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Copyright 2008 Rocky Mountain Rider. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Reproduction of any editorial material, artwork and photos is strictly forbidden without express written permission of the publisher. For information about reprint rights, please contact the editor; editor@rockymountainrider.com.

The Grizzly Bear Rug  

By Dan Pence, Dillon, MT

 

March 2008 Issue

 

     One of my earliest memories occurred in 1944 when I was five years old. It involved my grandfather and a huge grizzly bear rug.

     Grandpa Pence was staying with my family and needed to visit his brother, my Uncle Lee, about some family business. The two old cowboys had started ranching in Idaho’s Big Lost River Valley in the early 1880’s, and wanted to tie up some loose ends before taking the last earthly ride we all face at some point in time.

     I remember my dad and Grandpa discussing whether to undergo the venture, although it was only 25 miles round-trip. Gas was rationed because of World War II, and Dad was concerned because he used most of his gas ration to deliver groceries.

     Apparently the business was important since they made the trip. Big brother Ned and I were lucky enough to accompany them.

 

     The largest wall in the room where the brothers met was covered by a huge grizzly bear rug, with a cougar hide on a smaller wall. Mounted deer heads, old firearms and various old saddles and tack added to the room’s décor.

     After they finished discussing business, Grandpa poked his pipe towards the bear skin and said, “That bear damn near skinned me the day I got him.”

     Ned and I kept begging to hear the story and eventually he gave in. The bear was old and wise, and a very serious cow killer. They tried every trick they knew, but the bear continued to avoid them.

 

     Following one of the first snows that fall, Grandpa was checking cattle when he encountered the remains of a freshly-killed and partially-eaten cow along with fresh bear tracks. He had a 45-70 Winchester rifle under his left knee and was carrying a double barreled 10-gauge shotgun across the pommel of his saddle just in case he encountered the bear!

 

     He set off to track the bear on a tough, young horse he was breaking. Grandpa indicated his general route by waving his pipe towards the rugged, near-vertical Big Lost River Mountains somewhere in the vicinity of Leatherman Peak , the second highest mountain in Idaho .

 

     Old timers who rode with my grandfather claimed he never walked when he could ride. I’ve spent a lot of time in the rugged peaks that line the east side of the high mountain valley where I was raised. I can’t imagine a bear — especially one who knew he was hunted — taking a route through those cliffs and rocks which could be followed on horseback.

 

     Grandpa didn’t mention getting off the horse or having to go around obstacles to pick up tracks on the other side, but he probably did. There is a less-rugged area below timberline northwest of Leatherman Pass. Maybe the bear chose to go there.

 

     Grandpa spoke colorfully about the toughness of the horse and the ride. They had covered a lot of rugged country when the tracks led them to the upper timberline at an elevation of around 10,000 feet.

     They found themselves following bear tracks through snow-covered talus rock. The tracks lead into a small, isolated patch of stunted limber pine that clung to the limestone slope.

     “I shoulda been paying more attention,” the old boy stated. “Maybe I was jist tired and worrying about how late in the day it was ‘a gettin’. I shoulda seen that them tracks didn’t come out the other side. We rode up under that little bunch a’ trees and then our world exploded into snow, roar, teeth and claws!”

     The horse took one look at the huge bear that was charging down on them from above and wisely decided he wanted to be somewhere, anywhere, other then where he was. Grandpa was left handed and was carrying the big10-gauge shotgun with the barrels facing to his right. Somehow he got the hammers cocked and discharged both barrels in the bear’s general direction as the horse spun hard left and attempted to set a new speed record for running through loose talus rock on a near vertical mountainside.

     The picture Grandpa painted was easy enough to visualize, even for a child. The horse would have been naturally nervous from having to climb up through the loose rocks and snow with bear smell in his face. The trauma the horse was facing from a charging bear can only be imagined, but the added effect of having both barrels from a 10-gauge discharged across its back would have driven the “sheer terror rating” clear off any horse’s scale!

 

     “I kinda lost track of a lot of things ‘bout then,” Grandpa stated, poking his pipe towards a saddle sitting in the middle of the room. “I was fully occupied jist a’ stickin’ with that horse. Even had to let the shotgun go. Took me at least a mile a’ hard ridin’ through them rocks jist to slow that damn horse down a bit.”

     Then they both realized that they weren’t on the bear’s immediate menu and were able to calm down and catch their breath. Grandpa couldn’t understand why the bear didn’t get them. It simply had too much speed and slope advantage to allow them to escape. He sat on a rock and stroked the horse for a while until he could start thinking straight.

     He tried to visualize the charge and their reaction again. He thought he remembered seeing dust fly off the bear in the split second between when he fired the shotgun and had to devote full attention to just staying with the horse. But the scene was clouded by adrenalin, gunsmoke, rocks and the spinning horse. He couldn’t be sure.

     Besides, the abandoned shotgun lay somewhere up in those rocks. He pulled his rifle from the scabbard and headed back up the mountain. He admitted he wasn’t real sure he wanted to make the climb, and the horse had a lot more reservations then he did.

      “Gittin’ that horse back up that mountain was about as tough a thing as I ever did,” he stated.

 

     I don’t know what he had the shotgun loaded with, but it had done the job. They found the bear piled up where his lucky shot had dropped it. The shotgun wasn’t far away.

     Grandpa sat back in the cane rocking chair he occupied, re-lit his pipe and closed his eyes.

     Uncle Lee said “Tough damn country then, more tough times than good.”

     The two old cowboys nodded, rocked back in their chairs and stared off into the past. I don’t know where their minds went at those times.

     There were the good times with roundups, booze, good companions, the runaway Mormon girl who became my grandmother, family, good weather, fat cows and good horses.

     But there had been the bad —blizzards that killed hundreds of cattle while the cowboys rode through deep, crusted snow, in minus forty-degree weather, trying in vain to save them; the broncs that bucked and broke their bones; drought; favorite horses that broke legs and had to be killed; wild cows; trail drives where they nearly froze; stampedes; and always the serious lack of money.

     Neither man had been a saint. There were things they talked about — the bar room brawls, rustlers, “open range” sheep, driving stage, attempted holdups and being sheriff.

     There were skeletons in their closets that went unmentioned — some that would rival modern-day soap operas with floozies, wives who didn’t appreciate floozies, scorned women, and moonshine whiskey. They had survived the West at its wildest. But age was something they could not escape.

 

     Ned and I tried to get them to tell us how they got the cougar hide, but the old cowboys were through for the day. Dad gathered us up and we headed for home.

 

     Freelance writer, Dan Pence, grew up in central Idaho and spent 35 years working for the U.S. Forest Service in Idaho , Nevada and Montana .

Copyright 2008 Rocky Mountain Rider. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Reproduction of any editorial material, artwork and photos is strictly forbidden without express written permission of the publisher. For information about reprint rights, please contact the editor; editor@rockymountainrider.com.

 

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