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The Bear With Spectacles
And now let us go down to near the mouth of the Father of Waters, to
"Barra Tarra Land" or Barren Land, as it was called of old by
Cervantes, in the kingdom of Sancho Panza. Strange how little the
great men of the old world knew of this new world! In one of his plays
Shakespeare speaks of ships from Mexico; in another he means to
mention the Bermudas. Burns speaks of a Newfoundland dog as
"Whelped in a country far abroad
Where boatmen gang to fish for cod,"
and Byron gets in a whole lot about Daniel Boone; but as a rule we
Barra Tarra, so called, is the very richest part of this globe. It
must have been rich always, rich as the delta of the Nile; but now,
with the fertility of more than a dozen States dumped along there
annually, it is rich as cream is rich.
The fish, fowl, oysters of Barra Tarra--ah, the oysters! No oysters in
the world like these for flavor, size and sweetness. They are so
enormous in size that--but let me illustrate their size by an anecdote
of the war.
A Yankee captain, hungry and worn out hewing his way with his sword
from Chicago to the sea, as General Logan had put it, sat down in a
French restaurant in New Orleans, and while waiting for a plate of the
famous Barra Tarra raw oysters, saw that a French creole sitting at
the same little side table was turning over and over with his fork a
solitary and most tempting oyster of enormous size, eyeing it
"Why don't you eat him?"
"By gar! I find him too big for me. You like?"
"Certainly. Not too big for me. See this!" and snatching the fork from
the Frenchman the oyster was gone at a gulp.
The little Frenchman shrugged his shoulders, looked at the gallant
officer a moment and then said in a fit of enthusiastic admiration:
"By gar, Monsieur Capitaine, you are one mighty brave man! I did try
him t'ree times zat way, but he no stay."
The captain threw up his arms and--his oyster!--so runs the story.
The soil along the river bank is so rich that weeds, woods, vines,
trench close and hard on the heels of the plowman. A plantation will
almost perish from the earth, as it were, by a few years of
abandonment. And so it is that you see miles and miles on either
side--parishes on top of parishes, in fact--fast returning to
barbarism, dragging the blacks by thousands down to below the level of
brutes with them, as you descend from New Orleans toward the mouth of
the mighty river, nearly one hundred miles from the beautiful
"Crescent City." And, ah, the superstition of these poor blacks!
You see hundreds of little white houses, old "quarters," and all
tenantless now, save one or two on each plantation. Cheap sugar and
high wages, as compared with old times of slavery--but then the
enormous cost of keeping up the levees, and above all, the continued
peril to life and property, with a mile of swift, muddy water sweeping
seaward high above your head--these things are making a desert of the
richest lands on earth. We are gaining ground in the West, but we are
losing ground in the South, the great, silent South.
Of course, the world, we, civilization, will turn back to this
wondrous region some day, when we have settled the West; for the mouth
of the mightiest river on the globe is a fact; it is the mouth by
which this young nation was trained in its younger days, and we cannot
ignore it in the end, however willing we may be to do so now.
Strange how wild beasts and all sorts of queer creatures are
overrunning the region down there, too, growing like weeds, increasing
as man decreases. I found a sort of marsh bear here. He looks like the
sloth bear (Ursus Labiatus) of the Ganges, India, as you see him in
the Zoo of London, only he is not a sloth, by any means. The negroes
are superstitiously afraid of him, and their dogs, very numerous, and
good coon dogs, too, will not touch him. His feet are large and flat,
to accommodate him in getting over the soft ground, while his shaggy
and misshapen body is very thin and light. His color is as unlovely as
his shape--a sort of faded, dirty brown or pale blue, with a rim of
dirty white about the eyes that makes him look as if he wore
spectacles when he stops and looks at you.
As he is not fit to eat because he lives on fish and oysters,
sportsmen will not fire at him; and as the poor, superstitious,
voodoo-worshiping negroes, and their dogs, too, run away as soon as he
is seen, he has quite a habit of stopping and looking at you through
his queer spectacles as long as you are in sight. He looks to be a
sort of second-hand bear, his shaggy, faded, dirty coat of hair
looking as if he had been stuffed, like an old sofa, with the stuffing
coming out--a very second-hand appearance, to be sure.
Now, as I have always had a fondness for skins--having slept on them
and under them all my life, making both bed and carpet of them--I very
much wanted a skin of this queer marsh bear which the poor negroes
both adore and dread as a sort of devil. But, as no one liked him well
enough to kill him, I must do it myself; and with this object, along
with my duty to describe the drowning plantations, I left New Orleans
with Colonel Bloom, two good guns, and something to eat and to drink,
and swept down the great river to the landing in the outer edge of the
And how strange this landing! As a rule you have to climb up to the
shore from a ship. Here, after setting foot on the levee, we walked
down, down, down to reach the level land--a vast field of fevers.
I had a letter of introduction to the "preacher." He was a marvel of
rags, preached every day and night, up and down the river, and
received 25 cents a day from the few impoverished white planters, too
poor to get away, for his influence for good among the voodoo blacks.
Not that they could afford to care for the negroes, those few
discouraged and fever-stricken planters on their plantations of weeds
and water, but they must, now and then, have these indolent and
retrograding blacks to plant or cut down their cane, or sow and gather
their drowning patches of rice, and the preacher could preach them
into working a little, when right hungry.
The ragged black took my letter and pretended to read it. Poor fellow,
he could not read, but pride, or rather vanity, made him act a lie.
Seeing the fact, I contrived to tell him that it was from a colored
clergyman, and that I had come to get him and his dogs to help me
kill a bear. The blacks now turned white; or at least white around the
lips. The preacher shuddered and shrugged his shoulders and finally
groaned in his grief.
Let us omit the mosquitoes, the miserable babies, nude as nature, and
surely very hungry in this beauteous place of fertility. They hung
about my door, a "quarters" cabin with grass knee high through the
cracks in the floor, like flies, till they got all my little store of
supplies, save a big flask of "provisions" which General Beauregard
had given me for Colonel Bloom, as a preventive against the deadly
fever. No, it was not whiskey, not all whiskey, at least, for it was
bitter as gall with quinine. I had to help the Colonel sample it at
first, but I only helped him sample it once. It tasted so vilely that
it seemed to me I should, as between the two, prefer fever.
And such a moon! The ragged minister stood whooping up his numerous
dogs and gathering his sullen clan of blacks to get that bear and that
Away from up toward New Orleans, winding, sweeping, surging, flashing
like a mighty sword of silver, the Father of Waters came through the
air, high above our heads and level with the topmost limit of his
artificial banks. The blacks were silent, ugly, sullen, and so the
preacher asked for and received the five silver dollars in advance.
This made me suspicious, and, out of humor, I went into my cabin and
took Colonel Bloom into a corner and told him what had been done. He
did not say one word but took a long drink of preventive against the
fever, as General Beauregard had advised and provided.
Then we set out for the woods, through weeds that reached to our
shoulders, the negroes in a string, slow, silent, sullen and ugly, the
brave bear dogs only a little behind the negroes. The preacher kept
muttering a monotonous prayer.
But that moon and that mighty sword of silver in the air, the silence,
the large solemnity, the queer line of black heads barely visible
above the sea of weeds! I was not right certain that I had lost any
bear as we came to the edge of the moss-swept cypress woods, for here
the negroes all suddenly huddled up and muttered and prayed with one
voice. Aye, how they prayed in their piteous monotone! How sad it all
The dogs had sat down a few rods back, a line of black dots along the
path through the tall weeds, and did not seem to care for anything at
all. I had to lay my hand on the preacher's shoulder and ask him to
please get on; then they all started on together, and oh, the moon,
through the swaying cypress moss, the mighty river above!
It was with great effort that I got them to cross a foot-log that lay
across a lagoon only a little way in the moss-hung woods, the brave
dogs all the time only a short distance behind us still. It was a hot
night and the mosquitoes were terrible in the woods, but I doubt if
they bite the blacks as they did me. Surely not, else they would not
be even as nearly alive as they are.
Having got them across the lagoon, I gave them each 25 cents more, and
this made them want to go home. The dogs had all sat down in a queer
row on the foot-log. Such languor, such laziness, such idiotic
helplessness I never saw before, even on the Nile. The blacks, as well
as the dogs, seemed to be afraid to move now. The preacher again began
to mumble a prayer, and the whole pack with him; and then they prayed
again, this time not so loudly. And although there was melody of a
sort in their united voices, I am certain they used no words, at least
no words of any real language.
Suddenly the dogs got up and came across and hid among the men, and
the men huddled up close; for right there on the other end of the log,
with his broad right foot resting on it, was the shaggy little beast
we were hunting for. We had found our bear, or rather, he had found
us, and it was clear that he meant to come over and interview us at
The preacher crouched behind me as I cocked and raised my gun, the
blacks hid behind the preacher, and I think, though I had not time to
see certainly, that the dogs hid behind the blacks.
I fired at the dim white spot on the bear's breast and sent shot after
shot into his tattered coat, for he was not ten lengths of an old
Kentucky ramrod distant, and he fell dead where he stood, and I went
over and dragged him safely up on the higher bank.
Then the wild blacks danced and sang and sang and danced, till one of
them slipped and fell into the lagoon. They fished him out and all
returned to where I was, with the dead bear, dogs and all in great
good spirits. Tying the bear's feet together with a withe they strung
him on a pole and we all went back home, the blacks singing all the
way some barbaric half French song at the top of their melodious
But Colonel Bloom was afraid that the one who had fallen in the river
might take the fever, and so as soon as we got safe back he drank what
was left in the bottle General Beauregard had sent him and he went to
sleep; while the superstitious blacks huddled together under the great
levee and skinned the bear in the silver moonlight, below the mighty
river. I gave them each a silver dollar--very bright was the brand new
silver from the mint of New Orleans, but not nearly so bright as the
moon away down there by the glowing rim of the Mexican seas where the
spectacled bear abides in the classic land, Barra Tarra, Kingdom of
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