So back we rode, the dogs a trifle footsore, for they had covered many a mile in their ranging. Tom had shoes for them to wear when they are very lame at the first of the season. Later on, their feet become tough and need no protection. So we arrived back at the ranch empty-handed.
Next day we rested, and rain fell.
The day following we again tried a hunt and again failed to strike a hot track. Tom was perplexed, for it was a rare thing for him to return home without a bear. He rather suspected that the bows were a "jinx" and brought bad luck. So again we rested the dogs and waited for a change of fortune.
The time between hunts Young and I spent shooting rabbits. Once when down on the stream bank looking for trout, Young saw a female duck diving beneath the surface of the water. As it rose he shot it with an arrow and nocking a second shaft, he prepared to deliver a finishing blow if necessary, when up the stream he heard the whirring wings of a flying duck; instantly he drew his bow, glanced to the left, and shot at the rapidly approaching male. Pinioned through the wings, it dropped near the first victim and he gathered the two as a tidbit for supper.
These things do happen between our larger adventures, and delight us greatly.
The evenings we spent before the fire, played music, and I performed sleights of hand, much to the wonderment of the rural audience that gathered to see the strangers who expected to kill bears with bows and arrows. After numerous coin tricks, card passes, mysterious disappearances, productions of wearing apparel and cabbages from a hat, and many other incredible feats of prestidigitation, they were almost ready to believe we might slay bears with our bows.
Tom's dogs having recovered from our previous unsuccessful trips, we started again one crisp frosty morning with the stars all aglitter overhead. This time we were sure of good luck. Mrs. Murphy was positive we would bring home a bear; she felt it in her bones.
It is cold riding this time in the morning, but it is beautiful. The snow-laden limbs of the firs drop their loads upon us as we pass, the twigs are whip-like in their recoil as they strike our legs; the horses pick their way with surefooted precision, and we wonder what adventures wait for us in the silent gloom.
This time we rode far. If bears were to be had any place, they could be found in Panther Canyon, below Mt. Lassie.
By sunrise we reached the ridge back of the desired spot where we tied our horses preparatory to climbing up the gulch. The dogs were made ready; there were only three of them this time: Button, Baldy, and old Buck, the shepherd dog. Immediately they struck a cold trail and danced around in a circle, baying with long deep bell tones, pleading to be released. My breath quivers at the memory of them. Murphy unclasped the chains that linked them together and they scampered up the precipitous ravine before us. As they passed, Tom pointed out bear tracks, the first we had seen.
In less than ten minutes the full-throated bay of the hounds told us that they had struck a hot track and routed the bear from his temporary den.
That was the signal for speed, and we began a desperate race up the side of the mountain. Nothing but perfect physical health can stand such a strain. One who is not in athletic training will either fail completely in the test or do his heart irreparable damage.
But we were fit; we had trained for the part. Stripped for action, we were dressed in hunting breeches, light high-topped shoes spiked on the soles, in light cotton shirts, and carried only our bows, quivers of arrows, and hunting knives. Tom was a seasoned mountain climber, born on the crags, and had knees like a goat. So we ran. Up the side and over the crest we sped. The bay of the hounds pealed out with every bound ahead of us. As we crossed the ridge, we heard them down the canyon below us, the crashing of the bear and the cry of the dogs thrilled us with a very old and a very strong flood of emotions. Panting and flushed with effort we rushed onward; legs, legs, and more air, 'twas all we wanted. Tom is tough and used to altitudes, Young is stronger and more youthful than I am, and besides a flapping quiver, an unwieldy bow, my camera banged me unmercifully on the back. Still I kept up very well, and my early sprinting on the cinder track came to my aid. We stuck together, but just as I had about decided that running was a physical impossibility, Tom shouted, "He is treed." That was a welcome word. We slackened our pace, knowing that the dogs would hold him till we arrived, and we needed our breath for the next act. So on a trot we came over a rise of ground and saw, away up on the limb of a tall straight fir tree, a bear that looked very formidable and large. The golden rays of the rising sun were shining through his fur.
That was the first bear I had ever seen in the open, first wild bear, first bear with no iron bars between him and me. I felt peculiar.
The dogs were gathered beneath the tree keeping up a chorus of yelps and assaulting its base as if to tear it to pieces. The bear apparently had no intention of coming down.
Tom had instructed us fully what to do; so we now helped him catch his dogs and tie them with a rope which he held. He did this because he knew that if we wounded the bear and he descended there was going to be a fight, and he didn't want to lose his valuable dogs in an experiment. He had his gun to take care of himself, and Young and I were supposed to stand our share of the adventure as best we could.
Keen with anticipation of unexpected surprises; wondering, yet willing to take a chance, we prepared to shoot our first bear. We stationed ourselves some thirty yards from the base of the tree. The bear was about seventy-five feet up in the air, facing us, looking down and exposing his chest.
We drew our arrows together and a second later released as one man. Away flew the two shafts, side by side, and struck the beast in the breast, not six inches apart. Like a flash, they melted into his body and disappeared forever. He whirled, turned backward, and began sliding down the tree.
Ripping and tearing the trunk, he descended almost as if falling, a shower of bark preceding him like a cartload of shingles. Tom shouted, "You missed him, run up close and shoot him again!" From his side of the tree he couldn't see that our arrows had hit and gone through, also he was used to seeing bear drop when he hit them with a bullet.
But we were a little diffident about running up close to a wounded bear, for Tom had told us it would fight when it got down. Nevertheless, we nocked an arrow again, and just as he reached the ground we were close by to receive him. We delivered two glancing blows on his rapidly falling body. When he landed, however, he selected the lower side of the tree, away from us, and bounded off down the canyon. We protested that we had hit him and begged Tom to turn his dogs loose. After a moment's deliberation, Tom let old Buck go and off he tore in hot pursuit. The shepherd was a wily old cattle dog and would keep out of harm.
Soon we heard him barking and Murphy exclaimed incredulously, "He's treed again!" Button and Baldy were unleashed and once more we started our cross-country running. Through maple thickets, over rocky sides, down the wooded canyon we galloped. Much sooner than we expected, we came to our bear. Hard pressed, he had climbed a small oak and crouched out on a swaying limb. We could see that he was heaving badly, and was a very sick animal. His gaze was fixed on the howling dogs. Young and I ran in close and shot boldly at his swaying body. Our arrows slipped through him like magic. One was arrested in its course as it buried itself in his shoulder. Savagely he snapped it in two with his teeth, when another driven by Young with terrific force struck him above the eye. He weakened his hold, slipped backward, dropped from the bending limb and rolled over and over down the ravine. The dogs were on him in a rush, and wooled him with a vengeance. But he was dead by the time he reached the creek bottom. We clambered down, looked him over with awe, then Young and I shook hands across the body of our first bear. We took his picture.
Tom opened up the chest and abdominal cavity, explored the wounds and was full of exclamations of surprise at the damage done by our arrows. He agreed that our animal was mortally wounded with our first two shots, and had we let him alone there would have been no necessity for more arrows. But this being our very first bear, we had overdone the killing.
So he gave the liver and lungs to the waiting hounds as a reward for their efforts, and cleaned the carcass for carrying. We found the stomach full of acorn mush, just as clean and sweet as a mess of cornmeal.
Murphy left us to pack the bear up on the pine flat above, while he went around three or four miles to get the horses. After a strenuous half hour, we got our bear up the steep bank and rested on the flat. Here we ate our pocket lunch.
As we sat there quietly eating, we heard a rustle in the woods below us, and looking up, saw another good-sized black bear about forty yards off. I had one arrow left in my quiver, Young only two broken shafts, the rest we had lost in our final scramble. So we passed no insulting remarks to the bear below, who suddenly finding our presence, vanished in the forest. We had had enough bear for one day, anyhow.
Tom came with the horses, and loaded our trophy on one. Ordinarily a horse is greatly frightened at bears, and difficult to manage, but these were long ago accustomed to the business. It interested us to see the method of tying the carcass securely on a common saddle. By placing a clove hitch on the wrists and ankles and cinching these beneath the horse's belly with a sling rope through the bear's crotch and around its neck, the body was held suspended across the saddle and rode easily without shifting until we reached home.
Adult black bear range in weight from one hundred to five hundred pounds. Ours, although he had looked very formidable up the tree, was really not a very large animal and not fully grown. After cleaning, it tipped the scales at a little below two hundred pounds. But it was large enough for our purposes, and we couldn't wait for it to grow any heavier. It was no fault of ours that it was only some three or four years old. We felt that even had it been one of those huge old boys, we would have conquered him just the same. In fact, we had begun to count ourselves among the intrepid bear slayers of the world. So we returned to the ranch in triumph.
|Young and I are very proud of our maiden bear|
Next day we took our departure from Blocksburg and bade the Murphys an affectionate farewell. The bear we carried with us wrapped in canvas to distribute in luscious steaks to our friends in the city. The beautiful silky pelt now rests on the parlor floor of Young's home with a ferocious wide open mouth waiting to scare little children, or trip up the unwary visitor.
Since this, our maiden bear, we have had various other encounters with bruin. Once while hunting mountain lions, we came upon the body of an angora goat recently killed by a bear. The ground was covered with his ungainly footprints. We set the dogs on the scent and off they went, booming in hot pursuit. Running like wild Indians, Young and I followed by ear, bows ready strung and quivers held tightly to our sides. In less than ten minutes, we burst into a little open glade in the forest and saw up in a large madrone tree, a good-sized cinnamon bear fretfully eyeing the dogs below.
We had lost our apprehension concerning the outcome of an encounter with bears, so we coolly prepared to settle his fate. In fact, we even discussed the problem whether or not we should kill him. We were not after bears, but lions. This fellow, however, was a rogue, a killer of sheep and goats. He had repeatedly thrown our dogs off the track with his pungent scent and we were strictly within our hunting rights if we wanted him. We therefore drew our broadheads to the barb and drove two wicked shafts deep into his front. As if knocked backwards, the bear reared and threw himself down the slanting tree trunk. As he reached the ground, one of our dogs seized him by the hind leg and the two went flying past us within a couple of yards, the dog hanging on like grim death. Furiously, the other dogs followed and we leaped to the chase.
This time the course of the bear was marked by a swath of broken brush. It dashed headlong through the forest regardless of obstruction. Small trees in his way meant nothing to him; he ran over them, or if old and brittle, smashed them down. Into the densest portion of the woods he made his way. Not more than three hundred yards from the spot he started, he treed again. In an almost impenetrable thicket of small cedars, the dogs sent up their chorus of barks. I dashed in, fighting my way free from restraining limbs, the bow and quiver holding me again and again. Young got stuck and fell behind, so that I came alone upon our bear at bay. He had mounted but a short distance up a mighty oak and hung by his claws to the bark. I had run beneath him before seeing his position. Instantly I recognized the danger of the situation and backed off, away from the tree, at the same time nocking an arrow on the string. I glanced about for Young, but he was detained, so I drew the head and discharged my arrow right into the heart region of our beast, where it buried its point. Loosening his hold, the bear fell backward from the tree and landed on the nape of his neck. He was weak with mortal wounds, and even had he wanted to charge me, the combat could not have progressed far. But instantly the dogs were on him. Seizing him by the front and back legs, they dragged him around a small tree, holding him firmly in spite of his struggles, while he bawled like a lost calf. The din was terrific; snarling, snapping dogs, the crashing underbrush, and the bellowing of bear made the world hideous. It seemed that the pain of our arrows was nothing to him compared to his fear of the dogs, and when he felt himself helpless in their power, his morale was completely shattered.
It was soon over; hardly a minute elapsed before his resistless form lay still, and even the dogs knew he was dead. Poor Young arrived at this moment, having just extricated himself from the brush.
We skinned the pelt to make quivers, took his claws for decorations, and cut some sweet bear steaks from his hams; the rest we gave to the pack.
It seems a very proper thing that the service of the dogs should always be recognized promptly, that they be given their share of the spoils and that they be praised for their courage and fidelity. This makes them better hunters. Stupid men who drive off their dogs from the quarry, defer their rewards, and grudge them praise, kill the spirit of the chase within them and spoil them for work.
Hounds have the finest hunting spirit of any animal. The team work of the wolf and their intelligent use of strategy is one of the most striking evidences of community interests in animal life.
The fellowship between us and our dogs is a most satisfactory relation. Since prehistoric times, the hunter has taken advantage of the comradeship and on it rests the mutual dependence and trust of the two.
Altogether, bringing bears to bay is among the most thrilling experiences of life. It is a primitive sport and as such it stirs up in the human breast the primordial emotions of men. The sense of danger, the bodily exhaustion, the ancestral blood lust, the harkening bay of the hounds, the awe of deep-shadowed forests, and the return to an almost hand-to-claw contest with the beast, call upon a latent manhood that is fast disappearing in the process of civilization.
I hope there always will be bears to hunt and youthful adventurers to chase them.