XII. Bears
 

The old hunter walked so swiftly that I had to run to keep up with him. The trail led up the creek, now on one side, again on the other, and I was constantly skipping from stone to stone. The grassy slopes grew fewer, and finally gave way altogether to cracked cliffs and weathered rocks. A fringe of pine-trees leaned over the top with here and there a blasted spear standing out white.

"I had my trap set up thet draw," said Hiram Bent, as he pointed toward an intersecting canyon. "Just before I waked you I was comin' along here, an' I heered an all-fired racket up thar, an' so I watched. Soon three black bears come paddlin' down, an' the biggest was draggin' the trap with the chain an' log. Then I hurried to tell you. They can't be far."

"Are they grizzlies?" I asked, trying to speak naturally.

"Nope. Jest plain black bears. But the one with the trap is a whopper. He'll go over four hundred. See the tracks? Looks like somebody'd been plowin' up the stones."

There were deep tracks in the sand, and broad furrows, and stones overturned, and places where a heavy object had crushed the gravel even and smooth.

The old hunter kept striding on, and I wondered bow he could go so fast without running. Presently we came to where the canyon forked. Hiram started up the right-hand fork, then suddenly stopped, and, turning, began to go back, carefully examining the ground.

"They've split on us," he explained. "The ole feller with the trap went up the right-hand draw, an' the mother an' cub took to the left. Now, youngster, can you keep your nerve?"

"I think so."

"Wal, you go after the ole feller. You can't miss him, an' he won't be far. You'll hear him bellerin' long before you git to him, though he might lay low, so you steer clear of big boulders an' thickets. Kill him, an' then run back an' take up this draw. The she bear is cute an' may give me the slip, but if she doesn't climb out soon I'll head her off. Hurry on, now. Keep your eye peeled, an' you'll be safe as if you were to home."

With that he disappeared round the corner of stone wall where the canyon divided. I wheeled and went to the right. This wing of the canyon twisted and turned and was full of stones. A shallow sheet of water gleamed over its colored bed of gravel. The walls were straight up, and, in places, bulged outward. I flinched at every turn in the canyon; but, with rifle cocked and thrust forward, I went on. The cracks in the walls, the boulders and pieces of cliff that obstructed my path, and the occasional thickets-- all made me halt with careful step and finger on the trigger. I followed the splashes on the stones, which told me that the bear had passed that way. As I went cautiously on I felt a tightening at my throat. The light above grew dimmer. When I stopped to listen it was so silent that I heard only the pounding of my heart and my own quick breathing. I pressed on and on, going faster all the time not that I felt braver, but I longed to end the suspense. Suddenly the silence was broken by a threatening roar. It swept down on me, swelling as it continued, and it seemed to fill the canyon. It shook my pulses, it urged me to flight, but I could not move. Then as suddenly it ceased.

For a long moment I stood still, with no idea of advancing farther. The clinking of a chain seemed to release my cramped muscles. Very cautiously I peered around a projecting corner of wall. There sat a huge black bear on his haunches holding up a great steel trap which clutched one of his paws. It was such a strange sight that my fear was forgotten. There was something almost human in the way the bear looked at that trap. He touched it gingerly with his free paw, and nosed it. I crept up close to the corner of stone and looked around again. The bear was now close to me. I saw the heavy chain and the log to which it was attached. He looked at trap and log in a grave, pathetic way, as if trying to reason about them. Then he roused into furious action, swinging the trap, dragging the log, and bellowing in such a frightful manner that I dodged back behind the wall.

But this sudden change in the bear, this appalling roar with its note of pain, awakened me to his suffering. When the noise stopped and I looked again, the bear was a sight not to be forgotten. He showed a helpless, terrible fear of the steel-jawed thing on his foot. He dropped down on the sand with a groan, and there was a despairing look in his eyes.

This made me forget my fear, and I had only one thought--to put him out of his misery. When I leveled my rifle it was as steady as the rock beside me. Aiming just below his ear, I pressed the trigger. The dull report re-echoed from wall to wall. The bear lurched slightly, and his head fell upon his outstretched paws. I waited, ready to shoot again upon the slightest movement, but there was none.

With rifle ready I cautiously approached the bear. As I came close he seemed larger and larger, but he showed no signs of life. I looked at the glossy black fur, the flecks of blood on the side of his head where my bullet had entered, the murderous saw-teeth of the heavy trap biting to the bone, and the cruelty of that trap seemed to drive from me all pride of achievement. It was nothing except mercy to kill a trapped crippled bear that could not run or fight. Then and there I gained a dislike for trapping animals.

The crack of the old hunter's rifle made me remember that I was to hurry back up the other canyon, so I began to run. I bounded from stone to stone, dashed over the sand-bars, jumped the brook, and went down that canyon perhaps in far greater danger of bodily harm than when I had gone up.

But when I turned the corner it was another story. The first canyon had been easy climbing compared to this one. It was narrow, steep, and full of dead pines fallen from above. Running was impossible. I clambered upward over the loose stones, under the bridges of pines, round the boulders. Presently I heard a shout. I could not tell where it came from, but I replied. A second call I identified as coming from high up the ragged canyon side, and I started up. It was hard work. Certainly no bears or hunter had climbed out just here. At length, sore, spent, and torn, I fell out of a tangle of brush upon the edge of the canyon. Above me rose the swelling mountain slope thickly covered with dwarf pines.

"This way, youngster!" called the old hunter from my left.

A few more dashes in and out of the brush and trees brought me to a fairly open space with not much slope. Hiram Bent stood under a pine, and at his feet lay a black furry mass.

"Wal, I heerd you shoot. Reckon you got yourn?"

"Yes, I killed him. . . . Say, Mr. Bent, I don't like traps."

"Nary do I--for bears," replied he, shaking his gray head. "A trapped bear is about the pitifulest thing I ever seen. But it's seldom one ever gits into trap of mine."

"This one you shot must be the old mother bear. Where's the cub? Did it get away?"

"Not yet. Lookup in the tree."

I looked up the black trunk through the network of slender branches, and saw the bear snuggling in a fork. His sharp ears stood up against the sky. He was most anxiously gazing down at us.

"Wal, tumble him out of thar," said Hiram Bent.

With a natural impulse to shoot I raised my rifle, but the cub looked so attractive and so helpless that I hesitated.

"I don't like to do it," I said. "Oh, I wish we could catch him alive!"

"Wal, I reckon we can."

"How?" I inquired, eagerly, and lowered my rifle.

"Are you good on the climb?"

"Climb? This tree? Why, with one hand. Back in Pennsylvania I climbed shell-bark hickory-trees with the lowest limb fifty feet from the ground. . . But there weren't any bears up them."

"You must keep out of his way if he comes down on you. He's a sassy little chap. Now take this rope an' go up an' climb round him."

"Climb round him?" I queried, as I gazed dubiously upward. "You mean to slip out on the branches and go up hand-over-hand till I get above him. The branches up there seem pretty close--I might. But suppose he goes higher?"

"I'm lookin' fer him to go clean to the top. But you can beat him to it-- mebbe."

"Any danger of his attacking me--up there?"

"Wal, not much. If he hugs the trunk he'll have to hold on fer all he's worth. But if he stands on the branches an' you come up close he might bat you one. Mebbe I'd better go up."

"Oh, I'm going--I only wanted to know what to expect. Now, in case I get above him, what then?"

"Make him back down till he reaches these first branches. When he gets so far I'll tell you what to do." I put my arm through the coil of rope, and, slinging it snugly over my shoulder, began to climb the pine. It was the work of only a moment to reach the first branch.

"Wal, I reckon you're some relation to a squirrel at thet," said Hiram Bent. "Jest as I thought the little cuss is climbin' higher. Thet's goin' to worry us."

It was like stepping up a ladder from the first branch to the fork. The cub had gone up the right-hand trunk some fifteen feet, and was now hugging it. At that short distance he looked alarmingly big. But I saw he would have all he could do to hold on, and if I could climb the left trunk and get above him there would be little to fear. How I did it so quickly was a mystery, but amid the cracking of dead branches and pattering of falling bark and swaying of the tree-top I gained a position above him.

He was so close that I could smell him. His quick little eyes snapped fire and fear at once; he uttered a sound that was between a whine and a growl.

"Hey, youngster!" yelled Hiram, "thet's high enough--'tain't safe--be careful now."

With the words I looked out below me, to see the old hunter standing in the glade waving his arms.

"I'm all right!" I yelled down. "Now, how'll I drive him?"

"Break off a branch an' switch him."

There was not a branch above me that I could break, but a few feet below was a slender, dead limb. I slid down and got it, and, holding on with my left arm and legs, I began to thrash the cub. He growled fiercely. snapped at the stick, and began to back down.

"He's started!" I cried, in glee. "Go on, Cubby--down with you!"

Clumsy as he was, he made swift time. I was hard put to keep close to him. I slipped down the trunk--holding on one instant and sliding down the next. But below the fork it was harder for Cubby and easier for me. The branches rather hindered his backward progress while they aided mine. Growling and whining, with long claws ripping the bark, he went down. All of a sudden I became aware of the old hunter threshing about under the tree.

"Hold on--not so fast!" he yelled.

Still the cub kept going, and stopped with his haunches on the first branch. There, looking down, he saw an enemy below him, and hesitated. But he looked up, and, seeing me, began to back down again. Hiram pounded the tree with a dead branch. Cubby evidently intended to reach the ground, for the noise did not stop him. Then the hunter ran a little way to a windfall, and came back with the upper half of a dead sapling. With this he began to prod the bear. Thereupon, Cubby lost no time in getting up to the first branch again, where he halted.

"Throw the noose on him now--anywhere," ordered the hunter. "An' we've no time to lose. He's gittin' sassier every minnit."

I dropped the wide loop upon Cubby, expecting to catch him first time. The rope went over his bead, but with a dexterous flip of his paw he sent it flying. Then began a duel between us, in which he continually got the better of me. All the while the old hunter prodded Cubby from below.

"You ain't quick enough," said Hiram, impatiently.

Made reckless by this, I stepped down to another branch directly over the bear, and tried again to rope him. It was of no use. He slipped out of the noose with the sinuous movements of an eel. Once it caught over his ears and in his open jaws. He gave a jerk that nearly pulled me from my perch. I could tell he was growing angrier every instant, and also braver. Suddenly the noose, quite by accident, caught his nose. He wagged his head and I pulled. The noose tightened.

"I've got him!" I yelled, and gave the rope a strong pull.

The bear stood up with startling suddenness and reached for me.

"Climb!" shouted Hiram,

I dropped the rope and leaped for the branch above, and, catching it, lifted myself just as the sharp claws of the cub scratched hard over my boot.

Cubby now hugged the tree trunk and started up again.

"We've got him!" yelled Hiram. "Don't move--step on his nose if he gets too close."

Then I saw the halter had come off the bear and had fallen to the ground. Hiram picked it up, arranged the noose, and, holding it in his teeth began to limb after the bear. Cubby was now only a few feet under me, working steadily up, growling, and his little eyes were like points of green fire.

"Stop him! Stand on his head!" mumbled Hiram, with the rope in his teeth.

"What!--not on your life!"

But, reaching up, I grasped a branch, and, swinging clear of the lower one, I began to kick at the bear. This stopped him. Then he squealed, and began to kick on his own account. Hiram was trying to get the noose over a bind foot. After several attempts he succeeded, and then threw the rope over the lowest branch. I gave a wild Indian yell of triumph. The next instant, before I could find a foothold, the branch to which I was hanging snapped like a pistol-shot, and I plunged down with a crash. I struck the bear and the lower branch, and then the ground. The fall half stunned me. I thought every bone in my body was broken. I rose unsteadily, and for a moment everything whirled before my eyes. Then I discovered that the roar in my ears was the old hunter's yell. I saw him hauling on the rope. There was a great ripping of bark and many strange sounds, and then the cub was dangling head downward. Hiram had pulled him from his perch, and hung him over the lowest branch.

"Thar, youngster, git busy now!" yelled the hunter. "Grab the other rope-- thar it is--an' rope a front paw while I hold him. Lively now, he's mighty heavy, an' if he ever gits down with only one rope on him we'll think we're fast to chain lightnin'."

The bear swung about five feet from the ground. As I ran at him with the noose he twisted himself, seemed to double up in a knot, then he dropped full-stretched again, and lunged viciously at me. Twice I felt the wind of his paws. He spun around so fast that it kept me dancing. I flung the noose and caught his right paw. Hiram bawled something that made me all the more heedless, and in tightening the noose I ran in too close. The bear gave me a slashing cuff on the side of the head, and I went down like a tenpin.

"Git a hitch thar--to the saplin'!" roared Hiram, as I staggered to my feet. "Rustle now--hurry!"

What with my ringing head, and fingers all thumbs, and Hiram roaring at me, I made a mess of tying the knot. Then Hiram let go his rope, and when the cub dropped to the ground the rope flew up over the branch. Cubby leaped so quickly that he jerked the rope away before Hiram could pick it up, and one hard pull loosened my hitch on the sapling.

The cub bounded through the glade, dragging me with him. For a few long leaps I kept my feet, then down I sprawled.

"Hang on! Hang on!" Hiram yelled from behind.

If I had not been angry clear through at that cub I might have let go. He ploughed my face in the dirt, and almost jerked my arms off. Suddenly the strain lessened. I got up, to see that the old hunter had hold of the other rope.

"Now, stretch him out!" he yelled.

Between us we stretched the cub out, so that all he could do was struggle and paw the air and utter strange cries. Hiram tied his rope to a tree, and then ran back to relieve me. It was high time. He took my rope and fastened it to a stout bush.

"Thar, youngster, I reckon thet'll hold him! Now tie his paws an' muzzle him."

He drew some buckskin thongs from his pocket and handed them to me. We went up to the straining cub, and Hiram, with one pull of his powerful hands, brought the hind legs together.

"Tie 'em," he said.

This done, with the aid of a heavy piece of wood he pressed the cub's head down and wound a thong tightly round the sharp nose. Then he tied the front legs.

"Thar! Now you loosen the ropes an' wind them up."

When I had done this he lifted the cub and swung him over his broad back.

"Come on, you trail behind, an' keep your eye peeled to see he doesn't work thet knot off his jaws. . . . Say, youngster, now you've got him, what in thunder will you do with him?"

I looked at my torn trousers, at the blood on my skinned and burning hands, and I felt of the bruise on my head, as I said, grimly: "I'll hang to him as long as I can."