A Very Narrow Shave by John Lang
One winter's day in San Francisco my friend Halley, an enthusiastic shot
who had killed bears in India, came to me and said, "Let's go south. I'm
tired of towns. Let's go south and have some real tip-top shooting."
In the matter of sport, California in those days—thirty years
ago—differed widely from the California of to-day. Then, the sage brush
of the foot-hills teemed with quail, and swans, geese, duck
(canvas-back, mallard, teal, widgeon, and many other varieties)
literally filled the lagoons and reed-beds, giving magnificent shooting
as they flew in countless strings to and fro between the sea and the
fresh water; whilst, farther inland, snipe were to be had in the swamps
almost "for the asking." On the plains were antelope, and in the hills
and in the Sierra Nevadas, deer and bears, both cinnamon and grizzly.
Verily a sportsman's paradise!
The next day saw us on board the little Arizona, bound for San Pedro,
a forty-hours' trip down the coast. We took with us only shot-guns,
meaning to try for nothing but small game. At San Pedro, the port for
Los Angeles (Puebla de los Angeles, the "Town of the Angels"), we
landed, and after a few days' camping by some lagoons near the sea,
where we shot more duck than could easily be disposed of, we made our
way to that little old Spanish settlement, where we hired a horse and
buggy to take us inland.
Our first stopping-place was at a sheep-ranche, about fifty miles from
Los Angeles, a very beautiful property, well grassed and watered, and
consisting chiefly of great plains through which flowed a crystal-clear
river, and surrounded on very side by the most picturesque of hills,
1,000 to 1,500 feet in height.
The ranche was owned by a Scotsman, and his "weather-board" house was
new and comfortable, but we found ourselves at the mercy of the most
conservative of Chinese cooks, whom no blandishments could induce to
give us at our meals any of the duck or snipe we shot, but who stuck
with unwearying persistency to boiled pork and beans. And on boiled pork
and beans he rang the changes, morning, noon, and night; that is to say,
sometimes it was hot, and sometimes it was cold, but it was ever boiled
pork and beans. At its best it is not a diet to dream about (though I
found that a good deal of dreaming could be done upon it), and as we
fancied, after a few days, that any attraction which it might originally
have possessed had quite faded and died, we resolved to push on
The following night we reached a little place at the foot of the higher
mountains called Temescal, a very diminutive place, consisting, indeed,
of but one small house. The surroundings, however, were very beautiful,
and the presence of a hot sulphur-spring, bubbling up in the scrub not
one hundred yards from the house, and making a most inviting natural
bath, coupled with the favourable reports of game of all kinds to be
got, induced us to stop. And life was very pleasant there in the crisp
dry air, for the quail shooting was good, the scenery and weather
perfect, everything fresh and green and newly washed by a two days'
rain, the food well cooked, and, nightly, after our day's shooting, we
rolled into the sulphur-spring and luxuriated in the hot water.
But Halley's soul began to pine for higher things, for bigger game than
quail and duck. "Look here," he said to me one day, "this is all very
well, you know, but why shouldn't we go after the deer amongst the
hills? We've got some cartridges loaded with buckshot. And, my word! we
might get a grizzly."
"All right," I said, "I'm on, as far as deer are concerned, but hang
your grizzlies. I'm not going to tackle them with a shot-gun."
So it was arranged that next morning, before daylight, we should go,
with a boy to guide us, up one of the numerous cañons in the mountains,
to a place where we were assured deer came down to drink.
It was a cold, clear, frosty morning when we started, the stars
throbbing and winking as they seem to do only during frost, and we
toiled, not particularly gaily, up the bed of a creek, stumbling in the
darkness and barking our shins over more boulders and big stones than
one would have believed existed in all creation. Just before dawn, when
the grey light was beginning to show us more clearly where we were
going, we saw in the sand of the creek fresh tracks of a large bear, the
water only then beginning to ooze into the prints left by his great
feet, and I can hardly say that I gazed on them with the amount of
enthusiasm that Halley professed to feel.
But bear was not in our contract, and we hurried on another half-mile or
so, for already we were late if we meant to get the deer as they came to
drink; and presently, on coming to a likely spot, where the cañon
forked, Halley said, "This looks good enough. I'll stop here and send
the boy back; you can go up the fork about half a mile and try there."
And on I went, at last squatting down to wait behind a clump of
manzanita scrub, close to a small pool where the creek widened.
It was as gloomy and impressive a spot as one could find anywhere out of
a picture by Doré. The sombre pines crowded in on the little stream,
elbowing and whispering, leaving overhead but a gap of clear sky; on
either hand the rugged sides of the cañon sloped steeply up amongst the
timber and thick undergrowth, and never the note of a bird broke a
silence which seemed only to be emphasised by the faint sough of the
wind in the tree tops. Minute dragged into minute, yet no deer came
stealing down to drink, and rapidly the stillness and heart-chilling
gloom were getting on my nerves; when, far up the steep side of the
cañon opposite to me there came a faint sound, and a small stone
trickled hurriedly down into the water.
"At last!" I thought. "At last!" And with a thumping heart and eager eye
I crouched forward, ready to fire, yet feeling somewhat of a sneak and a
coward at the thought that the poor beast had no chance of escape. Lower
and nearer came the sound of the something still to me invisible, but
the sound, slight though it was, gave, somehow, the impression of bulk,
and the strange, subdued, half-grunting snuffle was puzzling to senses
on the alert for deer. Lower and nearer, and then—out into the open by
the shallow water he strolled—no deer, but a great grizzly.
My first instinct was to fire and "chance it," but then in stepped
discretion (funk, if you will), and I remembered that at fifteen or
twenty yards buckshot would serve no end but to wound and rouse to fury
such an animal as a grizzly, who, perhaps of all wild beasts, is the
most tenacious of life; and I remembered, too, tales told by
Californians of death, or ghastly wounds, inflicted by grizzlies.
My finger left the trigger, and I sat down—discreetly, and with no
unnecessary noise. He was not in a hurry, but rooted about sedately
amongst the undergrowth, now and again throwing up his muzzle and
sniffing the air in a way that made me not unthankful that the faint
breeze blew from him to me, and not in the contrary direction.
In due time—an age it seemed—after a false start or two, he went off
up stream, and I, wisely concluding that this particular spot was, for
the present, an unlikely one for deer, followed his example, and
rejoined Halley, who was patiently waiting where we had parted.
"I've just seen a grizzly, Halley," I said.
"Have you?" he almost yelled in his excitement. "Come on! We'll get
"I don't think I want any more of him," said I, with becoming modesty.
"I'm going to see if I can't stalk a deer amongst the hills. They're
more in my line, I think."
Halley looked at me—pity, a rather galling pity, in his eye—and,
turning, went off alone after the bear, muttering to himself, whilst I
kept on my course downstream, over the boulders, certain in my own mind
that no more would be seen of that bear, and keeping a sharp look-out on
the surrounding country in case any deer should show themselves.
I had gone barely half a mile when, on the spur of a hill, a long way
off, I spotted a couple of deer browsing on the short grass, and I was
on the point of starting what would have been a long and difficult, but
very pretty, stalk when I heard a noise behind me.
Looking back, I saw Halley flying from boulder to boulder, travelling
as if to "make time" were the one and only object of his life—running
after a fashion that a man does but seldom.
I waited till he was close to me, till his wild eyes and gasping mouth
bred in me some of his panic, and then, after a hurried glance up the
creek, I, too, turned and fled for my life.
For there, lumbering and rolling heavily along, came the bear, gaining
at every stride, though evidently sorely hurt in one shoulder. But my
flight ended almost as it began, for a boulder, more rugged than its
fellows, caught my toe and sent me sprawling, gun and cartridge-bag and
self in an evil downfall.
I picked myself up and grabbed for my gun, and, even as I got to my
feet, the racing Halley tripped and rolled over like a shot rabbit. It
was too late for flight now, and I jumped for the nearest big boulder,
scrambling up and facing round just in time to see the bear, fury in his
eyes, raise his huge bulk and close with Halley, who was struggling to
his feet. Before I could fire down came the great paw, and poor Halley
collapsed, his head, mercifully, untouched, but the bone of the upper
arm showing through the torn cloth and streaming blood.
I fired ere the brute could damage him further, fired my second barrel
almost with the first, but with no apparent result except to rouse the
animal to yet greater fury, and he turned, wild with rage, and came at
me. A miserably insignificant pebble my boulder seemed then, and I
remember vaguely and hopelessly wondering why I hadn't climbed a
tree. But there was small time for speculation, as I hurriedly, and with
hands that seemed to be "all thumbs," tried to slip in a couple of fresh
As is generally the case when one is in a tight place, one of the old
cases jammed and would not come out—they had been refilled, and had,
besides, been wet a few days before, and my hands were clumsy in my
haste—and so, finally, I had to snap up the breech on but one fresh
cartridge, throw up the gun, and fire, as the bear was within ten feet
I fired, more by good luck, I think, than anything else, down his great,
red, gaping mouth, and jumped for life as he crashed on to the rock
where I had stood, crashed and lay, furiously struggling, the blood
pouring from his mouth and throat, for the buckshot, at quarters so
close, had inflicted a wound ten times more severe than would have been
caused by a bullet.
I FIRED DOWN HIS GREAT, RED, GAPING MOUTH AND JUMPED FOR LIFE.
It was quite evident that the bear was done, but, for the sake of
safety—it does not do to leave anything to chance with such an
animal—I put two more shots into his head, and he ceased to struggle, a
great shudder passed over his enormous bulk, the muscles relaxed, and he
Then I hurried to where Halley lay. Poor chap! He was far spent, and
quite unconscious, nor was I doctor enough to know whether his wounds
were likely to be fatal, and my very ignorance made them seem the more
terrible. I tore my shirt into bandages, and did what I could for him,
succeeding after a time in stopping the worst of the bleeding; but I
could see very plainly that the left shoulder was terribly shattered,
and I thought, with a groan, of the fifty weary miles that one must send
for a doctor.
Presently he began to come to, and I got him to swallow a little brandy
from his flask, which revived him, and before long, after putting my
coat beneath his head, I left him and started for help.
It was a nightmare, that run. Remorse tore me for having let him start
after the bear alone, and never could I get from my mind the horrible
dread that the slipping of one of my amateur bandages might re-start the
bleeding, and that I should return to find only the lifeless body of my
friend; ever the fear was present that in the terribly rough bed of the
creek I might sprain my ankle, and so fail to bring help ere it was too
late. At times, too, my overstrung nerves were jarred by some sudden
sound in the undergrowth, or the stump of a tree on a hillside would
startle me by so exact a likeness to a bear, sitting up watching me, as
to suggest to my mind the probability of another bear finding and
mauling Halley whilst he lay helpless and alone.
But if my nerves were shaken, my muscles and wind were in good order,
and not even the most morbid self-consciousness could find fault with
the time spent on the journey. Luck favoured me, too, to this extent,
that almost as I got on to the road, or, rather, track, about a mile
from the inn, I met, driving a buggy, and bound for Los Angeles, a man
whose acquaintance we had made a few days before, and who, with much
lurid language, had warned us against going after bear.
His remarks now were more forcible than soothing or complimentary when I
explained the matter to him during the drive to the inn, where he
dropped me, himself going on for the doctor as fast as two horses could
It did not take us long to improvise a stretcher, and, with the willing
help of two men and of the landlady, in about three hours we had Halley
in his room. But a hideous walk it was down the cañon, every step we
made wringing a groan from the poor fellow except when he fainted from
The doctor did not arrive till the following morning, by which time the
wounds were in a dreadful condition, and it was touch and go for life,
while the doctor at first had no hope of saving the arm. But youth, and
time, and a strong constitution pulled him through, and in a couple of
weeks he was strong enough to describe to me how he had fallen in with
He had gone, it seemed, not to where I had seen the animal, but up a
branch cañon. At no great distance up he met the beast, making its way
leisurely across the creek, and, in his excitement, he fired both
barrels into the bear's shoulder; and then the same thing happened that
had happened to me—those refilled cartridges had jammed, and there was
nothing for it but to run for his life. Luckily he had badly lamed the
animal, or his chance of escape would have been nil, and, as it was,
in another two hundred yards the bear would have been into him.
Some days after the accident, the first day that I could leave Halley's
bedside, I went out to see if it was possible to get the skin of the
bear, but I found it badly torn, maybe by coyotes, and all that could be
got as trophies were his claws.
There they are now, hanging over the pipe-rack by the fireplace in my
snuggery in dear old England.