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Somehow, in one way and another, I got along, and when spring really came I felt that I was a full-grown bear, and no longer a youngster who had to make way for his elders when he met them in the path. Nor was it long before I had an opportunity of seeing that other bears also regarded me no longer as a cub.
[Ill.u.s.tration: TOLD ME BLUNTLY THAT I MUST GO.]
I had found a bees' nest about ten feet up in a big tree, and of course climbed up to it; but it was one of those cases of which I have spoken, when the game was not worth the trouble. The nest was in a cleft in the tree too narrow for me to get my arm into, and I could smell the honey a foot or so away from my nose without being able to reach it--than which I know nothing more tantalizing. And while you are hanging on to a tree with three paws, and trying to squeeze the fourth into a hole, the bees have you most unpleasantly at their mercy. I was horribly stung about my face, both my eyes and my nose were smarting abominably, and at last I could stand it no longer, but slid down to the ground again.
When I reached the ground, there was another bear standing a few yards away looking at me. He had a perfect right to look at me, and he was doing me no sort of harm; but the stings of the bees made me furious, and I think I was glad to have anybody or anything to vent my wrath upon. So as soon as I saw the other bear I charged him. He was an older bear than I, and about my size; and, as it was the first real fight that I had ever had, he probably had more experience. But I had the advantage of being thoroughly angry and wanting to hurt someone, without caring whether I was hurt myself or not, while he was feeling entirely peaceable, and not in the least anxious to hurt me or anybody else. The consequence was that the impetuosity of my first rush was more than he could stand. Of course he was up to meet me, and I expect that under my coat my skin on the left shoulder still carries the marks of his claws where he caught me as we came together.
But I was simply not to be denied, and, while my first blow must have almost broken his neck, in less than a minute I had him rolling over and over and yelling for mercy. I really believe that, if he had not managed to get to his feet, and then taken to his heels as fast as he could, I would have killed him. Meanwhile the bees were having fun with us both.
It was no use, however angry I might be, to stop to try and fight them; so soon as the other bear had escaped I made my own way as fast as I could out of the reach of their stings, and down to the stream to cool my smarting face. As I lay in the water, I remember looking back with astonishment to the whole proceeding. Five minutes before I had had no intention of fighting anybody, and had had no reason whatever for fighting that particular bear. Had I met him in the ordinary way, we should have been friendly, and I am not at all sure that, if I had had to make up my mind to it in cold blood, I should have dared to stand up to him, unless something very important depended on it. Yet all of a sudden the thing had happened. I had had my first serious fight with a bear older than myself, and had beaten him. Moreover, I had learned the enormous advantage of being the aggressor in a fight, and of throwing yourself into it with your whole soul. As it was, though I was astonished at the entire affair and surprised at myself, and although the bee-stings still hurt horribly, I was pretty well satisfied and rather proud.
Perhaps it was as well that I had that fight then, for the time was not far distant when I was to go through the fight of my life. A bear may have much fighting in the course of his existence, or he may have comparatively little, depending chiefly on his own disposition; but at least once he is sure to have one fight on which almost the whole course of his life depends. And that is when he fights for his wife. Of course he may be beaten, and then he has to try again. Some bears never succeed in winning a wife at all. Some may win one and then have her taken from them, and have to seek another; but I do not believe that any bear chooses to live alone. Every one will once at least make an effort to win a companion. The crisis came with me that summer, though many bears, I believe, prefer to run alone until a year, or even two years, later.
The summer had pa.s.sed like the former one, rather uneventfully after the episode of the bees. I wandered abroad, roaming over a wide tract of country, fishing, honey-hunting, and finding my share of roots and beetles and berries, sheltering during the heat of the day, and going wherever I felt inclined in the cool of the night and morning. I think I was disposed to be rather surly and quarrelsome, and more than once took upon myself to dispute the path with other bears; but they always gave way to me, and I felt that I pretty well had the mountains and the forests for my own. But I was still lonely, and that summer I felt it more than ever.
The late spring had ruined a large part of the berry crop, and the consequence was that, wherever there was a patch with any fruit on it, bears were sure to find it out. There was one small sheltered patch which I knew, where the fruit had nearly all survived the frosts. I was there one evening, when, not far from me, out of the woods came another bear of about my size. I liked her the moment I obtained a good view of her. She saw me, and sat up and looked at me amicably.
I had never tried to make love before, but I knew what was the right thing to do; so I approached her slowly, walking sideways, rubbing my nose on the ground, and mumbling into the gra.s.s to tell her how much I admired her. She responded in the correct way, by rolling on the ground. So I continued to approach her, and I cannot have been more than five or six yards away, when out of the bushes behind her, to my astonishment, came a he-bear. He growled at me, and began to sniff around at the bushes, to show that he was entirely ready to fight if I wanted to. And of course I wanted to. I probably should have wanted to in any circ.u.mstances, but when the she-bear showed that she liked me better than him, by growling at him, I would not have gone away, without fighting for her, for all the berries and honey in the world. One of the most momentous crisis in my life had come, and, as all such things do, had come quite unexpectedly.
He was as much in earnest as I, and for a minute we sidled round growling over our shoulders, and each measuring the other. There was little to choose between us, for, if I was a shade the taller, he was a year older than I, and undoubtedly the heavier and thicker. In fighting all other animals except those of his kind, a bear's natural weapons are his paws, with one blow of which he can crush a small animal, and either stun or break the neck of a larger one. But he cannot do any one of these three things to another bear as big as himself, and only if one bear is markedly bigger than the other can he hope to reach his head, so as either to tear his face or give him such a blow as will daze him and render him incapable of going on fighting. A very much larger bear can beat down the smaller one's arms, and rain such a shower of blows upon him as will convince him at once that he is overmatched, and make him turn tail and run. When two are evenly matched, however, the first interchange of blows with the paws is not likely to have much effect either way, and the fight will have to be settled by closing, by the use of teeth and main strength. But, as I had learned in my fight that day when I had been stung by the bees, the moral effect of the first may be great, and it was in that that my slight advantage in height and reach was likely to be useful, whereas if we came to close quarters slowly the thicker and stockier animal would have the advantage. So I determined to force the fighting with all the fury that I could; and I did.
It was he who gave the first blow. As we sidled up close to one another, he let out at me wickedly with his left paw, a blow which, if it had caught me, would undoubtedly have torn off one of my ears. Most bears would have replied to that with a similar swinging blow when they got an opening, and the interchange of single blows at arms' length would have gone on indefinitely until one or the other lost his temper and closed.
I did not wait for that. The instant the first blow whistled past my head I threw myself on my hindquarters and launched myself bodily at him, hitting as hard as I could and as fast, first with one paw and then with the other, without giving him time to recover his wits or get in a blow himself. I felt him giving way as the other bear had done, and when we closed he was on his back on the ground, and I was on the top of him.
The fight, however, had only begun. I had gained a certain moral effect by the ferocity of my attack, but a bear, when he is fighting in earnest, is not beaten by a single rush, nor, indeed, until he is absolutely unable to fight longer. Altogether we must have fought for over an hour. Two or three times we were compelled to stop and draw apart, because neither of us had strength left to use either claws or jaw. And each time when we closed again I followed the same tactics, rushing in and beating him down and doing my best to cow him before we gripped; and each time, I think, it had some effect--at least to the extent that it gave me a feeling of confidence, as if I was fighting a winning fight.
The deadliest grip that one bear can get on another is with his jaws across the other's muzzle, when he can crush the whole face in. Once he very nearly got me so, and this scar on the side of my nose is the mark of his tooth; but he just failed to close his jaws in time. And, as it proved then, it is a dangerous game to play, for it leaves you exposed if you miss your grip, and in this case it gave me the opportunity that I wanted, to get my teeth into his right paw just above the wrist. My teeth sank through the flesh and tendons and closed upon the bone. In time, if I could hold my grip, I would crush it. His only hope lay in being able to compel me to let go, by getting his teeth in behind my ear; and this we both knew, and it was my business with my right paw to keep his muzzle away.
A moment like that is terrible--and splendid. I have never found myself in his position, but I can imagine what it must be. We swayed and fell together, and rolled over and over--now he uppermost, and now I; but never for a second did I relax my hold. Whatever position we were in, my teeth were slowly grinding into the bone of his arm, and again and again I felt his teeth grating and slipping on my skull as I clawed and pushed blindly at his face to keep him away. More and more desperate he grew, and still I hung on; and while I clung to him in dead silence he was growling and snarling frantically, and I could hear his tone getting higher and higher till, just as I felt the bone giving between my teeth, the growling broke and changed to a whine, and I knew that I had won.
One more wrench with my teeth, and I felt his arm limp and useless in my mouth. Then I let go, and as he cowered back on three legs I reared up and fell upon him again, hitting blow after blow with my paws, buffeting, biting, beating, driving him before me. Even now he had fight left in him; but with all his pluck he was helpless with his crippled limb, and slowly I bore him back out of the open patch, where we had been fighting into the woods, and yard by yard up the hill, until at last it was useless for him to pretend to fight any longer, and he turned and, as best he could, limping on three legs, ran.
During the whole of the fight the she-bear had not said a word, but sat on the ground watching and awaiting the result. While the battle was going on I had no time to look at her; but in the intervals when we were taking breath, whenever I turned in her direction, she avoided my eye and pretended not to know that I was there or that anything that interested her was pa.s.sing. She looked at the sky and the trees, and washed herself, or did whatever would best show her indifference. All of which only told me that she was not indifferent at all.
Now, when I came back to her, she still pretended not to see me until I was close up to her, and when I held out my nose to hers she growled as if a stranger had no right to behave in that way. But I knew she did not mean it; and I was very tired and sore, with blood running from me in a dozen places. So I walked a few yards away from her and lay down. In a minute she came over to me and rubbed her nose against mine, and told me how sorry she was for having snubbed me, and then began to lick my wounds.
As soon as I was fairly rested, we got up and made our way in the bright moonlight down to the river, so that I could wash the blood off myself and get the water into my wounds. We stayed there for a while, and then returned to the patch and made a supper off the berries, and later wandered into the woods side by side. She was very kind to me, and every caress and every loving thing she did or said was a delight. It was all so wonderfully new. And when at last we lay down under the stars, so that I could sleep after the strain that I had been through, and I knew that she was by me, and that when I woke up I should not be lonely any more, it all seemed almost too good to be true. It was as if I had suddenly come into a new world and I was a new bear.