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My First Grizzly





One of Fremont's men, Mountain Joe, had taken a fancy to me down in
Oregon, and finally, to put three volumes in three lines, I turned up
as partner in his Soda Springs ranch on the Sacramento, where the
famous Shasta-water is now bottled, I believe. Then the Indians broke
out, burned us up and we followed and fought them in Castle rocks, and
I was shot down. Then my father came on to watch by my side, where I
lay, under protection of soldiers, at the mouth of Shot Creek canyon.

As the manzanita berries began to turn the mountain sides red and the
brown pine quills to sift down their perfumed carpets at our feet, I
began to feel some strength and wanted to fight, but I had had enough
of Indians. I wanted to fight grizzly bears this time. The fact is,
they used to leave tracks in the pack trail every night, and right
close about the camp, too, as big as the head of a barrel.

Now father was well up in woodcraft, no man better, but he never fired
a gun. Never, in his seventy years of life among savages, did that
gentle Quaker, school-master, magistrate and Christian ever fire a
gun. But he always allowed me to have my own way as a hunter, and now
that I was getting well of my wound he was so glad and grateful that
he willingly joined in with the soldiers to help me kill one of these
huge bears that had made the big tracks.

Do you know why a beast, a bear of all beasts, is so very much afraid
of fire? Well, in the first place, as said before, a bear is a
gentleman, in dress as well as address, and so likes a decent coat. If
a bear should get his coat singed he would hide away from sight of
both man and beast for half a year. But back of his pride is the fact
that a fat bear will burn like a candle; the fire will not stop with
the destruction of his coat. And so, mean as it was, in the olden
days, when bears were as common in California as cows are now, men
used to take advantage of this fear and kindle pine-quill fires in and
around his haunts in the head of canyons to drive him out and down and
into ambush.

Read two or three chapters here between the lines--lots of plans,
preparations, diagrams. I was to hide near camp and wait--to place the
crescent of pine-quill fires and all that. Then at twilight they all
went out and away on the mountain sides around the head of the canyon,
and I hid behind a big rock near by the extinguished camp-fire, with
my old muzzle-loading Kentucky rifle, lifting my eyes away up and
around to the head of the Manzanita canyon looking for the fires. A
light! One, two, three, ten! A sudden crescent of forked flames, and
all the fight and impetuosity of a boy of only a dozen years was
uppermost, and I wanted a bear!

All alone I waited; got hot, cold, thirsty, cross as a bear and so
sick of sitting there that I was about to go to my blankets, for the
flames had almost died out on the hills, leaving only a circle of
little dots and dying embers, like a fading diadem on the mighty
lifted brow of the glorious Manzanita mountain. And now the new moon
came, went softly and sweetly by, like a shy, sweet maiden, hiding
down, down out of sight.

Crash! His head was thrown back, not over his shoulder, as you may
read but never see, but down by his left foot, as he looked around and
back up the brown mountain side. He had stumbled, or rather, he had
stepped on himself, for a bear gets down hill sadly. If a bear ever
gets after you, you had better go hill and go down hill fast. It will
make him mad, but that is not your affair. I never saw a bear go down
hill in a good humor. What nature meant by making a bear so short in
the arms I don't know. Indians say he was first a man and walked
upright with a club on his shoulder, but sinned and fell. As evidence
of this, they show that he can still stand up and fight with his fists
when hard pressed, but more of this later on.

This huge brute before me looked almost white in the tawny twilight as
he stumbled down through the steep tangle of chaparral into the
opening on the stony bar of the river.

He had evidently been terribly tangled up and disgusted while in the
bush and jungle, and now, well out of it, with the foamy, rumbling,
roaring Sacramento River only a few rods beyond him, into which he
could plunge with his glossy coat, he seemed to want to turn about and
shake his huge fists at the crescent of fire in the pine-quills that
had driven him down the mountain. He threw his enormous bulk back on
his haunches and rose up, and rose up, and rose up! Oh, the majesty of
this king of our continent, as he seemed to still keep rising! Then
he turned slowly around on his great hinder feet to look back; he
pushed his nose away out, then drew it back, twisted his short, thick
neck, like that of a beer-drinking German, and then for a final
observation he tiptoed up, threw his high head still higher in the air
and wiggled it about and sniffed and sniffed and--bang!

I shot at him from ambush, with his back toward me, shot at his back!
For shame! Henry Highton would not have done that; nor, indeed, would
I or any other real sportsman do such a thing now; but I must plead
the "Baby Act," and all the facts, and also my sincere penitence, and
proceed.

The noble brute did not fall, but let himself down with dignity and
came slowly forward. Hugely, ponderously, solemnly, he was coming. And
right here, if I should set down what I thought about--where father
was, the soldiers, anybody, everybody else, whether I had best just
fall on my face and "play possum" and put in a little prayer or two
on the side, like--well, I was going on to say that if I should write
all that flashed and surged through my mind in the next three seconds,
you would be very tired. I was certain I had not hit the bear at all.
As a rule, you can always see the "fur fly," as hunters put it; only
it is not fur, but dust, that flies.

But this bear was very fat and hot, and so there could have been no
dust to fly. After shuffling a few steps forward and straight for the
river, he suddenly surged up again, looked all about, just as before,
then turned his face to the river and me, the tallest bear that ever
tiptoed up and up and up in the Sierras. One, two, three steps--on
came the bear! and my gun empty! Then he fell, all at once and all in
a heap. No noise, no moaning or groaning at all, no clutching at the
ground, as men have seen Indians and even white men do; as if they
would hold the earth from passing away--nothing of that sort. He lay
quite still, head down hill, on his left side, gave just one short,
quick breath, and then, pulling up his great right paw, he pushed his
nose and eyes under it, as if to shut out the light forever, or,
maybe, to muffle up his face as when "great Caesar fell."

And that was all. I had killed a grizzly bear; nearly as big as the
biggest ox.





Next: Twin Babies

Previous: Music-loving Bears



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