Awakening the sleeping bear within

Published 11:10 pm Monday, July 17, 2017

In 1979, an epic story about brothers, war, and life in the Montana wilderness was written that no one would hear about until 1994.

Some American Indians in the Montanas believe that an encounter with a bear in the wild changes a man.  The bear becomes part of him.  While the bear may sleep, he is always with the man.  The bear can awaken at any time.

I believe the bear is also a natural part of few men when they are born.

I have known such men.

Because of betrayals the United States government perpetrated on the American Indians, Col. William Ludlow left the army and moved to a remote part of Montana.  Along with One Stab, his friend from the Cree Indian Nation, he built a ranch and raised his family.  Ludlow had three sons: Alfred, the oldest who unsuccessfully sought his father’s approval his entire life, Tristan, the Colonel’s favorite son, who was wild and well-versed in American Indian traditions, and Samuel, the youngest, who was constantly watched over by his brothers.

Ludlow’s wife did not adapt to the harsh Montana winters and moved to the East Coast; Tristan vowed never to speak of her again. At age 12, Tristan touched a sleeping grizzly bear.  The bear awakened and injured him, but he stabbed at the bear’s paw and cut off a claw.

From the age of 12, Tristan Ludlow would adopt the ancient ways of the Cree, battle the bear inside of him, and try to protect the ones he cared for the most.

When the boys went to Europe to fight Germany during World War I, Samuel volunteered for a dangerous reconnaissance mission and was killed by enemy gunfire.  A devastated Tristan, who arrived too late, held Samuel until he died.  Then, as he was taught, cut out his brother’s heart and sent it home to be buried at the ranch. That night, he single-handedly raided the German lines. After his attack, he returned to camp with the scalps of numerous German soldiers.

When Tristan came home, he and Susannah, Samuel’s fiancée before he died, began a relationship. Although he cared for her deeply, Tristan’s guilt over Samuel’s death forced him to leave Montana again. During his absence, Col. Ludlow suffered a stroke, the ranch deteriorated, and Susannah married Alfred, now a congressman.  Tristan would never be able to save her from the misery of living with Alfred.  She committed suicide just a few years later.

Tristan returned during Prohibition.  He married and had two children.  Like many folks during that era, became involved in small-scale rum-running, finding himself at odds with a powerful bootlegging family; the O’Banions.  When his wife was accidentally killed by an associate of the O’Banions, Tristan took the lives of those responsible; beginning a feud that would end up costing the lives of all the O’Banions.

Years and people passed away, but Tristan lived to become old in the North Country.

While One Stab believed Tristan would die as a young man, it was the people he cared for and wanted to protect most that died young. In 1963, he was once again confronted by a grizzly bear.  The old man drew his knife. One Stab would say, “It was a good death”.

The story told in Legends of the Fall was from a different and lawless era. Today, Tristan Ludlow would be in prison for numerous crimes. But, the story provides the best example of those rare men who are inherently good, care more for others than themselves, risk their lives trying to protect others, but also commit violent, vengeful or bad acts along their life journey.

One Stab provides the simple reason.

“I think it was the bear, growling inside him. Making him do bad things. Nothing that Tristan did was truly his own fault. It was the bear.”

Jason W. Swindle Sr. is a Senior Partner and Criminal Defense Attorney at Swindle Law Group in Carrollton.