Of Bears and Hams
"Heaven goes by favor. If it went by merit, you would stay out and your dog would go in." – Mark Twain
I woke up when I heard a quiet woof out in the living area of the cave. “Hush dog,” responded the quiet whisper. “I’ll take you out.”
“Lee?” I croaked over a soar throat.
The light turned brighter and he stuck his head in. “Oh oh, that don’t sound good.”
“It’ll be fine after I gargle. Just give me a sec and I’ll take Beau and Rufus …”
“Get up if you want to but Rufus already went out with those crazy Ravens that were marching back and forth waiting on me to move the plywood. The dog wouldn’t go out in the dark.”
“He doesn’t like to,” I answered still croaking. “It must be close to dawn.”
“Close to.” It sounded like he was shuffling his feet a bit. “Bella, I hope you don’t mind but I broke into your coffee. I haven’t had any in so long. Gram fixed up parched acorns once they started coming in and dandelion root before that but it’s just not the same.”
“If you’re using the can that is above and to the right of the stove you’re gonna find out that ain’t full coffee either. It’s half and half with chicory.”
“Serious?! It tastes really good. I thought it was just some type of fancy brand or something.”
I laughed and then gasped. “I need to gargle. This smarts.”
While Lee took Beau out I stood up and tested my ankle and then got dressed. I was pulling a sweater over my head when Rufus jumped up in my covers and curled up. “That cold is it? Well stay in here then and cat nap for a while. I gotta go gargle with some vinegar and sage tea.”
I was wondering what was taking Lee so long when he came in with a concerned look on his face. “There’s bear sign not a hundred feet from the cave. I can’t believe I let you go out last night with just that pup there.”
“Ease back Lee, people don’t let me. You know better than that. I do what I have to and what I want to.”
He opened his mouth and then looked at my face. “That came out wrong. I just mean I was being lazy. I’ve seen bear sign all over the place. I should have figured they’d be up this way too.”
“They have, but I have to admit never so close to the cave that I know of; certainly not marking their territory.” Then I winced.
“What’s wrong? You’re ankle?”
I sighed. “No. I’m just hoping they didn’t find my smoke house.”
“Your smokehouse? Where? I was all over this place yesterday looking for you before I guessed at where you’d gone and didn’t see one.”
“Not too far off. There’s a trail that leads to a bluff with an overhang – kinda like a miniature Alum Cave – and I blocked part of it in to smoke the hams and shoulders and some sausages. I block the entrance back up when I leave it but a hungry bear could probably knock it all over if it got determined. I’ve gotta go check it.”
“I’ll go. You need to stay inside with that throat.”
I shook my head. “You’ll never find it. Most if not all the meat is probably ready to be brought back here anyway. I’ll show you all the nooks and corners in the cave today but I’ve gotta go check the smokehouse first.”
Lee knew me well enough not to argue about it but said, “No sense doing it on an empty stomach. I’ve got some of that cardboard you like.”
It took me a moment to figure out what he meant. “Granola?!” I laughed. “That’s not cardboard you dork, that’s good stuff. But I know you don’t like it so how about grits and sliced ham instead?”
“Well I wouldn’t tease you if that’s what you’re thinking.”
“No … no I mean … heck yeah I’ll take grits and ham,” he said smiling.
Grits and ham it was and I even managed a couple of small biscuits for him though they weren’t the best I’d ever made. He was quiet all through the meal and I was wondering if it tasted ok when all of a sudden he gets up and bends me over backwards and kisses me before sitting back down and continuing to shovel food in his mouth.
“Ok, that was … strange.”
He mumbled something around a mouthful that I didn’t understand and then he swallowed and said, “No. That was good. I haven’t eaten …” He stopped and shook his head. “Food got pieced out the best the women could do so we mostly had small bits of ham in a bowl of grits for breakfast. Or oatmeal with ground nuts or dried apple bits but hardly any sweetener as it is real hard to come by after the cane fields down in Florida got hit by the tsunami and the same things with the maples up in New England. All the rain is making it hard for bees to make honey … it’s a mess. The food we had filled the hollow places but … but wasn’t about enjoying a meal if you catch me. This though … this is food. And Dad said always show your appreciation to the cook.”
“Oh. Well so long as you like it,” I said still blushing from my first kiss whether he realized it or not.
He just mumbled around another mouthful and kept shoveling.
We bundled up to go out but we left the animals closed up … well except for Mischief and Molly, that would not have been a good thing. I tried to do that once … once. Never again. Ravens are way too clever.
“We’re gonna need the game cart to bring back as much as we can.”
Lee nodded his understanding. “If bears are around the last thing you want to do is be out advertising lunch, dinner, breakfast or anything else so the fewer trips the better. Got a tarp to wrap it in?”
I pointed and he grabbed that while I pulled the wagon to the cave opening and then we were off. “It gets steep the last little bit.”
“Should warm us up. Dang it is cold this morning. Glad I wasn’t camping out in this last night.”
“Me too,” I admitted quietly.
He looked at me and grinned and then we were only moderately noisy from that point on. Just enough so we wouldn’t startle a bear but not so noisy that we’d make them curious, neither state being anything we wanted. He offered to pull the wagon but I told him, “You take the rifle. You’re a better shot. I’ve yet to take down a pig without having to shoot it twice.”
He gave me a concerned look, “You’re not bad but I’ve seen how mean the hogs are getting after running wild for so long on the mountains. I’ve seen when they’ve killed a man; it ain’t pretty. They tore him to pieces. What were you using to hunt with?”
“The only rifle shot I have is .22,” I told him.
He turned around and I just about ran into him. “You did not just say you were hunting hogs with only a .22.”
“Yes I did. I told you it took two to make ‘em go down. But don’t think I’m stupid, I know to make it a neck shot or nothing. And I also didn’t go after big pigs, just the medium sized ones. I’m not sure I could have field dressed a big one by myself anyway.”
He sighed and shook his head and mumbled, “We gotta have a talk about how free and loose you are with your personal safety. First you’re scrambling in cars on a broken down bridge and now I find out you’ve been hog hunting with a dinky ol’ .22. That just won’t do.”
Rolling my eyes I asked, “Well what’s in that rifle you’re carrying?”
“I’ve got it loaded with .308 because when I shoot at something I mean for it to go down and stay that way, not get annoyed and come after me,” he said a little on the gumpy side.
“Well, getting treed isn’t so bad after the first time it happens. You know what kind of tree to look for to climb.”
He kept walking but I could tell he was mumbling to himself and I knew for a fact I didn’t want to hear what he was grumbling about. We settled back down when the trail got steep. I could only take the game wagon half way up so we blocked the wheels and started to walk the rest of the way.
All of a sudden Lee swept me behind him with a long arm. I could hear something on the trail ahead of us. I tapped Lee’s shoulder and pointed. He nodded when he saw it too; bear scat. I could see in Lee’s eyes he thought for a moment or two about sending me back down the trail but common sense won out over caution. If I went down trail he wouldn’t be able to know exactly where I was if he had to start shooting.
Instead of the bear coming back down the trail however we heard it leaving what to us would have been the hard way; down through the greenery on the slope side and away from us. We waited it out a few more minutes and then slowly edged our way up the rest of the trail.
I was dismayed at first at what I saw. A corner of my smoke house rock wall had been caved in taking much of the rest of the structure with it. Many of the rocks had obvious claw marks on them where the bear had been scratching to get in. It had taken me a lot of time and prying to move many of those stones into place.
“If I had only had some mortar this wouldn’t have happened!” I growled thinking about bear meat and bear skin rugs.
“Maybe. Maybe not. When a bear is after something it does what it has to. You know how bears can get into cars, even if it means peeling the fiberglass panels off.”
I knew Lee was trying to console me and take it in stride but I had worked hard on what had been destroyed. I started digging through the rubble to see if there was anything that could be saved and slowly lost my anger and depression as I realized the bear couldn’t have gotten much at all as it was so well buried.
“You didn’t say nothing about digging a pit,” Lee said after we moved enough rocks to find that most of the meat was salvageable.
“I didn’t dig it. It is a natural crevice. I just cleaned it out and chiseled it into more of a deep bowl-shape then lined it with clay. Should have used that clay like mortar. I’ll know better next time.”
He nodded while he was looking around. “Fine. But right now let’s get the ash off of this and then get going. I don’t fancy hanging around for that bear to come back … and you know it will. This weather being like it is it’s gonna want to finish filling its belly and then find a den to sleep in.”
“You mean hibernate.”
He shook his head. “No, I mean sleep. You know bears are out and about in winter around here.”
“I just figured that’s cause either their weather radar was messed up or they got hungry.”
Lee snorted. “You’ve been listening to Mr. Dunkirk. Well forget most everything he said in biology class. He may have an Appalachian name but the man is from southern California and knows squat about the natural law of things around these parts. The bears around here sleep more in the winter but they never go into a true hibernation. Haven’t you ever wondered why bears in most zoos don’t hibernate?”
“Uh … I guess I never thought about it.”“I guess it wouldn’t be the first thing on a girl’s mind at that,” he said hefting two hams out at once that were only a little dust covered. “Mostly it’s because they don’t need to. They have a regular and constant food supply that isn’t dictated by the weather. Now come on. I have a feeling that bear hasn’t gone all that far and I want to be gone in case it decides to take another crack at this pile of rocks.”