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
ere 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

the Hermit.

"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

salmon season.

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.