There was a time when there were many wild horses on our western ranges. They had their beginnings mostly from horses shipped into this country by the Spanish explorers. Bands of horses were allowed to run loose so that they could forage for grass. Many of them simply deserted the camp and trail herds and became wild. Later on, economic changes added to these wild bands. When a railroad was built into the Comstock Lode country in Nevada, the Wells' Fargo freight and passenger stages had to give up the log trail routes. This left them with a lot of fine horses which they could not sell. Many were just turned loose to become wild horses. Trouble came to the wild herds when meat hunters found they could get good prices for wild horses from processors of dog and cat food. All the horses cost the meat hunters was the trouble of catching them. With trucks and planes available, the slaughter began. Today wild stallions like Big Red are faced with a desperate problem: how to save the small bands of mares they still have in their harems. This is the story of one wild stallion and his mares. Like the bison which were exterminated on the wild range, Big Red faces extermination finally given to a few herds of buffalo.
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.38(d)|
|Age Range:||9 - 12 Years|
Chapter 1 - A Land Untamed
The valley below Hallet's Peak was covered with sagebrush. It was a haven
for sage hens who liked its berries. The sage hens belonged to the grouse
family but grew much bigger and heavier. Bunchgrass spread lushly among
clumps of sage, watered by almost daily showers. Elk, deer, and antelope
grazed on the grass or browsed on the tender branches of low shrubbery which
challenged the brittle sage bushes. The shrubs were tough, hardy plants.
No other kind could survive in this wild country.
The slopes leading up to the mountains were covered by a variety of trees. A river would across the valley. Its birthplace was the barren snow peaks above timberline, dominated by towering fourteen-thousand-foot Hallet's Peak. Rivulets of melting snow joined each other in an area known to prospectors and hunters as Cat Canyon because several cougars had been killed there.
Close above the meadow grew shrub oak. It grew in dense clumps with tough, twisted branches interlocking each other. It seldom reached a height of more than six feet, but it presented an iron-hard, thorny barrier which was not penetrated by deer, antelope, elk, or range cattle. Without a brush knife no man could get through such a jungle. Dogs and large predators avoided it.
But brush rabbits and sage hens could enter the bush by moving close to the ground, avoiding the spiny branches. They all used the scrub-oak thickets as a refuge from cougars, bobcats, foxes, and even from the plummeting attack of a big golden eagle, the most feared hunter living in this wild country. From high above the area a golden eagle could see even a ground squirrel moving about below.
Above the scrub-oak belt grew groves of quaking aspen trees. When a breeze blew the rounded leaves of the aspens rustled with a strange melancholy sound like that made by no other tree. Folklore tells us that Jesus Christ was crucified on a cross made from the trunk of an aspen tree. Ever after that happened the aspen tree always shuddered every time a breeze stirred its leaves. The tree became known as a "quaking aspen."
The trunks of the aspens are white, splotched with black scars as they grow older. Many of the scars are caused by black or brown bears climbing the trees or marking their height on the trunk with their teeth to find out how tall they were when standing up. If they find another bear's height mark, they try to make theirs higher.
Both the aspens and the scrub oaks have a few days of glory every fall. The leaves of the oaks turn brilliant red, making their belt look like a vast colored rug. The aspen leaves turn brilliant yellow for perhaps a week or so. Only the big cottonwood tress growing along the banks of Wind River are able to rival the oaks and the aspens for fall color.
Above the aspen belt grow the conifers, lodgepole pines, pines, spruce, and hemlocks. Spruce and hemlocks extend up to the base of the cliffs which form a barrier of barren granite, sheer walls of naked rock stabbing skyward. This is timberline.
To know the secrets of this vast country a man must spend his life there. If his kinship with the wild creatures is strong enough he can learn much. The casual hunter or adventurer learns little. The born woodsman watches and listens. He listens because the wilderness has a thousand voices and each tells a story. The cry of a stricken pocket mouse tells a story of tragedy. The bugle of elk may announce a challenge or a blast of triumph over a fallen rival during the mating season. Bulls who lie down together peacefully during the summer become savage warriors when fall comes and a harem of cows must be collected and guarded.
Tom Henry had grown up in these mountains. His son, Eddy, was growing up there. They sat on the bank of a beaver pond at the upper end of the valley dominated by Hallett's Peak. A small stream feeding into Wind River furnished water to fill the pond. Years ago beavers had built dams across the stream.
A glowing campfire blazed between them. Each held a willow wand with half of a mountain grouse impaled upon it. Blue grouse was much to their liking. The breasts were full and plump. They turned the wands slowly over a bed of live coals raked from the fire. Juice oozed from the browning meat, and hissed as it dripped upon the coals.
"Mine looks done," Eddy said eagerly.
His father shook his head. "Brown it a bit more," he suggested.
Tom Henry was tall and lank. His face was weathered by exposure to wind, sun, and rain. His mouth was wide, and always held a hint of a smile. But it was his eyes that marked him as a mountain man. They were gray, and had an alert look in them. He always seemed to be looking for something. A few streaks of gray softened his shock of dark hair. His jutting chin warned strangers that he was not a man to be trifled with.
Eddy didn't take after his father. He would never be tall like Tom Henry. But his legs and shoulders were sturdy. He had a shock of red hair inherited from his mother, whom he could barely remember. Pneumonia had taken her when he was very small. There was a band of freckles across the bridge of his nose. His eyes were blue, and he did not hesitate to look any man in the eye. He seldom grinned, but he laughed readily. He was quick to see the funny side of any situation, like once when he had watched a skunk meet a porcupine on a forest trail. Both were accustomed to claiming a trail.
The skunk had won because his lethal weapon did not depend upon close contact. He could shoot his musk from a safe distance. Porky could not throw his barbed quills, he had to slap his enemy with his quilly tail. Eddy's father was pleased because his son was growing up to be a natural woodsman with kinship for wild creatures he met.
Eddy's father tested the breast of his grouse with his hunting knife and nodded his head. The he paused as a rifle shot rang out from below. He lowered his meat and turned to Eddy.
"Something we have to look into," he said grimly.
"Yesterday we sighted Big Red and his wild mares down below the big bend of the river," Eddy answered. "Do you think meat hunters are after them?"
"Could be," his father agreed. "The hunting season is closed, even on bear, so they have to be poachers."
"We spotted truck tracks in the canyon below the bend," Eddy reminded his father.
Tom Henry was a forest ranger. His familiarity with the region and its wildlife had gotten him the government job. He liked the job mainly because he believed in conserving wildlife, even wild horses. He had seen the last of the big gray wolves killed, and the cougars were facing the same fate from hunters using packs of hound dogs who treed big cats, making them easy victims for a man with a high-powered rifle. But more than all he hated the meat hunters who slaughtered or rounded up wild horses to be sold to the processors of dog and cat food. The ranchers felt they should be destroyed because they ate grass the ranchers wanted for their cattle, and the wild stallions often added range mares to their harems.
"We'll eat our grouse, then go down and have a look," Eddy's father said.
They started pulling bites of meat off their grouse. Between bites they drank swallows of hot black coffee. They used no canned milk or sugar. Sugar was reserved for their breakfast oatmeal. Eddy was sorry they had to ride down the canyon. They probably wouldn't get back until after dark. He had been looking forward to watching the beavers at work. It was seldom that they camped close to an active beaver pond. His father guessed what was bothering him.
"There'll be other times to study those beavers," he said with an indulgent smile. "We'll likely be camping here for a while."
"I want to find out how they build their lodges." Eddy looked out across the pond at a partially built lodge located in shallow water. If he waded out there before the beaver roofed it over he would be able to see what the inside looked like.
"They are worth watching," his father agreed. "They were building snug houses when prehistoric men were living in caves."
Their horses were picketed close to camp. Eddy road a small sorrel mare he had named Lady. She was high-spirited and very fast on her feet. She had grown up in a band of wild horses and had learned to take of herself on a dangerous trail. Eddy's father had helped him to capture her.
Eddy's father rode Mike, a big gray gelding. He had grown up a loner, driven out of the herd by the stallion who was boss, as soon as young Mike began to grow up. Tom Henry had caught him before he was big enough to have a herd of mares of his own and had gelded him and had trained him as a rope horse. He was sure-footed on trails where the going was treacherous.
Two sturdy young mules were picketed close to the riding horses. Croppy and Jenny were pack mules. They carried the camp gear. Like all mules they were smart. They knew how to take care of themselves in cougar country. Eddy and his father finished their lunch. It took them just fifteen minutes. They picked up bridles and went out into the meadow to bring in the saddle horses. They led the horses to the campfire where their saddles and blankets lay on the ground.
Lady was a bit tricky. When Eddy started to jerk her cinch tight she puffed out her belly with air she had sucked in. Eddy was wise to that trick. He had learned the hard way, by having his saddle turn over, dumpling him on the ground due to a loose cinch. Eddy waited until Lady was forced to take a fresh breath. As soon as she exhaled, he jerked the cinch tight. Lady groaned. She much preferred a loose cinch, it was more comfortable than a tight cinch.
"You can't get away with that stuff any more," he said as he playfully slapped her rump.
They mounted and rode down the canyon. Eddy's father set a fast pace at first. The distance to the big bend in the river was two miles. He did not expect to find anything until he had reached there. They sighted no wild horses as they neared the bend, which meant that Big Red had headed his mares up into the timber. Eddy's father started to be cautious. He was pretty sure the meat hunters did no know he and Eddy had ridden in over a pass, arriving that afternoon. He hoped to surprise the poachers working over the carcasses of two or three mares. If they were good shots, each might have made a kill. They had been driving a big truck, judging from the tracks it left, which meant they would dress the mares out. This type of meat hunter was a small operator. Hunters out after a big haul would try to capture several truckloads of mares and haul them alive to the packing plant.
They moved close to the spruce and hemlocks bordering the meadows to keep cover. The poachers would be renegades who would not hesitate to use their rifles on a ranger.
As they neared the bend Tom Henry decided they were not going to surprise the poachers. They had not sighted the poachers or their truck. They got their first clue when they came upon an area where a circle of grass had been trampled down flat and shrubbery smashed. Tom and Eddy dismounted. His father was bending over, examining the ground, when Eddy paused beside him. There was a lot of blood on the grass and bushes. Eddy knelt beside his father.
"They made at least one kill," Eddy's father said, "but they didn't dress out the carcass here."
Eddy stood up and looked around. He saw a trail through the tall grass where some heavy object had been dragged. He started off, following the trail. There were many blood stains on the trampled grass. His father did not follow him. He had stayed to study the boot tracks left by the poachers. They could tell him how many men were in the party, and this information might help to identify them later.
After fifteen minutes Eddy returned to the spot where his father was studying the tracks. He had learned quite a bit himself. He had found the marks of big tires where the trail ended. He was sure the tracks had been made by a Power-Wagon with a four-wheel drive. Such a truck was ideal for traveling over steep, rough country. When he reached his father's side he said, "There are fresh Power-Wagon tracks just below us. I think the poachers loaded at least one horse there."
His father nodded. "I'm sure they got just one mare. Big Red probably spotted them and drove the mares into the timber. Hunters on foot, could not hope to follow a stampeding herd of horses."
"They got away with the carcass," Eddy said in a disappointed voice.
"Seven hundred pounds of meat at six cents a pound. Forty -two dollars of fine mare," Eddy's father said grimly.
"I thought the price was ten cents a pound," Eddy said.
"Those fellows would sell to a bootleg buyer. He'd have to make a profit on resale. They might even give him half the price he gets at the factory," his father explained.
"Big Red's mares are all fine horses," Eddy said. "But for dog meat I guess it does not matter. They grind up the meat and can it."
"Big Red's mares are all splendid animals," Eddy's father admitted. "He only wants mares who are fast, and can run at top speed for a long distance," Eddy's father said. He looked up at the sky. "It will be dark before we get back to camp," Eddy's father continued. "We couldn't catch up with that truck. We may as well head for camp."
They mounted and turned up the canyon at a fast lope. Darkness had settled by the time they reached the beaver pond. But a full moon furnished them with plenty of light. The mules greeted them eagerly. They did not like to be left alone at night. That was when the big cougars hunted.
"I'm ready for a slice of fried ham," Eddy's father said as they returned to the camp after watering and picketing their horses.
"That sounds good. How about some Dutch-oven biscuits?" Eddy was sure his father made the best of baking-powder biscuits he had ever eaten.
"I'll whip up a batch," his father said.
Eddy stirred up a fire while his father mixed biscuit dough. Eddy pushed the heavy cast-iron Dutch oven into the edge of the fire. After a bed of hot coals was ready he would place the oven in it, with more coals on the oven cover. Eddy dropped fat from the grouse into the oven to melt.
After they had eaten supper they sat looking up at the mountains towering above them. Hallett's Peak stood out clearly, etched against the night sky. The huge bank of snow blanketing its north slope and the barren granite of the peak glistened in the moonlight.
"It's beautiful by moonlight," Eddy said softly.
"It sure is," his father agreed. "But it makes a man feel very small."
After they sat silently listening to the night sounds the hoot of a sleepy owl roosting on an alder branch, the big lonesome cry of a lone coyote. There were lesser sounds, crickets clicking a strident chorus in the tall grass, the rustling of mice that passed close to them. A bold long-tailed weasel slipped out of the grass and stood staring at them with little round eyes which reflected in the moonlight. Eddy flipped a burning twig toward the weasel. It vanished without making a sound.
Out in the meadow Croppy and Jenny strained at their picket ropes, trying to get closer to the fire. They knew that this was a night when every cougar on the mountainside would be hunting. The pale moonlight was ideal for stalking deer. It was also ideal for stalking young mules.
Finally Eddy's father got to his feet and moved the animals closer to the fire. Eddy tossed on fresh limbs and flames licked upward. The mules stood looking into the wavering light, their long ears flopping back and forth, their eyes glistening with reflected light.
Eddy laughed. "They sure like to stay close to the campfire on a night like this," he said.
"Burros and young mules always crowd close to a campfire at night," his father said. "A cougar would rather dine on mule or burro meat than venison."
Eddy yawned. "I guess I'll get into my bedroll," he said sleepily.
"Good idea," said his father. "I'm about ready to turn in myself."
This was the way all evenings ended for Eddy and his father, early to bed, up at daylight. As Eddy undressed he heard a beaver slap its wide flat tail on the water of the pond. The sound was like the blast of a shotgun. It was followed by a splash as the beaver dived.
"He probably spotted a cougar," Eddy's father said. "He's warning the other beavers cutting aspen trees on the slope above the pond."
"I'd like to see the cougar," Eddy said. "But you never see cougar, they're too cunning."
He got into his bedroll and snuggled down. In a few minutes his eyes closed and he was asleep.
Table of Contents1 A Land Untamed
2 Desperate Men
3 The Way of the Wild Ones
4 Forecast of Doom
5 Hazardous Vigil
6 Beginning of a Campaign
7 The Drive
8 Desert Roundup
9 A Desperate Wild Stallion
10 Time to Move On
11 Wild Horse Drive
12 The Trail's End
13 A Different Kind of Roundup