Johnny Met A Bear

First published in 1949 in The Third Chalet Book for Girls, pages 35-47.

Johnny Met A Bear Title Image (Page 35)

Bertie never knew what woke him, but wake he did. He listened for a minute or two, but there were only the usual sounds - the gentle snores of Walter, who slept with him; the creaking of the still leafless tree-branches in the wind; the drumming of the pitiless April rain on the roof; a faint, rhythmic 'Thump-thump-thump!' from the kitchen below, which meant that Johnny was setting the bread ready for the morning.

Thinking of Johnny roused him to the fact that a most savoury odour was stealing up through the open trap-door that led from the kitchen to what was known as 'the boys' room.' Johnny was making broth-lovely rich broth, thick with finely chopped vegetables, handfuls of pearl barley, and a good sprinkling of mixed herbs. The sort of broth that filled a fellow good and plenty; not like the thin watery stuff Mrs Macmillan had given them when he and Walter had gone home to dinner with Willie Macmillan last week. Only good manners had forced them to swallow it down. Johnny's broth was not like that! And she thickened it with oatmeal and peaflour till you could almost cut it with a knife!

The smell reminded Bertie that he was hungry - famished! He cast a cautious look at the hump beside him in bed that was Walter, snoring happily; then he crept out of bed, shivering a little as his bare feet touched the boards, and the cold air which blew in through the cracks and crevices of the log walls struck even through his thick flannel nightshirt, He carefully padded over the floor and looked through the trap-door into the kitchen, which was warm with rosy light from the wood fire in the big soapstone stove, as well as the glow of the two candles which burned, one on the high mantelshelf, the other on the big old chiffonier whose mirror reflected back the light,.

Johnny had her back to him, and she was humming as she worked. Bertie hesitated no more. He turned round, climbed softly down the ladder, and stole round behind Johnny to the hearthrug. Yes; there was the big pot full of broth at one side; at the other stood the pot with the breakfast porridge simmering gaily.

At this point Johnny lifted her head. 'Bertie Amberson! You naughty boy!' she exclaimed softly, mindful of Walter and Baby Sibella above, 'What would Niel say if he saw you?'

'Ay, Johnny, don't be mad at a feller!' pleaded Bertie. 'I woke up, and your broth smelt so good - I guess I didn't have enough supper, I feel so hollow and empty.'

Johnny looked at him severely, 'You did, too, have plenty of supper,' she said, 'Four thick slices of cornbread besides a bowl of porridge and a mug of milk,'

'Well, I guess that's all gone now, Johnny! Be a good feller! Give me just a wee bowlful,' he coaxed.

'You must wait till I finish this, then,' Johnny said. She had not ceased to knead her sponge with all the force of her sturdy young arms and shoulders, and she still spoke sternly, but he could see the comers of her mouth twitching, and knew his cause was won. Wisely, he said no more. He curled up on the big settle at the other side of the hearth, tucking his chilly feet under him, and sat watching her as she turned and pommelled the dough in the big brown mug.

People in the settlement often talked of 'Those poor, motherless Amberson children!' but Bertie and Walter and Sibella didn't think themselves in any need of pity as long as they had Johnny. The two little ones couldn't remember their mother at all, for she had died when Sibella was born, three years before; and Walter had been only two. Bertie had been five, so he had vague memories of her. But to all intents"and purposes it was Johnny who had mothered them - Johnny who had been barely fourteen when the pale little mother had left them, too tired with all the hardships she had had to face since leaving old England for this outpost in the Canadian forest eleven years before to make any more effort.

Half-drowsy with the heat of the stove, Bertie watched Johnny as she kneaded. Brod Emery had said the other day that Johnny looked half an Indian with her snapping black eyes in the small brown oval of her face. She wore her straight, silky hair cut short and parted like a boy's at the side; vowing that she had no time for the combs and nets and snoods of the other girls. But Bertie thought he'd rather have her glossy head than all the tangles of the others. Her old crimson drugget dress was neat and clean, and the collar under her pointed chin and the cuffs turned up above her round elbows were snowy-white like the big apron which covered her skirt to her ankles.

'You're always so clean, Johnny,' he said suddenly.

Johnny raised her brows at him. 'Would you have me dirty?' she demanded, 'and me busy with the bread?'

'I was thinking of Bella Macmillan. She was setting her bread the other day, and her apron was all stained; and her hair in a snarl though she had a blue net on it and a ribbon too. And her dress - it isn't like: yours. She had bunches of lace round her neck and in her sleeves, but it was torn and dirty. She looked - messy.'

Johnny laughed softly. 'I'm a cat of another colour, my boy! Half a lad, as Niel always says.' She gave her bread a final thump, tossed it in the air, and settled it in the mug with two or three hard pats before she tucked it round with the clean towel. 'There; that's done! Out of the way with you! It's to go in the corner. Behind the stove's too hot. The last lot I set to rise there turned sour.'

'We ate it, all the same,' said Bertie, obligingly moving from his corner as she caught up the heavy mug and staggered with it to the warm nook behind the settle.

'We did.' Johnny made a wry face. 'We're not having to do that again if I can help it. There now; nice and cosy, but not too hot. Now let me wash my hands, and then we'll see about the broth - though you don't deserve it, coming down like this. You ought to be asleep like Walter and Sibella.'

'I was, but I woke all of a sudden. I'll get the bowls. You'll have some too, won't you?'

'Only the wee bowls, then; else the broth will be short for dinner tomorrow. I expect Niel back in the morning. He should have finished by then, and he'd have something to say if the broth was short. Besides-' Johnny stopped! but Bertie needed no more. He knew quite well what his sister was thinking.

More than a year before, their father had gone off to Fort Winnipeg on an urgent errand. It had been fine cold weather, and he expected to be gone four days at most, for he was a good snowshoer. But a great blizzard had blown up on the second day; and though his children waited and hoped, he never returned home.

Search-parties went out as soon as it was possible, but nothing was ever found, and no word came from him. It seemed all too sure that he had perished in the storm, for he had never reached Winnipeg, as nineteen-year-old Niel found when he went to inquire. The folk in the settlement told David Amberson's children that there was no hope; but Joanna - Johnny's real name - refused to believe it. In the following August, when she and Niel had been sitting outside their home one evening while the children played about, he had heaved a sigh as he watched them, and said, 'Ah well, Johnny, you and I must be father and mother to them now!' Johnny dropped the shirt she was patching and gave him a smart slap across the mouth. 'Be quiet!' she said fiercely. 'You to talk of fathering the bairns - a lad of nineteen! Our own father will be back some time.'

'I wish I could think it, Johnny,' he had said sadly.

'Don't wish - do!' she had retorted. 'No one'll make me think Father's dead until I feel it in my bones - and that's not yet, nor likely to be! You hush up, Niel Amberson, and don't let me hear you talk like that again!'

So fierce had been both words and look that, strapping six-footer as he was, while she was a scrap of a girl, barely five foot two and slender as a reed, he meekly replied, 'If you say so, Johnny.'

During the long months that had passed since then she had been so certain herself that she had infected the whole family with her belief, though the folk in the settlement shook their heads and opined that Niel ought to write to his parents' families in England and tell them what had happened. But after Johnny had had the only bitter quarrel of her life with shiftless, kindly Mrs Macmillan, when that good woman had taken it on herself to tell her that she and Niel were too young to be alone, and 'the folk back yonder' should be told, no one else dared to interfere. Mrs Macmillan was big, fat, and well over forty, while Johnny was tiny like her mother, and barely seventeen; but she was a match for three of Mrs Macmillan any day. Thereafter, the good-hearted slattern consoled herself by kindness to the small fry, and took it out by comparing the plainly-dressed Johnny with her boy's crop and brown skin with her own tousle-headed, would-be smart Bella, always to Johnny's disadvantage.

Bertie brought the bowls and asked, 'D' ye think Niel may meet Father and bring him back with him, Johnny?'

Illustration Two (Page 39)

'I couldn't say,' Johnny replied as she ladled a bowl full of the delicious broth. 'Niel's at the timber belt in the west; and Father went north to Winnipeg; but you never know. Here's yours. Give me my bowl, and get two spoons, there's a good boy.'

Bertie got the spoons, and they sat down side by side on the settle and ate their meal companionably. They scarcely spoke; Bertie was too busy, and Johnny, hungry after her day's hard work, did not want the little ones wakened.

'That was good!' said Bertie with a sigh of satisfaction as he set his well-scraped bowl on the big home-made table. 'Gee, you can make broth, Johnny!'

Johnny stood up. 'Don't say "Gee," and bring that bowl to be washed,' she commanded. 'I don't want dirty dishes about first thing in the morning. Then get you back to your bed. And see you don't wake Walter when you get in. I'll be up soon - just the stove to fill and close, and the shutters to bolt.'

'I'll fill the stove for you. Lemme, Johnny, while you do the shutters,' he coaxed. 'I can; and Niel told me to look out for you while he was away.'

Johnny chuckled. 'Herbert Samuel Amberson, when did I need anyone to look out for me but myself?' she asked solemnly.

'Aw, you might let me, Johnny. I can do it up dandy, I can.' Then, with a quick imitation of her mock solemnity, 'Joanna Victoria Amberson, don't you always tell me to mind my big brother?'

'You monkey!' she exclaimed, laughing. 'Oh, very well. But mind what you're doing. We don't want any fires away off here at this time of night. Bring the faggots, and pack them the way Niel showed you.' But she glanced across to the comer where two big buckets of water stood, ready to fly to the rescue if Bertie had an accident.

He raked out the ashes, gathering them up carefully to strew on top. Then he began to put in the big faggots. Johnny, satisfied that he was safe, turned away to bolt the big shutters that covered the window. They had little reason to fear thieves; and even the Red Indians were not likely to be prowling about there yet; but there were plenty of wild beasts in the forests, many of them savage with hunger just now, for it had been a long, hard winter, beginning early, and with the snows just vanishing under the lash of the April rains.

She straightened the buttons top and bottom, realising as she did so that the drumming had stopped and the storm was over for the moment. Then she took the bolt to shoot it. Bertie, busy with his faggots, heard her half-smothered exclamation of dismay, jumped to his feet, and rushed to see what was wrong.

'This bolt - I meant to ask Niel to see to it before he went, but I forgot. It doesn't fit - the shutter's dropped a little, and I can't shoot it home.'

'Lemme try, and you push the shutter up. Maybe we can do it.' They struggled with the shutter, forgetting the sleeping little ones, who mercifully were too soundly off to hear them. Johnny heaved with all her might, and Bertie did his best to push the bolt home. But it was no use, and they gave it up in despair at last.

'Are you 'specially afraid of anything?' Bertie asked. "Tisn't likely there'll be wolves around now,' with a lively recollection of nights during the winter when timber wolves had been heard howling out in the forest, and not so far away either.

Johnny shook her head. 'Not wolves. But they say the bears are coming about, and you know what they're like at this time, just wakened from their winter sleep and mad for food!'

'Maybe it's too wet for them,' he suggested.

'The rain's stopped. Likely there's a full moon now if the wind has blown the clouds away. It's full-moon time. They've noses for any food scent; and I've made broth!'

'Well, what say I get the gun? I can load it; Niel showed me - '

'Niel took the gun with him; I made him. 'Twasn't safe for him else, away off there alone.'

The two stood and looked at each other in silence for a moment. It was a horrible dilemma. Johnny had spoken truly when she said that the bears were crazy for food after the long winter's sleep. Any bear within scenting distance would smell the savoury odour of the broth, borne on the smoke, and would soon track it down. It would not be hard for a famine-crazed bear to smash in the window and the shutter, held in its place only by the wooden buttons top and bottom, if there were no bolt to secure it. At last Bertie spoke. 'Maybe - maybe they won't come tonight,' he said hopefully. 'Niel will be here tomorrow, and he'll set it to rights then. I wouldn't worry, Johnny.'

Johnny sighed. 'I suppose we must just hope for that. It's certain we can't fasten the bolt. Here!' as the big wall clock solemnly sounded the hour, 'just look at the time! It's eleven o'clock! Off you go upstairs, or there'll be no waking you tomorrow! I'll finish off the stove and be up after you in two shakes of a puppy-dog's tail. Don't wake Walter and Sibella, mind.'

'Put the lid on the broth,' suggested Bertie as he went reluctantly towards the foot of the ladder. 'Then the smell can't get out.' 'And the porridge-pot too,' Johnny assented, going to the rack where the lids were kept.

She never got them. There came a paddy-pad and a scratching. .,Then there was a crash against the window, followed by the tinkling of broken glass falling.

Bertie stood rooted to the spot, his face suddenly gone white. He was as brave as most boys of eight, but to know that a bear was clearly there, with only the damaged shutter between them and it and no gun to protect them, was a very frightening state of affairs.

Johnny had no time to be frightened. Springing forward, she gave her small brother a push upwards.

'Up the ladder with you, and look out for the babies!' she cried, instinctively using the only argument that would have sent him to leave her to face the maddened beast alone.

He scrambled upwards, but had got only half-way when a second heavy blow broke the shutter from its fastenings, and through the broken window came the head and shoulders of a bear. His little pig-like eyes were red with desire for the delicious food he had smelt away in the forest, and his jaws worked so that the saliva dribbled from them. It was a terrifying sight.

Johnny had only a second or two to think - barely that. She shot across the floor from the ladder to the hearth, and as the bear prepared to heave its great bulk through the window she snatched up the big pot of broth, swinging it as easily as if it had been empty.

'If it's broth you're after, here you are!' she cried, and flung the whole potful of boiling broth over his head and shoulders.

He let out a roar of pain and terror, and backed precipitately. Johnny dropped the big pot, made a dive back to the stove, caught up the porridge-pot, and hurled it after the broth. Bruin was furious with hunger, but he was terrified at his very warm reception. With another roar he put up his paws and scraped violently to get the thick greasy mixture from his eyes and snout. The arrival of the porridge-pot, which caught him full in the midriff, decided him that this was no place for a bear. Shaking his head, he dropped on all-fours and set off at a panic-stricken gallop, filling the air with his roars at intervals. Johnny, rushing to look out of the window, saw by the fitful light of the full moon which was peering through rags of clouds that were driven fast before the wind that every now and then he swung up and scrabbled wildly at his head in an attempt to get rid of the broth. Then he vanished among the trees, though they still heard him.

Upstairs, the noise had wakened the two little ones, and Johnny could hear their wailing, but she dared not pause to go to them. The window must be barricaded.

'Quick, Bertie!' she gasped. ' Come and help me push the bureau across the window! There may be others near by!'

Bertie scrambled down the ladder again, and, inspired by the fear of what might happen, the pair somehow found the strength to tug the heavy old bureau from its place at the far side of the room, and across the window, which it nearly covered.

'Now the settle!' panted Johnny; and the heavy oak settle was dragged in front of it. Then the clumsy table David Amberson had made himself out of huge planks when he first came to Canada was jammed against it; and it would have been an abnormally powerful bear that could have moved that weight of furniture easily.

When all was done, Bertie dropped on the floor screaming with laughter, while his sister stood staring down at him, disbelief on her small face, which was still white under its tan.

'Bertie Amberson, have you gone demented?' she demanded at last. 'Why are you giggling like that? Don't you know we've just had a very narrow escape? You ought to be down on your knees thanking God for it - not giggling there like a lunatic!'

'I ca-ca-an't help it!' Bertie choked. ' Oh, did you see him when he got the broth in his face? And when you winded him with the porridge- pot? Oh, I never saw anything so funny in my life!' And he collapsed again.

But by this time the howls of the two little ones had reached Johnny's senses, and she turned and ran up the ladder to quiet them. At the top she turned for a moment to say, 'Not a word of all this to the babies, mind! I won't have them scared!' Then she vanished.

Slightly sobered, Bertie got up and set to work to finish the stove and shut its doors. The candle on the mantelpiece had burned out, but there was still a stump left of the one on the chiffonier, so he picked it up, and then clambered back to his bedroom, where he found his sister sitting on the bed with one arm round Walter, while the other was cuddling little Sibella. Both were still sobbing, but they were quieter, and Johnny nodded when she saw the light.

'Good boy, Bertie!' she said. 'Now get into bed beside Walter, and take Sibella with you, and I'll run down and get some milk for you all, and when you've had it we'll all go to bed and to sleep, and never mind about naughty bears bellowing.'

All the same, it was well past one o'clock in the morning before she was asleep herself, little Sibella snuggled in her arms.

It was broad daylight before any of them roused, and it is doubtful if they would have wakened then had it not been for a furious pounding on the door which startled Johnny from her slumbers and sent her to thrust a ruffled black head - she had forgotten her nightcap - out of the window, to see a mighty angry Niel standing there.

'I'll come down,' cried Johnny. 'Don't scold, Niel. That broth and the porridge-pot saved our lives last night. Pick up the pot and bring it in with you.' Then she threw a big shawl over her nightdress and ran down to let him in.

He went white when he heard what had happened, but Johnny was in high feather and only laughed at him.

'You'll mend the shutter,' she said, 'and as for the window, where is that pane of glass Father brought two years ago and put up for time of need? I'm afraid it'll mean only cornbread and coffee for breakfast and dinner; but I'll get on a fresh pot of broth, and you shall all have a good supper to make up.'

Illustration Three (Page 45)

But that did not satisfy Niel. He stayed at home only long enough to help put the furniture back into its place and snatch a hasty meal before he was off to call all the men who could be spared from their little community to arrange a bear-hunt. If the beasts were growing as bold as this something must be done, or it would never be safe to leave the women and children alone for a day. It was a busy day all round. Johnny, her usual neat self save for shadows under her eyes, fed the children, and then she and Bertie set to work and brought the place as nearly as possible to its former immaculate condition before she prepared another pot of broth. But she dared not let the little ones out of her sight all day, and she was a thankful girl when six o'clock brought Niel home, to mend the shutter and see that all was as secure as possible. He would see to the glass in a day or two, when the bears had been taught a lesson, he said.

But the bear-hunt had to take place next day without him. They had just sat down round the table, with full bowls of broth before them, and little Sibella was bending her curly head to lisp the grace Johnny had taught her, when there came a knock at the door. Niel stretched out to take a candle to answer it; but Johnny was before him. Pushing him aside, she ran to the door, unbarred it, and flung it wide open to show a tall, gaunt-looking man standing there. Johnny gave him one look. Then she flung herself on him.

'Father!' she cried. 'Oh, Father! I knew you'd come back!' Then, as his arm went round her, she pulled him in and slammed the door to.

That was an even more thrilling night than the previous one. When the first excited greetings were over, Mr Amberson sat down in his big elbow-chair at the head of the table, little Sibella on his knee, the boys on either side, and Johnny at the foot behind the mugs and coffee-pot, and he drew a long breath of happiness.

'There were times when I thought I'd never sit here again,' he said, 'Johnny, before we eat, let us thank God for all His mercies.' And he bowed his head and gave thanks.

But it was not until the little ones were safe in bed, Johnny sitting in her little rocking-chair close to his side, her knitting-needles flying, and Niel and Bertie on the settle opposite, that they heard his full story and knew how much they had to thank God for. He had been caught in the blizzard and had tried to struggle on. The last thing he remembered about that was crawling into a hole under some brushwood. Then he must have fainted. When he came to, he was puzzled to find himself lying up against something soft and furry, and it was not for some time that he realised that he must have sheltered in a bear's den! Luckily the beast was in the deep sleep of hibernation and never stirred, and when the blizzard was ending Mr Amberson fought his way out, though with great difficulty, and then did his best to go on. But he had lost his way, and it was only after long wandering that he had finally fallen in with an encampment of Cree Indians. By that time he was ill with hunger and exposure, and half-delirious. The Indians had taken him in, and an old squaw had nursed him through what must have been a very dangerous illness; for when he finally came to himself he was too weak to raise a finger. Worse, his weakness had affected his memory and he had no idea who he was nor whence he came. They had been very good to him, and when the spring came, as he was still so weak, they had taken him with them when they set out on their usual trek to the Barren Lands,. Slowly his strength returned, but he still could not remember his own name until, just as they were beginning to return south for the winter, they had fallen in with some French-Canadian trappers, and the sight of the white faces and the sound of their speech brought his memory back in full.

It was then too late in the Fall for him to attempt to make the long journey back to the settlement, for in their trek the Indians had gone to the north-west and they were many hundreds of miles away now. The trappers invited him to spend the winter with them, offering to share their profits with him if he would help in their work, and promising to take him with them when they went to Winnipeg in the spring to sell their pelts.

Five days before, they had reached the little city by dog-sledge, and after he had startled all there who had known him by his sudden reappearance when everyone but Johnny had given him up for lost, he had taken his share of the profits from the skins, bought a pair of snow-shoes and new clothes which he badly needed, and then set out on the last lap of his journey home. And so he had arrived, safe and sound, just in time to hear of last night's adventure, and Johnny's prowess with the broth and the porridge-pot.

How he laughed when he heard the tale!

'Well done, Johnny!' he said, clapping her on the shoulder. ' I always said you were as good as any lad.'

Bertie had seen her lips move. 'What are you thinking of, Johnny?' he asked drowsily from his seat against Niel.

Johnny looked up, her eyes sparkling like black diamonds. 'Why, I may be as good as a lad in some ways,' she said demurely, 'but for all that, I doubt there's a good deal of the woman in me too.'

'How's that?' Niel demanded.

'Why, I'm just thinking what fun I shall have tomorrow when I go to see Mrs Macmillan and the rest to tell them that Father has come safely home, just as I always said he would, and finish up with, "I told you so!'" she said with one of her deep chuckles.