The First Big Step


“Go away! Go away!” Little Wolf shouted, looking back and racing over the carpet of pine needles as fast as his legs would carry him.

But the small bear cub kept making lonely little grunts as it followed him. The cub had lost its mother and was willing to accept anyone as a substitute—even a frightened Indian boy!

Little Wolf had been picking berries for his mother when he peeked through the bushes and saw the small bear standing awkwardly on its hind legs, stretching to nibble off the juicy berries that hung in clusters all along the branches.

The boy had stood quietly, grinning with delight as he watched the clumsiness of the small grizzly. He would have liked to pet him, but Little Wolf’s father, Chief Otoe, had taught him that it was very dangerous to bother the young of any wild animal.

There was nothing sweet and cuddly about a mother grizzly, especially if she felt one of her cubs was in danger. Certain that the cub’s mother would not be far away, Little Wolf had begun to slip backwards through the brush, away from the little bear. But he wasn’t able to glide silently through the forest as the braves could, and suddenly a small dry twig cracked like a whip under his moccasin.

The cub had seen the boy and eagerly loped toward him. All Little Wolf could think of was the cub’s mother. “Go away! Go back to your mother!” he kept shouting, as he ran toward his village.

Looking backward over his shoulder, the boy failed to see a big log lying in his path. He tripped over it and sailed through the air, then fell face down in the pine needles.

“My mother has always said they should have named me Clumsy Wolf,” Little Wolf grunted. “And she is right.” Sitting up, he tried to straighten the broken feather in his headband, which had flown off when he fell.

The cub caught up with the frightened boy. It pounced on him and pawed playfully at Little Wolf’s drawn-up knees; then it began to lap at his bare chest and nuzzle his chin. What would the braves think if they saw the Chief’s son being kissed by a bear!

Climbing over the logs, Little Wolf threw some sticks at the cub and limped into a clearing that surrounded a small cluster of tepees on the bank of a clear and sparkling brook.

No one laughed at the sight of the dusty, tired boy jogging into the village with a grizzly close behind. They were all afraid that an enraged bear might be close behind the pair. The mothers hurried small children inside the tepees. Several of the braves put arrows in their bows and stood waiting.

“I should have run the other way—away from the village,” Little Wolf panted. Now he had put everyone in danger! He always seemed to do everything wrong. Would he ever learn to be a real brave? Suddenly he snatched up the cub and, ignoring his mother’s cries, raced back into the forest as fast as he could go. If I can find the mother bear, he thought, I can return her cub. Then our village will be safe!

“Being little has some advantages,” he mumbled, beginning to tire. The little bear was heavy and kept turning its head to lap at Little Wolf’s chin, as if they were playing a game! The boy slowed and began to walk carefully when he approached the berry patch. Putting the cub down, he shoved it toward a branch hanging heavy with purple fruit. He sighed with relief as the little bear gave a grunt of pleasure and began eating. Now Little Wolf could sneak off.

A loud, sniffling grunt from the other side of the bushes made Little Wolf stiffen in sudden panic. Luckily he was close to a tall tree. There were no low branches he could leap to and grab, but climbing trees was one thing Little Wolf did well. Wrapping his arms and legs around the slender trunk, he shinnied his way up and into the thick foliage just as the mother bear appeared, accompanied by another cub.

Circling the cub, she sniffed suspiciously. Her eyes told her this was her cub, but her nose warned her that something was wrong. The cub smelled of man.

Breathlessly Little Wolf watched, his heart hammering in his throat. If the bear caught his scent and climbed the slender tree, it would snap under her weight, or bend until his hiding place hit the ground. Then he would have to leap out and run. He had seen bears run, and he knew that he would have little chance of making it to safety. Despite their lumbering walk, bears could run like the wind!

His father had taught him that the only way to escape a running bear was to go downhill. Because of their short front legs, they had to go slowly or they would become overbalanced and roll down the hill.

The little cub kept trying to approach his mother, but her fierce grunts kept him back. Bewildered, he stood quietly staring at her as she circled him warily, sniffling the ground. “Oh, no!” Little Wolf gasped as she came directly to his tree. Standing on her hind legs, she began to throw her massive head from side to side as she made angry sounds.

Little Wolf felt sick as he clung to the swaying branches and stared down at the huge teeth waiting for him. Seeing that she couldn’t dislodge him, the bear began slashing at the tree trunk with her claws. Tree bark flew in all directions as she tore at it. The boy knew that when the bear saw she could not knock the tree over, she would begin to climb.

Little Wolf had never heard a more welcome sound than the drumming of a tom-tom and the shouts of men who were running through the forest toward his hiding place. The shouting braves were led by his father, Chief Otoe. They had come to rescue him!

Concern for her cubs overruled the grizzly’s rage. Turning, she lumbered off, leading them away from the shouts.

“You were willing to sacrifice yourself for the tribe,” Chief Otoe said to his small son as they walked back toward the village. “It was a very brave thing to do, Gray Wolf.”

Little Wolf glowed with pride. His father had called him Gray Wolf, not Little Wolf. It was his first big step toward manhood!

[illustrations] Illustrated by Jerry Thompson