GRANDPAPPY, THE INDIANS, AND THE BEAR in the WYOMING WILDERNESS of EIGHTY and EIGHT

“Grandad told me this story. His Grandpap told him. Now, I’ll tell it to you. That’s three people telling a tale that occurred over 100 years ago. Take it for what it’s worth, I do.”…John H. Lambe

“That ol’ man was a wanderer. He had a family, but I guess they were used to him being gone. Some folks are better loved that way anyhow. And he was probably one of them. He sent money home every now and again.

“It was August of fifty and four. He’d been settled into an old cabin that had known a long line of occupants, some human, some not. It was the legacy of some forgotten trapper long returned to the Earth in that endless cycle intimately known, loved, and lived by denizens of the wilderness.

“He was panning for color on Passway Creek, not far from the headwaters of both Yellowstone and the great Snake Rivers. Beautiful, high country, dropping off from the mighty Tetons; up amongst the bubbling cauldrons of the Yellowstone plateau.

“He’d been there long enough to find a few flakes of yellow which he could point to as a reason for being there. But, I reckon his main reason was just to fill his life with days he could live with. His real gold was all around him.

“He’d noted four things in a descending order:

“First was the awesome beauty and the soul filling thrill of just being there. Second was Injuns. He hadn’t seen any, but there was enough sign to give even a fella with sunset eyes a pause.

“The third was bears. Great silver tipped monsters that lumbered down out of the spruce and across the park. They fished the trout creeks and occasionally exploded in speed and blinding force to bring down an elk or moose. And they lived with him in this world.

“The fourth was gold; the least of all things.

“Late one evening, when real gold and the red of rubies played across the skies of a sundown world, he looked up into the twenty four eyes of twelve warriors. He was a good enough judge of men to know they weren’t friendly and this would be entirely their show.

“So, Grandpap looked south at the endless wave of peaks washing down to that high sage brush desert of the Green River country. Then around behind at the notch of Two Pass Creek, and far beyond it, his family..fire, home, and safety. Then, he faced west. The sky was aflame over the blue-grey Teton Peaks. The reds and purples reflected off the timeless glaciers woven on their rocky shoulders. He sighed a little and figured there was no better place to die than right here on the mighty backbone of this great continent, the roof of his world, in the company of twelve warrior-men of another of another, slowly passing world.

“They tied him to an old snag, the doughty survivor of a long ago forest. First, they ate, then they talked it over. They’d dispatch him, of course, never any doubt about that, just the method.

“When the proceedings began, one man, then another dashed down upon at him shaking a spear at his belly or perhaps a club over his head. They’d shout their fierce words and contort their faces. He suspected he was getting a good description of their future intentions. Leather clad, tough, and resigned, he was just as glad that he couldn’t understand the lingo.

“The preliminaries went on for over an hour. But, Grandpap was resigned to dying from the start, so, it never really worried him as much as it perhaps should. Then the moon, full and orange with a halo rose. And the bear walked into camp.

“Yes, that moon was a sight. Big and full, it looked like the Momma of all the stars, fixing to add a few more, just for good measure. And as he looked at it’s hallowed wonder, hoping it would be the last thing he saw, ol’ Silver caught the corner of his eye and all of his attention.

“Well, that bear spoiled a good little party. An’ pap felt a little let down at this abrupt change in plans. The Indians made a strategic retreat, in a mass of flying legs and dusty feathers, leaving pap to face Mr. Silverback by his lonesome.

“Superstition of the bear is a thing all the Indians shared and they decided, right quick, this one had a message. They delegated it to Grandpappy to make note of whatever wisdom was about to be revealed.

“Ol’ bear ambled over and plopped, whump, down on his bohunkus in front of Pap, his back to him, looking at the departed parties. They could be seen silhouetted in the moonlight at a respectful…very respectful…few paces. Their eyes glistened from the abandoned fire, like coyotes waiting for the scraps.

“That furry monster was fed up on fish, Pap could smell the lingering aroma, he was that close. He was also, the bear, doing a little talking to the Indians. It couldn’t be heard, just a low rumble in his throat only he could understand. But, Pap felt it vibrating way down deep in the pit of his stomach. Probably bear was telling them what he would do if they really wanted to play.

“Directly, Silver pivoted all nine hundred-odd pounds around and looked over at Pap, as if to say, “You poor dodger, what ever am I going to do about a dreamy-eyed bugger like you wandering around my mountains?”

“Then, his little huckleberry eyes noticed the sweat pouring off Pap’s face and down his chest. The Children of Nature had shredded his shirt, probably with the intention of a little job of tattooing with a hot brand. Now, in the cool air of a high mountain night, Pap sweated enough to make a water hole for two mules and a burro under his knees.

“His legs gave out when Silver turned his laconic attention on him. Loosely tied to the snag, he collapsed, or collapsed as far as he could get that way, to his knees.

“To an Indian, in that country, the high recluse of the all powerful Grizzly, that bear was an agelong object of worship; a direct link to the Great Spirit. The Earthly messenger of such memos as Heaven directed to men. And here was their prisoner in a worshipful position before just such a divine runner.

“Well, Ol’ Silver ran that massive bundle of bone and muscle which served as his head, out on his long neck and snuffled the sweat on Pap’s chest. What he smelled was salt, of course, and salt is a mighty valuable commodity in the wilderness. In fact, salt is just the thing to top off a bountiful feast of mountain trout.

“He could have used his great yellow fangs to rip off the salt and thirty pounds of meat, blood and bone. But, he didn’t. What he did do was to daintily lick it off. The big, sandpaper tongue swiped chest, face, even Pap’s ears.

“I don’t know what went through Grandpappy’s head right then, he never told. But, the Indians were figuring that it was about as direct a message from the Last Hunting Ground as they would ever get. And it didn’t take any medicine man to translate or diagnose it for ’em.

“They just got on their shaggy ponies and rode out of the park, up the side of the valley, through the spruce and aspen, and over the mountain. All the way back to their lodges.

“And over many a winter fire, burning at the center of the lodge-poles, the story was told of how they had almost killed a Small Spirit. Until the Great Bear had shown them their mistake.

“So, folks, just take this little story for what it’s worth.,.I always have.”

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