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

were ignored.



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

ruefully.



"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

timber belt.



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

promised $5.



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

was!



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

once.



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

voices.



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

Sancho Panza.





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