- Historic Sites
Graves And Grizzlies
A search for a desecrated corpse, an encounter with a 900-pound bear, and a night of terror in Montana, 1879.
June 1967 | Volume 18, Issue 4
Then as though to make her words come true we heard fierce wolfish snarls and yelps from our dogs. We got the surprise of our lives when three of our younger dogs came bounding through the loose tepee flap as though they had been fired out of a catapult. They were in terror with their tails between their legs, the hair along their backs standing up like porcupine quills as they growl and snarl, looking back the way they came. The sudden appearance of the three young dogs, the way they came bounding into the tepee, did not improve my courage any. It sent my heart up in my mouth, and brought the sweat beads of despair out on my temples and forehead. I grasped the loaded carbine, my teeth beginning to chatter like I was getting the swamp ague. I carefully and cautiously peeked outside, but like before in the pitchy darkness I could see nothing. I whispered to In-who-lise to get me a good live firebrand out of the fire. Still holding the rifle, I crawled outside and pulled the saddle blankets off the pile of wood. I swung the firebrand around till it burst in flames and stuck it down in the dry leaves and twigs under the pile and quickly dodged back into the tepee. I crouched out of sight, looking out through the tepee flap, carbine in hand, with the buffalo gun lying close to my knees. Everything being wet around the pile of wood, it seemed ages before the kindlings took fire. At first from the pile there came only dense clouds of smoke that hugged the damp ground and rose up to hide even the light that gleamed for a ways outside the tepee fire. But soon there were small flames, and it was with some relief when I saw the whole pile was a crackling burst of flames. As they rose up higher, they lit up the darkness in a circle of bright light for some distance around.
My joy was short-lived when I could see the tree where the venison was hanging. What I saw under that tree was not encouraging. It must have surprised that bear as much as it did me. Anyway, the grizzly stood under the tree, large as life and twice as natural, and any fool could tell he didn’t like this a little bit. He stood his ground, all humped up ready to scrap, with the hair on his back standing up. He stood gazing and sniffing toward the bonfire, then would utter fierce growls. As In-who-lise and I crouch inside, watching all this, our terror soon changed to sighs of relief, for the bear calmly and deliberately squats his huge bulk down on his haunches, as though we were not worthy of his notice any longer. He still faced the bonfire and once in a while would lift up his head and sniff up at the venison hanging on the limb. We could see him plainly, not over seventy-five feet away, and it would be easy to plug him with the buffalo gun. The only thing that is bothering me now is whether I could lay him out for good the first shot. I did not want to wound him, since in five or six bounds, fire or no fire, we would have a mad grizzly on top of us. I decided to shoot him in the head, but as I started to raise up the gun, In-who-lise pushed the gun down. The grizzly was still sitting contented on his haunches under the tree.
We ought to have known that everything was coming along too good to be true. Suddenly I saw a flash of gray come out of the darkness behind the grizzly. It was so quick I knew it was Spe-lee, our treacherous and vicious wolf dog, mean and large as any wolf. Spe-lee in her sneaking way fears nothing that has its back turned to her. She had given the grizzly a snapping nip on his rump. The bear roared with rage, and at the same time half turning, sent his mighty paw with its long claws swishing through the air at her, but it was too late; Spe-lee was not there. This was now a busy time for the grizzly. Another wolfish form came springing at him out of the darkness. It is Kalo-o-too (Short Tail), another of our Indian dogs with all the sneaking propensities of his wolfish ancestors. Quick as a flash he nips the grizzly on the other side and disappears into the darkness quicker than he came. Spe-lee and him are resenting in their own way the grizzly running them out of camp. With surprising agility, the grizzly springs into action, crunching his teeth in rage. With an active, springy motion that was surprising for one so clumsy-looking, he hurled himself off into the darkness. It developed into a running fight between our dogs and the grizzly. The grizzly chased the whole bunch around near the tepee; one of the dogs would come dashing in between the bonfire and the tepee and would try to get inside with us. I would quickly prod him, yelping, back outside with my gun barrel. It went this way for some time; we were badly scared. In-who-lise has the carbine and I the buffalo gun, with one of us crouching on each side of the flap, the sweat pouring off us from the heat of the bonfire. To make it worse, we could plainly hear above the howls and snarls of our dogs the roars of anger from the grizzly every time a dog nipped him. Then would come the crashing and tearing as he chases after the dogs through the willows and brush on each side of the small creek behind our camp. Around and around they went, with us terror-stricken and every minute expecting the dogs and the grizzly to come crashing through the back of the tepee on top of us. We were not sorry when we saw our seven dogs go flying by, scattered, and take off up the trail toward the old Nez Perce camp, with the grizzly bounding along a few yards behind them in hot pursuit.