Ben Lilly and the Desert Grizzly, From the Archives
The famous mountain man and his pack of hounds stalks a bear in Old Mexico
ONE AFTERNOON in the spring of the year 1910, Ben Lilly with five of his dogs swung off the caboose of a freight train at the little Mexican town of Gallegos in the state of Chihuahua.
It had been an arduous ride and Lilly was sick of the train smells and the constant jolting over the roadbed. The dogs, too, seemed dispirited as he called to them. He addressed as “Lady” a lightly built black-and-white spotted bitch who nuzzled his hand. A red hound, whose drooping ears and watery eyes indicated bloodhound ancestry, was “Red.” “Trailer” was a nondescript animal with a black body and cinnamon-colored underpinnings. A fourth hound, “Jim,” showed Airedale and a dash of beagle. The last—a puppy—had not yet been given a name.
With his dogs gathered around him, Lilly stood and watched the hated train disappear. He was an ancient, bearded man dressed in rough clothing. His shoes were looped together with rawhide, his trousers were tied with twine around the ankles, and there were turkey feathers in his hat. A mane of white hair hung over forehead and ears like a forkful of hay, and his pale blue eyes had the direct, fixed intensity of a wolf.
As I said in an earlier article in Outdoor Life (May 1948), Ben Lilly was one of the great hunters of his time. He made his living by hiring out his talents to ranchers of the Southwest and Mexico whose stock was menaced by predatory animals. Usually Lilly roamed the mountainous country alone. But this time he had arranged to meet an old friend and serve as guide on a bear hunt. And, like most of Lilly’s adventures, it was to develop into one of the most remarkable outings on record.
As the smoke from the train blended with the desert haze to the south, Lilly shouldered his battered gunny sack and his carefully oiled .33 Winchester rifle. The flag-stop station master looked eagerly from his doorway at the stranger. Visitors were few at Gallegos and this one, he thought, would be a welcome diversion. But Lilly didn’t even acknowledge his greeting. He simply lifted his gunny sack higher on his shoulder and set off past the scattered Mexican huts toward the mountains to the west. He planned to scout the terrain for a month before the arrival of his hunting companion, and he had no time for idle chatter. That was Ben Lilly’s way.
In the days that followed, he circled the jagged ranges in that part of Chihuahua like a Mexican wolf on the prowl.
The area was much like the high country of Arizona and New Mexico. Desert valleys, flat and gently sloping, were scarred by great dry washes and fringed with mesquite. Each range to the west was higher and more rugged. On the upper elevations the mesquite gave way to oak bushes and scattered pines. Here and there in the higher canyons streams flowed over rocky beds. The watercourses were banked by willows and green shrubs, and along them the wild animals gathered. Tracks were everywhere.
In the spring the desert ranges of Chihuahua are at their best. On lower ridges ocotillo and barrel cactus send forth flowers of flaming red and magenta. The ironwood shows delicate leaves amid its thorns, and the oaks begin to green. Thrilling notes of mocking birds are heard in the mesquite.
Through this awakening world Ben Lilly walked swiftly, leaning forward so that his keen eyes might detect any sign in the hard desert soil and the sandy barrens. He was hunting, but not killing. He was prospecting the wild, desolate country for the life it contained.
Only once during the weeks of solitude did Lilly show any emotion. The incident took place in a lonely canyon in the third range to the west. In the middle of the sandy floor he knelt by an imprint and spanned it with outstretched fingers. It was fully eleven inches long—the perfect print of the hind foot of a huge bear. In front of the outline of the toes were the marks of arching claws. “Grizzly. A big boar,” Lilly muttered to himself.
After a month of solitary wandering, Ben Lilly had found what he had been seeking. By that time also he knew the canyons where the great bears lived. He knew where they fed and where they slept by day. And, with this information stored in his mind, he returned to the railroad and again stood before the little station house at Gallegos.
The man who met Ben Lilly there was an unusual character in his own right. Frank A. Sanborn for many years had owned the famous Sanborn restaurant in Mexico City, and he had hunted in every state in Mexico. The walls of his office were festooned with the skins and heads of every manner of big game that Mexico affords—every kind, that is, except the grizzly of Chihuahua.
Teamed Up for Action
Sanborn had already been at Gallegos station three days, but he knew better than to chide Lilly with being late for their rendezvous. Many years before, Sanborn realized, Lilly had discovered the real value of time. Time was a stuff to be used and not measured in artificial chunks.
Nor were the greetings between these two old friends effusive. Sanborn had hunted ocelots and jaguars in Tamaulipas with Ben Lilly. They had known each other for years and yet the words which passed between them were the simple greetings of men who had met casually over a business deal.
Sanborn, a farseeing man, had already hired a passable wagon powered by a team of ill-matched mules. The station master, who had made the arrangements, provided a native driver and also had exacted the promise that the precious mules should not be taken into the mountains where they would certainly be killed by “sunburned bears.” The wagon was to take the two hunters to the west as far as the Carmen ranch and carry such equipment as the frugal men deemed necessary. As the dry-wheeled vehicle rumbled away from Gallegos station on that April day, the hounds moved in its shadow to escape the midmorning heat and Ben Lilly walked at the side. The hunter, at that time nearing his sixtieth year, scorned the aid of a wagon.
A Strange, Silent Company
At the pace of a pair of plodding mules the strange company moved west. Day after day the wagon creaked on. Each night a camp was made. The mules nibbled on the mesquite leaves and shifted their hobbled legs as they moved from clump to clump in the darkness. The hounds curled up on the fringe of the heat from the small fire and were silent. There was none of the usual camp banter and good-natured conversation. The two hunters spoke only when it was necessary. Even the usually talkative wagon driver cared for his animals and loaded and unloaded the wagon without comment.
On several occasions the dogs, trotting behind the wagon, showed an inclination to deviate down some side canyon as though exciting smells were apparent to them even in those dry places. Each time when Ben Lilly examined the area ahead of the dogs he found mountain-lion tracks and, in one instance, the large round tracks of a jaguar. So many were the tracks in the foothills of the Sierra Madre that the two hunters kept a constant watch lest the hounds start off on an unwanted lion chase.
On the sixth day after leaving the railroad, the two hunters made camp well up in the mouth of a canyon which led from a dark mountain range higher than those they had passed. Amid the rugged rocks and sprawling ridges Ben Lilly had found the monster grizzly tracks. And from this point he was ready to renew the chase. With the camp as a base for the hunt, the disgruntled driver and his wagon would no longer be needed. He headed back to Gallegos.
The black-rock canyons which towered above their camping place were the lair of the rare Chihuahua grizzlies and both hunters felt an exhilaration at the nearness of regal game although neither gave any outward indication of excitement. In spite of their unswerving insistence that the hunt was for desert grizzlies, the first animals which fell to their rifles were quite another sort of bag.
The first morning of actual hunting was hot with the promise of approaching summer in the heat waves which rose from lava rocks. As before, Ben Lilly started out ahead of his dogs to explore the territory and locate the tracks of the grizzlies. He and Sanborn walked in silence up the floor of the canyon as it ascended steeply between towering walls. On these rocky sides lichens grew in a profusion of dark and light greens, punctuated here and there with orange splotches like drops of cosmic paint on a black background.
Sanborn, thrilling to the beauty around him, looked up to where the blue of the sky was framed by canyon walls. A hawk circled on motionless wings as it rode a warm current of air. At the same time, Sanborn noticed the barest suggestion of movement on a rocky ledge. Then he distinguished a tawny body with a salmon-colored head. “Lion,” he whispered excitedly, as he clutched his companion’s arm.
Lilly nodded with no show of emotion. “Shoot him,” was his only comment.
Carefully, Sanborn raised his rifle and centered the sights on the shoulder of the large yellow lion that lay on the ledge. The cat, with green eyes and quizzically erected ears, was stretched out in a comfortable position. Only the long tail twitched back and forth to show that it was alive at all.
The blast of the rifle shot was deafening between the narrow walls. Each echo crowded and magnified the original noise, only dying away at last as the sound bounced from side to side down the twists and turns of rock. The graceful cat shape bunched in the middle and quivered with the impact of the heavy bullet. Then the feline body suddenly relaxed, slumped over the edge of the rock, and fell in a twisting turn to the canyon bottom.
Even while the echoes were cascading back and forth, another tawny form jumped up from the same ledge and bounded off with long, graceful strides. Automatically Sanborn levered another cartridge into his Winchester. The rifle roared a second time and again the blast of sound enveloped the hunters. It was a running shot and a difficult one, but the snub-nosed bullet caught the fleeing lion in the center of the back. The big cat, as large as the first, doubled up like a porcupine and rolled over on the narrow ledge. Then, still kicking and clawing, it dropped from the rocky wall, bounced once on a projecting ledge below, and fell heavily to the canyon floor. The hounds raged excitedly toward the two bodies that had plummeted unexpectedly out of an empty sky.
“That was a good shot,” Ben Lilly remarked quietly. Compliments came rarely from him. This one was treasured by Sanborn all the rest of his life.
The next day being Sunday, Ben Lilly did not move from camp. He never hunted or worked on the Sabbath. The one day in seven was set aside for renewing spiritual strength for the six arduous days that followed. Nor did Lilly usually talk of hunting and killing on a Sunday. Sanborn knew this custom well, but his time was running short.
“Mr. Lilly,” Sanborn began—even old acquaintances addressed Lilly in this formal fashion. The hunter, however, did not raise his head from his battered Bible. He was reading about the children of Israel and of their journeys into the desert. His hand stroked the back of the hound stretched out beside him.
“Mr. Lilly,” Sanborn began again, “how long do you think it will take us to get the big boar grizzly with the eleven-inch track?”
One—at Least—Was Confident
Lilly raised his eyes and answered slowly. Questions of time were almost incomprehensible to him. “In two or three months we will catch them all,” he said. The redoubtable hunter always viewed the future with certainty. He was that confident of his own abilities.
Not supplied with this assurance, Sanborn was perturbed. “But Mr. Lilly, I can’t stay near that long. I must return to Mexico City.…”
Sanborn’s phrase trailed off as the prospect of an unsuccessful hunt appeared more certain. Even Lilly seemed slightly disturbed, though whether it was because his reading had been interrupted or whether he thought the hunt would be a failure, it was difficult to tell.
It happened, however, that on the following morning somewhat earlier than usual, Lilly unchained the dogs and carefully wiped off his .33 Winchester rifle. There was an air of expectancy in these preparations.
On this Monday morning the mountain air was hazy yellow as are so many days in the Mexican summer. Cloud streamers strung off from the tips of the Sierra Madre that loomed obscurely above the two hunters and the dog pack. As was usual on these occasions, Ben Lilly led off. His step was sure and rapid and he leaned forward as though interested in the ground immediately in front of him. Even his keen-nosed dogs seemed to rely on the intuition and eyesight of their master. Sanborn walked behind, careful not to step on the dogs or to disturb Lilly by any word of careless talk. The silent group started directly up the boulder-strewn canyon which came out of the mountains near their camp. Lilly paused only occasionally in his rapid ascent. He seemed to know exactly where he was going. He stopped only now and then to glance briefly at some sandy spot or faint depression in the fine gravel.
Toward noon Lilly halted as suddenly as he had started. He leaned his rifle in the shady side of a boulder and squatted down in the shadow. Only then did he look behind him. Sure enough, Sanborn was still in the hunt; many a lesser man would have been straggling far in the rear after seven hours of such arduous going.
“That boar grizzly that we are going to catch is gray on the back and brown on the belly,” Lilly said abruptly.
Sanborn must have looked his surprise even while he panted.
“And the bear has a dark stripe down the middle of his back,” Lilly continued as though to press his advantage while Sanborn was mentally off balance.
“How in the world would you know what color the bear is before we catch him?” Sanborn asked incredulously.
“This is a desert bear,” Ben Lilly replied bluntly. “All the desert bears are so sunburned they have a stripe down the back.”
As Lilly took up his rifle and turned to go, Sanborn was still scratching his head and mumbling to himself. He may have been addressing the dogs for he was careful not to speak loudly enough so that Lilly could hear. “Sunburned indeed! And he hasn’t even seen him yet,” he murmured as he started up the rock-tumbled floor of the canyon.
All that day the hunters circled on the eastern side of the mountains south of the Carmen ranch. During this time Lilly, with the keen perception so peculiar to him, had noted a dozen different bear trails—including the track of the big boar grizzly he wanted to catch first. But none of these indications were fresh enough to satisfy his practiced eye. During this time the dogs had found no scent whatsoever.
The next day also passed without particular incident. The hunters found a fresh jaguar track near their camp. The big cat prints beckoned the sensitive noses of the hounds, but Lilly was as sharp with his canine helpers as he had been with Sanborn. The jaguar would have to wait.
On the third day the hunters paralleled the base of the mountain range and tried another canyon far to the north. In this place where a trickle of mountain moisture oozed from the rocks, Indians had built a communal building. About 1,000 years ago this had been a place teeming with humans; now it was desolate and deserted. The walls of the dwelling had long ago tumbled. Only the rectangular form of the ruin was still apparent. In the jumbled masonry of the roofless rooms, prickly pear cactus had found a purchase; it colored the dark stone with clumps of desert green.
Skirting the side of the ruin, Lilly trotted ahead. His step quickened as though he sensed the nearness of the quarry. How could he know that they would find it there? But there it was—the fresh track of a gigantic bear! Lilly ran ahead for several yards along the track as though to make sure. Even to an unpracticed eye, the imprints were burning-fresh. No desert wind had blurred the outlines. Even the thin marks made by creases on the sole of the animal’s leathery pads were plainly visible.
Only then did Lilly turn to whistle the hounds. The animals, excitedly drinking in the bear scent on the rocks, came dashing toward the hunter as he swung his arm close to the ground beside him. The hounds broke into full cry as they passed the spot. The strong scent of male grizzly radiated up from the footprints in the dirt.
The Mark of the Killer
Hound legs are faster than human ones on any kind of terrain. That was especially evident in this canyon as the bear track led into tumbled mazes of a rock-strewn gorge divided and subdivided into a dozen twisting, turning corridors of multicolored stone. There was. practically no vegetation at these lower levels and dogs and men scrambled and stumbled over the rock piles as best they could. Soon the dogs raced out of sight.
Sanborn panted to keep up with Lilly, who seemed to move without visible exertion. He trotted easily over the rough ground as though he were constantly going downhill.
When the two men rounded the shoulder of a crooked gorge, they saw the dogs milling around a dark form on the canyon floor. It seemed to be of fur and skin and yet it did not move. A vulture sat on a rocky pinnacle a few yards above the heads of the hounds, its wings outstretched to dry in the first rays of sun penetrating the rocky depths.
Suddenly the hound music broke out afresh. What had been scattered and half-hearted barks a moment before now became a crescendo of sound. The rocky walls resounded with the noise as the dogs moved quickly up the canyon. In a moment they were gone.
The two hunters broke into a dead run. They saw, as they approached, that the shapeless thing on the floor of the canyon was all that remained of a longhorn cow. The creature had been dead some time and the skin was dried tight over whitened bones. But in places the maggots swirled in moist pockets. Here and there were red spots where the vulture had pulled at drying flesh. All around the miserable carcass were the tracks of a gigantic bear—a grizzly with eleven-inch prints.
“Jumped him,” yelled Lilly with as much excitement as he ever displayed. Sanborn saved his breath for the grueling chase ahead.
Echoes of a Running Battle
The cry of the hounds was dying in the distance but even in its echo there was a new note. It was a staccato noise that rose and fell. Every minute or so some whim of the faint wind made the barking more audible. It became sharp and high-pitched as when hunting dogs face their quarry. There were snarls, too, and mouthed noises as of animals barking and growling when, at the same time, their teeth are full of fur and flesh.
Those were sounds that heat any hunter’s blood to the pitch of fever. There is no exhaustion so complete that the noise of a hound pack fighting a bear will not drive a man to get into the fight. But even Ben Lilly, that hardy traveler, could not get there in time. In a few moments the noise of the dogs and the fighting bear had moved farther and farther into the distance. Finally it died to a murmur echoing faintly from the high mountain cliffs at the head of the canyon.
As Sanborn came up to the spot where the dogs had brought the bear to bay, Lilly was examining the ground as though he sought to wring every scrap of information from it. “Smart bear,” he said. “Smarter than I thought.”
Sanborn knew better than to ask a foolish question. Without urging, Lilly quite kindly pointed out how the grizzly had taken advantage of every rock and boulder on the canyon floor. Here he had backed against a stone fragment as he fought the hound pack. Over on the other side he had used two large pieces of lava to protect his flanks and guard him from the onslaughts of the dogs from all directions at once. There was blood on the ground in this place and a great spurt of red where an animal’s body had brushed against the side of a fallen rock fragment. One of the contestants was hurt and bleeding enough so that blood stained the trail.
From the long canyon where the dead cow lay, the bear took to higher ground and the cliffs. Straight up a precipitous ridge the tracks of the bear and the dogs mounted. Above on the higher slopes, were scattered pines. In the hollows, clumps of oak brush were mixed with thin-leafed sotol. But here, as everywhere in these mountains, it was dry and rocky.
Pulling and clawing their way along by means of branches and projecting rocks, the two hunters ascended the sharp spur ridge toward the highest peaks of the Sierra Madre. In spots they could see where the dirt had been thrown back by the climbing bear or the feet of hounds. The two men climbed almost to the very crest of the mountains before they heard the barking of the dogs above and ahead. And late in the afternoon they found them gathered dejectedly beneath the sheer face of a fifteen-foot cliff.
Time Out for Darkness
Here the dogs had paced back and forth striving to find some way up. Even though the ground was packed and trampled by the pack, the marks where the grizzly had jumped were still plain to Ben Lilly. The hunter stroked his beard for a moment as though undecided what the next move would be. He gave no evidence of discouragement.
“This is as good a place as any,” were the only words he said to Sanborn, who stood patiently by as though waiting for the decision of a tribunal. Lilly scooped out a flat place at the foot of the cliff and then began to gather firewood. That task done, he sat down and examined the right shoulder of the dog he called Jim. The flesh was laid open in a three-inch gash. Evidently the claw of the bear had swept down, barely missing a death blow. Lilly tested the depth of the wound with his fingers and pulled the skin tentatively over the gaping flesh. He finally patted the dog’s head and quieted the other hounds, as though trying to dissuade them from leaping at the face of the rock where the grizzly had gone.
The men spent the night on the side of the mountain huddled together with their hounds around a small fire that burned low every half hour. It is cold in the Mexican mountains even in the spring and their camp at the foot of the cliff was unprotected from the mountain wind.
Next morning the two hunters stirred early. Even the dogs had been uncomfortable and were anxious to go long before there was a suggestion of sunrise. Only Jim whimpered and licked Ben Lilly’s hand. The dog was stiff and could not use his right foreleg at all. The pack was thus reduced to four, and Jim gradually fell back while the others circled the foot of the cliff looking for a place to ascend.
It was an hour later in the early morning darkness before they found a way up, and another hour before they were back on the bear track. Here Lilly was as keen as his dogs in following the scent. Many times during the morning he circled ahead of them, calling softly to the hounds when he found the track and indicating the direction the grizzly had followed.
Sanborn was silent during these times. He was tired, his clothes were torn, and his bones ached from the rough rocks of the bed on which he had spent an almost sleepless night. But he was thankful, too. He was thankful that Ben Lilly was not following him. There was a businesslike tenacity about Lilly that was sinister and sure. No barrier, no cliff, nothing in all these rough Mexican mountains could stop him from reaching the end of the track.
Late in the afternoon they saw the grizzly. As before, the hounds had been barking without much enthusiasm. Suddenly the great body of the bear burst from an oak thicket at the head of a small valley. The animal was the color of the dead oak leaves that he scattered before him, and sure enough, even at that distance the hunters could see that down his back ran a dark stripe as broad as a man’s hand. The dogs broke into an ecstatic chorus of yelps and barks, and streamed across the little valley on the heels of the fleeing animal. Sanborn thought that he could see a smile on the bearded face of Ben Lilly. Certainly everyone in the party, dogs included, felt that the end was near.
Over a low ridge on the side of the mountain was another valley like the one in which the bear had been lying. There was an open spot at the head of the slope where some volcanic upthrust of a millennium before had spewed out a tongue of lava. The running hounds crossed the ridge into the mountain glade and drew close to the rocks. Panting after the sharp run, the hunters stood on the very lip of the valley.
The grizzly was below them. He had run straight into the volcanic rocks and backed against the jumbled pile. A great mass of beavertail cactus grew out of the lava at one side and swept around in a riot of green plaques studded with long white spines. The bear could not have chosen a better place to make a stand. Angular fragments of lava formed an impenetrable barrier beside and in back of his crouching form. The cactus protected his other side. The hounds would have to attack the bear straight on into his gleaming teeth. As if to remind any audacious dog of the penalty, the bear opened and shut his powerful jaws with a noise that was like the slamming of a huge iron door.
Climax to a Mountain Drama
Lilly appraised the situation in a single glance and broke into a run down the slanting side of the little valley. Once the pin-point eyes of the bear glanced up from the surging dogs to view the man as he approached. Once too, the bear swung his head behind him as though considering a scrambling escape up the rough stone. But the boar grizzly was tired. The two tenacious humans and the snarling hounds had followed him over thirty miles of the roughest mountains in Mexico. The breath that whistled through those grizzly jaws seemed to come from the base of his being and he stopped his heavy breathing only to growl or snap when a dog came too close.
As though afraid the grizzly would again escape, the dogs began to close in. When the bear turned his head toward one hound, another one lunged forward to slash at the side of his neck or snap at his outstretched paw. Again and again as a dog surged in, the grizzly tried to gather the audacious hound into his gaping jaws. This was a desert grizzly, a sunburned bear with a stripe down his back, but he fought with the same tenacity as the silverhaired bears of the north. A hound swept into that voracious mouth would be dead in a hurry. But in spite of these dangers, the dogs formed a ring of menace in front of the cornered grizzly. Their barking was a rising flood of angry noise, and the very fury of their attack seemed to drive the bear back upon himself.
Even before Lilly had come close enough to join the fight, the dogs sensed a kill. So closely did they press the embattled animal that finally he rose upon his hind legs to battle from that height. His breath came quickly, as though he too foresaw a climax to the mountain drama. Blood and saliva dripped from the corner of his mouth and spread down the fur of his belly in gleaming pink and white drops. His sides heaved in and out beneath the grizzled fur like a concertina with a leaky seam. He ran a pink tongue over the black end of his nose.
The Real Foe at Last
A hound more daring than the others rushed in, seized a mouthful of belly fur, and twisted his head from side to side as though trying to tear the flesh from the very body of the bear. The grizzly, squealing with pain, fell forward to pull the luckless hound into his jaws. His nose turned straight up, and his black lips curled back from a double row of wet fangs. This was the end of one brave dog. But no! Just as the bear dropped forward, another dog grabbed him by the side of the face. As the infuriated grizzly turned sidewise to snap at the new aggressor a third hound bit into his shoulder. Roaring in rage and pain the grizzly ground his jaws together; his teeth grated like ore in a stamping mill. He straightened and twisted, his huge belly jerking as he did so. The dog clinging to the fur of his shoulder shook loose, sailed to the rough rocks, and lay still. The other hounds, their holds shaken by the fury of the movement, slipped away and escaped by scant inches the downward sweep of those grizzly claws.
By this time Lilly had joined the dogs and leaned forward in a crouching position behind them. So furious was the encounter that neither the hounds nor the grizzly saw him approach. To add to the hazards, it was growing dark. The twilight arch was already sliding out over the desert sky and the color of the bear grew dimmer in the shadow of the rocks.
Sanborn, still 100 yards away, could take no part in the battle. Realizing this, Lilly pumped a shell into his Winchester and leaped among the dogs. The raking claws of the bear were inches from his face. Twice he raised the rifle but each time the bear lunged forward. The hounds jostling the hunter’s legs also made it difficult, even at pointblank range, to make a sure kill. And a wounded grizzly at those close quarters loomed like the shadow of death.
In the increasing darkness, the huge bear seemed larger still. The whites of his eyes gleamed luminous from the dark face and his slashing jaws opened and clamped shut in flashes of white teeth and bloody saliva. And, as he reared up, the animal saw the man before him. The red-rimmed eyes that had darted from dog to dog now centered on the crouching form of Ben Lilly, and a film of recognition seemed to pass across those staring grizzly eyes. The air in the bear’s bloody nostrils was rank with the smell of a hated human. And the grizzly seemed to realize, at last, that here was the real antagonist.
Still erect on his hind legs and heedless of the hounds on his belly, the bear lunged forward. His massive forearms and curving claws swept wide to crush the head of the hunter. His jaws opened and a roaring growl rumbled foul-breathed from his throat. There was a flash of movement as the polished barrel of the rifle came up. At the same moment, the bear’s body started to descend like the bole of a giant fir. Gaping jaws seemed to close on the muzzle of the rifle itself.
A Blast of Fire—and Silence
There was a smothered report and a flash of yellow flame in the semidarkness. For an instant the bloody teeth and jaws of the bear were outlined in red light as though the animal had breathed a blast of fire from his throat. Then there was a sigh and a silence filled with the acrid smell of powder. Slowly, like a tree going down, the body of the bear fell full-length among the dogs. A limp paw grazed the shoulder of the hunter who stood motionless with a rifle that curled smoke from its barrel. The dogs, quiet now, licked their wounds.
Lilly and Sanborn made camp by the fallen bear. They stripped the hide back and ate some of the coarse flesh from the grizzly’s loin. Lilly also pulled some tendons from along the backbone and with this sinew he carefully sewed up the cut in one hound’s shoulder. The young, nameless puppy was dead; another hound was hurt but would recover. It was a grim and silent group of victors that lay or squatted around the fire in the mountain valley. A poorwill called from the rocks below and a tired hound groaned in his sleep.
Ben Lilly, his features as stern and impassive as the crests towering above the valley, stared out into the darkness. From the other side of the campfire, Sanborn could see the craggy profile of the hunter and, just beyond him like a mound of shadows, the body of the sunburned bear he had conquered.
Editor’s note: The last Mexican grizzly bear reportedly died in the 1960s, and the subspecies is presumed extinct. Read more OL+ stories.