Calley Stewart was back doing what she'd been trained for six years ago at Utah State University. She and Melinda Stone were crouched behind brush a few hundred yards from Highway 93, northwest of Missoula, waiting for daylight, waiting for what ancient Indians had once considered to be supernatural.
Neither woman spoke as the first fingers of dawn light touched the wooded drainage area that they faced. Although Calley's life had been one of too much tension during the past year, she hadn't forgotten. This morning, this place, the anticipated experience, was what she'd been born to. She could feel that fundamental fact in her soul.
Five minutes later the drainage area was light enough for Calley to make out the individual Western larches dotting the terrain. Silently she pointed toward one tree that was missing a slab of bark at least ten feet in length, which had been torn from it. Melinda nodded, acknowledging the work of the creatures they were waiting for and then cocked her head in a silent signal.
Calley heard it--the deep, dry cough rumbling out of the forest--an awesome signal echoing up from the ages. The grizzlies were here.
She rocked back onto her heels, her well-worn boots making no sound despite the strain she put them under as she reached for her camera with its 300mm lens. She knew she'd start shaking as soon as she heard the sound. As Mike had once said, "Anyone who isn't in awe of the grizzly is either an idiot or a damn fool." Beside her, Melinda was lifting her own camera into position. The other woman had her lips clamped between her teeth.
There were three of them--a full-grown female weighing perhaps 700 pounds and two immature youngsters ambling after her, swinging their noses along the ground and sniffing the crisp air as their heavy bodies rolled through thick grass that reached to their bellies. The power contained within their compact frames was evident despite the long, thick hair that covered everything except the tips of their noses.
If Calley was still breathing, she was unaware of it. Nothing mattered except concentrating on what was coming into focus through her camera lens. The sight of nature's largest carnivorous land-based mammal wasn't something she'd ever become blase about. The grizzlies were why she'd returned to her career.
Tears, which had nothing to do with the morning cold, touched her eyes. The Indians had been right. These creatures were to be treated with reverence--even with a kind of love.
Calley waited another two or three minutes until the bears' lackadaisical search for food--whether roots, tubers, mice or snakes--brought them close enough for the wind to introduce their pungent smell. For another moment she fought and then conquered a wave of panic that could be her undoing. Then she started running off camera shot after shot of the trio, thankful for the silent shutter that advanced the film without signaling that fact to her subjects. She thought, briefly, about the nearby highway. She doubted if anyone on it knew how close they were to the ultimate example of Montana's wilderness. As long as she and Melinda remained out of view and the breeze continued to blow from bears to humans, there was little danger that the bears, with their weak eyesight, would locate the intruders to their world.
And if Calley and Melinda were spotted, there was less than a fifty-fifty chance that they would be challenged. This wasn't a mother with young cubs to protect or a male during mating season. These grizzlies had stood their ground despite humans brought to their turf by Highway 93. The sight of a couple of women in their territory would probably only bring a loud snort of disgust and a quick fade into the forest.
Just the same, Calley didn't take her eyes off the bears for an instant; complacency in the presence of grizzlies could be a fatal mistake. Calley had more than a degree in wildlife management under her belt. She'd been part of the Border Grizzly Project, based at the University of Montana, for three years. She would have never come here, or allowed Melinda to accompany her, if either woman had been having her period. Neither woman wore any cosmetics; they'd both washed their hands with vinegar after filling the gas tank of her jeep. Those were things she'd learned not from textbooks but because she intended to stay alive.
The sight of three of Montana's grizzlies lasted no longer than five minutes, just long enough for Calley to use up her roll of film. She was delighted to see that the bears were in excellent physical condition. "Not bad for a morning's work," Calley said once she was certain that the bears would not be returning. "God, I'm still shaking. That's what a year away from them does to me. Did you get your pictures?"
The University of Montana research assistant nodded, her eyes shining with a light Calley knew was reflected in her own deep gray eyes. "We did it! We actually did it!" Melinda laughed. "Dean kept waving his pictures in my face, but they didn't mean that much to me. Not until now. I don't know if I'll ever be content to stay on campus doing paperwork for him anymore."
"Neither of us is going to be doing anything for the project if we don't get a move on. Our respective boss is going to have my hide if I don't get to the Flathead today," Calley pointed out, holding up her wrist, with its relentlessly moving watch, for emphasis. "This is crazy. I've been working for Dean Ramsey for two weeks now, and I still haven't seen the man."
"Yeah, you have," Melinda said as the women started trudging through the high grass back to where they'd left the jeep.
"I have not," Calley insisted. She glanced back, hoping for a final sight of the bears, although she wouldn't be responsible for the sounds that might come from her throat if they suddenly appeared. "He was in Yellowstone all last week and out on the Flathead River since he got back. The only proof I have of his existence is a phone call and a couple of letters."
Melinda winked. "You remember the bigger of those two young grizzlies? The one with the lighter coat. Put him on two feet and you have Dean Ramsey."
"Wonderful!" Calley pretended to shiver, her broad but slender shoulders moving easily under her limp cotton shirt. "Don't tell me he smells like a bear, too. I am definitely not ready to spend the summer working side by side with that."
"Of course he doesn't smell like a bear, although--" Melinda paused dramatically. "Maybe he does by now if he's been out setting snares for several days. What I mean is, he has this mess of dark brown hair and a beard that's kind of going tan instead of gray, like that one bear. When he smiles, he has these incredibly white teeth that show through all that hair, just like a bear with its mouth open."
"A bear's teeth are yellow," Calley pointed out, her eyes on the ground so she wouldn't trip over a hidden log.
"Minor point," Melinda countered. "Take my word for it, that man will make you think about everything positive that can be said about grizzlies. We don't have to meet him at any particular time, do we? We're going to be half the day just getting there, let alone finding where he and Steve are camped."
"No, the telegram from Bigfork just said he'd be looking for me on the twenty-fourth. You do have the map, don't you?"
"Of course." Melinda parted her back pocket. "Given the state of Dean's desk, that's no small accomplishment. I swear, the amount of time that man has had to spend trying to get funds for the project is unreal. I mean, he's a biologist, not a bureaucrat."
"He's not pushing pencils now," Calley said. "Thank goodness that extra funding came through. How do you think I was able to come back here?"
It was a poor choice of words. The reason for Calley's leaving the project last year had remained a subject that the two friends hadn't touched. Melinda was waiting for Calley to bring it up; Calley wasn't ready yet.