The Hostler's Story by J. T.
What amused us most at the Lake House last summer was the performance of
a bear in the back yard.
He was fastened to a pole by a chain, which gave him a range of a dozen
or fifteen feet. It was not very safe for visitors to come within that
circle, unless they were prepared for rough handling.
He had a way of suddenly catching you to his bosom, and picking your
pockets of peanuts and candy,–if you carried any about you,–in a
manner which took your breath away. He stood up to his work on his hind
legs in a quite human fashion, and used paw and tongue with amazing
skill and vivacity. He was friendly, and didn't mean any harm, but he
was a rude playfellow.
I shall never forget the ludicrous adventures of a dandified New Yorker
who came out into the yard to feed bruin on seed-cakes, and did not feed
him fast enough.
He had approached a trifle too near, when all at once the bear whipped
an arm about him, took him to his embrace, and "went through" his
pockets in a hurry. The terrified face of the struggling and screaming
fop, and the good-natured, businesslike expression of the fumbling and
munching beast, offered the funniest sort of contrast.
The one-eyed hostler, who was the bear's especial guardian, lounged
leisurely to the spot.
"Keep still, and he won't hurt ye," he said, turning his quid. "That's
one of his tricks. Throw out what you've got, and he'll leave ye."
The dandy made haste to help bruin to the last of the seed-cakes, and
escaped without injury, but in a ridiculous plight,–his hat smashed,
his necktie and linen rumpled, and his watch dangling; but his fright
was the most laughable part of all.
The one-eyed hostler made a motion to the beast, who immediately climbed
the pole, and looked at us from the cross-piece at the top.
"A bear," said the one-eyed hostler, turning his quid again, "is the
best-hearted, knowin'est critter that goes on all-fours. I'm speakin' of
our native black bear, you understand. The brown bear aint half so
respectable, and the grizzly is one of the ugliest brutes in creation.
Come down here, Pomp!"
Pomp slipped down the pole and advanced towards the one-eyed hostler,
walking on his hind legs and rattling his chain.
"Playful as a kitten!" said the one-eyed hostler, fondly. "I'll show
He took a wooden bar from a clothes-horse near by, and made a lunge with
it at Pomp's breast.
No pugilist or fencing-master could have parried a blow more neatly.
Then the one-eyed hostler began to thrust and strike with the bar as if
in downright earnest.
"Rather savage play," I remarked. And a friend by my side, who never
misses a chance to make a pun, added,—
"Yes, a decided act of bar-bear-ity."
"Oh, he likes it!" said the one-eyed hostler. "Ye can't hit him."
And indeed it was so. No matter how or where the blow was aimed, a
movement of Pomp's paw, quick as a flash of lightning, knocked it aside,
and he stood good-humoredly waiting for more.
"Once in a while," said the one-eyed hostler, resting from the exercise
and leaning on the bar, while Pomp retired to his pole, "there's a bear
of this species that's vicious and blood-thirsty. Generally, you let
them alone and they'll let you alone. They won't run from you maybe, but
they won't go out of their way to pick a quarrel. They don't swagger
round with a chip on their shoulder lookin' for some fool to knock it
"Will they eat you?" some one inquired; for there was a ring of
spectators around the performers by this time.
"As likely as not, if they are sharp-set, and you lay yourself out to be
eaten; but it aint their habit to go for human flesh. Roots, nuts,
berries, bugs, and any small game they can pick up, satisfies their
humble appetite as a general thing.
"But they're amazin' fond of honey, and there's no end of stingin' they
won't stand for the fun of robbin' a bee-nest. They're omnivourous as a
The spectators smiled, while some one remarked,—
"You mean omnivorous."
The hostler winked his one eye knowingly, and replied.—
"I mean omnivourous," with a still stronger accent on the wrong
syllable. "I found the word in a book, and it means eathin' or devourin'
all sorts. That's what a bear does. He likes everything, and a good deal
of it. He can't live on suckin' his paws all winter, neither. That's a foolish notion."
"Do you mean to say a bear doesn't hibernate?" I asked.
"He hibernates,–yes. I believe that's what they call it," replied the
one-eyed hostler. "He lies curled up kind o' torpid sometimes in winter;
but what he really lives on then is his fat.
"Fat is fuel, so ter speak. He lays it up in the fall, and burns it out
the the winter. He goes into his cold-weather quarters plump, and comes
out lean; but it's only in very cold weather that he keeps so quiet. In
mild, open winters he's out foragin' around, and when there comes a warm
spell in the toughest winter, you may see him. He likes to walk out and
see what's goin' on, anyhow."
The one-eyed hostler leaned against the pole, stroked Pomp's fur
affectionately, and continued somewhat in this style:
"Bears are particularly fond of fat, juicy pigs, and once give 'em a
taste of human flesh,–why, I shouldn't want my children to be playin'
in the woods within a good many miles of their den!
"Which reminds me of Old Two Claws, as they used to call him, a bear
that plagued the folks over in Ridgetown, where I was brought up,–wal,
as much as forty year ago.
"He got his name from the peculiar shape of his foot, and he got that
from trifling with a gun-trap. You know what that is,–a loaded gun set
in such a way that a bear or any game that's curious about it, must come
up to it the way it p'ints; a bait is hung before the muzzle, and a
string runs from that to the trigger.
"He was a cunning fellow, and he put out an investigatin' paw at the
piece of pork before trying his jaws on it; so instead of gettin' a
bullet in the head, he merely had a bit of his paw shot away. There were
but two claws left on that foot, as his bloody tracks showed.
"He got off; but this experience seemed to have soured his disposition.
He owed a spite to the settlement.
"One night a great row was heard in my uncle's pig-pen. He and the boys
rushed out with pitchforks, a gun and a lantern. They knew what the
trouble was, or soon found out.
"A huge black bear had broken down the side of the pen; he had seized a
fat porker, and was actually lugging him off in his arms! The pig was
kicking and squealing, but the bear had him fast. He did not seem at all
inclined to give up his prey, even when attacked. He looked sullen and
ugly; but a few jabs from a pitchfork, and a shot in the shoulder,
convinced him that he was making a mistake.
"He dropped the pig, and got away before my uncle could load up for
another shot. The next morning they examined his tracks. It was Old Two
"But what sp'ilt him for being a quiet neighbor was something that
happened about a year after that.
"There was a roving family of Indians encamped near the settlement,
hunting, fishing, and making moccasins and baskets, which they traded
with the whites.
"One afternoon the Red-Sky-of-the-Morning, wife of the
Water-Snake-with-the-Long-Tail, came over to the settlement with some of
their truck for sale. She had a pappoose on her back strapped on a
board; another squaw travelled with her, carrying an empty jug.
"Almost within sight of Gorman's grocery, Red-Sky took off her pappoose
and hung it on a tree. The fellows around the store had made fun of it
when she was there once before, so she preferred to leave it in the
woods rather than expose it to the coarse jokes of the boys. The little
thing was used to such treatment. Whether carried or hung up, pappoosey
"The squaws traded off this truck, and bought, with other luxuries of
civilization, a gallon of whiskey. They drank out of the jug, and then
looked at more goods. Then they drank again, and from being shy and
silent, as at first, they giggled and chatted like a couple of silly
white girls. They spent a good deal more time and money at Gorman's than
they would if it hadn't been for the whiskey, but finally they started
to go back through the woods.
"They went chattering and giggling to the tree where the pappoose had
been left. Then suddenly their noise stopped. There was no pappoose
"This discovery sobered them. They thought at first the fellows around
the store had played them a trick by taking it away; but by-and-by the
Red-Sky-of-the-Morning set up a shriek.
"She had found the board not far off, but no pappoose strapped to it,
only something that told the story of what had happened.
"There were bear tracks around the spot. One of the prints showed only
"The Red-Sky-of-the-Morning went back to the camp with the news; the
other squaw followed with the jug.
"When the Water-Snake-with-the-Long-Tail heard that his pappoose had
been eaten by a bear, he felt, I suppose, very much as any white father
would have felt under the circumstances. He vowed vengeance against Old
Two Claws, but consoled himself with a drink of the fire-water before
starting on the hunt.
"The braves with him followed his example. It wasn't in Indian nature to
start until they had emptied the jug, so it happened that Old Two Claws
got off again. Tipsy braves can't follow a trail worth a cent.
"Not very long after that a woman in a neighboring settlement heard her
children scream one day in the woods near the house. She rushed out, and
saw a bear actually lugging off her youngest.
"She was a sickly, feeble sort of woman, but such a sight was enough to
give her the strength and courage of a man. She ran and caught up an
axe. Luckily she had a big dog. They two went at the bear.
"The old fellow had no notion of losing his dinner just for a woman and
a mongrel cur. But she struck him a tremendous blow on the back; at the
same time the pup got him by the leg. He dropped the young one to defend
himself. She caught it up and ran, leaving the two beasts to have it out
"The bear made short work with the cur, but instead of following the
woman and child, he skulked off into the woods.
"The settlers got together for a grand hunt; but Old Two Claws–for the
tracks showed that he was the scoundrel–escaped into the mountains, and
lived to make more trouble another day.
"The child? Oh, the child was scarcely hurt! It had got squeezed and
scratched a little in the final tussle; that was all.
"As to the bear, he was next heard of in our settlement."
The hostler hesitated, winked his one eye with an odd expression, put a
fresh quid into his cheek, and finally resumed,—
"A brother-in-law of my uncle, a man of the name of Rush, was one day
chopping in the woods about half a mile from his house, when his wife
went out to carry him his luncheon.
"She left two children at home, a boy about five years old, and a baby
just big enough to toddle around.
"The boy had often been told that if he strayed into the woods with his
brother a bear might carry them off, and she charged him again that
forenoon not to go away from the house; but he was an enterprising
little fellow, and when the sun shone so pleasant, and the woods looked
so inviting, he wasn't one to be afraid of bears.
"The woman stopped to see her husband fall a big beech he was cutting,
and then went back to the house; but just before she got there, she saw
the oldest boy coming out of the woods on the other side. He was alone.
He was white as a sheet, and so frightened at first that he couldn't
"'Johnny,' says she, catching hold of him, 'what is the matter?'
"'A bear!' he gasped out at last.
"'Where is your little brother?' was her next question.
"'I don't know,' said he, too much frightened to know anything just
"'Where did you leave him?' says she.
"Then he seemed to have gotten his wits together a little. 'A bear took
him!' said he.
"You can guess what sort of an agony the mother was in.
"'O Johnny, tell me true! Think! Where was it?'
"'In the woods,' he said. 'Bear come along,–I run.'
"She caught him up and hurried with him into the woods. She begged him
to show her where he was with his little brother when the bear came
along. He pointed out two or three places. In one of them the earth was
soft. There were fresh tracks crossing it,–bear tracks. There was no
doubt about it.
"It was a terrible situation for a poor woman. Whether to follow the
bear and try to recover her child, or go at once for her husband, or
alarm the neighbors, what to do with Johnny meanwhile,–all that would
have been hard enough for her to decide even if she had had her wits
"She hardly knew what she did, but just followed her instinct, and ran
with Johnny in her arms, or dragging him after her, to where her husband
"Well," continued the one-eyed hostler, "I needn't try to describe what
followed. They went back to the house, and Rush took his rifle and
started on the track of the bear, vowing that he would not come back
without either the child or the bear's hide.
"The news went like wildfire through the settlement. In an hour
half-a-dozen men with their dogs were on the track with Rush. It was so
much trouble for him to follow the trail that they soon overtook him
with the help of the dogs.
"But in spite of them the bear got into the mountains. Two of the dogs
came up with him, and one, the only one that could follow a scent, had
his back broken by a stroke of his paw. After that it was almost
impossible to track him, and one after another the hunters gave up and
"At last Rush was left alone; but nothing could induce him to turn back.
He shot some small game in the mountains, which he cooked for his
supper, slept on the ground, and started on the trail again in the
"Along in the forenoon he came in sight of the bear as he was crossing a
stream. He had a good shot at him as he was climbing the bank on the
"The bear kept on, but it was easier tracking him after that by his
"That evening a hunter, haggard, his clothes all in tatters, found his
way to a backwoodsman's hut over in White's Valley. It was Rush. He told
his story in a few words as he rested on a stool. He had found no traces
of his child, but he had killed the bear. It was Old Two Claws. He had
left him on the hills, and came to the settlement for help.
"The hunt had taken him a round-about course, and he was then not more
than seven miles from home. The next day, gun in hand, with the
bear-skin strapped to his back,–the carcass had been given to his
friend the backwoods-man,–he started to return by an easier way through
"It was a sad revenge he had had, but there was a grim sort of
satisfaction in lugging home the hide of the terrible Old Two Claws.
"As he came in sight of his log-house, out ran his wife to meet him,
with–what do you suppose?–little Johnny dragging at her skirts, and
the lost child in her arms.
"Then, for the first time, the man dropped; but he didn't get down any
further than his knees. He clung to his wife and baby, and thanked God
for the miracle.
"But it wasn't much of a miracle, after all.
"Little Johnny had been playing around the door, and lost sight of the
baby, and maybe forgotten all about him, when he strayed into the woods
and saw the bear. Then he remembered all that he had heard of the danger
of being carried off and eaten, and of course he had a terrible fright.
When asked about his little brother, he didn't know anything about him,
and I suppose really imagined that the bear had got him.
"But the baby had crawled into a snug place under the side of the
rain-trough, and there he was fast asleep all the while. Then he woke up
two or three hours after, and the mother heard him cry; her husband was
far away on the hunt.
"True,–this story I've told you?" added the one-eyed hostler, as some
one questioned him. "Every word of it!"
"But your name is Rush, isn't it?" I said.
The one eye twinkled humorously.
"My name is Rush. My uncle's brother-in-law was my own father."
"And you?" exclaimed a bystander.
"I," said the one-eyed hostler, "am the very man who warn't eaten by the
bear when I was a baby!"