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The Twins by Zoe Meyer

 

The twins were born one blustery winter day in a den hollowed out beneath the roots of a giant beech. They were woolly black bear cubs, who at birth were blind and no larger than kittens. With nothing to do but to eat and sleep, they grew rapidly. Outside in the forest the gales howled and the snow drifted deep, but the cave was well protected and the great bulk of Mother Bruin kept it warm and of an even temperature.

Before the snow had disappeared the old bear left the cave each day, driven forth by hunger after her long winter fast, but the cubs remained at home until the north wind with its blizzards was forced to retreat before the balmy wind of the south. Then they tumbled out into the sunshine, blinking and rubbing their eyes with their little black paws at the abrupt change from dusk to bright daylight.

It was a wonderful world in which they found themselves. Patches of snow still lingered in the hollows, but the earth was rapidly discarding its brown winter mantle, replacing it with one of living green. The gracefully drooping branches of a group of birch trees standing beside the stream were delicately filmed with green; the air was sweet with the breath of arbutus; and from a tree close beside the swollen brook drifted the six plaintive notes of a white-throated sparrow.

Scraping away the dry leaves under a beech tree, Mother Bruin disclosed a few of the little three-cornered nuts, moldy from their long contact with the earth but, nevertheless, acceptable food for a bear. A little farther on she dug for roots in the soft mud at the edge of a swamp, now vocal with the spring call of the hylas. The cubs followed her, full of curiosity concerning everything they beheld in this new and fascinating world.

Several weeks later, while the Hermit was roaming the woods with his familiar brown bag upon his back, he was granted the rare privilege of watching the bear family when the three were unaware of his presence. Mother Bruin, as usual, was leading the way, the cubs, as like as two peas, following single file in her footsteps and imitating her every move so faithfully that the Hermit chuckled to himself. When the big bear halted and looked about her, the small bears also halted and looked eagerly about; when she sniffed at a fallen log, they, too, sniffed; and once when she sneezed, the cubs looked curiously at her and then tried faithfully to imitate the sound.

The ants were busy making their community dwellings and when Mother Bruin paused to lick up a mouthful, two little red tongues joined hers, the cubs smacking their lips over the treat. At length, their hunger satisfied, the family stopped under a great pine and the cubs began a rough and tumble game, while Mother Bruin sat on her haunches, keenly watchful of every move. Occasionally, for no reason which the Hermit could detect, one or the other of the cubs would receive a boxing from his mother which would set him howling. The punishment was soon forgotten, however, and it is to be hoped that it did them good. Over and over they rolled on the brown pine needles, two furry balls cuffing and biting at each other. Then they paused and sat up panting, exactly as Mother Bruin was sitting.

The effect was so ludicrous that the Hermit had much ado to keep from laughing aloud, but he also had a wholesome fear of Mother Bruin when she felt that her cubs might be in danger. So he stifled the laugh that would have betrayed his presence and at length slipped unobtrusively away.

While shambling through the forest one day Mother Bruin made a wonderful discovery. She came to a tree which had recently fallen to the forest floor and from within came a curious humming. She stopped abruptly to listen, her great head cocked to one side and her eyes shining with anticipation. The cubs also paused, cocked their heads upon one side and waited expectantly. Mother Bruin soon assured herself that there could be no mistake. With her terrible claws she ripped open the rotting log, disclosing a mass of well-filled honey-comb and liberating a great swarm of bees. The air was soon filled with their angry buzzing.

The cubs decided that the spot was not a healthful one and retreated to the bushes, but Mother Bruin paid no attention to the enraged owners of the hive. For a few moments the cubs watched wonderingly; then the tree with its appetizing odour called them and they shambled up to it, the bees being too busy carrying away their store to bother them.

One of the cubs thrust a little black paw into the mass of amber honey and then, as any child would have done, transferred the paw to his mouth. Immediately there spread over his comical little face a look of utter happiness. The other cub, seeing her brother thus pleasantly engaged, lost no time in following his example and the two were soon smeared with honey from top to toe. Never were little bears happier.

The three gorged themselves until they could hold no more. And all the next day the cubs were busy licking their own paws and furry coats, or each other's. It mattered not which, for both bears were literally “as sweet as honey.”

As the season advanced and the cubs grew more self-reliant, Mother Bruin occasionally left them for a whole day or night while she traveled farther than their short legs would permit them to follow. Upon one of these occasions when they were left to shift for themselves, the Hermit came suddenly upon them, grubbing for roots at the border of the swamp. Man and cubs were alike surprised and stood eyeing each other. The cubs caught a strange, disturbing odour, but curiosity was stronger than fear and they held their ground.

[Illustration: The other cub forgot her fear and demanded her sugar lump.]

Seeing that they had no intention of running away, the Hermit, careful to make no sudden movement, drew from his pocket a lump of sugar which he always carried in the hope of meeting Brown Brother, the deer. He seated himself upon a log and placed the sugar upon the ground in front of him. The cubs also sat down and looked at the man and the sugar. Clearly this strange creature meant no harm and the white object looked good. For a while longer the cubs regarded him keenly while the man refrained from looking directly at them lest his eyes make them uneasy.

At length one of the cubs, the one who had first investigated the bee tree, advanced cautiously, keeping his eyes on the man, and sniffed at the sugar. The next moment he had gobbled it up and was licking his lips in appreciation. It was almost, if not quite, as good as honey. Seeing his delight, the other cub forgot her fear and demanded her sugar lump. They then permitted the Hermit to pet them to his heart's content, while they nosed about his pockets for more sweets.

He had made two close friends, as he discovered a bit later, somewhat to his embarrassment. For when he rose to continue his way, the cubs trotted after him as a matter of course. Try as he would he could not rid himself of them. The cubs had found him a source of good and they stuck to him like burrs. Vainly he shouted at them, waving his arms like windmills; the cubs only sat back upon their haunches and looked at him in wonder, until he could not help laughing. Then he tried throwing sticks at them but this method, also, had no effect. Their hides were thick and sticks meant nothing to them.

Finally he stopped and looked down at the two small bears with an expression blended of amusement and annoyance. He knew that, should the mother bear return and find the cubs following her natural enemy, she would not wait for explanations. There would be but one explanation in her mind and her vengeance would be swift. The Hermit had seen her and from afar noted with respect her great bulk. Moreover, he was unarmed. To say the least, the situation was an unpleasant one, and he wished heartily that he had not been so quick to make friends. Every crackling twig in the forest brought a quickening of his pulses but, fortunately for him, Mother Bruin was miles away, enjoying a meal of berries.

Meanwhile the Hermit's situation was growing more uncomfortable. One of the cubs seemed to have made up his mind that the man had more sugar, which he was deliberately keeping from them. Accordingly he attempted to scale the Hermit as he would a tree, a proceeding to which the man objected most emphatically. The cub was big and heavy and his claws were sharp. With a yell the man dislodged him and sprang aside.

As it happened, this movement was his salvation, for it recalled to his mind the bag upon his back. The bag contained two apples and several cookies which he had carried with him, expecting to be gone from his cabin the greater part of the day. Now as he remembered them, he gave a sigh of relief. The cubs watched him with interested eyes as he drew the good things from the bag and deposited them upon the ground under a big tree. As he had hoped, the bears at once fell upon them and became so engrossed that he was able to slip out of sight behind the tree. He immediately took to his heels, never stopping until he had put a safe distance between himself and the too-friendly bear cubs.

The paths of the man and the cubs, however, were destined often to cross. Not long after this experience they met again. In the Hermit's clearing, close to the fence, stood a sweet apple tree loaded with fruit. Approaching it one day to see if the apples were ripening, the Hermit discovered two furry balls among the branches and found himself looking into two pairs of bright little eyes. Quickly ascertaining that Mother Bruin was not present, he paused beneath the tree and called, in as stern a voice as he could assume, “Come down out of my apple tree, you little thieves!”

The more timid bear climbed to a higher branch, but the male cub sat comfortably, his feet dangling, one paw holding to the branch and the other to the trunk, and looked down at the man. His expression so resembled that of a small boy caught stealing apples, that the Hermit laughed aloud and Pal trotted up to see what was going on.

At sight of the bears the dog seemed to go wild. He circled the tree, barking furiously, while the cubs watched him in wonder. Fearing that Mother Bruin might at any moment appear and misunderstand the situation, the Hermit was about to call the dog and return to the house, leaving the bears in possession of the tree. Before he could pucker his lips for a whistle, however, the situation was taken from his hands. One of the cubs, upon shifting his position, loosened a small apple which fell directly into the upturned face of the dog. With a yelp of pain and astonishment Pal scuttled for the cabin, his tail between his legs and his interest in bear cubs suddenly evaporating.

The Hermit looked up in mock reproach at the cub. “Aren't you ashamed to treat my dog that way after I fed you sugar and gave you my lunch?” he asked. “And now I suppose I shall have to give you more sugar to get you to come down. I don't care to have Mother Bruin with her three hundred odd pounds roosting in my apple tree.”

He went to the house, returning with a number of lumps of sugar and several apples. The cubs at once scrambled from the tree, keeping their eyes greedily upon the good things with which they allowed themselves to be tolled some distance into the woods. There the Hermit left them to feast while he made good time back to the cabin and his chastened dog.

In their wanderings one day in late summer the cubs, now so fat and well fed that their gait was a mere waddle, came upon a great patch of blueberries. Here was a treat indeed. They rose upon their hind legs and greedily stripped the branches until their faces were so stained with juice that Mother Bruin would scarcely have recognized them.

Now it happened that they had found the same blueberry patch on the bank of the Little Vermilion that Mokwa, the big bear, had discovered after his strange ride the year before. And as so often happens, history repeated itself. The cubs wandered to the edge of the river, and seeing a log with one end resting on the bank and the other in the water, the more venturesome of the twins crouched upon it with his face close to the water to look for fish. His weight at the end caused the log to tip. Into the river he went, heels over head, while the log slipped loose from its moorings.

At that point the water was not deep and the bear soon regained his feet but, as he scrambled back upon the log, it drifted farther out. The next moment it was caught by the current and carried swiftly along, the little bear crouching upon it in a frightened heap. The second cub watched her brother in astonishment, half inclined to enter the water and follow. At that moment, however, Mother Bruin appeared upon the shore and at sight of the log and its occupant became greatly excited.

Down the bank she rushed, scrambling over logs and through bushes, scaring some of the smaller wilderness folk almost out of their wits. She had eyes for nothing except the cub which was being carried rapidly toward the falls. The second cub tried to follow the mother, whimpering for her to wait, but as the old bear paid no attention to her cries, she at length gave up the attempt and followed more leisurely.

Meanwhile, the male cub was being carried swiftly along in mid-stream, the thunder of the falls growing steadily louder. Although he did not understand the sound, it made him uneasy. He whined pitifully as he watched Mother Bruin, trying to keep abreast of him upon the shore, yet so far away. The falls were alarmingly close when suddenly the eyes of the cub brightened. Just ahead, and very near the brink of the falls, the forest reached an arm out into the river, and standing at the extreme end was a man, fishing—the same man who had fed him with sweets.

At the moment when the cub spied him, the Hermit saw the cub and recognized his danger. “Poor little fellow!” he said aloud in compassion. “I wish there were some way of helping him.”

As if in answer to his wish, a way was opened. An eddy carried the floating log directly toward the shore where the Hermit stood, and for a moment he believed it would touch. He soon saw, however, that it would just miss the point and that, unless the cub jumped at the right moment, nothing could save him from the falls. The man groaned; then quick as a flash he saw a way of rescuing the little animal. He rushed out into the water as far as he could safely stand, holding to a tree which leaned horizontally over the stream. As the log came abreast of him, but just out of reach, he held out his hand.

This time the hand held no sugar, but the cub knew it as a friend and did not hesitate. He leaped into the water, battling frantically with the current. At first he seemed doomed to be swept on after the log, which at that moment hung trembling at the brink of the falls before the plunge. The cub's struggles, however, brought him near enough for the Hermit to grasp his thick fur. Then, gripping the tree until his knuckles whitened and exerting his utmost strength, the man slowly drew the animal to safety.

The Hermit smiled at the woe-begone figure as the cub scrambled upon the bank and stood limp and dripping, but safe. The next moment the smile froze upon his lips. Bearing down upon him was a whirlwind of blazing eyes and gaping mouth, propelled by the powerful muscles of a very big and very angry bear. Seeing the man, the bear at once became convinced that he was at the root of the trouble from which her cub had so narrowly escaped. So she charged, and the Hermit knew that one blow of her mighty paw would either crush him or whirl him into the current and over the falls.

He glanced swiftly about. A few yards away an overhanging bank offered the only possible hiding-place. It meant a ducking and perhaps worse, for even where he stood the current was strong. Nevertheless the Hermit did not hesitate. He turned toward the hiding-place and dived, swimming for a moment under water until he felt his fingers close upon something solid. Then, coming to the surface, he gave a sigh of relief. His dive had carried him beneath the overhanging bank and he was clutching a strong root which had forced its way through the mass of earth and so reached the air. He stood up to his armpits in the cold water, shivering, but glad to be alive, and glad, too, in spite of his predicament, that he had saved the cub.

Meanwhile, Mother Bruin stood bewildered at the sudden and complete disappearance of the enemy. Her rage evaporated before the mystery and she stood for several moments, staring at the spot where the man had vanished. The Hermit, however, was well hidden and would have escaped observation from keener eyes than those of a bear.

She soon turned to the cub which was whimpering miserably, and in drying his wet fur she forgot the man. They were joined by the other cub just as the Hermit peered out of his watery hiding-place. Finding them still in evidence he shook his fist belligerently at the old bear. He was careful to keep out of sight, however, and a short time later had the satisfaction of seeing them disappear in the woods, Mother Bruin in the lead and the cubs as usual trotting dutifully behind.

The male cub's thrilling ride and battle with the current had for the time being subdued his adventurous spirit. He was content to stand meekly by while his mother tore to pieces a rotting log, disclosing for them all a meal of ants and fat white grubs.

 
 
 

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