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Music-loving Bears





No, don't despise the bear, either in his life or his death. He is a
kingly fellow, every inch a king; a curious, monkish, music-loving,
roving Robin Hood of his somber woods--a silent monk, who knows a
great deal more than he tells. And please don't go to look at him and
sit in judgment on him behind the bars. Put yourself in his place and
see how much of manhood or kinghood would be left in you with a muzzle
on your mouth, and only enough liberty left to push your nose between
two rusty bars and catch the peanut which the good little boy has
found to be a bad one and so generously tosses it to the bear.

Of course, the little boy, remembering the experience of about forty
other little boys in connection with the late baldheaded Elijah, has a
prejudice against the bear family, but why the full-grown man should
so continually persist in caging this shaggy-coated, dignified, kingly
and ancient brother of his, I cannot see, unless it is that he knows
almost nothing at all of his better nature, his shy, innocent love of
a joke, his partiality for music and his imperial disdain of death.
And so, with a desire that man may know a little more about this
storied and classic creature which, with noiseless and stately tread,
has come down to us out of the past, and is as quietly passing away
from the face of the earth, these fragmentary facts are set down. But
first as to his love of music. A bear loves music better than he loves
honey, and that is saying that he loves music better than he loves his
life.

We were going to mill, father and I, and Lyte Howard, in Oregon, about
forty years ago, with ox-teams, a dozen or two bags of wheat, threshed
with a flail and winnowed with a wagon cover, and were camped for the
night by the Calipoola River; for it took two days to reach the mill.
Lyte got out his fiddle, keeping his gun, of course, close at hand.
Pretty soon the oxen came down, came very close, so close that they
almost put their cold, moist noses against the backs of our necks as
we sat there on the ox-yokes or reclined in our blankets, around the
crackling pine-log fire and listened to the wild, sweet strains that
swept up and down and up till the very tree tops seemed to dance and
quiver with delight.

Then suddenly father seemed to feel the presence of something or
somebody strange, and I felt it, too. But the fiddler felt, heard, saw
nothing but the divine, wild melody that made the very pine trees
dance and quiver to their tips. Oh, for the pure, wild, sweet,
plaintive music once more! the music of "Money Musk," "Zip Coon," "Ol'
Dan Tucker" and all the other dear old airs that once made a thousand
happy feet keep time on the puncheon floors from Hudson's bank to the
Oregon. But they are no more, now. They have passed away forever with
the Indian, the pioneer, and the music-loving bear. It is strange how
a man--I mean the natural man--will feel a presence long before he
hears it or sees it. You can always feel the approach of a--but I
forget. You are of another generation, a generation that only reads,
takes thought at second hand only, if at all, and you would not
understand; so let us get forward and not waste time in explaining the
unexplainable to you.

Father got up, turned about, put me behind him like, as an animal will
its young, and peered back and down through the dense tangle of the
deep river bank between two of the huge oxen which had crossed the
plains with us to the water's edge; then he reached around and drew me
to him with his left hand, pointing between the oxen sharp down the
bank with his right forefinger.

A bear! two bears! and another coming; one already more than half way
across on the great, mossy log that lay above the deep, sweeping
waters of the Calipoola; and Lyte kept on, and the wild, sweet music
leaped up and swept through the delighted and dancing boughs above.
Then father reached back to the fire and thrust a long, burning bough
deeper into the dying embers and the glittering sparks leaped and
laughed and danced and swept out and up and up as if to companion with
the stars. Then Lyte knew. He did not hear, he did not see, he only
felt; but the fiddle forsook his fingers and his chin in a second, and
his gun was to his face with the muzzle thrust down between the oxen.
And then my father's gentle hand reached out, lay on that long, black,
Kentucky rifle barrel, and it dropped down, slept once more at the
fiddler's side, and again the melodies; and the very stars came down,
believe me, to listen, for they never seemed so big and so close by
before. The bears sat down on their haunches at last, and one of them
kept opening his mouth and putting out his red tongue, as if he really
wanted to taste the music. Every now and then one of them would lift
up a paw and gently tap the ground, as if to keep time with the music.
And both my papa and Lyte said next day that those bears really wanted
to dance.

And that is all there is to say about that, except that my father was
the gentlest gentleman I ever knew and his influence must have been
boundless; for who ever before heard of any hunter laying down his
rifle with a family of fat black bears holding the little snow-white
cross on their breasts almost within reach of its muzzle?

The moon came up by and by, and the chin of the weary fiddler sank
lower and lower, till all was still. The oxen lay down and ruminated,
with their noses nearly against us. Then the coal-black bears melted
away before the milk-white moon, and we slept there, with the sweet
breath of the cattle, like incense, upon us.

But how does a bear die? Ah, I had forgotten. I must tell you of
death, then. Well, we have different kinds of bears. I know little of
the Polar bear, and so say nothing positively of him. I am told,
however, that there is not, considering his size, much snap or grit
about him; but as for the others, I am free to say that they live and
die like gentlemen.

I shall find time, as we go forward, to set down many incidents out of
my own experience to prove that the bear is often a humorist, and
never by any means a bad fellow.

Judge Highton, odd as it may seem, has left the San Francisco bar for
the "bar" of Mount Shasta every season for more than a quarter of a
century, and he probably knows more about bears than any other
eminently learned man in the world, and Henry Highton will tell you
that the bear is a good fellow at home, good all through, a brave,
modest, sober old monk.

A monkish Robin Hood
In his good green wood.





Next: My First Grizzly

Previous: A Bear On Fire



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