Harry was exhausted and freezing. He’d fallen asleep on her shoulder. That was lucky for him. He didn’t see the bear in the cave. Hallie stopped. Her breathing was quick. Her choice was to go back out into the snow and die with Harry, or lie down beside the slumbering bear to warm their nearly frozen bodies. She chose the latter. The big bear seemed dead even though it snuffled. It didn’t move and its eyes were closed. Alongside were two cubs, one dead, the other alive and nursing.
Hallie rested Harry Partridge up against the big bear and urged him to drink its milk. In a half sleep he did as he was told, still caught up in his dreams. The little bear who nursed alongside him mewled and pushed at the interloper, then concentrated on feeding. Later, Hallie, too, drank from the bear. She had never tasted anything so rich and delicious as its milk. She felt warmed to her soul. While Harry and the bears slept she stood at the mouth of the cave looking out. The snow was falling lightly and the world seemed a fairyland. Hallie felt enchanted. She felt as though anything could happen.
She brought the little dead bear home, dragging the frozen carcass through the snow. It was difficult going because she had to carry the sleeping Harry as well, hoisted upon her shoulder. She was stronger than she looked in many ways. But she refused to assist when they skinned the little bear and readied the meat. Instead she stood outside and gazed at the mountain. She hated the house and those people. She hated their weakness and their hunger. Harry woke from his dreams and came to stand by her. He didn’t remember much of what had happened, only that they had been lost and then had found their way home.
The next time she went to the cave, Hallie made certain to leave Harry at home. She cared for him as if he were her own, but she didn’t want him accidentally telling the others where she’d gone. She brought along a bucket for the milk. She would lie to the members of the expedition, insist she had found a cow wandering the forest. They would be hungry enough to believe whatever she said. She didn’t want those fool men setting out to kill a slumbering mother bear and her cub.
Now when she took the gun no one said anything about a woman not being able to hunt. On the way through the woods she heard a crunching sound in the snow. She thought about wolves. Her throat tightened, then she saw clearly and her fear abided. It was a man making camp, setting up a tent, whistling to himself. Hallie had dealt with his species before. She held up the rifle and cocked it. The stranger turned when he heard the sight click. He was a trapper. He threw up his hands and shouted to her in French, a language she recognized but didn’t understand. He reached down to a stone circle he’d made in the snow where he kept his belongings, then held up some skinned rabbits, offering her several. Pour vous, he said. Ici. As if she knew what that meant. But she knew what she saw. The rabbits would keep them fed for days. Hallie approached. She felt like an animal herself, drawn to the scent of blood. Her shawl fell off her head. That was when the trapper realized she was a woman.
Hallie took the rabbits. She didn’t believe in something for nothing. In return she gave the man her wedding ring. She’d lost so much weight it was slipping off her finger anyway.
“Go on,” she said when the trapper seemed puzzled. “Take it. It’s real gold. Now go away.” She slapped her hands together in an attempt to make him understand. She felt a wave of protectiveness, not for the people in the cold wooden house, but for the bears in their den. “Go back where you came from. You can’t camp here.”
The man nodded. His name was Flynn. He’d only spoken French because most of the trappers in these mountains were down from Canada and he’d assumed this woman belonged to them. He himself was from Albany and clearly understood every word Hallie said.
He pretended to leave, but instead hid behind some pine trees. Sheltered by their branches, he watched Hallie go inside the cave, then come out later with the bucket of milk. He thought it was curious. And yet he was enthralled despite the cold and the strangeness of the day. He felt the sort of desire for her that a man might feel for a creature he had never before sighted.
Hallie told her husband that her ring must have fallen off when she was milking the cow she swore she had found loose in the woods. In fact, Flynn was just then studying her ring, biting on it to see what it was made of as he stood beside the ravine near the frozen waterfall Hallie called Dead Husband’s Falls. It was definitely gold.
The next time the trapper spied Hallie, he followed her. When she turned to see him and asked him what he thought he was doing, he looped his arms around her, pulling her close. He forgot his life in Albany. Hallie was not like any other woman. She was tempted, lonely. But before he could have her, she made him promise he would never shoot a bear. He laughed but she insisted. She had already come inside his tent and was slipping off her coat, so what could he do? It was a foolish request, and like a fool he agreed. He slid his hands inside her clothes, his body into hers. As soon as they were done, and he had turned his back, Hallie left him. She was quiet as she took the path up to the mountain. The mother bear was sleeping in the cave. The cub came to curl up beside Hallie. He recognized her and had waited for her. She petted him and sang to him, and for a time she could forget everything that had happened to her and everything that would happen to her still. No wonder Flynn found he was jealous when she left him. When he’d turned to find her gone, he’d wondered who it was she truly loved.