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The ring of Nasr-ed-Din Hodja's axe sounded through the woods of the lonely mountainside. There was silence as the Hodja rested. It was very still on that mountainside - no noise but the twitter and call of birds, the hum and chirp of insects, and the rustle and whir of the leaves in the forest.

Suddenly the Hodja jumped to his feet. What was that tramping, crackle - crunch - crackle, through the twigs on the forest floor? That was not the footsteps of a squirrel, a rabbit, or a fox. Nasr-ed-Din Hodja stood frozen to attention, his eyes fixed on the place from which the sound came, crunch - crackle - crunch, steadily nearer and nearer, steadily louder and louder. A glimpse of moving black fur! Four stiff legs swinging awkwardly toward him! A shiny black nose between sharp eyes! The biggest bear the Hodja had seen in all his wood-chopping days!

For once the Hodja did not stop to argue. He ran for the nearest tree, a wild pear tree, and scrambled up it more nimbly than he had rnoved since he was a boy.

Crackle - crunch - crackle. Straight toward the pear tree, looking neither to right nor to left, plodded the enormous black bear. The nearer it came, the bigger it seemed. Crunch - crackle - crunch. It was directly under the very tree where the Hodja was hiding. The bear yawned. It stretched. It yawned again. It lay down on the ground under the pear tree, gave a drowsy grunt, and closed its eyes.

"You don't fool me that way!" thought the Hodja. "You pretend to sleep but you are just waiting to pounce on me." Nasr-ed-Din Hodja clung to the branch, his eyes fixed wildly on the big bear. He expected it any minute to jump at him. He wanted to climb higher in the tree, but was afraid of the tell-tale sounds he might make.

He saw the bear's muscles tighten. He thought of all the mistakes of his life - of all the times he had been cross to Fatima, of all the times he had played tricks on people. He looked down at his home valley, perhaps for the last time. Then the bear shivered. It relaxed. Its breathing lengthened into a loud snore.

"You are asleep!" whispered the Hodja, not quite sure that he dared believe what he saw. He wriggled about, trying to find a comfortable place on his high perch. A magpie scolded to find such a clumsy stranger in her favonte tree. An inquisitive bee buzzed about the Hodja. The bear below the tree snored cozily. The Hodja squirmed from one position to another, making little showers of leaves and twigs fall around the heavily sleeping bear.

From far down in the valley floated dimly the musical chant of muezzins in many minarets, singing forth the call to prayer, "Allah eekbar, Allah eekbar."

"That means that it is two hours till sunset," thought the Hodja, wondering how long this could last.

Lower and lower marched the sun. Stiffer and stiffer grew the Hodja's poor cramped body. The sun touched the horizon and the melodious call to prayer, "Allah eekbar, Allah eekbar," wafted up from the valley.

The sun was down and the moon shining so brightly that the Hodja could peer through his leafy screen and see the huge black bulk below him rise and fall regularly as the big bear snored. Once more the lilting sweetness of the call to prayer floated up from the villages in the valley.

"That means two hours after sunset!" groaned the Hodja as he looked pleadingly toward Mecca, the sacred city in the east.

At last there was a stirring in the black mass below him. The big bear stretched stiffly to his feet, and sniffed hungrily. Then, to the Hodja's horror, it stuck its great claws into the very pear tree where the Hodja was clinging. Up the tree it came, while the poor Hodja trembled so that he could scarcely hang onto the branches. Sniff went the great nose, until the bear found just what he wanted - a juicy wild pear. Eating and climbing, eating and climbing, up the tree came the bear. Shivering and shaking, shivering and shaking, up the tree went the Hodja. Finally the Hodja was on the highest branch that could possibly hold his weight. Oh, if only the bear would be content to climb no higher. Smack, smack went the bear's great lips until every wild pear within reach was gone. Then up it went, so close that the Hodja could feel its hot breath. Out went one big paw, scooping up a pear, and swinging around so that it almost touched the Hodja's mouth. Was it trying to share the pears?

"Oh, no, thank you!" screamed the Hodja, trying to be polite even at such a time. "I do not care for pears. I never eat them. No, never, never, never!"

Now, the bear was really a gentle and shy old fellow, not at all prepared to have sudden screams pop out at it from behind a leafy branch. With a terrified howl, the bear lost its balance and toppled crashing through the branches. There was a thud as it hit the ground. Then there was silence - welcome silence.

The Hodja spent the rest of the night edging slowly down the tree, his eyes warily on the black heap that lay motionless in a patch of moonlight below him. After each move, the Hodja would wait to be sure that the bear still lay lifeless. By morning, the Hodja had reached the lowest branch of the wild pear tree. As the first rays of daylight shone through the woods, even the cautious Hodja was certain that the bear would never frighten anyone again. Never again would it climb trees to eat wild pears in the moonlight.

Nasr-ed-Din Hodja jumped clumsily from the lowest branch, a million needles pricking his numb arms and legs. He started limping toward home and breakfast, thinking what a story he would have to tell. However, the more he pictured himself telling of his harrowing night, the more he felt there would not be much glory in the telling for him. Something was wrong with a story that showed him up to be so shaky a hero.

Suddenly his old grin burst over his tired face. He ran back to the pear tree, whipped out his knife, and skinned the big bear. With the thick black fur slung over his shoulders, he strode singing down the mountainside and across the plain toward Ak Shehir. He did not enter the city by the small gate nearest his home, but walked around the city wall to enter by the main gate near the market place He did not take the shortest path through the market to his house, but walked through one busy street after another, until all Ak Shehir knew - or thought it knew - that Nasr-ed-Din Hodja was a mighty hunter.

He did not need to say a word about his experiences of the night. Other people were talking for him, talking about the brave and wonderful Hodja who had killed the huge and ferocious black bear, single-handed.


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