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In Swimming With A Bear
What made these ugly rows of scars on my left hand?
Well, it might have been buckshot; only it wasn't. Besides, buckshot
would be scattered about, "sort of promiscuous like," as backwoodsmen
say. But these ugly little holes are all in a row, or rather in two
rows. Now a wolf might have made these holes with his fine white
teeth, or a bear might have done it with his dingy and ugly teeth,
long ago. I must here tell you that the teeth of a bear are not nearly
so fine as the teeth of a wolf. And the teeth of a lion are the
ugliest of them all. They are often broken and bent; and they are
always of a dim yellow color. It is from this yellow hue of the lion's
teeth that we have the name of one of the most famous early flowers of
May: dent de lion, tooth of the lion; dandelion. Get down your
botany, now, find the Anglo-Asian name of the flower, and fix this
fact on your mind before you read further.
I know of three men, all old men now, who have their left hands all
covered with scars. One is due to the wolf; the others owe their scars
to the red mouths of black bears.
You see, in the old days, out here in California, when the Sierras
were full of bold young fellows hunting for gold, quite a number of
them had hand-to-hand battles with bears. For when we came out here
"the woods were full of 'em."
Of course, the first thing a man does when he finds himself face to
face with a bear that won't run and he has no gun--and that is always
the time when he finds a bear--why, he runs, himself; that is, if the
bear will let him.
But it is generally a good deal like the old Crusader who "caught a
Tartar" long ago, when on his way to capture Jerusalem, with Peter
"Come on!" cried Peter to the helmeted and knightly old Crusader, who
sat his horse with lance in rest on a hill a little in the rear. "Come
"I can't! I've caught a Tartar."
"Well, bring him along."
"He won't come."
"Well, then, come without him."
"He won't let me."
And so it often happened in the old days out here. When a man "caught"
his bear and didn't have his gun he had to fight it out hand-to-hand.
But fortunately, every man at all times had a knife in his belt. A
knife never gets out of order, never "snaps," and a man in those days
always had to have it with him to cut his food, cut brush, "crevice"
for gold, and so on.
Oh! it is a grim picture to see a young fellow in his red shirt wheel
about, when he can't run, thrust out his left hand, draw his knife
with his right, and so, breast to breast, with the bear erect, strike
and strike and strike to try to reach his heart before his left hand
is eaten off to the elbow!
We have five kinds of bears in the Sierras. The "boxer," the "biter,"
the "hugger," are the most conspicuous. The other two are a sort of
"all round" rough and tumble style of fighters.
The grizzly is the boxer. A game old beast he is, too, and would knock
down all the John L. Sullivans you could put in the Sierras faster
than you could set them up. He is a kingly old fellow and disdains
familiarity. Whatever may be said to the contrary, he never "hugs" if
he has room to box. In some desperate cases he has been known to bite,
but ordinarily he obeys "the rules of the ring."
The cinnamon bear is a lazy brown brute, about one-half the size of
the grizzly. He always insists on being very familiar, if not
affectionate. This is the "hugger."
Next in order comes the big, sleek, black bear; easily tamed, too
lazy to fight, unless forced to it. But when "cornered" he fights
well, and, like a lion, bites to the bone.
After this comes the small and quarrelsome black bear with big ears,
and a white spot on his breast. I have heard hunters say, but I don't
quite believe it, that he sometimes points to this white spot on his
breast as a sort of Free Mason's sign, as if to say, "Don't shoot."
Next in order comes the smaller black bear with small ears. He is
ubiquitous, as well as omniverous; gets into pig-pens, knocks over
your beehives, breaks open your milk-house, eats more than two
good-sized hogs ought to eat, and is off for the mountain top before
you dream he is about. The first thing you see in the morning,
however, will be some muddy tracks on the door steps. For he always
comes and snuffles and shuffles and smells about the door in a
good-natured sort of way, and leaves his card. The fifth member of the
great bear family is not much bigger than an ordinary dog; but he is
numerous, and he, too, is a nuisance.
Dog? Why not set the dog on him? Let me tell you. The California dog
is a lazy, degenerate cur. He ought to be put with the extinct
animals. He devotes his time and his talent to the flea. Not six
months ago I saw a coon, on his way to my fish-pond in the pleasant
moonlight, walk within two feet of my dog's nose and not disturb his
We hope that it is impossible ever to have such a thing as hydrophobia
in California. But as our dogs are too lazy to bite anything, we have
thus far been unable to find out exactly as to that.
This last-named bear has a big head and small body; has a long, sharp
nose and longer and sharper teeth than any of the others; he is a
natural thief, has low instincts, carries his nose close to the
ground, and, wherever possible, makes his road along on the mossy
surface of fallen trees in humid forests. He eats fish--dead and
decaying salmon--in such abundance that his flesh is not good in the
It was with this last described specimen of the bear family that a
precocious old boy who had hired out to some horse drovers, went in
swimming years and years ago. The two drovers had camped to recruit
and feed their horses on the wild grass and clover that grew at the
headwaters of the Sacramento River, close up under the foot of Mount
Shasta. A pleasant spot it was, in the pleasant summer weather.
This warm afternoon the two men sauntered leisurely away up Soda Creek
to where their horses were grazing belly deep in grass and clover.
They were slow to return, and the boy, as all boys will, began to grow
restless. He had fished, he had hunted, had diverted himself in a
dozen ways, but now he wanted something new. He got it.
A little distance below camp could be seen, through the thick foliage
that hung and swung and bobbed above the swift waters, a long, mossy
log that lay far out and far above the cool, swift river.
Why not go down through the trees and go out on that log, take off his
clothes, dangle his feet, dance on the moss, do anything, everything
that a boy wants to do?
In two minutes the boy was out on the big, long, mossy log, kicking
his boots off, and in two minutes more he was dancing up and down on
the humid, cool moss, and as naked as the first man, when he was first
And it was very pleasant. The great, strong river splashed and dashed
and boomed below; above him the long green branches hung dense and
luxuriant and almost within reach. Far off and away through their
shifting shingle he caught glimpses of the bluest of all blue skies.
And a little to the left he saw gleaming in the sun and almost
overhead the everlasting snows of Mount Shasta.
Putting his boots and his clothes all carefully in a heap, that
nothing might roll off into the water, he walked, or rather danced on
out to where the further end of the great fallen tree lay lodged on a
huge boulder in the middle of the swift and surging river. His legs
dangled down and he patted his plump thighs with great satisfaction.
Then he leaned over and saw some gold and silver trout, then he
flopped over and lay down on his breast to get a better look at them.
Then he thought he heard something behind him on the other end of the
log! He pulled himself together quickly and stood erect, face about.
There was a bear! It was one of those mean, sneaking, long-nosed,
ant-eating little fellows, it is true, but it was a bear! And a bear
is a bear to a boy, no matter about his size, age or character. The
boy stood high up. The boy's bear stood up. And the boy's hair stood
The bear had evidently not seen the boy yet. But it had smelled his
boots and clothes, and had got upon his dignity. But now, dropping
down on all fours, with nose close to the mossy butt of the log, it
slowly shuffled forward.
That boy was the stillest boy, all this time, that has ever been.
Pretty soon the bear reached the clothes. He stopped, sat down, nosed
them about as a hog might, and then slowly and lazily got up; but with
a singular sort of economy of old clothes, for a bear, he did not push
anything off into the river.
What next? Would he come any farther? Would he? Could he? Will he? The
long, sharp little nose was once more to the moss and sliding slowly
and surely toward the poor boy's naked shins. Then the boy shivered
and settled down, down, down on his haunches, with his little hands
clasped till he was all of a heap.
He tried to pray, but somehow or another, all he could think of as he
sat there crouched down with all his clothes off was:
"Now I lay me down to sleep."
But all this could not last. The bear was almost on him in half a
minute, although he did not lift his nose six inches till almost
within reach of the boy's toes. Then the surprised bear suddenly stood
up and began to look the boy in the face. As the terrified youth
sprang up, he thrust out his left hand as a guard and struck the brute
with all his might between the eyes with the other. But the left hand
lodged in the two rows of sharp teeth and the boy and bear rolled into
the river together.
But they were together only an instant. The bear, of course, could not
breathe with his mouth open in the water, and so had to let go.
Instinctively, or perhaps because his course lay in that direction,
the bear struck out, swimming "dog fashion," for the farther shore.
And as the boy certainly had no urgent business on that side of the
river he did not follow, but kept very still, clinging to the moss on
the big boulder till the bear had shaken the water from his coat and
disappeared in the thicket.
Then the boy, pale and trembling from fright and the loss of blood,
climbed up the broken end of the log, got his clothes, struggled into
them as he ran, and so reached camp.
And he had not yelled! He tied up his hand in a piece of old flour
sack, all by himself, for the men had not yet got back; and he didn't
whimper! And what became of the boy? you ask.
The boy grew up as all energetic boys do; for there seems to be a sort
of special providence for such boys.
And where is he now?
Out in California, trapping bear in the winter and planting olive
trees in their season.
And do I know him?
Yes, pretty well, almost as well as any old fellow can know himself.
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