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In the Wilderness

By Charles Dudley Warner

NOTE: This work has been previously published in [Etext #2673]
The Complete Writings of Charles Dudley Warner Volume 3

3warn10.txt or




So many conflicting accounts have appeared about my casual encounter
with an Adirondack bear last summer that in justice to the public, to
myself, and to the bear, it is necessary to make a plain statement of
the facts.  Besides, it is so seldom I have occasion to kill a bear,
that the celebration of the exploit may be excused.

The encounter was unpremeditated on both sides.  I was not hunting
for a bear, and I have no reason to suppose that a bear was looking
for me.  The fact is, that we were both out blackberrying, and met by
chance, the usual way.  There is among the Adirondack visitors always
a great deal of conversation about bears,--a general expression of
the wish to see one in the woods, and much speculation as to how a
person would act if he or she chanced to meet one.  But bears are
scarce and timid, and appear only to a favored few.

It was a warm day in August, just the sort of day when an adventure
of any kind seemed impossible.  But it occurred to the housekeepers
at our cottage--there were four of them--to send me to the clearing,
on the mountain back of the house, to pick blackberries.  It was
rather a series of small clearings, running up into the forest, much
overgrown with bushes and briers, and not unromantic.  Cows pastured
there, penetrating through the leafy passages from one opening to
another, and browsing among the bushes.  I was kindly furnished with
a six-quart pail, and told not to be gone long.

Not from any predatory instinct, but to save appearances, I took a
gun.  It adds to the manly aspect of a person with a tin pail if he
also carries a gun.  It was possible I might start up a partridge;
though how I was to hit him, if he started up instead of standing
still, puzzled me.  Many people use a shotgun for partridges.  I
prefer the rifle: it makes a clean job of death, and does not
prematurely stuff the bird with globules of lead.  The rifle was a
Sharps, carrying a ball cartridge (ten to the pound),--an excellent
weapon belonging to a friend of mine, who had intended, for a good
many years back, to kill a deer with it.  He could hit a tree with it
--if the wind did not blow, and the atmosphere was just right, and
the tree was not too far off--nearly every time.  Of course, the tree
must have some size.  Needless to say that I was at that time no
sportsman.  Years ago I killed a robin under the most humiliating
circumstances.  The bird was in a low cherry-tree.  I loaded a big
shotgun pretty full, crept up under the tree, rested the gun on the
fence, with the muzzle more than ten feet from the bird, shut both
eyes, and pulled the trigger.  When I got up to see what had
happened, the robin was scattered about under the tree in more than a
thousand pieces, no one of which was big enough to enable a
naturalist to decide from it to what species it belonged.  This
disgusted me with the life of a sportsman.  I mention the incident to
show that, although I went blackberrying armed, there was not much
inequality between me and the bear.

In this blackberry-patch bears had been seen.  The summer before, our
colored cook, accompanied by a little girl of the vicinage, was
picking berries there one day, when a bear came out of the woods, and
walked towards them.  The girl took to her heels, and escaped.  Aunt
Chloe was paralyzed with terror.  Instead of attempting to run, she
sat down on the ground where she was standing, and began to weep and
scream, giving herself up for lost.  The bear was bewildered by this
conduct.  He approached and looked at her; he walked around and
surveyed her.  Probably he had never seen a colored person before,
and did not know whether she would agree with him: at any rate, after
watching her a few moments, he turned about, and went into the
forest.  This is an authentic instance of the delicate consideration
of a bear, and is much more remarkable than the forbearance towards
the African slave of the well-known lion, because the bear had no
thorn in his foot.

When I had climbed the hill,--I set up my rifle against a tree, and
began picking berries, lured on from bush to bush by the black gleam
of fruit (that always promises more in the distance than it realizes
when you reach it); penetrating farther and farther, through leaf-
shaded cow-paths flecked with sunlight, into clearing after clearing.
I could hear on all sides the tinkle of bells, the cracking of
sticks, and the stamping of cattle that were taking refuge in the
thicket from the flies.  Occasionally, as I broke through a covert, I
encountered a meek cow, who stared at me stupidly for a second, and
then shambled off into the brush.  I became accustomed to this dumb
society, and picked on in silence, attributing all the wood noises to
the cattle, thinking nothing of any real bear.  In point of fact,
however, I was thinking all the time of a nice romantic bear, and as
I picked, was composing a story about a generous she-bear who had
lost her cub, and who seized a small girl in this very wood, carried
her tenderly off to a cave, and brought her up on bear's milk and
honey.  When the girl got big enough to run away, moved by her
inherited instincts, she escaped, and came into the valley to her
father's house (this part of the story was to be worked out, so that
the child would know her father by some family resemblance, and have
some language in which to address him), and told him where the bear
lived.  The father took his gun, and, guided by the unfeeling
daughter, went into the woods and shot the bear, who never made any
resistance, and only, when dying, turned reproachful eyes upon her
murderer.  The moral of the tale was to be kindness to animals.

I was in the midst of this tale when I happened to look some rods
away to the other edge of the clearing, and there was a bear!  He was
standing on his hind legs, and doing just what I was doing,--picking
blackberries.  With one paw he bent down the bush, while with the
other he clawed the berries into his mouth,--green ones and all.  To
say that I was astonished is inside the mark.  I suddenly discovered
that I didn't want to see a bear, after all.  At about the same
moment the bear saw me, stopped eating berries, and regarded me with
a glad surprise.  It is all very well to imagine what you would do
under such circumstances.  Probably you wouldn't do it: I didn't.
The bear dropped down on his forefeet, and came slowly towards me.
Climbing a tree was of no use, with so good a climber in the rear.
If I started to run, I had no doubt the bear would give chase; and
although a bear cannot run down hill as fast as he can run up hill,
yet I felt that he could get over this rough, brush-tangled ground
faster than I could.

The bear was approaching.  It suddenly occurred to me how I could
divert his mind until I could fall back upon my military base.  My
pail was nearly full of excellent berries, much better than the bear
could pick himself.  I put the pail on the ground, and slowly backed
away from it, keeping my eye, as beast-tamers do, on the bear.  The
ruse succeeded.

The bear came up to the berries, and stopped.  Not accustomed to eat
out of a pail, he tipped it over, and nosed about in the fruit,
"gorming" (if there is such a word) it down, mixed with leaves and
dirt, like a pig.  The bear is a worse feeder than the pig.  Whenever
he disturbs a maple-sugar camp in the spring, he always upsets the
buckets of syrup, and tramples round in the sticky sweets, wasting
more than he eats.  The bear's manners are thoroughly disagreeable.

As soon as my enemy's head was down, I started and ran.  Somewhat out
of breath, and shaky, I reached my faithful rifle.  It was not a
moment too soon.  I heard the bear crashing through the brush after
me.  Enraged at my duplicity, he was now coming on with blood in his
eye.  I felt that the time of one of us was probably short.  The
rapidity of thought at such moments of peril is well known.  I
thought an octavo volume, had it illustrated and published, sold
fifty thousand copies, and went to Europe on the proceeds, while that
bear was loping across the clearing.  As I was cocking the gun, I
made a hasty and unsatisfactory review of my whole life.  I noted,
that, even in such a compulsory review, it is almost impossible to
think of any good thing you have done.  The sins come out uncommonly
strong.  I recollected a newspaper subscription I had delayed paying
years and years ago, until both editor and newspaper were dead, and
which now never could be paid to all eternity.

The bear was coming on.

I tried to remember what I had read about encounters with bears.  I
couldn't recall an instance in which a man had run away from a bear
in the woods and escaped, although I recalled plenty where the bear
had run from the man and got off.  I tried to think what is the best
way to kill a bear with a gun, when you are not near enough to club
him with the stock.  My first thought was to fire at his head; to
plant the ball between his eyes: but this is a dangerous experiment.
The bear's brain is very small; and, unless you hit that, the bear
does not mind a bullet in his head; that is, not at the time.  I
remembered that the instant death of the bear would follow a bullet
planted just back of his fore-leg, and sent into his heart.  This
spot is also difficult to reach, unless the bear stands off, side
towards you, like a target.  I finally determined to fire at him

The bear was coming on.

The contest seemed to me very different from anything at Creedmoor.
I had carefully read the reports of the shooting there; but it was
not easy to apply the experience I had thus acquired.  I hesitated

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