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Besieged by Bears
TWO old prospectors, Sullivan and Jason, once took me in for the night, and after supper they related a number of interesting experiences. Among these tales was one of the best bear-stories I have ever heard. The story was told in the graphic, earnest, realistic style so often possessed by those who have lived strong, stirring lives among crags and pines. Although twenty years had gone by, these prospectors still had a vivid recollection of that lively night when they were besieged by three bears, and in recounting the experience they mingled many good word-pictures of bear behavior with their exciting and amusing story. “This happened to us,” said Sullivan, “in spite of the fact that we were minding our own business and had never hunted bears.”
The siege occurred at their log cabin during the spring of 1884. They were prospecting in Geneva Park, where they had been all winter, driving a tunnel. They were so nearly out of supplies that they could not wait for snowdrifts to melt out of the trail. Provisions must be had, and Sullivan thought that, by allowing twice the usual time, he could make his way down through the drifts and get back to the cabin with them. So one morning, after telling Jason that he would be back the next evening, he took their burro and set off down the mountain. On the way home next day Sullivan had much difficulty in getting the loaded burro through the snowdrifts, and when within a mile of the cabin, they stuck fast Sullivan unpacked and rolled the burro out of the snow, and was busily repacking, when the animal’s uneasiness made him look round.
In the edge of the woods, only a short distance away, were three bears, apparently a mother and her two well-grown children. They were sniffing the air eagerly and appeared somewhat excited. The old bear would rise on her hind paws, sniff the air, then drop back to the ground. She kept her nose pointed toward Sullivan, but did not appear to look at him. The smaller bears moved restlessly about; they would walk a few steps in advance, stand erect, draw their fore paws close to their breasts, and sniff, sniff, sniff the air, up. ward and in all directions before them. Then they would slowly back up to the old bear. They all seemed very good-natured.
Ouray, Colorado, a Typical Mining Town
When Sullivan was unpacking the burro, the wrapping had come off two hams which were among the supplies, and the wind had carried the delicious aroma to the bears, who were just out of their winter dens after weeks of fasting. Of course, sugar-cured hams smelled good to them. Sullivan repacked the burro and went on. The bears quietly eyed him for some distance. At a turn in the trail he looked back and saw the bears clawing and smelling the snow on which the pro visions had lain while he was getting the burro out of the snowdrift. He went on to the cabin, had supper, and forgot the bears.
The log cabin in which he and Jason lived was a small one; it had a door in the side and a small window in one end. The roof was made of a layer of poles thickly covered with earth. A large shepherd-dog often shared the cabin with the prospectors. He was a playful fellow, and Sullivan often romped with him. Near their cabin were some vacant cabins of other prospectors, who had “gone out for the winter” and were not yet back for summer prospecting.
The evening was mild, and as soon as supper was over Sullivan filled his pipe, opened the door, and sat down on the edge of the bed for a smoke, while Jason washed the dishes. He had taken only a few pulls at his pipe when there was a rattling at the window. Thinking the dog was outside, Sullivan called, “Why don’t you go round to the door?” This invitation was followed by a momentary silence, then smash! a piece of sash and fragments of window-glass flew past Sullivan and rattled on the floor. He jumped to his feet. In the dim candle-light he saw a bear’s head coming in through the window. He threw his pipe of burning tobacco into the bear’s face and eyes, and then grabbed for some steel drills which lay in the corner on the floor. The earth roof had leaked, and the drills were ice-covered and frozen fast to the floor.
While Sullivan was dislodging the drills, Jason began to bombard the bear vigorously with plates from the table. The bear backed out; she was looking for food, not clean plates. However, the instant she was outside, she accepted Sullivan’s invitation and went round to the door! And she came for it with a rush! Both Sullivan and Jason jumped to close the door. They were not quick enough, and instead of one bear there were three! The entire family had accepted the invitation, and all were trying to come in at once!
When Sullivan and Jason threw their weight against the door it slammed against the big bear’s nose, — a very sensitive spot. She gave a savage growl. Apparently she blamed the two other bears either for hurting her nose or for being in the way. At any rate, a row started; halfway in the door the bears began to fight; for a few seconds it seemed as if all the bears would roll inside. Sullivan and Jason pushed against the door with all their might, trying to close it. During the struggle the bears rolled outside and the door went shut with a bang. The heavy securing cross-bar was quickly put into place; but not a moment too soon, for an instant later the old bear gave a furious growl and flung herself against the door, making it fairly crack; it seemed as if the door would be broken in. Sullivan and Jason hurriedly knocked their slab bed to pieces and used the slats and heavy sides to prop and strengthen the door. The bears kept surging and clawing at the door, and while the prospectors were spiking the braces against it and giving their entire attention to it, they suddenly felt the cabin shake and heard the logs strain and give. They started back, to see the big bear struggling in the window. Only the smallness of the window had prevented the bear from getting in unnoticed, and surprising them while they were bracing the door. The window was so small that the bear in trying to get in had almost wedged fast. With hind paws on the ground, fore paws on the window-sill, and shoulders against the log over the window, the big bear was in a position to exert all her enormous strength. Her efforts to get in sprung the logs and gave the cabin the shake which warned. Sullivan grabbed one of the steel drills and dealt the bear a terrible blow on the head. She gave a growl of mingled pain and fury as she freed herself from the window. Outside she backed off growling.
For a little while things were calmer. Sullivan and Jason, drills in hand, stood guard at the window. After some snarling in front of the window the bears went round to the door. They clawed the door a few times and then began to dig under it. “They are tunneling in for us,” said Sullivan. “They want those hams; but they won’t get them.”
After a time the bears quit digging and started away, occasionally stopping to look hesitatingly back. It was almost eleven o’clock, and the full moon shone splendidly through the pines. The prospectors hoped that the bears were gone for good. There was an old rifle in the cabin, but there were no cartridges, for Sullivan and Jason never hunted and rarely had occasion to fire a gun. But, fearing that the animals might return, Sullivan concluded to go to one of the vacant cabins for a loaded Winchester which he knew to be there.
As soon as the bears disappeared, he crawled out of the window and looked cautiously around; then he made a run for the vacant cabin. The bears heard him running, and when he had nearly reached the cabin, they came round the corner of it to see what was the matter. He was up a pine tree in an instant. After a few growls the bears moved off and disappeared behind a vacant cabin. As they had gone behind the cabin which contained the loaded gun, Sullivan thought it would be dangerous to try to make the cabin, for if the door should be swelled fast, the bears would surely get him. Waiting until he thought it safe to return, he dropped to the ground and made a dash for his own cabin. The bears heard him and again gave chase, with the evident intention of getting even for all their annoyances. It was only a short distance to his cabin, but the bears were at his heels when he dived in through the broken window.
A bundle of old newspapers was then set on fire and thrown among the bears, to scare them away. There was some snarling, until one of the young bears with a stroke of a fore paw scattered the blazing papers in all directions; then the bears walked round the cabin-corner out of sight and remained quiet for several minutes.
Just as Jason was saying, “I hope they are gone for good,” there came a thump on the roof which told the prospectors that the bears were still intent on the hams. The bears began to claw the earth off the roof. If they were allowed to continue, they would soon clear off the earth and would then have a chance to tear out the poles. With a few poles torn out, the bears would tumble into the cabin, or perhaps their combined weight might cause the roof to give way and drop them into the cabin. Something had to be done to stop their clawing and if possible get them off the roof. Bundles of hay were taken out of the bed mattress. From time to time Sullivan would set fire to one of these bundles, lean far out through the window, and throw the blazing hay upon the roof among the bears. So long as he kept these fireworks going, the bears did not dig; but they stayed on the roof and became furiously angry. The supply of hay did not last long, and as soon as the annoyance from the bundles of fire ceased, the bears attacked the roof again with renewed vigor.
Then it was decided to prod the bears with red-hot drills thrust up between the poles of the roof. As there was no firewood in the cabin, and as fuel was necessary in order to heat the drills, a part of the floor was torn up for that purpose.
The young bears soon found hot drills too warm for them and scrambled or fell off the roof. But the old one persisted. In a little while she had clawed off a large patch of earth and was tearing the poles with her teeth.
The hams had been hung up on the wall in the end of the cabin; the old bear was tearing just above them. Jason threw the hams on the floor and wanted to throw them out of the window. He thought that the bears would leave contented if they had them. Sullivan thought differently; he said that it would take six hams apiece to satisfy the bears, and that two hams would be only a taste which would make the bears more reckless than ever. The hams stayed in the cabin.
The old bear had torn some of the poles in two and was madly tearing and biting at others. Sullivan was short and so were the drills. To get within easier reach, he placed the table almost under the gnawing bear, sprang upon it, and called to Jason for a red-hot drill. Jason was about to hand him one when he noticed a small bear climbing in at the window, and, taking the drill with him, he sprang over to beat the bear back. Sullivan jumped down to the fire for a drill, and in climbing back on the table he looked up at the gnawed hole and received a shower of dirt in his face and eyes. This made him flinch and he lost his balance and upset the table. He quickly straightened the table and sprang upon it, drill in hand. The old bear had a paw and arm thrust down through the hole between the poles. With a blind stroke she struck the drill and flung it and Sullivan from the table. He shouted to Jason for help, but Jason, with both young bears trying to get in at the window at once, was striking right and left. He had bears and troubles of his own and did not heed Sullivan’s call. The old bear thrust her head down through the hole and seemed about to fall in, when Sullivan in desperation grabbed both hams and threw them out of the window.
The young bears at once set up a row over the hams, and the old bear, hearing the fight, jumped off the roof and soon had a ham in her mouth.
While the bears were fighting and eating, Sullivan and Jason tore up the remainder of the floor and barricaded the window. With both door and window closed, they could give their attention to the roof. All the drills were heated, and both stood ready to make it hot for the bears when they should again climb on the roof. But the bears did not return to the roof. After eating the last morsel of the hams they walked round to the cabin door, scratched it gently, and then became quiet. They had lain down by the door.
It was two o’clock in the morning. The inside of the cabin was in utter confusion. The floor was strewn with wreckage; bedding, drills, broken boards, broken plates, and hay were scattered about. Sullivan gazed at the chaos and remarked that it looked like poor housekeeping. But he was tired, and, asking Jason to keep watch for a while, he lay down on the blankets and was soon asleep.
Toward daylight the bears got up and walked a few times round the cabin. On each round they clawed at the door, as though to tell Sullivan that they were there, ready for his hospitality. They whined a little, half good-naturedly, but no one admitted them, and finally, just before sunrise, they took their departure and went leisurely smelling their way down the trail.