The winter had set in early, and with unusual severity, when I reached Logville, the appropriate name given to the little mining camp which hid itself away in the vast wilderness of the Rocky Mountains. A roving disposition, combined with a love of sport, and a desire to put on canvas some record of the wonderful scenery of the locality, had guided my steps to this out-of-the-world spot.
One morning when the winter was beginning to break, and the snow to show signs of disappearing—sure evidence that the severe weather was passing away—I slung my cloak and a bag of provisions across my shoulders, seized my rifle, and set forth on a solitary stroll. I had gone some considerable distance from the camp when a sudden darkening of the sky told me only too plainly of an approaching storm. Fearful of being caught in the downpour, I began to retrace my steps.
Scarcely had I commenced my homeward journey when a sudden cry caused me to come to an abrupt standstill. A few moments of intense stillness followed. I listened attentively, surveying the surrounding landscape on all sides with the close scrutiny of an experienced hunter, who had enjoyed many a lesson from the Indians. The piled-up rocks, scanty herbage, leafless and motionless trees gave no sign of life. No sound broke the intense solitude. Then, with startling suddenness, another cry, louder and more agonising than the former, echoed across the waste, and this was followed by a deep significant growl.
I knew at once that the voice was that of a human being, and I knew equally well that the growl proceeded from a bear. I had heard that a big “grizzly” had been seen in the neighbourhood, and that a party had been organised to track him to his lair, but had failed to come to close quarters with the wily old fellow.
As these thoughts shaped themselves in my mind there came a shrill and piercing shriek which set every nerve in my body tingling. It was the scream of a woman in mortal terror.
I shouldered, my rifle and turned in the direction from which the sounds proceeded.
Descending a steep cliff, I found myself in a narrow canon through which a mountain stream, swollen by the melting snow, rushed with considerable rapidity. The first object that caught my eye was a woman carrying a child and struggling through the foaming torrent. Then I observed, some little distance to the rear, but following with incredible rapidity, an enormous black bear. He measured at least nine feet from his nose to the tip of his tail, and was broad in proportion. Though of enormous size, he progressed at a speed which was surprising. Something had evidently irritated the brute considerably, for his whole appearance was characteristic of unrestrained ferocity.
I dragged the panting fugitive from the water and, without asking any questions, advanced to the bank of the stream and prepared to take aim. Whether my gentleman had at some period of his life been so closely associated with the barrel of a sporting-rifle that he understood the significance of my movement, I know not; but certain it is that as soon as I raised the weapon, the bear first of all reared himself on his hind quarters, displaying his long narrow muzzle adorned with an assortment of ugly fangs, and then uttering a loud noise, curiously resembling the heavy breathing of a human being, he fell down on all-fours and retreated behind a convenient boulder, over the top of which his little eyes gleamed fiercely every now and again.
The woman, who proved to be the wife of the innkeeper at whose “hotel” I was sojourning, was shivering with the cold, and her wet garments were rapidly congealing in the keen frosty air. Her little girl was crying pitifully with the cold and fright.
It was a question whether I should remain and finish off Bruin or hurry my companions homeward at a fast trot. I decided to adopt the latter course.
“The bear can wait,” I said, as I turned away; “I’ll settle him another day.”
We turned our steps in the direction of the camp, and for some distance walked in silence. Then of a sudden a plaintive moan from the child reminded me that the wee mite and her mother, soaked with wet, were, in the cutting air, rapidly assuming the condition of living icicles. Fortunately I had a flask with me, and, telling the exhausted and shivering woman to sit down, I rested my rifle against a stump of a tree and proceeded to prepare a dose of brandy, at the same time cheering her with words of encouragement.
“We are not far from home now,” I said, “and—”
I did not finish the sentence, for a movement behind caused me to turn round. To my utter astonishment and horror I found myself face to face with my old friend, or rather enemy. He had evidently followed with stealthy steps, the snow acting as a carpet to deaden his heavy footsteps.
My first idea was to give the intruder a dose of cold lead, but that I soon discovered was out of the question, for the bear had calmly appropriated my rifle, which lay beneath his paws.
It seemed to me indeed that his ugly face bore a look of triumph as he crouched over the weapon, and, judging from the blinking of his eyes, he seemed humanly conscious that, having become possessed of my trusty and deadly friend, he had me completely in his power. To obtain possession of the weapon was out of the question; it would have been fatal to attempt it.
Motioning the woman to seize the child and hurry forward without me, I prepared to rout the enemy by some means other than powder and shot. What means I intended to adopt I frankly admit I had not the remotest idea. The incident, so unexpected, so strange, took me completely by surprise, and it was some moments before I recovered my senses and presence of mind. Then I remembered that grizzlies, despite their huge bulk and ferocious tempers, are curiously alarmed by noise.
I had even heard that they had been driven off, with their tails between their legs, by the mere beating of a tin can. With this idea in my mind I hastily produced the metal cup of my flask, and striking it furiously with the hilt of my hunting-knife, I continued to produce a din which ought to have taken effect upon my four-footed adversary. I am sorry to say it did not, however. Uttering the curious sound peculiar to grizzlies, the brute made as though it would approach still closer.
The bear was somewhat lean after his long winter’s sleep in some hole scooped out of the earth, whither he had retired with a substantial coating of fat upon him, as a protection against the chills of winter.
The nap had gradually reduced the thickness of this protection and now the hungry animal, weary of search for berries and roots, contemplated me with a look which seemed to express that a morsel of something more substantial would not be out of place.
I commenced to retire cautiously, but I had not taken many steps when there came a flash, followed by a sudden report, and I staggered and fell on my knees—shot in the leg.
The bear had accidentally pulled the trigger of my gun, and the bullet intended for him had found instead a billet in poor me. I tried to staunch the wound with my handkerchief, but the blood flowed freely, and I soon began to feel exhausted.
I felt my knees quivering and giving way beneath me, and a deadly faintness crept over me. A mist came over my eyes, and I seemed to sink into a deep sleep, the landscape slowly vanishing, and even the big bear standing up before me disappearing in the darkness which enveloped everything.
The rescuing party sent in search discovered me, still breathing, the thick snow into which I had fallen having congealed over my wound and stopped the flow of blood.
The bear had fled without touching me, the report of the rifle having apparently proved too much for his nerves. He did not live long, however, for the following day he was tracked to his underground home, and there despatched. His skin is among my most cherished trophies, and I never look at it without remembering my first and last encounter with a grizzly.