Billy Buck and the Bear

I

I came to the city of Gold Creek in early May as the fitful spring winds were settling into early summer. The morning air was rife with the smell of lilac and the sound of lunatic birds tweeting and whistling from the huge oaks and maples that lined the streets of the finer residential areas near the college.  Children played in the yards, dogs barked at anything and nothing, lawn mowers buzzed in the distance, and it all felt to me like America stood still, fixed in some past era.

However, like most cities and towns in the Great Lakes region of the Northeast, Gold Creek’s future lay buried in the past, evidenced by the slow but steady exodus of its natives to the warmer promises of the West and South.  Since the 1950’s, due to the incremental shutdown of factories, its population had shrunk from 100,000 to just over 50,000. As I turned down Lincoln Street into a working class neighborhood, it seemed as though one out of every three houses was vacant. Gangs of vandals, the rebel step-children of the declining economy, had gotten to many of them, spray-painting epithets on walls and breaking windows, which were now boarded up, a final muting of the glory days of middle class working America.

Yet, in stark contrast to those pop-up cities of New America, Gold Creek impressed me as a place of a certain kind of integrity, with a downtown that, despite the economic decline, had resisted cheap redevelopment ploys and clung tight to its history. The 200-year-old, 3-story brick buildings stood strong in the face of the decline, as many of the laid-off workers went to work as up-start masons and carpenters and jacks-of-all-trades (working for a third of their previous union wage). The three bridges that crossed over the meandering creek were repainted every other year, and a percentage of tax money went to small business in order to upgrade their store fronts. Thus, downtown Gold Creek was still a place of considerable enterprise, and even the fast food companies and gas stations forewent their usual squatting sites on the fringes in favor of central business locations.

Twenty miles west of Gold Creek rose the Goahonda Mountains, a densely forested range that included a national park, a number of fertile but steep and unfriendly plots of land for sale to the public, and the small Wachitah Indian reservation, the remnants of a once great tribe that had dispersed to God-knows-where, leaving only the traditionalistic and the opportunistic to navigate the survival bridge between the past and future, and to determine what aspects of their culture should be preserved. Such deliberation resulted in a deal with US government to provide bus service for their children to school in Gold Creek. This, now and historically, has been an uneasy proposition.

The day I arrived, Gold Creek was more like a river. Heavy spring rains had soaked the Goahonda Mountains, resulting in a swift confluence of several creeks into a powerful flow that swelled Gold Creek to the brink as it rushed down the escarpment. By the time it reached the level ground of downtown Gold Creek, it was water barely under the bridge on which I stood. It was here I came to investigate the death of Billy Buck.

II

I learned from the locals that Billy Buck was not a popular kid in high school.  He was a sub-par student and had a small circle of friends, mostly lower income kids from broken homes. He was certainly not a bad looking kid; on the contrary, he was described as a Brad Pitt/Robert Redford/James Dean kind of character, with blond, wavy hair, a strong jaw, dimples, and fiery grey eyes. However, he was cursed with a fixed facial expression that seemed to hold a perpetual smirk, something he could not help, and which made him intimidating to those smaller and younger, and a target for those older and stronger.

His high school career was marked by several suspensions from school, three of them with the same kid – Robert Two Feathers from Goahonda. According to the Principal of Gold Creek high school, Mr. Moore, the boys were evenly matched, and had nurtured a fierce mutual hatred since middle school. The last fight, according to witnesses, was particularly nasty. It was at the usual spot – the crook in the creek behind the abandoned cannery – when the boys were in 10th grade.  Two Feathers had the advantage, having Billy in a choke hold. In desperation, Billy grabbed some rusty old wire cutters that lay on the ground. He stabbed Robert deep in the thigh, causing him to howl in pain. Robert Two Feathers ended up in the hospital with a severe infection, and he would walk with a limp the rest of his life.  Billy never went back to school.  “Funny thing is,” said Mr. Moore, “those boys were so much more alike than they were different.”             

As is often the case with those who end up taking the road of violence, Billy had suffered through an unhappy and abuse-ridden childhood.  His father, Ray Buck, was a mean drunk, and despite periodic attempts to go straight, he would inevitably fall off the wagon. This was a cycle that would repeat itself over and over again: after a few happy, clowning-around days, the old man would swing to a dark and violent mood.  During those episodes, Billy was the near and easy target, evidenced by the coroners’ discovery of numerous scars from belt buckles and other undeterminable weapons of abuse.

Unfortunately or not, Billy’s father died in a car wreck while Billy was in the eighth grade, leaving Billy, his younger sister Bonnie and his mother Lola in a house that was nearly paid for (the old man had managed to keep a job at the radiator factory) and social security covered the rest. Lola retreated into a TV-watching stupor to the fill the void that remained in the wake of the storm that was her husband.  Bonnie was prone to fits of crying for no apparent reason, if other than to elicit some compassion from her mother or brother, of which neither was capable. Hence, Billy came and went from their Lincoln Street home as he pleased, beholden to no one but himself and his tenuous gang of ne’er-do-wells.

III

The Bucks had known brighter days, especially those summers at the camp on Lake Erie when the kids were nine and ten years old and the parents were of a brighter spirit. Ray seemed happier by the water. He drank less, perhaps because he was already entranced by the sounds of the great lake – the incessant lapping of waves against the shore, the baby cries of the sea gulls, and the crescendo and decrescendo of the fishing boats as they came and went in the infant lights of dawn and dusk. It was on that shore that the Bucks could recall their days of serenity – the calm before the storm that would begin on the last day of their last summer vacation.

It was in the tenuous, tawny light just before dusk in the dog days of that summer when the waves, driven by a sudden gathering of black clouds and fierce wind gusts, mounted their assault on the shallow waters where Bonnie and Billy played.  Billy first felt the powerful undertow that pulled at his hips, and his instincts turned him toward shore where he pushed himself hard to gain the beach.  Bonnie, however, was already being pulled inexorably by the back-flow into deeper waters. As Billy watched helplessly, his father suddenly appeared on the upper bank.  With incredible speed and purpose, Ray was in the water stroking powerfully toward his daughter, who was flailing and screaming as the waves buried her again and again, until she could no longer fight.

With one last blind plunge, Ray managed to grasp his daughter by her hair and pull her up, back into the wild air. Swimming on his back and riding the waves, Ray brought her to shore, where he was able to revive her.  After that day, Bonnie would unconditionally love her father, who in turn displayed an uncharacteristic, heartfelt tenderness toward her.  Later that year, on Bonnie’s 10th birthday, Ray went to an elite jewelry store and bought her a very expensive crystal unicorn, a precious little item that Bonnie cherished absolutely. 

The same year, for his birthday, Billy received from his father a voucher for swimming lessons at the local YMCA pool. When he skipped the first lesson to run with his friends, Billy received a severe beating, one with an extra emphatic message about what happens to cowards.

IV

After dropping out of school Billy went to work for a garage fixing flat tires, pumping gas and doing some general repair work under the lift. An accident with a propane torch as he was burning off a bolt left him with a severely scarred left forearm. After an extended hospital stay, he applied for social security disability benefits, which he began receiving a few months later. Thus he was able to work for under-the-table pay at the garage and save up a little money to buy a used car. However, at home his mother and sister grew less and less tolerant of his late night antics and his shirking of any kind of household responsibility. Since he had already turned 18, they insisted he leave the house. He did so, but not without taking a few valuable items with him, including Bonnie’s precious crystal unicorn, which he figured he could sell if the going got tough.

Billy had had too many brushes with the law due to his aggressive driving habits, and one more incident would have caused him to lose his license.  So his best choice was to rent an apartment downtown, close to the garage where he worked and to the bars where he could walk to meet his friends. The little gang gained a reputation for picking fights with the local college students and bringing the police to bear. This recklessness went on for less than a year his friends tired it and Billy’s neighbors in the apartment building had complained enough to have him evicted. He was given a week’s notice.

Late that Saturday night, while in an especially ornery state of mind, Billy entered Joe Miller’s Bar and Grill near closing time and picked a fight he should not have picked. His target was a small but potent hockey player from Erie, who wasted no time in slamming Billy up against the wall, punching him hard in the face, and kneeing him in the groin. Within seconds, Billy dropped to the floor, bloody and limp. Things may have gotten worse if it were not for Sara Miller, the bartender, who came between them and ordered the hockey player to leave or she would call the police.

Sarah was Joe Miller’s only child, the light of his life and only reason to carry on after his wife died of cancer two years ago. Sarah was a uniquely pretty girl, with the long, shiny black hair, smooth brown skin, and huge black eyes of her Mexican mother, along with the freckles and strong build from her father’s side. She represented the best of both, and the loyal patrons of the bar knew that she was, even at only nineteen years old, fully capable of managing the rough business she had inherited from old Joe, who would never fully recover from his wife’s death.

Now, kneeling on the floor, Sarah held Billy’s face with firm but gentle hands. Wiping away the blood from his cheeks, she coaxed him back to consciousness. Then came a strangely profound moment: she saw reflected there in his wild and frightened eyes something like a broken soul, something much like her own. And as Billy regained his senses he too saw something familiar, something like hope, perhaps. And so she took him upstairs to her apartment and tended to his wounds. For a couple of months, there would be tenderness and joy and laughter in both their lives.

V

Billy stayed with Sarah and her father through the autumn and into Christmas season with all its downtown gaiety. One might wonder if the two had met in any place other than a bar they could have made it. But even though Billy managed to behave himself while on the premises of his host, he was not able to resist the alcohol that came so cheaply, and he became increasingly intolerant of not only the regular customers, but also old Joe himself, whose senility seemed to have gotten progressively worse. Billy became impatient with the attention Sarah garnered on the old man. One day he proposed that they sell the bar and buy some property he knew about in the Goahonda Mountains.  Meanwhile, they could make arrangements to put Joe in a home where he would be better taken care of.

An impenetrable and insurmountable wall immediately separated them. Sarah would never abandon her father, and the mere mention of it took her to a place in her mind where Billy could not follow.  At first he pleaded with her. Then he threatened her. And then, after she told him to leave, he took her by the throat and thrust her against the wall. For a moment, as he clenched his fist, the madness seemed so natural, that this was how it must always be, how things would always end up. Yet something stronger held him back, and so he released Sarah and walked away from that bar never to return.

VI

The following account I was able to piece together from the owner of garage where Billy worked along with various acquaintances that had business dealings with him over the three months after he left Sarah and Joe’s Bar and Grill.

Billy bought twenty acres of mostly wooded land along a small creek in the mountains. It came with a large cabin and an acre of cleared land less than a mile upstream from the reservation.  There was an electric line connected from the reservation, but his water was from a well. For a while, all was rather peaceful; with the help of a constant supply of beer and marijuana, he was able to amuse himself and keep ghosts from the past at bay.  He even enjoyed the unexpected company of a stray dog that came upon his cabin, probably a refuge from the reservation. He fed the dog, and the dog listened, at a safe distance, to the silly little stories Billy would create spontaneously.

Billy commuted to work every day throughout early Spring.  Then he came home one evening to discover that his cabin door had been broken down and his refrigerator had been ransacked. The place was a mess, with broken eggs and jars and bottles of beer strewn all over his floor. This was obviously the work of a bear who had come away early from its deep slumber and was very hungry, and no doubt, very ornery. 

The next day he came home to find his heavy metal garbage can had been bashed and bludgeoned, and a week’s worth of rotten food lay strewn all over the yard. So Billy went to work securing his cabin. He dead-bolted the door and put bars on his windows. Then he equipped the immediate outside by hanging cowbells and pots and pans along with other noisy objects. The next day he went to town and bought a rifle. 

During the evenings now he sat on his porch with his gun and his orphan dog, vigilant with an eye toward the creek and the woods. He would drink and smoke, and talk to the dog, and, as the inebriation took hold, he would shout into the woods, daring the beast to come forth.  A few times he heard rustling through the trees and the sound of deep and impatient snuffling, but the bear did not appear.

Yet every night, a couple hours after Billy had drunk his way to bed, the orphan dog would suddenly yelp, and then there would be a heavy shuffling of feet, then a flurry of noise as the pots and pans and cowbells were set into motion. Sometimes there would be the sound of clawing at the door and shaking of the barred windows.  For six evenings, while the days grew longer, Billy sat on his porch with his gun and his dog hollering challenges to his nemesis. For six nights in a row Billy would have barely slept.

On the seventh day, he went to town to the general supply store and bought fifty yards of high voltage, heavy grade electric cable. Over the next two days he cemented posts all around the cabin and strung three rows of electric fencing. That evening he resumed his watch, but again nothing appeared before nightfall. 

However, a couple hours later Billy heard a distinct zapping sound, immediately followed by a strange, guttural cry (it is difficult to imagine the sound of a bear in pain). This happened three times over the course of the next hour, and then silence. Billy finally was able to sleep.

Confident that he had confounded the bear, Billy became rather full of himself. He would spend the evenings shooting his rifle into the woods, or blasting his heavy metal music through giant woofers, and generally enjoying his ability to disturb the peace. Even after being visited by a young woman from the reservation who asked him to respect her privacy and her children’s need to get sleep for the early bus,  Billy would not change his ways, and even the orphan dog finally left this forsaken land.

On the last night, the Indian woman who had spoken with him just days before claimed she was awakened by the sound of a single gunshot followed by a series of violent screams, a sound that was something between beast and man. The buzzards began their circle dance in the sky the following morning.

VII

The pictures from the scene were gruesome. There was a contorted heap of bloodied flesh. The bear had nearly torn one of his arms off his body. The bottom two strands of the wire fence had been snapped at one of the posts. The gun lay a few feet from Billy’s hand. What struck me most was the close up shot of his face, which revealed an expression that did not appear to be smirking, but rather smiling peacefully.

VIII

The morning I was preparing to leave I received a call from Principal Moore asking me if I could stop by the school. I agreed to do so. As I entered his office it was apparent that he was very tired and somewhat troubled.

“There are a couple of things you might want to consider before you close the case,” he said. “A few days after the incident, I asked Billy’s mother and Sarah Miller to go with me and the police to look at the cabin, you know, to go through his belongings to see if there was anything they would want, or if there was something of value that might be missing. Sarah mentioned a crystal unicorn that Billy’s father had given him. Billy’s mother said nothing, just kind stared into space like she had seen a ghost. Also, there is the matter of these.” Mr. Moore pulled from his desk a pair of wire cutters. “The police found these in the woods, a hundred feet or so from the fence, along with some heavy rubber gloves. They gave them to me to hang on to. Oh, and there is the matter of the dead fish that had been thrown onto the lawn inside the fence near the door to the cabin. So, I am asking you if there anything else we can do for you before you leave Gold Creek?”

I thought about this for few minutes, re-imagining what might have happened. Then I told him that, as far as I was concerned, the investigation is closed and will be recorded as accidental death. I guess the one big question that remains is, how long does it take the bear to finish off the man?

***

Pete Howard works as an English teacher, a musician, a writer, and a house painter.