by Lydia Andrews
After the Old-timer at Swanson old farm has read the day’s scripture, his mind turns to his boyhood days on Hereford Hill in Quebec, Province—peaceful days of a more simple time; days when men and women earned their living by the sweat of their brows and had little to do with the government.
The word “welfare” had quite a different meaning in those times. In the snug farmhouse surrounded by its outbuildings, he lived and worked with his mother, father, brothers, and sister. Near at hand were the home places of his paternal grandmother and grand-uncle—older folk who had come from beyond the sea to make their home in Canada East, to clear and to till the land.
Success and comfort had been their lot as they strove, sober, and frugal. Their faith in God never deserted them, a pious people.
At the foot of the hill stretching out on the meadows were the homes of other members of the Old-timer’s family. Nestled in the foothills of Hereford Mountain was the huge layout of his maternal grandfather, Richard Hammond—buildings, pastures and forests.
“There was a large, long pasture that ran up hill toward the mountain from Grandfather’s barns,” the Old-timer told his wife. “It was here he pastured his Durhams and a big flock of sheep. Grandma Maryann carded and spun wool, which she wove into cloth.”
The long pasture was filled with thickets and bordered by heavy woods. Old Colonel, the collie, generally went alone to fetch the cows for the milking, but early on a summer day in the year 1880 Horace went along.
Horace was the last and youngest of six children left at home. He didn’t have anything to do with the Durhams, his job being to check on the well-being of the sheep. Although Horace’s legs were long for a 13-year-old boy, he couldn’t outrun Bucko the ram, who was a mean customer. Horace carried a long, stout stick for defense.
There might be a bear or two venturing down from the mountain, but the boy knew if he didn’t bother it, it wouldn’t bother him. Of course, if he got between a she bear and her cubs it would be a different story. Horace wondered how he’d turn out if he went up to a bear and asked, “Are you a Mrs. Bear and have you any children?”
The boy grinned as he climbed the rutted path made by generations of stock. He watched the beautiful waves of light and shadow come and go on the mountain. It was a long, high summit with knobby lower peaks at either end. These were called North Coblet and South Coblet. Their bare rocks shone in the sun like bald heads.
He had trudged upwards of a mile when Old Colonel, who had kept pace with him, hesitated, beginning to rumble down deep in his throat. Horace pushing heard a thudding sound growing rapidly nearer and louder. It was the pounding of hooves. The silly creatures think I’m bringing salt to them, he thought. In moments the animals came into view streaming wildly from the woods at the mountain foot—the oxen, the workhorses, the Durhams, the sheep, and Viney, the driving mare, running at top speed and outdistancing the others. She tore through the ranks at a plunging gallop, shooting by the boy with snorting breath and rolling eyes straight for the pasture bars in the valley. Horace was filled with alarm. Viney never left her grazing unless her keen ear picked up Granther’s whistle.
With angry barks, Old Colonel darted forward trying to drive back the sheep and bunch up the Durhams. He never allowed the sheep to come home with the cows, but he couldn’t stop their huddling together and milling steadily downhill. Horace jumped clear to let the milkers go pell mell by. The workhorses weren’t far behind, followed by Duncan and Moody the oxen, with their heavy lumbering gait. Scanning the bobbing white heads of the sheep to make certain not to meet Bucko face to face, the lad saw he was missing.
The troop swept by with Colonel racing here and there trying to establish order and leaving Horace alone and nervous. Sweat ran down his face as deeper shadows darkened the mountain. Questions popped into his mind.
What had got the animals to running so madly? Where was the ram? Had a bear frightened them and done Bucko in, or was the stubborn creature hiding on purpose? Horace was scared enough to take to his heels, but he should check first, just a bit, say. After all, 13 years old was pretty near a grown man and grown men stood their ground. At least the Hammonds did.
He made up his mind to be brave and started to whistle, when something came up behind and pressed his hand. He leaped into the air, turning as he sprang and raised his stick to strike. He stopped midway, on finding it was only Colonel.
The dog took the sleeve of the boy’s shirt in his teeth and tugged him backward toward home. More frightened than ever Horace made him let go and started toward the woods with him. Screwing up his courage with the dog close beside him and moving noiselessly with the wind in his face, the boy crept into the wooded area. Peering into brushy evergreens, through thickets, and behind bushes, he was thankful for the open spaces over which he could sweep his eyes and feel safe. At every step he expected some monster to pounce on them and tear them to pieces. From time to time the old dog whimpered and hesitated.
At the end of what seemed like a great while during which Horace heard little except the soft wind, the rustle of leaves, the huffing, whimpering Colonel and his thumping heart, he was on the point of getting out. Suddenly the dog growled low in his throat and darted into a hazel thicket where he continued to growl in a low, savage way. The boy’s curiosity got the better of his good sense. With trembling hands he parted the brush to take a look.
His old enemy Bucko lay on his side in the clearing, the life gone out of him. Great bloody gashes showed where hide and flesh had been stripped away. A tear streaked down the boy’s sweaty face. The fact that a valuable thoroughbred lay dead before his eyes didn’t cause the tears or the lump in his throat. The ram had been one of the family at Hammond farm.
Colonel, who had been sniffing the carcass, ran to the boy with a warning bark and they both high-tailed it out of the thicket. They were halfway home when they heard my Granther Hammon’s booming voice, “Horace, Horace. Come, Colonel, come.”
And there he was, woodman’s axe in hand, clipping swiftly up the pasture. He said little; only smoothing his son’s shoulder as he heard the story of poor Bucko. Grannie Maryann was in the back barnyard forking wisps of hay to the Durhams and the timid sheep huddled in the corner. Horace’s eye caught a gleam of bright color as she hugged him to her. It was her old red tablecloth hanging from the back shed window. This was a distress signal to the nearest neighbors, the McPhersons.
The Old-timer paused to light his pipe. “I hope I’m not boring you with this bear story about Granther Hammond and Uncle Horace, cute and sweet. It’s a family story handed down.”
“It’s a good story,” said his wife. “Did Granther Hammond go after the bear?”
“That he did and that very afternoon,” answered her husband. “He and Horace hurried to the shed where they lifted down a huge bear trap from pegs on the wall. They hunted until they found two rudely painted signs that read “BEAR TRAP BEWARE.”
The trap, two feet or so in length, was an ugly steel contraption with cruel sharp teeth in its jaws. There was a square piece of metal, six inches by six inches with a small, notched lever attached to it, set in the frame about midway. This was the pan. At each end of the contrivance was a spring. A long chain fastened to the trap ended in a block of thick wood upwards of three feet long. The chain was bolted to this. Horace realized all too well that if he ever got caught in the instrument of torture that it would take strong men to get him out. He knew the trap would break his let.
It takes strong men to set and unset a bear trap and even to carry one any distance on hard going. Granther Hammond was by then 50 years of age, but like all the men of my family, powerful and strong. He had come as a boy out of Shropshire to tend the cattle on an English boat bound for Canada. Resourceful and intrepid, he pioneered the wilderness in the new land.
Now with a heave he shouldered the trap, handed Horace the axe and signs, and was ready to go up to the mountain.
“Is it that ye gang oop the brae alane?” inquired a burring voice, and at their elbows were the McPhersons, father and grown son.
“A bear, now isn’t?” asked the son holding up his muzzleloader.
The party hurried as fast as they could to take advantage of the remaining daylight, the men shifting turns at the lugging and the boy pointing the path to the thicket. Poor Bucko lay as he had left him.
Going into a clump of smallish trees Granther swung his axe to cut and limb out two of them into five-foot lengths. The trap was put on a patch of solid ground near the dead ram because the bear would be back from his home to eat from his victim again. The trees that Granther had prepared were placed on the top of the springs to act as levers and their ends were stuck firmly under the roots of nearby trees to hold them in place. The McPhersons stood on the levers to bear down the springs and thus open the jaws of the trap. Granther put his skillful hand under the middle of the trap to bring up the pan and hook the strip of thin metal into its notch to keep the pan elevated.
When Mr. Bruin stepped onto the pan this would spring the trap and catch his foot. The long chain was spread away from the setting with the wooden block lying on the ground.
“The reason, Horace, for not fastening the chain to something solid like a tree is that the critter would gnaw his foot off and get away,” Granther explained to Uncle Horace. “As it is he’ll drag the clog of wood a ways trying to get free, but it will slow him down and he’ll leave a trail of busted bushes and grasses for us to track him by.”
After the men had eased off the levers, several more small trees were cut and limbed. Notches cut in them helped to fit them together to fence in the trap enclosure. The bunch worked in the dusk until the time came to put up the warning signs. The Scots thought it a big joke when the boy said, “If that fellow can read, Pa, you won’t get your bear.”
The Hammonds rose at daylight, my grandfather and uncle going out to milk the cows, and Grannie Maryann frying up sausages and pancakes. She said she had heard the bear hollering in the night. After the family breakfast the animals were penned up in the night pasture nearer the buildings.
Granther took his axe and he and Horace stole along up the hill toward the mountain. Granther could really cover ground and the boy was hard put to keep up to him. He felt afraid because his father had no gun and looked back to see if the McPhersons were following. He was relieved to see his mother’s red tablecloth whipping in the breeze. She had missed them and hung out the distress signal.
He kept eyeing the axe doubtfully. If the savage creature was in the trap, how could he be killed with an axe? A bear is quicker than a man. Besides, the wind blowing from the humans to him had already alerted him.
Horace had faith in my Granther but he was glad when Old Colonel came running up, having broken loose from the shed where he’d been shut in. When they reached the trap yard they found the fence broken and the trap gone and no bear. Bucko lay where Horace had first seen him. Granther pointed out a trail of trodden grass and broken bushes. Ordering Colonel to heel they walked on the track until a low growl from him told them the search was ended. Bears don’t have keen sight. They depend mostly on their noses and ears. Alerted by these senses the animal was standing on his hind legs to receive the trappers. The clog had been caught between two small maples, impeding progress except in a semi-circle. The wild one glared at the people with his mean little eyes while he snarled savagely to drive them off.
Telling the dog to sit and the boy to stand still in his tracks, my grandfather calmly walked about 100 feet to a slender sapling some 25 feet in height. Swinging the axe with precise blows he laid the tree on the ground and limbed it clean.
“Horace,” directed his father, “You mind what I say and all will go well, since we are in a fairly well-cleared space. Come along now out of reach of our friend.”
They kept to the rim of the semi-circle avoiding the bear by several feet until they reached a halfway point. The trapped animal kept turning to face them. The boy did not like the trip. His throat got dry and his knees knocked and the dog at his heels muttered angrily.
“Now,” said the old woodsman, “Keep well back from the critter. Take this sapling and hold it up and keep it moving to and fro as if you planned to hit him. Keep it going in a half circle all the time. Don’t take your eye off him and don’t be skeered. The chain will hold and he’ll keep his eyes on the stick.”
Horace began his operation thumping his stick on the ground a bit and keeping the to and fro motion. The animal followed the motions with alert eyes ready to dodge if the boy should attempt to land a blow.
He couldn’t stop from glancing to see where his father was. To his horror he saw him angling by the clog and the maple trees creeping stealthily on the balls of his feet closer and closer behind the bear. The axe was held high in readiness to strike into the skull of the enemy. Horace was proud afterwards because he did not cry out, but went on with his job of keeping the bear occupied.
The axe descended with a flash and crash. Granther sprang back to speed out of danger. Bruin reared, turned, raking his claws and baring his teeth. Blood spurted as he fell in a heap of fur. The boy ran to his father who was leaning over to pat his axe. He patted Uncle Horace, too, and Colonel, as they sat down to wait for the McPhersons. “Did you see the red tablecloth in the window?” asked Horace.
Granther Hammond laughed, “Bless you, Mother and I have been trying to fool each other ever since the day we were married and neither of us has succeeded yet. You don’t s’pose she’d let us sneak off up here without someone to back us up, do you?”
Uncle Horace could see beautiful Hereford Mountain through a gap in the trees. “Can’t we go up there come Sunday, Pa?” he asked.
“Not on the Sabbath Day, lad, but come Saturday, we’ll take the day off and go with Colonel and my friend here.” He patted his axe.
When the Scots arrived with the workhorses and a drag, they rolled the bear onto it and took him to the village green in Canaan. There they wired him sitting against a post so people could see the prize.
“We used to eat them years ago and use the lard for cooking,” Granther told the onlookers.
The bear’s mean little eyes were closed. His big white teeth gleamed. Dry blood matted his coarse blackish-brown hair, and flies settled on him. Many a man said, “How big he is. He’ll go all of 500. Well, he’ll not do in another sheep.”
The Old-timer looked a bit sad. “Horace told me years later when he told us boys the story of the Hereford Mountain bear that he felt a bit sick when he saw the bear wired up with flies crawling on him. He was only a creature of the world living by his natural code. If people knew what he said inside they’d have called him queer:
“Why didn’t you stay in the blueberry patch, Mr. Bear, eating your own food?”
Lydia Wade Swanson Andrews arrived in Norton, Vermont, from Cape Cod in 1924 after completing her teaching requirements at the State Normal School in Concord, Vermont. From that year until she died on November 17, 1983, Lydia wrote about the history and people in her life. She originated “Across the Back Fence,” and wrote “Old Times” for the Stanstead Journal. Newport Daily Express, and Colebrook News and Sentinel. Kenn Stransky, a longtime friend of Mrs. Swanson, has made her articles available to the Northland Journal.