Grizzly Battle at Pala

Grizzly Battle at Pala Mission

by Major Horace Bell – from On the Old West Coast: Being Further Reminiscences of a Ranger (Posthumously Published in 1930)

The original newspaper from which Major Bell recounts this story is unaccounted for, and those copies of Major Bell’s compendium remaining in the public trust are torn and tattered, one of them lying deep in the University of San Diego’s Copley Library stacks.  The following extensive excerpt is extracted from USD’s copy of that book’s first edition.

In the great fiestas of times past at the missions and Presidios there was always a bull and bear fight for the entertainment of the crowd.  The last one on record that I know of took place at Pala, a branch of asistencia at the once great Mission San Luis Rey, in the mountains of San Diego County; nearly 50 years ago.  One of the American newspapers in California published an account of it written by a correspondent who was present.  I have the clipping of that and as it is [a] better written description than I could produce myself, I give it herewith:

“The bear was an ugly grizzly that for years had roamed the pine-clad region of Palomar Mountain, rising six thousand feet above the little Mission.  Tied to a huge post in the center of the old adobe-walled quadrangle he stood almost as high as a horse, a picture of fury such as painter never conceived.  His hind feet were tethered with several turns of a strong rawhide reata, doubled and secured to a big loop made of doubled reatas thrown over the center post.  The services of a man on horseback with a long pole were constantly needed to keep the raging monster from chewing through the rawhide ropes.

By the time the bear had stormed around long enough to get well limbered up after being tied all night the signal was given, the horseman effected his disappearance and in dashed a bull through an open gate.  He was of the old long horn breed but of great weight and power.  He had been roaming the hills all summer, living like a deer in the chaparral of the rough mountains and was as quick and wild as any deer.  He, too, like old bruin, had been captured with the noosed lazo in a sudden dash of horsemen on a little flat he crossed to go to a spring at daylight and felt no more in love with mankind than did the bear.  As he dashed across the arena it looked as if the fight was going to be an unequal one, but the bear gave a glance that intimated that no one need waste sympathy on him.

No creature is so ready for immediate business as is the bull turned loose in an amphitheater of human faces.  He seems to know they are there to see him fight and he wants them to get their money’s worth.  So, as soon as the gate admits him, he goes for everything in sight with the dash of a cyclone.  Things outside he would fly from or not notice he darts at as eagerly as a terrier for a rat the instant he sees them in the ring.

This bull came from the same mountain as the bear and they were old acquaintances, though the acquaintance had been cultivated on the run as the bull tore with thundering hoofs through the tough manzanita or went plunging down the steep hillside as the evening breeze wafted the strong scent of the bear to his keen nose.  But now, in the arena, he spent no time looking for a way of escape but at a pace that seemed impossible for even the great weight of the bear to resist he rushed across the ring directly at the enemy as if he had been looking for him all his life.

With wonderful quickness for so large an animal the bear rose up on his hind legs and coolly waited until the long sharp horns were within a yard of his breast.  Then up went the great paws, one on each side of the bull’s head, and the sharp points of the horns whirled up from horizontal to perpendicular, then almost to horizontal again as the bull and bear went rolling over together.  In a twinkling the bear was on his feet again, but the bull lay limp as a rag, his neck broken.

In rode four horseman and threw reatas around the feet of the dead bull, while the grizzly did his ferocious best to get at them.  As they dragged the body of the vanquished victim out one gate, the runway to the bullpen was opened once more and a second bull, a big black one with tail up as if to switch the moon, charged into the arena.  On his head glistened horns so long and sharp that it seemed impossible for the bear ever to reach the head with his death-dealing paws before being impaled.

But this problem did not seem to worry the grizzly.  He had not been living on cattle for so many years without knowing a lot about their movements.  When this new antagonist came at him he dodged as easily as a trained human bullfighter, and as the bull shot past him down came one big paw on the bovine’s neck with a whack that sounded all over the adobe corral.  A chorus of shouts went up from the rows of swarthy faces, with here and there a white face, as the victim, turning partly over, went down with a plunge that made one of his horns plow up dirt, then break sharp off under the terrific pressure of his weight and momentum.

The bull was not done for; he tried to rise and bruin made a dash for him, but his tethers held him short of his goal.  In a second, the bull got to his feet and wheeled around with one of those short twists that makes him so dangerous an antagonist.  But once he is wheeled around his course is generally straight ahead and a quick dodger can avoid him; however, he is lightening-like in his charge and something or somebody is likely to be overhauled in short order.  So it was this time and before the bear could recover from the confusion into which he had been thrown by being brought up short by his tether, the bull caught him on the shoulder with his remaining horn.

Few things in nature are tougher than the shoulder of a grizzly bear and a mere side swing without the full weight of a running bull behind it was insufficient to make even this sharp horn penetrate.  The bear staggered, but the horn glanced from the ponderous bone, leaving a long gash in the shaggy hide.  This only angered bruin the more.  He made a grab for the head of the bull but again was frustrated by the reatas which allowed him only a limited scope of action.

The bull returned to the charge as soon as he could turn himself around and aimed the long horn full at his enemy’s breast.  But just as the horn seemed reaching its mark the grizzly grabbed the bull’s head with both paws and twisted it half round with the nose inward.  The nose he seized in his great white teeth and over both went in a swirl of dust while the crowd roared and cheered.

Now one could see exactly why cattle found killed by bears always have their necks broken.  Bears do not go through the slow process of strangling or bleeding their victims, but do business on scientific principles.

This time the grizzly bear rose more slowly than before, nevertheless he rose, while the bull lay still in death.

The owners of the bear now wanted to stop the show but from all sides rose a roar of “Otro! Otro! Otro! Otro toro!”  “Another! Another! Another! Another bull!”

The owners protested that the bear was disabled and was too valuable to sacrifice needlessly; that a dead bull was worth as much as a live one, and more, but that the same arithmetic did not hold good for a bear.  The clamor of the crowd grew minute by minute, for the sight of blood gushing from the bear’s shoulder was too much for the equilibrium of an audience like this one.

Soon another bull shot toward the center of the arena.  Larger than the rest but thinner, more rangy, he opened negotiations with even more vigor, more speed.  With thundering thump of great hoofs, his head wagging from side to side, eyes flashing green fire, he drove full at the bear with all his force.  The grizzly was a trifle clumsy this time and as he rose to his hind feet the bull gave a twist of his head that upset the calculations of the bear.  Right into the base of the latter’s neck went a long sharp horn, at the same time that the power paws closed on the bull’s neck from above.  A distinct crack was heard.  The bull sand forward carrying the bear over backward with a heavy thump against the big post to which he was tied.

Again the horsemen rode in to drag out a dead bull.  But the grizzly now looked weary and pained.  Another pow-wow with his owners ensued while the crowd yelled more loudly than ever for another bull.  The owners protested that it was unfair, but the racket rose louder and louder for the audience knew that there was one bull left – the biggest and wildest of the lot.

The crowd won, but the bruin was given a little more room in which to fight.  Vaqueros rode in and while two lassoed his forepaws and spread him out in front, the other two loosened his ropes behind so as to give him more play.  He now had about half the length of a reata.  Allowing him a breathing spell, which he spent trying to bite off the reatas, the gate of the bullpen was again thrown open.

Out dashed an old Red Rover of the hills and the way he went for the bear seemed to prove him another old acquaintance.  He seemed anxious to make up for the many times he had flown from the distant scent that had warned him that the bear was in the same mountains.  With lowered head turned to one side so as to aim one  horn at the enemy’s breast he cleared the distance in half a dozen leaps.

The bear was still slower than before in getting to his hind feet and his right paw slipped as he grabbed the bull’s head.  He failed to twist it over.  The horn struck him near the base of the neck and bull and bear went rolling over together.

Loud cheers for the bull rose as the bear, scrambling to his feet, showed blood coming from a  hole in his neck almost beside the first wound.  Still louder roared the applause as the bull regained his feet.  Lashing his sides with his tail and bounding high in fury he wheeled and returned to the fray.  The bear rolled himself over like a ball and would have been on his feet again safely had not one foot caught in the reata which tied him to the post.  Unable to meet the bull’s charge with both hind feet solid on the ground he fell forward against his antagonist and received one horn full in the breast, up to the hilt.

But a great grizzly bear keeps on fighting even after a thrust to the heart.  Again he struggled to his feet, the blood gushing from the new wound.  With stunning quickness in so large an animal the bull had withdrawn his horn, gathered himself together and returned to the charge.  The bear could not turn in time to meet him and with a heavy smash the horn struck him squarely in the shoulder forward of the protecting bone.  Those who have seen the longest horns driven full to the hilt through the shoulder of a horse – a common sight in the bull-fights of Mexico – can understand why the bear rolled over backward to rise no more.”

Discussed in relation to the California Grizzly, with illustrations, here.