Become a Fan
Bear Tales 4, A Name To Bear
By Leland Waldrip
Saturday, July 19, 2003
A cowboy encounters a grizzly -- with lasting results. This is a fourth excerpt from the novel "The Last Grizzly."
Three thousand head of bawling Hereford cattle were being collected from little grassy patches and wooded breaks up in Togwotee Pass country. The cool mountain air was relatively free from the swarms of biting flies and gnats that would have kept them miserable at the lower elevations and the high meadows had made the red and white cattle sleek and fat during the spring and summer. But now their summer "vacation" was ending.
Fall was coming to the northern Wyoming mountains at the southern edge of the Absaroka range. It was time to push the animals back into the low country for the shelter of the valleys and the grass that had grown there during the long summer days. Eighteen hands from the Hayrake Ranch out from Dubois had moved into the high country with a chuck wagon and a forty-horse remuda for the three-day roundup.
A leather-faced Jamie Alden sat hipshod in his saddle at the edge of one of the high meadows; hand rolled cigarette pinched between his thumb and forefinger. His mid-morning smoke break was needed. He had been "brush bustin'" steadily since he had mounted the big rawboned dun at first light.
The large, muscular man patted the sweating horse on the neck, soothing the fidgeting animal, "Just rest a minute. We'll catch up to 'em." He would work this horse until noon, then pull a sleek bay gelding out of the remuda for the afternoon.
The herd dogs had just routed a large old cow and two calves from a gully at the edge of the meadow. After a few futile lunges and bawls at the yipping dogs, the old cow remembered her lessons from years gone by. She conceded the dodging contest to the persistence of the two black and white shepherds, and led her bleating twins in a bounding retreat down the draw to join the other upset cows and calves bawling on a grassy bench fifty yards down the slope.
As the lowing, yipping and bleating receded from the meadow, Jamie thought he heard a strange noise in a draw over a couple of small ridges. It may have been his saddle creaking, but with the noise in the background, he wasn't sure. It sounded like a calf bleating, but he had seen two of the other cowboys working that area just as he had come into the meadow.
"Well, I reckon we better check. Those boys musta missed somethin'." He pinched the fire off the spent cigarette and pulled the paper from the remaining butt, scattering little shreds of black and brown tobacco on the ground at the horse's hoofs. The dun responded to the neckreining and headed in the direction indicated by the cowboy, scrambling up the steep little scree and greasewood brush slope of the second ridge. At the top Jamie scanned from one side to the other, looking over the little brushy valley for any signs of Hereford. No cattle appeared to be in the area.
"Well, we better get on back, ol' buddy. Guess it musta been my 'magination." He started to neckrein the horse back toward the drive activity when something caught his eye in the lower part of the draw. To a seasoned cowboy the bright red stain on the leaves was something that must be checked out. It looked like blood.
Bringing his horse down the slope several yards closer confirmed his suspicions. He dismounted from the nervous dun. Keeping a tight hold on the reins, he walked slowly to the side of the draw where the commotion had occurred.
There was blood on the ground and on one of the scrubby greasewood bushes nearby. It had obviously been spilled within the last half hour or so. It was still bright red all the way across the little pools and splashes. None of it had started to turn dark at the edges. A lot of scuffed area in the leaves and rocks told of a struggle here this morning.
"Cougar kill a calf here?" He spoke the question to himself, not unusual for someone used to working so much alone. He also talked to his horse often.
"I reckon I didn' hear this calf. It happened before I got up this high. Mmmm. They usually just choke 'em, don't bleed 'em right away." The unmistakable partial prints where the claws of the bear had scuffed the leaves and trash away to hard ground in the attack were obvious.
"Bear would be more likely to choke 'im, too. Or break his neck. Either way, wouldn't be no blood like this. Unless this blood come from a real young calf. That's it. Musta been tender enough that its throat tore when th' bear grabbed him. Hmmm, mebbeso that ol' momma cow ... naw, this track was made by one o' them big bulls.
"I reckon this ol' bull made it hot for th' bear, an th' calf's throat come loose from th' wrench o' th' fightin. Anyway th' bear got th' calf. Yeah, there's some more blood leadin off up th' draw. An' judgin' by th' size o' that track there, it must be a big un."
He studied the marks on the disturbed ground a few minutes. "We don't get many blacks that big an' I ain't seen a griz in these parts for a while. I think we got one now, though. 'Em boys at th' chuck's gonna be mighty innerested in these doins."
The cowboy looked past the head of the draw. There were numerous rock lined, scree-filled gullies coming off the upper part of the mountain. "Reckon he's prob'ly up there somewheres fillin' his gut about now."
Flipping the off rein around the neck of the still bothered horse, Jamie pinched the two leather straps against the saddle horn. He stuck a beat up boot-toe into the back of the front-guarded, wooden stirrup and swung easily into the groaning leather on the dun.
"Le's just see how far up we can track this feller. Mebbe we c'n get a shot at 'im."
He drew a .30-.30 carbine from the saddle boot and looked at it critically. "This is mighty light to go after griz with, but there's not much choice now." It didn't occur to him to just drop the matter. A predator on the cattle range was something to be eliminated before it could do more damage. He lay the rifle across the saddle and neckreined the dun up the side of a small ridge.
The dun stretched to gain a foothold at the top. The heavy cowboy leaned forward with the motion to look at the scuffed ground of an obviously warm trail. As the draw at the other side of the little ridge came into the cowboy's view, so did the grizzly. He was at the bottom of the draw, elbows down over a partially eaten calf.
It would be difficult to say which of the three beings were more startled at the meeting. The bear had been so busy feeding on the tender veal he didn't hear the horse approaching. Or if he did, he thought it was another cow. When he became aware of the man and horse almost on top of him, he reared to his hind legs.
The cowboy didn't think he would be reaching the end of the bear's trail this quickly. Nor did he think he would be within twenty-five feet of the bear at trail's end. His heart skipped a beat as he began swinging the rifle to point at the now menacing bear below him.
The dun didn't like the smell of blood. And he didn't like bears. He had never seen one before. He had smelled one once. And he still didn't like bears. Especially not one twenty-five feet away on its hind legs. The horse stood on his hind legs, too, and wheeled at the same time to head back down the ridge from where he had come—much too quickly for the startled cowboy trying to concentrate on a charging bear. Jamie's leg grip on the dun just wasn't there. He was off balance, then in mid air as the dun bolted sideways down the ridge.
Falling off a horse was not something Jamie had never done. But he hadn't done it many times lately. And he usually landed in the churned up dirt of a corral. Dirt and horse manure were something you didn't especially like to land in, but at least it was somewhat soft. A lot softer than the rock that he cracked his head on this time. He rolled to the bottom of the draw he had just left, but he didn't know it. He was out cold.
Some time later Jamie slowly awoke. He raised his head gingerly. It hurt. He rested again, confused and weak. He didn't know where he was. After a minute he tried to rise again. Then he realized he was covered with trash. He rolled over and stood up, brushing his clothes, dusting his shirt collar. Then it became obvious that his pants were wet. "What th' hell?" He smelled a strong odor of urine. He bent over to smell the pants leg. His head hurt again.
The memory of the bear rushed back, bringing his head up with a snap. He wasn't sure the animal was gone. He looked fearfully around, remembering his rifle at the top of the ridge. He considered just leaving, but a man's rifle is a man's rifle.
He walked down the draw fifty yards before carefully climbing the ridge, checking far ahead for the bear. Finally he could see up the other draw far enough to know the bear and calf were gone. Returning to the battle scene via the ridgetop, he moved very warily. His rifle had no apparent damage. He breathed easier as he picked it up and surveyed the sign, following his own rolling trail down the slope. Soon It became obvious what had happened here. Shaking his head, he turned to drop off the ridge and trail the widespaced tracks of the fleeing dun.
He found the horse cropping grass in a meadow half a mile down the mountain and was easily able to catch the dragging reins of the calmed horse. He checked and tightened the cinch, then mounted.
"Well, old fella, don't reckon there's any more we can do here. Best get on with the drive." Reining the grass chewing horse on contour with the slope, he urged it in the direction of distant bawling.
The clanging of the old locomotive bell on the chuck wagon was a welcome sound to the hot, sweaty cowhands hazing cattle in the rising dust of the hoof churned dirt trail leading down the long slope.
"Push 'em a little farther an' come on back. We'll get 'em goin' agin after beans." Joe Settles rode past some of the cowhands bringing up the rear of the procession.
He was the foreman for the Hayrack Ranch, giving directions to three young cowhands who had been holding the main herd lower on the mountain. This was the second day of the drive and they had been "brush bustin'" the day before, so they weren't familiar yet with the herd holding routine.
Joe trotted his tired chestnut to the relatively flat little meadow where the "chuck wagon" sat. It was not horse drawn, as in a bygone age. It was a three-quarter ton four-wheel drive truck with a modified wooden bed. It had built in cabinets, propane cook stove and oven.
The foreman swung down at the front of the wagon where a makeshift two-part rope picket-line had been erected. There were twenty or so dry, bright-eyed, alert horses connected to one part of it; four at the other end droopy necked and dust coated. He saw with approval that the boys had let the tired animals roll in the soft dirt after their morning's work.
There was water in the barrels at side of the chuck wagon, but it wouldn't be necessary to give the animals a drink now. There was water a half mile ahead at the Matacarthie creek crossing, a small tributary of the Greybull River. The animals had drunk at one time or another that morning as they crossed one of the small streams coming off the peak.
Snapping a loose picket rope into the ring at the bottom of the halter, he slipped the bridle off the top of his horse's head. As the bit fell away from its mouth, the grateful beast licked its tongue over its unfettered lips. Stepping to the horse's left side, Joe lifted the stirrup and locked it on the broad horn of the Texas saddle to get unobstructed access to the cinch strap and ring. With the bridle under his left arm, he uncinched the relieved mount and dragged the saddle and lathered blanket off its back.
He dropped the heated bundle of damp leather and cloth on a patch of grass before walking back to the horse to loosen the picket rope. He wanted to make sure it didn't become tangled when the horse rolled in the dirt. A couple of minutes later the chestnut finished his back scrubbing. Joe rehooked the picket rope and turned to walk to the wagon. Looking up, he was a little startled to see one of his best hands reining up at the picket line. "Jamie, you gettin' to be a chow hound?"
"Nah, boss," Jamie said as he took his foot out of the stirrup. "I just wanted to get on in an' tell you what I saw this mornin'." He hooked the sad looking dun to the picket rope and started unsaddling. "We lost a calf up there this mornin."
"Lost him?" You lose calves all the time, but you usually find them again. He waited patiently, knowing the story would come out in time.
Jamie had determined it might be best if he didn't tell the whole story. The men would find it too hard to believe. And he didn't think his own part in it was something to brag about. "Yeah, I mean a bear killed it. Musta happened before the boys got into the draw where it was. I went back to check on somethin' I thought I heard, but all I found was some blood and bear tracks. Looked like maybe a bull had been in on the fracas some too. Anyway, looks like the bear took a calf up the mountain."
"You didn't see it?"
Jamie looked out over the valley. "Maybe fer a few seconds. I’d seen a couple of the other boys over in the breaks close to that place. I'm not sure who it was. I had the dogs with me and wasn't payin' that much attention to who was over there. You know, th' dogs keepin' everthing stirred up an' all." Jamie was a little apologetic. He snapped the picket rope to the dun, now properly dirtied from his roll.
"Don't worry about it. When all the boys get in, we'll find out if they saw anythin'." Let's get some chow an' get outa th' way. They'll be starved when they get here. Here's th' dogs comin in now. They won't be far behind. Boy I'll be glad to get back to a shower. A man can get to smellin' pretty ripe out here on the trail."
Jamie thought that might be a reference to him, but the boss wasn't looking directly at him and he didn't respond. The two men stopped at the rear of the wagon. A pewter wash pan sat on a shelf next to a small barrel of water. Joe placed the pan under the tap and ran a little water into it, then scooped his sweaty hands through it. His stingy ways with the water made it obvious that he had spent time in places where water was scarce.
A bar of soap attached to a strong cotton cord hung above the pan, tied to a rusty nail in a plank of the truck bed. Grabbing the soap, he lathered, then scooped his hands back into the water several times before dashing the water across the grass under the wagon. Handing the pan to Jamie, he wiped his hands on the legs of his jeans as he moved to the back of the wagon.
A stack of pewter plates sat on the swing board, under the edge of a rust colored supporting chain. Picking one plate from the top, he held it for Maybell to load with food while he reached for a spoon and fork in the trays beside the stack.
"Whatcha got today?" He grinned at the ruddiness of her amply rounded face under a Menonite bonnet. She wasn't a Menonite; she just liked to wear the thing out on the trail. She was quick to defend her choice of headgear. "It's better at keeping the sun off than any Gol dern hat you redneck boys got", she always said.
"I got roast beast, with potaters an' gravy, with carrots an' onions thrown in to boot. An' you can wash 'er down with red tea 'r black coffee there in th' pots. An' when ya' get that whupped, there's some creme pie an' chocolate puddin' waitin' ta take ya' on."
She proudly cut the steamy roast right in the great pan where it was cooked, then ferried a large juicy chunk onto his plate with deftly crossed utensils. She piled on mashed potatoes, cratering a deep depression in the small peak with a flourish of the big spoon before filling it with a thick brown gravy. Across this savory treat she ladled portions of carrots and onions, crowning the pile with a large chunk of homemade bread. It was all the plate would hold.
While Maybell repeated her stellar performance for Jamie she handed out some morsels for the two bouncing shepherds, who seemed inordinately interested in Jamie's leg. Joe waited for Jamie to get his coffee, then the two men walked to the edge of the meadow to some rocks next to four of his other cowboys. They were already well under way with their meal.
"You boys have any trouble this mornin'?" The informality of Joe's question didn't keep the eyebrows from raising.
"Naw, what's goin on, boss?" Jack Whelan was instantly aware that something was up.
"Just askin'. I'll tell you about it when the others get in. Nothin' ta panic about."
Everyone's curiosity was aroused now—but they all knew the news was going to wait. He did this to you. Just the way he was. But the other cowboys were straggling to the picket line now, so it wouldn't be long.
A dust covered cowboy peered from under his hat brim at Joe. Bill 'Remorse' Johnson was always joking, always the comic. His happy face and impish ways had long ago earned him the unlikely nickname. He threw a grimy, sweat streaked, impish grin. "I eat more dirt today than a pig diggin' truffles. You sure we can't do this four, maybe five times a year?".
Joe looked at his plate a few seconds, staring very seriously at the puddle in his potatoes, working his bread along the edge. "Well, I'll tell ya, Mr. Johnson. I been thinkin' about you, while I was out there workin' them cows out o' the brush. An' I noticed some o' these critters are just too fat, this grass up here bein' so good, an' all.
"An' I says to myself, 'Now, it just don't seem right to take all these critters down from here just once in a whole year,' knowin' all along that Mr. Johnson likes this trail so much. So I starts to put two an' two together an' I come up with a plan.
"Now we gonna mark th' ones that's too fat an' next spring an' summer, bout ever two weeks, I'm gonna have Mr. Johnson come up here an get them fat cows an' take 'em down to th' ranch. Then, as quick as they get their breath we gonna let Mr. Johnson take 'em back up here an' spread 'em back out in th' breaks.
"I figger if they spend about half their time on th' trail, we won't have ta worry none about all that fat on 'em cause they won't have any extry. You reckon that'll fix yore appetite for dirt?" Joe squinted at Remorse, the faintest hint of a smile twitching.
Johnson didn't hesitate long. "Wal, I reckon I c'n just get along on 'bout one 'r two trips a year, Mr. Settles. I been lookin' at them cows, too. At first I thought it was fat a hangin' offn 'em. But then I got to takin' a closer look. What looks like fat is really jus' extry water in them cows.
"They's so much water up here, they just drink all th' time. I 'spect by th' time they get down to th' ranch they gonna be slimmed down agin. They prob'ly get along jus' fine on 'bout one trip. We go to movin' 'em up an down, why them cows'll be so thin they won't hardly make it through th' winter."
"All right, but we'll keep a close look out an' make sure you're right." Most of the other riders had seated themselves, mildly interested. Both mock antagonists were more than willing to let the matter drop. "Any o' you boys see anythin' interestin' other than cows up here this mornin'?" Joe was the serious foreman again.
Mark Arnold pointed to a companion with his dripping piece of white bread. "Wally seen a bear. Tell 'em about it, Wally." Wally was the newest Hayrack hand, a tall, medium built, smiley-faced sort of man. He seemed to have a good sense of humor, but that was about all anyone knew about him.
"Yeah, I saw 'im all right. One o' them cinnamon bears. But it was up in th' rocks an headin' around th' rim. Couldn't get no shot. He was some too far away. Looked like he was draggin' a piece of a elk when I saw 'im."
Joe said, "Jamie come up on where he got that 'piece of elk'. Says it looked more like a calf had been killed. Saw his track an' where him an' a bull had a little set-to over the whole business." He paused. "That 'bout right, Jamie?"
"That's about it, boys. Only I'd bet my saddle it warn't no cinnamon. I got me a fair look at some tracks an' such, an got a short look at the bear. It was too big for most any kind o' black bear, yellow-faced, with dark legs. It was a griz fer shore."
Wally looked hard at Jamie. He wasn't exactly happy that his version of the bear story had been challenged. He pinched up his face at the big cowboy. "'Jamie'. That's a kid's name ain't it? From down wind o' you Jamie, I'd say, maybe you peed in your pants. Maybe you bein' a kid an' all, maybe you got a closer look at that bear than you wanted."
The other cowboys looked at each other nervously. Those were hard words from a near stranger. Jamie had been known to slap a man around in a disagreement. He wasn't a bully, but none of the older ranch hands would think of challenging him, either. He was respected for his great strength and even more for his quiet character. But he couldn't be expected to ignore such a remark. This could get ugly.
Jamie worked at his food a minute in the strained silence. Looking up, he pinned Wally with a hard stare. "Maybe I did pee in my pants. But that's my business. And from now on it'll be 'Mister' to you, Wally."
"Here, now! You boys settle down. We don't need any hard feelin's about this." It was Joe Settles, pulling his rank as ranch foreman and range boss. And that was a lot of weight. "Let's get some dessert." Both antagonists looked back at their plates.
Joe stood and walked to the chuck wagon, along with several of the others. As they straggled back with loads of sweets, most of the main group was laid back in the grassy spots, smoking. A few were still eating their meal.
Jamie had been thinking about his earlier performance. He wasn't pleased with himself. He waited for the last of the men to return. At a lull in the conversations he said, ."I owe you boys an explanation 'bout th' bear story.
The men were instantly quiet, waiting. It was unusual for a cowboy to say more after the boss had spoken. Joe Settles looked from under his hat brim at Jamie and nodded.
Jamie sighed and said, "I didn't level with you all the way a while ago. But I figured if I told you I fell off my horse and busted my head on a rock it wouldn't sound right. I did see that bear for just a minute—too close—about far as from here to that rock there. Tried to get a shot at him. 'Bout that time my horse run out from under me and that's about all I remember. When I woke up, I was covered up in dirt and trash and my pants were soakin' wet. Had this real strong pissy smell. I think that son-of-a-bitch cocked his leg on me. Anyway, that's the best I can tell what happened. If any o' you want to come up with a different story, then go to it."
Everyone was quiet, looking quizzically at each other. Remorse chuckled, looking at his plate. Then he howled, and started rolling on the rocky ground, laughing hysterically, trying to retell Jamie's story, on all fours, hiking his leg. He could get only a few words out before he'd howl again and start all over.
Bill Easterman chimed in, howling and chortling, slapping his leg. Then most of the men joined in, each trying to retell the story. They were all unsuccessful. Jamie's face stayed red, but there is nothing so contagious as riotous laughter among friends. Finally he turned loose and laughed too. It was just too funny a scene—grown cowboys all rolling on the ground, hiking their legs, laughing hysterically, trying to catch their breath.
After a few minutes the hooting settled to scattered chuckles and head-shaking. Wally smiled hugely. "Well, I guess I will call you 'Mister' from now on. Yessir, from now on it's 'Mister Grizzly Piss'". He broke into another fit of laughing, along with several of the other men.
Jamie made a pretense of going after dessert, his head wagging side to side. But he was smiling. He had to agree it was a funny story. He could still hear their laughing all the way from the chuck wagon.
Seriousness was not long coming to the cowboys, though. "Maybe we better see if we can find th' bear," Jack Whelan offered.
Several of the boys chimed in with their approval, but Joe Settles had a better idea. "Well boys, here we are on the second day of a three day drive. I don't reckon we're gonna be able ta spare anybody to mess around with any bears right now.
"What we can do though, is to work on this a little later. Most of you boys like to put an elk in th' freezer long about snow fly. He ain't gonna hibernate that quick, so let's just spend some time up here keepin' an eye peeled for his brown hide while you go about gettin' meat."
Most of the dessert disappeared in a few minutes. "Okay, saddle up. Need ta eat n' run, boys. Got a few more head to bring out o' them thickets over next to th' creek this afternoon. But keep a lookout for th' dirt scratchin', leg-hikin' rascal an' we'll show 'im beef is for folks, not bears."
They wouldn't see the bear that afternoon. Many extra hours would be logged by the cowboys hunting elk on the mountain that fall. They wouldn't see the bear then either, but they would have plenty of elk steak to eat when they got tired of beef during the long, cold winter. The bear story was always good for a chuckle or two. At first, a reference to 'Mister Griz' brought red to Jamie's ears, and maybe a hard stare. Eventually most dropped the 'Mister' part, and 'Griz' stuck.
In later years Jamie's beard grew streaked with gray. He was big as a grizzly and most thought his appearance deserved the nickname. When he thought about it, he rather liked the way it had turned out. 'Jamie' was a boy's name anyhow. He even began to introduce himself as 'Griz Alden'.
Only a few old cowboys in the area could remember the story of how he got the name and mostly they thought too highly of the man to repeat the deprecation—except when two or more of them were alone together. Then you could be sure Mister Grizzly Piss would be a fond subject.
Site: Rappahannock Books
Want to review or comment on this
Click here to login!
Need a FREE Reader Membership?
Click here for your Membership!
|Reviewed by Elizabeth Taylor
|Good one. Certainly would scare it out of me.|
|Reviewed by Karla Dorman, The StormSpinner
i've been missing something...i am going to have to read the first three chapters of "bear tales"
if this is any indication, they're gonna be gooder n' grits :)
outstanding write...i would not have had to hit my head on a rock to pass out...i woulda done it in the first place if a bear rose up in front of me...and woulda wet myself just for good measure LOL
excellent piece! i'm off to read more--
(((HUGS))) and love,
|Reviewed by Tinka Boukes
|Oh my God...I would piss in my pants too if a bear rise up infront of me......it would be pis alone....I think the shit will be mine toooooo....thanks for this wonderful cowboy story Leland....and sharing natures treasure with us too!!
|Reviewed by Karen Lynn Vidra, The Texas Tornado
|excellent addition to this series; well done, leland! :) (((HUGS)))|