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Bill Cross And His Pet Bear
When my father settled down at the foot of the Oregon Sierras with his
little family, long, long years ago, it was about forty miles from our
place to the nearest civilized settlement.
People were very scarce in those days, and bears, as said before, were
very plenty. We also had wolves, wild-cats, wild cattle, wild hogs,
and a good many long-tailed and big-headed yellow Californian lions.
The wild cattle, brought there from Spanish Mexico, next to the bear,
were most to be feared. They had long, sharp horns and keen, sharp
hoofs. Nature had gradually helped them out in these weapons of
defense. They had grown to be slim and trim in body, and were as
supple and swift as deer. They were the deadly enemies of all wild
beasts; because all wild beasts devoured their young.
When fat and saucy, in warm summer weather, these cattle would hover
along the foothills in bands, hiding in the hollows, and would begin
to bellow whenever they saw a bear or a wolf, or even a man or boy, if
on foot, crossing the wide valley of grass and blue camas blossoms.
Then there would be music! They would start up, with heads and tails
in the air, and, broadening out, left and right, they would draw a
long bent line, completely shutting off their victim from all approach
to the foothills. If the unfortunate victim were a man or boy on foot,
he generally made escape up one of the small ash trees that dotted the
valley in groves here and there, and the cattle would then soon give
up the chase. But if it were a wolf or any other wild beast that could
not get up a tree, the case was different. Far away, on the other side
of the valley, where dense woods lined the banks of the winding
Willamette river, the wild, bellowing herd would be answered. Out from
the edge of the woods would stream, right and left, two long,
corresponding, surging lines, bellowing and plunging forward now and
then, their heads to the ground, their tails always in the air and
their eyes aflame, as if they would set fire to the long gray grass.
With the precision and discipline of a well-ordered army, they would
close in upon the wild beast, too terrified now to either fight or
fly, and, leaping upon him, one after another, with their long, sharp
hoofs, he would, in a little time, be crushed into an unrecognizable
mass. Not a bone would be left unbroken. It is a mistake to suppose
that they ever used their long, sharp horns in attack. These were used
only in defense, the same as elk or deer, falling on the knees and
receiving the enemy on their horns, much as the Old Guard received the
French in the last terrible struggle at Waterloo.
Bill Cross was a "tender foot" at the time of which I write, and a
sailor, at that. Now, the old pilgrims who had dared the plains in
those days of '49, when cowards did not venture and the weak died on
the way, had not the greatest respect for the courage or endurance of
those who had reached Oregon by ship. But here was this man, a sailor
by trade, settling down in the interior of Oregon, and, strangely
enough, pretending to know more about everything in general and bears
in particular than either my father or any of his boys!
He had taken up a piece of land down in the pretty Camas Valley where
the grass grew long and strong and waved in the wind, mobile and
beautiful as the mobile sea.
The good-natured and self-complacent old sailor liked to watch the
waving grass. It reminded him of the sea, I reckon. He would sometimes
sit on our little porch as the sun went down and tell us boys strange,
wild sea stories. He had traveled far and seen much, as much as any
man can see on water, and maybe was not a very big liar, for a
sailor, after all. We liked his tales. He would not work, and so he
paid his way with stories of the sea. The only thing about him that we
did not like, outside of his chronic idleness, was his exalted opinion
of himself and his unconcealed contempt for everybody's opinion but
"Bill," said my father one day, "those black Spanish cattle will get
after that red sash and sailor jacket of yours some day when you go
down in the valley to your claim, and they won't leave a grease spot.
Better go horseback, or at least take a gun, when you go down next
"Pshaw! Squire. I wish I had as many dollars as I ain't afeard of all
the black Spanish cattle in Oregon. Why, if they're so blasted
dangerous, how did your missionaries ever manage to drive them up here
from Mexico, anyhow?"
Still, for all that, the very next time that he saw the old sailor
setting out at his snail pace for his ranch below, slow and indolent
as if on the deck of a ship, my father insisted that he should go on
horseback, or at least take a gun.
"Pooh, pooh! I wouldn't be bothered with a horse or a gun. Say, I'm
goin' to bring your boys a pet bear some day."
And so, cocking his little hat down over his right eye and thrusting
his big hands into his deep pockets almost to the elbows, he slowly
and lazily whistled himself down the gradual slope of the foothills,
waist deep in the waving grass and delicious wild flowers, and soon
was lost to sight in the great waving sea.
Two things may be here written down. He wouldn't ride a horse because
he couldn't, and for the same reason he wouldn't use a gun. Again let
it be written down, also, that the reason he was going away that warm
autumn afternoon was that there was some work to do. These facts were
clear to my kind and indulgent father; but of course we boys never
thought of it, and laid our little shoulders to the hard work of
helping father lift up the long, heavy poles that were to complete the
corral around our pioneer log cabin, and we really hoped and half
believed that he might bring home a little pet bear.
This stout log corral had become an absolute necessity. It was high
and strong, and made of poles or small logs stood on end in a trench,
after the fashion of a primitive fort or stout stockade. There was but
one opening, and that was a very narrow one in front of the cabin
door. Here it was proposed to put up a gate. We also had talked about
port-holes in the corners of the corral, but neither gate nor
port-holes were yet made. In fact, as said before, the serene and
indolent man of the sea always slowly walked away down through the
grass toward his untracked claim whenever there was anything said
about port-holes, posts or gates.
Father and we three little boys had only got the last post set and
solidly "tamped" in the ground as the sun was going down.
Suddenly we heard a yell; then a yelling, then a bellowing. The
yelling was heard in the high grass in the Camas Valley below, and the
bellowing of cattle came from the woody river banks far beyond.
Then up on the brown hills of the Oregon Sierras above us came the
wild answer of the wild black cattle of the hills, and a moment later,
right and left, the long black lines began to widen out; then down
they came, like a whirlwind, toward the black and surging line in the
grass below. We were now almost in the center of what would, in a
little time, be a complete circle and cyclone of furious Spanish
And now, here is something curious to relate. Our own cows, poor,
weary, immigrant cows of only a year before, tossed their tails in the
air, pawed the ground, bellowed and fairly went wild in the splendid
excitement and tumult. One touch of nature made the whole cow world
Father clambered up on a "buck-horse" and looked out over the
stockade; and then he shouted and shook his hat and laughed as I had
never heard him laugh before. For there, breathless, coatless,
hatless, came William Cross, Esq., two small wolves and a very small
black bear! They were all making good time, anywhere, anyway, to
escape the frantic cattle. Father used to say afterwards, when telling
about this little incident, that "it was nip and tuck between the
four, and hard to say which was ahead." The cattle had made quite a
They all four straggled in at the narrow little gate at about the same
time, the great big, lazy sailor in a hurry, for the first time in his
But think of the coolness of the man, as he turned to us children with
his first gasp of breath, and said, "Bo--bo--boys, I've
bro--bro--brought you a little bear!"
The wolves were the little chicken thieves known as coyotes, quite
harmless, as a rule, so far as man is concerned, but the cattle hated
them and they were terrified nearly to death.
The cattle stopped a few rods from the stockade. We let the coyotes
go, but we kept the little bear and named him Bill Cross. Yet he was
never a bit cross, despite his name.
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