- 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
When it got light enough to see for a short distance, I went to my saddle horse. I could see by the circle he cut in the ground during the night that he had run several miles at the end of the lariat, trying to pull the picket pin to get away. Coming into camp with him, he had a whiff of the dead grizzly lying in front of the tepee. With a snort of terror, he rears up and wheels around, taking me along with him. I held on with both hands. The horse dragged me along like a wooden toggle, through the grass and brush at a stagecoach clip, headed for the hills. I knew that if I let the lariat run through my bare hands, it would burn my hands to the bone. If I let the lariat go, I’d lose the horse. My chance came as the horse tried to make it around a clump of willows. Being unable to pull me around it, he finds himself hung up. I soon had him snubbed fast to the butt of the willow clump.
Hearing the racket I made cussing the horse, In-who-lise came running over. Both of us, after plenty more trouble, got him snubbed up to a small cottonwood tree about a hundred feet away from camp. While this horse was otherwise gentle enough, and thought nothing of running among or leaping over dead buffalo, still he would not stand for a bear. We tried our damnedest, but this was as close as we could get him into camp.
After the dragging I got, I was some sight to see. I had to pack my saddle from camp over to my horse, who is still snorting and rearing up on the short end of the lariat. After even more trouble, I got the saddle on him and had him cinched up.
I was now in bad humor and out to fight someone. Having no one else to fight, I lit into In-who-lise, telling her them dead Indian relations of hers up in the gulch were bad medicine—that her father’s and Red Heart’s spirits had it in for me and were out to get me because I was a white man. I blamed them for all our troubles here and even accused them of putting the devil in that grizzly’s head. In-who-lise only stood there and bore it all with downcast eyes and in silence. This hurt me worse than a tongue-lashing would have done.
I told her to cover the dead grizzly with saddle blankets and to burn some venison in the fire. We would never get the other horses back to camp if they got a whiff of the bear. Then I rode up the trail. I gave my saddle horse the rein, and he lit out at a furious lope, which just suited my humor.
As I have said, I was born down on the Rio Grande in southwest Texas and near the New Mexico line, being of Spanish-American extraction and of a people who even at that time still clung to the superstitious beliefs of the dark ages. As a kid at home, I had been taught as the gospel truth to believe in ghosts and witches in league with the devil, which could only be warded off by charms. What’s more, I had been living for the last ten months in a Pend d’Oreille buffalo camp, hearing their superstitious talk about their evil spirits of the river of death and of Indian devils that haunted certain spots, lying in wait for the unwary to do them evil.
As I drove the horses down that gulch, far away from the haunts of white men, amid those towering hills that rose up to the skies on all sides of me, my superstitious mind was fully aroused. I could not help thinking about the way things had come to pass for me ever since yesterday morning, ever since I had returned the skeletons of Gray Eagle and Red Heart to mother earth. Obviously, my well-intended acts must have done their spirits more harm than good. It seemed I was the intended victim of sinister forces. Dolefully I became convinced that there was surely something to this Indian belief that a dead scalped warrior became forever an evil spirit in the dark. Even Susie had refused to touch the skeleton of Gray Eagle, her own father. This ought to have been warning enough for me.
The more I pondered over this, the surer I became that this gulch was haunted by evil spirits. And worse still, they were out to get me! Anyone could tell by the way that grizzly acted last night that it was possessed of the devil. I would have been dead long before now, I decided, but fortunately for Susie and me, I wore tied to my neck in a small buckskin sack a potent talisman that I had got in the buffalo camp; it made me immune particularly against the machinations of any evil spirits or Indian devils that might beset my way. Though they could torment me, yet still they could not destroy me. To afford me even greater security, as those evil spirits and Indian haunts were hard to see and harder still to hit with a bullet, I had a charm of weasel skin and raven feathers tied to the trigger guard of my carbine. This was to guarantee I would hit anything I aimed at.