Now when the words which David spoke were heard, they reported them to Saul; and he sent for him. Then David said to Saul, “Let no man’s heart fail because of him; your servant will go and fight with this Philistine.”

And Saul said to David, “You are not able to go against this Philistine to fight with him; for you are a youth, and he a man of war from his youth.”

But David said to Saul, “Your servant used to keep his father’s sheep, and when a lion or a bear came and took a lamb out of the flock, I went out after it and struck it, and delivered the lamb from its mouth; and when it arose against me, I caught it by its beard, and struck and killed it. Your servant has killed both lion and bear; and this uncircumcised Philistine will be like one of them, seeing he has defied the armies of the living God.”

Moreover, David said, “The Lord, who delivered me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear, He will deliver me from the hand of this Philistine.”

(I Samuel 17:31-37, NKJV)

We rimmed out on the Little Creek Trail deep in the heart of the Gila Wilderness, finding more even and gentle terrain as we entered Mckenna Park from the east. Light snow flurries were beginning to descend, lightly touching our skin before instantly disappearing, but sticking to the pine needles and fading mountain ferns that enveloped the trail all around us. The light snow added a refreshing and magical dimension to the whole scene.

We had been riding for about seven hours, taking the lower, slower trail through the bottom of Little Creek, rather than the higher and quicker Ring Creek Trail that followed the ridge lines; hoping to spare horses, mules, and riders from the blustery north winds that assailed us. A cold front was moving down from the northwest and light snow was in the forecast. But it was the opening of elk season so here we were, hearts filled with excitement, taking in all the beauty of the Gila adorned in all its early fall regalia.

We had departed Woody’s corral early that morning, just past daybreak. It had been a pleasant ride, although we had not made good time, as Woody had hoped that we would, due to the continual need for the noble hunters we were escorting to continually stop, rest, and readjust before resuming our trek on up the trail. While the weather looked threatening, and our three guests seemed somewhat concerned about that, Woody had reassured them that we were very well provisioned and that the day presented nothing particularly worrisome or out of the ordinary for this time of year

It was now getting well past three o’clock in the afternoon as we hustled our critters along the trail, past Horse Spring, and over toward Rawmeat Creek; finally coming upon our intended campsite and Woody’s stash of supplies hidden beneath an old fallen pine a hundred yards or more off the trail.

Unlike some of our summer guests, these four fellers were seasoned hunters and accustomed to the outdoors and to roughing it; although they were not particularly experienced horsemen. They seemed to be old friends but had come from different places. Two were from the Albuquerque area, one from Las Cruces, and another from the eastern part of the state. Only Bill and Frank had drawn elk permits that year. The other two, Joel and Beau, were along for the experience.  They were all sensible folk, like most outdoorsmen, and seemed to manifest an acute awareness of the rugged beauty all around them and a deep appreciation for the rarity of the whole wilderness journey upon which they had embarked. For most people, even most seasoned hunters, a deep wilderness hunt accessible only by horseback, and with mule string in tow, is a once in a lifetime kind of experience.

We finally dismounted at our campsite with a crisp, cool evening breeze whispering through the tall pines and an occasional snowflake wisping about here and there. The sun was starting to sink toward the west, just barely peeking in and out through the wispy, windswept clouds. Woody told me to start unpacking the mules, but to leave the horses saddled. He wanted to get camp partially set up as quickly as possible and then take our hunters on a little scouting expedition to get a feel for where the elk would most likely be found the next morning.

So, with a little help from our guests, I quickly offloaded the panniers and unsaddled mules while Woody dug pots, pans, and other utensils out from under the old pine. After hobbling the mules, I put our four fifty-pound sacks of horse feed in two separate bag panniers, tied the handles to a rope, and then threw the rope over the tree limb of a big ponderosa standing nearby. We hoisted the panniers so that they were hanging about fifteen feet above the ground and then tied off the rope. I told my horses and mules that everybody would get fed when we got back from out little scouting expedition.

We quickly set up a pair of heavy-duty tarp tents and Woody commenced to blowing up his personal air mattress. It wasn’t a particularly thick or heavy mattress, barely enough to keep a feller off the ground, but it suited Woody’s small frame just fine and he seemed extremely fond of it. To him, it was a newfound technology that helped make the many nights he spent out in the woods each year just a bit more comfortable. Of course, I complained that I didn’t get to have one; not because I wanted one, I was fine sleeping in my thick bedroll, but just because I felt an obligation to fuss about it. My fussing was kind of a way of acknowledging that Woody was the ringleader and, therefore, entitled to a little special privilege.

We left all the rest of our food and supplies in the box panniers sitting beside the tents. I asked Woody if he wanted me to stay behind with the mules and get a fire going, but Woody said, “Naw… why don’t you just come on and go with us, we’ve only got an hour or so of daylight left, so we’ll be back pretty quick.”

While I was perfectly fine staying behind at camp by myself, I was happy to get to join the reverie of our little scouting party. However, as we headed out, I kind of felt like our guests were making a little too much noise—incessantly chatting about this and that—given the purpose of our expedition. But they were just excited, I guess, and didn’t seem too worried about trying to contain their excitement. And I appreciated the fact that it wasn’t simply the thrill of the hunt that had them going, so much as it was just being able to get so far back into the wilderness.

We left our Rawmeat Creek campsite and made a little circuit toward the north, then back east across Johnson Canyon. It was there that we came upon a broad swath of jagged ferns that had been cut through the landscape—the surefire sign of a fairly substantial elk herd. As we tracked the herd, the fellers quieted down significantly. We paused for a moment while Woody took out his homemade elk bugle, made from a piece of old hula-hoop, and gave a few calls. Our calls were answered from a distance; then all remained quiet for several more minutes. Woody called again, but the silence persisted.

We were about to move on when, suddenly, bursting forth out from under the low hanging bows of a young pine, came the biggest bull elk that I think I’ve ever seen in the Gila. To my mind’s eye, he must have been near a thousand pounds if he was an ounce. He looked to me to be almost as big as ole Rowdy, the horse I was riding that day.

The big bull had spotted us right away and stopped in his tracks to gaze. I don’t know what the others were thinking, but a shiver ran down my spine as imagined that big giant attacking us head on and knocking my horse out from under me. Then the bull turned sideways to us and started running along the tree line with his head cocked back so far that his antlers seemed to be riding on his back. He was moving fast, and it was hard to count in the shadows, but I think I could see at least six points on each antler—which would have made him a twelve-point Royal Bull.

We watched him disappear as he crashed through a thicket off to our left not more than thirty yards away, still in a full run. Then, after a few moments of absolute stunned silence, our little scouting party broke into a frenzy of laughter, hooping, hollering, and general rejoicing. We had just seen something so surprising, so amazing, that we all knew, instinctively, none of us would ever forget it.

And then came the lament—it had all happened so quickly that there had not been a single camera up and ready to record. We all agreed, however, that some of life’s richest treasures can only be experienced in person and recorded in memory; and we had just been privileged to witness one such treasure.

Well, we wanted to press on and try to get a view of that herd, but daylight was exiting fast so Woody turned us back west toward camp. A rather significant snow flurry had set in, and we found ourselves riding within a veil of white satin as we once again approached our campsite. I was now more than a little ready for a warm fire and some hot grub.

But as we rode into camp, it quickly became apparent that disaster had struck. The first sign of our encroaching dilemma was that the box panniers had been overturned and the contents strewn out all over the place. I jumped off my old pony and quickly began to inspect the premises. Woody had already hit the ground ahead of me and was rapidly rustling through what was left of our sacks of groceries. Our hunters remained seated in their saddles, mouths gaping in bewilderment as they tried to make sense of just what it was they were seeing. They knew by Woody’s reactions, and mine, that this was something highly unusual; something nobody had planned for.

One of them asked me, “So, Phil, what’s all this?”

But my words seemed to catch in my throat and, before I could make any answer, Woody chimed in, “Bear attack!”

“Bear attack?” he asked.

“Bear attack? Bear attack?” the other three echoed almost simultaneously.

“Yup, bear attack!” Woody snorted, again.

I knew in that moment that he was probably about as angry as I would ever see him. I couldn’t help but think to myself, “Pity the poor bear who dares return to the scene of this crime!”

As we began to investigate the situation, we discovered that virtually every single thing we had packed in with us had been thoroughly checked out by the bear. Every single can of beans had been bitten and the bean juice sucked out of the can. Same with the greens. And sadly, with the canned peaches, as well. There was not even a drop of peach juice to be had; those cans had been drained dry and licked clean. Every single box of Bisquick had been ripped up and the flour was strewn about all over the ground. There was not a single egg that had not been eaten or crushed. All the meat was missing. The bacon, of course, was gone. Even a couple of bars of soap had been unwrapped and bitten into. A small bottle of dishwashing liquid lay bleeding out with tooth marks in it.

About the only thing that bear had not fooled with was a still sealed metal can of Folgers ground coffee and the potatoes. We found the potatoes still in their sack with only one potato that had been bitten into and the others ignored.

Then came a loud squawk from inside one of the tents, followed by a whole string of curse words that I had never heard Woody use ever before—I must abstain from putting them in print for fear of setting the whole internet ablaze. Woody had found where that ole bear had made his way into the tent and had bitten a big piece out of his beloved air mattress. I thought to myself, “Oh boy, if Woody wasn’t mad enough already, he’s over the top now; that critter’s gonna find himself turned into bear jerky by mornin—sure as shootin!

Then, as if to add insult to injury, we discovered that the bear had chosen not to politely exit the tent through the front door where he had entered; but instead, he had made a whole new door through the back wall of the tent—fairly ripping it from top to bottom right down the middle.

Woody, in what I can only perceive as being in the spirit of young King David, continued with his rather colorful verbal assault on the recently departed ursine culprit, calling him every name in the book and daring him to return. I looked over at our guests, who were still sitting on their horses with the most astonished looks painted on their faces, shrugged my shoulders, and shook my head.

“Whelp, guess we might as well get a fire going,” I said.

All four quickly dismounted, wanting to help out in every way they could. I have to admit, I was a bit taken aback at how sympathetic our little hunting party had become toward our dire situation. While certainly concerned, they were not the least bit disgruntled by these new circumstances. In fact, everyone seemed to have a rather lighthearted attitude and were even somewhat amused by the whole affair; well, everyone but Woody, that is.

After getting the fire going, I turned what remained of our camp over to Woody and headed off to feed our animals. While letting down the panniers that I had, thankfully, taken the time to hang up in the tree earlier, I couldn’t help but keep looking over my shoulder and thinking, “What if that bear isn’t very far off? What if he hears Woody fussing at him and decides to come back? What if he’s looking at me right now?”

I filled ten canvas feed bags with sweet feed, making sure each of my critters got their appropriate rations, and then kept a couple of handfuls of feed out for myself, dropping it into a small canvas bag that I often had tied to my belt just to serve as a “catch all.” Then I hollered for one of our hunters, Beau, to come help me rehang the feed.

“So, now I get it,” Beau said. “I didn’t ask earlier, but I guess we hung the horse feed up in this tree to keep it safe from that ole bear?”

“Yup,” I replied. “And I know we were in a hurry, but too bad we didn’t take time to hang the bacon, too.”

“Well, we got to see the elk,” he reminded me. Beau was a rather quiet and kindly sort of person, a family man with young children back home. You couldn’t hardly help but like the guy.

“Unh hunh… and that elk was really something,” I stated.

I asked him if he would be willing to help me lead the animals down to the stream for watering and he gladly agreed. Had he asked, I would never have admitted it in a million years, but I was definitely glad for the company that evening. That bear attack had definitely given me a bad case of the jitters.

I showed him how to hobble our critters and then placed a bell on a couple of them; one on a horse, one on a mule. He didn’t ask about the bells, but I told him anyway, “So we can find em quickly in the morning.”

He nodded and asked, “Do they range very far?”

“Naw,” I said, “They typically hang together and don’t go too far; what with the hobbles and all.”

He seemed a bit like a kid in a candy store, delighted with each new discovery and just happy to be there.

As we made our way back toward the campfire, I called out, “Hey, Woodrow, what’s for supper!”

“Taters! What do ya think?” he called back.

I could tell from his tone that Woody had found his equilibrium and was pretty near back to his regular, old, enjoyable self; so, I bravely went on to venture, “Well that’s good, cause I’ve got a hankerin for taters tonight.” Everybody laughed.

As I took my place around the campfire, I was handed a steaming cup of strong cowboy coffee, served in a tin can with a handle woven out of baling wire that someone had attached.

“I don’t know why anybody would bother attaching a handle to one of these old cans,” I said, “They’re so hot to handle you’ve gotta wear gloves just to hold on to em. And be careful how you sip!”

“You’ve got THAT right,” Bill exclaimed, rapidly licking his scalded bottom lip. Apparently, he had already learned that lesson the hard way.

Being just a kid, I had never been much of a coffee drinker. But that night, feeling worn out from a hard day’s ride, with the chill in the air and little snowflakes drifting down out of the dark into the firelight, that coffee was the best thing I think I had ever tasted in my entire life. My heavy coffee habit started right there, that very night, in the middle of the vast Gila Wilderness; and I’ve been hooked ever since! Oh, and I’m also quite the glutton when it comes to fried sliced taters. To me, they’re top of the list when it comes to comfort food.

After supper, with the pots and pans all cleaned and put away, we sat by the fire reflecting on the day’s events: the good, the not so good, and the downright ugly. I reached down into my little canvas bag and pulled out half a handful of that sweet horse feed that I had reserved for myself a little earlier and stuffed it into my mouth.

“What in the world are you munchin on, there, kiddo?” Bill asked. He was the older one of the bunch, almost a grandpa sort of guy in his demeanor. I had pretty much decided that I liked him and all these fellers.

“Dub…ert!” I managed to mumble through stuffed cheeks.

“Dessert?” Frank inquired. “The kid eats horse feed for dessert?” They all broke into a laugh.

“Of course the kid eats horse feed. Why should that surprise us?” Joel added, shaking his head and rolling his eyes. It dawned on me then just how unusual some of us cowboy kids really were; at least when compared to most people’s idea of a normal kid. But that didn’t bother me in the least. I just figured it helped add to the whole mystique of their wilderness venture.

“Not juth dub…ert, all da thime,” I eked out. But my mouth was too full to explain to them that a lot of us cowboy kids had grown up eating horse feed, and sundry other critter foods, all our lives. So, of course, all four of our hunters wanted a mouthful, too. Soon all of us, but Woody, were kicking back by the fire silently sucking the molasses out of our horse feed.

Joel began quietly conversing with the others in almost a whisper. I couldn’t tell what he and the others were talking about, but I knew it had something to do with me because they kept looking over at me and smiling. Whatever their little game was, I quickly had enough of it and said, “Okay, you all are just being plain rude; so, out with it!”

Joel, the apparent voluntary spokesman for the group, laughed and finally asked, “So, Phil, what if you had stayed in camp by yourself instead of going along with us on that little scouting sashay? What would you have done when you saw that ole bear lumbering into camp?”

They were all staring at me with eager eyes. Joel’s question even gained Woody’s rapt attention. To be honest, I had already asked myself that same question and it sent a shiver down my spine. But this was not the time to admit weakness or fear, so I boldly reached down at my side and unsheathed my 8 1/2-inch Buck knife with its little 4 1/4-inch blade and held it up in the firelight.

“I don’t know, that looks kinda small to me,” Frank teased.

“Well, you know what they say,” I responded, “it’s not the size of the dog in the fight…”

And before I could finish all four had chimed in… “It’s the size of the fight in the dog!”

“Yeah, yeah, we know,” said Frank. “But I think I’m still puttin my money on the bear.”

“Me too,” Joel added laughingly.

Maybe he thought he was saving me from any further embarrassment, but about that time Woody just couldn’t seem to resist presenting another rather mischievous thought. “Well, guess we should probably make a plan on how we’re gonna handle things if that ole bear decides to come back again tonight and nose around some more,” he said.

All four of our, suddenly wide-eyed, guests began eyeing one another, silently looking around the circle from face-to-face. They were all looking so somber and spooked, that I had to laugh out loud, almost coughing up my horse feed. It was my turn to tease, “What’s a matter boys, you’re not scared of one lil ole bear come lumbering into camp tonight are ya?”

“Well, Phil,” Frank responded, “We’re not all as well armed as you.”

“Well,” I choked out as I turned to Woody, “I, for one, am feelin mighty sorry for that poor ole bear if he does show up round here, mad as you are about that mattress and all.” I guess that came out a bit humorous, what with me still trying to talk with my mouth full of horse feed and all, because everybody broke out in laughter once more, each almost choking on their own horse feed all around.

But nobody figured that bear would dare come back for a face to face with Woody Hoge that night; and it was far too cold to set a watch, anyway. So, we just stoked up a big fire and crawled into our bed rolls for the night. I noted, as I snuggled in, that the tent in which Woody and I were sleeping sure seemed awfully drafty though.

Our elk hunt was cut a little short, of course, by our lack of provisions. Early the next morning, both Bill and Frank made their kill—two beautiful young bull elk; but neither one nearly as majestic as that Royal we had seen the day before. However, under the circumstances, everybody figured it best that we take whatever the wilderness offered as quickly and efficiently as we could, rather than taking our time and holding off in hopes of bigger trophies.

We quicky hung the meat and let it cool for as long as we could that day. The shadows were already beginning to lengthen by the time we were all packed and ready to head back toward home. We came out of McKenna fast and furious, making good time down the Ring Canyon Trail. The winds had calmed and the night was starry. We coached our guests to give each horse his head and to trust their animals to get them safely back down the trial.

“These critters can make their way home all by themselves without any help from us,” Woody told them.

We arrived back at Woody’s corral nigh unto midnight. We had only been gone a little over forty hours, but it felt like we had been on the trail for weeks. Our hunters were happy; they had their elk and told us they felt like every dime they had spent for this trip had been well worth it.

“These are the kinds of memories life is made of,” Beau said.

Woody replied, “Well then, that being the case, I should maybe charge you a little extra for the memory of that bear attack!”

I don’t think Woody ever considered this particular hunting trip to be one of his fondest memories. In fact, I’m pretty sure he cursed that ole bear till the day he died. But my heart is still filled with memories of those old mountains, and I can’t help but smile when I reflect on stories told, adventures lived, the smell of sliced taters skillet fried over an open fire, a steaming cup of strong black coffee, or an occasional mouthful of sweet horse feed. Isn’t it interesting, though, how so many of our fondest memories are born of our most difficult and challenging life experiences?

The preceding account can be trusted to have been presented, for the most part, as an illusory improvisation predicated on ostensibly historic events enumerated to and/or intrinsically experienced by the commentator…in so far as he recollects.

Copyright © 2022 Philip R. Stroud

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