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Stories about Bears, edited by Andrew Lang

 

Baron de Wogan, a French gentleman, whose adventures with snakes are also curious, was the hero of some encounters with the grizzly bear of North America. First, I would have you understand what sort of a creature he had for an opponent. Imagine a monster measuring when standing upright eight or nine feet, weighing 900 lbs., of a most terrifying appearance, in agility and strength surpassing all other animals, and cruel in proportion. Like his cousin the brown bear, whom he resembles in shape, he is a hermit and lives alone in the immense trackless forests which covered the Rocky Mountains, and indeed (at least in olden times) the greater part of North America. During the day he sleeps in the depths of some mountain cavern, and wakes up at dusk to go out in search of prey. All the beasts of the forest live in terror of him—even the white bear flies before him. He would go down to the valleys and attack the immense herds of buffaloes which grazed there, and which were powerless against him, in spite of their numbers and their great horns. They join themselves closely together and form one compact rank, but the grizzly bear hurls himself at them, breaks their ranks, scatters them, and then pursuing them till he catches them up, flings himself on the back of one, hugs it in his iron embrace, breaks its skull with his teeth, and so goes slaying right and left before he eats one. Before the Baron’s first, so to say, hand-to-hand encounter with a grizzly, he had been long enough in the country to know something of their ways,  and how worse than useless a shot is unless in a fatal spot.

After the return to her tribe of Calooa, a young Indian girl, who had been his one human companion in many days of wandering, the Baron was left with only his mule Cadi for friend and companion, and naturally felt very lonely. He set his heart on getting to the top of the Rocky Mountains, at the foot of which he then happened to be. Their glittering summits had so irresistible an attraction for him, that he did not stay to consider the difficulties which soon beset him at every step. No sooner did he conquer one than another arose, added to which the cold of these high regions was intense, and it constantly snowed. After three days he had to declare himself not only beaten, but so worn out that he must take a week’s rest if he did not want to fall ill. First it was necessary to have some sort of a shelter, and by great good luck he found just at hand a cavern in the rock, which, without being exactly a palace, seemed as if it would answer his purpose.

Upon closer examination he found that it had more drawbacks than he cared about. All round were scattered gnawed bones of animals, and the prints of bear’s claws on the ground left no doubt as to who the last inmate had been. The Baron, however, preferred to risk an invasion rather than seek another abode, and prepared for probable inroads by making across the entrance to the cave a barricade of branches of oak tied together with flax, a quantity of which grew near. He then lit a good fire inside the cave, but as the last tenant had not considered a chimney necessary; the dense smoke soon obliged him to beat a hasty retreat. Besides he had to go out to get supplies for his larder, at present as bare as Mother Hubbard’s. With his usual good luck the Baron found, first, a large salmon flapping wildly in its effort to get out of a pool, where the fallen river had left it. This he killed, and next he shot a young deer about a mile  away and carried it to camp on his back. In order to preserve these eatables he salted some of them with salt that he had previously found in a lake near, and had carefully preserved for future use. He then dug a hole in a corner of the cave, putting a thick layer of dry hay at the bottom, and buried his provisions Indian fashion, in order to preserve them.

As it was still only twelve o’clock, the Baron thought he would spend the rest of the day in exploring the neighbourhood; first he examined the cave, which he found to be formed of big blocks of rock firmly joined together; above the cave rose the cliff, and in front of it grew a fir-tree, which served at the same time to defend the entrance, and as a ladder to enable him to mount the cliff. As he could not take Cadi with him, he fastened him to the fir-tree by his halter and girth joined together, so as to leave him plenty of room to graze. Then he put some eatables in his game bag, and set off on a tour of discovery. When he had walked about three hours, and had reached a rocky point from which he had a fine view of the surrounding country, he sat down to rest under an oak-tree. He knew nothing more till the cold awoke him—it was now six o’clock, and he had slept three hours. He started with all the haste he could to get back to his cave and Cadi before dark, but so tired and footsore was he that he was obliged to give in and camp where he was, for night was coming on fast. It was bitterly cold and snow fell constantly, so he lit a large fire, which at the same time warmed him, and kept away the bears whom he heard wandering round the camp most of the night. As soon as the sun was up in the morning, he set off with all his speed to see what had become of Cadi; but though fifteen miles is not much to bears balked of their prey, it is much to a weary and footsore man, and when he had hobbled to within half a mile of the camp, he saw that it was too late: the bears, whom he had driven away from his camp in the night with  fire-brands, had scented poor Cadi, and four of them were now devouring him—father, mother, and two cubs. Imagine his rage and grief at seeing his only friend and companion devoured piecemeal before his very eyes!

His first impulse was to fire, but he reflected in time that they were four to one, and that, instead of avenging Cadi, he would only share his fate. He decided to wait on a high rock till the meal was ended. It lasted an hour, and then he saw the whole family set off to climb the mountain, from the top of which he had been watching them. They seemed to be making straight for him, and as it would be certain death to sit and wait for them, he slipped into a cranny in the rock, hoping that he might not be perceived; even if he was, he could only be attacked by one at a time. He had not long to wait: soon all four bears passed in single file, without smelling him or being aware of him; for this he had to thank poor Cadi: their horrid snouts and jaws being smeared with his blood prevented their scenting fresh prey.

The Baron kills the bear

When he had seen them at a safe distance, he ventured to go down to the cave he could no longer call his own. Of Cadi, nothing remained but his head, still fastened to the tree by his halter. The barricade was gone, too, and from the cave came low but unmistakable growls. With one bound the Baron was up the tree, and from the tree on to the cliff. From there he threw stones down before the entrance to the cave, to induce the present inmate to come out, in order that he might take possession again. The bear soon came out, and, perceiving him, made for the fir-tree. By its slow and languid movements the Baron saw that it was curiosity more than anger that prompted it, and, moreover, it was evidently a very old bear, probably a grandfather, whose children and grandchildren had been to pay it a visit. Curiosity or not, the Baron had no wish to make a closer acquaintance, and fired a shot at the brute by way of a hint to that effect. This immediately turned his curiosity into wrath. Seizing the fir-tree, which he was  going to use as a ladder, he began to climb up. A second shot hit him in the shoulder. He fell mortally wounded, but even after a third shot, which took him in the flank, his dying struggles lasted twenty minutes, during which he tore at the roots of the fir-trees with his terrific claws. The Baron did not care to waste any of his bullets, now getting scarce, in putting out of his pain one of Cadi’s murderers. When finally the bear was dead, the Baron came down to take possession of his cave, and at the same time of the bear’s skin. On penetrating into the cave, he found that the rascal had paid him out in his own coin, and, in revenge for the Baron taking his cave, had eaten his provisions. The Baron was quits in the end, however, as the bear’s carcase furnished him meat enough for several days. The Baron cut off pounds of steak, which he salted and dried over the fire. The useless remains he threw over the nearest precipice, so that they should not attract wild beasts, to keep him awake all night with their cries. Then, having made a huge fire in front of the entrance, which, moreover, he barricaded with branches, he threw himself on his bed of dry leaves to sleep the sleep of exhaustion.

Some time passed before the Baron’s next encounter with a bear. He was camping one night in a dense forest, sleeping, as usual, with one eye and one ear open, and his weapon at hand, all ready loaded. His rest was broken by the usual nightly sounds of the forest, of leaves crunched and branches broken, showing that many of the inmates of the woods were astir; but he did not let these usual sounds disturb him, till he heard in the distance the hoarse and unmistakable cry of the bear; then he thought it time to change the shot in his gun for something more worthy of such a foe. This preparation made, he set off at dawn on his day’s march, which up to midday led him along the bank of a large river. He thought no more of the blood-curdling howls of the night, till suddenly he heard from a distance terror-stricken cries. He put  his ear to the ground, Indian fashion, to listen better, and as the danger, whatever it was, seemed to be coming nearer, he jumped into a thicket of wild cherry and willow trees, and waited there in ambush, gun in hand. In a few minutes, a band of Indians with their squaws appeared on the opposite bank of the river, and straightway leaped into the water, like so many frogs jumping into an undisturbed swamp. At first he thought he was being attacked, but soon saw it was the Indians who were being pursued, and that they all, men and women, were swimming for dear life; moreover, the women were laden with their children, one, and sometimes two, being strapped to their backs in a sort of cradle of birch bark. This additional weight made them swim slower than the men, who soon reached the opposite shore, and then took to their heels helter-skelter, except three, who remained behind to encourage the women.

The Grizzly

The Baron at first thought it was an attack of other Indians, and that it would be prudent to beat a retreat, when suddenly the same terrible cry that had kept him awake in the latter part of the night resounded through the forest, and at the same time there appeared on a high bank on the other shore a huge mass of a dirty grey colour, which hurled itself downhill, plunged into the river, and began to swim across at a terrific speed. It was a grizzly bear of tremendous size. So fast did it swim, that in no time it had nearly caught up with the last of the squaws, a young woman with twin babies at her back, whose cries, often interrupted by the water getting into their mouths, would have melted the heart of a stone. The three Indians who had remained on the bank did their utmost to stop the bear by shooting their poisoned arrows at it; but the distance was too great, and the huge animal came on so fast that in another minute mother and children would be lost. The Baron could not remain a spectator of so terrible a scene. He came out of the thicket where he was hidden, and frightened the  Indians almost as much as if he had been another bear. Resting his gun on the trunk of a tree, he fired at the distance of 125 yards, and hit the animal right on the head. It dived several times, and the water all round was dyed red with blood; but the wound was not mortal, and it continued on its way, only more slowly. After urging the Indian, who seemed to be the unhappy woman’s husband, to go into the water to help her—for, through terror and fatigue, she could no longer swim—the Baron took deliberate aim again and fired. The second shot, like the first, hit the bear on the head, but again without killing it. It stopped the brute, however, long enough to  let the poor woman get to shore, where she fainted, and was carried away by the men to the forest, leaving the Baron and the bear to fight out their duel alone. The Baron had barely time to reload and climb to the top of one of the trees, when the bear was already at the foot of it. So near was he when he stood upright, that the Baron could feel his horrid breath. Up to then the Baron thought that all bears could climb like squirrels; fortunately for him he was mistaken. Expecting to be taken by storm, he fired straight in the creature’s face. The two balls took a different course: one went through the jaw and came out by the neck, the other went into the chest. The bear uttered a terrific roar, stiffened itself in a last effort to reach him, and fell heavily on its back at the foot of the tree. The Baron might have thought him dead had he not already seen such wonderful resurrections on the part of bears; but the four shots, though at first they dazed and troubled the beast, seemed afterwards to act as spurs, and he rose furious and returned to the charge. The Baron tried to use his revolver, but, finding it impossible, he drew out his axe from his belt, and dealt a violent blow at the bear’s head, which nearly split it in two, and sent the blood splashing in all directions. The bear again fell to the ground, this time to rise no more. The Baron being now convinced that the grizzly bear is no tree-climber, took his time to draw out his revolver, to take aim and fire. The shot put out one of the bear’s eyes, the axe had already taken out the other. This finished him, but his death struggles lasted twenty minutes, during which the tree was nearly uprooted. When all was at an end the Baron came down; he cut off the formidable claws, and broke off the teeth with an axe to make a trophy in imitation of the Indians, and then proceeded to skin him and cut him up. The Indians, who had been watching the combat at a safe distance, now came back, enthusiastic. They surrounded them, the victor and the vanquished, and danced a war-dance, singing  impromptu words. The Baron, seated on the bear’s carcase, joined in the chorus; but the Indians, not content with that, insisted on his joining in the dance as well. The rejoicing over, the Baron divided among the twenty Indians the flesh of the bear—about 15 lb. or 20 lb. fell to each. The skin he kept to himself, and the claws, of which the Indians made him a warrior’s necklace, hanging it round his neck like an order of knighthood.[3]

[3] The young reader must no longer expect such adventures as the Baron de Wogan achieved.