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A BEAR'S "PIPE" IN WINTER
AFTER ice-cutting came wood-cutting. It was now the latter part of January with weather still unusually cold. There were about three feet of snow on the ground, crusted over from a thaw which had occurred during the first of the month. In those days we burned from forty to fifty cords of wood in a year.
There was a wood-lot of a hundred acres along the brook on the east side of the farm, and other forest lots to the north of it. Only the best old-growth maple, birch and beech were cut for fuel — great trees two and three feet in diameter.
The trunks were cut into eight-foot lengths, rolled on the ox-sleds with levers, and then hauled home to the yard in front of the wood-house, where they lay in four huge piles till March, when all hands turned to, with axes and saws, and worked it up.
It was zero weather that week, but bright and clear, with spicules of frost glistening on every twig; and I recollect how sharply the tree trunks snapped those frost snaps which make "shaky" lumber in Maine.
Addison, Halstead and I, with one of the old Squire's hired men, Asa Doane, went to the wood-lot at eight o'clock that morning and chopped smartly till near eleven. Indeed, we were obliged to work fast to keep warm.
Addison and I then stuck our axes in a log and went on the snow crust up to the foot of a mountain, about half a mile distant, where the hardwood growth gave place to spruce. We wanted to dig a pocketful of spruce gum. For several days Ellen and Theodora had been asking us to get them some nice "purple" gum.
As we were going from one spruce to another, Addison stopped suddenly and pointed to a little round hole with hard ice about it, near a large, overhanging rock across which tree had fallen. "Sh!" he exclaimed. "I believe that's a bear's breath-hole!"
We reconnoitered the place at a safe distance. "That may be Old Three Paws himself," Addison said. "If it is, we must put an end to him." For "Old Three Paws" was a bear that had given trouble in the sheep pastures for years.
After a good look all round, we went home to dinner, and at table talked it over. The old Squire was a little incredulous, but admitted that there might be a bear there. "I will tell you how you can find out," he said. "Take a small looking-glass with you and hold it to the hole. If there is a bear down there, you will see just a little film of moisture on the glass from his breath."
We loaded two guns with buckshot. Our plan was to wake the bear up, and shoot him when he broke out through the snow. Bears killed a good many sheep at that time; the farmers did not regard them as desirable neighbors.
The ruse which Addison hit on for waking the bear was to blow black pepper down the hole through a hollow sunflower stalk. He had an idea that this would set the bear sneezing. In view of what happened, I laugh now when I remember our plans for waking that bear.
Directly after dinner we set off for the wood-lot with our guns and pepper. Cold as it was, Ellen and Theodora went with us, intending to stand at a very safe distance. Even grandmother Ruth would have gone, if it had not been quite so cold and snowy. Although minus one foot, Old Three Paws was known to be a savage bear, that had had more than one encounter with mankind.
While the rest stood back, Addison approached on tiptoe with the looking-glass, and held it to the hole for some moments. Then he examined it and looked back at us, nodding. There was moisture on it.
The girls climbed upon a large rock among the spruces. The old Squire, with one of the guns, took up a position beside a tree about fifty feet from the "hole." He posted Asa, who was a pretty good shot, beside another tree not far away. Halstead and I had to content ourselves with axes for weapons, and kept pretty well to the rear.
Addison was now getting his pepper ready. Expectancy ran high when at last he blew it down the hole and rushed back. We had little doubt that an angry bear would break out, sneezing and growling.
But nothing of the sort occurred. Some minutes passed. Addison could not even hear the faintest sneeze from below. He tiptoed up and blew in more pepper.
Cutting a pole, Addison then belabored the snow crust about the hole with resounding whacks — still with no result.
After this we approached less cautiously. Asa broke up the snow about the hole and cleared it away, uncovering a considerable cavity which extended back under the partially raised root of the fallen tree. Halstead brought a shovel from the wood-piles; and Addison and Asa cut away the roots of the old tree, and cleared out the frozen turf and leaves to a depth of four or five feet, gradually working down where they could look back beneath the root. We had begun to doubt whether we would find anything there larger than a woodchuck.
At last Addison got down on hands and knees, crept in under the root, and lighted several matches.
"There's something back in there," he said. "Looks black, but I cannot see that it moves."
Asa crawled in and struck a match or two, then backed out. "I believe it's a bear!" he exclaimed, and he wanted to creep in with a gun and fire; but the old Squire advised against that on account of the heavy charge in so confined a space.
Addison had been peeling dry bark from a birch, and crawling in again, lighted a roll of it. The smoke drove him out, but he emerged in excitement. "Bears!" he cried. "Two bears in there! I saw them!"
Asa took a pole and poked the bears cautiously. "Dead, I guess," said he, at last. "They don't move."
Addison crept in again, and actually passed his hand over the bears, then backed out, laughing. "No, they are not dead!" he exclaimed. "They are warm. But they are awfully sound asleep."
"Let's haul them out!" cried Asa; and they now sent me to the wood-sled for two or three small trace-chains. Asa then crawled in and slipped a chain about the body of one of the bears. The other two chains were hooked on; and then they slowly hauled the bear out, the old Squire standing by with gun cocked — for we expected every moment that the animal would wake.
But even when out on the snow crust the creature lay as inert as a dead bear. It was small. "Only a yearling," the old Squire said. None of us were now much afraid of them, and the other one was drawn out in the same way. Their hair was glossy and as black as jet. Possibly they would have weighed seventy-five pounds each. Evidently they were young bears that had never been separated, and that accounted for their denning up together; old bears rarely do this.
We put them on the wood-sled and hauled them home. They lay in a pile of hay on the stable floor all night, without a sign of waking up; and the next morning we hauled them to the cellar of the west barn. Under this barn, which was used mainly for sheep and young cattle, there were several pigsties, now empty. The dormant young bears were rolled into one of these sties and the sty filled with dry leaves, such as we used for bedding in the barns.
About a fortnight afterward a young doctor named Truman, from the village, desired very much to see the bears in their winter sleep. He got into the sty, uncovered them, and repeatedly pricked one of them with a needle, or penknife, without fairly waking it. But salts of ammonia, held to the nostrils of the other one, produced an unexpected result. The creature struck out spasmodically with one paw and rolled suddenly over. Doctor Truman jumped out of the sty quite as suddenly. "He's alive, all right," said the doctor.
The bears were not disturbed again, and remained there so quietly that we nearly forgot them. It was now the second week of March, and up to this time the weather had continued cold; but a thaw set in, with rain for two or three days, the temperature rising to sixty degrees, and even higher.
On the third night of the thaw, or rather, in the early morning, a great commotion broke out at the west barn. It waked the girls first, their room being on that side of the farmhouse. At about two o'clock in the morning Ellen came to our door to rouse Addison and me.
"There's a fearful racket up at the west barn," she said, in low tones. "You had better see what's wrong."
Addison and I threw on our clothes, went down quietly, so as not to disturb the old Squire, and were getting our lanterns ready, when he came from his room; for he, too, had heard the disturbance. We then sallied forth and approached the end door of the barn.
Inside, the young cattle were bellowing and bawling. Below, in the barn cellar, sheep were bleating, and a shoat was adding its raucous voice to the uproar. Above it all, however, we could hear eight old turkeys and a peacock that were wintering in the west barn, "quitting" and "quuttering" aloft, where they roosted on the high beams.
The young cattle, seventeen head, were tied facing the barn floor. All of them were on their feet, pulling back at their stanchions in a great state of alarm. But the real trouble seemed now to be aloft in the dark roof of the barn, among the turkeys. Addison held up the lantern. Nothing could be seen so far up there in the dark, but feathers came fluttering down, and the old peacock was squalling, "Tap-pee-yaw!" over and over.
We fixed a lantern on the end of a long bean-pole and thrust it high up. Its light revealed those two young bears on one of the high beams of the barn!
One of them had the head of a turkey in his mouth, and was apparently trying to bolt it; and we discovered later that they had had trouble with the shoat down in the cellar. The shoat was somewhat scratched, but had stood them off.
Several of the sheep had their fleeces torn, particularly one old Cotswold ram, which also had a bleeding nose. Evidently the barn had been the scene of a protracted fracas. The bears must have climbed for the turkeys as a last resort. How they reached the beam we did not know, unless by swarming up one of the bare posts of the barn.
To drive them down, Addison climbed on a scaffold and thrust the lantern close up to the one with the turkey's head in its mouth. The bear struck at the lantern with one paw, started back, but lost its claw-hold on the beam and fell, turkey and all, eighteen or twenty feet to the barn floor.
The old Squire and I sprang aside in great haste; but so far as we could see, the bear never stirred after it struck the floor. Either the fall broke its neck, or else the turkey's head choked it to death.
When menaced with the lantern, the other bear slid down one of the barn posts, tail first, and was driven into a horse stall at the far end of the barn. There we succeeded in shutting it up, and in the morning gave it a breakfast of corn-meal dough and apples, which it devoured with great avidity.
We had no particular use for a bear, and a week later sold this youngster to Doctor Truman. He soon tired of his new pet, however, and parted with it to a friend who kept a summer hotel in the White Mountains.The other bear — the one that fell from the high beam — had the handsomest black, glossy pelt I have ever seen. Grandmother, Ruth insisted on having it tanned and made into a rug. She declared jocosely that it should be given to the first one of our girls who married. Ellen finally fell heir to it, and carried it with her to Dakota.