Our horses had been having pretty rough times lately, and they lost no time in storing away as much of the rich grass as they could hold. They had plenty of society too; for the slope was dotted here and there with bunches of range cattle and bands of horses, not to mention the recent additions to the families of each in the shape of frolicsome calves and frisky foals, all busily at work. Bruin seemed rather out of place in such a pastoral scene; and yet, as one looked higher, beyond the sombre heights of the forest, toward the frowning crown rock, that resembled some mighty fortress forbidding farther progress, or the everlasting snow-peaks above, one could well fancy that wild animals must be up there somewhere, either in the dense woods, or in the still higher and safer retreats.
We at once examined the ground, and found the carcasses of two steers, one of which was untouched, but the other was very nearly devoured. All the signs pointed to more than one bear, and the ground was fairly padded down round the carcass they were using. Unfortunately, though, there seemed to be no place to watch from, not a bush or rock to screen one while awaiting a shot. To cut a long story short, I watched that bait every afternoon and evening for a week; and though it was visited every night, I never got a sight of the prowlers. Bears will very often, when going to a carcass, take the same trail, but when leaving wander off in almost any direction. Taking advantage of this, and being satisfied that they were up in the timber through the day, we hunted for their trail, and found it on an old wood-road that led through the timber. To make sure, we placed the hind quarters of one of the steers just on the edge of the forest, and awaited developments. That night the bear found it, and, dragging it off, carefully cached it; so we determined to watch here.
I was much disappointed, however, as the daylight faded, to confess that if I was to get a shot it would have to be in the dark; so as soon as I found I could not see to shoot with any degree of safety, I got up in a pine-tree that commanded the road and was just over the bait. It was weary work watching; and, to make it still more uncomfortable, a heavy thunder-storm swept by, first pelting one with hail, then a deluge of rain and snow.
It was pitch dark, except when the black recesses of the forest seemed to be rent asunder during the vivid lightning. The whole effect was weird and uncanny, and I wished myself back under my soft, warm blankets. I could not well repress thinking of the early admonition of "never go under a tree during a thunder-storm." But what's that? One swift surge of blood to the heart, an involuntary tightening of the muscles that strongly gripped the rifle. I seemed to feel, rather than see, the presence of three strange objects that appeared to have sprung from the ground under me.
I had not heard a sound; not a twig had snapped; and yet, as I strained my eyes to penetrate the gloom, there, right at my feet, almost touching them, in fact, I made out the indistinct forms of three bears, all standing on their hind legs. Oh, what a chance it was if it had not been so dark! I could not even see the end of my rifle, but I knew I could hit them, they were so close. But to hit fatally? Well, there is no use thinking about it now the bears are here. Trust to luck, and shoot!
Hardly daring to breathe, I fired. The scuffling on the ground, and the short, sharp snorting, told me I had not missed; but I could see nothing, and could only hear the bear rolling over and over, and growling angrily. Presently there was quiet, and then with angry, furious champing of jaws, the wounded animal charged back directly under me; but I could not see to shoot again, worse luck! From sundry sounds, I gathered the bear was not far off, but had lain down in a thicket which was about one hundred yards from my tree. I could hear an occasional growl, and the snap of dead branches, broken as she turned uneasily. I did not know exactly what to do. To descend was awkward; and to stay where I was, wet and chilled to the bone, seemed impossible. It was most unlikely the other bears would come back; however, thinking it would be prudent to stay aloft a little while longer, I made up my mind to stick it out another half-hour. During this wait I fancied I could see shadowy forms moving about, and I could surely hear a cub squalling.
The light was now a little better, and, though still very dark, was not so intense. Just as I had screwed up courage to descend, another bear came up under the tree, and reared up. This time I made no mistake, and almost simultaneously with the rifle's report a hoarse bawl proved to me that I had conquered. Glad at almost any cost to get out of my cramped position, I sung out to Woody to lend a hand, as I proposed descending; and as he came up I came down, and then we discussed the situation. The proximity of the wounded bear was not pleasant, but then the dead one must be opened in order to save the skin. But what if the latter were not dead? Hang this night work! Why can't the bear stick to daylight? But to work! There was the motionless form to be operated on. Inch by inch we crept up, with our rifles at full cock stuck out ahead of us, until they gently touched the inanimate mass. It was all right, for the bear was stone dead. Hastily feeling in the dark, as neatly as possible the necessary operations were nearly concluded, when simultaneously we both dropped our knives and made for the open.... It makes me perspire even now when I think of that midnight stampede from an enraged and wounded grizzly.