. Within moments, the water around them transformed from a placid flow to a raging river of angry, dirty water that swept the cub from her back. Alarmed, mama bear swam after her cub, fighting to stay afloat until a tree limb struck her from behind, almost knocking her unconscious. She found herself fighting for her own life as she caught glimpses of her cub floating downstream, clinging to another piece of debris, his plaintive cries ripping at her heart.
LACY TURNER AND HER husband, Nick, were enjoying the last day of their mountain getaway before returning to the normal routine of their lives back in civilization. As Lacy crawled out of their two-person tent, she stood up and stretched, feeling her stiff back muscles complain pleasantly with the movement. She watched the sun slowly ascend above the mountain peaks as she breathed in the crisp morning air. It had been quite a night, with so much wind and rain she'd been fearful they'd be blown away inside their tent. Luckily, Nick had done a more than adequate job staking down the tent, as well as locating it far enough from the stream, which had grown into a raging river in a matter of minutes.
She turned her attention towards the river. It had crested during the night and was slowly returning to its natural state. That's when she noticed the small black package that had been delivered on her doorstep. At first, she thought it might be another camper's furry jacket, until it moved.
“Oh, my God,” Lacy said as she realized the object was alive. She tapped on the top of the tent. “Nick, wake up. We have a visitor,” she said, before running down to get a better look at the new arrival.
“Honey, I know how much of an animal lover you are. It’s one of the things I find most endearing about you,” Nick said, trying once again to talk some sense into his wife. “But we’re not equipped to nurse a bear cub back to health.”
“But we can’t just leave the poor thing out here alone,” Lacy pleaded.
“You’re not listening to me,” Nick replied, then, realizing how argumentative that sounded, added, “Dear, there’s a very well run nature science center back in Asheville that will be able to take much better care of him than we can. It’s right on the way home, or at least not much out of our way.”
Lacy glanced down at the bedraggled little bear that had hardly moved since she first found him. “Her,” Lacy said.
“I think it’s a female,” Lacy replied.
“Whatever.” Nick could feel himself growing impatient, so he took a deep breath.
“What will happen to her after that?” she asked.
“They’ll nurse him...I mean her back to health and then release her to the wild, or they’ll give her a home at the center. In either case, she’ll have a much better life there than she would with us.”
Lacy slowly nodded. “I guess you’re right,” she finally conceded. “It’s just that she’s so cute.”
Cute now, Nick thought, but just wait a few months. By the end of the summer, she'll be bigger than our Mastiff back home. What a pair that would be. Instead, he said, "I know, and that's why we want to be sure to get her to the nature center as soon as possible. If you'll start breaking down our campsite, I'll load her in the back of the pickup. Once we're in cellphone coverage again, I'll call and let them know we're bringing her in."
THERE'S A MYTH THAT circulates among the longtime residents of Foster Flat that there's an energy—some say magical, others prefer spiritual,but all agree it's a strange energy—that attracts just the right people, who are pulled like a magnet to the small mountain town. Could it have been that same energy that awoke our small bear cub just outside the Foster Flat town limits while the Turners stopped to get a bite to eat and to fill up with gas? In any case, she woke to a myriad of strange odors, including the delectable scents of food that had her stomach growling and her mouth salivating from hunger.
She stood up in the bed of the pickup truck and stuck her nose in the air to get a better sense of the direction the food aromas were coming from. Having made the determination, she scurried out of the back of the truck and started towards the rear of the diner. As she did so,s he picked up a second scent that she'd smelled only once or twice before. Humans! Her mother had warned her of the danger. Come to think of it, where was her mother? She stuck her nose in the air again and took in a long inhalation. Nothing. Not the slightest whiff of her scent. Then she recalled the storm of the previous evening, clinging tightly to her back as they crossed the river, then suddenly being swept away from her. The rest became foggy and muddled until waking a few minutes ago. I’ll have to go look for her...right after I get a little something to eat, she thought, as she continued to the rear of the diner where the food smells appeared strongest.
Her head and half her body were well inside the metal trash can when she heard the screeching of a door in desperate need of oiling, followed a second later by the screaming of one of the short order cooks.
“Get the hell out of my trash,” Elbert Schroder shouted, as she grabbed the broom next to the door reserved for just such a purpose. “This is the third time this month I’ve had to clean up after you varmints, and I have had it with you.”
Adrenalin pumped through the bear cub’s body as she started to pull himself out of the trash, lost his balance and fell to the pavement with trash cascading all around him.
Time to leave, she thought as she saw the big man with a stick in his hand advancing on her. She ran in the other direction, still smacking her lips, enjoying the taste of the discarded cinnamon rolls. She continued running, feeling better for having at least partially filled her stomach, and enjoying the freedom of being alive, despite being on her own. She didn’t slow to a walk until she was well inside the town limit of Foster Flat.
The bear cub meandered through the neighborhood outside Foster Flat proper, visiting two or three trash cans along the way. While she remembered her mother warning her to stay away from anywhere that the human scent was strong, the lesson didn't make much sense to her at the moment. After all, where else could you find such delectable food so readily available? No need to climb a tree for the berries, or spend all that time trying to corner a fish in the stream. All you had to do was flip off the lid of the containers that were abundantly available to discover what treats awaited inside. By the time she'd made it through the outskirts of the town, her stomach was full and it felt like the perfect time to take a nap. She found an outcropping of pine trees between two of the houses with a thick layer of needles that made a most comfortable bed. Despite the many human odors all around, she was asleep within minutes.
By the time she awoke several hours later, the sun had set and a nearly full moon had risen, with beams of light filtering through the trees above. At first, the cub was disoriented and thought she was back in the lair that had been her and her mother's home, but then remembered the cave's floor wasn't nearly as soft as the one beneath her now. But that wasn't the only hint that alerted her to her new environment. Her mother was absent, not only her physical presence but also her smell. The rush of memory cascaded over the cub. She was on her own in a strange place, surrounded by the one smell her mother had warned her to stay away from. She felt like turning over and falling back to sleep, but after a minute or two, her stomach once more alerted her to its increasingly empty nature. Time to go find some more of those delectable food cans that the humans put out so conveniently.
It didn’t take long to fill her stomach once again, this time without any interruption. Apparently, the best time to scavenge for food was at night when humans were safely behind their closed and locked doors. Safe for them, and more importantly, she was safe from them as well. So, now what? She was now well rested and well fed. It must be time to go exploring. Maybe she’d be lucky and find she wasn’t as far away from home as she’d originally thought. Maybe all those strange smells were masking her ability to detect the smells of her home.
As she left the safety of the pine trees, she remembered another lesson from her mother. They'd come upon a trail with a very hard surface where her mother stopped and lifted her nose in the air, but she'd been woolgathering and hadn't paid much attention, continuing to walk across to the other side. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a huge object moving at an incredible speed was upon her, followed a second later by a blast of noise that threatened to burst her eardrums. She leaped back just in time to avoid being smashed into roadkill. She turned to her mom for comfort, but instead received a thrashing, the likes of which she'd never experienced from her. The lesson was obvious. Such trails were dangerous and best avoided, which she did now.
Instead, she strolled along the side of the road, keeping a good six feet between her and the pavement until she no longer had a choice because there wasn't anything but pavement as she entered into Foster Flat proper. Strolling down the street, she was surrounded by an assortment of smells, many of which she didn't recognize. Then suddenly, up ahead she saw a form that set her heart to racing—a large black bear standing on all fours staring back at her. Could it be her mother? It certainly was the right size. As she took a few steps forward, she sniffed the air again but couldn't detect anything like her mother, nor anything like a bear. Maybe the wind is blowing in the wrong direction, she thought, but then realized there really wasn't even the slightest of breezes. The buildings seemed to be blocking it.
She continued to walk cautiously towards the bear when she noticed, several yards farther up the road, another form, this one a bear standing on its hind legs. As she approached the first bear, she stopped to sniff at it, but still, even this close, couldn’t detect any familiar scent. Growing more confused by the minute, the bear cub strolled on to the second bear, circling around it, ready to jump out of the way if it tried to attack her, but she needn’t have worried. Both bears seemed frozen in place. She came within a few inches of the second bear’s hind legs and sniffed again. Still nothing. That’s when she spied a third form farther up the road. This bear was sitting on its haunches with a second smaller bear about her own size sitting in front of the larger bear. A mother and her cub, just like her and her mother. Surely they could help her.
She trotted towards them, continuing to sniff the air as she went. Though she still couldn’t detect any bear smells, she did begin to pick up the subtle odors that reminded her of her home. As she drew near, she noticed several sprigs of dry grass and a small pile of leaves upon which the two bears rested. The smells of home made his heart ache even more for her mother. At the same time, it was nice to find this tiny fragment of home in this strange land. She curled up next to the still bear cub and fell asleep.
AS MIMI RAWLINGS PARKED her bike in the bike stand and reached into its basket to retrieve her bagged lunch, she noticed a late model automobile driving down Main Street and pulling into one of the thirty-minute parking places just a few doors down from her mom's gift shop. She glanced down the street a little farther to the large town clock. Not even 8 AM yet. Seems like the tourists start showing up earlier every year, Mimi thought, shaking her head. Don't they know that nothing opens for another hour? Well, except The Apothecary a couple blocks away that opens for breakfast at 6 AM. It was one of the few things she liked about helping her mom open Narnia, the gift shop where her mother spent so much of her time. Mimi enjoyed the quiet mornings before the surge of out-of-towners descended on her town. She realized how essential the tourists were to the success of her mother's business, but that didn't mean she had to like them.
Mimi finished locking her bike to the stand and started walking towards her mother’s store when she noticed the new additions to the street and her heart soared. The new Bearfooting Bears had been placed along Main Street since the last time she’d been downtown. These sculptured bears had become an annual event and a major fundraiser for several of the nonprofit organizations in the area, but what Mimi enjoyed most about them was the creativity exhibited by the local artists who decorated them, often using resources from the area.
Before entering Narnia, Mimi paused long enough to watch a small girl, probably no more than four or five years old, dressed in a bright pink pinafore dress, exit from the fancy auto and rushed over to the closest sculpture, a mother bear and her cub, her arms outstretched preparing to hug one of the bears. Oh, how cute, Mimi thought as she watched, remembering fondly her own first times with the bears during her preschool days. Despite having grown into a skeptical teenager, when it came to the Bearfooting Bears, she retained that childlike innocence that this small girl was now demonstrating.
Mimi started to turn to enter the store when a sudden movement caught her eye. Had that been the small cub that had moved? Surely they hadn’t ruined the Bearfooting Bears by automating them, had they? Just as quickly as she had the thought, Mimi realized there were two small cubs, one that continued to lean against its mother and a second one that was very much alive and scurrying away from the little girl. The girl’s mother let out a bloodcurdling scream that sent a chill up Mimi’s back, but that her little girl ignored as she chased after the frightened cub.
“Missy Ann, you stay away from that dirty animal,” the mother shouted. She looked around frantically for help. Spying Mimi looking on, she shouted. “Is that your filthy animal attacking my daughter?”
Is she talking to me? Mimi wondered. Her next thought was to straighten the woman out. The animal isn't all that dirty, it's certainly not mine, and it looks to me like it's your daughter doing the attacking. She opened her mouth to reply, but then closed it again, remembering her mother’s warning earlier in the week: "Not every smart-aleck remark that comes to mind needs to be spoken."
Instead, she answered, "No ma'am, my mother won't let me keep a bear cub for a pet. Would you?"
The woman ignored her comment, turning back to her daughter. “Missy Ann! Come to me this instant,” she shouted, with enough vinegar in her voice that even Mimi was tempted to comply. Missy Ann stopped in her tracks and watched as the bear cub rounded a corner and disappeared down a side alley.
“What kind of town is this that would allow a wild animal to threaten my poor little girl? Your mayor will hear about this.” This last remark was directed to Mimi, who simply shrugged. She was more concerned with the baby bear than either the woman or her daughter. Ignoring the two tourists, Mimi ran to the alley to see if she could see the cub, but by the time she arrived, it was nowhere to be seen.
MAGINA MARTIN, CHAIRPERSON of the town council, banged on the desk in front of her for the third time. "Please, everyone sit down and shut up. Mayor Etheridge has the floor." She emphasized her demand with three more forceful raps with the gavel and a stern look that threatened to peel the paint off the meeting room walls.
"Thank you, Madame chairperson," the mayor replied, remaining standing as the other people around him finally sat down. "As I was saying, as the person representing the fine merchants of Foster Flat, we must take today's report of a wild animal on our Main Street seriously. That's why I called this emergency meeting and invited Bo Rawlings here along with his niece Mimi. As I'm sure you all know, Bo is one of our most respected citizens and an avid hunter and sportsman. Mimi is one of the only people who live in this area who has actually seen the beast." He waved his hand in the direction of the two Rawlings, then waved Bo back into his seat before he had a chance to finish standing up. "I'll have both of them speak in just a moment, but first, let me share with you just a few of my thoughts about this matter." Mayor Etheridge ignored the groans that came from several of the other citizens in attendance.
"As you all know, we're heading into a most important time of the year for Foster Flat—tourist season. So much of the continued prosperity of our fine town depends on these next six months. The last thing we need is for the word to spread that it's not safe to walk the streets of Foster Flat. Why, such a rumor could be devastating to our economy. That's why I say we need to nip this matter in the bud...in the bud I say."
There was a growing mumbling of consent from this last comment, followed with several “hear, hear,” and “that’s right.”
“And how do you propose we ‘nip this in the bud,’ Mayor?” Magina asked, the gavel raised once again in an effort to subdue the others.
“We hunt down the vicious beast. I shoot it before it has a chance to accost any more of our fine visitors,” Etheridge proclaimed.
“What?!” Mimi shouted before she realized what she was saying. “That’s ridiculous. It was just a small, frightened bear cub.”
Magina’s gavel crashed down with forceful authority. “You’ll have your turn to speak, Miss Mimi, but you do not have the floor at the moment.”
Bo Rawlings patted his niece’s knee as he stood up. “Magina...Mayor, if I may?”
Magina glanced over to the mayor, who nodded his ascent.
“Yes, Bo. You have the floor.”
"Mayor Etheridge has already shared his proposal with me prior to this emergency meeting, which is one of the reasons I agreed to attend. Y'all know me to be a pretty simple, straightforward kind of guy, so I'll give it to you straight. We may indeed need to resort to shooting this animal who's taken it upon itself to visit our streets..."
"You're not serious..." Mimi started, but stopped when her uncle placed his hand on her head and squeezed it not so gently.
"...But I think such actions are premature. I recommend we first do our best to capture the beast and return it to the wild where it belongs. After all, we have over twenty statues of bears lining our streets for the twelfth year in a row. What kind of public relations nightmare would occur if the word got out that we'd killed a small, innocent bear cub that has stumbled into our town?"
“Why, it would show that we take the safety of our citizens and visitors seriously,” Marcus Warren stood up, ignoring Magina’s stern look and the raising of her gavel. He was a large man, easily over six feet, who looked even more imposing in his outfit of camo, complete with military style boots. “Listen, I’m not the only one at this meeting who depends on the tourist trade this time of year. My Army Surplus and Gun Shop makes over two-thirds of its revenue in these next six months. Beergut and I will be happy to take it upon ourselves to hunt this varmint down and eliminate the threat,” he said as he slapped the man sitting next to him on the back with enough force to make Beergut wince in pain and move his chair out of range.
At this remark, Mimi’s hand flew into the air, where she waved it back and forth. The chairperson’s gaze flitted to her and then away, so Mimi added her second arm as she bounced in her seat. “Okay, let’s move on,” Magina said, continuing to ignore the teen. “Do we have a motion...”
“Excuse me, Madame Chairperson,” Bo interrupted. “I believe you said that Mimi would have an opportunity to speak as well. She is the only one here that has actually seen the animal.”
“Well...” Magina started, as she glanced at the Mayor again, who shrugged. “Okay, but just for a minute. We do have other business that needs our attention.”
Bo nodded to his niece, who stood up, but then seemed frozen in place.
“Go on, Mimi,” Bo encouraged her. “Say your piece.”
Mimi nodded, took a deep breath, then let the words pour out. “Our recent visitor that y’all are so scared about is more afraid of us than we have any right to be afraid of him. He’s a small bear cub, probably just a couple months old...”
“Yeah, but cubs grow up fast in these parts,” Marcus interrupted, then shut up when Magina threatened him with her gavel.
"Sure they do, and that's why we need to do whatever we can to find him and get him back where he belongs," Mimi added. "As far back as I can remember, every year at this time, our little town has invested time, effort and money in our Bearfooting Fundraiser. In the process, we've become known as a ‘bear-friendly' community." Mimi glanced around to see several people nodding in agreement. Bolstered by this, she continued. "Killing a small, innocent cub who's done nothing wrong other than stumble into our town and spend a night curled up next to the closest thing to a mother that he could find...well, it wouldn't be right, and it certainly isn't who we are. Least that's my view. Foster Flat is ‘bear-friendly,' and we need to stay that way." With that, Mimi nodded to the chairperson that she was finished and sat down as several people in the audience applauded.
Magina pounded on the table in front of her again to silence the crowd. As she did so, Bo stood up. “Madame Chairperson, I’d like to make a motion that we do everything in our power over the next week to capture the cub. Since we don’t know where it comes from, I further recommend we take it to the nature science center in Asheville once we apprehend it. I volunteer to head up this effort.”
The motion was rapidly seconded and was passed by the council members unanimously.
AS EVERYONE FILED OUT of the meeting room, Mayor Etheridge motioned to Marcus to follow him out of the room and to his office adjacent to the council room.
“Come on, Beergut, let’s go see what the mayor wants.” The two men meandered among the crowd for a minute or two before quietly slipping into the mayor’s office.
“You wanted to see us, Mr. Mayor?”
Etheridge looked up from where he was sitting behind his desk and frowned. “Actually, I wanted to see you...in private.” He glared at Beergut, who simply stood there with a silly smile on his face.
“Sorry,” Marcus replied. “I didn’t...”
“Never mind,” the mayor interrupted. “What I need to talk to you about will likely take more than just one man. Let him stay.”
“What’s on your mind?” Marcus asked.
“I take it from what you said in that meeting that you’re no more happy about the outcome than I am.”
Marcus nodded. “Seems like a waste of time to me. Plenty more bears where that one came from, but I don’t know that there’s much we can do about it. The vote passed unanimously.”
Yeah, well, that’s why you’re not sitting in this seat, the mayor started to say, but then thought better of it.
“If there’s one thing I’ve learned from my many years in politics, it’s that sometimes leaders need to do what they know is right, and be damned what the public may think.”
Marcus stared at him. “What are you saying?”
“Just that you seemed to have a viable plan of action as well. One that would resolve this matter once and for all. In fact, if it were handled properly, no one need be any the wiser about how the matter was resolved...if you get my drift.”
Marcus glanced from the mayor to Beergut, who nodded. “Yeah, I get it. Is this an official request from the mayor’s office?”
Etheridge paused for a moment before replying. “If you’re discovered, the mayor’s office will deny having any knowledge of the incident.”
“But I can tell you this. Walter Etheridge, private citizen and one of the wealthiest men in the county, never forgets a favor.”
“That’s good enough for me,” Marcus replied. “Let’s go, Beergut. We’ve got work to do.”
MIMI SAT WITH HER BACK to the Oriental maple, which did a good job of hiding her from view, and checked her supplies for the third time: binoculars that allowed her to see clearly down most of Main Street, sleeping bag just in case it turned into a long night or grew too cool in the early morning hours, four ham and cheese sandwiches (down from the original six she’d brought), and a quart bottle of Fresca, still half full even after she’d used it to wash down the other two sandwiches. She sure hoped her little bear cub friend liked ham and cheese as much as she did. She slid to one side and reached beneath her rump to pull out the collar and leash that she hoped to slip on the bear cub if or when he showed up.
Everything is ready, she thought as she twisted around to take another look at the large clock hanging over the Foster Flat Mineral and Lapidary Museum. Eleven-seventeen and the main thoroughfare is closed up tighter than a tick on a hound. That’s what she loved about the town where she’d grown up. No late night shenanigans for her town. Well, except possibly tonight if she was lucky. Straightening up, she picked up the binoculars and studied the street for any sign of a small black bear cub.
“Please show up,” she muttered to herself. “I really don’t want to sit out here all night long. I brought you some ham and cheese sandwiches. My mom makes the best sandwiches around. She really does.” She thought about eating another one herself, but then thought better of it. Those sandwiches need to last the night as well as being an enticement to the bear that had her out here in the first place.
Time paced slowly in the quiet little town and after a full day of school, followed by helping her mom at the store, it wasn't long before Mimi found herself dozing off. She'd pulled the sleeping bag up over her legs and abdomen to stave off the dropping temperature, but the cozy little nest she'd made for herself just made it that much harder to stay awake. Luckily the old clock chimed every fifteen minutes and marked the hour with deep bongs for each hour passed, so she could catch little catnaps without being concerned she'd spend the night sound asleep and miss the bear.
MEANWHILE, THE BEAR cub had taken refuge in a small park a block off of Main Street, staying hidden most of the time from the few humans that passed through its walkways. She’d already checked out the two garbage cans at either end of the park, but came up with nothing more than the remains of a sausage and egg biscuit, which she had readily consumed several hours ago. She’d then crawled back under the bushes, where she’d spent the rest of the day and much of the evening until, once again, the need to relieve her hunger and thirst grew more important than staying safely hidden.
She recalled seeing a large dumpster in the alleyway she had run down that morning to escape from the angry human with the screechy voice. She returned to it now but was disappointed to find that the dumpster’s contents were securely locked away despite all her efforts. Frustrated, she walked slowly to the other end of the alley in the direction of Main Street, sniffing the night air.
What was that delectable smell coming from that direction? There were a number of interesting smells, many of which she didn't recognize, but one particular one had to be food. It just smelled too good not to be edible. Besides, there were also the familiar odors of her old home she'd detected the night before. That combination was simply too much to ignore. She eased herself out onto Main Street.
“DO YOU SEE HER? WHAT’S she doing now?” Beergut asked, trying unsuccessfully to take the binoculars from Marcus, who pushed his hands away. The two men stood on the second floor of Marcus’s Army Surplus store that gave them a full view of Main Street as far north as the Mast General Store.
“She’s doing the same thing she was doing ten minutes ago when you asked. Nothing. Not a damn-blasted thing.” He lowered the binoculars and reached in the back pocket of his fatigues for the flask. He took a long draught of the liquid before reluctantly surrendering it to his partner.
“Not too much,” he warned. “We need to stay alert.”
“Sure thing, Boss,” Beergut replied, then took an equally long pull on the mouth of the flask. “Warms all the way down, it does.”
“What if the bear don’t show?” Beergut asked, reluctantly returning the flask to its owner.
“Then we return here tomorrow night and the night after that,” Marcus replied with a disgusted sneer on his face.
“Seems like a lot of fuss over a little ol’ bear,” Beergut said, “especially considering we’re not getting paid.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure about that.”
“What do you mean?” Beergut asked.
“Well, besides our corrupt mayor owing us a big favor, I took the liberty of making a call today to an old Army buddy of mine down in Atlanta. He’s got a pretty sweet deal going...illegal as hell, but just that much sweeter because of the stupid laws.”
“He sells wild animals,” Marcus said, as he raised the binoculars to his eyes again and leaned out the window to get a better view north and south. “He told me if we brought him a black bear cub alive and in relatively good shape, he’d pay us $500 for it.”
“You’re shitting me,” Beergut replied, a skeptical look on his face.
“Honest to god truth. Damn thing will be out of our hair and we’ll make a few hundred bucks to boot. Hell, we play our cards right, we won’t even have to catch it. We’ll let little ol’ Mimi do the work for us.”
There he is! Mimi sat up straight, her heart beating rapidly at the sight of the bear cub sniffing around the same statue of the mama bear and her cub where she’d seen him the night before. I wonder what’s so special about that particular pair, she thought as she reached into the paper bag to pull out one of the ham and cheese sandwiches. Well, here goes nothing. She slowly crawled from her hiding place, sandwich in one hand, leash and collar in the other. The baby bear continued to sniff around the statue so intently that Mimi was able to get within ten feet before the cub looked up.
Mimi held out the sandwich and whispered in a soothing voice. "I brought this for you. It's ham and cheese, and you can take my word for it, it's delicious." She gently waved it in the bear's direction and watched as the cub raised its nose to take a whiff. Mimi broke off one corner of the sandwich, making sure it had a piece of ham and cheese between the toasted slices of bread and tossed it in the cub's direction. It landed a foot or two away from him. After a moment of hesitation, the cub walked over to it, sniffed at it, and then quickly gulped it down.
“Didn’t I tell you it was good?” Mimi said, chuckling softly at the satisfied look on the baby bear’s face. He’s so cute, she thought, then stopped herself. She studied the bear more closely, finally deciding the cub must be a female. At least until someone like my uncle tells me otherwise, she thought. She broke off another corner of the sandwich and tossed it a couple feet from the bear, bending down as she did so. With much less hesitation this time, the bear walked over to the morsel of food and downed it quickly before looking up at the remaining sandwich in Mimi’s hand.
“You want the rest of this?” Mimi asked, as she placed the sandwich down next to her. “Come and get it. I promise I won’t hurt you.”
She watched as the bear eyed first the sandwich and then her. “There’s more where that came from as well. As many sandwiches as you can eat,” Mimi assured her. “I’ve even got one with extra mayo if you like, but let’s start with this one.” She reached out and slid the sandwich a few inches closer to the bear, who took a couple long sniffs before stepping cautiously forward. Mimi pretended not to pay any attention, but watched out of the corner of her eye as the cub slowly creep forward. When it finally reached the sandwich and started eating it, Mimi reached out and slowly placed the collar around the cub’s neck while whispering to her gently. “It’s going to be all right. We’re going to get you home somehow.” But where was that? As she asked herself that question, she glanced up to the statue of the mama bear and her cub, and suddenly knew the answer. She smiled as she watched the cub finish off the sandwich and look around for more.
“Still hungry, huh? Well, I’ve got more right over there,” she said, pointing behind her. “Let’s just walk over and see if I can’t find the one with the extra may...”
“That won’t be necessary,” a rough voice interrupted. As Mimi turned around, she felt a calloused hand grab her arm and wrench the leash away. Marcus and Beergut! Where the hell did they come from?
“We’ll take it from here,” Marcus continued, as he handed the leash to his partner, with the now frightened bear at the other end fighting against the constraint of the leash and collar. “Take the scruffy thing to the truck and stuff it in the cage that’s in the back.”
“Leave her alone!” Mimi shouted, starting towards Beergut, but Marcus stepped in to block her way.
“Now you know better than to give us any trouble.” He pushed her roughly away. “Stand aside. We are on official town business.”
"Like hell you are," Mimi retorted, trying to push him back, but since Marcus outweighed her by over a hundred pounds, he only laughed.
“Look, girlie, I really don't want to hurt you, but if you get in my way, I'll have no choice. " He shoved her again, this time much harder. Mimi stumbled backward, falling to the ground, her head hitting something hard and unforgiving. She saw stars and felt like she was going to pass out. Then she heard the first rumblings of a growl.
“What was that?” Beergut asked. “Did you hear it?”
Marcus looked around, suddenly wary. “It was nothing. Just some heat lightning,” he replied in an unconvincing tone. He turned his attention back to Beergut. “I thought I told you to take the little shit to the truck.” But before either of them could move, they heard a second growl, this one much louder and appearing to come from several different directions.
“Holy Mother of...” Beergut shouted. “What the hell is going on? Did you see that?” He pointed down the street at one of the other bear figures about a half block away. This one stood on its hind legs with its front paws in the air. “That damn bear just moved!”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Marcus shouted back. “It’s a damn stat...What the...?”
Mimi sat up on one elbow and felt the back of her head where a lump was already forming. She stared down the street where Beergut had pointed, but she couldn't get her eyes to focus properly. Even so, it appeared that the bear in question no longer possessed the shiny veneer of its former self, and it was advancing on them on legs that appeared quite mobile.
Suddenly, a third and then a fourth growl cut through the night air as other bears came to life, obviously upset by the antics they’d been witnessing, and advanced towards the two men. Beergut dropped the end of the leash and the bear cub scampered away from him and towards Mimi, who had managed to push herself to a sitting position on the sidewalk. She reached out her arms and the cub came to her.
“This can’t be happening,” Marcus exclaimed, though the look of terror on his face confirmed he didn’t believe his own statement. The two men stood back to back while they slowly retreated in the direction of Marcus’s truck, as several of the Bearfooting bears herded them in that direction, growling their dislike for the men.
“I told you Foster Flat was a bear-friendly town,” Mimi yelled after them. “I just had no idea how bear-friendly,” she muttered more softly. “No idea at all.” She suddenly felt very sleepy and her head hurt something awful. “I think I better lie down for just a minute,” she whispered softly to the bear cub, who nuzzled against her.
MIMI TRIED TO SLAP the hand on her shoulder away. “Please, Mom, just a few more minutes,” she muttered. “I don’t want any breakfast this morning.”
But the hand continued to shake her. “Wake up, Mimi,” a gruff voice, clearly not her mother’s, said.
She opened her eyes to see her Uncle Bo towering over her, a concerned look on his face. “I thought you were going to call me when the bear cub showed up,” he said.
“I was...I will...I,” Mimi tried to answer, but was still too groggy to make any sense. She tried again. “I was going to call but then it got kinda crazy, and I guess I forgot.” She raised one hand to the back of her head and felt the lump. No wonder her head was hurting so much. It all started coming back to her: the bear cub’s appearance, followed by Marcus and Beergut trying to take the cub from her, and then...nah, that couldn’t have happened, could it?
“Well, no matter, I see you’ve made friends with the little guy,” Bo replied.
“Gal,” Mimi corrected, as she slowly sat up and felt the world spin around her for a moment. She looked over to see the bear cub lying quietly next to the Bearfooting stature. “I’m pretty sure she’s a she,” Mimi continued.
Bo took a closer look at the cub as it started to move around. “You may be right. It can be pretty hard to tell when they’re young.”
Mimi reached up with her left hand to brush the hair from her face and noticed for the first time the leash still wrapped around her hand.
“We’ll take her home for now, and I’ll drop her off at the nature center tomorrow,” Bo said as he started to reach for the leash.
“No!’ Mimi shouted, jerking the leash out of his reach.
“What? That was the plan we agreed to with the town council.”
“That was before we knew where she came from,” Mimi countered. She rose slowly, then waited for the world to stop spinning before straightening up.
“But we don’t know where she’s from...do we?” Bo asked, a perplexed look growing on his face.
Mimi pointed to the statue. “I think she’s drawn to that statue because parts of it came from her home area.” She pointed to the writing on the back of the statue. “It says here that this one was decorated by the Blue Ridge Rafting Company. They’re a whitewater rafting business located in the Nantahala valley area. I bet if we go there we’ll find her mother.”
“But that’s over thirty miles from here. How could she...”
“I don’t know,” Mimi interrupted him, “but I have a strong hunch that’s where she’s from. We’ve got to at least give it a try.”
Bo nodded slowly. “Okay, I guess we can give it a shot.” He glanced at his watch. “It’ll be sunrise soon. We can head in that direction, but if we don’t find her mother...”
“Then we’ll decide the next step,” Mimi finished for him.
“I put Lucy’s dog pen in the back of the truck yesterday.”
“That’s okay,” Mimi said as she started walking towards her uncle’s truck, the cub following behind her. “She can sit in the cab with us.”
Bo shook his head. “I swear you’re getting as bossy as your mother.”
“It runs in the family,” Mimi retorted.
THE FIRST THINGS MIMI noticed as Bo pulled into the Nantahala River camp and canoe park were two signs. The first was a simple sign tacked to a post: Bear Sanctuary. The second was a life-size replica of Yogi Bear holding its own sign: Hi Kids! Don’t feed the bears. Be sure Dad keeps the car windows rolled up, and in much smaller type, Over 40 people have been hurt by bears this year.
Cute sign, Mimi thought, as she patted the bear cub’s head, with a serious message.
“I think we’re in the right place,” she said, as Bo stopped the truck and put it in park.
“Could be,” Bo replied, “but I wouldn’t get your hopes up just yet. This is part of the Nantahala National Forest, which spans over 500,000 acres. In other words, there’s a lot of land where his mother could be.”
“Her,” Mimi corrected him again. “That’s okay. I have a good feeling about this place.”
"Well, it's sure off the beaten track enough," Bo replied. "If my truck didn't have four-wheel drive, I'm not sure we would have made it back here."
As Mimi climbed out of the truck, she looked around, verifying what she already suspected. They were all alone, though there were some tire tracks that appeared to be fairly recent. “Come on, Gallie, let’s go find your mama,” she said, as she pulled gently on the leash.
“Yep, that’s her name.”
“Don’t tell me you’ve named her. You know better than to do that. You name an animal, then you start getting attached...”
“I know, I know.” Mimi stopped him. “You’ve told me that a dozen times, but I’m already attached. I also know that Gallie needs to be out here with her mother, so quit worrying and help me find her.”
“And how do you suggest we do that?”
Mimi considered the question, but came up blank.
“I’m not sure. I hadn’t gotten that far in my thinking.”
Bo groaned. Then, looking around, he pointed off in the distance. "Looks like there's a clearing about halfway up that mountain. Let's see if we can find a trail and take a hike. Who knows, we might get lucky." He pulled a couple bottles of water out of the truck cab and tossed one to his niece.
Mimi caught the bottle, nodded, and together they headed in the direction Bo had pointed. Sure enough, at the edge of the parking area, they found a well-worn path. The three of them trekked for close to an hour before they finally reached the clearing, which turned out to be a large growth of blueberry bushes.
“It’s not quite the time for blueberries to be ripe yet, but I figured this would be a likely place for a mama bear to hang out,” Bo said as he picked a few of the unripened berries from a nearby bush.
“You tell me. This was your idea, remember.”
Mimi frowned. This was beginning to feel like a bad idea after all.
“Why don’t you let him...I mean her...off the leash and see what happens,” Bo said, more gently.
“What if she runs off?” Mimi asked.
Bo shrugged. “She seems pretty taken with you. I don’t think she’ll go far.”
Mimi nodded. Hell, I don’t have any better plan, she thought. I may as well give it a try.
She pulled Gallie to her and removed the collar. At first, the bear cub just stood there and looked up at her. "Go on. Go find your mother," Mimi urged her, then pushed her gently with one foot.
Finally, realizing she was free, she turned and trotted away several feet before stopping. She rose on her back haunches and sniffed the air before letting out a sound that sounded to Mimi remarkably like a baby crying for its mother. Gallie repeated it several times, took a few more steps forward, then repeated the cry.
The sound wrenched at Mimi’s heart. Oh baby, my poor baby, she thought. Gallie strolled to the edge of the clearing and called again, but again she was met only with silence. Finally, she lay down with her face between her paws.
Bo and Mimi looked on and waited. Finally, Bo said, "Well, it was worth a try. Why don't you put her collar back on and we'll..."
But the roar of a bear off in the distance stopped him in his tracks.
“What the...?” Mimi asked. “Was that her?”
Bo pointed to the bear cub, who was now standing on its hind legs and sniffing the air in the direction the sound had come from. Before he could answer Mimi, Gallie replied with her own roar, though it was several octaves higher and still sounded more like the cry of a human child. Several seconds later, they heard another roar, this time coming from much closer.
“Ahh, we need to not be here when that mama bear arrives,” Bo said, as he reached out, took Mimi’s hand and started pulling her back towards the path.
“But I can’t just leave her,” Mimi replied as she dug in her heels. “What if that’s not her mother?”
“Oh, that’s her mother all right,” Bo replied. He turned back to his niece and, looking her straight in the face, said, “You’ve helped her return to her home, Mimi. Now it’s time for us to return to ours.”
Mimi stared back. She knew her uncle was right. He'd never steered her wrong, especially when it came to matters of nature. She nodded, then turned back to the bear cub. "Bye-bye, Gallie girl. Have a great life." And with that, she allowed her uncle to lead her away.
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