A Mauling at West Thumb

by Jim Farrar (unfinished 1987)

At nine o’clock in the morning a call came over the park radio. Dylan Smith was sitting in his pickup, parked by the side of the shore road on the West Thumb of Yellowstone Lake, when he heard that a couple of hikers had reported an accident, about forty yards off the trail, just short of nearby Riddle Lake.

“Some accident,” Dylan thought as he saw what was left of the man lying face down on the ground, “guy’s been ripped to shit by a bear.”

He looked around the scene: an empty hot dog wrapper and a half-chewed package of bacon, a tattered day pack and a can of insect repellent, punctured by jaws powerful enough to snap a six-inch pine tree like a toothpick. There were marshmallows flung on either side of the body.

“Poor dumb bastard,” he said to himself, “shouldn’t have been out here in the first place.”

But what the hell, he thought, it wasn’t for him to decide. Yellowstone attracted millions of people each year from all over the world, most didn’t know the first thing about back-country caution. Usually they’d stay in their cars, where they were safe, but occasionally they’d try to hike into places where they had no business being. Then they’d get lost or be gone so long the family would panic and call the ranger station to report them as missing. Dylan's time would inevitably be wasted trying to find the lost tourist, who would typically be found dawdling just off the trail, lost but not too lost, camera in hand and about a thousand dollars worth of useless but heavy gear on his back.

Over the years Dylan had developed a routine to discourage the novices, to convince them to try less strenuous trails. Whenever they’d ask about the back-country, he’d pretend to consider the matter very seriously, after which he’d clear his throat and say, with appropriate gravity, “Well...it’s not wilderness unless it’s dangerous. Now is it?”

“Just make sure you sign in, so we can find you when you get lost,” he’d always add, “I mean, if you get lost.”

Usually, it worked. Most would ask if there were easier trails to be hiked, trails not so far from the main roads, and Dylan would gladly tell them where these were. Easier to keep an eye on them that way.

“Is he dead?”

The man who had asked wore a cheap Hawaiian print shirt and L.L. Bean shorts. His hiking boots looked new and he was smoking an expensive cigar, which he waved as he gestured toward the body. Ash and sparks fell in the wake of the arc he traced with his arm.

“You mind putting that out...please? Dylan said. He was feeling snippy and the man with the loud shirt was irritating the hell out of him.

“Why?” asked the man defiantly.

“Because I don’t want you startin’ no fire, that’s why.”

“Keeps the mosquitoes away, you know.”

Dylan looked at the punctured can. “Buy yourself some Off instead,” he said. “And put that damned thing out. Right now. It stinks.”

The man ground out the cigar on the heel of his boot and threw it to the side of the trail, where it landed in some pine needles, still smoking. Dylan looked at the cigar, then over to the man, and scowled.

The man walked over to the smoldering cigar and pushed it into the soil with his foot.

“Well, is he?”

“Is he what?”

“Is he dead?”

The bear had rolled the body over on its stomach. Dylan saw that his buttocks had been chewed on, as well as his arms. The man’s jeans were stained brown with dried blood, the denim frayed where the animal had either bitten or clawed him.

Dylan looked at the tourist. “Kinda looks like it, don’t it?”

“No shit it does. Griz, you think?”

Dylan answered slowly. He knew that more than just one bear would end up paying dearly because of this. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. Five or six bears for one man. “Maybe. Maybe not. Could’ve been a black, I don’t know. You the one who found him?”

The man’s face brightened, the look of a child who’d had an adventure on a back lot. “Sure did. Me and my buddy over there.”

The man motioned to a place over in the pines behind Dylan’s back. Dylan turned around to see who he was pointing at.

“I’m George, but my friends call me Highball. That’s my buddy, Tom Beer. We’re up from Idaho Falls, and, goddamn, we didn’t expect to find this. Not in a million years, did we expect to find a mess like this.”

“That’s probably how he felt, “ Dylan said quietly, pointing at the man on the ground, without the slightest trace of irony in his voice.

“No doubt," said a bland voice behind him.

Dylan swung around and looked at Tom. He and George could’ve been bookends. Like George, he was wearing an obnoxious Hawaiian shirt, khaki shorts, and was smoking a cigar. Unlike his friend, however, he had on a pair of old high-top canvas sneakers, which he wore with black dress socks. It was obvious that he and George didn’t get out much. Both their legs looked like they hadn’t seen any sun for years, they were so white.

“Either of you guys see or hear anything?”

Tom answered. An intelligence danced in his eyes that seemed to possess a subdued menace, an intelligence betrayed by his ludicrous outfit.

“No. No bears, if that’s what you mean. I thought I heard something rustling the brush a time or two while we were walking up here, but I wouldn’t swear to it. We’d been hiking for forty five minutes, maybe an hour, before we stopped. I had to take a leak, so I left the trail and ...” His voice trailed off as he suck out his palm towards the corpse. “Bloody mess, isn’t it?”

There was an awkward silence as Dylan tried to put together in his mind the scenario leading up to the attack. The only thing he could figure was that the man had been eating and the bear had smelled the food. Maybe he panicked and tried to run, though offhand it appeared that this wasn’t the case; that the man, rather, had been surprised by the bear. He never had a chance.

“Well, we’ll need you to file a report,” said Dylan.

The man who called himself Highball grinned.

“No problem,” he said, as he lit another cigar. “Be glad to help anyway I can.”

Dylan and Tom exchanged glances, a half-smile on both their faces.

“Yeah,” Dylan said, “no problem at all. Huh?”

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