Close Encounter of the Cougar Kind!
Close Encounter of the Cougar Kind!
A long time ago in a galaxy far far away.........No, that don't sound right.
It was a dark and stormy night........Nah, that one don't work either.
Well, I guess the best way to tell this story is to use my own words in my own style. I've never been confused with being a literary genius. Hell, my English teacher would have fits after reading most of my work. This may be a little long and drawn out but its a story that is so vividly remembered in my few remaining brain cells that I truly want to do it justice. So here goes.
It was December, I'm not absolutely sure of the exact date but I'm sure it was a Friday before Christmas because my Dad was off work. I was 19 at the time (10' tall and bulletproof LOL). Being from a small West Texas town (Sanderson), there was very little to do to occupy one's time and energies. One of my favorite pastimes was "varmint hunting". What this entailed was setting up in a likely location and using a tape recording of some type of animal in distress, usually a woodpecker or rabbit. This would usually attract the attention of foxes, bobcats, coyotes. When they would approach close enough, they would be dispatched, skinned and their hides sold to local fur buyers. Sometimes the money was good but I really never thought of it as a money maker as much as it was a diversion and a chance to spend time with my Dad doing the things we loved.
As I said it was just before Christmas and my Dad made the suggestion that we go varmint hunting. I jumped at the chance and quickly got our gear ready. My Dad made a phone call to a friend of ours from church who was the ranch foreman from a neighboring ranch. Hewitt was ready and raring to go as well and we headed out to meet him at the ranch headquarters where he lived.
It was about a 30 mile drive to Hewitt's place. From the rolling hills near Sanderson to the ranch, there is a dramatic change in the geography. The ranch is situated near the Pecos/Brewster county line on Hwy. 90, and is at the beginning of the Chisos Mountain range which runs from Northern Mexico through the Big Bend National Park and all the way up into New Mexico. Its a very rough, rugged, unforgiving landscape strewn with rock and cactus and nothing grows taller than 5 or 6 feet except in the canyon bottoms. Scrub cedar, ocotillo, sotol, catclaw and many, many species of cactus are abundant in this region. As the elevations get higher, pinon pine trees take over and they really have always seemed out of place to me but who am I to argue with what the good Lord saw fit to place in this forsaken place.
We made the drive almost in complete silence as we usually do. My Dad never has been much of a big talker. I on the other hand have trouble shutting up most of the time. But when it comes to something like fishing or varmint hunting, my mind becomes so preoccupied with the upcoming events that I am rendered silent. When we arrived at Hewitt's, he already had his gear loaded in his truck and suggested we use his old Ford. No arguments from us since he was kind enough to let us hunt out here.
We headed across a small valley and up a steep rock-strewn road across a saddle between two large peaks and down the other side into an area where you would be hard pressed to locate another human within 50 miles. We slowly made our way to an area near a hackberry and scrub cedar infested canyon and rolled to a stop. Texas Mountain Lion This was just a test area and my Dad and I piled out of the truck and I set the portable tape player about 30 yards in front of the truck and we both climbed into the truckbed. I manned the spotlight which had a red lense cover which lessened the intensity of the light and theoretically allowed the animals to look straight at the light longer than they would a regular white light. We had 3 guns with us, a Remington model 700 BDL in .222 caliber with full metal jacket shells to lessen the damage to the fur for the animals thet refused to come in close. A Remington 870 modified choke shotgun with 3 inch magnums loaded with buffered #4 shot for the ones who came in close. Also I had a Ruger .22 caliber semi-automatic handgun I carried in a hip holster in case we saw a raccoon or ringtail up a tree or somewhere where the other two were not an option.
The tape player squealed out its best rendition of "Woodpecker in Distress" as we stood quietly in the moonless night, each breath a silent steam cloud that almost crackled in the bitter coldness of a West Texas winter. After what seemed like an interminable wait, but was more like only 5 minutes or so, I turned on the spotlight. The landscape jumped into focus in odd shades of red and black, I slowly swung the light in an arc to cover all the surrounding landscape and especially down into the little canyon to our right where I expected whatever action there was to come from. Unfortunately, a small stand of cedar prevented us from really seeing the main target area and there seemed to be no animals anywhere so we decided to move a very short distance so we could see a little better. In retrospect, the fact that we saw nothing the first time I turned on the light seemed a little odd. Because this area was almost always choked with mule deer. The deer would stare at the light almost like they were hypnotized even if the red lense were removed. You would almost have to approach them to get them to move. I've seen several really big bucks out there that would make many a trophy hunter drool.
I hopped out of the back of the truck and retrieved the tape player and rejoined Dad in the back of the truck. Hewitt cranked up the old Ford and eased up the road about 200 yards. As we traveled to our next stop, I removed the red lense cover and panned the area with brilliant white light. Still nothing was to be seen, even on the rimrocks surrounding the little valley it was as if every living thing was too scared to be out in the open.
We slowly made our way around a blind curve where in some previous flash flood, a portion of the road had been washed away leaving a steep drop down to the bed of the canyon just off to the right. I was still focusing most of my attention to my right and the brush and stunted trees growing down there. As I swung the light to the left side of the truck, I was greeted by two brilliant blue/green reflections about 6 inches apart and only about 40 yards from the truck. So there is something out and about to night I thought. Little did I know that the excitement was about to escalate.
The first and most obvious question was......"What is it?" It was so dark outside that night and the brilliant reflection of the unblinking, straightforward gaze of this animal made it difficult to tell exactly what it was. It was almost as if the glare around the eyes completely obscured the facial features and even with the Q-Beam pointed straight at it, it refused to move or turn its head or even blink so we could determine its identity. "Gotta be a deer", Hewitt said which was also my first impression. He said it out loud so we could hear him in the bed of the truck and still no reaction from our "friend". The Ford was still idling and we began conversing in normal tones virtually certain that we were looking at a mule deer laying down near some cedar bushes but unable to move on until we were absolutely certain.
Dad looked through the scope of the .222 and Hewitt grabbed his field glasses. I continued to hold the light right on the unblinking gaze. Neither Dad nor Hewitt could make it out even with the magnification and we sat and stared back for a little longer. Finally, I decided to get out of the truck and walk towards it to get some kind of reaction. I eased out the back and approached head on still positive I was going to see a deer jump up at the last possible second and sprint off up the steep hill behind it. I closed the gap to about 20 yards as Dad held the spotlight on both of us. I noticed the head move back and forth nervously but still it would not turn its head. Another 5 steps and suddenly it did turn. A shiver ran down my spine as I realized I was standing less than 20 yards from a full grown mountain lion. The lion had seen enough I guess and fortunately for me, he decided to leave rather than face me down. With the long loping strides that only a member of the cat family can make, he effortlessly covered about a 100 yards up the side of the mountain in just seconds.
Meanwhile, I found myself standing back at the truck, funny I don't remember how I got back there so fast. I quickly climbed into the back of the truck and manned the spotlight again as Dad picked up the .222 and we scanned the side of the mountain for that pair of eyes again. We weren't disappointed as that piercing gaze looked back at us from 100 yards away up the steep side of the mountain. "I've got a shot", Dad said. All got quiet and all movement stopped as Hewitt killed the engine on the Ford. I held steady and Dad got a good rest on the headache rack of the truck and squeezed off a shot. The report of the gun was loud and the ringing echoes from around us made it difficult to hear if the bullet found its mark, but Dad felt he had made a good shot and we could no longer see the eyes anywhere. We waited all of about 15 minutes scanning every rock outcropping and stand of pinon trees on the north face searching for a glint or glimmer................nothing.
I asked my Dad if he was certain he got a good look and he assured me he did. The little Remington was a sweet shooting gun and Dad was a pretty good marksman so I was confident that I was going to walk up the side of this mountain and find the lifeless body of a large mountain lion and bring it back down. I grabbed a Mag-Light out of the front of the truck and made sure the clip on the little Ruger was full (It held 10 bullets) and started my trek up the mountain. I quickly covered the 100 yards to the sight where we last saw the lion and began a search in ever increasing circles searching for a blood trail or any sign that foretold success or failure. The going was a little rough as there were a lot of loose rocks, and did I mention that this mountain was steep? I stayed true to my search pattern covering almost every inch of ground while Dad and Hewitt patiently waited in the truck. Occasionally, Dad would turn on the Q-Beam and cover the side of the mountain and check on me to see where I was. Nothing.........no blood, no sign, no movement. Then, on one of Dad's infrequent spotlight passes, I noticed him suddenly stop the lights travel and concentrate the beam on an area about 150 yards further up the side and well to the left of our last sighting. Dad and Hewitt both hollered for me to stop that they could see our "friend" again. As I looked up the side of the mountain to the area where the light was transfixed, I too could see the lion and he only had eyes for me!! He seemed most interested in where I was and the hair on my neck stood at attention for brief moment. I hollered back to the truck that if they had an open shot, to take it. I moved behind a rock outcropping and knelt down, out of the line of fire and waited. I could tell my Dad was worried about taking a shot while I was still up there because nothing happened for quite a while. I finally hollered....."Shoot!!" and what happened next was difficult to describe but I'll try.
In my cramped position, I peeked up the mountain at the lion and patiently waited, ...........and waited, .........and waited. The lion was staring right at me when 3 things happened all at once. I heard a distinct high-pitched whine that lasted only a millisecond, almost like a mosquito that gets really close to your ear but it was much further away from me. The second thing that happened was a familiar "THWOCK" of a bullet finding its mark. Anyone who has hunted for any period of time has heard that sound and knows how satisfying it is. The third thing was the sharp crack of the report from the little Remington. It sounds so much different when you are uphill from the business end. Those three sounds happened so fast yet each was so distinct that I can still hear them today.
Hewitt must have been holding the light and he also must have jumped at the shot because the light disappeared for about 10 seconds and I was privy to another pair of sounds which definitely got my attention. In the darkness, I distinctly heard the lion scrambling over loose rocks and believe me he was hauling butt across the face of the mountain moving from my left to right. I could also hear a low rumbling growl escaping the mouth of the lion which instantly sent another cold shiver down my spine. I waited a few minutes shining the little Mag-Light around searching for a lion that was now most assuredly wounded. Hewitt also panned the side of the mountain with the Q-Beam. I shouted down to them that I had heard the bullet hit and that I was pretty sure I knew where it was. I also kept waiting to make sure I didn't walk up on this bad boy too soon. I figured he would be there when I got there.
After about 10 minutes, I resumed my search. This time I knew exactly where to go and I headed to the rock outcropping where I had last seen the lion before Dad took his shot. I arrived at the spot and started my circular search pattern but I also modified it in the direction I had heard it travel. At this place on the mountain just below the highest rimrock it was even steeper and it was getting very difficult to stay on my feet with all the loose rocks around. I looked above the rimrock and searched below it. I felt like I was covering literally every nook and cranny and I found ............ absolutely nothing. I was puzzled to say the least. I knew I had distinctly heard the bullet hit its mark and the sound of the wounded lion trying to make good his escape was, in my mind, unmistakable. This lion had to be here. I searched for a full 30 minutes and was just about to the point of giving up and heading back to the truck when the inevitable happened. The loose rocks finally caught up with me and both feet went flying straight out in front of me and I hit the ground hard sliding about 10 feet down the mountain before coming to a stop with a softball-sized rock trying to dig a hole in my left cheek, and not the one on my face.
I gathered myself and sat there for a few seconds going over a mental checklist to make sure everything was in its right place. All limbs were working and only a nice bruise was there to remind me. I put my hand down to push myself up and felt something wet..........Blood. Dang, I guess I hurt myself more than I thought. I looked on my hand and sure enough it was covered in blood but I couldn't find a cut. I shined the light on the ground and quickly figure out it wasn't my blood. I had slipped and fallen square onto the blood trail from the wounded lion.
Now things were getting interesting I thought to myself. With this much blood, I knew he couldn't be too far so I headed out in the direction of the saddle. The splatter marks of the blood indicated that he was still moving pretty fast but I was still confident about how this was going to end. I still felt I was going to eventually walk up on a dead lion, throw it over my shoulders and worry about slipping and busting my tail again while trying to traverse my way down the mountain. The blood trail led almost straight across the face of the mountain all the way to a small saddle between two peaks where it leveled out. There were many pinon trees here and I'll admit it was a bit spooky walking through there with shadows dancing from my flashlight and the Q-Beam from the truck. But that was about to change because the trail led over the edge of the saddle and down the mountain on the other side. I was quite a distance from the truck where Dad and Hewitt were waiting and I didn't think they would hear me so I kept going, still positive that this was almost over.
Further and further down the backside at about a 45 degree angle across the face the trail led. It was quiet.........very quiet. It was dark............ very dark. The only sounds I heard were coming from me as I stumbled over loose rocks and my breathing was getting a little ragged from the intensity of the situation and the strenuous climb. I also noticed that the blood drops seemed to show a lot less directional splatter so he was slowing down. Just how much he had slowed down I kinda got an idea as I kneeled down to look at some blood that had rubbed off on a patch of dead sotol and noticed a small amount of steam rising from it.
I quickly stood up and shined the flashlight around especially ahead of me where the blood trail led. I could see several drops of blood on the ground near a small scrub cedar and made my way over to it. I stepped around the cedar bush and once again shined the light ahead of me. This time, there was something looking back at me. Well, it wasn't the dead lion I was anticipating but rather a large, OK HUGE!!! mountain lion with a bloody side standing with his rear toward another cedar bush only 40 feet away from me. The first thing that went through my mind was "I'm W A Y too close to this thing". The second thing I thought about was remaining calm. He was obviously badly wounded or I would never have caught up to him. OK, so I decided I would take him out with my little .22 and we'd get on back to the truck, no problem. I held the Mag-Light in my left hand and rested it on my right forearm behind the gun so I could see the gunsights and my target. The lion was looking right at me and appeared to be unsteady on his feet. I sighted down the barrel between his eyes and slowly squeezed the trigger.
Once again there was one of those moments where several things happened at once but every little detail stands out as separate. I saw hair fly from the face of the lion and he yanked his head violently to his right. I also saw the smoke from the gun, which is highly reflective in a Mag-Light beam incidentally, temporarily causing me to lose sight of the lion. And third, I heard the most frightening, make that horrifying sound I have ever heard. One that still to this day I vividly recall in some of my scarier nightmares. For the first time this night, I knew fear. I remember reading a story once and the author made mention of being so scared that his insides turned to ice water. Believe me, he knew what he was talking about and I have experienced that feeling firsthand. The sounds you hear on TV associated with cougars or mountain lions do not do this animal justice. The lion literally screamed a sound not unlike a womans scream. The sound was bone-chilling and to make matters worse, as I focused on him, he took 4 or 5 quick steps.............Toward me!!!
The little Ruger in my hand never seemed so small as it was at that moment. It also took on a life of its own as it sensed a kill or be killed scenario. I quickly raised the gun and pointed it towards the lion. No time to rest the light on my forearm so I could take aim. Just point and shoot. The Ruger was a semi-automatic and would shoot every time you pulled the trigger, except I was pulling the trigger 3 times for every bullet that exited the barrel. After 5 quick shots, a miniature wave of sanity washed over me and I realized it may be in my best interest to save a few bullets instead of just blasting away blindly doing little to no damage. Quick mental calculation allowed I only had 4 bullets left and I didn't bring extra.
The lion had turned away as I fired blindly at him and dropped over the rimrock out of sight. I gathered myself and backtracked about 15 yards and approached the rimrock ledge and slowly worked my way over. As I cleared the ledge, I shined the light in the direction I had last seen the lion. He was still there and still very much alive as he glanced back at me over his shoulder. I raised the little Ruger again but couldn't see good enough so I stepped down and forward to get a better look when the inevitable happened.....again!!! Yep, those danged loose rocks caught up to me again and as before, both feet flew up in front of me and I landed square on my already bruised butt. Only difference this time was I put my left hand down first and if you recall, this is the hand that held the Mag-Light. .........................Instant Darkness.
That ice cold feeling crept over me again and I was as close to panic-stricken, total incapacitation as I've ever been. When I fell, I guess it startled the lion a bit and sitting there in The darkness I heard it growl and make a woofing sound a couple of times before it became dead silent again. "Now what?" I asked myself. I didn't want to run especially on the steep slope of the mountain with all the loose rocks everywhere. I really didn't think the lion would come after me so I sat there and thought. Then the fog of fear lifted for a brief moment and I remembered.......this is a Mag-Light. There's a spare bulb in here. The stars were out but the tiny amount of light they afforded didn't help much. I slowly and cautiosly began disassembling the light, being extra careful not to drop anything. I also tried to do this as silently as possible so I could listen for my nemesis. For the first few minutes, I could definitely make out the labored breathing and growls form the lion and I could also tell it was traveling away from me. I continued working on the light. The end cap was off and the spare bulb was in hand. Then I heard something, or did I? I was feeling very vulnerable about now as I screwed the end cap back on and flipped it around to work on the other end. My imagination was running wild and I was hearing sounds all around me. Was that tumbling rock I heard coming from below me or from behind me? Why can't I get this end to screw off? Why can't I go home?
Finally, the light bulb was replaced and the light reassembled. I stood up and shined the light down the mountain and saw the lion about 50 yards away walking downhill in obvious pain and this time he didn't bother looking back at me. Suddenly a flicker in the light, and another, then...................Darkness again.
OK, I can take a hint. I turned around and headed back up the mountain retracing my path as best I could in the darkness. I was emotionally spent but confident that the boogie man wasn't going to sneak up behind me and get me. Or at least I hope he won't. I made it to the saddle and could finally look down and see the truck where Dad and Hewitt were. I don't think I've ever felt that much relief and relative safety from something almost a quarter mile away. I started hollering for them to shine the spotlight so I could see my way back down. I don't know if that helped or hurt. The shadows made it so I couldn't see my feet and the light shining directly on me was blinding. So I shaded my eyes and proceeded to gracefully descend down the mountain. And of course, the inevitable happened for the third time......Ouch!!
I made it back to the truck and excitedly tried to convey my adventure to Dad and Hewitt. At first, I got a couple of incredulous looks but I am a convincing story-teller and I think they both believed me by the time we got back to Hewitt's house. All thoughts of continuing hunting were long gone. I could hardly contain myself through a sleepless night waiting on sunrise to return to the scene under the security of daylight.
And return we did, early the next morning dragging my little sister along. We retraced my steps following the blood trail and we even found a spot where 5 spent shell casings littered the ground. Nearby a burnt out light bulb glinted in the sunlight. I made a bee-line down the side of the mountain to the spot I had last seen the lion and continued the same line another 50 yards where I found him lying underneath a scrub cedar bush. This time he was very much dead and my story rang true with witnesses to boot. We closely examined the cat because I was very curious to find out where the shots hit. We figured that the first shot must have been a clean miss. This made a chill run over me as I recalled I was searching for a wounded lion and there was no wounded lion. He was staring at me from 150 yards away in perfect health. The second shot hit right at the diaphragm and traveled through and exited the abdomen. This was the reason he had so much trouble breathing making the "woofing" sounds I heard. The steel jacket bullet didn't do a whole lot of internal damage which also explained why he lasted so long after that shot. Finally, we found a streak under his right eye about 4 inches long where there was no hair. This was where I shot at him with the little Ruger and ticked him off. No blood it just shaved off the hair.
Well, we gathered him up and carried him back to the truck. Got home for some pictures which Dad dug around and found so I will post one as soon as I can get access to a scanner. I survived and learned a valuable lesson which I promptly forgot. But this episode was fodder for nightmares for many years and probably for many years to come. I hope you have enjoyed reading this as much as I have enjoyed writing it.
So now, how do I end this? How bout.............."I'll be back". Nah that don't work either. THE END
by: Aubrey Black