Li'l Ben is Mama Sue’s last cub; raising him is a challenge. Can she keep him safe?
Li’l Ben stood next to his mama and looked up at her. “I’m hungry, mama. Why can’t we go catch fish now?”
Mama Sue looked at her cub. This was only his second year, his first attempt to catch salmon, and he had so much to learn. It was hard. She was getting old, and Li’l Ben would probably be her last offspring.
“I told you why we have to be careful. If Snarler finds you away from our den, he’s going to kill you. I can’t protect you out here, he’s too strong for me.”
“But I don’t understand. Why’s he wanna kill me? I never did anything to him.”
Mama Sue let out a big huff. Li’l Ben could tell that she was upset with him.
“It’s the bear’s way, Li’l Ben. I’ve told you I don’t know why males are like that. Maybe when you grow up and become a big growling male you’ll understand why and can come and tell your old mama. In the meantime, if you want to live long enough to become that Big Ben you have to keep out of Snarler’s way.”
Li’l Ben growled, or at least he tried, though it came out more like a mewing sound. “I’ll never be Big Ben! Never! I’ll get big but I’ll always be your Li’l Ben, and I’ll protect you and catch the biggest fish in the river and give them to you for your dinner!”
Mamma Sue gave Li’l Ben a little love bump with her hip, and stared back at the river. She sniffed, trying to find if there was fresh spoor from Snarler. She couldn’t detect any, so he was probably holed up in his den sleeping.
Still, it was always important to be cautious. Snarler had killed Li’l Ben’s father some months back. Ol’ Ben had been the dominant male of their group. But, like Mama Sue, he’d gotten older and one day wasn’t paying attention and Snarler sneaked up on him. The fight was over in less time than it takes to catch a salmon. Now Snarler wanted to get Mama Sue pregnant, and in the bear’s way that meant there couldn’t be any cubs around that weren’t his.
“Li’l Ben, sniff the air. What do you smell?”
“Fish! Salmon! Dinner!”
Mama Sue snuffled, the bear’s way of laughing. “Your brain is connected directly to your stomach, isn’t it, Li’l Ben.”
“Aww, mama, I’m hungry!”
Mama Sue gave a soft, guttural growl. “Li’l Ben, I asked you a question. This is important! You have to learn how to find out about the world by what smells are around you. Now, sniff and tell me what you smell.”
Li’l Ben rose up on his hind legs, lifted his nose in the air, and sniffed three or four times. “I smell you, mama, and the river, and trees and berry bushes. I smell...” he paused for a few seconds, “I smell Snarler, but just a little. I smell Kit and her mother, and Echo.”
Li’l Ben’s sense of smell was much better than Mama Sue’s, and he identified things that she missed, like Snarler’s old scent. That was not unexpected, but it bothered her because if she was starting to lose her sense of smell she might not be able to protect Li’l Ben until he’d be grown and leave for a different territory.
“That’s very good, Li’l Ben. I want you to keep sniffing the air, no matter what else you’re doing. If you smell Snarler, you run and hide. Understand?”
“Yes, mama. I know that. You tell me that all the time.”
“I know. And I will keep sniffing, I promise. Now I’m sniffing salmon! There’s some salmon swimming in the river right now!”
Mama Sue sniffed the air, and she, too, could smell the scent of salmon. It was a bit of a salty tang on the scent of the river.
“Time to go fishing! Careful now, don’t run! If other bears see you running to the river they’ll come to see why, they’ll smell the salmon, and we’ll have competition.”
Mama Sue led her cub down to the river, like all they wanted was to get a drink of water. And that’s what they did, they both drank their fill. Mama Sue stood and looked across the river, in the direction where Snarler had his den. She didn’t see him, or smell his scent on the wind. Then she watched the water downstream for quite some time.
Li’l Ben was getting impatient. “Come on, mama! Let’s fish. Others might smell the salmon and come running.”
“I’ve been watching the river. You should, too. There are only a few salmon swimming by right now. But I see down the river the water is roiling. Do you see that?”
“Uh uh. I’m too short. Let me stand up and then maybe I can see.”
Li’l Ben stood up on his hind legs and rested his front paws on his mama’s rump. Now he was high enough to see the water roiling further down the river.
“Now I see it. The water’s sort of wavy down there.”
“That means there are big salmon swimming to lay their eggs upstream. We’ll wait until some of them swim past, then we’ll start fishing and catch a couple of big fish for our dinner.”
“Why let some swim past... oh, I remember! That’s so they’ll have baby salmon and then they’ll grow up and swim back up the river and we’ll be able to catch them.”
“Very good! You’re learning your lessons. Now, here they come!”
The stood silently and watched as the first of the larger salmon swam past. They weren’t jumping out of the water like they did sometimes, and that was good because that kept their scent more local to the river and the trees where they had been standing earlier.
“When you see a nice big one....”
Li’l Ben interrupted. He was very excited. “I know, I know! I jump just ahead of it so it’s right there when I land on it and I’ll have caught it! Right?”
Mama Sue snuffled. “Right. Now, let’s catch dinner!”
Li’l Ben timed his jump exactly right. He figured out where one of the salmon would be and he landed on it, grabbing the back of its neck in his teeth and its body with his front claws. He quickly twisted around and pushed away from the river bottom with his hind legs, and, carrying the heavy fish, ran out of the water and up the bank to the edge of the trees where he finally dropped his catch.
“I got one, mama, I got one! I caught my own dinner!”
He turned and looked, automatically sniffing the air at the same time. First, he saw his mama catch an even bigger salmon and start walking up the bank to where he was waiting. Second, he smelled Snarler’s spoor blowing on the breeze. That meant Snarler was coming to the river from his den.
“Mama! Snarler’s scent! He’s coming!
Mama Sue dropped her salmon on the ground, twisted around and stood in one motion, and sniffed the air. Li’l Ben was right; she could detect Snarler’s scent. It wasn’t very strong, which meant he was maybe halfway to the river. She turned back and picked up her salmon and hurried to Li’l Ben’s side where she dropped it next to his.
“Let’s go back to our den. He won’t follow us, not when there’s good fishing.”
They picked up their salmon and entered the forest, heading for their den about a mile from the river.
Their den had been created by a rockfall, and had the advantage that the entrance was upslope so the rain and snow didn’t get in. There was a rock ledge below the entrance that provided an area where they could eat and doze in the sunshine. Below the rock ledge was a small spring, so they had water without having travel to the river. Small game, berry bushes, and tasty grasses and leaves were all nearby. The most important benefit of the den was that the entrance was too small for any of the adult male bears, especially Snarler who was larger than any other male in their group.
Li’l Ben liked to lie on the rock ledge and watch birds try to get the tasty termites that lived in a rotten log near the spring. He was fascinated by the big black ‘caw birds’ that would take tiny twigs and push them into the termite nest then slowly pull them out, almost always with several termites which they would then eat. Li’l Ben liked to eat termites too. He tried this trick, but the twigs he’d pick were always too large to fit in the termite holes. He had one long twig that was sharp on one end. He thought it would work to extract termites, but it was still too big. He decided to keep it in the den because it smelled good. Mama Sue thought this was very strange, but Li’l Ben had a lot of strange habits that none of her other cubs ever had.
Li’l Ben heard some thrashing noises in the distance, and then he detected Snarler’s scent.
In a low, growly voice, he called out, “Mama! Snarler’s coming this way!” He ran back and joined Mama Sue in the den. They moved to the back end where Snarler’s paws and claws couldn’t reach them.
It didn’t take long for Snarler to appear. Li’l Ben hadn’t ever seen him except from a distance, but up close he was huge! His roars and growls almost shook the ground, and Li’l Ben was scared.
“Don’t be afraid, Li’l Ben. We’re safe here. There’s no way Snarler can get in. Eventually he’ll get tired of this game, or get hungry, and leave.”
“But he never came here before! Will he come back again?”
“Maybe. But we’ll always be safe here.”
“What if we get hungry, or thirsty?”
“We’ll just have to wait him out. Now hush, keep quiet. If we make noise he’ll stay around longer.”
Snarler tried to get at them with his front claws, but that didn’t work. Finally he shoved his head into the den entrance, but couldn’t get further because of his huge shoulders. His breath was awful, his teeth were huge and sharp looking, and his beady eyes reminded Li’l Ben of the termite holes.
Li’l Ben pushed further back and felt something poking his rump. It was his termite twig! What if he tried to poke Snarler’s eye with his termite twig? His eye was a lot bigger than a termite hole. And the termite twig had a sharp point on one end.
He reached back and grabbed the termite twig in his mouth, and moved it around so the sharp end was facing forward and the back end was along the left side of his face. He stood, which made Snarler roar even louder.
Mama hissed at him. “What are you doing?”
He couldn’t answer with the termite twig held firmly in his mouth, so he showed her. He ran at Snarler, pointing the termite twig at his left eye. He figured Snarler would open his mouth to try to bite him, so he aimed, sort of like when he was fishing for the salmon, where the eye would be. Again, his timing was perfect.
The sharp end of the twig entered Snarler’s eye socket, and Li’l Ben let it go. With a horrifying roar, Snarler pulled his head out of the den. They heard his pitiful roars fade into the distance.
After a few minutes, Li’l Ben and Mama Sue peeked out of their den. No Snarler. And, in fact, that was the last of Snarler that any of the group ever saw.
Li’l Ben grew up and left for a new territory at the end of his fourth year. He did return to see his mama as he had promised, but he didn’t have the answer to her question about why most adult males acted the way they did. He told her that he wasn’t like that, he wasn’t ever going to be like that. And even though he was big now, his name was still Li’l Ben.
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