Part 2

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Angel unrolled his sled and loaded the hefty slabs of bear meat onto it, fastening them in place with twine. This was no easy task, and let me tell you, dragging that thing all the way back home—I'll just say this: The only way to get through a ordeal like that is if you're fueled by something pure, like love. It's like childbirth. A truly selfish woman could never endure it. If you'd ever seen the process, you'd know what I mean. Luckily, we're not so selfish as most people think. The species would be doomed if we were.

So anyhow, Angel trudged through the snow, dragging this load of meat on the sled behind him. His shoulders and legs felt as if the muscles were being stretched to the breaking point, burning and stinging with each onerous step. But as he drew closer to home, his burden actually seemed to lighten a bit. More than once, Angel glanced back to make sure none of the meat had fallen off the sled. With an end to his journey in sight, the bundle didn't look quite so massive as when he'd first set out.

As Angel was approaching his town, he saw heads popping up out of their burrows—first just a couple, and eventually several dozen. Everybody had to make sure it was really him, and then they'd tell a couple more people nearby before running out to greet him. Angel, the town hero! He straightened up and smiled through the pain. This was a ritual that he thoroughly enjoyed.

Among the last to see Angel's kill was his great-uncle, the oldest man in town. He was one of the few that didn't run out to join the celebration making its way through the snow. Instead, he just stayed put and waited. This was partly because he was a dignified and well-respected elder, but mostly he was just too dang old to be running around and carrying on like that. I'll tell you, when those people got to celebrating, it was something to see—and to hear! But when Angel finally made his way to the center of town where the elder was waiting, everybody got quiet real quick.

It was the elder's job to inspect Angel's kill and determine if it was fit to eat. This was basically just a formality, but you can bet everybody was deadly serious about it. The old man did his usual rounds. He hobbled over and pressed a hand on the meat to test its firmness. Then he bent down and gave it a sniff.

That's when the elder went pale and his mouth fell open a little. He actually seemed to stop breathing for a moment. It looked like he'd been struck dead right then and there. Then he stumbled backwards and sat down in the snow. Several of the onlookers tried to help the old man, thinking he'd fallen ill, but all of a sudden he rose to his feet and proclaimed, "This... is no bear. It is a man."

None of the townsfolk knew just what to make of this. They could see the meat, and sure, it might possibly be the body of a large man, but it might also be a small bear. No one seriously entertained the idea of Angel being a murderer, much less a cannibal. Still, they were all obliged to trust the elder, even if he did seem to be losing his grip on reality lately. Maybe giving complete authority to the oldest person in town wasn't the best idea, eh?

Angel's face grew hot, despite the icy weather. "I didn't..." he fumbled. "That is, I would never... It is a bear! I killed it myself!"

The old man glared at Angel, looking deep into his eyes. He saw no malice there. Now with a gentler tone, the elder announced, "I don't doubt that when you killed this creature, it was a bear. But now... through some magic unknown to me... You must return this body. It's not right that it should be here, separated from its head, its heart... Whoever this is, he deserves a burial."

Angel was crestfallen. And besides that, he was hungry. Were they really going to waste this beautiful kill? Yes. Of course they were. The elder had spoken, and that was final.

The elder continued, "We must return this... these remains... back to where they belong. And pray that will be enough. Do I have any volunteers for the job?"

None of the men—because the elder was really only addressing the men—raised his hand for a good ten or twenty seconds. But as soon as the first hand went up, others started to follow, and eventually every able-bodied man in town was standing there with his hand up.

See, that's how a crowd operates. Only the first two or three of them actually had to be willing to go. Any more than that would be excessive on such a journey, and everybody knew it. The lazy fellas—and also the cowards—they waited to raise their hands until enough real volunteers were already available. Watch out for people like that, Angel. It's much better to be alone than mixed up with a crowd that'll desert you as soon as they feel like it.

Now this hunter, he was no fool. He could see all these volunteers were really only in it to look good in front of the town. If any of these fellas ran into trouble out in the wild, they'd run right back to the group, bringing the trouble with them. "I'll go alone," Angel said. He spoke directly to his uncle but just loud enough for most of the crowd to hear. "This is my kill, so it's my responsibility."

The elder had obviously expected such a response. He stepped toward Angel said under his breath, "Be careful, boy. This thing you've killed... I don't think you've actually killed it." He was truly shaken, as if that dismembered body might return to life and seek its due vengeance.

Angel wasn't so easily frightened, but he decided to humor the old man. It was the only thing to do, after all. No dissonance should be perceived between the generations. No rebellion. He knew that road, and at the end of it was anarchy—not a lack of rulers, actually, but a glut of them, each struggling moment by moment for supremacy. Chaos: the quickest path to despotism.

With this in mind, Angel turned around and headed right back out to find that distant cave where he'd killed the bear. Somehow, despite his aching muscles and the gradual upward slope of his path, the sled was a little easier to pull this time. I must be getting stronger, he thought with a smile. Just when he caught sight of the cave, that sled seemed to weigh nothing at all, and Angel fell forward, face down in the snow.

When he looked back at the sled, he was shocked to find it completely empty. Not only was the meat gone, but the sled was clean and dry. Angel examined the twine he'd tied around the bear meat that very morning, and it looked fresh and unstained—not even a trace of blood. Now, this terrified the mighty hunter at last. He could think of no possible explanation for the disappearance of that meat, unless... Unless his great-uncle was right. The creature—whatever it was—wasn't actually dead at all.

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