It was still dark when Big Sol walked off the mountain, the heavy Remington rifle gripped firmly in his hands. He snaked through tall pine and tight poplars until he found the dirt road that bent toward the town and an empty mile later, passed through the gray outskirts of broken shacks, the street vacant save for a few horses tied to railings. Further down, he found the doc’s weathered shingle. The sun was aflame on the horizon and a few birds pierced the sky with their early cries when a gunshot from inside broke the morning wide open. Big Sol emerged, the Remington smoking on his hip, a satchel of elixirs, medicine bottles and bandages in hand. From across the street, the fat Marshall trotted halfway toward him, pulling at his face and suspenders with one hand and fumbling a pistol with the other and as he opened his mouth in recognition, half his head disappeared in a red mist from the erupting rifle.
Big Sol crossed to the saloon, came out a few minutes later with bottles of whisky and bourbon clinking in his satchel. As he stepped into the street, a young deputy in a long coat emerged from a building to his right, stumbled to a railing, pistol drawn, fired once… then again. The Remington’s return fire unhinged the deputy’s leg at the knee, setting it free to dangle and the man tilted and bowed as if in a difficult dance, leaned headfirst over the railing and stayed still.
Big Sol ran the cold gray light to the spot along the road a mile up, turned into the trees and began the climb. An hour later, he sat in the silent cabin, the useless elixirs and bandages strewn across the wooden table. He uncapped another bottle of whiskey from the satchel and guzzled until his throat hurt; on a corner cot, Tall Tom lay as stiff and cold as those left in town.
A lone candle dwindled down as night crept about the cabin. Big Sol succumbed quickly to the alcohol’s bite, slumped in his chair and dozed. What had happened earlier that morning in town was now a blur. Yes, he’d taken down the doctor and the lawmen. The old doc had refused to give him anything.
“Need to ‘git him down here,” he’d wheezed.
“We take care of our own… I’ll take only what I need,” Sol had replied and turned for the doctor’s medicine cabinet. The sudden click of a cocked revolver caught his ear and Big Sol had dipped, turned and fired. A reaction… self-defense… desperation? He didn’t know for sure.
His mind reeled as the liquor settled deeper and he thought briefly about the lawmen. What had they expected? The odds had been on their side. They’d bet and bought in and paid heavily for it.
Cascading images from the previous day now washed headlong to the surface. Tall Tom hadn’t stood a chance - no by god - hadn’t deserved the death he was handed. The bear had surprised them, crashed out of a thick clot of heavy bramble as they approached their cabin. Boot, their old wolf dog had raced up from the river, leapt for the bear’s throat, tore at its flank then attacked its massive bulk from all sides. But the bear had returned the damage two-fold, thrown Boot away ripped and bleeding in the fuming dirt. Tall Tom had scrambled, stumbled over his own long feet as he tried to make for the cabin but the bear, quick as lightning, took him down. Weaponless, Sol stood frozen and for a moment everything stopped and the bear had looked up, stared into his eyes.
“Don’t…” Sol thought.
But the bear - as if reading his mind – did, closed his jaws evenly around Tall Tom’s head. Big Sol ran for the cabin, for his rifle by the door. Behind him, the sound of thrashing filled his ears. He sprung from the porch, rifle cocked and ready but the bear was gone. Tall Tom lay sprawled in a twist of torn rags, a sea of blood forming in the dirt around his head.
Take care of our own. Big Sol looked at Tall Tom, his younger brother cold and still in the corner, at Boot beneath a blanket on the floor next to him. It had been the three of them for a while now and here he was, suddenly alone. He remembered their ma saying the Lord wouldn’t ever give more than one could handle, that there was a purpose and reason for everything and when the Lord took her violently and unexpectedly, he had tried hard - real hard - to understand it. He had shouted to the emptiness of the mountain, to the silence of the sky, cursed her God for an answer. Why had he allowed such terrible loss to happen? What more could he handle?
The Lord had stayed silent.
They’d moved from the town, away from the cemetery that held both parents, settled in the old cabin their grandfather had built further up the mountain toward the snow tops. There they started a simple life and it was the way it was, the solitude of the wilderness soul cleansing, the pain receding as they began to heal and rebuild. Then one day the Lord unexpectedly came calling, sent Big Sol an answer.
He sent the bear.
He sat in the dark and drained another bottle of whisky, his brain yielding fully to the dull numbness. He waited for God’s next move. The law would eventually come for him, God-fearing folk they were. He could hear the bear just outside, closing in, its growl filling the emptiness of the cabin and his heart with what sounded like garbled words. Is that you Lord? The next move would be the final one. Rifle on his lap, Big Sol tried to make out the words, listened intently for the answer. What else was a sixteen year old to do?