Thursday, March 16, 2017

The Brown Bear Of Bellote

A condensed short story from Frank C Hibbon's Book "Hunting American Bears

Rod Vance, Cass Goodner and I had been hunting bears the past two days. We had ridden hard the past two days, it is true the country behind the San Ysidro was rough in the extreme. The cliffs and canyons of that part of the mountains dissected and crisscrossed by fault lines that produced a disordered maze of ledges and protruding rocks. Douglas fir and pine protruded from the rough rocks along with pinyon and juniper.

Into the rugged breaks and canyons of the San Ysidro the bear came in usually in the fall by the dozens. Of course it often seemed to us that these hardy animals  by nature sought the roughest and rockiest terrain they could find. Cass had said on more than one occasion "it all looks level to a bear. On the lower reaches of Semilla Canyon this red rock gorge has some percolating water coming to the surface. Around these spots flourished groves of oak trees with graceful hanging clusters of delicious acorns. Long ago the Spanish rode their horses beneath these same oak trees and called the spot the Bellote or place of acorns.

The bears of Jemez country well knew of the Bellotte and it's acorns and this is the stuff black bears used to lay on the winter fat when the time of hibernation was close at hand. On former occasions the bellote groves had been a sure place to circle for a bear track. We had ridden perhaps a half mile and entered the first of the oak trees. With a sudden flapping of wings a hundred band tailed pigeons swept out of the trees, they had been gorging themselves on the acorns.

The three of us had grown silent after a half an hour riding, I swung low again to scrape my sombrero and shoulders beneath a low hanging limb weighted by last winter's snow, someone behind me said good god it's the dogs. I suddenly became aware that our hounds had gone crazy. Every dog we had was barking at the top of their lungs. It seemed like the pack was baying us which was preposterous for a well trained pack of hounds such as these. Even our horses were ill at ease in this strange melee.

All of a sudden as they had begun the dogs were still. Every single hound stood near the head of my horse with ears elevated to the alert and nose pointing into the wind.The we heard it too, it was a crash in the oaks off to one side of the trail, the swish of a heavy body off young trees. The dogs all looked toward the sound and broke out anew, they were off like Beagles with a rabbit in sight. We knew it was no rabbit that made those crashing sounds.

We spurred our mounts and hacked through the oaks in a reckless gallop and crashed on following the noise and confusion ahead. The dogs were growling and baying and some of their voices sounded muffled as though they barked with their mouths full of meat. My horse saw it first, as we cleared the last oaks this docile animal shied skittishly and I was thrown and dropped to the very edge of the wash. My mouth and hands full of gravel as I got up to look for my horse. Instead all I saw was the head and forequarters of a gigantic bear My horse with my rifle in the saddle boot had galloped off down the wash.

At first all I could see was the bear's head and neck since his lower portions were obscured by the advancing and retreating hounds in front of him. Then all at once the beleaguered animal rose on his hind legs to fight off the dogs from that height. I was on my knees trying to remove my chaps and stared into the open mouthed towering bear beyond, it was a giant bear.

Standing spraddle legged on his hind legs the furious animal plied his paws from both sides. The curved claws stuck out beyond his toes and looked as long as tines on a pitchfork. Time and time again the bear fell forward as some dog came close trying to gather an audacious hound between those frightful jaws. The light footed hounds would bounce warily out of his reach, he ground his teeth together and saliva flew in bloody strings from his mouth as he slung his head side to side to meet any onslaught.

Cass was yelling over the turmoil "save the dogs" although I could not see how at the moment what we could do about it. Rod Vance came in from the side with his rifle in hand. I saw him raise the weapon once then lower it reluctantly as the dogs surged about their antagonist in a melee of moving tails and teeth. The bear in the middle of that hound pack suddenly bellowed like a bull and charged the dogs and ourselves as well. It was plain to see the bear was far to heavy to climb a tree even if there was a sizable one at hand. So ponderous was this huge animal that he could not even run for it to find refuge in the cliffs and ledges so close to us. None of us could keep our eyes from the flashing teeth and swinging claws, it was a battle to the death that we were witnessing and the only question was how many deaths there would be.

Cass was screaming above the turmoil "quick shoot close in" To add emphasis he grabbed Vance's arm and jerked him toward the bear. Then I saw it! It was Poncho the Airedale, This remarkable dog was supposed to be a house pet but he had been on so many hunts with Cass that he undoubtedly considered himself to be the mainstay of the bear pack. Pancho was a peculiar duality he could be as gentle as a newborn kitten or a raging demon of flashing white teeth and hideous growls. It was Poncho with his Airedale temper that precipitated the end. The Airedale somehow worked his way behind the bear and in one sudden leap jumped clear onto the bear's back and seized the animal by the side of his face. In the swirl and surge of the fighting Pancho was an added lump of furiously clawing fur and feet on the very top of the bear's head. The astounded bear ducked as though a bee had stung him unexpectedly in an unprotected place. He raised both paws to his face and brushed furiously at the dog on his head. it would have been funny had we not known that Pancho's death was only inches away.

For a second the audacious dog clung to one bear ear chewing that unprotected organ unmercifully and clawing the bear's face. Then one huge paw swung from behind. The hooked claws in unison caught behind Pancho's shoulders and swept him forward as inevitably as doom itself. For an awful second the bear held the Airedale between his paws like a squirrel about to crack a nut, then the huge head bent forward and those frightful jaws opened like the white rimmed mouth of hell. There was a sickening crunching of fiber and flesh and Pancho dropped limply and fell at the bear's feet.

At the same instant a deafening blast of noise blotted out all other sounds. Rod Vance was among the dogs with a smoking rifle in his hand. Quickly he levered another shell and fired point blank into the bear's neck. A streak of fur flew out behind as the bullet carried through. The bear looked up surprised at this interruption. His little bear eyes seemed to focus for the first time at the forms of men. The eyes seemed suddenly darker as e stood there with his paws hanging useless in mid air. They then misted over like a hazy cloud drifting before the sun. The great body stood a moment more among the dogs reluctant to give way. Then without a soundthe huge animal slumped forward and sagged into a heap of formless fur on the ground.

Everyone seemed stunned by the abruptness of the end. Only Cass leaped forward to seize one of the gigantic paws and roll the carcass away from the Airedale. Pancho lay as lifeless as the bear and we carried him gently out and laid him on the oak leaves. Cass put his hand behind the foreleg of this fearless Airedale and we held our breath. Cass nodded slowly, Pancho's heart was still beating. In a few moments the jaws of the Airedale trembled a little and his red tongue out over his bruised lips. his eyes flickered open and he seemed to recognize friends, he licked our hands as we held him.

Today Pancho has a patch of light colored skin on the side of his head where the teeth of the big bear had torn the flesh away from his skull. This Airedale is one of those few pioneer spirits to be scalped and yet live to tell about it.