At the end of summer before my senior year in high school, during that brief period between the time my job pulling the green chain at the mill ended and two-a-day football practices started, I had a free weekend. My football buddies and I had filled the backs of our rigs with ice and cases of Great Falls Select, then driven up a jeep trail deep in the Diablo Mountains to my grandfather's land so we could celebrate our brief release by getting shit-faced in the wilderness, a hoary Montana tradition.
We built a huge fire and drank ourselves stupid as we danced half-naked around it, as innocently savage as any beasts that ever lived. Until the bear showed up. About midnight, a curious black bear cub, drawn by the noise or the smell of the burned elk burgers, nosed into the circle of firelight, sniffing as if he wanted to join the dance.
Once when my father and I were fly fishing up Six Mile, a black bear had come up to the bluff across the creek. I must have been four or five, old enough to be curious and young enough to be nervous. He told me that if I wanted the bear to move on to bark like a dog. I barked as loud and long as I could. The sow scrambled up the nearest tree. "Sometimes, they'll do that," my Dad said. So when I saw the cub, I started barking. Within moments, my buddies had joined me, and the little devil scooted up a bull pine, where he swung precariously from a thick branch, hissing and spitting like a tomcat.
We laughed like madmen at the frightened cub, swept by gales of drunken mirth, until I spun and fell on my back at the base of the pine, my mouth wide open. The cub spit straight down into my mouth, a skunky stream of saliva, more solid than liquid, which I swallowed before I could stop. An electric moment. Suddenly I was sober and sorry for the cub. But I couldn't stop my friends from laughing and barking. I punched and shoved and wrestled them, but they thought I was crazy and wouldn't stop. I fought them to a standstill. Or until they got tired of beating on me. Nobody remembers which came first. Then they decided what they really needed was a road trip to the whorehouses in Wallace, Idaho, another hoary Montana tradition, so they drove down the mountain, leaving me with a couple of six-packs and a very sore head. I sat by the dying fire until dawn, the stink of the bear in my mouth, my nose, and seeping through my guts. The raspy sound of the bear's breath echoed in my head. When the sun cleared the saddle below Hammerhead Peak, we both went home. I never looked at a bear the same way again—or my friends, for that matter—and never got that wild taste out of my mouth. Leave me alone, fool, it seemed to say, we're in this shit together.
Something else had changed that night, too, but I didn't know what until much later. Turned out that it was the end of my childhood. After football season, after a shouting match with my crazy, drunken mother-she had accused me of only going hunting in eastern Montana so I could go whoring in Livingston like my worthless, dead father, which was only half-true—I said I was leaving for good, and she said "good riddance to bad rubbish." Three days later she signed the papers lying about my age, and I was in the Army, where I learned a bitter lesson about fear. But I never lost the taste of that bear. We were brothers, somehow, in this life and death together.
I shook Gannon's hand, reluctantly. Whatever had happened in Long's office, and whatever Enos Walker had done, he was a man like me. If he lived long enough to make it to court, chances were, with the testimony of the bartender and me, Walker could cop a self-defense or involuntary manslaughter plea and wouldn't have to die at the hands of a state I found much too fond of the needle. I knew the sweet taste of revenge, but living in a place that killed people with such casual aplomb made me a little jumpy. In the long run the death penalty had nothing to do with revenge or deterrence. It was just a way for the fools to get elected.
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