Most people think it's weird that I go camping in the woods my brother Cody died in, but it's the best way I have of remembering him. He went missing four years ago. We still don't know what happened to him. Sometimes it turns out the most unbelievable stories are the true ones.
Every year, around the weekend of his death, I camp in those woods to be in the place he loved most. It's where I feel closest to him. His empty grave has never brought me any comfort or closure.
I had just finished my coffee and was going to take a leak when I stepped over it. The biggest footprint of any kind I had ever stumbled across. It looked like it belonged to a bear, but I thought it was way too big for that. I called my buddy Nick right away. He hunts bears.
"Hey Luke. What's up man?"
"Dude. I think Cody was right. How big is a normal bear paw print?"
"What are you talking about? Where are you? I can barely hear you."
"Yeah I have a weak signal out here. I'm in the woods camping out."
"Is it that time of year again already? I'm sorry man. How long has it been?" Nick asked.
"Four years, but listen. I'm not kidding man. I'm looking at a bear paw print that's got to be like almost two feet long!"
"Are you serious?"
"Dead serious," I said.
"A normal bear paw print is a little over half a foot long."
"I knew it! This thing is way bigger than that."
"I need your help man. You've got to come out here. Can you bring all your bear hunting stuff?"
"Do you think you found a paw print of that thing your brother was always looking for?"
"The Stiff-Legged Bear? I never thought I'd say this, but yeah man. I think that's exactly what I've found. So can you come?"
"Yes. I'm in. I'll pack up my stuff and head out," Nick said.
"Thanks dude. This means a lot to me."
"I'll send you my location," I said.
"Okay. See you soon."
I hung up the phone and tapped a few more times to send Nick my GPS location. A gust of wind blew past me. I needed to put on my jacket and get back to my fire. I looked down at the massive paw print again.
"What happened to you little brother?" I said aloud.
The print was in some dirt that had been pretty wet when it was stepped in. The curves and folds of the monster's paw had pressed a perfect mold into the ground. Inside of the main pad shape were soft shadows and smooth gradients. The same went for the smaller places where the thing's toes had left their marks.
Then there were the sharp precise slashes from the claws. They left bold dark grooves. They weren’t jagged lines like rips in the dirt, but deep and crisp. Looking at them sent a stronger shiver through me than the gust of wind had. The claws that made those marks had to be really long, like five large kitchen knives. One swipe from a paw like that could kill a man with ease. I bent down and took a closer look. There were a few thick black hairs left behind stuck in the print.
I walked away from the paw print and warmed myself at the campfire as I waited for my friend to arrive. I thought about my brother as I stared into the bright waving flames. If this thing was real, did I really want to find it? To find the thing that killed my brother just to suffer the same fate? Was I about to get myself and my buddy Nick killed? Is that what my brother would have wanted? I stretched my hands out toward the fire. It's warmth crept into me from my fingertips to my chest. I looked up from the fire out into the woods.
He used to spend all his time in those trees. From the moment he heard the claims of people sighting an elephant sized bear in the woods he never shut up about it. All he wanted to do was see that bear for himself, and get a picture of it. He wanted to prove to everyone once and for all that it was real.
He had always been crazy about mysteries and urban legends. The rumors of people sighting this monster in the woods outside our town were enough to spark his interest, but when he found out the creature was named in Native American stories he became obsessed. He started spending every weekend in the woods, and all his weeknights in town researching it. He was sure he would find it. He was convinced it was real.
When he hadn't spotted it after a few weeks, he bought a huge map of the forest and started making his way through it. After several months his map was about halfway filled in with sections he had combed through. And then one Sunday night, he didn't come back. The police couldn't find him. Neither could search and rescue. Eventually, we all had to admit he was gone and stop looking for him. We never found him or his mythical bear.
We had a funeral and buried a casket, but I still couldn't get closure without knowing what had happened to him. Every year on the weekend closest to the date he went missing I spent my days out in those woods. This year, however, I finally found something.
After my second time adding more wood to the fire my friend showed up with a couple of guns and a huge pack on his back.
"What's up man?" I said. "Thanks for coming."
"Dude of course! This is so sweet! Here. I brought this one for you."
He handed me a shotgun. I looked at the one he kept for himself.
"That's the gun you're going to use to kill a huge bear monster? Looks kind of small and a little old school," I said.
"My Marlin 1895? This lever action rifle shoots a forty five seventy round so it has great stopping power. You said small? I have the short barreled version because it's super quick and very handy in a tight spot," Nick said.
"Some of that made sense, but don't you have to pull that handle thingy every time to shoot it?"
He laughed again.
"Yes but the lever action on this beauty is hard to beat for speed. Is that the part of the gun that makes it look old school to you?"
"It does look pretty beefy now that you say all that."
"In my opinion this rifle is the best gun to kill a bear with," Nick said.
"And you gave me a shotgun right?"
My knowledge of guns was limited to the few video games I had played.
"You got it. It's a semi-auto, so just point and shoot. It's got an eight round mag and I already put one in the chamber so you've got nine shots. Just press this to take the safety off and you're ready to go," Nick said.
"And just keep pulling the trigger to shoot it again?"
"Yep. Semi-auto. Super easy to use. Both of these guns are best for close range situations. Since this thing is huge I figure any distance will be like close range to it, and I knew you aren't familiar with guns so I left my pump action at home."
"Probably a good idea. Look man I've been thinking.—I'm really thankful you came out here, but we don't have to do this."
"Are you kidding me? I live for this kind of thing dude! This is the chance of a lifetime! If I kill this thing I'll be in all the hunting magazines I read on the john," Nick said.
"Yeah but what if it kills us?"
"Man, we'll be alright. I've seen half a dozen bears killed and have killed three myself."
"Yeah but not this size. I need to find this thing for my brother, but you don’t have to come," I said.
"The bigger size just makes this more exciting. I’m in and I know what I'm doing, alright? Now where is that paw print?"
So we decided to go.
I put out my campfire and walked him over to the paw print.
"Wow," Nick said bending down to take a closer look.
"You weren't kidding. This thing is huge. Looks like a black bear, but whatever made this print is huge."
"I know. That's why I wanted to make sure you were on board," I said. "You still want to go looking for it?"
He looked up at me.
"This just makes me more excited! My heart is pounding right now man. This is going to be awesome."
He looked back at the paw print.
"Alright, the tracks go this way. Let's go. Stay close. I'll take care of putting it down, but if you have a good shot then take it okay?"
I nodded. The gun suddenly felt heavier in my hands. I checked again to see where the safety was so I'd be ready. We started walking. Soon the comforting smell of the campfire was gone.
It was easy to follow the bear's massive tracks. Even when it had stepped on a surface that didn't leave any, it was clear where the monster had gone. Tree branches were ripped off and trampled on. Some smaller trees had been knocked down entirely. Any low brush that clung to the soil stood no chance once the beast had stomped through it.
"I've been all over in these woods and I've never seen anything like this. My brother practically lived in here and he never mentioned anything like this," I said.
"Yeah, I don't know man. I'm guessing it usually sticks close to its den. Bears are pretty solitary animals. Who knows what made him venture out further than usual. I bet his den isn't too far away though," Nick said.
We kept walking. I had to keep reminding myself not to hold the gun so tightly. My fingers hurt from gripping it so hard. I stuck so close to Nick I accidentally stepped on his heel a few times. We walked the trail for quite a while until it ended at the mouth of a creepy dark cave. Branches hung down from the top like thin rotten teeth.
"Did you bring a light?" I asked.
"I came prepared bro. Cover me while I get it out?"
"Okay. Like just look around and make sure nothing’s coming?"
"I'm more worried about what’s in there," he said pointing at the bear's huge hole in the ground.
"Point your gun at the den and shoot if you see movement."
I raised the shotgun toward the opening in the earth. He took off his pack and pulled out a flashlight. There was no way I was going in there without a light. From where I stood it was all black. I couldn't tell how big it was inside. Nick put his pack back on and handed me the flashlight.
"I need both of my hands for my rifle. You hold the light. Let's go."
I hesitated for a second, and then shined the light down into the den. It was pretty wide inside, but way more shallow than I was expecting. Instead of finding a deep cave, we found a huge space dug out of the ground about the size of a family room.
"This is it?" I asked.
"Yeah. They only need enough space to sleep out of the elements. It's not really a home. More like a hotel room to sleep in over the winter. In this case though whatever we're after is way bigger than an ordinary bear. Let's check it out."
We followed the light and walked down into the den. Our footsteps made a ton of noise inside from all the leaves on the ground. It sounded like a classroom full of kids all crumpling up papers at the same time. It smelled like line dank dirt and berries inside.
"So the bear, or whatever it is, dug this out and pulled all these leaves in here?" I asked.
I started kicking the leaves around.
"Looking for something?" Nick asked.
I didn't answer him. I was consumed with the idea that something of my brother’s was hiding underneath. I pushed against the huge blanket of leaves with my feet, scattering them into piles. Nick stood there watching me for a minute, and then joined in. The only thing we found was dirt and more leaves, but we kept digging around. Then I felt something longer than leaves.
"I found something!" I screamed.
It was damp and decayed but I thought I knew what it was.
"What is it man?"
I could feel my heartbeat in my face as I bent down to pick it up. It looked like it was the right size.
"Looks like an old rolled up piece of paper," Nick said.
I carefully unrolled it. I was right.
"Are you crying man?" Nick asked.
"It was his map," I said with a sniff.
Nick walked over to me.
"I'm so sorry dude."
He squeezed my shoulder. We looked over the map. There were holes in it, and some of my brother's marks were smeared, but it was his map. I spoke in a quiet voice as tears warmed my cheeks.
"That thing killed my brother. How else would this be in here? I have to find it. I have to kill it."
"I'm in man. Let's see if there are any tracks outside we can follow."
"Okay yeah. Let me just see if there's anything else in here of his."
We continued pushing around the leaves on the floor. A few minutes later a ripped up backpack emerged from the mess.
I picked it up and turned over what was left of it.
"This was his too," I said.
The tears I had fought down threatened to come up again. One of the straps was still in tact but there was nothing inside. I slung it over my shoulder.
"Alright, let's go find this thing," I said.
We left the den and found what looked to be the freshest tracks. It wasn't long before we found more signs of the monster bear's trail in broken branches and trampled foliage. I just knew we were going to find it this time. The more we walked the faster my heart beat.
Nick held his rifle in a ready position, and I could tell he thought we would come on the bear at any moment too. I mimicked the way he held his gun and followed close behind searching for any sign of movement through the trees.
We kept walking for a very long time. The trail was still easy to follow but then all of the sudden we lost it. It ended in a clearing and from there several more of the giant's paw prints spread out in many directions.
"Now what do we do?" I asked.
Nick kept studying the ground.
"I'm sorry man. I can't tell which tracks are freshest like I could back at the den."
My heart sank. It had taken a lot of will power to choose to commit to go after this monster. Then when we had found its den and proof that it had murdered my brother, rage pushed me forward. I had to find and kill this thing now.
"We can't give up," I said.
"Oh we're not giving up just because our trail went cold."
"Is there anything we can do to make the bear come to us?" I asked.
"I thought you'd never ask my friend. I was sure these tracks would lead us to him, but you're right. It's time to make him come to us."
"How are we going to do that?"
He looked at me with a huge grin.
"With food of course."
He stopped and pulled off his huge pack.
"I've been wondering what you have in there," I said.
"Dude, I came fully prepared."
He walked under a tree and opened the bag.
"I've got a buddy that works at a grocery store. They throw so much food out. He lets me take whatever I want."
He pulled out a few grocery bags full of food and started piling it all on the ground. There were several loaves of bread and a ton of fruit. When he finished adding food to the pile he pulled a hatchet out of his pack. He walked around to the other side of the tree and started hacking away at a huge branch. It fell to the ground with a loud thud.
"Help me move this over the food," Nick said.
I walked over and helped him drag the branch until it covered the food. It was really heavy.
"There. That should keep other animals from getting into it while we wait for the bear."
Nick went back to his bag and pulled out a spray bottle. He shook it, then walked up to the tree and started spraying it all over.
"Some water, and a ton of vanilla and caramel extract."
He sprayed it liberally on the tree above the food pile and all over the big branch we dragged on top of the pile. Then he put it away, put on his pack, and grabbed his gun.
"Let's go find a blind to wait in."
"A blind?" I asked.
"Yeah, a close place out of sight to wait for the monster to come."
We found some thick bushes and tucked ourselves behind them. Then we waited.
"I hope this works. What if it’s not around?" I asked.
"We know it’s been around here from all the tracks. Bears have a crazy powerful sense of smell. It's like seven times that of a bloodhound. They can smell a dead animal from twenty miles off. It can probably smell even farther. It’ll come."
"Okay. Thanks again for all of this man. I wouldn't have known what to do. I probably would have just gotten killed or wandered around aimlessly never able to find it."
"Are you kidding me man? It's the least I can do after what happened to your brother. And dude, this is like the thrill of my life."
"Well I'm glad you're here. So, have any pointers for when the time comes?" I asked.
"Yeah while we're sitting here I might as well tell you where to shoot. I figured I would do all the shooting, but this thing has to be massive so we might as well both try and take it out when we see it."
"So you're going to want to shoot the thing in the shoulder. Once it presents a shot, like once you have a clear view of it's shoulder. Then take your shot."
"Alright. Why the shoulder?"
"Well with a normal bear, it’s a lethal shot that takes the front legs out, then they fall to their stomach. That usually does the job of killing and immobilizing them. It's the best place to shoot them. If that doesn't do it, you quickly take a second shot," Nick said.
We stayed hidden waiting for the bear, eating jerky from Nick's pack and talking about my brother. Nick even had a small thermos with hot coffee and two small fold out cups. I never refuse coffee. We each had two cups and then he packed everything back up. Then we sat and waited.
Pretty soon we could feel little tremors through the ground. They seemed like little earthquakes, shaking everything around us over and over again in even bursts. Then we heard tree branches being ripped to the ground and we knew it was coming.
"Okay. It can smell our bait. Those footfalls are massive. This thing’s going to be big. Get ready!" Nick said.
It lumbered forward on all fours. A gigantic thick body with massive muscles shifting around under a thick black coat of fur. Every step it took made all the shapes in it's body and the landscape around it shake. It's nose must have been the size of my head. It was unbelievably big. I couldn't wrap my head around what I was seeing.
"Luke," Nick whispered to me. "Luke get ready to shoot!"
I couldn't move. I really wanted to kill that bear for murdering my brother but the instinct to stay alive was so strong that in that moment I could not force myself to move. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Nick raise his gun. The bear headed straight for the pile of food. He picked up the massive branch covering the bait like it was a pine needle. It might as well have been. He easily tossed it aside and the huge branch flew across the forest like fifteen yards away. Then he started to eat.
Nick was breathing hard. I could hear him next to me as I watched the bear monster devour the pile of food. Nick whispered to me again.
"Come on Luke. Take aim! I'm going to shoot!"
He waited a few more seconds, and I tried to move, but I couldn't. I've never frozen in fear like that before, I didn't even know it was a real thing, but I was unable to do anything but shake and watch the bear.
Cody took his shot. The sound was so loud it made me jump. It broke my stare from the monster. I looked over at Nick. He was taking aim again. Then the unholy deep roar of the bear assaulted my ears. The sound ripped through me like a bolt of electricity. My eyes squished shut, my mouth flew open, and I dropped the gun. Nick yelled at me.
"Shoot! Shoot! Shoot the bear!"
I forced my eyes open and guided my shaking hands to the shotgun. I grabbed it and lifted it to my shoulder. I swung toward the bear to look for its shoulder. But it wasn't over the food anymore. It was charging toward us.
I tried to aim for the moving shoulder and fired but the gun jumped hard when I pulled the trigger and my shot went high missing the monster. I took aim again, this time trying to hit the middle of the bear's gigantic moving body. My shot hit him this time but he kept coming. He leapt through the shrubs that hid us and landed on Nick, knocking me back several feet.
"No!" I screamed.
I scrambled forward to get the shotgun. Nick was screaming. It didn't even sound like him. His usually deep powerful voice was thin and high. He screamed over and over again in a crazed panic.
I saw the gun next to the bear’s massive back paw. I grabbed it. The bear looked back and saw me. I was raising the barrel toward its head when it kicked me right in the chest. It knocked the wind out of me and sent the shotgun flying from my hands.
When I looked up again I realized Nick was no longer screaming. I couldn't see him from where I lay, but I could tell what gruesome act the bear was performing. He held Nick down with his powerful paws while ripping parts of my friend away to satisfy his savage hunger.
Nick was gone.
The bear had claimed two people very close to me. I lay there trying to catch my breath. I sat up. A few of my ribs hurt really bad. I looked around for the shotgun. It was a few feet from me.
I tried to ignore the grotesque sounds I was hearing, while crawling quietly toward the gun. The bear was totally distracted. I picked up the gun, aimed it at his shoulder, and shot over and over again until the gun was out of ammunition.
The bear turned at the sound and as I kept shooting it retreated, trying to get away from the bite of spraying shotgun ammunition. I stood and looked around, unsure of what to do. I saw Nick’s rifle a few feet away from what was left of him. I looked over at the bear monster. It was laying on its side, licking it's wounds.
I ran to the rifle, picked it up, and pointed it at the bear. This time it would be much easier. The bear wasn't paying attention to me. It was growling, and whining, and focusing on its wounds. This time I aimed for the head. I pulled the trigger.
I looked down at the gun and realized I probably needed to cock it. I grab the lever action and swung it forward and back again. I liked the sound it made. I put the gun to my shoulder and aimed for the middle of the monster's head.
The gun exploded, pushing hard into my shoulder. I watched the bear's reaction as I cocked the gun again. It was pawing at it's head and growling louder. I took aim and shot again.
When the bullet bit, the bear's head jumped sideways. Then it turned and looked at me. I froze.
I knew I needed to get another shot off, but seeing it's boulder of a head turn and it's dark softball sized eyes look at me took all the will out of my body.
The beast tried to stand, but about halfway up it fell over. The weight of its body hitting the ground made me rock backwards. It roared and screamed and tried to stand again, but fell once more.
With the immediate threat gone for at least a moment I found just enough courage to regain the will to use the gun again. I cocked and fired, shooting the bear in the head over and over again until all of the rounds were used up. Every time I shot, its head flew back, but it was still very much alive. It looked at me and roared again. I dropped the gun. It tried to stand up several more times, but kept falling back down. Then the bear used one of its powerful front paws to drag itself toward me.
I panicked and looked around. I saw Nick's pack shredded and discarded on the ground. I ran to it and looked inside for something to use on the bear. I found a can of bear spray.
Shaking from fear, I walked as close to the bear as I could while staying out of striking distance of his armchair sized paws. I sprayed the stuff on its face. It stopped crawling and turned it's head away from me, rubbing its nose into its shoulder. I kept spraying until the can ran out. The bear swiped at me a few times, but I stayed well out of its reach.
I went back to the pack and rummaged around some more. I found a box of shotgun shells. I grabbed it and walked to the shotgun. It took me a while to figure out how to load them. I swear I felt the bear coming closer every time I looked away from it to try and load the gun. The bear couldn't move his massive body very well. He seemed to be in a massive amount of pain.
There were eight shotgun shells left in the box, but that's all I could get to fit in the gun anyway. I walked over to the bear and pointed the gun at its front shoulder. When I pulled the trigger, however, it wouldn't fire. I didn't understand. When Nick gave it to me it just worked. I turned the gun over in my hands several times, until I finally found a small button on the right-hand side near the trigger. I pressed it and the gun made a loud click, loaded a shell into the chamber.
I aimed at the bear's left shoulder. This time the gun worked and it kicked against me as it sprayed the black nightmare in the arm. I watched the bear react by trying to swat at me again, but it was unable to lift its paw now. I moved around the monster and shot its other shoulder. This time I had to shoot it twice before the arm lost its function. Then I moved to the backside of the bear and shot him two times in each the hip area.
With each shot he roared and tried to come at me, but once I had shot him in all four places he could not move. With my remaining shot, I blasted it in the head again. I could tell it did some damage. It ripped away fur and flesh, but it still didn't killing it. I wondered how thick its skull was.
Now it was unable to do anything but lay there in agony. I took my brother’s old backpack off. I carefully climbed onto the monster's back. It tried to turn its head and bite me, but I must have shredded through its neck muscles. It could only turn its head a little. It roared in pain and rage. I crawled forward, shaking as I pulled myself across its broad hairy back. I kept focusing on the fact that this bear had killed my brother and my friend. That's what kept me going.
When I got to the head I held the backpack up and swung it around its massive neck. The monster roared but couldn't move its head enough to bite it. I leaned down, my face pressing into the back of its neck, and caught the other side of the backpack.
Then I pulled it back as hard as I could. I'm not sure if I was even strong enough to cut off the air or blood flow from that monster's neck, but I kept on pulling as hard as I could until I no longer felt the beast breathing.
I had killed the bear monster. The Stiff-Legged Bear was dead. My brother Cody and my friend Nick had been avenged.
My arms kept giving out as I tried to put my weight on them to push myself up off the bear. I waited a few more long moments holding my breath to lay still and make absolutely sure it was dead. When I was sure it wasn't moving, I rolled sideways and slid off the carcass to the ground.
I thought only my arms were weak but my whole body wasn't responding too well. I was getting really dizzy. I left everything and started heading back to my campsite. I didn't want to try to carry any of it. I didn't know much about shock, but I sure wasn't feeling well and I figured I should keep walking while I could.
As I walked, I felt in my pocket for my cell phone. It was still there. I pulled it out. It seemed to weigh fifty pounds. I dialed nine one one and lifted the phone all the way up to my ear. Part of my hand touched my cheek, and I noticed my skin felt really cold. I was so tired. I wanted to stop, lay on the ground, and sleep for a day.
"Nine one one, state your emergency."
I didn't realize how fast I was breathing. My words came out between quick shallow breaths.
"My friend. Killed by a bear."
"Where are you?"
"Park State. Riverside State Park."
"Sir are you okay?"
"No. Just killed."
"You just killed?"
"Killed the bear."
"You killed the bear?"
"Sir, where are you in the park?"
"Heading back to car. My car."
"And where is that?"
"East lot. East parking lot. Don't know if I can."
"Can what sir? Don't know if you can what sir?"
"Okay you just stay on the line with me."
"I'm going to get..."
That's all I remember because after that I passed out.
I woke up on the forest floor but I didn't have the strength to get up and keep going. I kept losing consciousness until someone finally came to get me. I vaguely remember an ambulance ride and then realizing I was in a hospital room. My parents were there.
"Oh son. How are you feeling?" my mom asked.
"Mom, I know what happened to Cody."
I looked at my dad.
"He finally found that Stiff-Legged Bear. That's how he died."
"What are you talking about son? They told us you said something about killing a bear," my dad said.
"Yeah. We killed it. My friend Nick and I found its den. Cody's map and backpack were inside. The bear killed him."
My mom started crying. My dad held her and looked at me.
"The police filled us in. I'm so sorry about Nick," my dad said.
"Me too. I should have never called him to help me,” I said through fresh tears. “But I had to know if it was really out there once I found that paw print. Then when I found Cody’s stuff I its den, I had to kill it."
My mom spoke through her own tears.
"At least we finally know what happened to Cody. I just wish it wouldn't have claimed the life of another person."
"We should go find Nick's parents," my dad said. "I'm sure they could use some comforting from someone who's been there right about now," my mom said.
"That's a good idea," I said. "I'll be fine here. Would you do that? And please tell them I am so sorry."
My parents nodded, gave me a couple gentle hugs, and then left. I will never forgive myself for getting my friend Nick killed, but I just had to know what really happened to my brother Cody in those dark vast woods. I haven't gone back to them since. I don't need to. Now that I know what happened, and that the monster responsible is dead, I feel at peace about my brother.
I wondered if I had killed the last of its kind, or if more could be out there. I wasn't going to be the one to find out. My camping days in those woods were over.
I am not at peace for what happened to Nick. I don't think I ever will be. I take a little comfort in the fact that he chose to go with me, but that only assuages my guilt for a brief moment. I'm the reason Nick is dead. I'm also the reason The Stiff-Legged Bear is dead.