Rusty sighed. “Well, that's over, at least. Can we head back now, Boris?”
“Hardly. You are forgetting that a mess has been left for us.”
Rusty smacked his forehead. “I forgot! The farm!”
Moose groaned and looked at Boris. “Damn me, another garbage detail. Well, I vote we make these guys do most of the work this time,” he said, gesturing to Snake and Rick. Snake started to protest, but Larry cut him off.
“If he's tellin' the truth... IF he is, mind you, he didn't have nuthin' to do with what happened back there. An' I don't think it's all that wise to let a stranger in on, well, you know...” Larry's voice trailed off, but he looked directly into Boris' eyes.
“My friend, I think it is too late for that.” Boris's voice was sad.
“Too late? What the Hell you mean, 'too late'?” Larry was about to argue, but Boris motioned for quiet.
“You are forgetting what the young man said when he was telling us his story. He was waiting for Kyle, hoping for the chance of some, what did he call it, 'afternoon delight'?” He looked at Snake, who blushed and nodded. “He implied that he had had sex with one of our departed cousins the night before. That is what you meant, correct?” Once again, Snake nodded.
“Aw, shit! You mean you didn't just fuck him, you got fucked, too?” Larry was appalled.
“Yeah, so? What's it to you? You're all are queer, ain'tcha?” Snake said defensively. The other bear's faces showed various shades of puzzlement, anger and frustration.
“Well, there is one way to check,” Boris said, reaching for the still-tied Snake. Snake shied away apprehensively. Both he and Rick had had their hands re-tied once they had finished helping with the clean up in the area surrounding the barn. Snake raised his hands in a defensive gesture.
“No, young one, I mean you no harm. This will seem odd but it is necessary. I need to smell you. Then I promise, I will explain this to you.”
“What kind of weird ass shit is this?” Snake was clearly nervous and unconvinced. He attempted to shy away again, but Larry had a hold of one arm and forcefully moved Snake closer to Boris.
“Just shut up and stand still.” Larry growled.
Boris said softly, “Trust me, this is... necessary. May I?” The big bear calmly waited. Snake considered; the man who apparently held all the cards was politely waiting for his permission. It was a kind of respect he wasn't used to being given unasked. He silently nodded.
Boris sniffed carefully at Snake, his nose taking in the myriad scents that the man gave off. His werebear senses were at their sharpest when processing scents. Like their ursine relatives, werebears' sense of smell was exquisitely sensitive, far more acute than any human's and superior to any animal's. He snuffled at Snake's hand and lingered at the nape of his neck. Snake squirmed, but Larry put a heavy paw on his shoulder. Snake stilled and Boris finished his inspection with a prolonged sniffing of his head. He straightened, looked at the other bears and nodded.
“It is faint, but there is no mistaking it; were, mingled with human. He will change.” Vic gave Boris a concerned look as if to ask a question and Boris almost reading his mind continued. “Luckily, he is kindred and that's a blessing, it will make all this easier for him; but yes, he will become as we.”
“Will someone tell me what the fuck is goin' on here?” Snake demanded. “Now? In English?”
“I will, as I promised.” Boris rumbled. “Untie him, please.” Larry did so, with obvious reluctance.
Boris sighed deeply. “My friend, listen vary carefully to me...” For the next ten minutes, Boris explained to Snake what was going to happen to him, beginning with the moment of sexual pleasure that began the inexorable change that was even now working in his body. He concluded the short course in the werebear facts of life by stripping and demonstrating his shape shifting ability. To anyone in a receptive frame of mind, Boris's performance would have been awe-inspiring. Boris was without a doubt an impressive bear in full form. Snake was, however, not in a receptive frame of mind. He watched, ashen-faced, struggling to keep from bolting in screaming terror. It was a measure of his grit that he did not run or scream.
Boris slowly changed back and rested a paw on Snake's shoulder. “I'm sorry you had no choice in this. That is not our way, please believe me,” he said softly.
Snake was so stunned he didn't even flinch but he finally found words for his churning emotions.
“What am I gonna do? Can't we do something? Can't it be stopped? What the hell am I gonna do?” He glared at the bears. There was no answer from any of them.
“This is one fucked-up social disease, you know that?” Snake said still trying desperately to disbelieve, hoping to awaken from this nightmare.
Boris bristled at that. “We do not see it as a disease, any more than you would see being left-handed as a deformity,” he snapped. “This is the way we are. It is as natural to us as your form is to you.” Edging back from his anger, he calmed himself and continued. “I know this is a huge amount to take in all at once and believe me, I would spare you this if it were at all possible; but it isn't. I know you have been changed without your knowledge or consent. Kyle should never have had unprotected sex with you, but perhaps he didn't know, didn't understand what would happen. On the other hand, perhaps he did; we can never know now. I seriously doubt that Sebastian was very diligent in his duties as a daddy bear, or as a leader.” Boris began putting his clothes back on, Robert handing them to him as needed.
Vic stepped forward and placed a paw on Snakes shoulder. “What's done is done and you have to deal with it. But we will be here to help you get your head around it so you can move on. It won't be easy, but you're family now and family sticks together. This other guy, Rick here, says you weren't involved and Rusty says he senses that you're tellin' us straight; so we don't blame you.” Vic looked up at Boris. “Maybe we should leave Snake here, one of us could stay with him. There's no need to involve him at the farm, is there? We could pick him up on the way back.” He looked at Snake, then back at Boris. “He's just had quite a shock.”
Robert spoke. “I disagree, Vic. True, he may not have been involved with the rogues and what they did, but this will be his life from now on. He needs to see the consequences and more important, know why we were ready to take the actions we were forced into... or would have been forced into.” He looked at Boris. Boris nodded slowly, along with René.
“So, Vic... will you go along with this?”
Before answering, Vic turned to his cub. Walt in turn looked at Mitch. Both nodded and Vic turned back to Boris.
“OK. I can see where it might be useful for him to understand what these guys were up to. He also needs to see why it's important to clean up thoroughly when messes are made. He should know what he's getting in for and why we're doing what we're doing.” He paused. “I agree.”
“Good. Then let's get moving. I want Rick and Robert leading, they know the way best. Larry, I'd like you to ride with Snake. You can fill him in on some of the finer points of werebear life.” Boris had a slight smile at the sides of his mouth.
“Huh? Why me? I still don't trust thi...” Boris cut Larry off.
“Let us just say I think it might be a good idea for Snake to hear about all this from another southern boy. Humor me.” Boris's voice carried just the slightest edge to it in spite of the smile.
“OK, but I ain't gonna like it, no sir.” Larry grumped and herded Snake to one of the vehicles.
It was frustrating having to keep to the speed limit, but Robert was adamant about not risking any unwanted police attention. The sun was well up when they reached the farm. It had the same abandoned air it had, had on their previous visit. The barnyard cat watched them cooly from the porch and only bristled and hissed when they approached the stairs. It bolted off into the grass and slunk under the house.
The clean up efforts centered on getting the two bodies out of the dry well, located with Rick's information. Fortunately, the winch on the front of Mitch's new truck was sturdy enough to raise the broken bits of concrete and wood beam that had been tumbled down to cover them. Snake, as the thinnest of them, had been pressed into service, lowered down the shaft to loop the cable around the items so they could be raised. Once that was done, there was more room to raise the bodies. Snake was hauled up and Vic lowered to complete the job.
“I guess we should be grateful to Sebastian's crew for having done a good job of wrapping the bodies. No blood that I can see.” Vic was peering intently at the bodies as he tied the ropes around them and they were raised.
“Poor guy. Wonder if lived here all his life?” Moose held his nose as he wrapped the farmer's bloated body in extra plastic with Rusty's help.
“I wish we could give him a proper burial. He didn't deserve what happened to him.” Rusty said.
“Well, a lot of people who die don't deserve to... but at least his killers won't kill again. That's some justice.” Mitch helped heave the body into Boris's Suburban, then returned for the rogue's corpse. The others were carefully brushing away tire tracks and foot prints with a downed tree branch and some sacking from the barn.
By the time the well had been restored to its previous dilapidated state, Larry had exited the house with René. “All done! I gotta piece of bread in the toaster and set so's it will catch the curtain afire in the kitchen. I opened the window so's it'll look like the breeze blew it too close and it caught over the toaster. That place has gotta be over a huner'd years old. All that wood's gotta be drier than a bleached bone in west Texas. Won't take much and the old wiring looks pretty iffy as it is. I rigged it so's some of it will short in several places, too. Won't be noticed and it'll help spread the fire along. Let's git!” Wisps of smoke were already beginning to waft from the kitchen window.
Within minutes, with the last of the tire tracks swept away, all three vehicles and the two bikes were back on the highway heading north once again. Behind them, the first dark smoke was rising from behind the low hill that concealed the farmhouse and barn from the road.
The highway took them past the old grain silo and the track leading back to the now demolished barn one last time. There was no evidence of police activity yet as they sped by. Rick looked out the window at the site.
Robert spoke softly to him. “Let it go. It's over now.”
Rick just shook his head and looked down at his feet.
As the miles unrolled, the sun moved overhead. Robert, Rick, and Boris were in the Suburban, with Larry, Snake and René in the Avalanche. Moose, Rusty and Mitch were behind them and Vic and Walt were on the hawgs bringing up the rear. There was little conversation in the three vehicles except for René and Larry filling in Snake's knowledge of werebears. Snake obviously still didn't entirely believe what was going to happen to him and René's patience was wearing thin with tiredness; but Larry, surprisingly, calmly answered Snake's incessant questions and explained and re-explained as often as necessary. René dozed, oblivious to the subtle change in Larry's demeanor. When he traded driving with René and finally nodded off, his bearded face bore a small smile.
“What now?” Moose asked as the vehicles turned off a highway in favor of a much narrower country road.
“We follow Boris. We cross the border someplace where we don't go through a border crossing station. We pack all the remains in that mine he knows about.” Mitch's eyes were intent on the road and vehicles ahead. “I don't know exactly where we're heading, I'm just following along. Boris said he knew places where we could cross.” His eyes flicked across to Rusty, who was falling asleep, resting against Moose's bulk. “I see our early warning system is shutting down.”
Moose grinned. “Yeah, he's like that. Full awake, then snap, he's out. Tell the truth, I could use some sleep, too.”
“I think we all could. We've been keyed up for days, it seems like, running on adrenaline and damn, but I'll be happy to get those bodies out of here. I just hope the stink doesn't stay.”
“Yeah, I know what you mean, but it can't be helped. I'm gonna try to catch some sleep. If you get sleepy, poke me and I'll drive for a while,” Moose said.
“I'd like to poke you,” Mitch grinned tiredly, “but I'd probably fall asleep in you.”
“Hey... worse ways to fall asleep!” Moose settled against the door frame and seat back and draped a heavy arm protectively across his sleeping partner's chest and belly.
Mitch focused on his driving and the hours and miles unwound. Boris lead them on a number of back roads and county highways, gradually heading westwards. At some point, they had crossed into Canada, but Mitch couldn't have said exactly where. Late in the afternoon, he led the small convoy off the road and onto a beaten dirt track that gradually got more and more rutted. The land was growing more mountainous, the vegetation sparse and covered with dust. Even in spring, it would be a bleak and empty landscape.
The track finally gave out and Boris pulled up at the base of a gully between two hills, one larger than the other. The others pulled up next to him. Everyone piled out and stretched.
“Geez, I'm stiff and not in a good way, either,” Robert said, arching his back and raising his arms above his head. His shirt rode up and he scratched the thicket of belly hair that was revealed.
“This way, I think.” Boris said, walking off up the gully, intent on finding the entrance to the mine. In short order, he called softly to the others.
“Over here. Robert, can you bring the large torch? It's behind the front seat.”
Soon all the bears were looking into the dark entrance to a long abandoned mine shaft. Twisted iron rails led into it and it was framed with decayed timbers. A few scraggly weeds grew at the opening and the dirt was undisturbed. A soft, short green furze of grass brought on by spring was untrampled. It was obvious that no one had been in the shaft for some time.
“OK. You need to back the vehicles here and unload everything, bodies first. Robert and I will go ahead and see that the way is clear. There is supposed to be a vertical shaft some ways in, so we must be careful. Go slow and step carefully. Vic, you and Mitch bring the torches from your vehicles... oh, sorry, Mitch, I mean... oh, I can't think... what is your word?” Boris's weariness was showing.
“Yes, flashlights. Bring what you have, we'll need as much light as we can get.”
Meanwhile, Robert had flicked on the Suburban's headlights. They shone into the mouth of the mine shaft, illuminating it for some yards in. Beyond was inky blackness. Boris and Robert entered, their lights scanning back and forth as they walked slowly, allowing their eyes time to adjust.
Moose and Rusty hefted the body of the farmer, trudging into the mine following the beam of light from Vic who was walking beside them, lighting the way. The air grew more dank and musty as they walked
Rick and Larry carried Freddie's heavily wrapped remains, following the beam of light Walt provided.
“I can't see shit!” Larry grumbled.
“Here it is!” Boris called out as his light illuminated the plunging vertical shaft that has once been the glory hole of this mine. The broken rails led off to the right, following a branching tunnel that sloped downward at a shallow angle. Another tunnel led off to the left. An old wheel with a fragment of rope hung over the shaft.
By unspoken consent, they paused a moment and were quiet before letting the shrouded bodies slide over the edge of the shaft. A moment later, there were two distant splashes.
“I am sorry for the old man.” Rick said.
“You should be.” Boris replied.
“He shoulda had a funeral,” Snake added, speaking for the first time since they had arrived at the mine.
“Well, if you believe in a soul, it has long since left the husk of the body we found. Our bodies all return to the earth in one way or another when our time here is over.” Robert said quietly.
“We have no time to waste, gentlemen. Let's get the rest of the remains and commit them to the earth as well.” Boris lead the group back out, carefully picking their way over fallen rocks and the twisted rails of the old ore cart track.
It took nearly an hour to unload all they had bagged from the blast site at the barn, but finally the vehicles were empty of bagged remains and motorcycle parts.
“Now comes the delicate part.” Boris said.
“What?” René questioned, looking at the mine entrance.
“We need to carefully pull down some of those supports near the shaft so the area just above it collapses into the shaft. It is dangerous.” Boris said, exercising his talent for understatement.
“You're kidding!” Mitch was incredulous. “You'll get us killed!”
“No, if we are careful, we should be OK. But it must be done, we want no one to be able to find anything we've buried here. Ever.”
“Well, why not attach ropes to the beams and pull them out with the trucks.” Mitch said.
“An excellent plan, my friend, but we do not have enough rope to reach,” Boris said. “This is something we're going to have to do manually.”
Carefully, the bears skirted around the vertical shaft and attached ropes to the aged beams supporting the roof overhead. “I knew I should have paid attention in ze mining school,” René joked weakly as he carefully fed one end of a rope around a splintered base of one beam prop. Only Rusty thought it was funny, and even he didn't laugh much.
“OK, pull on those ropes, but slowly, mes amis.” René said once he had returned, dusting himself off a bit. Moose and Boris grabbed the rope ends and Walt, Vic, Robert and Mitch grabbed a hold as well.
“Now! Easy... one, deux, three,” René said, and the bears began pulling with a steady motion.
There were several loud creaks and a splintering sound as some of the wood moved, but mostly what they heard was the sound of rock crumbling and falling. The timbers were severely rotten and gave way with only a little encouragement from the ropes. The entire gallery beyond the glory hole collapsed, as did the ceiling directly above it. Thick clouds of dust billowed around them. As it settled, they could see that the glory hole was now filled with rubble to nearly half its height.
Coughing and choking, the bears stumbled their way back out the main tunnel. Now clear of the worst of the dust, they tuned to look.
“Well, that's one kind of tombstone, I guess.” Larry said grimly.
The others turned away and slowly walked ahead. Moose, Rusty and Boris brought up the rear. Boris's flashlight was growing dim. The damp air was thick with dust and a faintly rank odor. There was another light rumble from behind them as more gravel and rock trickled into the pit. Moose moved his light overhead and then along the walls of the tunnel briefly, then returned the light to the floor
“We've done a good day's work, I think.” Boris's voice betrayed his deep tiredness. Up ahead, the light from the Suburban's headlights glowed faintly as they neared the entrance.
“LOOK OUT!” Moose bellowed, diving and shoving Rusty hard. Rusty shot forward and down, safely out of the way. Overhead, a rotted timber gave way, weakened by the fissures opened when the gallery around the glory hole had collapsed. Moose's lunge had knocked Rusty to safely out from under the beam as it cracked, then hung for a moment. Almost in slow motion, the beam gave way, with a good portion of the rock above coming with it. Moose twisted and pushed to his right, knocking Boris off balance and covering him with his body. The beam hit Moose squarely, pinning him on top of Boris. The fractured rocks fell and covered them both.
Rusty at first scrambled forward to get away from the falling rock, not fully realizing what had knocked him down, but then he turned and with a loud cry of anguish lunged back toward the heap of rock covering Moose. “NO!” Ignoring the ominous creaking of rotted timbers around him, he scrabbled furiously at the rocks, tearing at them.
René and Vic ran back into the tunnel. Vic tried to drag Rusty back to safety, but Rusty, already half changed, shoved him away.
“NO!” be bellowed again, clawing frantically again at the rubble. Vic staggered back.
René ran forward, shifting to half-form for greater strength and began to help clear the rock and in a moment, Vic followed suit. The rest of the bears by this time had run into the tunnel as well, their flashlights adding to the light from the headlights of the Suburban.
“Oh, god, oh god, oh god, oh god!” Rusty was crying over and over as he heaved rocks aside. Suddenly, the half-light revealed Moose's shirt. Redoubling his efforts, Rusty ignored the stabbing pain as he cleared the jagged rocks with his lacerated paws and revealed Moose's torn and bloody back. René and Vic cleared the smaller rocks covering his legs. There was a moan and a twitch and it appeared that Moose moved, but it was Boris under him who made the noise and movement.
“Boris, hold still for a moment, mon ami,” René said. “We must clear the beam.” He turned and looked at Vic. “Ready?” Vic nodded and gripped the piece of wood that covered Moose's head. They both lifted on the count of three. Rusty moved forward and reached his lacerated paws to Moose's dust-powdered face. His auburn beard was completely covered with grayish-brown dust, making him look like a statue that had been knocked down; marble-cold and still.
A deep sob welled up from Rusty's chest and broke as tears streamed down his furry face, making furrows in the dust that covered his fur and beard. As he caressed his lover's forehead, Moose's eyelids flickered and opened.
“Rusty? Are you OK?”
With a cry, Rusty practically threw himself on Moose's frame, hugging and sobbing, unable to speak. René and Vic gently raised him off Moose's body. “Careful, Rusty, his back. We need to move him carefully, Boris is under him and might be injured, too.” They carefully raised Moose and shifted him so they could reach Boris.
Boris coughed and spat rock dust. “I think I am all right. I can move my legs now. My arms are OK. Help me up, if you would,” he said.
Vic gripped one arm and René took the other and raised the big bear up so he could stand.
Rusty was tending to his lover, stroking and alternately holding his hand and brushing hair back from his face. Moose looked a bloody mess, dark patches of blood staining the rock dust and grit that covered him. Suddenly he heaved himself into a sitting position.
“Are you all right?” he stared intently at Rusty, who gulped and nodded, then went into a coughing fit, trying to clear the inhaled dust from his lungs.
“Never mind me, are you OK? Can you move your legs?” Rusty was anxiously feeling every part of Moose he could reach and touch.
Moose nodded and managed to stand up, still shaky and needing Rusty's shoulders to steady himself. It was apparent that his head alone was not stained with blood. The cuts and scrapes, all but the deepest ones, had stopped bleeding and were healing. A long deep gash on his back still seeped, but his head was only dusty, not bloody. The beam that had given way had fallen on him, but his head had been in the apex of the inverted 'V' shape the broken beam had formed, creating a space for his head and a support for the rocks as they fell. Moose's big body had sheltered and saved Boris's head from being crushed by the falling rock; a living shield.
Boris moved over to Moose and looked directly at him. “You saved my life.” He hugged the bloody, dust-covered bear gently, wincing with pain as he did so.
There was more ominous creaking. “Let's get out of here... now.” Vic said.
Rusty helped Moose limp out of the tunnel while Vic did the same for Boris. René led the way, holding a flashlight in each hand. The others followed behind. They had just reached the mouth of the tunnel when there was a loud rumble from deeper within the tunnel. A gust of fetid air was followed by a thick cloud of dust and grit.
“Move! Get away!” Larry shouted. One more loud crack sounded as the opening into the mine shaft collapsed, spilling debris at the mouth of the tunnel. Rick was knocked down by a large rock that rolled out, but otherwise, there were no more injuries.
Boris's face had been scratched badly but was rapidly healing. His right wrist appeared to have been broken when Moose fell on him, but otherwise, he was remarkably unharmed. His clothes were torn to shreds, as were Moose's. Rusty had found two more deep lacerations on Moose's left shoulder and right leg. Walt spoke quietly to him while the others were sorting themselves out and dusting off.
“If you lick the wounds, it will help them heal faster. Lots of saliva. They look pretty deep, but they should heal OK. Your Moose is one tough son of a bitch.” He hugged Rusty. Still in half form, Rusty nodded and fell to work using his elongated ursine tongue to help heal his lover.
As pulse rates and breathing returned to normal, Vic looked around. “Now, this is my idea of a fun road trip!” There was moment of silence, then Larry started to giggle. René started to laugh and soon all the bears were laughing, releasing the tension of the last days and minutes. Snake alone wasn't laughing. He was closely watching Moose and Rusty, eyes intent. They widened as he watched the edges of the deep cuts on Moose's shoulder and back gradually close as thick scar tissue formed to knit them together. He watched Rusty change to his human shape. He looked around and indeed all the bears that had changed to rescue Moose and Boris had regained their human appearance.
“Shit. You weren't kidding, were you? About the injuries and the healing up.” Snake had gotten very quiet.
“Werebear's natural processes are all accelerated. As long as the injuries aren't catastrophic or the head severely damaged, we can heal remarkably well.” Robert said.
“And I'll be like that?” Snake asked quietly.
“Coulda used that in Desert Storm a couple a times.” Snake muttered.
“And reveal to your buddies just what kind of soldier you were? Being a bear has its advantages, but it isn't always as easy as it seems.” Robert's face was friendly, but his tone was serious. “Being a bear imposes some, ah, unique restrictions.
“I was pretty good at hiding things in the service.” Snake said
“Some things are easier to hide than others,” Robert said. “Your body will heal whether anyone is watching or not. You can't control that. If you were unconscious and a medic was tending to you...”
Snake nodded and turned back to watching Moose, but his face was more thoughtful now.
Meanwhile, Boris was trying to flex his broken wrist and failing. The grind of bone on bone could be clearly heard. Moose hugged Rusty. “Hold off a minute, OK?” He walked over to Boris, still a bit wobbly on his feet but feeling much better.
“Boris, let me look at that. Don't move it, just hold still.” Boris looked at Moose, who answered the unasked question.
“I'm a physical therapist, not a doc, but I've set bones and relocated shoulders and done a lot with sports injuries, too. Here, let me feel.” Moose moved his large hairy paws over Boris thick wrist. It appeared to be still swollen and was lumpy as well. Moose looked intently at the wrist and felt carefully. His thick, blunt fingers were surprisingly gentle. Boris's face was impassive, but his eyes narrowed with pain.
“Uh-huh. Hmmmm.... Vic. Hold his forearm and don't let it move. Rusty, take his hand and fingers, hold them tight. When I tell you, pull. Steady, not a jerk. Don't let go until I tell you.” He looked up at Boris. “I'm going to press when Rusty's pulls. The trapezoid and capitate carpals are pushed up and out of place, but not broken. I'm going to press them back into position.” He paused. “It'll hurt.” Boris nodded.
“Ready?” Boris, Vic and Rusty all nodded. “Go.”
Rusty pulled, Moose pressed and twisted, Vic grunted, and Boris yelped.
“OK, you can let go.” Moose stood back, while Vic let go of Boris's arm and Rusty released his hand. “Try moving it now.”
Boris gently flexed his hand and wrist. It hurt like fire, but there was no more grinding noise and the joint moved freely. Boris grinned and gave Moose a one-armed hug. Moose hugged back.
Boris looked at Moose and Rusty, still covered with dust and blood. “I was right about you two. You have both come in very handy on this little adventure. I was right to listen to my gut.” He patted his belly. “Always listen to your gut.”
Once they had changed to more presentable clothes, Vic asked Boris, “Is there a town anywhere near this god-forsaken place?”
“About a half an hour's drive from here, I believe. I fear there won't be a Hilton there.”
“I don't care what kinda flea-bag joint it's got, as long as it's got a shower.” Larry growled. The others nodded agreement.
The three vehicles and the bikes carefully made their way back up the rutted track towards the road, leaving behind them the remains of eight bears and one old farmer, mingled together, deep down in the earth.
Overhead, the moon was just beginning to rise in the evening sky.