Editor's note: This is the third installment of a four-part story from the Middlinville Chronicles by Ron Flewelling.
A short distance away, Buttermilk Sykes was about to call it a day. He had a stringer of nice fat catfish for his efforts and the stinging beginnings of a sunburn. He pulled out his pint, took a healthy swallow, and rolled his eyes appreciatively.
Some time back, Buttermilk had decided to improve his mind, so every day, he tried to think a profound thought for an hour or so. The subject for today's thought was: "How high is up?" Buttermilk had thought and thought until he'd developed a headache right between his eyes, and although he'd arrived at no earth-shattering conclusions, it had been an interesting way to pass the time.
He was on his way back to the Ford with fishing pole in hand when a gawd-awful ruckus disturbed the serenity of the late afternoon countryside. As he came to a clearing, what he saw made his mouth gape in disbelief. It was the biggest bear he'd ever heard tell of trying to shake a man out of a tree.
Even at that distance, he recognized the man as the Solitary who lived up on the bluffs. He'd often seen the man on his lonely sojourns but had never spoken to him, even though he'd felt a sort of kinship with the strange loner.
After all, people at the Ford considered the Solitary to be even a bit loonier than Buttermilk himself.
What he was doing up the tree and why the bear was after him was a great curiosity.
Yes sir, it was something you didn't see every day at the Ford, that's for certain sure. He'd sure have a tale to spin at the Stone Creek Tavern tonight.
While these thoughts were jumbling around inside of Buttermilk's head, the tree harboring Doon Lawton slowly began toppling over. It was plain to Buttermilk Sykes that the Solitary was about to become lunch for Mr. Bear. Without pausing to think, Buttermilk grabbed his pole and with an expert twist of the wrist, cast his line directly at the bear.
Buttermilk was proud of his casting abilities and so was only moderately surprised when the hook hit the bear's left ear and sank in. Buttermilk gave the line an expert shake to set the hook, then gave a mighty pull.
For a second, a supreme, almost surreal calm settled over the clearing. Notch-Nose, feeling a sharp pain in his ear, slowly turned his head. He saw the line dangling past his snout…
He saw the line reaching across the clearing...
He saw the line attached to a fishing pole...
The fishing pole was in the hands of a scarecrow-looking man whose Adam's apple seemed to be doing a boogie...
Suddenly aware of the funny glint in the bear's eye, Buttermilk started to realize just what he had done.
With a squall of rage and indignation, Notch-Nose thundered across the clearing to devastate the new upstart.
Buttermilk leaped high in the air, turned around, and ran three steps before his bare feet hit the ground. After they were both solidly implanted with good traction, old Buttermilk high-tailed it away at a pretty good clip.
Whenever Buttermilk Sykes ran, it looked as if his threshing knees and elbows were all racing in different directions, but giving the devil his due, old Buttermilk was making good time and giving the irate Notch-Nose a real run for his money.
By the time Buttermilk realized that he was still carrying this fishing pole, he'd started giving a little ground to the pursuing bear. Without a second's hesitation, Buttermilk pitched the pole over his shoulder and proceeded to give the words "moving on" a whole new meaning.
Notch-Nose hesitated just long enough to smash Buttermilk's prized fishing pole into smithereens with one meaty paw before resuming the chase.
Slowly, Notch-Nose narrowed the gap between them. This raggedy little upstart had really started to aggravate him. Buttermilk felt a near-uncontrollable urge to scream in terror but didn't feel as if he could spare the breath for the effort.
Just as the Bear was closing the gap to within reaching distance, Buttermilk, with his tongue sticking out of the side of his mouth and his breath coming in short, ragged gasps, gave his all in one last go-for-broke burst of speed. Buttermilk's brand new, now thoroughly sweat-soaked straw hat flew off his head right into Notch-Nose's face.
The grizzly paused long enough to eat the damned thing…And it didn't taste good.
Old Notch-Nose then proceeded to wind up and put on a pretty good sprint himself.
Just as it looked as if he might escape, Buttermilk came sliding to a stop. Directly in front of him was a sheer cliff that dropped a couple of hundred feet into the rapids of the River below.
Buttermilk had run a pretty good race but right now he was plumb out of track.
Any disinterested outside spectator might have made the observation that the fleeing man could have jumped off the cliff and, if he survived the plummet, could then precipitate his escape by swimming away to safety. There were only two things wrong with that clinical supposition: Buttermilk could not swim a lick and he was terrified of heights.
Instinctively knowing that he had his prey cornered, Notch-Nose slowed to a walk, and belying the scientific fact that bears can not grin, toothed an evil smirk as he approached his helpless victim.
Buttermilk, his knees a'knocking out a rhythm that would put a maraca player to shame, slowly turned and faced the bear.
As old Notch-Nose reared up on his hind legs and began to envelop him in a grinding bear hug, Buttermilk tried desperately to think of a prayer. The trouble was, his mind was a total blank. All he could say was:
They say that a dying man's life passes before his eyes. This is a bunch of malarkey. As Doon Lawton's tree tipped over, he'd barely had time to get a good case of the regrets going.
When the fishing line appeared out of nowhere and settled in Notch-Nose's ear, a thin gossamer thread was knotted, entwining the lives and fates of Doon, Notch-Nose and Buttermilk Sykes. It was hard to tell which of the three was the most surprised. Doon, however, on his part, could only stare in half-horror, half-relief as Notch-Nose gave a roar, abandoned him and took off in high speed pursuit of the rapidly diminishing figure of Buttermilk Sykes.
Doon Lawton, later in life. considered the next act as the pinnacle of his own personal bravery. There was no way that the stranger who had saved his life was going to outrun that bear. No matter how hard his brain counseled: "Stay! Stay! Find a bigger tree!," he knew the only person around to help the fleeing man was himself. Forcing himself forward on trembling knees, Doon set off in pursuit of the other two.
Doon's proposed contingency plan, once he caught up to the racers, was only a wistful hope that lightning might suddenly strike down out of the sunny summer sky and char-broil the angry bear on the spot. Deep down, he realized that this was only a forlorn hope at best and that there was a good chance that he was racing to his own execution.
The bear, in all probability, would undoubtedly eat both the stranger and himself for lunch.
Even though beset with this sense of fatalism, Doon continued his pursuit. Maybe, somewhere down deep inside, he felt the invisible tie that bound the three unlikely protagonists together.
It took some time for Doon to catch up, but the scene that lay unfolding before him was enough to take one's breath away. On a cliff, high above the River, the bear stood menacingly over the helpless man, slowly enveloping him in a crushing hug of death.
Without a moment's hesitation, Doon let out a yell and plunged forward. As he approached the struggling bear, a desperate plan began to formulate in his brain. Maybe. just maybe.if he hit him hard enough, Doon could knock the bear right off the cliff.
Continued next week.