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Authors: Gloria Skurzynski

Night of the Black Bear

BOOK: Night of the Black Bear
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To Jacob Matthew Ronald Ledesma,
the newest member of our family.

Text copyright © 2007 Gloria Skurzynski and Alane Ferguson

Cover illustration copyright © 2007 Jeffrey Mangiat

All rights reserved.

Reproduction of the whole or any part of the contents is prohibited without written permission from the National Geographic Society, 1145 17th Street N.W., Washington, D.C. 20036.

For information about bulk purchases, please contact National Geographic Books Special Sales, [email protected]

Map by Carl Mehler, Director of Maps

Map research and production by Sven M. Dolling

Black bear art by Ruthie Thompson, Thunderhill Graphics

This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to living persons or events other than descriptions of natural phenomena is purely coincidental.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data is available on request.

ISBN: 978-1-4263-0976-2


The authors want to thank Steve Kemp,

the Interpretive Products & Services Director for

Great Smoky Mountains Association;

Kent Cave, the Interpretive Media Branch Chief at

Great Smoky Mountains National Park;

Kim DeLozier, the Supervisory Wildlife Biologist at

Great Smoky Mountains National Park; and

Jan Skurzynski, who wrote the songs

Merle sings in this book.


he man liked to stack bills neatly. Ten-dollar bills on top of tens, their edges in a straight line, with separate stacks for the twenties and the fifties and the hundreds. Tonight there were seven hundred-dollar bills—pretty good earnings, he thought, in spite of the TV report that had scared some of his clients. Scared them, but excited them at the same time—five new clients had made reservations for tomorrow night. His pile of money would grow fatter still.

He'd begun to count the twenties and tens when his phone rang, and he hesitated. To answer, or not to answer? It was after hours, so the business was supposed to be closed for the night, but it could be another client, which meant more crisp bills to add to his pile.

“Yeah,” he spoke briskly into the phone. “Oh, yeah, Mr. Cabelli, I've been watching the reports. She wasn't killed, just sliced and diced a bit. No, she was bloodied up, but that's all. Don't worry about our end. All systems are go.”

Through the window he saw a car edge into the parking lot near his office. A white car, with the words PARK RANGER and a green horizontal stripe above the front fender. It eased past the window like a shark gliding through water. Probably meant nothing, but—

“I gotta go, Mr. Cabelli.”

Quietly the man put down the phone and switched off the office lights. Then, with nothing but the soft glow of his watch to guide him, he placed the money in a bulging blue bag and zipped it shut.

Blood or no blood, he had work to do. He slipped out the side door of his office, locked the bag in the trunk of his black Town Car, and drove away into the night.


ack was stunned to see the blood on the ground. Deep red, it had seeped into the tall grass behind one of the tombstones, arcing like a fan until it sank into a bare patch of earth. A small, trench-like depression showed where the bear had dragged the girl. Jack had heard that a tourist scared away the bear, making it run off into the trees beyond the cemetery. The girl, the bear's victim, had been lucky to escape alive. Sometimes a black bear will hold on so tight that nothing can make it drop its prey.

It seemed really weird to have a cemetery in a U.S. national park—as far as Jack knew, this was the only one. But long before Great Smoky Mountains National Park came into existence, people had lived here. They farmed and hunted wild turkeys, deer, and black bears. When they died, they were buried right where Jack was standing.

Walking carefully, he tried not to step on any of the blood. Some drops still clung to the leaves of the yellow lady's slippers that reached up like tiny cupped hands toward the midday sun. He leaned closer, his fingers cautiously touching the tip of a bloody leaf to see if the blood was still wet. It was! Grimacing, he wiped his fingers on his khaki cargo shorts.

From around the side of the white-walled Cades Cove Methodist Church his sister Ashley called out, “Mom says Heather's going to be OK.”

“Who's Heather? Is she the girl the bear attacked?”

“Yes, Heather McDonald is her name,” Ashley answered him. “Anyway, she's going to be all right. Mom talked to the park ranger at the hospital, and he told her Heather will probably be discharged tomorrow.” She squinted up at Jack. “What's the matter? You look—grossed out or something.”

“Nothing's the matter. I'm fine,” Jack told her, regretting that he had wiped his fingers on his shorts, which were now stained with a bloody reminder of the bear attack.

“OK, well, Mom said she'll be just a bit longer, and then we can go.” Ashley zipped up her pink hoodie, shivering a little. Though it was nearly May, the air felt a bit chilly.

Jack glanced across the churchyard toward his mother. Olivia Landon was a wildlife veterinarian, who frequently was called to various national parks as a consultant whenever there were strange, unexplained happenings with the animals. A small woman with curly dark hair—Ashley got her looks from their mother—Olivia was deep in conversation with a uniformed park ranger, Blue Firekiller, a tall, muscular man with black hair and skin the color of pale copper. They were questioning a bald-headed man who had witnessed the attack. As they spoke together, Ranger Firekiller wrote in a small notebook while the man waved his hands and gestured toward the trees.

A little farther away, Jack's father, Steven Landon, changed the film in his camera, while talking to a tall boy who had the same skin tone and black hair as Ranger Blue Firekiller. “Who's that kid over there with Dad?” Jack asked Ashley.

With a slight smile, Ashley answered, “That's Ranger Firekiller's son. His name is Yonah. He told me he's a Cherokee, and Firekiller is a real Cherokee name. So is Yonah.”

There was something about Ashley's smile and the way she said “Yonah” that caught Jack's attention. “What's so special about him?” he asked.

“It's just—you know how I always collect Native American legends at every park we go to. Yonah was telling me all about the bear trouble today, and he said something I can really connect to. He said he understood what the bear was feeling.”

“What the bear was
You mean the bear that attacked the girl right over there? This Yonah sounds kind of weird to me, like he's been reading or something.”

Defiant, Ashley glared at her brother, redness creeping into her cheeks. Little wisps of hair curled from her dark braids, tiny as threads, and in the light they seemed to spark in aggravation. “Jack, I'm 12 years old—almost!” she hissed. “Do you think Yonah would be telling me fairy tales like I was a little kid? We had a serious conversation. Just because I'm two years younger than you doesn't mean a 16-year-old guy won't talk to me about serious things.”

“I know what the bear was feeling, too,” Jack told her. “He was feeling hungry.”

“Shut up!” Ashley punched him in the arm.

Jack narrowed his eyes to study Yonah, who was tall and wiry, with biceps that bulged as he stood with his arms across his chest. Yonah seemed to be listening intently to the talk between the three adults while at the same time paying attention to what Steven was doing with his camera.

“Anyway, I'll introduce you to him,” Ashley told Jack, making it sound like a big favor. “Hey, Yonah!” she called, waving her arm to catch his attention. “Can you come here a minute? My brother wants to meet you.”

“Not,” Jack muttered.

Yonah glanced from his dad to Olivia to Steven, shrugged, then sauntered to where Jack and Ashley were standing. Through holes in his blue jeans, his knees looked like flickering eyes as he walked, and his thick bangs hung to his eyebrows in a line so straight it might have been drawn with a ruler. “Yeah?” he asked.

“This is Jack,” Ashley said. “Jack, this is Yonah. I was telling Jack what you said about the bear, Yonah, but I thought you could say it better.”

“How do you spell Yonah?” Jack asked.

Yonah paused after each letter, as though Jack might not be swift enough to catch it. “‘Yonah' means ‘bear.'”

“So that's how you know what bears are thinking—you
one!” Jack started to laugh at his own little joke, but no one else was laughing. Yonah's face stayed expressionless. His dark eyes skimmed over Jack's blond hair, blue eyes, and pale skin with a look that told Jack he could never qualify as a Cherokee.

For some reason that silent stare flustered Jack. He found himself doing the thing he chided his sister for—he began to talk too fast. “My mom – she's Olivia Landon, the wildlife veterinarian. She's over there with your dad. She came here to confer about the elk, and then this bear thing happened, so now she's helping them figure out the science of why the bears have gone haywire.” Jack rushed on, “We were driving from the airport this morning when we got the phone call about this attack, so we came straight over here. My mom nearly freaked out when she heard there'd been a total of three bear incidents in the past four weeks. This is a really serious situation. She said—”

“Two,” Yonah interrupted.

The tone stopped Jack cold. “Excuse me?”

“One of the attacks was in Gatlinburg, which is outside the park. Heather McDonald is only the second victim in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It's important to keep the facts straight, especially if the media show up.”

Feeling quashed, Jack stood silent, unsure what Yonah meant. Overhead, a magpie cawed, and beyond that he could hear a car rumble past on Cades Cove Loop Road, a good distance beyond the thick stands of trees that ringed the wide green meadow around the Methodist church. He felt stupid standing there without answering, but he didn't know what to say.

“Do you really think the news people will show up, Yonah?” Ashley asked.

“You can pretty much count on it. They like to ask questions that make things sound worse than they are.” Although Ashley had questioned him, Yonah directed his answer at Jack. “My dad—he's the ranger that got called in to investigate the attacks—he told me if we're not careful, the media people might try to shut down Great Smoky Mountains National Park. So watch what you say. And how you say it. Don't go blabbing stupid stuff.”

Jack found his voice and said, “Yeah, well, my mom's more worried about somebody getting killed. She thinks that's the bigger problem.”

“Black bears don't kill,” Yonah replied. “Not unless they are provoked.”

“You mean like Heather provoked that bear by standing here in the cemetery?” Jack shot back. If he hadn't been sure before, he was sure of it now—he didn't much like this guy. Ashley stood to one side, glancing from one to the other of them anxiously as she rocked from foot to foot, her dark eyes wide.

“These attacks are very unusual,” Yonah continued. “It's just a string of bad luck.”

“Yeah, you're right. Especially for the people who get chunks of their thighs ripped open. That's really bad luck.”


“What?” Jack cried, whirling on his sister.

“Look! Over there.”

For an instant he thought she was telling him to cool it with Yonah, but instead, Ashley pointed to the road, where two vans, one with something like a radar scope on the roof, were turning onto the blacktop lane that led to the church. Within minutes the vans arrived and parked, then their doors flew open.

Three people got out and rushed toward the spot where Olivia, Steven, and Blue Firekiller stood talking to a bald-headed man. A young blonde-haired woman in a red blazer, short skirt, and knee-high boots led the group. A man beside her balanced a television camera on his shoulder. Another man behind them carried a long pole with a microphone dangling from it.

“I'm Greta Gerard from Channel 12 News,” the woman announced, as the man with the pole thrust the microphone a half dozen inches from Blue's face. “We understand there's been another bear attack in the park, this one almost fatal. Can you give us some details?”

Yonah had begun to hurry back toward his father, and Jack and Ashley followed in time to hear Greta Gerard ask, “What is the park's position on these attacks, Mr….?” Then, peering at Blue's nametag, “I mean Ranger…uh…Firekiller? Is that right? Firekiller?”

Suddenly, Yonah spoke up, saying, “Yes, the name is Firekiller. It's Cherokee.”

“Firekiller, OK, got it,” Greta murmured, barely glancing at Yonah. “So, Ranger Firekiller, what does the park have to say about these attacks? Will you be forced to close the park to the public?”

Hesitating, Blue Firekiller answered, “A black bear did approach a girl visiting here in Cades Cove, but we're happy to report that she's doing fine.”

“‘Approach?' That's an interesting choice of words,” Greta answered. “I heard it was an attack. Some of the tourists I have talked to have asked if the bears in this park might have rabies. Do you think that's possible?

An outbreak of rabies could threaten the public's health and safety.”

“No. In the other incidents the tests all came back negative,” Blue replied as he frowned at Greta. His right hand twitched as though he wanted to brush away the microphone that kept inching closer to his face.

“Well, then, Ranger Firekiller, do you have any explanation as to why the black bears are behaving in such an unusual manner?” Greta signaled the cameraman to focus on her, rather than on Blue. “Our viewers will want to know, just how far will Great Smoky Mountains National Park go to protect the visitors who come here? After all, this is the most visited national park in the entire United States National Park System.”

“We have no evidence whatsoever that the bears are infected with any disease,” Blue told her, holding himself stiffly. “But we're taking the situation very seriously. We've asked Dr. Landon, an expert on animal behavior who just happens to be visiting the park, to help us study every possible scenario.”

Suddenly the bald man, who'd been standing quietly through all this, stepped forward to announce, “I saw the whole thing. I'm the guy who saved the girl.” He pushed in front of Blue to be in line with the camera while he added, “That bear was acting crazy. I heard the girl yell, and I knew I had to save her. My name is William F. Jordan. That's spelled J-o-r-d-a-n.”

“Are you the bear expert?” Greta asked him.

“Me? No.” He shook his head. “That lady over there—she's the bear expert. Anyway, like I told the lady and Ranger Firekiller here, I heard the girl screaming, and I ran over to her. I'd just come out of the church 'cause my wife left her scarf there this morning, and—”

“The bear,” Greta prompted him, “tell us about the bear.”

“Well, I ran over there, and I yelled and clapped my hands, then I picked up a rock and threw it. My pitching arm is still pretty good. The rock hit the bear right on his head.
He kind of roared, like he was gonna come after me, but then he ran into the trees behind the cemetery. Seems like all the bears in this park have gone crazy. Three maulings already—”

“Two!” Yonah spoke up.

“They need to shut down this park to protect the American people,” Jordan insisted.

“Will that be the official park position?” Greta asked, ignoring both Yonah and Mr. Jordan as she turned back toward Blue. “To close the park?”

Olivia had begun to inch away from the camera while Greta's attention focused on Blue, who pulled himself up to his imposing six-foot height before he answered, “We have no further comment. If you have any more questions, Miss, you'll need to talk to the park superintendent.”

“But did you see the girl who was attacked?” Greta persisted. “I heard the bear ripped a whole pound of flesh out of her leg.”

“No comment!”

“Dr. Landon? What's your opinion?”

“I can't even begin to speculate until I go over the data,” Olivia said, signaling Jack and Ashley to head toward the Landons' rental car. Ashley, fascinated by the television news team, barely moved, so Jack jerked her by the elbow to get her going. Steven followed, pulling out the car keys as he herded the kids forward, their feet scuffing against the asphalt. As if by magic, the car doors flew open, all four at once.

The camera zoomed in as Greta cried, “Dr. Landon, do you think it's in the public's best interest to shut down Great Smoky Mountains National Park?”

“Ranger Firekiller has already told you that you'll need to discuss that with the park superintendent,” Olivia answered.

Steven had started the car and was easing it toward the TV crew, with the front passenger door still wide open. Suddenly, Olivia sprinted across the last ten feet that separated her from the car and jumped inside without saying another word. The engine roared as Steven shifted into reverse, spun in a curve and swung back onto the road, leaving Greta standing there, frustrated.

BOOK: Night of the Black Bear
13.64Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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