The Cougar by Casper W. Whitney

1895

It was upwards of twelve years ago that I had been down to one of the Rio Grande River towns herding up Mexicans, whom I expected to aid me in discovering gold where none existed. On my way down I had run across a mountain lion making off with a lamb, and shot and secured him after a little strategic maneuvering. On the return journey, after I had hired as many of the greasers as I desired, I camped at night about twenty miles from home, in a log cabin that had lost the door, the roof and all the chinking from between the logs.

There was no reason to fear wild beasts—and the cabin would have been no protection for me even if there had been; nor was the structure any protection from the numerous cut-throat, horse-stealing Mexicans who flourished in that section of the country as thickly as cactus. However, I lariated my horse and threw down my blankets in this tumble-down shack, and turned in. I have quite a habit of sleeping on my back, and I was awakened some time in the night by a feeling of oppression on my chest. Having been accustomed to life in a country where the Indians were rampant, and where the wise man on awakening looked about him before stirring, I opened my eyes without moving, and there, standing directly on my breast, looking me squarely in the face, was a skunk, with its nose not, I swear, six inches from my own.

It was a bright moonlight night, and I could see that the little devil was of the kind whose bite is said to convey hydrophobia. But that did not worry me; it was not the bite I feared. I realized perfectly that if I moved I might get myself into trouble. I knew that the only thing for me to do was to let the skunk gambol over me until he wearied of the pastime and went out of the cabin.

I have a lurking suspicion that that skunk knew I was awake and in mental agony; for, after looking me in the face, he ran down my body on one leg and then up again, actually smelling of one of my ears; and then he trotted off me on to the floor of the cabin, where he nosed about awhile, then up again on my body; and, after sprinting a few seconds over my person, he went down and out of the cabin.

So soon as he had disappeared out of the door I jumped to my feet and, drawing my gun, rushed out after him. He was plainly visible just to the right of the cabin, and I blazed away. Immediately after I had shot him I regretted it, for I had to move camp.

The next day, on my way back to camp, I journeyed over a divide that was more or less noted as a den for mountain lions; though to designate any particular locality as a "den" for cougars is incorrect, for it is not an animal that remains in any one place for any great length of time. He is a wandering pirate, who makes no one district his home for any long period.

However, this especial divide was said to harbor more of them than any other; or, at least, there were more signs of them, and more were reported to be started from there by hunters than elsewhere in the territory. Be that as it may, on the particular day of which I write I accidentally ran across the only cougar I ever have killed which gave me a fight and stampeded my horse, so that I was obliged to foot it into camp.

I do not think the bronco is as fearful of the cougar as of the bear, at least my experience has not been such. I have had a mustang jump pretty nearly from under me on winding a bear, and I have wasted minutes upon minutes in getting him near the carcass of a dead one, that I might pack home a bit of bruin's highly-scented flesh, and I never had any similar experience where the cougar was concerned. I have had my pony evince reluctance to approach the slain lion, but not show the absolute terror which seizes them in the neighborhood of bear.

My experience at this particular time, as I say, was novel in two respects—first, the fright with which my bronco was stricken; and second, the fight shown by the cougar. I had reached the top of the divide, and was picking my way across the fallen timber, which so often blocks the trail over the tops of divides in New Mexico. I remember distinctly having gained a clear spot that was pretty well filled with wild violets, which grew in great profusion thereabouts, and was guiding my pony that I should not trample upon them; for in that God-forsaken district, 10,000 feet above the level of the sea, it seemed too bad to crush the life out of the dainty little flowers that hold up their heads to the New Mexico sunshine.

Without warning, my bronco, which was traveling along at a fox-trot, stopped suddenly, and looking up I saw, not more than fifty yards away, about as large a mountain lion as I had ever encountered, standing motionless and looking at us with utmost complacency. To throw myself out of the saddle and draw my Sharps-forty from the saddle holster was the work of a very few seconds. Throwing the bridle rein over my arm, I slipped in a cartridge, and was just pulling down on him when the cougar started off at a swinging trot to one side at right angles to where he had stood, and through some small quaking aspens. Without thinking of the bridle being over my arm, I knelt quickly in order to get a better sight of the animal, and almost simultaneously pressed the trigger.

As I did so my bronco threw up his head, which spoiled my aim, and, instead of sending the ball through the cougar's heart, as I had hoped to do, it went through the top of his shoulders, making a superficial wound—not sufficiently severe to interfere with his locomotion, as I immediately discovered; for, with a combined screech and growl, that lion wheeled in my direction, and made for me with big jumps that were not exactly of lightning rapidity, but were ground-covering enough to create discomfort in the object of his wrath.

My bronco, meanwhile, was jumping all over the ground, and I realized I could not hold him and make sure of my aim. To swing myself into the saddle and make away would have been simple, but I knew enough of the cougar to know that if I retreated, he, in his fury, would be sure to follow; and on that mountain side, with its fallen timber and rough going, I should have little chance in a race with him. I had no revolver to meet him in the saddle at short range, and a knife was not to my liking for any purpose, so far as an infuriated cougar was concerned, except for skinning him, once I had put sufficient lead into his carcass to quiet his nerves. There was nothing for me to do but fight it out on foot; therefore I dropped the bridle rein and turned the bronco loose (thinking he would run his fright off in a short distance), and gave myself up to the business of the moment, which, with the beast getting nearer every instant, was becoming rather serious. I do not know how others have felt under like conditions; but there is something about the look of a cougar on business bent, with its greenish, staring eyes, that produces a most uncomfortable sensation. I have been sent up a tree post-haste by a bear, and I have had an old bull moose give me an unpleasant quarter of an hour, but I am sure I never experienced a more disagreeable sensation than when I looked through my rifle sights at that loping lion. He did not seem to be in any feverish anxiety to reach me, but there was an earnest air about his progression that was ominous.

Under any circumstances, it is not altogether pleasing to have a mountain lion, on his busy day, making for you, and with only about fifteen to twenty yards between him and his quarry. I presume the delicacy of the situation must have impressed itself upon me; for my next shot, although I aimed for one of those hideous eyes, missed far enough to clip off a piece of skin from the top of his skull and to whet his appetite for my gore. My bullet seemed to give him an added impetus; for, with almost a single bound and a blood-chilling screech, by the time I had put another cartridge into my single-shot rifle, he was practically on top of me. Fortunately, his spring had landed him short, and in another instant I had very nearly blown his entire head off. He was a monster. I skinned him and hung his pelt on a tree; and, on foot, made my way into camp, after a fruitless search for my bronco.

I have killed five cougars, and this is the only one that ever gave me a fight. I record it with much pleasure, for there is an uncertainty about the cougar's temperament and an alacrity of movement that are altogether unsettling. You never know in what mood you find the mountain lion, and he does not seem by any chance to be in the same one more than once, for those I have shot have evinced different dispositions; generally, however, bordering on the cowardly. At times their actions are sufficient to characterize them as the veriest cowards in the world, and yet again, on very slight provocation, they are most aggressive and cruelly ferocious. There are many well-authenticated stories, to be had for the asking of any old mountaineer, of the unwonted craftiness and ferocity of the cougar, and I suppose I could fill a couple of chapters of this volume by recounting yarns that have been told me during my Western life.

Between ourselves, I do not think hunting the cougar is very much sport. It is an instructive experience, and one, I think, every hunter of big game should have; but, at the same time, in my opinion it does not afford the sport of still-hunting deer, antelope, elk, moose or bears. In the first place, there is really no time you can still-hunt the cougar except in winter, when there is a light snow on the ground, and at all times it is most difficult, because you are dealing with an animal that embodies the very quintessence of wariness, and is ever on the lookout for prey and enemies. You have to deal with an animal that knows every crevice and hole of the mountain side, that moves by night in preference to day, and rarely travels in the open; whose great velvety paws enable it to sneak about absolutely unheard, and that will crouch in its lair while you pass, perhaps within a dozen feet.

Yet there are only two ways of really hunting the mountain lion—by still-hunting and by baiting. I have tried baiting a number of times, but have never found it successful. Others, I understand, have found it so; but in a score of cases, where I have provided tempting morsels, and lain out all night in hopes of getting a shot at the marauder, in none have I been rewarded, and in only one or two have I got a glimpse of a pair of shining eyes, that disappeared in the gloom almost on the instant of my discovering them.

Probably the most successful method of getting a shot at this wary beast is by hunting it with dogs (though I never had the experience), for the mountain lion has small lungs and makes a short, fast race. With dogs on his trail he is likely to take to a tree after a not very long run, which rarely occurs when he is still-hunted on foot. Yet, if the hunter values the lives of his dogs, he must be sure of his first shot, for the cougar is a tough customer to tackle when in his death throes; and I have been told, by those who have hunted in this way, that many a young and promising dog has had the life crushed out of him by the dying lion. Their forelegs are short and very powerful; but, curiously enough, unlike the bear, they do not use them in cutting and slashing so much as in drawing the victim to them to crush out its life with their strong jaws.

I have said, one never knows how to take the cougar. Almost every mining camp in the West will produce somebody who has met and scared him to flight by a mere wave of the hand or a shout, and that identical camp will as like as not produce men that have had the most trying experiences with the same animal. It is this knowledge that makes you, to say the least, a little uncomfortable when you meet one of these creatures. I have had many trying experiences of one kind and another, and hunted many different kinds of game, but none ever harassed my soul as the cougar has. On one occasion I had been about five miles from camp, prospecting for gold, which I had discovered in such alluring quantities as to keep me panning until darkness put an end to my work and started me homeward. It was a pretty dark night, and my trail lay along the side of a mountain that was rather thickly wooded and a pretty fair sort of hunting country. I had left my cabin early in the morning, intent on finding one of the numerous fortunes that was confidently believed to be hidden away in those New Mexico gulches, and was armed only with pick, shovel and pan. I was sauntering along, beset by dreams of prospective prosperity, based on the excellent finds I had made, when suddenly in front of me—I am sure not more than twenty-five feet—two great balls of fire rudely awakened me and brought my progress to an abrupt halt. I dare say it took a second or two to bring me down to earth, but when the earthward flight was accomplished I immediately concluded that those balls of fire must belong to a mountain lion.

At that time my experience with the cougar had been sufficient to put me in an uncertain frame of mind as to just what to expect of the creature. I had not an idea whether he was going to spring at me or whether I could scare him away. However, on chance, I broke the stillness of the night by one of those cowboy yells, in the calliope variations of which I was pretty well versed in those days, and, to my immense relief, the two glaring balls of fire disappeared.

Trudging on my way, I had once more lost myself in the roseate future incidental to placers averaging three dollars in gold to the cubic yard, when, as suddenly as before, and as directly in front of me, those two glaring balls shone out like a hideous nightmare. This time, I confess, I was a little bit annoyed. I knew that, as a rule, mountain lions do not follow you unless they are ravenous with hunger or smell blood. I had not been hunting, and, consequently, my clothes and hands were free from gore, and I was therefore forced to the sickening conclusion that this particular beast had selected me as a toothsome morsel for its evening repast. I cannot honestly say I was flattered by the implied compliment, and, summoning all my nerve, I reached for a rock and hurled it at those eyes, to hear it crash into the dry brush, and, greatly to my peace of mind, to see the diabolical lights go out, for it was too dark to distinguish the animal itself.

Congratulating myself on the disappearance of the hideous will-o'-the-wisp, I set out at a five-mile-an-hour gait for camp. My castles in the air had by this time quite dissolved, and I was attending strictly to the business of the trail, wishing camp was at hand instead of a mile off, when once more those greenish lanterns of despair loomed up ahead of me—not more than a dozen feet away, it seemed. I presume the beast had been trailing me all the time, though, after its second visitation, I kept a sharp lookout without discovering it, but evidently it had kept track of my movements.

I had no proof of its being the same animal, of course, but I was pretty well persuaded of its identity, and I became thoroughly convinced that this particular cougar had grown weary of waiting for its supper, and was about to begin its meal without even the courtesy of "by your leave." The uncanny feature of the experience was that not a sound revealed its approach on any occasion, and I had no intimation of its call until it dropped directly in my path. I leaned against a friendly tree and thought pretty hard, watching the animal most intently to see that it did not advance. It stood there as still as death, so far as I could distinguish, not moving even its head, and the steady glare of its eyes turned full upon me.

I made up my mind that, if the animal was going to feast on me that evening, I would disarrange its digestion, if possible. My short-handled prospecting pick was the nearest approach I had to a weapon, and, summoning all my ancient baseball skill, and feeling very carefully all around me to see that there were no intervening branches to arrest its flight, I hurled that pick at those two shining eyes, with a fervid wish that it might land between them. My aim was true and it landed—just where I cannot say, but I do know that it struck home; for, with a screech calculated to freeze one's blood, and a subsequent growl, the lion made off. For the rest of the mile to camp I had eyes on all sides of the path at once, but I was not molested.

I have since often wondered whether hunger or pure malice possessed that brute. Owen Wister, to whom I told the story not very long ago, suggested curiosity, and I am half inclined to believe his interpretation; for, if hunger had been the incentive, it seems as if a tap on the nose with a prospecting pick would not have appeased it, though the cougar's propensity for following people, out of unadulterated wantonness to frighten them, is well known. At any rate, he showed his cowardly side that trip.

The cougar is a curious beast, capricious as a woman. One day he follows his prey stealthily until the proper opportunity for springing upon it comes; again he will race after a deer in the open; at one time he will flee at a shout, at another he will fight desperately. They are powerful animals, particularly in the fore quarters. I have seen one lope down a mountain side, through about six inches of snow, carrying a fawn by the nape of the neck in its jaws, and swinging the body clear.

In the West generally, I think, the lion is considered cowardly—a belief I share, though agreeing with Theodore Roosevelt, who in "The Wilderness Hunter" says cougars, and, in fact, all animals vary in moods just as much as mankind. Because of their feline strategy and craftiness, they are most difficult animals to hunt; I know none more so. Neither do I know of any beast so likely to still the tenderfoot's heart. Their cry is as terror-striking as it is varied. I have heard them wail so you would swear an infant had been left out in the cold by its mamma; I have heard them screech like a woman in distress; and, again, growl after the conventional manner attributed to the monarch of the forest. The average camp dog runs to cover when a cougar is awakening the echoes of the mountain. I should call it lucky, for those who hunt with dogs, that the lion does not pierce the atmosphere by his screeches when being hunted; for, if he did, I fear it would be a difficult matter to keep dogs on his trail. There seems to be something about his screeching that particularly terrorizes dogs.