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 Texas : Features : Columns : "Texas Tales"
BEAR DEN
by Mike Cox

"One of the stories Vantine told was about the time he went hunting for a bear and found an Indian...."
Mike Cox
About all the license a Texan needed to hunt hostile Indians was having his name on a ranger company's muster rolls.

Along the frontier, even that was a nicety. All a Texan really had to have was a good horse, a good gun and a good aim. In the era before government became involved in wildlife conservation, a Texan needed no license to hunt game, either.

In the spring of 1860, T.J. Vantine got to do a little of both kinds of hunting, courtesy of the State of Texas. He signed up as a ranger when Sam Houston was governor to do his part to help clear the country of Comanches and other tribes who liked to steal Texas horses and kill their owners whenever they got a chance.

Nearly a half-century later, Vantine looked back on his days as a ranger, writing his recollections for inclusion in a book called "Pioneer Days in the Southwest from 1850-1879: Thrilling Descriptions of Buffalo Hunting, Indian Fighting, Cowboy Life and Home Building." Published in 1909, it has long been out of print, the stories it contains now virtually unknown.

Finding wildlife usually proved a lot easier than finding Indians. But one of the stories Vantine told was about the time he went hunting for a bear and found an Indian.


One day while scouting in Northwest Texas, Vantine and fellow ranger Dave Wash found a deep rock crevice, at the end of which was a bear den. But finding and killing never have been synonyms when it comes to hunting.

"We went back to camp and our colonel, M.T. Johnson, gave us orders for no one to leave camp without orders," Vantine recalled. "But I wanted to kill a bear by myself, so the next morning about the break of day I slipped out through the guards and struck out for the bear den about four miles away."

As he rode toward the bear den, he listened to the morning yelping of the coyotes and wolves. Suddenly, he realized one howl sounded different from the rest. Reining his horse to ride in the direction of the odd-sounding howl, he spotted an Indian standing on the bank of East Otter Creek. Dismounting, he tied his horse and stalked his new quarry on foot.

"I drew my gun to fire," he wrote. "I thought I could hit him, but I missed, the ball striking right at the left of where he stood."

The young ranger hastily reloaded, but didn't get a second shot at the Indian. Fearing the Indian might have friends nearby, Vantine ran back to his horse.

"When I looked back I struck my foot against a rock, but I lost no time in the fall," he recalled. "I ran against my lariat pin and knocked it out and done my rope up as I ran and jumped on my horse and went back to camp. I didn't let any grass grow under his feet."

Back in camp, he was greeted by his captain, who grabbed the bridle of his horse and asked him what he had been doing.

"I told him I shot at an Indian," Vantine wrote. "He said I might consider myself under arrest and he took me to the colonel's headquarters and they assessed my fine at 10 days on guard duty, two hours on, four hours off."

Vantine kept that regimen for two days before fatigue caught up to him and he got caught asleep at his post. That cost him another 10 days of around-the-clock duty.

Some of the men in his company eventually shot a bear, but Vantine's early morning adventure was as close as he ever came while riding as a ranger

Mike Cox

August 24, 2003
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