This story came to me from the most unlikely source. Maybe that’s why I never forgot it, and why I feel compelled, all these years later, to pass it on down the line to generations who will doubtless find it even more amazing than I did as a young man.
I was talking one day with three old women, whose combined age was 240 years. The youngest of them had lived more than five times my life span on the day when we sat down in the parlor to chat.
The oldest was Mrs. Stewart—I’m not sure I ever heard her first name, as even the other women in the room deferred to her as Missus. She was 97 when I met her in the 1960s, and she had witnessed the entire 20th century and nearly a third of the 19th century.
Moreover, she had accumulated an entire library of stories in her memory from her Mother (b. 1850s), her Grandfather (b. 1820s), and her Great-Grandfather (b. 1790s.) Mrs. Stewart spoke quite familiarly of her uncles who had fought in the Civil War. One of them had shaken hands with Lincoln.
It was astonishing to me to have a portal into the far reaches of American history that was not a book or a yellowed piece of paper, but a living connection. Mrs. Stewart had clear eyes that could see to the very first moments of Richland County, even though she looked like one of those dried-apple-face dolls.
Believe me, I say this only in the most endearing way, and in no way to diminish her dignity, because I came to respect and admire her tremendously. I only want to give you an image by which to gauge the incongruity of this tale: as you read this hard, manly story, picture it coming from the serious face of this soft old lady.
Her Great-Grandfather had come to the Forks of the Mohican from Ireland, at the time when people were still talking about the War of 1812 like it was a bad storm they were cleaning up after. He actually chopped down the trees they used to build the first church along the Cedar Fork.
Mrs. Stewart could recite these facts like she was remembering the bake sale last month, so it cast local history into a familiarity and immediacy I had never experienced before. When she spoke about the bear hunt, I was suddenly transported beyond the stuffy minutia of history to truly touch the beating heart of the distant past.
The Lady’s Great-Grandfather
This story took place right before Christmas, and that is how they always told the story in her family: Grampa Fergus and his Christmas bear: because, at the time it happened, all he could think about was what a huge holiday feast they were going to have.
Fergus was tending to his chores one morning, and he was so completely absorbed in his task, it startled him when a stick suddenly snapped behind him. He spun around just as the bear spun towards him, and they both jumped back at the same instant, only yards apart.
The bear was just as surprised as Fergus and, with only a second to gasp in shock, they each took off in opposite directions.
By the time he was back to his cabin however, Fergus had gotten over his sudden fear and begun to imagine the possibilities of a nice roast bear for Christmas dinner.
There was no snow on the ground, so tracking the bear was not an easy prospect; but Fergus knew which way it was headed, so with that tiny bit of crazy hope, he primed his rifle and struck out in his hunting boots.
Fergus was no tracker, and hardly a woodsman at all. He was a man on a mission however, and figured if the Wyandots could do it, he could too. He hiked and climbed and skidded down hillsides; he stood stock still and listened into the trees; he sniffed the air and studied the river bed, the way he imagined a Deerslayer would.
Many hours later, the forest was going dim and the hunter knew that once darkness fell, he was likely to become prey; so Fergus gave up and turned toward home. That’s when a movement caught his eye, as the bear crossed a distant clearing of fallen trees.
There was a river between Fergus and the bear; he stood on one steep hillside and the bear on another, at least a half-mile away. There was no way he could get any closer, but the bear seemed to be staying in one place, eating something and pawing around preoccupied.
Fergus knew he would get only one shot, so he took his time and carefully sighted for several minutes, resting his rifle in the crook of a small tree.
When he pulled the trigger, the bear dropped, and he was very much aware that it was a one-in-a-million shot.
It seems like this should be the happy ending to the story, but it is only the beginning.
Weighing in at 350 pounds
As I said, Fergus was not a woodsman. A more experienced huntsman would have a better idea of what to do next: how to get the load of meat home past the wolves, when it was still wearing its fur, and weighed far more than the one with the rifle.
At this point in the story, with night falling rapidly, Fergus had wandered probably ten miles from home. There was only one way across the Cedar Fork, and that was through it; so by the time he reached the bear he was already soaking wet.
He studied the furry pile for a while, and the method he devised for solving his dilemma was actually quite ingenious, considering it was totally improvisational.
Fergus muscled the bruin up onto a log like it was sitting upright in a chair, and then he sat down on the bear’s lap. Pulling its huge arms over his shoulders, he stood up hunched over, wearing the bear like a 350-pound backpack.
Logistical nightmares aside—like crossing the Cedar Fork again all bent over, and traversing steep hills with tangled snares of fallen trees—Fergus found that the fiercest impediment to getting home was not wolves or Wyandots, but simply the force of gravity: staying on his two feet. After an hour or two, he determined that the heaviest part of the bear was its head, so he took that off to lighten the load.
It took Fergus 6 hours to find the bear; it took him 10 hours to get it home. During those long hours, his dreams of Christmas feast completely vanished.
You see, after having taken the bear’s head from its shoulders, and then carrying its body on his back, it didn’t take long before he was completely saturated with the bear’s blood. By the time he got home, it had permeated clear to his soul. From that day on he could never again think of eating bear meat, or even stand to have people around him talk about bears.
Fergus gave the bear to a Frenchman who lived in the next valley, and when Christmas came he was still fasting.
GPS: When this conversation took place with Mrs. Stewart, I was about 12, it was the 1960s, and the Richland County landscape had only recently been modified by the construction of I-71. She was thrilled to see the vista the highway opened up, and told me that the events of this bear hunt took place within the sightlines visible from the top of the bridge where Bellville-Johnsville Road crosses over I-71.