Once upon a time a bear was hiding behind some trees on the edge of a field in Russia, hungrily watching a peasant and his horse ploughing the soil.
The horse was old and tired, and presently the peasant shouted angrily: ‘I’m fed up with your slowness, old horse! You are no use to me at all. I shall let the bears have you!’
Now the peasant did not really mean what he said, and was thoroughly alarmed when the bear lumbered out from behind the trees and growled, ‘Very well! I will eat your horse for you. Give him to me.’
‘Oh no!’ gasped the man. ‘Don’t eat him yet, I beg you. Give me enough time to finish ploughing this field and then I will let you have him.’
Of course the man had no intention of giving his horse to the bear, for he knew he would never find enough money to buy another one, but he hoped that by the end of the day he might have thought of a plan to outwit the bear.
‘Very well,’ said the bear. ‘I will wait until you have finished.’
The peasant went on with his ploughing, but his mind was not on his job. He kept wondering how he could get the horse home safely, for the bear was a big one who could kill both the horse and man with one blow.
Later in the day the peasant stopped work for a few moments’ rest, and sat down at the edge of the field to eat a crust of bread.
He heard a rustle in the nearby bushes and turning he saw the face of a fox peering at him.
‘Sh!’ said the fox. ‘Don’t call out! I heard what the bear said to you, and have worked out a plan that will save your horse. But you will have to reward me.’
‘I would give anything I have to save my poor old horse,’ said the old man. ‘What is your plan?’
‘First of all, we will decide on my reward,’ said the greedy fox. ‘I shall want twelve hens for my supper.’
‘Very well,’ said the peasant, who had only twelve hens and no more. ‘I will give them to you if your plan works.’
‘I have a small bell here, which I shall fasten round my neck,’ said the fox. ‘Then I shall go into the forest, creep behind the bear, and leap about so that the bell rings.’
‘But that will not frighten a bear!’ exclaimed the man.
‘Of course it won’t,’ said the fox, impatiently. ‘But when the bear hears it and asks you what it is, you must tell him that the King’s son is bear-hunting with a number of his courtiers. That should frighten the bear away pretty quickly.’
Off went the fox among the trees, and up got the peasant and began to plough again. Presently the sound of a bell reached him, and he knew that the fox was leaping about in the forest, trying to make his bell sound like those the bear-hunters tied to their horses.
The bear came towards the peasant with his eyes full of fear. ‘What is that noise?’ he asked.
‘I heard that the King’s son was coming into the forest today, bear-hunting with his friends,’ replied the peasant. ‘I expect they have started the hunt and the bells are those on their horses.’
The bear had changed from a bully to a coward now, and he begged the peasant to save him. ‘Don’t betray me,’ he said, ‘and I promise not to eat your horse after all.’
‘I will not let the hunters get you,’ said the peasant, ‘but I will hold you to your promise afterwards.’
The bear crouched on the ground beside the cart on which the peasant had brought the plough to his field. Then the fox got as close to the bear as he could without being seen, and shouted: ‘We are hunting bears. What is that dark shape beside you, my man?’
‘That is a tree stump,’ called the peasant. ‘I have been cutting wood for my fire.’
‘If it’s a tree stump, why is it standing up? Are you sure it’s not a bear?’
‘Lie down,’ whispered the peasant, giving the terrified bear a push, and sending him under the cart. ‘It’s a tree stump all right,’ called the man. ‘I have cut it down now, and it’s on the ground.’
‘Well that’s a queer place to put it,’ shouted the fox, who was still well hidden by the trees. ‘Why don’t you load it on your cart, and tie it firmly with rope, so that it doesn’t fall off? That is what we do with logs as big as that.’
‘Very well,’ said the man, and the bear, needing no encouragement, scrambled up into the cart and allowed the peasant to tie him up firmly with rope.
‘You are a foolish fellow,’ called the fox. ‘Most people put an axe in the cart with the log, and then they can chop it up for firewood as soon as they get home.’
So the peasant took his axe, climbed into the cart, and killed the bear with one blow.
The horse neighed with happiness as the peasant harnessed him to the cart and prepared to go home, but the fox kept leaping and bounding around them as they went, crying: ‘Don’t forget my reward. Twenty hens you promised me.’
‘Not twenty! I have only twelve and that was the number we agreed on,’ said the poor peasant, wondering what his wife would say when he handed over her fine, plump laying hens to the fox.
As they neared the peasant’s cottage, his three dogs heard him coming, and leaping up from their place beside the hearth, the rushed out joyously to greet him.
‘Dogs!’ screamed the fox. ‘You didn’t tell me you kept dogs!’
He turned tail at once and rushed back towards the forest. The three dogs chased after him for several miles but he just managed to get into his hole before they caught up with him.
‘I shall never try to help a human being again,’ said the fox as he lay down to get back his breath in the safety of his home.
But the peasant was delighted that his dogs had saved him from giving up his wife’s precious hens, and when they returned, panting loudly and extremely hungry, he gave them an extra big supper.
Later on, he told his wife the whole story. But she did not believe him, so he took her outside in the darkness and showed her the dead bear, promising that he would skin it in the morning, and make her a fine, fur rug to go on her bed and keep her warm during the bitter, winter nights.
As for the horse, he said nothing, but he lived to a ripe old age, and never again did the peasant threaten to give him up to the bears.