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Hunting American Lions

1948

“Crook was a specialist. It was not that he was an unimportant factor in the dog pack. Actually the rest of the lion dogs took him most seriously. But Crook regarded himself with a weight which went far beyond his canine character as adviser to the rest of the hounds. Mountain lions can be caught only with dogs – good dogs…It requires not only a canine with four feet and fur to do this business, but one with a nose as delicate as a French connoisseur and with a constitution like a Roman soldier. Crook was both of these and no one could deny that Crook was an expert.”

“There have been better lion hounds than Crook. I have seen big, red dogs with a long line of bloodhound showing in their long trailing ears and heavy bodies. The tenacity of the bloodhound on a human track is known to many a luckless convict in the canebrakes of the south. I have seen lion hounds with the swiftness of a fox hound whose blood ran in their veins. There are cat dogs that are faster than Crook. I have known others now long since gathered to their canine ancestors that could have bested Crook in any lion chase if the track was hot. But for unwinding a difficult trail which no human eyes could see and few canine noses could smell, Crook was a paragon of perfection. Homer Pickens and I used to laugh at the old dog because he never took any one’s word for a track. Crook had to poke that gray muzzle of his into every single impression that the lion had made. If the rest of the keen-nosed dogs barked ahead that the track was theirs and the chase was on, it made no difference to old Crook. He was not going to take any other dog’s barking word for such an important fact.The identification of each one of those prints, lingering with the faint odor of exhilarating lion smell, was a job which only Crook could do. As he poked his nose into each one of the tracks of the fleeing cougar, he voiced a hoarse bark and wagged the crooked tail that had given him his name. Years ago a female lion had bitten Crook’s tail almost in two so that the shattered vertebrae now stuck out from his aging body with the contours of an old-fashioned poker. The bite on the tail had not only given this dog his name, but had also cemented his determination to hunt lions to his end with a tenacity and unity of purpose which is displayed by few dogs and certainly no humans.”

“Too many times had Crook been fooled by some jug-headed pup dashing with ecstatic yelps off down the mountain following the reeking hoof-prints of a fleeing deer….The old man would not take the word of any of those young and foolish pups, no matter how hot the track was. Old Crook believed nobody’s nose but his own and smelled every track in the long trail. We came to call Crook “Old Slow Sure.” It’s the kind of personality you laugh at, but when there is something really difficult to accomplish, that is the kind of bullheadedness you need. Homer and I ran into just such a difficulty over in Alum Canyon in the Mogollon Mountains of New Mexico.”

“The trouble in Alum Canyon on that wet winter was with two lions. The Mogollons are rough as a rule, but this particular corner of those picturesque mountains can only be described as precipitous. Great beetling cliffs of lava rock dropped off sheer to the green of the Gila River below. Ledges and pinnacles jutted in all directions to produce a terrain like a crumpled piece of paper that had been torn across again and again. Mountain slopes were too steep for our horses and in places too rough and insecure for even ourselves. But across these trackless ways and rough ledges the lions roamed at will. Especially in the rough area of Seventy-Nine Canyon, these two green-eyed cats circled and climbed, ate and slept, but we could not catch them. Twice our whole hound pack picked up a trail which seemed sure of success. The hounds, both young and old, fairly roared along the track, but only for a short distance. The fickle thawing and freezing of the north and south slopes of these knife-edged ridges left even keen dog noses in baffled confusion. Occasionally by dismounting, Homer and I could circle ahead of the milling dogs to find the broad, round print of a lion paw in frozen mud or hardened slush. Homer whistled to the dogs and pointed to the imprint. Any one of the hounds – Sue, Buck, Trailer or Bugger – would stick his flabby muzzle into the impression and make a noise like a vacuum cleaner with a burst bag. Then some faint trace of pungent lion smell that yet remained in the frozen track would titillate those sensitive olfactory nerves in that canine machine. Raising his head, the dog would bellow and thrash his tail with the excitement of wringing even a fragment of smell from a difficult situation. The rest of the dogs circling in the bushes would rush to the spot. We had gained a few yards. But Slow Sure, with the crooked tail and dreamy eyes, would take nobody’s word for it. He was hunting all of this time for every single print that the lion had made, every place that the beast had stepped on a log or crossed a rock. Occasionally Homer would go back a quarter of a mile or so to where old Crook was still working out a track and carry the dog bodily in his arms to where we knew the trail to be. Crook looked resentful, but resigned on these occasions, as though he were extremely disappointed in missing a few dozen lion tracks in the interval. Anyone else who picked up Crook in this way was sure to be bitten with all the savageness of a wild animal. Old Slow Sure took his trailing seriously. But on each of these heart-rending occasions the result was the same. The freezing mists of late afternoon would leave the lion track cold and impossible for even those keen-nosed hounds to follow. Our horses were exhausted from scrambling up the frozen slopes where the footing was always uncertain and dangerous. The hounds were discouraged and so were we.”

“But lion luck runs out and cat lives are numbered only nine. Old Slow Sure had counted off eight of these lives in the days before without our ever knowing that we were coming so close. On several previous occasions the venerable dog had crossed the rough brakes of Alum Canyon close to where the dark-shadowed gorge debouches into the trough of the Gila River itself. On these lichen-covered ledges Crook had tracked back and forth as he traced out the imprints of lion feet that had walked these same stony ways. But as each cold, raw day wore to a close with an early evening and no lion, it seemed that we would never straighten out a lion track in this cliff country sufficiently to catch the cat himself. However, as we set out each morning from our camp in the bottom of the Gila Canyon, Old Crook would always start for rough and broken country. In the Alum Canyon cliffs and ledges the dog with the broken tail would invariably find a lion track. As we could not take our horses among these inhospitable ledges we had to follow on foot which was arduous business. Tires and aching legs and an unsuccessful track are not conducive to high spirits and optimism, but Homer always said 'Old Crook will iron ‘em out; there are lions in these cliffs some place and we’ll get them.'

“Suddenly there was a roar of sound which echoed and reverberated from the straight walls of Alum Canyon gorge. The long drawn note of Old Crook on the trail had suddenly become the furious barking of a lion-dog looking at a lion. Another dog joined in – it was one of the pups prowling also on the rocks below the cliff. Our other dogs that, seconds before had been so dolefully hungry, had now disappeared over the edge of the rocks in a body, scrambling to be the first to get in the excitement. We had scarcely reached the edge of the cliff when we saw the lion. Old Crook was in the face of the beast and both of them were on a narrow jutting ledge that reached out over the depths of the Gila Canyon with a sheer drop of a thousand feet below them. First one and then another of the hounds reached the little rocky point where the cougar had come to bay.”

“As the dogs crowded one another close, the lion unsheathed its claws and struck with a sidewise motion so quick that the movement was blurred to the human eye. Those raking, curved claws barely missed a dog with each strike, but still they crowded closer. The hounds behind pushed the ones in front into the very jaws of destruction. The long sweeping curve of those needle-sharp claws, or the bite of those white canines would find a mark in a matter of seconds. The dog or the lion or both could make a mis-step of only inches to plunge themselves into destruction on the rough lava rocks in the canyon below us. I was struggling frantically to unlimber a movie camera which had been loaned to me by the naturalist, Arthur Pack, for just such an occasion. I devoured precious minutes in setting the lens and the focus to preserve one of the most striking and exciting scenes that any hunter had ever seen. With a large cinnamon red mountain lion with the face of the devil incarnate, fighting for his life against a backdrop of majestic canyons and distant cliffs, I could have conceived of no picture more striking if I had set the props in a studio. But Homer Pickens behind me was fidgeting with a nervous gun. He held his rifle steady. ‘The dogs—‘ The rest of what Homer said was drowned in another furious crescendo of barking. The rest of the dogs had pushed old Bugger almost between the front paws of the lion. The cougar struck again and again with lightning rapidity. I could see the flecks of red flesh that showed where Bugger’s shoulder had been torn by a claw. The dog caught himself with difficulty under the impact and he hung for a brief second on the very edge of the cliff, scrambling for life. Those dogs were worth five hundred dollars apiece; they were our friends. ‘I’ve got to shoot,’ Homer yelled at me. The movie camera was clicking off steadily the drama on the little rocky point a few feet ahead of us. I saw in the finder the paw of the lion find another mark. I moved closer to get a full-faced view of the lion over the very backs of the hound when it happened. The great cat with the purchase of his hind paws barely on the edge of the rock cliff, leaped clear over the dog pack crowded in front of him. With two tremendous bounds he cleared the edge of the cliff and was running along a ledge just below us. The cat like certainty and precision of that fleeing beast were amazing. A miscalculation of inches in any one of his great bounds would have meant certain death. The lion was running along the face of the cliff as though he had suction cups on those big round paws.”

“I glanced back for a single instant to see the glint of the light on the blue of the rifle barrel as Homer followed with his sights the great jumps of the lion along the face of the cliff. I saw the recoil and heard the deafening muzzle blast of the weapon. When I turned to look at the great cat, he was just leaving the edge of the cliff with a last forlorn grasp of his paws. With a movement as though he renounced all hope the cougar released his hold on the rough rock and slumped down and out into space, the life gone out of him.”

“As we tied the lion’s skin behind Homer’s saddle, we heard old Crook trailing again on those same awesome ledges where the lion had stood. ‘I believe that old fool is trailing that same lion track,’ Homer said with remarkable lack of confidence in an old friend. ‘Sure looks like it,’ I answered as I gathered up the reins, and then I saw over the curve of my saddle, the form of a lion – another lion bounding easily and gracefully along the edge of the cliff where we had just stood. It was not the limp and shapeless form of the lion skin with the dangling paws which we had just tied on Homer’s saddle, but another cat even larger than the one we had just killed and certainly very much alive. Even as I looked old Slow Sure broke into the furious barking that indicated that he too had seen the bounding, graceful form of that long-tailed thing.”

“I took a hasty sight at the slim body just as it rounded a big tumbled fragment of lava that had separated from the parent cliff. The bullet dug viciously into the rock, well above the lion, and the ricochet of the lead and the shower of rock fragments of the impact startled the beast again into full flight. Homer’s gun went off beside me; I could not see where the bullet hit. I shot again and we both fired alternately every time we got a glimpse of that dark body in the ever-increasing distance of the rocks.”

“When Homer shoots, his dogs look for a lion to fall out of a tree. With the combined shooting of two frantic guns the hounds were beside themselves with excitement, but in the wrong direction. The were barking and yelping and bounding around our legs with an ecstatic chorus. With doglike fidelity they were looking with doleful eyes in the scattered juniper trees on the cliff’s edge for a glimpse of the object of our chase. Not one of the other hounds had glimpsed the fleeing lion. Homer quickly ran up to the ledge along which the cougar had passed. ‘Here, Buck, here Trailer, here Chief! Here he goes! This way!’ But there had been too much excitement and too much shooting to merely follow lion tracks. Every big hound with wildly waving tail was bounding ecstatically around us with his head in the air. Not a one would put his nose to the rock to follow those reeking, fresh lion prints made seconds before. ‘Where is that lion?’ the dogs all seemed to say, and yelped and barked the louder.”

“While this drama was being enacted on the cliff edge, we had not noticed that the weather had taken a decided turn for the worse. The low gray clouds which had plagued us for so many days with their snow and sleet, now enveloped us all at once. The mountains in the distance with their forested slopes and white ridges faded from view and wisps and fragments of gray clouds crept along the cliff edges and filled in the depths of the canyons and clefts. A fine freezing mist began to fall.”

“Crook on the trail or not, second lion or none, we were confronted with the wet prospect of an awful night out on those cold wind-swept cliffs. Beneath the enveloping clouds almost straight below us was our cozy camp in the Gila bottom. Even our little tent and the Dutch oven full of cold biscuits seemed a vision of loveliness. We shivered involuntarily as we thought of the uncomforting night ahead. ‘Homer,’ I said between chattering teeth. ‘I think I saw a place about a half mile downstream where we could get the horses off the edge of the cliff. The slope is steep, but we could lead them.’

“As we reached the edge f the steep descent which we hoped to make, it was totally dark. It was not the velvety blackness of a Mogollon night, when the stars wink out over Granny Mountain with the faint, soft light of friendly darkness. This was an enveloping blackness which concealed all shapes and dimmed all sounds. I could not even see the bulk of Homer’s horse as I bumped into it in dismounting. The dogs were invisible, but constantly underfoot as we made our preparations for what promised to be a very hazardous trip downward.”

“It seemed that we had been going an interminable time. We must certainly be half way in that awesome descent. Homer had stopped just ahead of me. A hound whimpered and rubbed against my leg. I could smell the pungent odor which is peculiar to wet dogs. Homer’s voice came out of the blackness, almost in my ear.‘It seems to be getting steeper. I think we’d better tie up the reins and let the horses go ahead. Horse eyes can see in this pea soup better than we can – we’re apt to stop over a cliff.’ Jostling in the total darkness and feeling our way with each movement, we tied up the reins and pushed the horses ahead of us down the slope. As my animal passed by, I grasped his tail and followed, digging my boot heels into the ground to slow my descent.”

“We had gone perhaps fifty feet when the cold hand of disaster that had hovered over us all day, struck without sight or warning. Homer yelled out of the black murk. There was a flash, the first spot of light we had seen since that fateful night began. It was a single spark struck from the iron shoe of a horse as he scraped it frantically on the rock. There was the half neigh, half whine of a horse in agony – a sighing sound in the air like wind in a tunnel; then the crash of a heavy body hitting bushes and rocks far below in the darkness. Homer’s horse had gone over a cliff. Homer…. ‘Frank! For God’s sake –’ he said just below me. ‘The cliff—’ I pulled hard at the tail of my horse and the animal stopped with feet braced on that awful slope. I heard the snuffle of his nostrils as he smelled where Homer’s horse had stepped off the cliff edge. My animal was following by scent; he couldn’t see any better than I. In those two seconds, both the crash of Homer’s horse far below still coming to us out of the rainy darkness, the tail of my mount was suddenly jerked from between my outstretched hands. Lured off by some doom demon, my horse had stepped from the edge of the cliff like a suicide, as indeed it seemed. For an awful instant, I tottered on the brink, clawing wildly in the darkness for something to support me where I found nothing but intangible mists and phantom shadows. My feet slipped in the wet mud and I fell to the side, clutching with biting fingernails at a thick root which protruded from the soggy ground. The awfulness and depths of the drop over which we hung were multiplied a thousand times by the darkness and cold. The root to which I clung turned out to be Homer’s leg. He also was clawing the ground, with his finger ends crooked into the wet mud for support. I turned to hear the noise of my own horse as he fell, end over end onto those awful rocks that must lie below. There was a shower of sparks where his iron shoes rasped the rock as he turned; then silence. We had seen a hundred cliffs of this sort on the canyon sides of this terrible country. We must have zigzagged far to one side. Who could keep direction in that wet blackness? And now our horses that had served us so well, lay battered and bleeding carcasses on some jagged canyon rocks. And what of our saddles and our rifles in their scabbards, and the valuable camera which I had borrowed?”

“There was nothing to do but retrace our steps in the other direction to see if we could find the opposite end of that unseeable cliff. Somewhere it must fade into minor ledges and slopes where we could slide down. On one side or the other must be the relatively friendly incline which had looked so passable in the light of day. We could not lie there in the wet darkness in that steep mud, so we kept moving. It was not until almost daylight that we found a way down. It was only then by taking hairbreadth chances which we took because we were too tired to do otherwise. We hung by bushes down over the edges of rocks not knowing whether the drop was six or sixty feet. Total blackness and dizzy heights are a fear-inspiring combination.”

“As the light grew stronger, hungry and dead weary as we were, our first duty was to our animals. Perhaps one of the gallant beasts yet lay shattered but alive on the rocks and must be dispatched with a merciful bullet through the head. Perhaps by some good chance in the entire night of misfortune, some of our equipment remained to be salvaged.”

“’Look!’ said Homer, with his muddy hands outstretched in a gesture of amazement and incredulity. There was a horse – my horse, grazing peacefully at the river’s edge. But wait – he was disemboweled. That awful black thing on his belly could only mean that the entrails and viscera of the poor animal were herniated and torn beyond recovery. As we ran toward him he raised his head with an alertness which was not that of a wounded animal. ‘Why, it’s the saddle!’ I shouted, as though that beaten and torn piece of equipment were not beyond repair. It was indeed my saddle. The cantle was hanging as limp as the ear of one of our faithful hounds. The horn was broken, one stirrup was gone. The saddle was a mess as it hung by frayed cinches beneath the horse’s belly. But the horse was all right. What did we care for a hundred dollar saddle? The poor animal actually seemed glad to see us as we looked over his hurts. His nose and face were skinned completely from the tip of his muzzle to between his ears. Both foreleg knees were also bare of any skin whatsoever and he held one hind leg up in a tentative manner when he shifted his weight. But there was not a bone broken, not a single really serious bruise. I cut off the damaged saddle and laid it on a rock by the river. Homer had been looking around for his horse, Skip. ‘Look,’ he yelled like an excited boy. There was Homer’s horse too, without any vestige of a saddle, but with one bridle rein still trailing in the wet grass. The animal walked on three legs, but walked nonetheless and whinnied to boot….The animals must have fallen over the cliff and struck at the bottom on another slanted, muddy slope such as the one where we had clung. The oblique impact and the wet ground had lessened the fall, for here they were, cropping the wet grass of the canyon floor. At least we had not lost a life in that awful night. But what of the camera, the guns, the chaps and Homer’s saddle? And what of the lion skin? My heart sunk as I pictured the movie camera a scattered wreckage of cogs and broken lenses on some sharp lava rock. But as the sun rose to bite with its sickly pallor through those evil mists, our star of fortune seemed to smile again. We found the camera, still in its leather case, reposing peacefully in a pool of water. It was uninjured. We collected our rifles, one with a splintered stock. We found Homer’s saddle where his horse had landed on his back and the saddle had apparently broken his fall. The cinches and girths had burst from the impact like a baked potato. We surveyed the damage of our little pile of broken and scratched possessions at the foot of the cliff. Homer’s chaps were gone. We could not find his spurs. My rifle was a wreck.”

“We started back through the tall wet grass to camp. Wouldn’t a cup of steaming hot coffee taste wonderful!”

“Our little tent looked so snug and dry on that wet morning. As we walked closer there was a sudden movement and stir within the V-shaped opening of the shelter. A long gray muzzle and a pair of watery eyes looked out, and the canvas pulsated to the beat of a bent tail. It was old Crook. He was yawning and stretching as he uncoiled himself from his position on Homer’s comfortable pillow. The old dog was dry, warm and had obviously helped himself copiously from our camp provisions. His face had a dolefully happy expression and seemed to say ‘I caught the other lion up there; where were you fellows all night?’”

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