The following story was written by William ( Timberline Bill ) Sparks, who lived and hunted in Arizona in the late 1800's and early 1900's. He was a well published author and poet. This story of his encounter with a Grizzly Bear and a fight to the death, (fortunately the bear lost) was published in one of his books. The story was also published in the "Sparks Quarterly" and on the web site, http://SparksFamilyAssociation.net. I am also the Webmaster for this site.
A FIGHT WITH A GRIZZLY BEAR
By William ["TIMBERLINE BILL"]Sparks, 1861-1928
In the spring of 1888 my partner, a man named Al Robertson, and I, were camped at the forks of Eagle Creek, near the foot of the Blue Range, and about fifteen miles above the Double Circle Ranch of Arizona.
"Al, if you'll wash the dishes, and bring in the horses, I'll go look at that trap we set down the creek," I said to my partner one morning, as he rose from the ground where we had been squatted beside the canvas manta, or pack cover, on which the tin dishes and plates that had contained our breakfast were spread.
"All right," said Al, "I'll have the horses here before you're back. What horse will I tie up for you? I want to start as soon as I can, for it will take me all day to ride to Slaughters and back, so I won't wait, for if there is anything in the trap it may take quite a while to trail it up and skin it."
After telling Al which horse I wanted tied up, I buckled on my cartridge belt, picked up my rifle and started down the creek toward the place where we had set a large bear trap the day before.
The camp was in a small open space on a point between the junction of two mountain streams, that tumbled noisily over their bed of boulders, between banks that were thickly wooded with black alder, ash, balsam, oak, cherry, walnut and pine trees, which in many places were festooned with wild grapes, Virginia creeper, and honey-suckle vines.
For several years there had been a considerable number of hunters in these mountains, who supplied the new mining camps of Coony, Carlisle, and Clifton, with fresh venison and turkey in winter; and winter or summer, hunted and killed the black-tailed and white-tailed deer, bucks and does alike, that abounded in the forests and hills north of the Gila River.
In summer they cut freshly killed venison into thin strips, which were salted and hung on a line until dry enough to be pulverized into powder when beaten with a hammer. When enough of this, "jerky" it was called, had been accumulated to load the pack horses, it was taken to one of the mining camps and sold to the Mexican workmen who, with their families, were very fond of it.
Bear of several varieties; cinnamon, black, brown and silvertip, as well as mountain lions, were plentiful, and until the advent of the cattlemen were only killed when the hunters were in need of bears' oil for cooking; or in the autumn, just before the hibernating animals holed up, when the fur and skins were at their best. I am aware that several great naturalists have decided that black and brown bear are one and the same species; and that the cinnamon and silvertip, or grizzly, is the same bear. But that these learned gentlemen, who have mostly gained their knowledge of wild animals from the writings of others, or from an occasional trip extending for a few weeks at most, to the wilds, are mistaken, I am sure.
The grizzly of California, and the silvertip of Arizona, are the same animal; and may be any color from almost black to a dirty gray. His hide is covered with thick fur, sometimes almost black, sometimes a purplish brown. Through this grows a mass of longer hair, usually somewhat darker than the fur, until it reaches through the fur, when it becomes silvery white, and I have often seen silvertips with a streak of white from the shoulders, where the long hair grew into a mane, to their rump. The genuine silvertip is broader between the ears than the cinnamon; shorter from a line drawn between the ears to the nose, and stands higher at the shoulders. In fact, a silvertip, that is not the product of a cross between the grizzly and one of the other species, has a sort of hump on his shoulders that no other bear has, as well as a character and habits that are different from those of bear of any other species.
The brown bear of Arizona is small, with a sort of curved head and long claws. He is covered with short, brown hair, often little longer than the winter coat of a cow, and if he has any fur at all, it is scanty and short. The cinnamon is medium in size, between the black bear and the grizzly, and has long, reddish colored hair that covers a thick coat of fine fur, that is exactly the color of dried cinnamon bark. There is a difference in the shape of his head, and in his habits. He has no hump, but his claws are long like the grizzlies'. The full-blooded black bear is black; sometimes with a white spot on his breast; and has short front claws that are attached to fingers under the skin of his front feet, that are so muscled that he can climb a tree that he cannot reach around, if the bark is rough enough for him to insert his claws into its cracks.
No full-blooded bear of any of the other varieties can climb a large tree, though I have seen bears that were brown in color, but who plainly showed more of the characteristics of their black, than they did of their brown forebears, take to trees when pressed. As all these species cross, the cubs born of black or brown parents, that are mixed blood, may be of either color.
When setting a trap for bear, it was the custom to cut a heavy green pole, and drive it through the ring attached to the trap until only about eighteen inches of the larger end remained on the side of the ring from which the pole had been inserted. Then, if a bear got in the trap, in dragging the pole through the trees and rocks he would leave a plain trail, and could be easily followed.
But if no pole, or clog, as the hunters and trappers called it was fixed to the trap, and it was left loose, a large bear might travel for many miles before lying up. And if the trap was made fast, when it snapped on a bear's leg it might break the bones, as sometimes happened, and in such an extent that often a trapped bear would twist and gnaw off his leg above the trap and escape.
But this was in June; and the bear, as was their habit, had all gone to the higher mountains where there was food in plenty. Up in the mountain meadows, surrounded by forests of spruce, and quaking aspen, were many delicacies that appealed to the nose and stomach of a hungry bear. Yellow jackets were storing honey that only had to be dug for to be obtained. In many places the ground was matted with wild strawberry vines that bore countless crimson points of wonderful flavor. Wild oats were in the milk; and there were numberless dead trees covered with rotten bark, that a bear had only to tear off, with his claws, to secure great fat grub worms, that were far more grateful to the taste of an almost satiated bear, than the most tender venison.
On my last trip to town, a townsman had requested me to bring in a lion's skin, which he offered to pay well for. Lion were hard to find without dogs, and the trap had been purchased to trap lion at the time the Territorial Legislature had made it mandatory on the supervisors of the different counties to pay a bounty on both bear and lion. But the counties of Arizona were very sparsely settled at that time, and were very poor; and the hunters brought in so many scalps of bear and lions that the different supervisors petitioned the next Legislature to repeal the bounty law, which was done.
As a lion caught in a trap would seldom travel farther than the first dense thicket, and the bear, as we supposed, were all higher in the mountains, we put no clog on the trap, but set it between two ash trees, and a few feet in front of another tree that was well covered with grape vines. A little basin, just large enough to secret the trap in, was scraped away with a stick, and when the trap had been placed in it and covered with twigs and leaves, the bait, a deer's head and liver, were hung on the tree on which the grape vines grew, and the other trees, so that an animal intent on investigating the bait would have to step in or over the trap to get to it.
Soon after I left camp I came to a place where the creek ran against a bluff. Pulling off my moccasins, and rolling up my trousers, I waded through the swiftly flowing water, slipping on the round boulders at times, but managing to keep my rifle and clothing dry. At several more crossings I repeated this; but at last came to the mouth of a small creek where the trap had been set. Stealthily approaching the place, I saw that the vines were torn, and the bark on several small trees broken and bruised by the teeth of some enraged animal.
When I stood over the spot where the trap had been set, I found that the ground had been almost ploughed up in places by a bear, whose footprints proved him to be a silvertip of enormous size. Different bear, when wounded, or caught in a trap, have no hard and fast rules in regard to their actions. One bear, suddenly finding himself griped in the torturing jaws of a clattering steel trap, may skulk noiselessly away, while another may frighten all the wood folk within hearing distance with his bawling.
But this bear had acted different from any that I had encountered before. The ground and trees showed plainly where he had swung and struck with the heavy trap, regardless of the pain he must have endured. In places the trap springs had dug holes in the soil that looked like a shovel had been thrust into it by some careless gardener, and saplings five or six inches in diameter were almost bare of bark in places, where he had snapped and torn with teeth and claws.
The "sign" or appearance of the torn vines and bark, and the tracks, proved that the bear had been caught not long before daylight, and as the sun was now not more than an hour high, I reasoned that the enraged animal would not travel after daylight, and might be in any brushy thicket, nursing his hurt, and the hatred that all bear must feel for a trap, and the men who set them
So I slowly circled around among the trees until I found where the bear, evidently hopping along on three legs and holding the front paw on which the trap was fastened, above the ground, had left the narrow canyon valley, and started straight over a ridge that was covered only with scattered pine trees, and short grass, that made no covering in which a bear could hide.
Though there was no danger of coming suddenly upon the bear here, I climbed the ridge slowly, halting at times to recover my shortened breath. For a rifle is an arm of precision; and the man who has swiftly climbed a steep hill, whose breast is heaving, and nerves jumping from the exertion, cannot pull the trigger with any certainty, as the sights align on a moving or distant target.
And although the bear was encumbered with a heavy trap, I knew that when I came face to face with his bruinship there would be a reckoning on the part of the bear, if my bullets were not sent to the only immediately vital spot in a bear's anatomy--the brain.
The part of a bear's skull that contains the brain is long, and almost round, like a curved cylinder in profile, with a thick ridge of bone running from just in front of its junction with the spinal column to below a line drawn between the eyes. The frontal part is thickest beneath this ridge, and as the skull rounds, or curves, away from the ridge, it becomes thinner, but is still very thick, and in grizzlies often covered with several inches of hair, hide, and gristle. This was long before the day of high-powered guns, and even the heavy caliber black powder impelled bullets of those days would often glance and fail to penetrate the skull of a large bear, unless they struck it squarely.
But a bullet from the 45-90 that I carried would knock any bear down that it struck in the head; and neither I nor my companion hunters felt the least fear of any bear if we had a few yards of open ground to pump our rifles at him be fore he could reach us.
It was for this reason that, after reaching the top of the hill, I descended very slowly, always avoiding every clump of brush, and circling around through the openings until I had again picked up the trail, when it went into places where the bear might be hidden. I finally came to the bottom of the hill and a small stream of crystal clear water that gurgled between open groves of small timber. The bed of the creek was sandy, and from twenty-five to seventy-feet wide The bear turned directly up the creek, and I followed, still carefully avoiding thickets and turns in the bank, where the bear might have laid up for the day. At last I found where the bear had left a thicket and crossed the creek, leaving a string of still wet tracks in the sand; which the sun had now heated so warm that it was evident the bear had heard me, and probably thinking the clump of brush he had laid down in was not so well situated for an ambush as he wished, had silently sneaked away while I was reconnoitering a short distance down the creek.
Presently the tracks led up a gently sloping hill, bare of underbrush, but covered with pine trees. As I slowly neared the top, I heard the rattle of a rattlesnake off to one side, and stepping a few feet toward the sound, I saw a small rattler coiled beside a hole near a large rock. Grasping a small boulder I flung it at the snake, but missed my mark, and as the snake began to disappear beneath the rock, I hurled missile after missile, but without effect
When the snake had disappeared, I slowly climbed to the top of the hill, and passing through the open pines, which grew so thickly here that it was slow trailing over the mat of pine needles, I picked up the trail where the bear had started down the farther hillside, which was pretty well covered with scrub oak and buck brush.
I did not follow the trail here, but traveled parallel with it, when I could see it in the soft volcanic ash which covered the hillside, or, when I could not see it, cut across where the course the bear was taking led me to believe it should be, still keeping in the open spaces until I could see the trail ahead of me.
At last I came to a belt of thick brush, and leaving the trail, I skirted this until I came to an opening, which I entered, and winding from opening to opening, came at last to a clear space about sixty feet in length, up and down the hill, which at that place sloped at an angle of almost 45 degrees. As I stepped out into this clear space near its upper end I could see the bear's track where he had hopped, and slid, down through the soft, ashy soil, and entered the brush at the lower end of the opening.
Thinking the bear was ahead of me, and holding my rifle in the hollow of my left arm, with my right hand holding its grip, my thumb on the hammer, and the trigger-guard, I stepped over into the bear's track just below the fringe of brush the bear had come through. Though I was gazing intently across the gulch, hoping I might see the bear ascending the opposite hillside, I had already chosen my route through another break in the brush just beyond the bear's tracks.
As I stepped in the trail I heard the rattle of a trap-chain above and behind me, and before I could turn, the bellow of the bear, not unlike the bawl of an enraged bull. I could not turn my feet on the steep hillside as swiftly as my body, and as I tried to face the bear, for I knew there was absolutely no chance for escape by flight, the bear came charging over the brush, snapping at my head, and striking with its unencumbered paw. Both myself and the bear were at a disadvantage on the steep hillside, and attempting to dodge a stroke from the bear's paw, I threw myself to one side and down the hill. As I did so, the rifle, which I had cocked as I tried to turn, was accidently discharged, leaving it with the chamber of the barrel empty.
I fell with such momentum that I turned over and over several times, like a boy turning back-somersaults, while the bear, his beady, bloodshot eyes flashing malignant rage and hatred, his ears laid back, and his grizzly gray mane standing erect, tried to check himself as he slid and rolled by me. Snapping like a monstrous dog, just as I stopped rolling, he sunk one tusk, all he had left--he had broken the others off biting the trap--in my thigh, and dragged me along as he slid down the hill.
When bear and man had stopped the bear was standing diagonally over me. The beast's tusk had penetrated my thigh and tore loose a whipcord looking muscle; and snapping again, the bear caught me by the same thigh. After some effort to balance himself, he rose up on his haunches and shook and swung me like a cat might shake a mouse. At last he slowly came down on his feet, and still holding me in the grip of his great jaws, flung or jerked me until my head lay down the the hill, while the bear's rump was up the hill, but his head, his jaws still grasping my leg, was turned almost at right angles toward his right, and my left.
I still grasped my rifle, for there was nothing else to hold onto. As the bear, still snuffling, clamped down again and again on my thigh, I slowly at first, and then with a quick sweep, brought the rifle around until it touched the side of the great brute's head. As I swung the gun, I worked the lever. The bear saw, or heard, and let go his hold on my leg. Just as his head turned and the muzzle of the rifle touched its side, a little below and back of the eye, the lever snapped, my finger gripped the trigger, and the crash and smoke that flamed out told me, even before the bear had fallen, that the scrap was over, for there were still several cartridges in the magazine, and even if the bullet did not reach the bear's brain, it would stun him into helplessness for several moments. But as my right hand jerked the lever and threw an other cartridge into the barrel, I saw the bear collapse. His feet seemed to give way under him, and with a sort of convulsive shudder of the muscles, he sank to the ground and rolled over against the brush at the lower side of the open space, just as I, with a great effort, threw myself out of the way. When the bear stopped rolling, he lay on his back with his great paws sticking up, and the trap dangling from one of them; Man and bear were not far apart, and as bears have been known to play possum, I rose to a sitting position, and poked the bear with the muzzle of my rifle. But there was no doubt that he was dead. A look at the eyes, the great hole in the side of his head where the powder had burned the hair off, made that certain.
The bear had evidently heard me throwing rocks at the snake, and had circled around through the brush and waited beside his own tracks for his enemy. Had I followed the trail through the brush there can be little doubt I would have fallen an easy victim to the enraged animal. For, as it was, the steep hillside, and loose ashy soil that ran down the hill at every touch of bear or man, was the only thing that saved me.
I now thought of my leg. It felt numb and dead; but I soon found there were no bones broken; but the blood was flowing freely from the wound made by the bear's gnashing tusk. Pulling out my pocket knife, I cut and tore from my cotton flannel undershirt--all I had on except trousers, moccasins and hat, enough strips to tie a bandage around my leg tightly above the wound. Then, picking up my rifle, I looked again at the magnificent animal that luck alone had enabled me to conquer; and limped down the hill to the bottom of the gulch, and then on down to where I knew there was an almost ice-cold spring.
When I arrived at the spring, which bubbled up from a small fern-covered cienaga, or marsh, I lay face down and drank my fill. Then, slowly limping, I went down the gulch until I came to a place beneath a giant mountain cypress where the bear had dug out a wallowing hole. In spring, when the bears begin to shed their winter coats, they greatly enjoy a mud and water bath, and into one of these wallows I scrambled, not without considerable difficulty. I had observed that although I had tied the bandage tightly above the principal wound-- for the broken tusks had done little damage, and the grinding teeth had bruised and not cut--with every limping step the blood spurted out afresh. So, after sitting in the cold water for perhaps twenty minutes, I rebandaged the leg tightly, and finding a dead sapling with a fork about the right size for a crutch, I broke it to the right length. Then, leaving my rifle and cartridge belt, I started for the camp.
It was now about an hour before sun-down; and I was about five miles from where the trap had been set, and about six and a half miles from the camp. Leaning on the improvised crutch, I limped down the canyon to the creek, and on down the creek as I had come. Dark came on, and the rough and narrow fork of the sapling rubbed and chafed my armpit until I stopped and tore the most of what remained of my shirt into strips, and wound it around the fork of the crutch. Then I hobbled on, hour after hour, through the darkened woods.
Limbs, and vines, and thorns reached out and tore and scratched my exposed skin, but I did not care. I did not think my wound was serious; and while other men of my acquaintance had killed bear in hand-to-hand conflict, none had ever met such a monster as I had,--except for the slight handicap of the trap for the bear, --fought and killed in a fair fight.
Bear, like hogs, are very heavy for their size. But this bear was larger bodied than a fair-sized cow pony; and although it was June, the season of the year when bear in the foothills are usually poor, he was fat and sleek; a meateater that had not gone to the high mountains, but had remained in the lower country to prey on the cowmen's cattle.
Finally I came to the main creek, and stumbling along to the accompaniment of the cries of night animals and birds, wet, weary, and sore, came around the point only a hundred yards or so from the camp. Through the trees I could see Al standing by the campfire. At last I crossed the smaller stream and climbed up the bank to the welcoming fire, and the well-meaning but clumsy ministrations of my partner, who finding on his return after dark that the horse he had tied up for me was still unsaddled, knew something had happened, but could do nothing until daylight made it possible to follow a trail.
Next morning, long before daylight, Al saddled up and went after the gun, rifle, trap and hide. At that altitude the nights were cold, and he found the skin still in good condition. After skinning the bear, he returned to the camp, and, loading me on an easy gaited horse, started for the nearest town, about sixty miles away. That night we stopped at the Double Circle Ranch; the next at McCarthy's Mine, and on the following day we arrived in Clifton, where we sold the bear's hide; and I remained until the wound in my thigh had healed.
To give credence to his story of the grizzly bear, Sparks obtained two affidavits which he included in his book. Each was written on the letterhead stationery of the Office of Sheriff of Gila County, Globe, Arizona. These two statements appear as follows:
October 5, 1925.
TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN:
My name is J. H. Lacy. During the year 1888, I was Company Physician for the Arizona Copper Company at Clifton, Arizona. In June of that year William Sparks was brought into Clifton suffering from wounds on the left leg and thigh inflicted by a bear. It seems that he caught a big Silver Tip bear in a trap and following him up came upon the bear suddenly and was attacked before he had opportunity to defend himself. The wound was a severe one and was several weeks in healing. I was the physician who attended Mr. Sparks. The hide of the bear, which had been killed by Mr. Sparks, was on exhibition for several weeks in Clifton. It was a very large Silver Tip hide.
[Signed] John H. Lacy, M.D.
Sworn to before me this fifth day of October 1925.
C. E. Burleen,
Notary Public, Gila County, Arizona.
TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN:
My name is J. A. Lord. I have known William Sparks for the past 38 years. During the year 1888 I was a practicing dentist in Clifton, Arizona. Some time in the spring of that year, Mr. Sparks was brought into Clifton suffering from wounds inflicted by a bear. I saw Mr. Sparks shortly after he was brought to town. His thigh was very badly chewed.
[Signed] Dr. J. A. Lord
Sworn to before me this fifth day of October, 1925.
C. E. Burleen,
Notary Public, Gila County, Arizona.
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