This Sunday was the second day Al Holesom and his three children, Angie, Butch and Gus, had been working to finish the play-fort they were erecting in the tree-shaded clearing in their backyard. As their father secured one piece after another into the right position, the siblings eagerly watched the fort emerge.
Angie sat in a swing that hung from the heavy beam that served as the spine of the roof at the point it extended beyond the fort. Her right foot dug into the soft ground beneath her. A little kick would set her in motion. She could hardly resist shoving off and into the air and pumping as high as she could go, but she couldn’t for fear she would smash into her father or her brothers. She kicked up a little cloud of dust, twisted the chain around and around a few times and let go. She twirled until the reverse rotations completed themselves.
Butch brought Al another board. Gus handed him a bolt sized to hold the bracing plank in place. Al slipped the bolt into the precut hole and tightened the shiny nut.
“That brace isn’t going anywhere,” he said giving it a final twist.
It had been two months since the family had moved from their tiny apartment in town into the three-bedroom log cabin Al built on an isolated 15-acre patch of land. They now lived on Wage Road, 20 miles northwest of Vernonia and two miles north of their nearest neighbor. Friends had helped the Holesom family clear the land and build the cozy dwelling. Giving the children the experience of living out in nature, was an important goal for the family. Moving onto their own land at the edge of this wonderful forest, had been a dream of Al and Trudy’s for several years. Now, it was a reality.
When Al was 8 years old, his family had moved to an 80-acre tree farm three miles from the Columbia River town where they lived. He spent countless hours roaming the dark recesses of that enchanted forest. Sparkling creeks snaked their way down the mountain and flowed into Fox Creek and on into the Columbia River. He liked being alone in that quiet environment. He often saw deer moving to and from their favorite watering spots. On the hottest days of summer, the forest always provided a cool respite from the heat. Wood sorrel, fern and other delicate vegetation graced the carpeted forest floor. The air was fresh and clean. Al was eager for his children to have similar, if not, the same experiences.
Al knew that the children would need something to occupy idle hours when they had to be close to home. That’s why he and Trudy decided to purchase and build the play-fort.
At first the children had wanted TV, but where they lived, regular reception was impossible. Cable lines didn’t come anywhere near their property. Satellite? They never mentioned and the children never brought it up. Al and Trudy were content that they had an excuse for not having to deal with TV at all.
Al sat back and drank long from the water jug Angie kept full. He smiled at his three children knowing that they would have many years of enjoyment playing on the apparatus. His father had made one from scratch for him when he was their age. This one was from a kit, which made it a lot easier to put together when he could figure out which board and which bolt went together and where.
He hoped to get the play equipment finished before dark so the children could try it out. They didn’t say anything, but Al could tell that they were eager for him to put the last bolt in place. He knew that it was all they could do to keep off the nearly finished fort, and he appreciated the fact that they weren’t nagging him.
“Hey Phil — click click — take a look at this!” Earl Squirrel yelled standing on his hindquarters clicking his teeth.
His sister Phyllis, dropped an empty acorn hull and scampered up to the branch to join him. She followed his gaze to see three bigs moving funny looking pieces of wood into a fixed pattern.
“Why didn’t they just leave the forest the way it was?” she asked sadly. “Remember that rotten log where we played on hot days? It was right there where that chubby one is standing. I remember — click, click — Rankie Coyote nearly got you gathering nuts. I saw it from the top of Friendly Fir.”
“It was acorns I was gathering… yeah, I had a mouthful… on my way to store them,” Earl said. “That mean dog came sneaking out from behind that big oak tree. Our eyes met and like a flash of lightening he darted at me. I scrambled up the rotten log and onto the oak branch… him nipping at my tail. I was up the tree before you could smack your lips. But it was close for sure… I miss that old log.”
“And the vine maple stand… now the bigs… cutting down everything in sight and putting their store-palaces all over,” Phyllis lamented. “Squirrels like us and even chipmunks… yeah… and the rest of us who live in the forest will have no place to go. By the way, what do you think that thing is?”
“Could be a trap,” Earl said authoritatively “Or something,” he added qualifying his certainty. “Look at that big leaf on top. It’s hiding something.”
“Ha, they don’t need traps when they have those long fingers that throw killer pebbles through the air.”
“Yeah, it must be something else… a cage maybe,” Earl opined and added, “Looks like a fun place to explore.”
“Fun… yeah… I’d check out the big yellow ditch and the thing that girl is sitting in.”
“Let’s come back when it starts getting dark… maybe they’ll be gone… then, we can have a closer look, okay?”
“Earl!” Phyllis exclaimed. “Dark is when Horned Owl goes looking for food … let’s not do that. I don’t really care that much about the yellow ditch or the hanging seat…” She thought for a moment, then, added, “Okay then, let’s come back late this afternoon before it gets dark.”
“Guess you’re right about night,” Earl conceded and then added, “…but in daytime we have to dodge Swooping Hawk, Boon Raccoon, Sneaky Opossum… ” He paused for breath.
“Yeah, and Scrat Wildcat, Slyly Fox, and eagles everywhere, Phyllis interrupted. “There’s always something chasing us…”
“Good thing we’re so fast!” Earl said with a certain pride. “Come on! Let’s go to the Giving Pine and collect nuts…”
The two frisky siblings scampered down the branch across the dark, cool forest floor and up the tall pine.
Later that afternoon, to coax them out of their youthful reverie and prepare them for a family adventure, Gruff Ubear patted his three young offspring, Rock, Bark and Twig, on their heads. The whole family had spent the morning feeding on berries and now it was time for some family fun. For as long as Gruff could remember, Sunday afternoons were times to lay aside survival chores and explore new places, see new sights and learn new lessons. His parents had done it for him and he wanted to keep the tradition alive for his cubs until they left the family den to make their own way.
Gruff’s wife-bear, Leaf, went along with it even though she thought it was a cubbish foible. She worried about getting too close to the bigs, but seldom said anything. In recent times bigs had encroached more and more into the bear’s world until now their territory was confined to the patches of thick timber covering the gentle hills of western Columbia and eastern Clatsop County. There was a time when the Nehalem Bears roamed the coastal range in all directions even enjoying spectacular trips along the Nehalem River all the way to the great ocean 40 miles west of Wage Road. A sizable community of bears had lived there as long as any of them could remember.
At one time, the bears had unimpeded access to the Nehalem River not two miles northwest from where they were now. The river was a source for food and play. When the cubs and father bear went fishing, the cubs competed with one another over who could catch the first fish. Now, getting to the Nehalem was dangerous. They had to cross the stone trail the bigs had laid along the south bank of the river. More and more often, strange looking carved-out logs with bigs sitting in them would come rolling over the trail. More than once the cumbersome thing had hit a bear ambling across the rock trail. Just two months ago, Bill Bear was badly hurt attempting to cross it. He still limps.
Before they left the den for their afternoon trek, Leaf insisted the young bears eat again. She dumped five scoops of wild Himalaya blackberries into three pockets… one for each of her energetic offspring.
“Can we go to the river?” Rock asked excitedly.
“Yeah!” chimed Bark who added, “the water’s sure up a lot!”
“We’re going to hike to an interesting spot east of Hill 314 today,” Father Gruff said.
“Why’s that?” asked Twig.
“You’ll see… get on your boots and let’s get going,” Gruff joked.
“Boots!” Bark laughed and repeated, “Boots?”
“Boots!” Gruff said. “ Bigs wear them to keep stickers from hurting their feet.”
The three cubs laughed following their father out of the shelter. Leaf followed.
Bear trails etched the timbered hills. All nearby bear families spent the winter hibernating in a cave on the side of Hill 450. The entrance was hidden from view by forest undergrowth. During summer months, the three young bears of the Ubear family and their cub friends stayed clear of the cave. They didn’t like hibernation time. They’d rather be playing. They were afraid that if they went near the cave, they might get sleepy… fall asleep and miss all the fun of summer… well, mostly fun since in summer months bears spend most their waking hours searching for and eating food.
The three little ones could count on mother bear saying, “Eat your fish! You must gain as much weight as possible.”
In unison the three cubs would finish her sentence, “… So you can make it through the winter.”
Twig, Bark and Rock sang and skipped to catch up with dad. Mother bear didn’t like to walk as fast as Gruff and the cubs. She liked to take the time to smell the wild flowers growing in the shade of the tall fir, cedar and alder trees.
“A walking we will go… a walking we will go, hi ho where sword ferns grow, a walking we will go,” they sang.
Wild huckleberries grew on stumps in places where patches of sunlight broke through the pervasive shade of the timber. Gruff couldn’t pass up huckleberries. He and the cubs squatted near a large stump and ate their fill. Leaf caught up with them and sat down beside Rock to feast as well.
The sun was sinking behind a clump of tall fir trees, when father bear brought his family into the small clearing overlooking the newly built log cabin.
“You see that?” he asked gesturing toward the bigs working on a structure of some sort.
“Wow, what are they doing?” Twig asked stepping toward the fort.
“Twig!” Mother barked, “don’t let them see you!”
“What is that thing they’re making?” Bark asked ignoring mother’s warning and moving next to Twig.
“I don’t know,” father said, “That’s why I wanted you to see it. It’s not like the huge wooden dens where they live.”
“Yeah,” Rock said, “it looks like a dead maple leaf with nothing but the veins left showing.”
“Humph, I’ve never seen a square leaf,” Bark scoffed.
“Well, maybe there are square ones and you just haven’t seen them,” Rock said defensively, giving his brother a gentle shove.
“Gruff!” Mother called, “We need to hide better. Those things their holding might be fire-spitting sticks. Children! Don’t let them see you!”
The three cubs scurried out of view behind a clump of vine maple and waited. They’d heard other bears talk about spitting sticks… sticks that spit fire, sticks that spit kills. Though Mother’s suggestion made them want to run, they crouched low to the ground behind the underbrush. What to do was beyond their experience. They remained hidden and waited for directions from their father.
“They may have fire-spitting sticks, but Leaf, we’ve talked about this and we have no choice but to live among them,” Gruff said touching Leaf’s arm with his large paw. “You know as well as I that their dens and fields are taking up more and more of Nehalem forests. If we can’t live with them, we’ll disappear.”
Sadness clouded Leaf’s eyes. Yes, she and Gruff had talked about it and he was right. The Nehalem bears would have to learn to live with the encroaching bigs or their numbers would decrease until they were no more.
She moved toward the young cubs, “Your father is right,” she said softly, “ but try not to be afraid.”
“Watch them,” Father Gruff said, settling down beside the cubs. “Keep watching… see how they move, what they do.”
“Watch their eyes… you can tell a lot about what they are thinking by watching their eyes,” Mother Bear said quietly.
“Let’s be quiet,” father bear cautioned. “They’ll go away after dark… we’ll sleep here… wait for first morning light… go down… look then.”
The bear family settled down watching the bigs stick pieces of trees together into the funny looking structure that looked like bones with no flesh… a moose skeleton maybe… bones… bones bound up to make a house… maybe.
“Man, those bolts are strong,” Butch said handing his dad the last nut.
“Angie, hold the light here,” Dad said turning the bolt on the threads.
“Boy, it’s gonna be fun!” Gus said climbing up the round rungs onto the first platform.
“Be careful!” Trudy said moving close to her adventurous son. “Let’s wait for morning to climb.”
“Awe Mom,” Butch complained going up the yellow slide the wrong way, “See! It’s okay.”
“Butch! You be careful! Al… don’t you think they should wait until morning?” Trudy said seeking Al’s support.
“We’re right here… they’ve worked all… five minutes, let’s give them five minutes,” Al said standing back to admire his work as best he could in the diminishing light of dusk. Dim light from the kitchen spread soft yellow glow over the backyard and on to the nearby vegetation.
“I’m heading for the crow’s nest!” Butch shouted scrambling to the canopied deck at the top of the fort. “I’m on a pirate ship!” he said holding up a pretend spyglass. “Look, there’s a ship o’ tree pirates coming our way… all hands to you stations!”
“I’ll be the driver!” Gus said griping his hands on the spokes of his pretend helm.
“Pirates call it steering!” Butch corrected.
“I’ll be the cook, and I’ll cook while I swing as high as Saddle Mountain,” Angie added picking up a can of nuts.
“Yeah sure,” Butch scoffed in a know-it-all way. “Where’s your peg leg?”
“I don’t need one,” Angie snapped and added, “We’ll have sheep sorrel soup for supper.”
“Sheep sorrel soup! Yuck!” Butch complained, “I want turtle soup… that’s what pirate’s eat.”
“It’s wood sorrel,” Trudy corrected, “that’s the right name.” She swatted at a mosquito biting her arm. “The mosquitos are out!” she said, “Maybe they’ll chase you in.”
Al pulled his wife to his side. Smiling they watched their children frolicking on the newly completed fort. Light from the kitchen window cast ghostly shadows on the maple trees just up the hill.
Angie’s shadow followed her swinging movements. “Look at that!” she exclaimed pointing to huge monstrous silhouettes, “You look like giant dancing bears… I’m a swinging bear.”
The three siblings laughed and danced making tableau stories against the forest backdrop.
Al joined in the fun hunching over and tromping around the fort and roaring like a giant bear. Everyone laughed.
“I’ll bet there are bears out there,” Gus said climbing to the ground.
“Yes, there are.” Al said picking up a drill. “Bill Barton said there’s a family of them living in these mountains not far from here.”
Swatting another mosquito Trudy said, “I’m going in before I get eaten alive … you should all do the same.
“Gather up the tools,” Al said heading toward the house, “We’ll put them in the shop.”
The children gathered the tools and followed their dad to the shop. Soon they were all in the house. After supper the children went to bed. Gus and Butch’s room was in the loft. A small window faced the woods to the north.
Gus climbed into the lower bunk. Butch looked out into the dark summer night. He could barely make out the outline of the fort the family had built. Tomorrow he and his siblings would spend the day making the fort into whatever imagination would make of it.
“A pirate ship… that’s what I’ll do,” he thought. “We’ll sail against Billy Bones and his crew. We’ll capture his treasure and give it back to the forest creatures. He looked at the line of maple, fir and underbrush. “Bears”, he thought. “I wonder what it’s like to be a bear.” He turned from the window. Gus was asleep. Butch crawled into his bunk bed, pulled the covers around his chin. He fell asleep thinking about making the fort into a pirate ship with a crew of bears dressed like pirates.
At the first sign of daylight, Gruff awakened from his doze. He eased through the branches and walked a few paces into the big’s field. The cabin was dark. Gruff could see the emerging outline of the dead maple… that’s what Rock had called the strange structure. It looked more like a stack of bones to him.
He returned to the spot where his family lay snoozing and gently nudged each with a large paw. When they were all alert, he led them into the open field toward the skeletal structure.
“Aren’t you scared?” Twig asked nudging Bark.
“Na, I’m not scared,” Bark answered moving closer to father.
“Let me look first,” Father whispered bringing the others to a halt a few feet from the yellow slide. He lowered himself onto four paws and sniffing the surfaces, slowly moving around the skeletal structure. Bigs often put food… food bears like… in strange places. Maybe this structure was a place where they keep food. He licked the yellow slide. It wasn’t food, nor did it appear to Gruff that any of the rest of it was food. He nuzzled the swing with his nose… It moved away and returned to hit him on the side of this head. He jumped back ready to attack or escape, if the moving seat came after him. It simply swayed back and forth a few strokes then ceased moving. He rose up onto his hindquarters and motioned for the rest to join him. Rock and Bark dashed for one of the ladders. Rock was first upon the low platform followed by Bark. Rock stood on his hind legs, let out what he thought was a manly growl and beat his chest.
“Shhhhhhh,” mother bear whispered, “You’ll wake the bigs.”
Bark wasn’t quite so adventurous. The slight swaying of the platform made him nervous.
By now, Rock was on the top platform examining the orange tarp roof that covered it. Bark sat on the lower platform pretending he was in one of the rolling logs he’d seen the bigs riding in on Wage Road. Twig climbed the wrong way up the yellow slide. She gasped and yelled as her feet slipped under her. She slid to the bottom and onto the ground. It was covered with tiny pieces of wood so the fall didn’t hurt. She giggled and started up the slide again.
Mother grabbed her arm, “Not so loud, Twig,” she cautioned brushing wood chips off the young cub’s fir.
“Okay,” Twig said breaking loose from mother’s grasp and dashing to the swing. She laid her belly in the swing seat and pushed it until it reached its extremity. The swing’s arc lifted her off her feet and took her backwards. Her hind feet caught the ground sending her tumbling. Instantly, Leaf was at her side to see if she was hurt. At first Twig was surprised and frightened. She gave Mother bear a bewildering look, which turned into a grin, then a laugh. She scrambled to her feet, back to the swing to another turn. Mother bear laughed too. Twig took another tumbling backward ride. She picked herself off the ground, turned around and sat on the swing seat holding onto the chains with her paws. The sensation of hovering above the ground was new for Twig. Mother bear gave her a little shove. The back and forth movement was also new. She had always wondered what it was like to be a bird. “Is this what it’s like to fly?” she thought. It was hard for her to stifle squeals of delight as she flew back and forth in the swing.
The sky was getting brighter and brighter. Soon the sun would rise above the treetops and begin to warm the Nehalem. Gruff stood back enjoying the fun his offspring were having on the contraption. He knew that the growing daylight would soon arouse the sleeping bigs. He kept an eye on the windows of the log cabin ready to call his family into retreat if he sensed danger. So far the cabin remained dark. If lights appeared in the windows, he would rush his family back into the safety of the woods.
Twig bounced out of the swing and crawled under the lowest platform. There she began playing in the wood chips making them into various imaginary toys… some were rabbits, others squirrels and some chipmunks. She found a string that became a snake. One wet piece of bark was a slug.
Leaf sat at the end of the slide enjoying her children’s activities and the fresh, peaceful beauty of the early morning. She almost forgot that danger was even possible… let alone only a few yards away. She lay back onto the slide. It almost fit her body perfectly. She wished that she had a bed like that back in the woods.
As the sun rose in the morning sky, everything became brighter and brighter. And, with coming daylight the playing bear children became louder and louder.
That morning when Phyllis and Earl arrived back at the maple tree overlooking the big’s structure, they were astonished to find the bears climbing all over the thing.
“Can you beat that?” Earl asked coming to a halt at the extremity of a maple branch, “Gruff and his cubs beat us to it. Come on… let’s get down there…”
“You sure — with the them still there?” Phyllis cautioned.
“Sure… they’re warm… it’s Rock, Bark and Twig… we dash around them all the time…”
“Not when they’re eating!”
“They’re not eating now… are they?”
“Maybe what they are doing is like eating… it’s not good to make bears mad.”
“Awe, come on…they’re just kids. Remember once I rode on Gruff’s shoulder while he waded across the river?”
“Yeah… but I don’t know…” Phyllis said hesitatingly.
“Come on… we’re quicker than they are…”
“Yeah, most of the time… Did you ever see them swat a fish out of the water? That’s quick.”
“Well, we’re not fish… come on let’s go!” Earl said jumping to the ground ready to advance to the bear castle.
“Alright… but if they’re edgy, I’m out of there and fast.” Phyllis said joining Earl on the ground.
A quick scamper through the undergrowth and across the grass brought the two inquisitive squirrels to the big’s castle. They joined the bears climbing on the strange structure.
Phyllis sneaked in under the lower floor taking up an observation position near one of the thing’s legs. Twig was there arranging dandelions in lacy patterns around a large pinecone. Phyllis wanted to help but was afraid Twig might be in an eating mode and not appreciate being interrupted. She felt safe huddling near a base leg of the structure. She could dart behind it if Twig moved toward her.
After watching Twig for a while, she decided to risk intruding into Twig’s world by gathering Russian thistle down growing nearby and placing it within Twig’s grasp. At first Twig was mystified by the thistle’s sudden appearance… but soon realized that Phyllis wanted to join her in making the downy quilt. She showed her delight by reaching out a friendly paw. Phyllis had experienced friendly paws from Twig before. She knew that Twig wasn’t aware of the power of her touch. She stood behind the leg and put out her tiny paw to touch Twig’s… then more rows of dandelions… more thistle down added to the design. Finally, they added a silky border of milkweed thread.
Earl clawed his way up the leg and onto the bottom platform. He was headed across the flat surface as Rock moved from one side of his play car to another.
“Hey Rock! You nearly stepped on me!” Earl squealed darting away from the young bear’s front paw.”
“How come you’re so small?” Rock quizzed. “You grow up like normal and you wouldn’t have to worry,” he drawled.
“Very funny! … What you pretending to be anyway?” Earl asked climbing a support beam to be near Rock’s ear.
“I’m riding one of those hollow logs the bigs roll down the rock path… but I could be the governor of Crumble Castle,” Rock grunted.
“What’s a castle?” Earl asked.
“I don’t know… I just heard that some bigs live in them… so why not me?” Rock replied.
“What can I do?” Twig asked.
“How about lookout?” Rock returned, “… keep a tiny eye on the den over there.”
“Bigs live there!” Twig warned.
“Well, killer sticks is what makes them big…,” Rock declared, “if you see one of them… holler and we’re out of here.”
“Hey, turn that light out!” Butch called in a half whisper. “You’ll scare them away.”
“What you talking about?” Gus asked switching off the light and moving beside his brother at the window. “Wow, look at that,” he exclaimed. “ … how many … three?”
“No… four, see the one on the ground… under the platform?”
“You see the squirrels?”
“Two of them dancing with bears… That’s funny.”
“Aren’t they pretty?”
At that moment the boys heard a loud crash outside. They saw Rock loping from the side of the log cabin back to the other bears.
“Five!” the boys said simultaneously.
“Better get dad,” Butch said moving to the ladder and down from the loft. Gus followed, headed for the back door to open it.
“Stay here!” Gus heard his father whisper. He turned to see him coming into the kitchen putting on his shirt. “They can be dangerous… don’t know what they will do… close the door and be quiet… I don’t want them to run… not yet.”
By now Trudy and Angie had joined the rest of the family in the kitchen. The window above the sink faced the backyard. The five Holesoms could clearly see the bears.
The two smallest of the five bears were standing near the biggest one. One was on the top platform of the fort and one was standing on the ground at the end of the slide. They stood there still, heads erect, their ears pointed, looking at the cabin. The two squirrels were frozen, motionless as if they were in a race waiting for the starter pistol to go off.
“I don’t think they know we’re looking at them,” Al said, “Gus, get me my rifle.”
“Al!” Trudy whispered, “You’re not going to shoot them!”
“I may have to… we can’t have a bunch of wild bears setting up home here… stalking us.”
“But… look at them, Daddy!” Angie said, “They look so sweet.”
“You heard them in the garbage can… that’s like a magnet… we’ll probably have a hard time getting rid… controlling them.” Al said forcefully.
“Can’t we get one of those heavy garbage cans with a lid you can latch so they can’t get in,” Rock suggested.
“And I go to work with you kids playing in the fort? Do you think, I’ll do that?” Al said moving to the back door. He checked the chamber of his rifle.
“Oh, daddy,” Angie cried, “I don’t care about playing in the fort… you don’t have to worry about the bears.”
“Yeah Dad,” Gus said, “It’s cool… the bears can have the fort.”
“All that work and expense so wild bears can play on it?” Al quizzed. He paused looking at Butch, “What about you, Butch? You willing to give up the fort to the bears, too?”
Butch ran the fingers of his right hand through his hair before answering, “Okay by me…” and chuckled, “Maybe we can work out a deal with them.”
“I don’t have to ask you Trud. You’d probably invite them to supper. I’ll at least scare them away with a couple of rounds…”
“DAD!” Angie cried.
“… Over their heads,” Al reassured cradling the rifle in his right arm.
“Al,” Trudy said approaching her husband, “Let’s watch them for awhile, can’t we?”
“Guess that won’t hurt,” he said lowering the weapon and leaning it against the cabinet near the door.
Angie smiled as she climbed up on a chair so she could better see out the window. The others gathered along the sink cabinet to watch the bear family enjoying their newly completed fort. In a few minutes it was clear that the bears were no longer concerned about arousing resistance from the humans who lived in the log cabin. They resumed climbing and lounging on the new play apparatus.
It was 8 o’clock before Gruff Ubear and his family finally decided to leave and return to Nehalem woods. Earl and Phyllis disappeared into the woods as well.
Al headed for work at Vernonia lumberyard where he was foreman. The Holesom children spent the day playing on the fort each making it into one imaginary configuration after another. For the boys it became a raft on the Columbia, a fortress overlooking the Pacific, a stockade in the old west, a saloon, a jail, a general store, tugboats pulling logs to the sawmill. Angie spent her day teaching pinecones to read and preparing sword fern meals for her brothers. From her kitchen window Trudy kept a cautious eye on the woods for any sign of bears. It looked as if the purchase and building of the fort in the back yard was a good investment. At dusk Al came home from work eager to hear tales of their adventures.
The next morning at first light before Al had to leave for work, the Holesom family gathered at kitchen windows to watch the five bears and two squirrels return to their frolicking in what now seemed like a community fort. The hour went quickly. Gruff was about to give the signal to leave when just above the fort a bald eagle began circling dangerously.
Earl saw it first. “Jumping chipmunks!” he cried spotting the huge bird. “Get to the underbrush… quick!” He scooted down a fort leg, across the open field and into a thicket of blackberries his tail sticking out behind him straight as an arrow.
Phyllis froze for a moment. Then, squealing at the top of her tiny lungs, she quickly ran across the lower deck and sprang into the air, landing onto the ground — all fours churning like pinwheels, she dashed for the underbrush.
Alarmed by the squirrel’s sudden panic the bears looked up.
“Hey, it’s Rusty!” Bark shouted.
Leaf sighed in approval at seeing their eagle friend. Twig waved. Rock held up a welcoming paw.
Earl and Phyllis peered through the thick brambles of the blackberry vines. Sure enough it was Rusty, the mighty bald eagle who lived in the thick forest many miles to the south. They had learned not to fear Rusty. He wasn’t like most eagles who ate every small creature in sight. Animals in the forest had come to know Rusty as their friend — a leader of sorts. It was just assumed by everybody. No vote had ever been taken, but no one doubted or challenged his position. It was a mystery of nature that he didn’t need or want to feed on Earl and Phyllis and other small animals.
Rock moved aside so Rusty could land on the top post of the fort. Earl and Phyllis crawled out of the briers and climbed onto the remains of a rotten log across the field and watched Rusty make a final approach to his landing spot.
“Hey Rusty, what’s up?” Gruff asked.
Rusty cocked his head to one side and laughed, “Not me anymore… Okay, I was sailing high heading for Columbia’s mouth to do a little fishing, when I spotted this new clearing… and the shed the bigs are building… wanted to know… so dropped down to have a look. I was surprised to see you crawling all over it.” He tossed his head toward the berry bushes and said, “Hey Earl, Phyllis. It’s me… it’s okay. Come on out.”
Earl and Phyllis crept off the rotten log and sneaked cautiously back across the yard to the fort. They were pleased that their friend Rusty had come to visit.
Rusty turned to the others, “The bigs don’t care your playing on their shed?”
Bark pointed a paw toward the house, “They don’t know we’re here.”
“Oh, they know you’re here… you can rely on that.” Rusty said confidently.
Twig joined in, “I’m lookout… I haven’t seen anything.”
“They’re sneaky… I’ll bet a tail feather, they’re watching you right now,” Rusty teased, adding, “Can you believe it? They like watching so much that some bigs have corrals where they keep forest creatures locked up in cages just to look at.”
“Why would they do that?” Leaf asked.
“They just like to bring you into their stone forests and put you in corrals where they can look at you any time they want.” Rusty explained.
“Corrals?” Gruff quizzed, “What’s that?”
“Walls and bars that keep you in … They don’t have to walk into the woods to look at you and they don’t have to be afraid.” Rusty answered.
“Why do they want to look at us? Do you know?” Bark asked.
Rusty flapped a huge wing to steady himself. “I don’t know,” he said, “They’re strange!” He chuckled, “Bears and other forest creatures are not the only thing they gather to look at. They collect all kinds of stuff… even dead stuff… they make places where they put it so they can look at it… you know, corrals.”
“What about us?” Earl asked indicating himself and Phyllis, “They have corrals for us too?”
Rusty laughed, “I don’t know for sure… but I doubt it… you squirrels are everywhere… it’s not hard to see you.”
“I don’t want to go to one of those… corrals,” Bark said scratching his behind.”
“I wouldn’t think so,” Rusty said. He glanced toward the log cabin, “… if I were you, I wouldn’t hang around here much longer … the bigs might get the idea you want to take over the place. I doubt that’s what they had in mind when they built it.” He paused eying the bears and squirrels. Then abruptly said, “Listen, I’ve got to get back up there,” looking up into the sky, “Have to get north and back before sunset.”
“Thank for keeping an eye out for us,” Gruff said.
“We’ll look for you next time,” Leaf said.
“You got it… Next time I’m out east, I’ll tell the Wallowa bears you send bear hugs,” Rusty said.
“What about the Ochocos?” Gruff asked with a twinkle in his eye.
“Yeah, okay the Ochocos and dozens more communities of bears and squirrels… I’ll do it!” He flapped his wings lifting himself from his perch and into the air. “And I’ll catch the Willamette bears and squirrels and all in between…. Later!” he concluded, circled three times and disappeared behind a stand of Douglas fir to the north.
The Ubears and squirrels took Rusty’s advice. They abruptly left the big’s fort and made their way to familiar places in comfortable forest.
Most mornings after that, the Ubears and Earl and Phyllis Squirrel, made their way to the special clearing to touch a part of the world of the bigs.
It upset Rock that the bigs had fixed the trashcan so he couldn’t explore the contents. But he was glad that it appeared as though he didn’t have to worry about the sticks that spit fire.
Over the next months, the bigs started to show themselves when the bear family and the squirrels came for their morning visit to the fort. The three families were learning to share the fort. The members of each family came to know whose turn it was to use the equipment and the boundaries each must observe.
Bark, Twig, Butch, Angie and Gus, all wondered if they might someday play on the strange machine together. The youngsters had certainly learned each other’s games and were sure they would get along just fine.
“No, we’ve gone about as far as we can go,” Al said, when Angie suggested that she would like to crawl under the platform and play with Twig. “No problem with squirrels, but bears are wild animals after all. As gentle and friendly as they seem, you never know when they might revert to their primal instincts and harm one of you… I can’t let that happen.”
“No, we’ve gone about as far as we can go,” Gruff said when Twig suggested that she would like to crawl under the platform and play with Angie. “Squirrels are one thing, but bigs are unpredictable after all. As gentle and friendly as they may seem, you never know when they might revert to their primal instincts and harm one of you … I can’t let that happen.”