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Ann Gray

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1838 - The Bear Fight
by Ann Gray   
Rated "PG13" by the Author.
Last edited: Wednesday, May 13, 2009
Posted: Sunday, September 14, 2008

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Daily life in the small village of Terminus, Georgia in 1838 was difficult enough to deal with in broad daylight without encountering the dangers out and about at night.

The Cherokee and Creek Indians suffered long to keep their rights to the Georgia territory but, in the end as was inevitable, they lost the land to the white man.

Then in 1837, ten years after the birth of the northern Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, surveyors for The Western and Atlantic Railroad moved into that upland Georgia wilderness with work gangs.They cleared a bed for their tracks, but little else. Just seven miles short of the Chattahoochee river which meandered on off to the southwest, they laid down their tools.

At the time, Surveyor Stephen Long declared the staked out site at the end of the rail line to be good for “a tavern, a blacksmith’s shop, a general store and nothing else.” Chopped from the green and granite hills, a settlement did spring up. It was called Terminus, Georgia.Terminus, which literally meant “the end.”

The end-of-the-line was an easily accessible railroad destination that beckoned to the adventurous, the discontented, and those who perceived themselves as persecuted. Many a venturesome young man, fleeing from an all-too-familiar way of social life or and all-too-boring personal relationship, or even occasionally, an overly-ambitious son seeking asylum from a critical, pompous, and demanding father traveled into the southern wilderness, with or without the company of his own woman.

Seeking employment to sustain him, day to day, the newcomer worked the slender web of tracks, building brawn and slowly accumulating capital from wages earned, with very few places to spend them.

On one corner of the roughly carved red clay crossing roads marking the very center of the little village of Terminus stood its largest building, a twelve room boarding house, boasting the community’s only two-seater privy out back.

Across the road, a general store had sprang up and directly behind it, a village stable and blacksmith’s shed — all roughly constructed, and all dependent on the railroad for necessities. Supplies, rarely delivered on any dependable time schedule.

A little farther out from the settlement’s center, there soon blossomed a bawdy-house with six full bosomed women and lumpy beds, which the railroad bosses had deemed a requirement for the comfort of their hard working men — to divert energy previously having been consumed in nightly fist fights. Since then, tranquility had reigned — considering that the tavern — conveniently — faced the railhead.

The coming of the noisy railroad trains with screaming whistles, sooty fumes, and rowdy crews disturbed the sanctity of the region’s wildlife. Black bears and wild pigs, lured by pleasingly puzzling smells, explored dark passages between settlement structures, snorting out garbage and feeding on it. Alone on foot at night, a man’s life was worth as much or as little as the faith he put in his aim and his firearm.



Ordinarily, Morgan Andrew Heirs was not a betting man and usually he was quietly dependable. Especially when it came to his responsibilities, which he’d managed, so far, to limit to his job at the Western and Atlantic Railroad, which paid a living wage; his pretty young red haired bride, Lillian, who required nothing of him save loving, a roof over their heads and food for their bellies; his horse, Ambler, purchased with his first pay envelope after arriving in Terminus; and Freckles, his second acquisition, a speckled brown and white mixed breed bird dog, who shared quarters with Ambler in the village stables.

Standing at the dingy bar in the poorly lit, smoke-filled and overcrowded Spike and Rail tavern, shoulder to shoulder with his two new best friends, Morgan Heirs gloated. He knew for a positive fact that his horse, Ambler, one of the finest sorrel Tennessee Walkers this side of Chattanooga, could out-rack the other two men’s five-gaited horses — and his dog, Freckles, could out-sniff their pure-bred hunting dogs because, twice before, based on the superiority of his judgment, he’d bested them in competition.

Now, his immediate challenge was to outdo the two men at drinking, something they’d all excelled in equally after coming together, agreeably, for the first time a few months ago when they’d ended up in Terminus, all working for the Western and Atlantic Railroad.

When Jeremiah Baker as much as offered him the whole ninety-seven wooded acres at the top of the rise overlooking the village of Terminus -- which, thirty minutes before, Jeremiah’d just won off Tom Garrett, who was tipsier than either one of them, being the younger of the trio at a mere twenty years and yet unmarried and having no use for the land which, with signed papers, he’d just received an hour ago in re-payment of a small loan.

Well, Morgan would have been a fool not to have taken that wager. No matter, that the three of them had been standing shoulder to shoulder, drinking and lying to each other since quitting time four hours earlier. No matter that it was nearing midnight on another dreary January Saturday night. No matter that they had not eaten since noontime, nor that two very pregnant, very angry wives awaited Morgan and Jeremiah back at the boarding house, knowing full well their whereabouts.

No, none of that really mattered to Morgan Heirs right now. He couldn’t decide who among them was the greater fool, and at the moment, he didn’t care. What mattered was that valuable land was being offered as a stake in a bet and he was determined to win it.

All that would be required of him to prevail was untried endurance, an unyielding resolve, and a bladder the size of a bull elephant’s.

Yep, Morgan determined he’d win that ground to build a proper home for his Lillian or burst -- wetting down the whole of Terminus, Georgia -- trying.

The small public house echoed with raucous laughter and garrulous voices of encouragement as Morgan slammed the empty tankard to the counter. He bowed to the bystanders, all known to him, then turned his attention, again, to his companions.

“Now -- how many is that?” he asked above the din, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand and eyeing the next pewter tankard spilling foam on the counter before him.

Cocking an eye towards the empty tankards bunched up on the counter, Tom Garrett sprayed ale as he gurgled, “Count ’em, yourself, I can’t see too good, right now!”

“Whoa! He can’t count ‘em -- !” Jeremiah argued. “It’s against the rules! It’s my bet -- I get to count ‘em!” He grabbed the last empty and, making a show of it, shook it upside down to be sure it was completely drained.

Then, grinning ear to ear and staggering in the doing, he sent the lot of them, in quick succession, scooting down the smooth, well-worn wooden countertop to the bar-keep, who grabbed each one in turn, wiped it’s rim with a damp bar rag and hung it with a rhythmic clink, on one of many hooks, overhead. Jeremiah counted the filled hooks.

“That’s only seven! You’ve two and a half to go! Nine and a half was the bet -- one tankard for each ten acres — with half a mug for the seven! And that’s a gift from me!” Reeling with laughter, he slapped the bar. “You’ll never make it! You’ll be wetting us, all, down soon enough but -- mind you, piss yourself more room and you’ve lost the bet.” And, pointing at the pained expression on his best friend’s face, he doubled over in a spasm of laughter.

The aching knot in Morgan’s belly cried out for relief but, if he could ignore the agony, suffer it five minutes more -- two tankards and a half of ale -- he’d be a landowner! He reached for the next tankard.

Slamming out the tavern’s door with Jeremiah close behind him, Morgan didn’t pause for a torch at the pitch barrel, but slung his musket over his shoulder and walked on at a fast clip, leaving Jeremiah to attend to details.

Jeremiah frowned at Morgan’s back, tucked an unwrapped sweet roll into his vest pocket and licked his fingers. Then, fastening his musket between his knees, he grabbed one of the unlit rough wood torches from the row leaning against the building’s coarse siding. He touched the torch to the flaming pot of pitch the tavern keeper set out each evening for that purpose, then hurried to catch up.

Raising the flame above his head so he could see Morgan’s face, Jeremiah said, less than kindly, “Dammit, I almost didn’t even have time to pick up Hamita’s sweet roll!” He rolled his eyes and looked up to the Heavens. “What on God’s green earth made you do that? You know very well and good that Tom Garrett didn’t mean it -- he’s your friend as much as he's mine and he was joshing when he said you cheated him out of that land. He even winked, for Pete’s sake! Hell, I won it from him! And you won it from me! It’s turned out to be valuable land, and he was just trying to get a rise out of you!”

“Well, he got it, didn’t he?” Morgan stormed. “No man can call me a cheat and get away with it! So, I punched him --” His black eyes flashed in the torch light. “Are you saying, now, I cheated you, instead, when I won it from you?” His irritable voice echoed up and down the sleeping street of the lately fast-growing town.

“Don’t be a stupid ass, Morrey!” Jeremiah said with exasperation. “And lower your voice. People are trying to sleep.”

“Now, I’m a stupid ass, am I?” Morgan set his jaw and quickened his pace, stepping out ahead of Jeremiah, again. “Come on, Morrey!” Jeremiah called. “Don’t walk away like that -- wait!”

Few lanterns burned along the deserted streets at night. Most were reserved for corners near housing and at out houses. Anyone sensible, moving about late knew to carry a torch to discourage night prowling animals. Further, it was common knowledge that there had already been two loud and contentious wild boars killed late one night last week after they had dug up the town garbage dump and scattered foul smelling rubbish all over creation. Morgan knew as well as anyone in town that in a small settlement like Terminus -- recently carved out of the forest -- there were even more dangerous scavengers, black bears, regularly prowling the dark streets and alleys.

None of that mattered to Morgan, peeved and petulant at the moment, nursing his anger and wounded pride. Still half a mile from the small boarding house they’d called home for the past year, Morgan stretched out his long legs, striding faster and faster, straight up the middle of the narrow clay street until the faint glow from Jeremiah’s torch vanished and the full moon, scudding in and out behind a line of dark clouds, disappeared completely.



Sensing more than seeing his route, he heard the all too familiar sounds of night foragers echoing against buildings, from alleyways and beyond. It was good, he acknowledged, that he was heading into the wind, sending his scent back towards Jeremiah, and not forward into the unseen.

Without a torch, he should have his weapon at the ready. His fingers had barely closed around the musket’s leather strap when, without warning, an ominous roar burst through his head, a vile smell enveloped him, and he stumbled, falling blindly against a thigh high, unyielding hairy wall.

In the next moment, searing pain burned a path down his right leg and an unseen force battered him about the head before squeezing the breath out of him in a hug of death. Then, he was falling --falling into oblivion.

Morgan’s screams combined with the scavenging bear’s roar and the dreadful sounds reached Jeremiah, bringing him at a run, towards the gruesome scene. In the torch’s light, Jeremiah saw the brute, standing over the motionless, bloody form of his hot-headed friend.

The savage turned to look with glowing eyes into the approaching light. At Morgan’s feet lay the remnants of a partially gnawed ham, doubtless, rotted and discarded garbage. Yet booty, enough to cause the scavenging vagrant to defend his prize.

Jeremiah couldn’t tell if Morgan was alive or dead. He swung the torch in a fiery circle. Then, flailing away at the slavering beast, he moved closer to Morgan, forcing the bear’s retreat from the flame. The animal stood down and swaggered away a few feet, making a wide circle, swinging his rugged body in a rhythmic dance — away and back, in and out of the torch light, edging ever closer to the partially devoured ham -- and to the unconscious Morgan.

Jeremiah, spinning to keep the fiery brand in the bear’s face, looked for an opportunity to drop the torch in favor of his weapon, but the wary beast kept him unsure. Finally, it seemed to Jeremiah that if the ham were allowed to remain on the ground, untouched, and he could remove Morgan from the proximity of it, the bear would lose interest in both men.

Holding the torch aloft, he reached down with his free hand, grasped Morgan’s collar and, slowly, started hauling him away from the bear’s prize. Soon, he had moved Morgan far enough away from the scene of the attack to feel more secure in releasing him.

The bear retreated, making another wide circle, nose tilted to the wind. Something else had gone wrong -- terribly wrong! The animal, sniffing the air, pranced back to within fifteen feet of the men, and stopped, huffing and champing his teeth — a warning. Jeremiah quickly jabbed the pointed end of the torch into the soft clay road and stepped away from the fiery wadding that, now, flared towards him in the changing wind it’s brilliant light half blinding him.

Swinging his musket free and into firing position against his shoulder, he stood over Morgan, stealing a moment to look down for any sign of life, expecting the bear to circle again. But the wary creature changed course, heaving forward in that moment to slash the side of Jeremiah’s head with one massive, clawed paw, knocking him to the ground and sending his weapon spinning out of reach.

Hard as it had always been for him to believe what he’d been told was the only positive action to take in a bear encounter if one wanted to come out of it alive, he had no choice but to put the advice to the test. With his heart beating a hole in his chest, he lay, unmoving, while the hulk rolled him over with a broad paw — hovered over him, the foul smelling breath of the bear in his nostrils — nuzzled him, rooted into his vest pocket and came out with the sweet roll in his mouth.The bear sat back on his haunches and ate the morsel, licking the sweetness from his padded paws, then he scurried away.

Jeremiah looked up into the cloudy night sky and said a prayer of thanks before seeing to his friend.



Charming though he was, without a doubt when he had been drinking, Lillian knew her Morgan could be the most aggravating man who ever drew breath! He had absolutely no sense of time when he was involved with his cronies at the tavern, and since it was the men’s only recreation when they’d finished their day’s work in the rail yard, Lillian and Hamita had agreed to be understanding regarding their husbands’ choices of relaxation.

Cursing the ambivalent moon, Lillian, in her nightgown, stood anxiously watching the street from their first floor window as she had on so many nights. It was long past midnight, and though Morgan knew how she worried on these late Saturday nights they were staying out even later than usual tonight.

Though it had rained early in the afternoon, the night sky had cleared, leaving a scattering of dark clouds that skittered rapidly across the full July moon from time to time; making the night, moonlit and bright one minute, black as a well the next.

Because of the hour, even the lantern on the post at the street corner opposite the boarding house began to flicker and sputter as its supply of oil was running low. Knowing their tendency to over-imbibe, especially on a pay day night, Lillian was prepared to see the two of them, Morgan and Jeremiah, reeling under the lantern’s dying light at any moment as they returned from the tavern.

Of course, Morgan had told her, time after time, that she and Hamita should never worry about Jeremiah and him since both were always armed and excellent shots. But the very fact of their being on the poorly lit streets and impaired by drink, so late at night when there were known to be wild animals about, fed her worry.

There had even been rumors of a rampaging bear attack last month, but because the supposed victim was found wandering far from town, weapon-less, wound-less, and less than sober, the report had been tossed off as an attention-getting device and wild exaggeration, though he swore to the truth of outrunning the marauding bear.

Lillian thought for a moment that she saw something -- there, in the shadows! Why was it that the obstinate moon chose to retire behind dark clouds at the very moment it was most needed? She listened intently.

There! What was that? Perhaps, what she sensed moving out there in the shadows was a wild pig but, more likely, it was some un-tethered dog.

Yes, there was something out there, and as she felt her heart beat quicken, she tried to tell herself there was no need to become unduly fearful for Morgan and Jeremiah. Any feral creature, nearby, would surely withdraw as soon as it heard voices or caught scent or sight of men.

All at once, the moon glided into view and in its pale silvery light, she made out the shape of a man with a weapon strung across his back, arms stretched behind him, bent almost double from the effort, and he was dragging something extremely burdensome after him.

Calling out to him, now, would surely awaken every sleeper in the boarding house. And if, indeed, it were Morgan and Jeremiah with one so besotted he had to be, literally, dragged home, that would make him the town’s laughing stock. She raised the partially open window the rest of the way and sat on the sill, swinging her bare feet and legs through the opening. Then, she ran into the street towards the slowly advancing figure of Jeremiah Baker, and she knew that the burden he dragged must be her Morgan.

When she reached them, Jeremiah loosened his grasp on Morgan’s wrists and smiled, whispering, “I did make it!” before he, too, collapsed, unconscious, crimson flowing from a series of gashes on the right side of his head.

Alone in the middle the street, in the middle of the night, dressed for bed, with two unconscious men lying, wounded, at her bare feet, Lillian squatted between them.

Once she had examined them in the inconstant moonlight, she could tell that Morgan’s wounds were far more serious than Jeremiah’s.

Actually, she viewed it a blessing that her husband was unconscious. There were long, deep gashes and scratches on his face and both arms and his clothing was ripped to shreds. But more grisly, his right leg was a bloody mass of raw meat and exposed broken bones.

The ferocious attack must have come suddenly and unexpectedly, because although his musket hung in its accustomed place across his shoulder, as Lillian carefully slipped the strap over his head and laid the weapon aside, there was no smell of burnt powder about it. The musket had not even been fired.

Then, as she was cupping her hands to call out, to bring someone from the boarding house to help get the injured men inside, she saw Jeremiah coming around again. But Jeremiah was looking past her.

Following his gaze, she turned to see a rumbling black bear stand and begin walking, upright, towards them. The man lifted his trembling hand, tugging at his clothing, and his eyes sought hers. Transfixed, she realized, then, that Jeremiah was screaming at her in near panic, “-- my vest -- throw him my vest!”

He was hysterical! The musket lay less than an arm’s length from her, and the slavering animal couldn’t be more than thirty feet away. But when she tried to reach her arm out to retrieve the musket, Lillian realized her arm wasn’t moving.

As the bear waddled towards them, he could have been moving in three quarter time. The guttural roar from deep inside him rose and fell with each stride, and Lillian helplessly watched the heavy fur coat ripple and bounce with each earth-shaking step. The bear was no more than ten feet away, now, and closing on them.

“Lilly, you’ve got to do this!” she heard Morgan shouting behind her. “Pick up the gun, now, Lilly, now! Shoot him, Lilly! Shoot the bear, Lilly!”

The musket’s report split the silence of the night like a long knife thrust into a ripe melon. Lillian had aimed for his open mouth but the shot had found yet another lethal mark, penetrating the bear’s right eye, lodging in his brain and killing him instantly — as she would later learn.

Though afterwards, Lillian had sworn that it had been her husband’s voice that prompted her to act, Morgan had not actually regained consciousness for two full days after the bear attack, and had no recollection of the events of that fateful night even when he did.

-- Excerpts from Briars: The House of Heirs --This book is available and is now "on sale" at the URL listed below.       



Web Site: Ann Gray Presents a Trilogy - New Stories from the Old South

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