The man who ruined my bear wasn't much older than me. We'd brought the bear down in the bed of Tony Tenorio's pickup. We pulled up in front of the Tierra Amarilla general store, where we'd left my car, and the two men on the stoop came down and looked at the bear. One of the men left, walking away up the highway north. The other one went inside and made a phone call. I don't know much Spanish, but I caught "three toes." The bear had a ruined paw, missing some toes, so I figured it was a famous bear. I didn't figure on Albert O'Fallon.
The owner of the general store waved us inside. He broke out a bottle of wine to toast my bear. He and Tony discussed the hunt; half the conversation was in Spanish, but I heard Albert O'Fallon's name mentioned more than once.
"Who's Albert O'Fallon?" I asked Tony.
Tony snubbed out his cigarette. He was a long skeleton, not much more in his shirt than a coat hanger. If he coughed once, you'd be sure he was dying of TB.
"He's a local rancher," Tony explained. The conversation had stopped while everyone waited to see what Tony would tell me. That was all he said.
"Has he got an investment in this bear?" I asked.
Through the screen door, I heard the sound of a pickup approaching. It pulled up next to Tony's truck; it was a new Ford, a shiny brown one with a gun rack across the rear window. The man inside was dark. I had been expecting an Irishman. I should have known better. Irish surnames in Rio Arriba County meant blue-eyed Mexicans.
Albert O'Fallon took a long look at the bear. Then he pushed his truck door open and stepped out. I never even thought, why is he carrying a shotgun? He put the muzzle next to the bear's ear and blew the left side of the head off. I was through the screen door and almost to him before he emptied the other barrel against the bear's muzzle. A piece of the jaw ricocheted off the side of the truck and fell into the dirt in front of me. That head looked like road kill. I grabbed his arm and spun him around. I almost hit him, but I stopped, remembering where I was. And he had a gun.
"What are you doing?" I yelled in his face.
"I'll pay you for it. How much?"
"How much? Three days of my life is how much!" I looked back at Tony; he was standing half out the door, holding it open with an arm. "Christ, I tracked that damn bear halfway to Fort Garland!"
"So how much? How much do you make in three days?"
"More than you'd believe!" I was looking at the mess of bone, blood, and brain on the gate of Tony's truck. The thing in the dirt by my foot had a fang in it, still intact. At least the pelt was OK.
"How much? I want to buy the bear."
I looked at Tony. He said nothing. It was illegal to sell a trophy, I was pretty sure. I wondered if this was some stupid local folk humor. I looked at the ruined bear. I named a price, twice what I thought reasonable.
"I got to write you a check. Silvester will vouch for it. Hey, Silvester?" The storekeeper was on his stoop now, a big man with a grey mustache. He was holding the wine bottle, the butt of it resting like a rifle on his thigh. He nodded.
"He's good for it. I got it in my safe, if you want me to cash the check."
I took the money.
"Tony. Gimme hand," Albert O'Fallon said. Tony and the man who had made the phone call came down to O'Fallon. The three of them talked quietly in Spanish. O'Fallon gestured toward the road, and Tony nodded. Tony got in his truck and backed it across the road and down twenty yards or so to the concrete foundation of an abandoned gas station. The windows were all shot out, and a fire had destroyed half the roof and some of a wall. The third man followed the truck on foot. O'Fallon hefted a five-gallon gas can from the back of his truck and followed them. When he caught up, Tony and the third man were in the truckbed on either side of the bear. It was a black bear, maybe four hundred pounds, a boar. We never even got it weighed.
O'Fallon made a gesture with his hand, and Tony and the other man each grabbed a rear leg. They pulled and shoved the carcass, skewing it off the truck. It hit the concrete with a muffled thump, like a roll of carpet. Tony pulled his truck away as O'Fallon splashed gas on the body. When the can was empty, he carried it half way back to the store. Walking back to the carcass, he lit a cigarette. Tony pulled up in front of the store and got out. He and the third man stood with me and Silvester watching O'Fallon draw on the cigarette. He took a long pull, then he flipped it onto the fur. The explosion of flame made a thump a lot like the fall of the carcass. O'Fallon watched the body burn. The hair was gone in moments. The heat made the limbs move as if the bear were waking and stretching. The wind was away from us, but what smell there was turned my stomach.
It took ten minutes for the flames to diminish to a curl of blue light here and there in the summer sun. At some point O'Fallon lit another cigarette. When he was done with it, he tossed it on the smoking lump, turned, and came back to his truck, grabbing up the gas can as he passed it. Nobody said anything to him. He said, "Rafael, gracias," to the man who'd phoned him. Rafael didn't say anything. O'Fallon got in his truck and drove away.
My thirty-ought-six was still in Tony Tenorio's truck. I had to be back in Albuquerque in two days. There wasn't time to get another bear, even if there was a legal way.
"Albert's dog ripped up that bear's foot," Tony said.
I couldn't see how that explained the last half hour. I said so.
"Albert had this big dog. Colored like those Nazi dogs, with the brown patches?"
"Doberman," I said.
"But mixed with something big, like a Saint Bernard or something. Big ugly head. He raised that dog from a pup; got it down in Espaņola, off a gypsy, he said. Two falls back, he took it hunting with him. Deer hunting. He shoulda known better. Him and that dog. They camped."
"Up by San Antonio Peak," Silvester said. Rafael helped himself to the wine.
"I come by his place, and he's just buried the dog. His truck's all covered with blood. He's drunk and he stinks; his back's all bloody. I think he's been hurt. But it's the dog's blood."
"He told me," Tony said.
"He never told nobody else," Rafael interjected.
"He was sleeping. He woke up and stepped into the bushes to take a leak, and the bear come on them. Hermanothat's the doghe goes for that bear. The bear was in the camp, where Albert's deer rifle was, and Albert was in the bushes. There was some light, and he seen that bear throw Hermano a good ten feet. Then it turned for him. He threw a stick at it and headed for a tree. The bear come for him, and the dog come for the bear."
"Albert sat in that tree and watched that bear kill his dog," Rafael said.
"Not exactly," Tony said. "That's not it exactly." Rafael was about to speak again when Tony cut him off. "When it was done with the dog, the bear tore up the camp. It wrecked Albert's rifle, and it tore up the tent. Then it left. I don't know if Albert scared it off, it was tired of its hurt, or what."
He lit another cigarette. "Hermano took off them toes," he said, gesturing toward the smoldering corpse as if we could see the wounded foot. "Albert packed out that dog's body to his truck. Nearly ten miles; and the dog weighed a hundred-forty, maybe a hundred-fifty pounds."
"Why'd he do that?" I said.
Tony didn't answer. Nobody did. Tony got up after a while and went to his truck. He came back with my rifle and my pack. He put them at my feet. Rafael and I were sitting on the wooden steps of Silvester's store. My car was parked around the side.
"I'm real sorry you didn't get your bear, Mr. Fitzhugh. Maybe next year. I gotta get on home," he said to Silvester. He touched the bill of his cap and returned to his truck.
"You want a cigarette?" Rafael said as Tony pulled away. I shook my head at the offered pack, then absent-mindedly took one of my own. While I was lighting it, Rafael said, "That dog wasn't dead. It was all tore up; its guts was all over, but it was still alive. Albert's rifle was busted. He had to kill that dog."