A long time ago this place was busy and well populated. The roads linked the towns together in an unbroken chain of life and living. Now there are only traces of that time left. Homes and schools and churches. stores and mine buildings. The years have turned them all silvery gray. Broken windows and sagging doors have let in the sun, and the snow, and the small animals. From inside and outside, time has polished them until they lean, and slowly crumble and fall. Fallow fields have grown up to brush. Once lush orchards now feed only the deer and the coon. Bears amble where children once played.
This story happened in that long ago time. There were bears here then, too, and Al had always wanted a bear of his own. He had already made pets of all the farm animals. Horses and cows and pigs and even chickens would do things for Al. Every one knows how uneducated chickens are, so that was saying something about this boy. He had a certain magic in him when it came to animals. Now he had heard about a bear in Calumet. The bear had gotten big and mean, and the man who owned him wanted some one to take him away.
Al took some marshmallows, and he took his friend Leo. Leo was Als much younger brother, but they were long time pals. Al and Leo put the marshmallows in Als car and they drove off to Calumet. It was a long drive, then, in those early cars, on dirt roads. They drove through small towns, past farms and churches and schools and stores and gas stations and mine buildings. When they got to the place where the bear lived, it was a toss up over who was more excited, Leo or Al.
Al knocked on the door and explained to the man that he was interested in the bear. The man grumbled and complained and whined as he took them out to see the bear. Leo was feeling sorry for the poor bear, to have to belong to such a wretched man. The man said he had raised the bear from a cub, but now he was so big and wicked that every one was afraid of him. The bear was lying in a forlorn black heap in the dusty disgusting dirt pile. His chain lay slack, and you would have thought you were looking at a bearskin rug. He was that limp and dejected.
As soon as the man announced "there is the bear", the bear came to life. Bear raised his massive head and looked at them with his squinty little eyes. A low growl came from some where deep in his throat. "You can have 'im", said the man, "if you'll just get 'im away from here". Bear rose quickly to stand on his four feet. He was a huge bear! His eyes followed them, unblinking, angry eyes, and strange threats rolled out from his broad chest. His fur was matted and splashed with bare spots.
Leo wondered what Al would do now. The bear was such a sorry, angry looking wretch. The bear had stretched his chain out tight. Leo and the man kept edging farther and farther out of his reach. Al kept walking with his usual, unhurried pace. His quiet, steady voice kept talking, a rambling, one sided dialog. He was telling bear that everything was going to be good again. Not that bear was believing. He lunged at his chain and snarled at Al.
Al offered bear some marshmallows, still talking softly. Bear stopped growling and sniffed. probably he had never had marshmallows before. He hesitated. The calming voice of Al and the curious sweet small were getting the best of him. Al was able to walk around him and unfasten the chain from the bears tree.
Leo and the man each held his breath as Al confidently walked along with the chain over his shoulder and the huge bear lumbering after him. Bear took quick looks around him, wary and tense, turning his head slowly from side to side, watching them with his angry little eyes.
Still speaking in the same easy voice, Al told Leo to open the trunk of the car. As soon as Leo had it open, Al spilled the rest of the marshmallows in the trunk. Bear had found some thing good in these small white sweets. He climbed in after them. As he hunkered down to gobble up these, oh, so many goodies placed within his reach, Al threw in the chain and slammed down the trunk.
There was complete silence and stillness for a moment. With a quick good bye and thank you, Al and Leo hopped in the car and were off for home with a spurt of gravel. Al was in a hurry, for theirs was not an ordinary cargo. They sped along with out saying much. Suddenly Al grinned, his eyes on the rear view mirrror. "Don't turn around, Leo, we have company," he said. Leo didn't need to turn around. He could feel and small the presence of their company.
Poor bear had not liked the feeling of being shut up in the trunk and had pushed the back seat forward so that he had a little more room.. Now he seemed to enjoy his car ride, his stomach full of marshmallows. Well, Leo couldn't blame him, but he was still glad when they reached home and they could all pile out.
It didn't take long for Al to work his magic touch of gentle friendship on bear. Al and bear soon were fast friends. Al cleaned him up and fed him and played with him. You would never have known him for the same sorry bear who had been back seat company all the way from Calumet. Bear and Al would wrestle and play rough, loving games.. Games that would leave Al scratched up and happy and bear happy and fine loooking.
The old farm is gone now. The mines are no longer working. The years have turned the houses, the schools, the churches, the stores a soft silvery gray. Sagging doors and broken windows have let in the rain and the snow and the small animals. Al is gone, and Leo. They had vagabond feet that carried them all over the land. Where ever Al was he always had a bear to teach, and play with. Where ever Leo was, he told his stories, stories like Al and the Bear.
It has beeen many years since Leo told me this story. Afterwards, I wrote it down, so it wouldn't be forgotten. When he read it, he sat for a long time, quiet, remembering, lost to me and where we were and what we were doing. When he looked up,his eyes were still far away and dreamy. "You got it exactly right", he said. It has been sitting in my papers for years, fading and gathering dust . I give it to you now, hoping you will chuckle,and set your eyes afar off, dreaming and seeing many things.