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He had paused to listen to the exquisite madrigal of a Western meadow lark, and had offered to sing with it, choosing as his own, "Give Me the Sweet Delights of Love"; but he had found no bird that would sing with him, though now and then one, like the chat, would try to entice him into mimicry. On his packhorse in a piece of cheverel, the fine soft leather made of kidskin, he had a mouth organ; and a mile and ten minutes later he took it out and looked round him for sign of enemies. He had learned that playing Bach or Mozart arias when in enemy country was not only good for his loneliness; the music filled skulking Indians with awe. At this hour, back home and far away, his father might be playing the pianoforte.
An hour later the object that held his gaze as he sat astride his black stallion, two heavy handguns at his waist and a rifle across the saddletree, was a huge brownish-yellow monster that some men called the grizzly. In a frenzy of impatience the beast was digging into the wet loam, its powerful curved claws thrusting in like chisels. It would pause now and then to poke its face into the hole and sniff, and then would dig again with what seemed to be twice its previous energy. The man on the horse thought the bear was trying to dig out a prairie dog, though why the idiot should ever do that was beyond anyone's guessing: at the last moment the dog would flash up and out, and be off and away, and the monster would sit in doleful frustration on its huge fat rump, as though sunk to its waist in fur. Its small eyes would scan the world roundabout.
Suddenly the man on the horse felt the shock of amazement. It was not a dog's hole the beast was invading but the lair of a badger, and a deadlier fighter than a badger this man had never seen. The man thought he knew what had happened: the badger, eyes glowing black with anger and outrage, had retreated to the end of its underground run and there in the dark, lips snarling, had waited. At last, its blood boiling in fury, it had rushed up the tunnel and with teeth as sharp as needles had seized the bear's nose.
With the emotion of grandeur filling him big and full the man watched the remarkable drama before him. A bear's nose was so tender and sensitive that an assault on it was an affront that filled the big creature with mountainous rage. This brute, weighing, the man guessed, about a thousand pounds, now exploded from its chest a series of wild woofing roars and rose to its hind legs, with thirty pounds of infuriated badger hanging from its nose. Badger claws were striking like lancets at the bear's face and eyes. Having risen, the monster turned round and round, like a great fat man in a fur cloak, its head shaking from side to side, as it tried with feeble gestures to shake off its foe. But the badger had most of its teeth set deep in bear nose, and it was thirty pounds of savage fighting fury.
The man gave a snort of incredulous delight and went on staring.
He had seen some remarkable fights since coming west, seven years ago, but none had made his eyes bug as they bugged now. The bear kept turning and shaking and woofing, or whimpering like a frightened or wounded child; and all the while the four badger feet raked across the eyes and face and down the throat. The grizzly's front legs looked as helpless as they might have looked if they had been broken or the claws had been pulled. The man watching did not fully sense that with all those badger chisels buried in the sensitive nose the big fellow was so filled with astonishment, with bewildered outrage, with confusion and pain, that its will was paralyzed. It could only keep turning round and round, sinking now to four feet, now rising, and all the while pouring out the mournful whimpering lament of a thing whose heart was breaking.
"I'll be damned!" the man said aloud. He looked round him and sniffed for the scent of enemies. He heard a lark singing, and for a moment he thought how strange it was that in the same scene a bird's throat was pure music and two beasts had turned as black as night with murderous fury.
As suddenly as it began it was all over. Into the monster's tiny dull brain came realization of its two powerful paws; with each it seized the badger and literally tore it apart. Like a prince of dignity overwhelmed by disgust, it flung the bloody pieces to the earth, and still crying like a child with a broken heart, it sank soundlessly to front feet and loped softly away into a river thicket.
The man rode over and dismounted. He saw what he had expected to see: the flesh part of the bear's nose was in the vise of the badger's jaws.
It was a Sunday forenoon early in August, in the year 1846. The big man who stood there on the Musselshell, looking with admiration and wonder at a badger's head, was a free trapper, hunter, and mountain man, on his way up the river and over to the Bitterroot Valley, where he expected to take a wife. He was a giant, even among the mountain men of the American West. Without his moccasins he stood six foot four, and without clothing weighed about two hundred fifty pounds. He was twenty-seven years old. Trapping was his trade, the Rocky Mountains and their valleys were his home, and the killing of Indians was only the clearing away of things that got in his path. He admired courage above all other virtues; next to that he admired fortitude; and third among the few values by which he lived was mercy to the weak or defenseless. His passions were love of life, mortal combat with a worthy foe, good music, good food, and that quality of nature which would compel a poet to say, a hundred years later, that its heartbreaking beauty would remain when there would no longer be a heart to break for it. Besides his rifle and handguns he had at his belt a Bowie knife with a honed blade ten inches long. It was a genuine Bowie, not a Green River or a Laos, or other cheap imitation.
He looked at the badger a full minute, paying, in his silent way, his respect to a peerless tighter. He listened, but heard no sound of the grizzly. He scanned the horizons and sniffed the air for scent of Blackfeet. Then, mounting his black stud, he took the path up the river, his gray-blue eyes searching the country around him. His friends and relatives back east might have thought this desolate God-forsaken land, its bluffs eroded and hot, its pine and juniper jaundiced from the heavy lime; but this man loved it, all of it, even the alkali where no plants grew. He loved this whole vast grandeurthe mountains snow-crowned, the valleys berry-laden, the meadows looking like parks that had never heard a mowing-machine, the prairies with their vast herds of antelope and buffalo. It was good for a man to be alive, his belly full of steak and berries and mountain water, a fleet horse under him, a rifle that never missed fire, his pipe glowing, his mouth harp in his possibles bag, a lark spilling sweet music from its tiny bird-soul and a vesper sparrow flitting along the way as though to guide him. God, how he loved it all!
This was Blackfeet country to the north and west of him. Ever since that day, forty years ago, when Meriwether Lewis and Reuben Field killed two of them, in self-defense, on the upper Marias, they had bent their savage wills to the extermination of all white people. This man, so far, had had no trouble with them, but he knew that they were the most vengeful and cruel and dangerous of all his red enemies, and when near their lands, as now, he never for a moment plugged his ears or closed his eyes.
It was already said of him, by other mountain men, and would have been said by eagles and wolves if they could talk, that his sense of sight was that of the falcon; of smell, that of the wolf. His sense of hearing was not so keen. He thought his sense of smell had twice saved his life, but he might have said, if any man could have got him to talk about it, that like the mourning dove, the bittern, the Indian, he had a sixth sense. What he thought of as his sixth sense was in fact only what his five senses agreed on and communicated to his mind, acting together, like an intelligence agency, to sort out, accept or reject, and evaluate the impressions that came to them.
When, a few miles up the river from the scene of the fight, he drew gently on reins and stopped, he did not crane his neck and gawk round him, as a greenhorn might have done, but sat motionless, his senses searching the earth and air and reporting to him. He had seen the rufous breast of a bluebird high in a cottonwood; had heard the soft warning wheeuuuh whistle of the willow thrush; and had smelled the presence of enemies. Five minutes he sat stone-still, all his senses poring over the evidence; and he then was sure that a party of Blackfeet warriors had passed him, not more than ten minutes and two miles back. He touched a heel gently to the beast's flank and moved forward.
After half a mile he stopped again, deeply troubled by something close but unseen. Two birds had given alarm calls; a redwing, hopping about in the river willows, was acting with that agitation that made it tremble and call its alarm, when enemies approached its nest. But this was not its nesting season. An unseen dove was lamenting somewhere ahead of him. But his sharpest realization of something strange and dangerous came through his sense of smell. He was certain that he had smelled fresh blood. Again he went forward, over the low rise of a hill, and looked upriver; stopped, and looked and listened and sniffed; and again moved forward, to come soon and suddenly on the most dreadful scene he was ever to look at.