A Bear On Fire

It is now more than a quarter of a century since I saw the woods of

Mount Shasta in flames, and beasts of all sorts, even serpents,

crowded together; but I can never forget, never!

It looked as if we would have a cloudburst that fearful morning. We

three were making our way by slow marches from Soda Springs across the

south base of Mount Shasta to the Modoc lava beds--two English artists

and myself. We ha
saddle horses, or, rather, two saddle horses and a

mule, for our own use. Six Indians, with broad leather or elkskin

straps across their foreheads, had been chartered to carry the kits

and traps. They were men of means and leisure, these artists, and

were making the trip for the fish, game, scenery and excitement and

everything, in fact, that was in the adventure. I was merely their

hired guide.

This second morning out, the Indians--poor slaves, perhaps, from the

first, certainly not warriors with any spirit in them--began to sulk.

They had risen early and kept hovering together and talking, or,

rather, making signs in the gloomiest sort of fashion. We had hard

work to get them to do anything at all, and even after breakfast was

ready they packed up without tasting food.

The air was ugly, for that region--hot, heavy, and without light or

life. It was what in some parts of South America they call "earthquake

weather." Even the horses sulked as we mounted; but the mule shot

ahead through the brush at once, and this induced the ponies to


The Englishmen thought the Indians and horses were only tired from the

day before, but we soon found the whole force plowing ahead through

the dense brush and over fallen timber on a double quick.

Then we heard low, heavy thunder in the heavens. Were they running

away from a thunder-storm? The English artists, who had been doing

India and had come to love the indolent patience and obedience of the

black people, tried to call a halt. No use. I shouted to the Indians

in their own tongue. "Tokau! Ki-sa! Kiu!" (Hasten! Quick! Quick!) was

all the answer I could get from the red, hot face that was thrown for

a moment back over the load and shoulder. So we shot forward. In fact,

the horses now refused all regard for the bit, and made their own way

through the brush with wondrous skill and speed.

We were flying from fire, not flood! Pitiful what a few years of

neglect will do toward destroying a forest! When a lad I had galloped

my horse in security and comfort all through this region. It was like

a park then. Now it was a dense tangle of undergrowth and a mass of

fallen timber. What a feast for flames! In one of the very old books

on America in the British Museum--possibly the very oldest on the

subject--the author tells of the park-like appearance of the American

forests. He tells his English friends back at home that it is most

comfortable to ride to the hounds, "since the Indian squats (squaws)

do set fire to the brush and leaves every spring," etc.

But the "squats" had long since disappeared from the forests of Mount

Shasta; and here we were tumbling over and tearing through ten years'

or more of accumulation of logs, brush, leaves, weeds and grass that

lay waiting for a sea of fire to roll over all like a mass of lava.

And now the wind blew past and over us. Bits of white ashes sifted

down like snow. Surely the sea of fire was coming, coming right on

after us! Still there was no sign, save this little sift of ashes, no

sound; nothing at all except the trained sense of the Indians and the

terror of the "cattle" (this is what the Englishmen called our horses)

to give us warning.

In a short time we struck an arroyo, or canyon, that was nearly free

from brush and led steeply down to the cool, deep waters of the

McCloud River. Here we found the Indians had thrown their loads and

themselves on the ground.

They got up in sulky silence, and, stripping our horses, turned them

loose; and then, taking our saddles, they led us hastily up out of the

narrow mouth of the arroyo under a little steep stone bluff.

They did not say a word or make any sign, and we were all too

breathless and bewildered to either question or protest. The sky was

black, and thunder made the woods tremble. We were hardly done wiping

the blood and perspiration from our torn hands and faces where we sat

when the mule jerked up his head, sniffed, snorted and then plunged

headlong into the river and struck out for the deep forest on the

farther bank, followed by the ponies.

The mule is the most traduced of all animals. A single mule has more

sense than a whole stableful of horses. You can handle a mule easily

if the barn is burning; he keeps his head; but a horse becomes insane.

He will rush right into the fire, if allowed to, and you can only

handle him, and that with difficulty if he sniffs the fire, by

blindfolding him. Trust a mule in case of peril or a panic long before

a horse. The brother of Solomon and willful son of David surely had

some of the great temple-builder's wisdom and discernment, for we read

that he rode a mule. True, he lost his head and got hung up by the

hair, but that is nothing against the mule.

As we turned our eyes from seeing the animals safely over, right there

by us and a little behind us, through the willows of the canyon and

over the edge of the water, we saw peering and pointing toward the

other side dozens of long black and brown outreaching noses. Elk!

They had come noiselessly, they stood motionless. They did not look

back or aside, only straight ahead. We could almost have touched the

nearest one. They were large and fat, almost as fat as cows; certainly

larger than the ordinary Jersey. The peculiar thing about them was the

way, the level way, in which they held their small, long

heads--straight out; the huge horns of the males lying far back on

their shoulders. And then for the first time I could make out what

these horns are for--to part the brush with as they lead through the

thicket, and thus save their coarse coats of hair, which is very

rotten, and could be torn off in a little time if not thus protected.

They are never used to fight with, never; the elk uses only his feet.

If on the defense, however, the male elk will throw his nose close to

the ground and receive the enemy on his horns.

Suddenly and all together, and perhaps they had only paused a second,

they moved on into the water, led by a bull with a head of horns like

a rocking-chair. And his rocking-chair rocked his head under water

much of the time. The cold, swift water soon broke the line, only the

leader making the bank directly before us, while the others drifted

far down and out of sight.

Our artists, meantime, had dug up pencil and pad and begun work. But

an Indian jerked the saddles, on which the Englishmen sat, aside, and

the work was stopped. Everything was now packed up close under the

steep little ledge of rocks. An avalanche of smaller wild animals,

mostly deer, was upon us. Many of these had their tongues hanging from

their half-opened mouths. They did not attempt to drink, as you would

suppose, but slid into the water silently almost as soon as they came.

Surely they must have seen us, but certainly they took no notice of

us. And such order! No crushing or crowding, as you see cattle in

corrals, aye, as you see people sometimes in the cars.

And now came a torrent of little creeping things: rabbits, rats,

squirrels! None of these smaller creatures attempted to cross, but

crept along in the willows and brush close to the water.

They loaded down the willows till they bent into the water, and the

terrified little creatures floated away without the least bit of noise

or confusion. And still the black skies were filled with the solemn

boom of thunder. In fact, we had not yet heard any noise of any sort

except thunder, not even our own voices. There was something more

eloquent in the air now, something more terrible than man or beast,

and all things were awed into silence--a profound silence.

And all this time countless creatures, little creatures and big, were

crowding the bank on our side or swimming across or floating down,

down, down the swift, woodhung waters. Suddenly the stolid leader of

the Indians threw his two naked arms in the air and let them fall,

limp and helpless at his side; then he pointed out into the stream,

for there embers and living and dead beasts began to drift and sweep

down the swift waters from above. The Indians now gathered up the

packs and saddles and made a barricade above, for it was clear that

many a living thing would now be borne down upon us.

The two Englishmen looked one another in the face long and

thoughtfully, pulling their feet under them to keep from being trodden

on. Then, after another avalanche of creatures of all sorts and sizes,

a sort of Noah's ark this time, one of them said to the other:

"Beastly, you know!"

"Awful beastly, don't you know!"

As they were talking entirely to themselves and in their own language,

I did not trouble myself to call their attention to an enormous yellow

rattlesnake which had suddenly and noiselessly slid down, over the

steep little bluff of rocks behind us, into our midst.

But now note this fact--every man there, red or white, saw or felt

that huge and noiseless monster the very second she slid among us. For

as I looked, even as I first looked, and then turned to see what the

others would say or do, they were all looking at the glittering eyes

set in that coffin-like head.

The Indians did not move back or seem nearly so much frightened as

when they saw the drift of embers and dead beasts in the river before

them; but the florid Englishmen turned white! They resolutely arose,

thrust their hands in their pockets and stood leaning their backs hard

against the steep bluff. Then another snake, long, black and

beautiful, swept his supple neck down between them and thrust his red

tongue forth--as if a bit of the flames had already reached us.

Fortunately, this particular "wisest of all the beasts of the field,"

was not disposed to tarry. In another second he had swung to the

ground and was making a thousand graceful curves in the swift water

for the further bank.

The world, even the world of books, seems to know nothing at all about

the wonderful snakes that live in the woods. The woods rattlesnake is

as large as at least twenty ordinary rattlesnakes; and Indians say it

is entirely harmless. The enormous black snake, I know, is entirely

without venom. In all my life, spent mostly in the camp, I have seen

only three of those monstrous yellow woods rattlesnakes; one in

Indiana, one in Oregon and the other on this occasion here on the

banks of the McCloud. Such bright eyes! It was hard to stop looking at


Meantime a good many bears had come and gone. The bear is a good

swimmer, and takes to the water without fear. He is, in truth, quite a

fisherman; so much of a fisherman, in fact, that in salmon season here

his flesh is unfit for food. The pitiful part of it all was to see

such little creatures as could not swim clinging all up and down and

not daring to take to the water.

Unlike his domesticated brother, we saw several wild-cats take to the

water promptly. The wild-cat, you must know, has no tail to speak of.

But the panther and Californian lion are well equipped in this respect

and abhor the water.

I constantly kept an eye over my shoulder at the ledge or little bluff

of rocks, expecting to see a whole row of lions and panthers sitting

there, almost "cheek by jowl" with my English friends, at any moment.

But strangely enough, we saw neither panther nor lion; nor did we see

a single grizzly among all the bears that came that way.

We now noticed that one of the Indians had become fascinated or

charmed by looking too intently at the enormous serpent in our midst.

The snake's huge, coffin-shaped head, as big as your open palm, was

slowly swaying from side to side. The Indian's head was doing the

same, and their eyes were drawing closer and closer together. Whatever

there may be in the Bible story of Eve and the serpent, whether a

figure or a fact, who shall say?--but it is certainly, in some sense,


An Indian will not kill a rattlesnake. But to break the charm, in this

case, they caught their companion by the shoulders and forced him back

flat on the ground. And there he lay, crying like a child, the first

and only Indian I ever saw cry. And then suddenly boom! boom! boom! as

if heaven burst. It began to rain in torrents.

And just then, as we began to breathe freely and feel safe, there came

a crash and bump and bang above our heads, and high over our heads

from off the ledge behind us! Over our heads like a rocket, in an

instant and clear into the water, leaped a huge black bear, a ball of

fire! his fat sides in flame. He sank out of sight but soon came up,

spun around like a top, dived again, then again spun around. But he

got across, I am glad to say. And this always pleases my little girl,

Juanita. He sat there on the bank looking back at us quite a time.

Finally he washed his face, like a cat, then quietly went away. The

rattlesnake was the last to cross.

The beautiful yellow beast was not at all disconcerted, but with the

serenest dignity lifted her yellow folds, coiled and uncoiled slowly,

curved high in the air, arched her glittering neck of gold, widened

her body till broad as your two hands, and so slid away over the water

to the other side through the wild white rain. The cloudburst put out

the fire instantly, showing that, though animals have superhuman

foresight, they don't know everything before the time.

"Beastly! I didn't get a blawsted sketch, you know."

"Awful beastly! Neither did I, don't you know."

And that was all my English friends said. The Indians made their

moaning and whimpering friend who had been overcome by the snake pull

himself together and they swam across and gathered up the "cattle."

Some men say a bear cannot leap; but I say there are times when a bear

can leap like a tiger. This was one of the times.