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Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"

Blackie the Bear

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

Nickels were hard to come by in the tough economic times of the early 1890s, but the cowboys patronizing Jim Scarborough’s saloon in Claude never minded standing Blackie a drink when they could afford to.

When cowboys with a little time and money on their hands ventured into the saloon, they’d usually find Blackie hanging out near the bar. If no one offered him a beer, Blackie did not mind begging. Once he did that, it was generally more than a cowboy could take.

As soon as the bar tender set a cool bottle of brew down on the bar, Blackie would stand, grab the bottle and down it to the last drop. He didn’t say thanks, but his eyes and body language said it for him.

The reason Blackie didn’t articulate his appreciation was that he was a bear. He liked his beer as much as any man, but bears couldn’t talk.

If anything gave Blackie more pleasure than a beer it was whipping up on town dogs. Smart enough to know exactly how far his chain would reach, the bear would position himself so that he had plenty of loose chain to spare and wait with seeming indifference for one of the dogs to get in range. Then, to the delight of the cowboys who knew the drill, Blackie would box the unsuspecting dog around until it could get loose and run howling away.

Years later, pioneer Panhandle rancher Jim Christian, who spent 15 years working on the legendary JA Ranch in Armstrong County, told his daughter Inez Christian Dozier of Amarillo how Blackie came to be a fixture in early Claude.

“Several of us were gathering cattle north of Ceta Creek,” he began. “Paul, my brother, was riding the hills, and drifting the cattle toward the [Prairie Dog Town fork of the Red] river. I was working below, and would gather the loose stuff and throw them into the main herd…farther down.”

Christian heard his brother fire a shot about the same time he saw a large black bear running off through the brush. He figured Paul had only taken a pot shot at the animal for fun, and continued tending to his business.

But when Christian returned to the herd, Paul was missing. When his brother finally rode in, he held a squiring baby bear. Annoyed with Jim for not checking on him after hearing the shot, Paul explained that he had run onto a mother bear and two cubs. He decided to rope one of the babies. Naturally, the mama bear put up a pretty good fight until Paul’s shot ran her off with the other cub.

The ranch manager and everyone else took a shine to the cub and collectively adopted him. The cowboys kept the bear chained to a cottonwood tree near the camp’s rock well house.

“Blackie seemed contented enough, never wanting for food or entertainment,” Christian continued. “The whole camp was beginning to feel very attached to him, and then, about the third morning, we found he had escaped.”

Several days later, the cub showed back up content to be rechained as long as the groceries kept coming. But after several months, the cowboys gave the bear to the owner of their favorite watering hole in Claude, Jim Scarborough.

Somewhere along the line, the bear got named Blackie. Though tame, one trait he never overcame was occasionally slipping his chain and going for a walkabout. His favorite home away from home was the local hotel, where he became the nemisis of a middleaged widow named Nellie Anderson Weaver.

One morning, Blackie absented himself from Scarborough’s saloon and ambled over to the hotel. There he ran into Mrs. Weaver walking back from the barn with a fresh pail of milk.

“This was as gratifying a breakfast as he could imagine,” Christian said. “But on raising his nose to the bucket he found it held higher and higher. He was not to be denied, however, and he started climbing the indignant lady…. Needless to say, he came out victorious.”

While Blackie had a robust appetite, he also enjoyed a refreshing dip in the rain barrel just outside the hotel’s dining room. Drinking water was not easy to come by back then, and Blackie’s fondness for her rain barrel infuriated Mrs. Weaver.

One day, cooking lunch for her guests, Mrs. Weaver heard water splashing and realized Blackie in her rain barrel again. Armed with a broom, she ran outside and flailed away at Blackie every time he raised his head above the rim.

“After churning out most of the water,” former JA cowboy Charlie Taul remembered, “[Blackie] darted out of the barrel and around the [hotel], sending a spray of water in the pathway of his pursuer. Noticing the front door ajar, he dodged in and on down the hall through the dining room, and then out the open window…into the rain barrel again.”

Habits are hard to break, however, and Blackie continued to periodically get loose for a romp around town. One time, a dog kept him on the run so long that he died from heat exhaustion.

“His pranks were the interest of the village and countryside,” Christian concluded, “and even the hotel manager could not help pine at his going.”

© Mike Cox -
"Texas Tales" March 28, 2012 column

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