The Ben Lilly Legend brings back to life a great American hunter—the greatest bear hunter in history after Davy Crockett, by his own account and also by the record. J. Frank Dobie met Lilly and was so struck by this extraordinary man that he collected everything he could find about him.
Lilly was born in Alabama in 1856, followed the bear and the panther westward through Mississippi and Louisiana to Texas, leaving a trail of stories about his prowess as a hunter and his goodness as a man. He was at one time "chief huntsman" to Teddy Roosevelt, hunted in Texas and Mexico, and came to be known as the master sign reader of the Rockies.
Here are all the stories Ben Lilly told and a great many more Frank Dobie heard about him, put together in a fresh and fascinating contribution to American folklore.
Late in January, 1928, I was in El Paso on the Rio Grande listening to stories about the Lost Tayopa Mine in Sonora and the gold and golden oranges of El Naranjal somewhere—nobody knows exactly where—in Sinaloa. While I was outfitting to go down into Chihuahua and make a pack trip across the Sierra Madre on the Tayopa trail, the American National Livestock Association held its annual convention in the city.
Among the New Mexicans who thronged in was Victor Culberson, manager and part owner of the farspread G O S ranch, a pillar to the Association, and a picturesque character willing to pay for additions to picturesqueness. At an afternoon session he introduced Ben V. Lilly to talk on predatory animals. He told how Mr. Lilly, after having been engaged to kill panthers and bears off the G O S range, walked to headquarters leading a burro loaded with all his worldly possessions and straightway wanted to know how much pasturage he should pay. According to range custom, grass for an employee's private mount is as free as water for the owner. Mr. Lilly had agreed to hunt and trap on a bounty basis, boarding himself, but nothing had been said about his burro. "Nothing for the grass, hell, nothing," Vic Culberson told him. But, no, Mr. Lilly would not take more than had been stipulated; he would not rest until it was settled that fifteen cents a month for the burro's pasturage be taken out of his bounty money—which was a hundred dollars per grown predator.
Vic Culberson went on to tell how if the old hunter's dogs treed a mountain lion on Saturday night, they had to guard it until Monday morning. He would not shoot or do any work whatsoever on the Day of Rest. He would leave the ranch with nothing but a tin can or a frying pan, twenty-five pounds of meal, some salt, his ax, rifle and dogs, and not come back until he ran out of lion tracks, maybe two weeks later. What most people consider ordinary comforts, he regarded as debilitating luxuries; even at ranch headquarters, in the dead of winter as well as in summer softness, he camped out. He had been hunting all his life, from east to west, and knew more about the wild animals than any other man in the mountains. We could depend upon every word he told us as being true.
One look at the expression of unworldly goodness and truth on Mr. Lilly's serene face confirmed the judgment. He was at that time seventy-one years old, though common talk put him at eighty and past. He stood up, stumpily built, firm-footed, eyes as clear and blue and fresh as a Western sky after a June rain, and a kind of British sea captain complexion that glowed above his Santa Claus beard. His voice was so soft and his whole expression so innocent that nobody listening to him and looking at him for the first time would suspect the emphasis and stubbornness he kept in reserve.
This was the first public speech he had ever made, except for a talk to a Sunday School class. He said he "had rather be off in the woods and wild," but he had learned things there that other people do not know. If a man did not get some education tracking a wild animal, he had better go home and plow. For towards an hour he talked about bears and panthers. His talk was altogether devoid of those tedious details about going north up one hollow, across a mountain to the west, thence southeast into timber, and so on, characteristic of many hunter narratives—details that by comparison make the abstracts of land titles thrilling reading. Everything he said reflected a minute familiarity with animal ways and spaces beyond man-made trails. While he talked he was collected and was manifestly enjoying himself; yet he seemed to belong to another world. Although he occasionally said "ain't," which was correct a few centuries ago, and otherwise violated grammar, his speech was that of a person of good breeding. It expressed meditation more than action.
In New Mexico and Arizona I had frequently heard of this Nestor of the Mountains as both hunter and character. After the convention recessed, I got him off to one side, and he talked for two hours or longer, until sundown. He was as full of philosophy as of facts concerning wild animals.
"I have heard of you many times, Mr. Lilly," I said upon introducing myself.
"Yes," he replied, "my reputation is bigger than I am. It is like my shadow when I stand in front of the sun in late evening."
His voice was soothing. It seemed to be softened by shadows.
"I never saw a man with his face shaved clean until I was a big boy," he said. "This was on the Mississippi. When I saw him I thought he was a dead man, a corpse walking about, and I was mighty scared. As I grew up I determined never to scare anybody into thinking I was a corpse. Ever since I could grow a beard I have had one....
"Property is a handicap to man," he announced calmly.
I told him of Henry David Thoreau's going off to live in austerity by a lake in the woods and saying that "a man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can do without."
"That is a fine phrase," he responded. "You are a bright young man to think of it. I like to live out, because people and houses keep me from thinking and being myself."
"You are like Emerson," I commented. "He said that society is in conspiracy against the individual."
"That is better than I could say the thing," he added. "It makes me understand better what is meant by polishing the language....
"When I am around babies," he went on, "I always tote them out on my arm in the evening and let them look at the stars and feel the wind. They sleep better for that. They would sleep better still if they had their pallets on the ground. I always sleep better on the ground. Something agreeable to my system seeps into it from the ground.
"Every man and woman ought to get out and be alone with the elements a while every day, even if only for five minutes. I can't think at all except when I am out. I like to think of the past. I can think of myself as a barefooted boy standing before the fireplace with my hands spread out, and of my mother close by me, and I am happy. I cannot be happy trying to grasp the future, unless it's something like a lion that I am trailing."
Much of what he told me about the panthers and bears he had hunted is scattered through the chapters of this book. This was the subject that he came back to after any philosophical diversion. He had been born with a talent for hunting, he said, "and if we are not faithful to our talents, we lose them."
"'That one talent which is death to hide,' " I put in.
"Who said that?" he asked.
"I heard of him when I was a boy. He was a famous Christian."
He kept alluding to the black bears he had killed in the canebrakes of Louisiana, to the grizzlies he had tracked to their doom in New Mexico and Arizona, and the big ones he had got down in Mexico. He was as strong on panthers as on bears. He treasured with great pride an article written by Teddy Roosevelt on a hunt with him in Louisiana. Finally, I asked him how many bears he had killed.
"That's a secret I am keeping for my book," he replied.
At that time Trader Horn was a popular book, and when I told Mr. Lilly that his experiences and philosophy might be woven into as good a book as Trader Horn's he was delighted. He wanted to know about Trader Horn. "I'm writing a book," he said after a short silence, and then I let him know that I was a writer. Up to that moment he had regarded me as one of the cattlemen, though oddly tinctured with bookreading. Never having concerned himself with the affairs of other people, he was not nearly so skillful in detecting occupational marks on men as in reading bear sign. A man interested in writing was a new continent to him. He had something, he said, that he would like to show me, and suggested that we go over to the old Shelton Hotel, where he had a room.
I was stopping there too. The Shelton later burned down, to my regret, and was supplanted by a banal chain hotel. I recall it, even its cockroaches, with affection. It was peculiarly constructed, with two or three levels on each floor and with halls as full of turns as a mule trail down into a canyon of the Sierra Madre. When we reached the Shelton lobby, Mr. Lilly walked over to the desk and said something to the clerk. The clerk worked the combination to the lock on the door of a steel vault just back of the desk, opened the ponderous door, reached into a cavern that had hid fortunes in gold and silver smuggled across the Rio Bravo in revolutionary times, and pulled out a sack that had at one time been white and held forty-eight pounds of XXXX flour. A knot was tied in the open end; the contents were manifestly light.
Mr. Lilly took the flour sack, indicated that I was to follow him, and led the way upstairs, around corners of the halls, over the up-and-down levels of his floor, finally stopping at the door to Room 217. He unlocked the door, opened it, and after we were inside, closed the door and relocked it. Then he opened the flour sack and took out a typewritten manuscript of perhaps twenty-five pages. Handing it to me, he said, "You can read it." These were the first words that had been spoken since his request of the hotel clerk.
I took the manuscript, saw the title, What I Know about Bears, felt for a chair, and read, utterly absorbed, until I had reached the end. The concrete, firsthand observations fascinated me. This was to be a chapter in his proposed book. It was not written in a style that any publisher would approve of, but when I was through with it and we began to talk, I learned that Mr. Lilly did not intend for any editor or publisher to add a period or transpose a clause. He had had a schoolteacher in a New Mexico mining camp copy it, he explained, and in his mild way he was incensed that she had made several changes in his punctuation and construction.
By the time I had finished reading What I Know about Bears, it was good dark. My host declined to eat supper with me. He would not so much as drink a cup of coffee. He never drank coffee, much less any kind of liquor. He let me know that he was not sleeping on the hotel bed but was spreading some of the bedclothes on the floor and sleeping there. He complained of the "rancid" air. If I would come back on the following evening, he said, he would let me read the second chapter of his book.
Late the next afternoon we met again, got the flour sack out of the vault, followed the meandering trail to his room, and were locked inside it once more. The title of the second chapter was What I Know about Panthers. I had in my coat pocket a copy of the El Paso Times containing a short account of Ben Lilly's address to the National Livestock Association on the preceding day, and a copy of the Saturday Evening Post. While I was taking a preliminary glance at the manuscript before settling into it, I thought of the newspaper and magazine and, reaching for them without looking up, said, "Mr. Lilly, perhaps you would like to read something here while I am reading what you have written."
"No, I thank you," he replied, and then in a voice of serene and settled conviction he added, "I find this very in-ter-est-ing."
I looked up at him. He was deeply immersed in What I Know about Bears.
He said nothing about the newspaper account of his talk, but I am sure that he had read it—and was better satisfied with himself than with the reporter. Not long after he got back to his camp he wrote J. B. Drake in Louisiana: "The shorthand writers failed to catch what I said. They got so interested they lost out."
The chapter on panthers contained, in addition to the author's original observations, a collection of tales he had heard about panther attacks on human beings. I was regretful that there was not a third—and a thirtieth—chapter to read.
Ben Lilly did not finish his book. The evidence is that he wrote no other chapter. As I was to learn, not long after he returned to the mountains from El Paso, he took pneumonia. He recovered but gradually declined. During his second childhood, two of my friends, one a rancher and the other a scout for walnut stumps, tried to locate the manuscripts for me. They learned nothing. Mr. Lilly died, but his shadow went on lengthening. The loss of his manuscripts seemed a wrong to his memory, and, aside from that, I wanted to make use of them.
In 1940, I wrote an article on him, emphasizing the lost manuscripts, and sent copies of it to the El Paso and two New Mexico newspapers. Dr. L. A. Jessen, dentist at Bayard, New Mexico, wrote: "Somewhere I have two articles by Ben Lilly, one on bears and one on lions, both in his fine hand, written with pencil on cheap tablet paper." I responded, asking to be allowed to copy them. Other men and women wrote me about Mr. Lilly, but I heard no more from Dr. Jessen.
One August day, towards three months after I had heard from him, I stepped into his office. "I haven't been able to locate them," were his first words. One of the articles he had loaned to somebody whose name was forgotten; the other was "probably" in a storeroom, in fragments. This storeroom was of adobe with a dirt floor. Lime, spilled from three or four sacks, was mixed with the papers and miscellaneous junk. Dr. Jessen's boys had gone through the papers more than once looking for old stamps, their energy evidently outrunning their sense of orderliness. The first leaf of Ben Lilly's penciled tablet that I found was numbered 32. Most of the leaves turned up separately. By the time I found the last leaf of the tablet, number 89, only four were missing. It was sundown and I could no longer breathe the lime-dusted air. I told the Jessen boys that I would be back in two or three days and would pay a quarter apiece for the missing leaves. They had them when I got back.
I went to see Harvey Forsythe at the Santa Rita copper mines a few miles away. He had hunted with Ben Lilly, had been made executor of the estate of the deceased Tom O'Brien, at whose ranch on the Mimbres River Ben Lilly had lived in his decline, and at this ranch had found, in addition to Lilly's diary for 1916, the chapters on bears and panthers, copied in ink in a neat Spencerian hand. Either mice or rats, however, had gnawed away about half of every page of the bear chapter. I now had two copies of the panther chapter, neither being the typewritten form I had read, but the pages on bears were too mutilated to be restored.
At the G O S ranch headquarters a cowboy helped me to excavate the bed of a disused wagon, under a brush shed, about a hundred yards from the house, in which Ben Lilly used to sleep. It was more than a foot deep in gunny sacks and straw, with empty patent medicine bottles and papers mixed in. I saved all the papers and found among them a letter from W. H. McFadden, of Ponca City, Oklahoma, thanking Mr. Lilly for a diary. I wrote Mr. McFadden. He responded from Fort Worth, to which he had moved, and sent me a carbon copy of the diary. He had given the original, along with numerous Lilly letters, to Monroe Goode, in Dallas.
Meanwhile, Tom Harp was writing me the equivalent of a small book on Lilly's career in Louisiana. On a trip I made to that state and to Mississippi, he guided me to various informants. Ben Lilly made these people, like scores whom I interviewed in New Mexico, Arizona and Texas, remember him concretely. I found that almost nobody referred to him as "Old Man Lilly," as "Old Lilly," or otherwise than with marked respect. To most rememberers he was, and is, either Mister Lilly or plain Ben Lilly.
Had Mister Ben Lilly written his book, this one would never have been begun. It was more than three-fourths completed when, in the fall of 1943, I flew to England to lecture for a year on American History at Cambridge University. I took the manuscript with me—and never looked at it. I have written and published two books since then. Now, twenty-one years after my one encounter with Ben Lilly, I still see his clear, serene eyes, as limpid as childhood's. The "power of harmony" had given them an open assurance, and in one way they seemed to hide nothing. Certainly they reflected nothing of design on other human beings. Yet in a strange way they seemed to shadow personal matters never to be revealed.