THE OLD WEST it’s mine. I lived it. Ninety-three years have dulled my sight and made me tremble a little in my pins, but I still have memory. And in memory, the old West shines.
To see me today, pottering around my daughter Virginia’s house near Redding, California, you might not guess that I used to be a quick draw. But I was. Ah yes, I remember well the day I not only lived history, but made it.
I was 21 years old. On that hot Saturday afternoon in September 1897, our log cabin in the mountains between Inwood and Mount Lassen was sweltering with heat from Ma’s wood stove.
I brushed Maa’s venison stew from my mustache and scraped my chair. “Guess I’ll go over to where I got that big buck last week and see what Maje can whip up for me,” I said.
“Good idea, Elias,” Pa said. He always let me go hunting on Saturday afternoons. He didn’t hunt much himself, anymore. Great German that he was, the hard life of the pioneer was already driving him to the grave.
“Tonight is bath night, and don’t forget it,” Ma said, slamming the pots of stew into her bowl. “I don’t mean to keep this fire here all night to keep your water hot. And take some of that red brush you’ve been hiding behind. Come Sunday, the people here might want to throw you a eyes!”
“Folks I don’t like how I look, I can look elsewhere!” I took the rifle in my arms and strode to the door. I didn’t have to call my dog, Maje. He was waiting on the big flat rock we used for a doorway. He knew it was Saturday.
But first, maybe I should tell you something about that neck of the woods and how we got there.
Ma and Pa had brought us to California from Missouri in 1887, when I was 11 years old. They settled on a dry scrub oak farm near Inwood, in the hill country west of Mount Lassen. Later, they also bought a timber claim about 12 miles further up the high country.
Life on the frontier was rough and dangerous. Children were not pampered like they are now. People taught us to take care of ourselves. Pa taught me to hold a gun and I shot my first deer when I was 12 years old. The dark never scared me. I loved taking my dog and gun and hunting varmints at night. I have also learned the trap. With money from gifts and furs, I bought myself a Winchester .38-55 with a reloading rail.
This, the way I understood things, made me a man. From 14 onwards, I mostly just went for the wood claim. I split cedar shakes and fence posts, and hunted game enough to feed myself and family. Sometimes the rest of the family would come over for a few days to bring me store-bought snacks and take out the shakes and post-its.
Around 1893, several grizzly bears appeared in the area and caused quite a stir. A trapper named Greasy Baker killed one. That grizzly weighed 2,100 pounds. [Editor’s note: If this sounds excessive, remember that the California grizzly, now altogether extinct, was a tremendous species. There were a number of authenticated kills of bears weighing 1,600 pounds, and one in Kern County was reported to have been a 2,000-pounder.] Others simply disappeared. Some people allowed how they had come down from Alaska and gone back there.
I do not know. Alaska is a great hike from Shasta County – even for a grizzly. Either way, no one saw the grizzly hide again for about three years. Then, in 1896, Jeff Aldridge, a young man about my age who lived on a neighboring timber claim, found all that was left of a dead cow. And next to the brutally torn remains, he noticed the largest bear tracks he had ever seen.
Jeff brought his horse up to my seat. I took the horse, the gun, and the dogs, and we returned to the place of slaughter. I had tracked many bears, but those balls froze my blood. The front track was 11 inches, the rear 19! This beast was a monster.
Jeff and I kicked the horses home, put the scent on our dogs, and followed. All that day we trod the mountains—up wooded slopes, along ridges, down steep canyons, and through their roaring streams. That bear must have been traveling!
What put us to shame that day were our dogs. Jeff and I both had good dogs, but they didn’t like to share the hunt. As a herd, they were like jealous children. They spent more time hugging each other than after the bear. At sunset, hungry, tired and disgusted, we gave up the chase.
Word of that grizzly raised another roar and howl. The circle of people dropped everything to hunt the bear. But like the grizzlies of 1893, that beast just disappeared. In a month or so, people calmed down and forgot about the grizzlies.
Nothing was far from my mind that hot Saturday afternoon a year later when I set off, Winchester on my shoulder and Maje following on foot.
We passed the smokehouse where last weeks money strips were recovering. We crossed the clearing, climbed the cedar rail fence, and walked into the wood.
It was a day to make you happy that you are tall and strong, young and alive. Maje and I followed Bear Creek to the fork, then returned to the north fork. Ahead, a ridge, green with young fir and cedar woods, lit here and there with pieces of autumn wood.
Above all, like a queen on her throne, sat old Lassen. As hot as it was, it was hard to believe that the white cape around her shoulders could be snow. And as peaceful as it was, who could have guessed that the silent old woman was seething inside and would one day blow the top?
That September day was like the mountain—silent, peaceful—with no hint of the hot violence about to erupt.
Maje walked forward, nose to the ground, investigating every clump of brush or tangle of grain. He was a yellow dog with a covering of black hair along his spine and rump—half fat bear-dog, one-quarter grass, and one-quarter bloods. I had trained him myself, and once he got his nose on the scent, he never gave up.
Now Maje was passing birds and animals from a berry patch by the stream. Suddenly he stiffened. The thick black hairs along his spine stood up in a loud crackle.
His low, throaty noise told me he was getting something. “Go get him, Maje!” I said. He sniffed a few circles around the bushes. Then he was off, panting with excitement, across the pond and up the steep slope to the ridges. Sunlight streamed through the yellow, marcel-like waves along his wings. He crested the ridge and disappeared into a growth of thick young firs. I crept up behind him, listening, holding the rifle at the ready.
Suddenly, Maya’s long, wailing cry broke the silence of the trees. It was a mournful, almost blood-sucking sound – yet it rang with triumph.
I continued to climb. I had almost reached the ridge when something came stirring through the dense new growth. Not a deer. Even the most money makes a restrictive sound.
Then, directly above me, a large grizzly brown bear came out of the young trees, saw me, and stopped.
Fight to the death
I pulled the trigger. The huge animal reared up on its hind legs, towered over me for a moment clutching its front legs like wings around its chest, then swooped down on me.
I slammed back, working the lever on the Winchester and fired again, and again, and again. Towards the end, the huge beast came down so close that I had to keep fighting to keep from being crushed. Then he lost sight in a deep brush pit.
I followed him, slipping and sliding on the steep slope. Maje found it first. When I saw the bear again, half hidden in the brush and rocks, Maje was coming up with an apparently dead brute. Scoffing and mocking, he would rush close, grab her lovely face, dodge her back.
As I approached, the gray suddenly raised his large head. With a furious growl, he grabbed Maya under his large gray paw and pulled her under his chest. Then he collapsed again. Maje froze, a writhing, howling bundle of horror imprisoned between the bear’s head and chest.
I still had two bullets, but the bear’s head was very much mixed with Maya’s head, tail and legs as she thrashed furiously. I lost my head. I just dove in and started beating that bear.
Again the bear gathered. With a throaty growl, he raised his head and hit me. Then Maje tried free.
I shot the bear then. When he went down that time, I knew he was going to stay.
Yes, I had my moment in history. But, as Pa used to say, “We grow old too soon and smart too late.” If I had life to live again… But what good are regrets?
The old west is dead. It lives only in the memories of a few old pioneers. My eyes may be dark, but I can still see things that young people can’t. I can still look almost 72 years later – right into the snarling jaws of the last grizzly in Shasta County.
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