Theodore Roosevelt (18581919). Ranch Life and the Hunting-Trail. 1896.
XI THE BIG-HORN SHEEP
T has happened that I have generally hunted big-horn during weather of arctic severity; so that in my mind this great sheep is inseparably associated with snow-clad, desolate wastes, ice-coated crags, and the bitter cold of a northern winter; whereas the sight of a prong-buck, the game that we usually hunt early in the season, always recalls to me the endless green of the midsummer prairies as they shimmer in the sunlight.
Yet in reality the big-horn is by no means confined to any one climatic zone. Along the interminable mountain chains of the Great Divide it ranges south to the hot, dry table-lands of middle Mexico, as well as far to the northward of the Canadian boundary, among the towering and tremendous peaks where the glaciers are fed from fields of everlasting snow. There exists no animal more hardy, nor any better fitted to grapple with the extremes of heat and cold. Droughts, scanty pasturage, or deep snows make it shift its ground, but never mere variation of temperature. The lofty mountains form its favorite abode, but it is almost equally at home in any large tract of very rough and broken ground. It is by no means an exclusively alpine animal, like the white goat. It is not only found throughout the main chains of the Rockies, as well as on the Sierras of the south and the coast ranges of western Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia, but it also exists to the east among the clusters of high hills and the stretches of barren Bad Lands that break the monotonous level of the great plains.
Throughout most of its range the big-horn is a partly migratory beast. In the summer it seeks the highest mountains, often passing above timber-line; and when the fall snows deepen it comes down to the lower spurs or foot-hills, or may even travel some distance southward. If there is a large tract of Bad Lands near the mountains, sheep may be plentiful in them throughout the severe weather, while in the summer not a single individual will be found in its winter haunts, all having then retired to the high peaks.
Sometimes big-horn wander widely for reasons unconnected with the weather: all of those in a district may suddenly leave it and perhaps not return for several years. Such is often the result of a district being settled, or being exposed to incessant hunting. After a certain number of sheep have been killed the remainder may all disappear, possibly one or two small bands only staying behind; but it is quite likely that two or three years later the bulk of the vanished host will come back again.
But where the region that they inhabit is cut off from the mountains by settled districts, or by great stretches of plain and prairie, then the sheep that dwell therein can make no such migrations. Thus they live all the year round in the Little Missouri Bad Lands; and though the different bands wander away and to and fro for scores of miles, especially in the fall,for big-horn are far more restless than deer,yet they do not shift their positions much on account of the season, and are often found in precisely the same places both summer and winter. They thus bear with indifference exposure to the extremes of heat and cold in a climate where the yearly variation reaches the utmost possible limit, the thermometer sometimes covering a range of a hundred and seventy degrees in the course of twelve months. There are few spots on earth much hotter than these Bad Lands during a spell of fierce summer weather, and, unlike the deer, the sheep cannot seek the shade of the dense thickets. In the glare of midday the naked angular hills yield no shelter whatever; the barren ravines between them turn into ovens beneath the brazen sun. The still, lifeless, burning air stifles those who breathe it, while the parched and heat-cracked cañon walls are intolerable to the touch.
But though the mountain sheep can stand this, and in fact do so with even less protection than the deer, yet they certainly dislike it more than do the latter. If mountains are near, they go up them far sooner and far higher than the deer. On the other hand, they bear the winter blizzards much better, caring less for shelter, and keeping their strength pretty well. Ordinarily when in the Bad Lands they do not shift their ground save to get on the lee side of the cliffs, though the deep snows of course drive them from the mountains. A very heavy fall of snow, if they are high up on the hills, occasionally forces a band to enter the evergreen woods and make a regular yard, as deer do, beneath the overhanging cover-giving branches; then they subsist on the scanty browse until they can get back to pasture lands. But this is rare. Generally they stay in the open, and bid defiance to the elements; yet, like other game, they often seem to have the knack of foretelling any storm or cold spell of unusual severity and length. On the eve of such a storm they frequently retreat to some secure haven of refuge. This may be a nook or cranny in the rocks, or merely a slight hollow to leeward of a little grove of stunted pines; and there the band may have to stay without food for several days, until the storm is over. Occasionally they succumb to the deep snow; but if they have any kind of chance for their lives, this happens less often than with either deer or antelope.
The big-horn, or cimarrón sheep, as the Mexicans call it, is the sole American representative of the different kinds of mountain sheep that are found in the Old World. It is fourfold the weight of the Mediterranean moufflon. Its nearest relative, from which it is with difficulty distinguished, is the huge argali, three or four varietiessome say speciesof which are to be found in the high lands of central Asia. The American and Asiatic animals seem to grade into one another as regards size; the north Asiatic argali is said to be no larger than the big-horn, but the giant Himalayan sheep, or nyan, averages heavier, both in body and horns, and especially in length of legs. The horns of the argali have more outward twist. The largest big-horn of which I have ever been able to get authentic record was one killed in Montana by a ranch friend of mine, and carefully weighed and measured at the time. At the shoulder he stood just three feet eight inches; he weighed very nearly four hundred pounds; and his single unbroken horn was in girth nineteen inches, and in length along the curve forty-two. But such a ram is a giant. The largest I have myself shot I had no means of weighing: it was just after the rutting season, and he was as gaunt as a greyhound. At the shoulder he stood three feet five inches; and his horns, which were thick for their length, were in girth sixteen and a half inches, and in length thirty. The nyan of Thibet, on the other hand, stands four feet high; and exceptional rams have horns twenty-three inches round the base and upwards of fifty in length, while the average full-grown one will perhaps have them seventeen inches by thirty-eight. The nyan thus certainly stands before the big-horn, although even among full-grown animals many heads of the latter would be above the average of the former. The difference in the habits of the two animals is very marked, for according to the English sportsmen the nyan keeps exclusively to the high, open plains, or barren, gently sloping hills; whereas the big-horn, like the Old World ibex, is a beast of the crags and precipices, and though sometimes venturing into the level country, yet at the first alarm it invariably dashes for the broken ground.
Our American mountain sheep usually go in bands of from fifteen to thirty individuals, occasionally of many more; while often small parties of two or three will stay by themselves. In the winter, or sometimes not until the early spring, the old rams separate. The oldest and finest are often found entirely alone, retiring to the most inaccessible solitudes; the younger ones keep in little flocks of perhaps half a dozen or so. The main band then consists only of the ewes, the yearlings, and now and then a two-year-old; and this also is soon broken up, leaving merely the yearlings and the barren ewes, for about the middle of May the ewes that are heavy with young leave the rest, each by herself. Like the old rams, they now seek the most inaccessible and far-off placeshigh up the mountains, if possible; otherwise, in the barren and unfrequented portions of the Bad Lands, where the steep hills and abrupt valleys are twisted into a mere tangle of precipitous crests and cañons. Here the ewe makes her lying-in bedoval in shape, like that of a prong-horn or black-tail doe, but made by pawing out, or perhaps merely wearing out, a slight hollow in the bare soil; whereas the doe crushes down with her weight the long grass of the prairie or thicket. This bed is usually made on the ledge of a cliff, on the side where there is most shelter from the prevailing winds; perhaps it is beneath a great rock or clay bowlder, with not so much as a blade of grass around, or it may be partly screened by a few wind-beaten sage-bushes. Generally only one, but sometimes two, young are brought forth at a birth. The young lamb matches his surroundings wonderfully in color, and the ewe is very careful in going to him to be sure that she is unobserved. For the first day or two the lamb trusts for his safety solely to not being seen by the beasts and birds of prey. He crouches flat down, like an antelope fawn, and it is next to impossible for human eyes to discover him save by accident. Once only I stumbled across a newly born lamb. It was about the first of June, and I found him lying by the bed of the mother as I was going along a ledge, scantily covered with sage brush, in the heart of some high, wild hills, about fifteen miles from my ranch. The little fellow was too young to show much alarm when I handled and petted him and with much difficulty persuaded him to stand up on his helplessly weak and awkward little legs. The mother was about two hundred yards distant, and was greatly frightened when I drew near her offspring; she hung about in the distance for a short time and then dashed off. However, she must have returned when I left; for two or three days later, when from curiosity I came back, the little fellow was gone.
When the young are able to clamber about for short distances almost as well as the old, then the nursing ewes and their lambs rejoin the band, some time in July. The band now keeps in the neighborhood of water and where the feed is goodcomparatively good, at least, for the scanty pasturage that grows on the mountains and barren hills haunted by the sheep would hardly please more luxury-loving animals. The flocks of ewes and lambs are at this time quite easily discovered, but of course no man but a game butcher would dream of molesting them. In September the young rams begin to join them, and soon afterwards the old patriarchs likewise come down from their remote fastnesses.
The rams now fight desperately among themselves for the possession of the ewes, rushing together with a shock that would shatter their skulls were they less strong; while the battered horns, with splintered ends, bear witness to the violence of the contests. These contests are free from one danger, however; the horns do not get interlocked, and thus cause the death of both combatants. This is not only a common accident among deer and elk, but it even happens to antelope; I knew of one instance where two prong-horn bucks, who had evidently been battling for a doe, were found dead, side by side, partly eaten by the coyotes. The right horn of one and the left horn of the other had become locked together so firmly, thanks to the prong and the hook at the end, that they could not be drawn apart, and the two beasts had died miserably in consequence. Each herd has some acknowledged master ram, but he may tolerate the presence of three or four others of lesser degree, together with the ewes, lambs, and yearlings that go to make up the rest of the flock; or else, if a cross old fellow, the master ram may turn out all the others, or may content himself with a little bunch of merely three or four ewes. So that even at this season several young rams may be found by themselves; or a morose old veteran, time-worn and battle-scarred, may keep entirely alone. As soon as the rutting season is over many of these exiles rejoin the band; and at this time, when the rams are of course in very poor condition, they are all apt to come down on the levels more boldly than at any other season, to get at the good grass, although even now rarely venturing very far from the hills. While thus on the edges of the plains, their natural wariness seems to increase tenfold.
But at all times their habits are very variable; for they are restless, wandering beasts, with something whimsical in their tempers, and given at times to queer freaks. If the fit seize them, and especially if they have been alarmed or annoyed, they may at any time leave their accustomed dwelling-places, or act in a manner absolutely contrary to their usual conduct. About noon one hot midsummer day, three great rams crossed the river just below our ranch, stopping to drink, and spending some time on the sand-bars, occasionally playfully butting at each other. They trotted off before they could be stalked. To get down to the river they had to pass over a level plain half a mile wide; and once across, they went through a dense wood, choked with underbrush for nearly half a mile more before again coming to the steep bluffs. On another occasion, in the rutting season, one of my cowboys encountered a mountain-ram crossing a broad, level river-bottom at midday. Occasionally a ram will join a flock of ewes, or a ewe and a yearling, in the spring. Two or three times I have known them to come boldly up to the bluffs that overlook and skirt a little frontier town, and there to stay grazing or resting for several hours; but they always made off in plenty of time to avoid the hunters who finally went after them. Once I shot one within a few hundred yards of my ranch house. I was returning home, weary and unsuccessful, after a long day's tramp over hills where black-tail usually were common. When nearly home I struck into a well-beaten cattle-trail, leading down a deep, narrow ravine which cleft in two a knot of jagged hills; it was a favorite range for our horses, and so was frequently ridden over by the cowboys. On turning round a corner of the ravine, a sudden snort to one side and above me made me hastily look up, shifting my rifle from my shoulder. On my right the sheer wall of clay rose up without a break for perhaps two hundred feet or so, its thin, notched crest showing against the sky-line as sharply as if cut with a knife; and on a little jutting pinnacle was perched a mountain sheep, its four hoofs all together on a space no larger than the palms of a man's hands. It was facing me and staring down at me, so that the bullet went right into its chest, splitting its heart fairly open. Yet it did not fall forward over the cliff, but wheeled on its haunches and went along the crest at a mad, plunging gallop, finally crossing out of sight. Almost as soon as it disappeared a column of dust rose from the other side of the ridge, making me think that it had fallen some distance, striking hard on the dry clay. The guess was a good one, and when, after a long circle and some climbing, I reached the spot, I found a fine young barren ewe lying dead at the foot of a high cut bank.
But all such instances as these are wholly exceptional, and are chiefly interesting as showing that mountain sheep act more erratically and less according to rule than do most other kinds of game. They seem to have fits of restless waywardness, or even of panic curiosity; and so at times wander into unlooked-for places, or betray a sudden heedlessness of dangers against which they on ordinary occasions carefully guard. This last freak, however, is generally shown only in very wild localities or among young animals. Where hunters are scarce or almost unknown, all wild animals are very bold. I have seen deer in remote forests, and even in little-hunted localities near my ranch, so tame that they would stand looking at the hunter within fifty yards for several minutes before taking flight. Mountain sheep under similar circumstances show a lordly disregard for the human intruder, leaving his presence at a leisurely gait, in strong contrast to the mad gallop of their more sophisticated brethren when alarmed.
In fact, much of the wariness among beasts of chase, as well as much of the courage shown by the more ferocious, depends upon the degree in which they have been harried by hunters, although much also depends upon the character of the species. European game is thus generally wilder than American; but no animal could be more difficult to approach than a Maine moose. The deer of the Adirondacks and Alleghanies are almost as wary, and in those parts of the Rockies where they have been much molested, big-horn are as shy as the chamois of the Alps, or the ibex of the Pyrenees. So the sloth bear and leopard of India are now much more vicious and dangerous to man than are the black bear and cougar of the United States, simply because of the different race of human beings by whom they are surrounded.
No animal seems to have been more changed by domestication than the sheep. The timid, helpless, fleecy idiot of the folds, the most foolish of all tame animals, has hardly a trait in common with his self-reliant wild relative who combines the horns of a sheep with the hide of a deer, whose home is in the rocks and the mountains, and who is so abundantly able to take care of himself. Wild sheep are as good mountaineers as wild goats, or as mountain antelopes, and are to the full as wary and intelligent.
A very short experience with the rifle-bearing portion of mankind changes the big-horn into a quarry whose successful chase taxes to the utmost the skill alike of still-hunter and of mountaineer. A solitary old ram seems to be ever on the watch. His favorite resting-place is a shelf or terrace-end high up on some cliff, from whence he can see far and wide over the country round about. The least soundthe rattle of a loose stone, a cough, even a heavy footfall on hard earthattracts his attention, making him at once clamber up on some peak to try for a glimpse of the danger. His eyes catch the slightest movement. His nose is as keen as an elk's, and gives him surer warning than any other sense; the slightest taint in the air produces immediate flight in the direction away from the danger. But there is one compensation, from the hunter's standpoint, for his wonderfully developed smelling powers; he lives in such very broken country that the currents of air often go over his head, so that it is at times possible to hunt him almost down wind.
A band of sheep is, if anything, even more difficult to approach than is a single ram; but, on the other hand, it is far easier to get on the track of and to find out, as there are always some young members guilty of indiscretions. All of the flock are ever on the lookout. While the others are grazing there is always at least one with its head up; and occasionally a particularly watchful ewe will jump up on some bowlder, or at least stand with her fore-legs against its side, so as to get a wider view. Any unexplained sight or sound is announced to the rest of the herd by a kind of hissing snort, or sometimes by a stamp of the forefoot on the ground. If the intruder is either smelt or seen, the whole herd instantly break into the strong but not particularly swift gallop which distinguishes the species, and go straight away from the danger towards the roughest ground that they can reach. If, however, only alarmed by a sound, or if the suspicious object is some distance off, the animals often run together into a bunch and stand gazing in its direction for a few seconds prior to making off. Among cliffs and precipices the echoes are so confusing that if the hunter keeps out of sight the herd occasionally become utterly bewildered by the firing, and, as a result, spend several fatal minutes in a futile running to and fro, uncertain what course will take them out of danger. One day my cousin, West Roosevelt, after a long and careful stalk, got close up to three sheep in a very deep and narrow ravine; and although, owing to their being almost underneath him, he at first overshot, yet all three of the startled and panic-struck animals were killed before they recovered their wits sufficiently to run out of range.
But a chance like this may not happen once in a hunter's lifetime. Of all American game, this is the one in whose pursuit the successful hunter needs to show most skill, hardihood, and resolution. On ordinary occasions a big-horn, when menaced by danger, flees beyond its reach with instant decision and headlong speed, disappearing with incredible rapidity over ground where it needs an expert cragsman to so much as follow at a walk. Its wonderful feats of climbing have, as with the chamois and ibex of the Old World, given rise to many fables, the most widespread being the belief that the rams, in plunging down precipices, alight on their horns. So the chamois was said to hang over ledges by means of its short, hooked horns, and when cornered on the edge of a sheer precipice, where there was no escape from the hunter, of its own accord to thrust its body against his outstretched knifeas we read and see pictured in the German hunting-books of two or three centuries ago, such as the quaint old "Adeliche Weidwerke."
The mountain sheep of America, when the choice is open to them, actually seem to prefer regions as wild and rugged as they are sterile. The tufts of grass between the rocks, the scanty blades that grow on the clay buttes, suffice for their wants, and the amount of climbing necessary to get at them is literally a matter of indifference to beasts whose muscles are like whipcord and whose tendons are like steel. A big-horn is a marvelous leaper, perhaps even better when the jump is perpendicular than when it is horizontal. His poise is perfect; his eye and foot work together with unerring accuracy. One will unhesitatingly bound or drop a dozen feet on to a little rock pinnacle where there is scarce a hand's breadth on which to stand. The presence of the tiniest cracks in the otherwise smooth surface of a sheer rock wall enables a mountain sheep to go up it with ease. The proud, lordly bearing of an old ram makes him look exactly what he is, one of the noblest of game animals; his port is the same whether at rest or in motion. Except when very badly frightened, his movements are all made with a certain self-confident absence of hurry, as if he were conscious of a vast reserve power of strength and activity on which to draw at need. As a mountaineer he is the embodiment of elastic, sinewy strength and self-command rather than of mere nervous agility. He hardly ever makes a mistake, even when rushing at speed over the slippery, ice-coated crags in winter.
The most difficult of all climbing is to go over rocks when the ice has filled up all the chinks and crannies, and the flat slabs are glassy in their hard smoothness. A black-tail buck is no mean climber; yet under such circumstances I have seen one lose his footing and tumble head over heels, scraping great handfuls of hair off his hide; but I have never known a big-horn to make a misstep. This is undoubtedly largely owing to the difference between the two animals in the structure of their feet. A sheep's hoof is an elastic pad, only the rims and the toe-points being hard, and it thus gets a good grip on the slightest projection, or on any little roughness in the rock. The tracks are very different from deer tracks, being nearly square in form, instead of heart-shaped, the prints of the toes rather deep and wide apart, even when the animal has been walking.
A band of sheep will often seem to court certain death by plunging off the brink of what looks like a perpendicular cliff, where there is not a ledge or a crack yielding foot-hold. In such cases, if the cliff is high, it will be found on examination that it is not quite perpendicular, and that the sheep, in making the fearful descent, from time to time touch or strike the cliff with their hoofs, thus going down in long bounds, keeping their poise all the time. The final bound is often made almost head first, as if they were diving.
Narrow ledges, overlooking an abyss the fathomless depths of which would make even a trained cragsman giddy, are very favorite resorts. So are the crests of the ridges themselves. If in any patch of Bad Lands there is an unusually high chain of steep, bare clay buttes, mountain sheep are sure to select their tops as a regular parade-ground. After a rain the clay takes their hoof-prints as clearly as if it were sealing-wax, and all along the top of the crest they beat out a regular walk from one end to the other, with occasional little side-paths leading out to some overhanging shoulder or jutting spur, from whence there is a good view of the surrounding country.
Generally the band is led by a ewe; but in a case of immediate and pressing danger the ram assumes the headship. Aside from man, mountain sheep have fewer foes than most other game. Bears are too clumsy to catch them; and lynx and fox, inveterate enemies of fawns, rarely get up to the high, breezy nurseries of the young lambs. Wolves and cougars, however, harass them greatly. A wolf will not attack an old ram if he can help it, but sneaks after the ewes and lambs, waiting until they get on somewhat level ground, and then running one down by sheer speed before it can take refuge among the secure fastnesses of the precipices.
The cougar relies on stealth, not on speed, and gets his game either by fair stalking or else by lying in wait. Sometimes he can creep up to a band while they are taking their siesta; but generally they keep too sharp a lookout, and he has to approach them while they are feeding, or when they have come down to drink. Some fifteen miles from my ranch is a tract of very rough country, the sides of the hills falling off into precipices or into dark, cedar-clad gorges. This was a favorite resort of mountain sheep; but one spring a couple of cougars took up their abode in the neighborhood, and soon killed several of the sheep and drove the others away. Judging by the tracks and by the position of the carcasses, they must have done the killing in the morning and evening, creeping up to the doomed animals as they fed on the lower slopes, or lurking round the spring-holes and little alkali pools where they drank. The great war eagle is one of the worst enemies of the young lambs.
In the rutting season a ram will make a good fight if he has any chance at all, and at that time is very bold and pugnacious. If followed by a dog he will frequently decline to run, turning to bay at once. One hunter whom I knew killed several in this way by the aid of a collie. Of course it cannot be done when once the sheep have begun to realize that the dog is merely an ally of the man, for they then look out for the latter.
Sheep are easily tamed, if taken young, and make amusing pets. A friend in Helena, Montana, once owned a tame ram. When young he was a great favorite. He was an inquisitive, mischievous creature, of marvelous activity. It was impossible to keep him out of the garden. A single hop would carry him over the high fence; if an inmate of the house came to the rescue, another hop carried the intruder once more into outside safety, and a third took him back again the second the rescuer had turned around. Whenever he got the chance he would pull down the clothes that had been hung up to dry. When he could get inside the house he was fond of walking on the mantel-piece. He was the terror of the Chinese cook, whom he soon discovered to be afraid of him, and would lie in wait outside the kitchen door so as to butt him when he appeared. This was at first done in mere playfulness; but as he grew older he became morose and quarrelsome, and had to be disposed of.
It is impossible to hunt big-horn successfully without some knowledge of their habits. They go down to drink in the very late evening, or sometimes in the gray of the morning; when the moon is full they may not go to the water until long after nightfall. Generally they drink later than any other game; but all game vary their habits now and then in this regard. The prong-buck, though diurnal, sometimes comes to a watering-hole during the night; and I have once or twice seen both deer and sheep drinking at midday.
In ordinary weather they begin to feed early in the morning, and when the sun has risen some little distance above the horizon they start to graze their way slowly up to the high spur or ridge crest where they intend to lie during the day. Here they stay until well on in the afternoon, and then again descend to their feeding-grounds on the lower slopes. In very cold weather, however, they are apt to be found grazing at midday. A raging snow blizzard may keep them lying close under cover for three days at a time: they naturally get ravenous, and when there is a lull, or especially if it is succeeded by a short spell of good weather, they come hastily out to feed, no matter what the time of day may be.
As with almost all game except antelope, they can be best hunted in the morning and evening; but, unlike deer, they can also be followed throughout the day, for whereas elk, black-tail, and white-tail have then all alike retired to the thickets, the big-horn take their noontide rest lying out in plain view. If the hunter means to catch them feeding he should make a very early start. A good pair of field-glasses is of great service, for the two essential requisites to success are the capacity to take long walks over rough ground and painstaking care in scanning the country far and wide, so as to see the game before it sees the hunter. There is then a chance to stalk up close, the broken ground frequently yielding good cover.
Often it may be necessary to lie for hours carefully concealed, watching a flock that is in an unfavorable position, and waiting until it shifts its ground. This is not very comfortable on a cold day in November or December, the months in which I have usually hunted big-horn, devoting the early fall to the chase of elk and deer. But it is often the only way to secure success: patience and perseverance are two of the still-hunter's cardinal virtues. Personally I have always owed whatever success I have had to dogged perseverance and patient persistence, and on a lamentably large number of occasions have had to draw heavily on these qualities to make good a lack of skill, sometimes with the rifle, sometimes in mountaineering. Among many hunting trips I can recall not a few where willingness to lie still two or three hours under trying circumstances in the end got me the game; and one such instance may serve as a sample of the rest.
I was staying at the line camp of two of my cowboys, a small dug-out in the side of a butte that marked the edge of the Bad Lands, the rolling prairie coming up to its base. The quarters were cramped for three men, an entire side of the little hut being filled by the two bunks in which we slept,I in the upper, my two companions in the lower,while the fire-place occupied one end, the mess-box served as a table, and the earth-covered roof of logs was so low that we could hardly stand upright. Window there was none; but it was snug, and, for a line camp, clean. There was plenty of fire-wood, and, for a wonder, the chimney did not smoke; so we were comfortable enough. The butte itself served for three out of the four walls. No other building is so warm as a dug-out, and in the terrible winter weather of Dakota and Montana warmth is the one thing for which all else must be sacrificed. 1
In such high latitudes the December sun rises late. Long before daybreak we had finished our breakfast of bread, beans, and coffee. The two cowboys had saddled their shaggy ponieswhich had spent the night in the rough log stableand had ridden off in opposite directions along their lonely beat, muffled in their wolf-skin overcoats and heavy shaps; while I strode off on foot towards the high hills that lay riverward, my rifle on my shoulder and my fur cap pulled down well over my ears.
The cold was biting, for even at noon the sun had not power to thaw the frozen ground. But there was very little snow; just enough to powder the hills and to lie in patches in the hollows. I walked rapidly up a long coulée, then climbed up a steep rounded hill and followed the divide back into the heart of the Bad Lands. By the time I was on my chosen hunting-grounds the sun had topped the horizon behind me, and his level rays lit up the peaks and crests.
The next hour was spent in hard climbing and incessant watchfulness. The hills lay in isolated masses. I clambered painfully up their slippery sides, creeping along the narrow icy ledges that ran across the faces of the cliffs, and cautiously working my way over the smooth shoulders. From behind every ridge and spur I carefully examined the opposite hill-sides, using the field-glasses if there was scope for them. Sheep, standing still or lying down, are often very hard to see, their coats assimilating curiously with the neutral-tinted cliffs and bowlders; but against snow they of course stand out much more distinctly.
At last, as I lay peeping over the ragged crest of a clay butte, I made out a small dark object half way up a steep slope some six hundred yards down the valley; and another look showed me that it was a ram feeding leisurely up the hill-side. The wind was good for a direct approach. I got off the butte by carefully letting myself down from one little ledge or niche to another, and started along the valley towards the ram, only to find my way barred by a deep chasm whose straight, ice-coated sides yawned too far apart to permit of any attempt at crossing. There was no help for it but laboriously to retrace my steps and make my way round its head with what speed I could. This I did, the work making me thoroughly warm for the first time that morning. Once across the walking was better, and I went down the valley-side at a good pace, until I came to a shoulder some two hundred yards from where I had seen the sheep. I was a good deal higher than where he had stood; but in the time I had been out of sight of him he must have gone up the hill quite a distance, for when I looked round the shoulder I saw him about as far off as I expected, but above instead of below me. Slow though my movements had been when I cautiously looked round the edge, they had not escaped his quick eye; for when I made him out he was standing motionless, gazing in my direction. Before I could raise my rifle he gave a great jump sideways and galloped off, disappearing instantly behind a huge mass of detached sandstone, and I never saw him again.
A little chagrined at my fruitless stalk I plodded on, doing much hard climbing but seeing no signs of game until nearly midday. Then in the snow at the head of a coulée I came across the tracks of a band evidently made that morning while returning from the feeding-grounds. I followed them until I became convinced that the animals had gone to a great table-land or plateau that I could see a good way ahead; then, as the wind was behind me, I struck off to one side, made a circle through some very rough country, and clambered out along the knife-like crests of a line of high hills separated from the plateau by a broad valley. Every hundred paces or so I would stop and examine the country far and near with the glasses; often I had to crawl on all-fours to avoid appearing against the sky-line on the ridge.
At last I caught sight of the band. There were some fifteen or twenty of them, and they were lying at the point of a spur that was thrust out from the plateau, nearly opposite to me and half a mile off. They were in a position which it was impossible to approach within six hundred yards without being observed, for they could see over the level plateau behind them, and from the brink of the lofty cliff on which they lay they looked up, down, and across the wild, deep valley beneath.
With the glasses I could make out that there was no good head among them; but I was out for meat rather than for sport. They were very watchful, ever on the lookout; and as the afternoon wore on one of the more restless would now and then get up, walk off a few steps, or stand gazing intently into the far distance. There was nothing for me to do except to wait until they grew hungry and shifted their position to some place which there was a chance of my approaching unseen. So for three hours I lay on the iron ground, under the lee of a bowlder that but partly shielded me from the wind, munching the strip of jerked venison I had carried in my pocket, and peeping at the sheep through a tuft of tall, coarse grass that grew on top of the ridge.
At last, when it wanted but little more than an hour of sunset, the sheep all got on their legs, one after another, and, led by an old ewe, began to descend into the valley. They went down the cliff by a sort of break or slide, hopping dexterously from rock to rock. On coming to the steep slope at its foot they struck into a trot, which merged into a fast gallop as they got nearly down. I feared that they would stop before coming to the cañon at the bottom of the valley; but they did not, crossing it without hesitation, for all its sheer-sided and slippery depth, and continuing their course towards the end of the chain of hills on which I was, where they halted to graze, after going up nearly to the top. It was excellent ground for a stalk. The ridge went down to the left in the steep, grassy slopes on which they were feeding, while on the right it broke abruptly off into a precipice, with a narrow ledge high up along its face.
This ledge made the approach an easy one. The only difficult places were those where the ledge was interrupted, and I had either cautiously to make my way along the face of the cliff,a very unpleasant task, as the slight hollows or knobs which served me as foot-holds were slippery with ice, the risk of a fall being thus enormously increased,or else was forced to go to the top, and, sprawling flat on the smooth slope, drag myself along just to one side of the ridge. I had marked the position of the game by a dwarfed cedar that grew in a crevice on the very crest. It gave excellent cover, and on reaching it and peering out through the branches, I saw the sheep scattered out only some sixty yards below me, and, choosing out a fine young ram, I fired, breaking both shoulders. They all rushed together, and then without an instant's pause raced madly down the hill-side, neither of the two bullets that I sent after them taking effect. I had no time to lose; so I dressed the ram hastily, tilted him up so that the blood would run out, and left him to be called for with the pony next day. Then I made the best use of the waning light to get to a long divide, furrowed by many buffalo trails, which I knew I could follow even when it grew dark, and which came out on the prairie not very far to one side of the line camp.
The day on which I was lucky enough to shoot my largest and finest ram was memorable in more ways than one. The shot was one of the best I ever made,albeit the element of chance doubtless entered into it far more largely than the element of skill,and in coming home from the hunt I got quite badly frozen.
The day before we had come back from a week's trip after deer; for we were laying in the winter stock of meat. We had been camped far down the river, and had intended to take two days on the return trip, as the wagon was rather heavily loaded, for we had killed eight deer. The morning we broke camp was so mild that I did not put on my heaviest winter clothing, starting off in the same that I had worn during the past few days' still-hunting among the hills. Before we had been gone an hour, however, the sky grew overcast and the wind began to blow from the north with constantly increasing vigor. The sky grew steadily more gloomy and lowering, the gusts came ever harder and harder, and by noon the winter day had darkened and a furious gale was driving against us. The blasts almost swept me from my saddle and the teamster from his seat, while we were glad to wrap ourselves in our huge fur coats to keep out the growing cold. Soon after midday the wagon suddenly broke down while we were yet in mid-prairie. It was evident that we were on the eve of a furious snow-blizzard, which might last a few hours, or else, perhaps, as many days. We were miles from any shelter that would permit us to light a fire in the face of such a storm; so we left the wagon as it was, hastily unharnessed the team horses, and, with the driver riding one and leading the other, struck off homeward at a steady gallop. Once fairly caught by the blizzard in a country that we only partly knew, it would have been hopeless to do more than to try for some ravine in which to cower till it was over; so we pushed our horses to their utmost pace. Our object was to reach the head coulées of a creek leading down to the river but a few miles from the ranch. Could we get into these before the snow struck us we felt we would be all right, for we could then find our way home, even in pitch-darkness, with the wind in the quarter from which it was coming. So, with the storm on our backs, we rode at full speed through the gathering gloom, across the desolate reaches of prairie. The tough little horses, instead of faltering, went stronger mile by mile. At last the weird rows of hills loomed vaguely up in our front, and we plunged into the deep ravines for which we had been heading just as the whirling white wreaths struck usnot the soft, feathery flakes of a sea-board snow-storm, but fine ice-dust, driven level by the wind, choking us, blinding our eyes, and cutting our faces if we turned towards it. The roar of the blizzard drowned our voices when we were but six feet apart: had it not been on our backs we could not have gone a hundred yards, for we could no more face it than we could face a frozen sand-blast. In an instant the strange, wild outlines of the high buttes between which we were riding were shrouded from our sight. We had to grope our way through a kind of shimmering dusk; and when once or twice we were obliged by some impassable cliff or cañon to retrace our steps, it was all that we could do to urge the horses even a few paces against the wind-blown snow-grains which stung like steel filings. But this extreme violence only lasted about four hours. The moon was full, and its beams struggled through scudding clouds and snow-drift, so that we reached the ranch without difficulty, and when we got there the wind had already begun to lull. The snow still fell thick and fast; but before we went to bed this also showed signs of stopping. Accordingly we determined that we would leave the wagon where it was for a day or two, and start early next morning for a range of high hills some ten miles off, much haunted by sheep; for we did not wish to let pass the chance of tracking the game offered by the first good snow of the season.
Next morning we started by starlight. The snow lay several inches deep on the ground; the whole land was a dazzling white. It was very cold. Within the ranch everything was frozen solid in spite of the thick log walls; but the air was so still and clear that we did not realize how low the temperature was. Accordingly, as the fresh horse I had to take was young and wild, I did not attempt to wear my fur coat. I soon felt my mistake. The windless cold ate into my marrow; and when, shortly after the cloudless winter sunrise, we reached our hunting-grounds and picketed out the horses, I was already slightly frost-bitten. But the toil of hunting over the snow-covered crags soon made me warm.
All day we walked and climbed through a white wonderland. On every side the snowy hills, piled one on another, stretched away, chain after chain, as far as sight could reach. The stern and iron-bound land had been changed to a frozen sea of billowy, glittering peaks and ridges. At last, late in the afternoon, three great big-horn suddenly sprang up to our right and crossed the table-land in front of and below us at a strong, stretching gallop. The lengthening sunbeams glinted on their mighty horns; their great supple brown bodies were thrown out in bold relief against the white landscape; as they plowed with long strides through the powdery snow, their hoofs tossed it up in masses of white spray. On the left of the plateau was a ridge, and as they went up this I twice fired at the leading ram, my bullets striking under him. On the summit he stopped and stood for a moment looking back three hundred and fifty yards off, 2 and my third shot went fairly through his lungs. He ran over the hill as if unharmed, but lay down a couple of hundred yards on, and was dead when we reached him.
It was after nightfall when we got back to the horses, and we rode home by moonlight. To gallop in such weather insures freezing; so the ponies shambled along at a single-foot trot, their dark bodies white with hoar-frost, and the long icicles hanging from their lips. The cold had increased steadily; the spirit thermometer at the ranch showed 26° Fahrenheit below zero. We had worked all day without food or rest, and were very tired. On the ride home I got benumbed before I knew it and froze my face, one foot, and both knees. Even my companion, who had a great-coat, froze his nose and cheeks. Never was a sight more welcome than the gleam of the fire-lit ranch windows to us that night. But the great ram's head was a trophy that paid for all.