SEA TO SHINING SEA: The gunslinger and his bear
MITCHELL, OREGON — DAY 15 - Skeeter and her husband, Hugh, own and operate the Oregon Hotel in downtown Mitchell. Hugh also owns the petroleum station across the street. Some Hispanic folks pull a taco truck in there occasionally - like over Memorial Day weekend - right next to the big, empty cage where Henry used to live. Hugh's owned Henry, a black bear, for 14 years. Had him since he was a cub and the local Boys' Club decided they couldn't keep him. That was near the end of Hugh's gunslinging days but he still carries a .357 revolver tucked in his belt. But more about that in a minute.
Mitchell is a small town tucked in the mountains of central Oregon. Its claim to fame is the nearby Painted Hills National Monument. Less than 300 people here. A few stores on the main street. They have a public school in town - kindergarten through 12th grade. Graduation was a week or so ago. Twelve in the graduating class. Total enrollment 59. One family has seven children. If they move away the school may have to close. As it is, the town had to build a dormitory next to the school to house some imported students to double the size of the graduating class to get to that 12 number. Some come from overseas, others from out of state. Like I said, it's a small town.
Back to Hugh and Henry. Hugh is a big man, 6'3" maybe and 220 or so. Even at that he has to be careful when he rassles with Henry. Henry goes about 700 pounds and stands a foot taller than Hugh. "Sometimes he picks me up and carries me over his head. But all I have to do is say 'Henry - are you being a bad boy?' Then he takes it easy. He's my buddy."
Hugh shows us scars on his arm from some of Henry's playfulness. "One day he got a little mean and we ended up in a real battle. I've been into martial arts a long time and I have very strong hands. And when anger gets into me I don't feel any pain. Not sure that's a good thing. But anyway, I finally got my hands on his jaws and started ripping them apart. I think I had my thumb on a nerve in there. He could feel it but I couldn't feel anything. If he hadn't started bawling I think I would have killed him. But the bawling broke the anger trance I was in. I squeezed on that nerve spot about four more times so he knew I had the better of him and that was that."
Now Henry lives in a cage at Hugh's ranch about seven miles up a dirt lane not far from Mitchell. The story goes that tourists started tormenting the bear, getting him drunk and whatnot. So Hugh moved him to higher ground. "I have all kinds of animals up there. Deer, chickens, peacocks - you name it. Nothing exotic but all kinds of domestic animals. The birds get right in there with Henry. He has his own flock of chickens. They lay eggs for him and he likes that. If they stop laying, he eats them. He knows which ones are taking care of business."
Hugh said Henry, who came originally from Iowa (makes sense right?), eats a balanced diet: dog food and carrots, beans and rice. "About 30 percent protein. Except for the dog food, he eats pretty much like us. Like I said, he's my buddy."
Now about the gunslinging. Hugh used to take it real serious. "I practiced every day, at least two hours a day. Had the revolver and the leather holster and big leather belt and raw hide thong holding the holster around my knee. "I'd fire off 100 rounds every night. When I joined the gunslinger's club here in Oregon, I could draw and shoot accurately in 18/100ths of a second. Now this will sound like bullshit, but I could hold an eight-inch metal pie plate in my right hand, let it go, and then draw and fire four shots through it before it hit the ground."
Hugh used to do demonstrations for police departments. "If I ran a big city police department, I would require the officers to develop quick-draw skills. Now again, this will sound like bullshit, but when I was in practice, if a man was standing in front of me pointing a pistol or a rifle at my stomach, with it cocked and his hand on the trigger, I could draw my pistol and shoot him before he pulled the trigger. It's because I would be acting and he would be reacting. But all I can tell you is that I was fast because I practiced all the time, every day for years, and shot thousands and thousands of rounds."
When he told me about the five lady cops from LA who used to go on overnight trail rides with him, Hugh reminded me of Jimmy Wilson over at Wilson's Country Store on Route 30 at Springfield Crossroads - a few miles east of Georgetown. "They asked me why I carried my gun all the time. And I said because I might need it and also because it was part of my show. Then they asked me if it was loaded. I told them it wouldn't be much better than a bad club if it wasn't."
Jimmy sells cheeseburgers, guns, ammunition and a few groceries at Wilson's Country Store. I stopped in one day and noticed he was carrying a pistol on his hip. Like Hugh, he wears it all the time. In Delaware you can carry a loaded gun legally as long as it isn't concealed. I asked Jimmy if the pistol was loaded. The answer barely moved his lips. "Wouldn't be much good if it wasn't."
Hugh, Henry and Jimmy would probably get along just fine - at least as long as Henry rassles nice.
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