Lord of the Bears (Wild Ridge Bears Book 1)(2)By: Kimber White
Spruce branches blocked my path. The needles stabbed into my forearms as I pushed through. When I did, the ground shifted beneath me and I tumbled down a short drop over tangled tree roots. I landed hard on my left hip but managed to protect the camera. The cost of doing so was a scratch across my cheek from a low tree branch. My flesh stung hot. I pressed the back of my hand to my face. I was bleeding. Not badly. I was lucky I hadn’t poked out my eye.
Tucking an errant blonde curl behind my ear, I dusted myself off and started to stand. When I looked up, my breath caught in my throat. I wasn’t alone.
Or at least, this wasn’t the barren wilderness anymore. Ahead of me, an ancient, weathered log cabin nestled amid the birch trees. Stumbling forward, I raised my camera and snapped away.
“Holy shit,” I whispered as I approached. I ran my hand along the side of the structure, crudely built with round logs with the bark left on. It was old. I was no expert, but this was probably here during the pioneer days. Some of the logs suffered from rot, and part of the thatched roof caved in. But what a find! I took pictures from every angle. Even as I did it, I felt like a trespasser. Surely whatever Michigan pioneer lived here was long gone. But, someone had called this place home. It might seem strange to say, but it was almost as if I could feel their ghost watching me. Not unfriendly. Not a threat, but a presence nonetheless that made the hair on my arms stand on end.
I grew bolder, peering in through the window. There was just the one, the glass long gone. The frame itself bloated and cracked from decades of rain. I couldn’t see much inside but shadows and piles of rotted leaves. But an intricately carved stone hearth took up the center of the room, its chimney gone.
I tried the front door. It wouldn’t budge, not locked, but the rain-swollen wood jammed into the frame. I could crawl through the window, but if I hurt myself, I was all alone out here and miles from my car. I took my phone back out of my pocket. My battery was nearly dead, but I had a weak signal and hoped it would be enough. It was. I pinned my location and stood back to take more pictures.
The ground vibrated beneath me. A low, rumbling thunder came from all around. Scanning the sky, I saw nothing but bright blue and sunshine. I raised the camera to my eye again. The thunder reached a crescendo and came from my left. I froze. Something was happening. It was as if I could hear it with more than just my ears. My nerves crackled and gooseflesh rose on my arms. With dawning clarity, I realized it wasn’t thunder at all. It was breathing.
Slowly, I swung my camera back over my shoulder and turned toward the noise. I should run. My brain told me that. But, my body told me something different. I took slow, gingerly steps in the direction of the sound. I couldn’t see anything but more trees. At least, not at first. When I got closer to the largest red maple I pressed my hand flat against the rough bark. Just beyond it, a huge, petrified oak tree arched back at an angle. I followed its trunk to the ground. It had torn away from the earth, leaving a natural alcove.
I don’t remember moving. I don’t remember making a conscious choice to go to it. Nevertheless, I found myself standing directly in front of that massive, ancient tree and its twisted roots that had long ago erupted out of the ground. The thunderous growl shook the leaves in the surrounding trees and sent a spear of heat straight down my spine. There was something in that hollowed out ground. I moved toward it, half remembering to lift my camera. But, I couldn’t focus. I was breathing. I had to be. And yet, it felt like the air had been sucked right out of me.
Trembling, I got closer. At first, I just saw shadows and leaves. Then, the form in the hollow began to take shape. A lump of massive brown fur. Something dead. My heart stopped.
It was a bear. The largest creature I’d ever seen. It had huge, black paws stretched out in front of it. Even lying motionless on its side, the thing came up nearly to my waist. God. What could have killed such a thing?
Then I realized it wasn’t dead at all. The ground shook again as it took a great, slumbering breath and its fur rose and fell. Not dead. Sleeping. Hibernating.
Without thinking I snapped the shutter. Too afraid to take my eyes off the giant in front of me, I took pictures blindly. Again, the voice in my head told me to run, swift but quiet. And yet my feet seemed to take root just like the knotted trees all around me. The bear exhaled again.