Bear! Where? Over there!
I see by my morning paper there are ursine sightings in west county. This is a recurring story — always news, but nothing new, really.
The bears were here first. And, despite the efforts of man, they have never really left. People who live in the Mayacmas Mountains on Sonoma County's eastern border know them as neighbors. Lower down, closer to towns, they appear infrequently enough to cause a stir.
The current visitor from the deep dark forests in the Occidental-to-Monte Rio area that took a couple of cool-off swims in a private swimming pool last week appears to be a young black bear. (Note: All our bears are black bears, even when they are brown. Grizzly bears, on the other hand, are brown bears.)
Grizzlies were something else again. In early California they were matched against bulls for sport. When the Americans arrived, it took them less than 50 years to hunt them to extinction here.
But while they lasted, they were central to some great stories — like the one about Andy Stump. Andy's story has been told and retold. Early historians embellished it. Sonoma State's late, great Dr. Hector Lee included it in his folklore collections.
The setting is the town of Bodega in 1852. Andy was working at the sawmill there when his friend, another mill hand, was murdered.
Young Andy was sure he knew who had done the deed. When the bad guy showed up at the mill, Andy confronted him and the man ran, dodging lumber and logs, with Andy right behind him. At the edge of a modest ravine, the man paused and then jumped into Salmon Creek.
His fatal mistake was landing on a bear cub, which gave a shriek that awakened its mother. The chase was already underway when Andy crashed through the brush and landed on top of the grizzly bear.
Away they went, a murderer (He was, of course, just a suspect, but tale-tellers do not adhere to the rules of modern journalism) and a furious Mama Bear with Andy on her back, hanging on to the coarse hair for dear life.
I don't know how far he traveled in this manner — the length and time increased, I'm sure, with every retelling — but at a point where the creek was deep enough to jump into without injury, Andy bailed.
He picked himself up and staggered back to the posse of mill hands that had followed along as best they could. They didn't see that bear again, nor her cub, but they found the bad guy about an eighth of a mile downstream. The verdict: Death by bear.
It was considered an open and shut case of frontier justice.
And Andy remained famous for the rest of his long Sonoma County life.
My husband's Aunt Evelyn, born in 1901, liked to regale our children with an account of being introduced as a child to Mr. Stump. He was, her mother told her with due respect, The Man Who Rode the Bear.
Now, to the matter of the Bierstadt ram.
The "mystery" of how this small, battered oil painting of a Rocky Mountain sheep by an Old West master came to be in the basement of Shirley and Jim Modini's ranch house is solved. Or so it would seem.