A Laramie Story by: By Elaine Kane
Dedicated to Barbara Taylor and Cathy Hicks without whose support and
encouragement, my story would have never been written.
Jess Harper, when are you gonna learn to think first and act second? I had been thinking about this for a while now as I rode along on the back of a mule…
Three days ago I left Slim Sherman’s ranch on the trail of a crippled mountain lion. Over the past two months it had killed three of Slim’s calves and even more calves belonging to other ranchers in the area. The killer is more than likely the same cat that one of the local ranchers had wounded and crippled a few months ago. Being springtime, the cat’s had a good crop of calves to choose from. That cat probably hasn’t been able to catch many deer or other wildlife since it was wounded so it’s now going after easier prey.
I can’t figure out how I ended up volunteering to go after this mountain lion. After all, it’s Slim’s calves that are dead and I sure didn’t own any of the other calves that the mountain lion had killed. I’m just the hired hand. I guess I got too all fired mad when I found our last half-eaten calf out in the pasture near our barn. Finding the third one that we’d lost in two weeks, my temper got the best of me and before I knew it, I was on the back of a mule and on the trail of the lion.
I had discovered the last calf the morning before I left the ranch. Madder than a hornet over my find, I rode back to the ranch house and stomped in to find Slim and tell him about it. I found him sitting at his desk pouring over some papers. “Slim, we gotta do something about that cat. The other ranchers can spare a calf or two but we can’t afford to lose another one,” I said. I was taking it kinda personal but couldn’t help it. Slim has been good to me and I’ve made it my business to try and help him succeed.
“I hate to admit it, but I think you’re right, Jess, I guess that cat’s gotta go. It seems it’s taken a liking to Sherman beef.” Slim said looking up at me from his desk.
Still steamin’ and raring to take care of the mountain lion, I told Slim, “I’ll get together some supplies and head out after the lion while its trail is still fresh.” Continuing with my prepared speech that I had put together riding back to the ranch house I said, “I can leave early in the morning. I’d like to leave today, but there’s not enough time left in the day to get the supplies I’ll need for the trip.”
“Jess, I’d rather you wait until I can go with you. Crippled like it is, that cat’s dangerous and unpredictable, no tellin’ what it might do if you manage to corner it,” was Slim’s reply. “I’d go with you tomorrow, but I’ve got that stage line owner’s meeting to attend in the afternoon.”
“Slim, you know that cat will get hungry again before then,” I argued. ”I can take care of myself, you know.”
“Sure you can. I guess you’re right, Jess. We do need to get rid of that mountain lion and quick,” Slim said, with a sigh of defeat.
“But,” Slim said, grabbing my shoulder as I headed for the door, “I’d feel a lot better if you went over to the Pattersons and asked them to lend you a couple of their mules and hounds. I hear they have one of the best mountain mules in the state and their hounds are trained to track anything, After you pick up the mules head into Laramie and get some supplies for about a week’s trip.” Taking the cash box out of the cupboard, Slim pulled out a small wad of bills and handed them to me. “You’ll need this to pay for the supplies.”
“Slim, I don’t need no mule, Traveler will do just fine,” I argued. I hated riding mules it was just plain undignified.
Hoping I could change his mind, I said, “I’ll just borrow a pack mule and the dogs.”
“You’re not winning this argument Jess Harper,” Slim said in his firmest voice as he rose from his chair and stretched his tall self to his tallest trying to appear menacing while leaning over me.
“Well, if you put it THAT way, I guess I’d better do it YOUR way,” I grumbled. I grabbed the wad of money from his hand and stomped out the door.
I left for the Patterson ranch shortly after we ended our argument. I had let Slim think he had won, but deep down I knew he was right and that’s why I gave in.
When I picked up the mules and dogs I was told that the mule I should ride was named Jack. Not too original, but it somehow suited his personality.
Mr. Patterson also handed me a large bag of lumpy sugar. When I raised my eyebrows with a puzzled look on my face he said, “They’re for Jack, you’ll need them, believe me.”
“Jack is more agreeable to doing as he’s told if he knows you have a good supply of sugar with you,” he explained.
Normally, Mr. Patterson would have asked me to pay him for the use of his mules and dogs but it was in the interest of all the ranchers in the area that the cat is disposed of. So Mr. Patterson said he would loan them to me free of charge since I was the self-appointed candidate for the job.
Trailing both mules I rode into town and picked up the supplies I needed. I bought enough for a week like Slim had suggested and packed it all on the rig that the pack mule was carrying. Along with a good supply of food for me, I bought tins of meat for the dogs and grain for the mules.
Early the next morning I headed out riding Jack with the pack mule in tow. The dogs soon picked up the trail of the cat.
Here I am, an ex gunfighter riding a mule along a rocky and boulder-strewn mountainside. Sure glad no one can see me right now. I’d be darn right embarrassed. So far, the mountain lion has been able to evade the dogs and me.
I would never admit it, but I was glad I was riding a mule right now. The dogs had finally caught the scent of the cat the first day out. Leaving the safety of the trail to follow the lion, we now had to pick our way through the rocky and uneven landscape. Even Jack was hard put to find good footing. If I was riding Traveler the going would have been too rough for him with me on his back and I would have been doing a lot of walking and climbing. My boots ain’t exactly made for such undertakings.
The dogs were now up ahead trying to catch the scent of the lion that had managed to keep hidden and out of their reach and my sight since this morning. I have to give the dogs credit, even though they lost the cat’s trail several times they had ranged far and wide until they once again caught a trace of the wily lion’s scent.
A couple of hours have passed since the dogs had last sniffed out the lion’s whereabouts. I can tell they had lost its scent again because they were roaming in wider and wider circles sniffing the numerous boulders that peppered the mountainside. It was these same boulders that were making it difficult for the dogs to find the lion’s scent. It’s ability to leap great distances even with that crippled leg was keeping the dogs and me guessing at the direction it had taken next.
When I first set out after the mountain lion I was excited to be out on the trail again. I looked forward to a break from the everyday life of a ranch hand. Right now, I wish I was home and had something more to do than sit on the back of this mule waiting for the dogs to flush that cat out.
I’m amazed at how I’ve come to this point in my life where I would willingly volunteer to go after a rogue cat. Meeting Slim and having his trust and friendship has sure changed my outlook on life. I surprise myself everyday that I realize how much having a home and Slim’s friendship means to me. I haven’t felt this way since I was a young boy. I was forced to set out on my own at age fifteen when I lost my family and home in a fire.
In the past I was never in one place long enough to feel obliged to help out this way. Before coming to Laramie a year ago, I had been on the drift for about five years with only my horse Traveler as my companion and my skill with a gun to support myself. There were times when I’d hire out as a wrangler or cowhand, but my fast draw would soon get me into trouble and I’d have to move on.
Then I met Slim. I sure didn’t like him much when I first set eyes on him, especially when I saw the rifle in his hand pointing at me. I’ll never forget how we almost knocked each other’s block off. One thing led to another and he offered me a job, a home and his friendship. I’ve finally found a place I felt I could call home and a friend to ride with.
The sudden tug on the pack mule’s lead rope brought my thoughts back to the present. Looking back at the pack mule I saw that he had stopped and was trying to grab a mouthful of leaves from a bush.
Damn mule, what’s it gonna take to keep his mind on what he’s supposed to be doing and not filling his stomach? The going’s been rough and Jack had been picking his way among the rocks and boulders like the sure-footed pro he was. I pulled Jack to a stop. I had the pack mule on a long lead because he needed his head to be able to pick his footing as he followed behind Jack and me. The long lead was making it too easy for him to snatch a bite of greenery along the way.
I twisted around more in the saddle and with both hands on his lead line I jerked with all my might, trying to get him to come toward me. “Come on you guldurned, stubborn, lop eared mule, you,” If I could just get him to pick up his head I could get better control.
I was so intent on getting that mule to move that I was unaware of what was happening ahead of me and out of my sight. All of a sudden I heard the scream of a big cat, then a loud yelp and a howl from one of the dogs. Twisted in the saddle like I was I had no way of stopping what happened next.
Before I knew it I was flying through the air as Jack bucked me off his back. “What the Hell?” Then I landed on my left side on top of the rubble of rocks littering the ground and on one particular sharp and protruding one. I felt a searing pain in my left side and knifing pain in my head as it hit an even larger rock. For a few seconds there was nothing but blackness and bright flashes of white in front of my eyes.
The wind had been knocked out of me, silencing the scream of pain that tried to escape my mouth. I was numb all over from the fall and unable to move. The blackness went away and I could see again and looking around, I realized that I had landed facing the direction Jack had gone. I lay there helpless and unable to move watching in wonder through pain-blurred eyes as the unbelievable happened. Instead of bolting away from the striking cat Jack was running at it with teeth bared and hooves flashing.
Charging the cat and using his teeth and steel shod hooves Jack drove the mountain lion away from the dog. He then grabbed the cat at the base of its tail with his teeth…literally lifting it off the ground. The cat was helpless to free itself from the iron grip of Jack’s strong jaws as the savvy mule held it up and away from his body. That is one pissed off lion, but I think Jack is an even more pissed off mule.
Dropping down almost to his elbows and with his front legs placed across the body of the cat to pin it down, he grabbed a mouthful of its hide.
Then he picked it up one more time and threw it to the ground again.
He delivered one last blow of his hoof to the lifeless body to make sure it stayed down.
Author’s note: Look at the dogs sitting behind Jack
Jack then lowered his nose to the carcass and snorted. Satisfied the animal was dead he raised his head and let out a loud bray. The dogs hadn’t dared to join in the fight. They seemed content to just sit by idly watching the mule make short work of the lion. The pack mule was no where in sight. I guess it ran off. The fight was over in a matter of minutes. That poor cat never had a chance and Jack doesn’t even have a scratch on him.
Never in my life have I seen a horse, mule or donkey attack a mountain lion. That Jack is something else. Most mules would’ve just kicked up their heels and taken off at a dead run away from the cat. There’s no tellin’ why he did it. Considering the shape I‘m in, I reckon Jack saved my life too.
Meanwhile, I was so intent on watching the lop-sided battle taking place before my eyes that I didn’t notice the ever-increasing pain spreading across my left side. Nor did I feel the blood seeping through my shirt from a gash along my ribs caused by the rock that I had landed on. As the fight ended and I struggled to sit up, my injured side made itself known with a vengeance as the earlier numbness turned to knifing pain. My head also objected to the sudden movement as a searing pain jabbed at the side of my head and through to my eyes. Harper, you’ve really gone and done it to yourself this time, I told myself, and then I blacked out.
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