The steer lay in the snow. Neck swiveled, tongue out, and head crushed as though pounded with a sledge hammer. The snow around it was splotched with blood, and the surrounding skeletons of sagebrush added an appropriate touch of bleakness to the picture. Forest Ranger Joseph Milton “Mitt” Moody massaged his jaw, unmindful of his thickening bear stubble and stared. Then he bit his lower lip, shook his head, and expelled a low whistle of resignation. He began musing with hopeless incredulity on the awesome power of Old Crackfoot. The hulking grizzly had not appreciated having to work so hard for his dinner. Domestic cattle rarely demanded much stalking—often just a bit of waiting, then a rush followed by the telling blow. On this particular occasion, however, as the tracks told it, the steer had gained a whiff of the great destroyer and bolted, running for a mile over the snowy hills. Miffed at the cirtter’s lack of cooperation, Old Crackfoot had overtaken it and delivered a blow that permitted no back talk. Bringing his vengeance to complete fulfillment, the thousand-pound bruin ripped large swaths of hide from the inert carcass. After gorging himself, Old Crackfoot raked together a great bed of sagebrush and napped beside the kill. Then he lumbered off into the mountains.
The Ranger mounted his horse and began following the tracks. As Moody journeyed along the trail, he paused once and stared again. “Would you look at that?” he muttered. His mount blew nervously in reply and shifted, grating rocks under the snow. Below them, in an embankment through the quaking aspen, was a fresh excavation the size of a buckboard wagon. The grizzly was seeking a place to hibernate. Further, along a rocky slope, the Ranger discovered another digging, then a third, and a fourth—all apparently clawed out within the past hour or two—all large enough to house the bear’s entire bulk. Notwithstanding Old Crackfoot’s gorged belly, and his prodigious digging endeavors, Mitt never caught sight of him. Nothing but the big moccasin-like pad marks and the imprints of long claws meandering higher and higher into the forested mountains. Old Crackfoot was plainly restless; he seemed to sense the need for a better-than-usual sanctuary. The winter was not his only enemy.
As night fell, the Ranger built a fire, leaned against a ledge and fell asleep. Awakening the next morning, he discovered that all signs of his long-time adversary had been buried under a foot of snow. “Well, old gal,” he said to his sorrel mare, “we missed our chance again. He’s hold up now, snoring out the winter.” He reined the horse around and headed for civilization. “But we’ll keep trying, won’t we, girl? We’ll be back.”
For more than a decade, Old Crackfoot (or Old Clubfoot, as he was sometimes called) had preyed upon cattle herds in the vicinity of Pine Valley. His overwhelming appetite for prime beef had cost the local ranchers dearly, about a thousand dollars a year, several time that amount at today’s inflated prices. The stockmen had to struggle, as the area was mostly arid and sparsely vegetated, and the depredations of the grizzly had at last become intolerable.
With the passage of each year, Old Crackfoot—so-called because of a slit running to the outside of his right rear paw—became increasingly destructive, increasingly blasé about his methods of destruction. Flaunting disdain for the efforts to combat him, the bear actually began following the cattle down from their summer ranges each fall, slaughtering them virtually in the dooryards.
All attempts to destroy the predator had proved fruitless, and as time passed, the citizens of Pine Valley offered a $300 reward. Various nimrods set forth, dollar signs glittering in their eyes, only to return, bushed and vanquished, awed and fearful over the bear’s strength and cunning.
At length, the people of southwestern Utah cried “Uncle,” and Uncle responded. In June 1907, Joseph Moody, having passed his Ranger’s examination, received a special assignment from the United States Forest Service. He was hired as a “hunter” and was told to devote full-time to the pursuit, capture and/or destruction of the terrible menace.
Moody was well suited to the task. Aged 37, he was lean, wiry and durable, having spent most of his life in the open. He had been a freighter for a time, handling a four-horse team, later a cow puncher and manager of the well-known Harder Herd. Mitt knew how to fend for himself in the forests, and was perfectly at ease under the stars, amid the lonely reaches of cactus and sandstone along the borders of Utah, Nevada, and Arizona. Moreover, he was considered one of the best rifle shots in the area.
Mitt undertook his assignment with calm deliberation and dogged the nefarious grizzly for some four months. He followed thousands of tracks, all marked with the unique hind-foot cleft, encountered numerous slaughtered cattle, but never once was rewarded with a glimpse of the killer. By night, he camped discreetly just beyond the odor of the bear’s droppings, and occasionally, he awakened in the darkness to hear something massive and brutish crushing about in the nearby timber. That was all.
The grizzly, who had once swatted down bawling cattle just beyond the doorsteps, became elusive to the point of uncanniness. All of Crackfoot’s killing was done at night. By day, he vanished eerily into the dense underbrush.
Mitt’s feelings toward the bear became mixed; frustration and hatred at times, yet a growing admiration and strange sense of camaraderie. After a summer of hunting Old Crackfoot, Mitt could better appreciate the superstitious awe and reverence the Paiute Indians held for grizzlies.
As autumn arrived, the Dixie National Forest Supervisor joined Mitt in the hunt, and after a few fruitless days, concluded that it was time to retrench. Mitt was appointed full-time forest ranger with headquarters in Pine Valley, falling heir to all the strenuous duties of that new profession. There were fires to battle, grazing adjustments to protect slopes from erosion and towns from floods, timber to survey, poachers to apprehend, and a hundred other jobs, including continuing the bear hunt. Mitt and other rangers furnished their own horses and equipment and often worked around the clock—all for the princely salary of $60 to $90 dollars a month.
The 60-pound bear trap Mitt set along the grizzly’s favorite trails did no good. Old Crackfoot unerringly detoured around it. Mitt poisoned dozens of dead cattle. In each instance, Crackfoot returned, rolled the kill over, sniffed with dainty inquiry, then lumbered on his way, seeking something that smelled better.
By the winter of 1908, the Forest Service obtained the services of a man named Walker from Iowa. An expert in matters of varmint control, Walker hit town with a stunning canine retinue of two bull terriers, two fox hounds, and two large lion hounds. Presumably, the Iowan was equipped for just about any eventuality—mamma, papa, or even baby bear.
With Ranger Moody as guide, to their credit, the dogs eventually gave Old Crackfoot a warm chase. As the mountains grew steeper, the men dismounted and Walker remained behind to tend the horses. Mitt struck out on foot after the dogs, scrambling upward through rocks and fallen trees—terrain a man from the Great Plains might not be fully conditioned to handle.
After hiking for an hour, the ranger picked up echoes of the chase. The terriers were yapping as if to say, “cornered.” As Mitt drew closer, the ruckus mounted. Then, just as he began hoping for a sight of the grizzly, four of the pack appeared and came at him, head on, shrieking with terror. The more courageous fox hounds stayed with the battle for a spell, then they also retreated. Mitt pressed on far enough to determine that the bruin had made his escape, then he headed back.
That night, as Mitt and Walker slept in their bedrolls, the pack suddenly emitted an ear-blasting conglomeration of whines, yelps and howls, and swarmed all over the men. One or two of the animals even burrowed under the covers. Muttering and cursing, the men grabbed their rifles, elbowed the frantic dogs off, and peered into the blackness. Not 25 yards off, something vast and unseen slogged away through the snow, snapping tree limbs as it went.
Not long afterward, the people of Pine Valley bade farewell to the man from the corn state and his six noble assistants. Walker’s parting words were forlorn: “I just can’t figure it out.”
Whenever duties would permit, the forest ranger continued to hunt the bear, which was fast becoming legend. Mitt wore out several pairs of boots, hid long hours by a kill or paw-marked trail, and at times marshalled sizable hunting parties. No use. But rarely did he even glimpse the monster as it moved among trees or vanished over a hill. For all his bulk, the grizzly had a wraithlike quality. He was a wisp of smoke, dematerializing before a man could do more than squint a little.
Yet each time Mitt told himself he was following a dream, the dream asserted itself in ways dramatically tangible. There was the large cow, killed and dragged through a hundred yards of dense willows—a job which would try a good team of horses. There was the yearling steer which Old Crackfoot had collapsed with a blow across the neck, then carried across a snowy plain without dragging a hoof. And once, Mitt discovered a large Hereford bull still alive, trailing its innards over the sage. After ending the animal’s misery, he backtracked to learn the rest of the story. The bull and the bear had met between two ledges. Unwilling to give ground, the brave bull had taken a swipe across the belly and been virtually disemboweled alive.
During September 1909, Ranger Moody started home one evening from atop the Pine Valley Mountains where he had been marking timber for a sale. As Mitt crossed a small stream, he glanced down to spy the old, familiar tracks of his long-time enemy. The imprints leading from the water were still damp, clear evidence that Crackfoot was not far ahead. Mitt nodded to himself and felt excitement begin to seethe through his veins. He followed the trail until sundown.
Topping a ridge, he peered across a swale to the opposite slope, 50 yards distant, and heard noises within a heavy stand of spruce. Mitt crouched, and his hands whitely gripped the rifle. But the venerable bear proceeded unseen up the mountain. In sheer desperation, Mitt made a quick calculation and fired in the direction of the sound. Old Crackfoot hesitated, then merely shifted into higher gear. Mitt resigned home for the night.
With the first banners of dawn, the hunter was back on the trail, excited to discover red-brown splotches beneath the spruces. Mitt swallowed and felt his scalp prickle. “Well, old man,” he said, “I’ve hurt you a little, haven’t I?”
Mitt followed the tracks a long way, and eventually descended a rough slope. At the bottom, he found himself in a meadow near the end of a box canyon and continued on down the valley. Some time later, Crackfoot wandered into a blind canyon, probably happy to be there because of the cattle, and Mitt saw the chance of a lifetime and didn’t want to muff it.
He left and quickly returned after having summoned four ranchers to his aid. The four men, however, proved to be a jittery, ill-equipped bunch, strictly a hinderance to the veteran hunter and forester. Two of them had nothing but .22s, another a shotgun, and the fourth, a .44 rifle whose ammunition turned out to be the wrong caliber.
As the motley crew sighted the trail, its freshness so agitated the shotgunner that he accidentally discharged the weapon, blasting the bridle reins from his companion’s horse, sending the ranchers into a cursing frenzy, berating their trigger-happy companion.
With splendid restraint, the ranger merely rolled his eyes heavenward in a silent plea for deliverance, then went into action. Fearful that the commotion had scared Old Crackfoot out of the country, and because the tracks soon vanished in the underbrush, Mitt directed the men to split up and work the area in circles. Anyone spying a sign of the culprit was to whistle.
It was Mitt himself who found the trail once more. The tracks led him through a maze of willows so thick he had to crawl. It was hard, tedious work, enlivened only once when a cow broke from cover and slogged rapidly off into a marshy area. For several minutes, Mitt snaked forward, scratching his face and neck on brush. Periodically, he mopped sweat from his eyes and slapped at mosquitos, all the while striving not to muck up his trusty .25-35 rifle.
Eventually, he emerged from the willows near a hillside, and at that precise moment, all the trifling irritations, all other thoughts, were banished in a kind of mental explosion. In a small clearing, no more than 100 feet above him, was Crackfoot.
Broad-skulled, round-eared, with a sloping, shovel-like muzzle. The animal had been working upward and was now slightly turned, looking back, scenting the air with his blunt snout. In a motion ponderous and rolling, yet perfectly coordinated, the bear turned back a full 90 degrees, facing the ravine below. His gray-brown hump and monolithic shoulder muscles were tinged with silver, glowing softly in the autumn sunlight.
Hypnotized, the ranger remained on all fours, feeling merely a primitive, animal affinity to the immense creature and the land around him, only vaguely conscious of the hard rifle barrel in his hand and the smooth grip of the stock.
For a moment, it seemed that the grizzly was merely surveying the willows. Then Mitt realized that the small, ink-spot eyes of Crackfoot were watching him. There was a calm understanding in the glance. For a few seconds, the man and the bear regarded one another in a rare kind of intimacy, and it was more with sadness than anything else that the ranger raised his rifle.
Before the echo resounded, almost with the first sharp crack, the slug had entered its target just behind the animal’s right ear. Rather as if betrayed, the bruin placed both paws over his head and turned slowly away from his source of injury. Then, with a fearsome bawl, he whirled and headed for Mitt.
The bear descended like an avalanche, offering up a series of earth-shuddering bellows, and would have engulfed his enemy within seconds had it not been for a virtual stockade of underbrush. As the bear ravaged downward through the leaves, battering over trees and uprooting bushes, the Ranger rose to his knee and began levering cartridges into the chamber, blazing methodically away, always aiming for a spot below the animal’s right ear. The sounds of the rifle were almost lost in the great noise from above.
Old Crackfoot absorbed nine shots and continued his terrifying descent towards Mitt. The tenth bullet caught him squarely between the eyes, and he staggered, pitching down onto one shoulder. As the bear roared, struggling to rise, Mitt realized that his rifle was empty, and instinctively snatched for a six-shooter that was a bit out of reach—home in its holster on a table.
The grizzly managed to rise and was still coming, close now, big as a haystack, yet still blocked by the clustered quaking aspen, and hindered by his own awful size. Shaking and wild-eyed, the ranger rammed three more cartridges into his rifle, almost blistered his hand on the over-heated barrel, fired, fired again, levered in the final bullet and blazed it point-blank into the face of a raging inferno that was nearly on top of him.
Mitt lunged sidewise and stumbled, catching himself as the grizzly crashed to the earth at his feet. Old Crackfoot vomited blood as he went down. And as the great bear heaved and grunted, wallowing out his life amid the yellow aspen leaves, the man—no longer rational—leaped astride its back and stabbed again and again with his hunting knife.
But even in his death throes, Crackfoot lashed with a hind foot, caught his enemy and hurled him into a clump of oakbrush. Bruised, lacerated, gory, but determined beyond all reason, Mitt Moody staggered back to the battle, still gripping the knife.
Instinctively, the bear pawed at the blurring red form before him, then his eyes began to glaze. Old Crackfoot was unaware of the man who fell gasping upon him, and of the final sharpness of the blade. The contest had lasted two years and four months.
There was a celebration in Pine Valley that night. People journeyed from the outlying communities to salute the hero, and gaze in the firelight at a grizzly which, even in death, didn’t look entirely vanquished. Bereft of its innards and 100 pounds of fat, the carcass had been dragged down the mountain by three horses and then hauled to town in a wagon. It registered 810 pounds on platform scales. A careful examination revealed that seven of Mitt’s shots had been grouped with such precision behind the bear’s ear that they could be covered with a silver dollar.
And speaking of money… Mitt was presented $160 that night by a number of appreciative ranchers, who had pooled almost all they had on hand. The balance of the $300 reward was offered to him in small notes. Mitt accepted the cash, but generously returned the notes.
After eating, he bantered for a while with friends, listened to the strains of laughter and music, then withdrew into the darkness. He was becoming stiff and uncomfortable, beginning to suffer twinges from his bruises and lacerations.
Sitting gingerly by himself on a knoll, Mitt sighed and then held out his hands before his face. They were still trembling a little. Then the tough, unconquerable Ranger looked out over the brooding forests where a million tracks of Old Crackfoot were fast fading, and began to cry a little inside.