FICTION

Warden of the Flock

PAUL ANNIXTER July 1 1933
FICTION

Warden of the Flock

PAUL ANNIXTER July 1 1933

Warden of the Flock

PAUL ANNIXTER

As THE RED SUN rose that morning, the wind which all night had been carving the snow of the summits into fantastic shapes suddenly fell, and

the still, dry air of the heights burned like cold fire. In the growing light which turned the blue shadows of the snow fields to blood and orange, the grey-brown rocks of the mountainside a hundred yards below snow line were relieved by movement.

A form took shape there as Fire Eye, the old mountain ram, rose abruptly from his unseen bed among the rocks. He had been lying on a ledge protected from the wind, but until he got up from his surroundings and moved, the most powerful telescope could scarcely have picked him out from the greyish rocks. Nature had given him a coat of peculiar salmon-grey that blended perfectly with the dull rock tones of the high altitude towering cliffs of buff brown, panther yellow and dull henna, against which he was invisible from a distance, even in motion.

Deep down in the canyons, night still lingered in blueblack pockets capped by banks of carded mist, but the peaks glowed rose-red as the sun burned its way higher above the horizon. Into that vast wash of light the old ram picked his way along a dizzy ledge strung like a spider web upon the sheer face of the mountain. Up and up until he stood upon a dizzy knife-edged pinnacle of rock that overlooked the whole of that mountain world.

This was the old ram’s favorite lookout one of the highest points in all his far-flung kingdom, where even in stillest days of summer the wind was never failing. There one could see him invariably at sunrise. Dawns beyond number he had watched from this eyrie, always with the same strange ardor and fascination that marked his attitude today. It is a habit with all dwellers of the heights to greet the dawn, but with Fire Eye it was more than habit; it was an absorbing passion that increased with encroaching years.

As he stood there balanced over space on his upflung fang of rock, he seemed to epitomize all the grimness, mystery and desolation that this terrifying land of spires and chasms stood for. Thirty-two years of life, most of them as a flock leader, had made of him a magnificent specimen in brain as well as Ixxly. He weighed in the neighborhood of 400 pounds, and any real sportsman would have [>aid hundreds of dollars for such a head as his. The polished corrugated spirals of his great homs curved backward and downward about his face like a cloudy wreath. Beneath them peered two light, fierce, arrogant eyes which, had they not been eyes, might have been gleaming stones, so hard, fearless and immovable they were. Their oval-shaped Oriental pupils were set in their fierce yellow field in a fixed and ruthless glare which gives all mountain sheep a look of cruel and regal knowledge. Their telescopic vision was perhaps the most marvellous of that possessed by all four-footed things, second not even to the bald eagle's for distance.

The Indians who had given him his name many years before told startling tales of those eyes of his. They called

him Fire Eye because they said his eyes were bigger, brighter and lighter than those of any other sheep. They credited the old ram with supernatural powers. He could see in the blackest night, they said ; he could sight men around corners and through rocks.

Else how had he eluded their hunters for so many years, sensing them even behind the crafty stone blinds they set up along the well-worn sheep trails?

Like most such tales, there was a grain of truth in them. Old Fire Eye was as remarkable in cunning as he was in physique, for no beast in the big game category lives to reach old age without due cause. He had inherited as a lamb the rich experience of his ancestors. He had not squandered the inheritance. but had added to it through the years. The more he used it, the keener it became. Countless times, for instance, hunters through their Old

glasses had marked the spot where Fïre Eye and his band had been feeding, and seen no possible way of escape for them except along the route they had come. And then, after hours of patient stalking, sometimes in darkness, they had lifted their heads among the rocks and found the sheep had fled long before.

‘The old ram knows when there’s a gun in the region.” guides and hunters always said. "He’s got a secret backstairs down every peak.” And it was true.

Moveless as the rocks about him. Fire Eye stood for a space as if hypnotized by the vastness of the scene. The silence, now that the wind had dropped, was absolute, save lor the faint hollow rumble of a waterfall far below. Nothing stirred in all that vast panorama, but the old ram scanned every spine and valley bottom of the serrated slopes below him for sign of danger.

First he tested the breeze. Then he searched every rocky ledge for sign of the great cougar who was lord of all the

killers of the Sawtooth range and the old ram’s deadly and specific enemy. Then his keen eyes, still undimmed by age. located the flock where it rested among the rocks above a high, boulder-studded meadow cupped on a rim of mighty cliffs that defied approach to anything save an eagle. One would have had to have super-eyes and known just where to look to pick them out at all. They were there, all twelve of them, the last of the Sawtooth flock he had bred and squired and fought for for eight years. There, too, was the arrogant young ram who was their new protector, mounted on a huge granite slab in the midst of the flock, proudly posing. A sharp snoofing sound of anger escaped Fire Eye at the sight.

Three months before, this fierce, supercilious young beast had come over the range from the north and overthrown Fire Eye, after a battle that had gone on inter-

mittenti y for nearly three days. Hours and hours the two rams had battled on the mountain top. while the band of ewes looked on—knowing that the victor must be their lord and leader.

At first old Fire Eye had sent the upstart spinning by the force of his charges, for nowhere in all the coastal mountains was there a ram of his proportions, and nowhere either were there horns of such magnificent curve as his. But the younger beast had come back and back, relying on the one great asset Fire Eye had lost—the staying power of youth. And at last the tide had turned. On the afternoon of the third day as the fighting rams flung together, the younger beast had overthrown the old patriarch and proudly led his harem away.

Ever since that day Fire Eye had been chewing the bitter pill, sensing definite proofs of encroaching age and the

waning of his powers. That is a grim and terrible realization in any world, but in the mountain wild it is tragedy. For flock law is the grimmest, cruellest law in all the world. Its first mandate demands unquestioning, unhesitating, and absolute obedience of every member of the flock to the leader: moreover, to one leader. So it was that Fire Eye could not even be a follower of the flock he had founded.

From bitter experience he had learned that the jealousy of the new leader would not permit him to approach closer than 200 yards. But in spite of all this. Fire Eye was too proud to admit even yet that he was among the vanquished. His heart was too indomitable to harbor the feelings of an outcast.

In the first place, age had come upon him so suddenly he had been unable to comprehend it.

Like all those who live a life of ceaseless action and rigid discipline, he had been unable to cope with that strange enemy which had suddenly found a stronghold in his very bones. The fact that his strength was waning, that at times his legs wobbled uncertainly so that he actually pitched headlong among the rocks, and that though the feeding at this time of year was plentiful, he was growing gaunt in the midst of plenty, made no difference. He was still the flock’s protector and would be until death closed his eyes.

Certain things he knew that this younger ram did not know and doubtless never would, for times had changed; things about these peaks and their secret byways and backstairs, their twoand four-footed hunters. Seven different flocks the old ram had led in his time, and what he had not learned of mancraft and mountain lore was not worth the knowing. In the bone of one of his hips a rifle ball had been embedded for many years, and under the matted hair of his shoulder was a knobby growth that covered the broken tip of an old Indian arrowhead. He knew the threat of wolf and grizzly and cougar, and how to cope with them. He could read like wireless messages all the danger signals of the heights; knew when the chattering of marmots far below meant man or fox or eagle; could read a volume in the quick flight of quail, and in the manner in which conies or foxes stole to cover.

But beyond all these things, he knew he was still sorely needed by the flock, and it was that knowledge that made him carry on. For the rules governing sheep leadership are the most exacting found in even flock law. demanding the complete and utter immolation of the leader’s thought and being unto the herd so long as life should last. In other words, the only ex-leader was a dead leader. So Fire Eye went on worrying over his wardenship of the flock, while the solemn ancient peaks looked on at one of the most pitiable of all animal tragedies the death by ostracism of a one time king.

SOME TWO HOURS passed in which the old ram alternately studied the vast panorama below him and dozed in the rare fall sunshine. Two faint smoke spirals in the forest far down at the mountain’s foot bothered him vaguely. He knew that sjx)rtsmen camped there at this time of year and that a sheep hunt might be expected. Experience had taught him to be for ever expecting danger. At any time the antlike forms of men might be seen crawling up the face of the mountain.

A sullen subterranean boom sounded far to the north, reverberating from peak to peak, and Fire Eye knew it for the breaking off of a great mass of glacier ice . He jerked alert with a start as of shame, much as do some old men who hate to be caught napping. And quite as the thoughts

of an old man dwell upon the past, so there flitted through Fire Eye’s brain the thought pictures of things that had been.

He had seen great changes. In his youth he had seen the baldface grizzly hunt in families among these peaks, and the almost mythical wolverine. He had seen the Indians of the coast moving their tepees up-country in spring and down in fall. Up along those sloping valleys to eastward the elk had been wont to migrate in countless hundreds each fall toward the more sheltered ranges of the coast, but their armies w-ere long since gone. 1'hrough the years he had seen them exterminated by white hunters, as he had seen the decimation of the beaver clans which once dammed the boiling foothill streams. The Indians, too, were gone, and even the red deer were rapidly dwindling before the ever increasing hunters. Higher and higher up the mountain valleys the settlers were encroaching each year.

Far across the miles of jumbled valleys his gaze wandered to the range of southern peaks whither he had so often led his flock in winter. This year it would not be so. The flock was evidently staying on in the Sawtooth range and Fire F>e would stay, too. The years had taught him that, while the Sawtooth offered the safest and most isolated feeding grounds through the summer months, they were practically untenable in winter, receiving the full fury of the eastern storms. But the young ram rlid not know this. By the time he learned it, it would doubtless be too late to leave. The tortuous rims that must be crossed would be impassable.

The flock had begun to winder around the western side of the mountain now, feeding as they went, and Fire Eye worked his way dowm a ledge to feed also. In him was the urge to fatten up against the coming winter, but feed as he would he put on no weight this year. His teeth were scraggly and broken. He was too old. And soon the first snows could lx* expected. In natural course, the old ram would be hunger-killed among the peaks before spring came.

As he descended along the dizzy galleries it seemed that his hard-polished hoofs must slip at any second on the almost perpendicular surfaces and send him plunging into oblivion.

But his two horny toes spread wide upon the grades, and their hairy underpads clung like lodestones to the smallest roughness of u

the rocks.

A few minutes later, as he was rounding an outcropping promontory, a vagrant scent struck his nostrils. He halted instantly and his eyes swept the beetling crags above. He sawnothing, but the prickling of the hairs along his matted neck told him as surely as if he had seen that Numa. the great cougar of the peaks, was lurking there above the trail.

FIRE EYE halted, screening the wind.

His great homed head sh<x>k menacingly and his morose eyes went sullen red. With the marvellous feelers of his senses he located the lion’s position to a foot. Then in some miraculous manner he pivoted about on that narrow foot-wide trail that overhung a sheer abyss, and started back.

A minute later there was movement among the crags. A flat yellow head set with two cruel insensate eyes of gooseberry green showed for an instant. Over those eyes a yellow-green him played like shadows seen under water as he glared downward, his whiskered, snarling mask wrinkled with a terrible expression of bafiled desire.

For five years this had been old Fire Eye’s one dangerous enemy in the region; the one beast in all the ranges he really feared.

Numa alone could climb wherever sheep could climb. His ways were the ways of a drifting cloud shadow, and his cunning was matchless. Where human hunters killed only the rams with the wonderful horns, the lion killed the weak and strong alike; killed not only for f<xxi but for sheer love of killing.

Countless timt» Fire Eye had been stalked by the lion. A dozen times a ewe or lamb of his flock had been struck down by that mailed paw. No matter how the flock tried to elude the lion, the tawny killer always found them out. The one thing that had kept the great cat and his kind from exterminating the sheep band through the years was the fact that rarely was it possible for the cougar to make a killing spring upon the dizzy ledges without hurling both himself and his quarry into eternity.

Numa. keeping close tab upon the flock, had seen from a distance the overthrow of Fire Eye by the younger ram. Later, he had seen the old ram wandering alone, and was quick to notice that his old foe had fallen among the weak and outcast. Many such Numa had waylaid and killed among the peaks. He began hanging constantly to the old ram’s* trail like an evil spirit. Everywhere Fire Eye had gone for two months past, he had sighted his eternal enemy

slinking among the rocks or caught the pungent cougar scent upon the breeze.

It was a bit of Nature’s grim and ruthless irony that old Fire Eye, who was the wariest beast the cougar liad ever stalked, should have become the weakest prey in the ranges. Undoubtedly Numa took a grim satisfaction in harrying the beast which had so often mocked him. Down in the pine forests men and dogs were making it almost impossible for the killer to waylay the deer as had been his wont. For weeks he had subsisted solely upon the mice and conies he had been able to surprise upon the heights. In all that country the old ram seemed now to offer the easiest chance of a kill, providing he could be cornered.

But though Fire Eye’s strength was gone and he had fallen among the useless, Numa found himself still pitted against an extraordinary beast. Time after time the lion had lain in wait, only to have the ram warned of his presence minutes beforehand in some unknowable way, or pass by just out of range. However, in natural course the trails of the two must presently cross and their long feud be terminated, and for that hour Numa waited with the deathless patience of all the cats.

FI RE EYE was out of danger now. Back along the narrow trail he had worked his way for a hundred feet, then, flinging his goatlike tail in the air, he pitched over the edge of the sheer precipice simply vanished. What he had done was to drop to a lower ledge, a narrow outcrop that seemed scarcely more corporeal than the path of ants across a rockery. Along that he manoeuvred down the face of the cliff at an angle of something like sixty degrees. Risky business for one whose limbs so often failed, but the old ram lived by taking chances. Up on the rim he had left the cougar lifted his voice—a wailing whine of bloodlust that was like the voice of frustration itself.

It was exactly four minutes later, as Fire Eye manoeuvred antlike round a jutting pinnacle where a misstep would have ended in the bed of a hissing stream a thousand feet below,

that a .400 express bullet with a soft nose came whining up from the abyss below and pulverized a small cloud of rock dust exactly under the old rain’s nose, making him sneeze. The report that followed was unmistakably the sharp slap of a big game rifle, and the accuracy of the aim considering the range, which must have been 600 yards -was proof, if further proof was needed, that Fate was loosing her final shafts at the old ram.

Fire Eye halted, trembling. His big head lifted jerkily like a palsied old man’s, and once more he began retreating the way he had come. But this time there was no turning about upon the trail. His only hope was to back carefully up. feeling his way with careful hoofs around the dizzy outcrop, until he reached a wider shelf. It was a feat which none but a seasoned Alpinist could have accomplished, but he did it, and meantime the hunter fired another shot, the

bullet hurling sharp barbs of broken rock into the patriarch’s eyes and nostrils, so close it came. Then the promontory hid him from range again, and he heard the hunter climbing sluglike up the cliff—proving that he was very determined indeed, for it was a matter of sheer hand climbing.

The hunter was one Matt Kennedy, and he had laboriously stalked the old ram for more than forty-eight hours. Kennedy was no ordinary sportsman but a trophy hunter of long experience, one who did not give up things lightly. Three different years before, he had tried for the head of old Fire Eye, only to have the best of his cunning matched and mocked by the old ram. During those previous hunts, however, he had discovered, as he believed, every secret stairway and avenue of escape known to the sheep, and this time he had used all his knowledge of the mountains in a new plan of campaign. Half the night before he had spent in scaling the mountain from the tree line far below to a little cave he had located the previous year. In the darkness it was a feat that would have taxed a monkey, but Kennedy knew from experience that it was the one way he could hope to ensconce himself in the sheep territory without advertising his coming hours beforehand to the watchful eyes of the flock, which could detect the movement of a fox or coyote a mile and a half away. Since the small hours of the morning, therefore, he had lain waiting in the cave, and that was why Fire Eye had failed to catch any signs of danger in his morning survey.

As Kennedy climbed doggedly up the almost sheer face of the mountain he was facing another failure. His plan had not worked; he had lost, in all probability, the best chance he would have to bag the regal old ram. However, he was not disheartened. The task had to be done afresh; that was all. He was on ground familiar from three years of hunting. The tall peak he scaled was the main fang of the Sawtooth. On its northern face, toward which he was aiming, he would be able to see over the whole of the old ram’s realm and all its possible avenues of escape, and there was just a chance that luck might favor him with another shot.

OLD FIRE EYE, having reached a foot-wide shelf upon the ledge, had pivoted about and once more retraced his steps, fighting against the panic with which those two rifle shots had filled him. His legs trembled uncertainly and all his blood clamored for reckless haste. He was in a spot, as hunters say. Behind him death was slowly climbing. Somewhere on the heights above, the tawny killer lay in wait, knowing all the secret trails among the peaks. He could not return by the way he had come. Therefore he craftily picked a new but precarious route that would cut diagonally around to one of his secret stairways on the far side of the mountain.

It was just here that the flock came abruptly in view upon the summit of the adjacent peak, a quarter of a mile away. Fire Eye knew his danger, but without hesitation he sent a bleating cry of warning across the gulf between. The sound advertised his exact position to both his enemies, but the code of the leader demanded the gesture. He saw the flock halt, then move diagonally away in the opposite direction. He pressed on.

Up on the summit, the lion had heard him. He was likewise fully aware of the hunter below, but he was desperate with the hunger that gnawed at his vitals and wise with years of mountain hunting. So it transpired that some twenty minutes later, on the top of a jutting promontory whose flat, boulder-strewn top was like a little plateau hung in space, the old ram, winded and shaky from an almost perpendicular ascent along one of his secret stairways, came to a dead stop. He had to. for the lion crouched facing him beside a boulder not a dozen feet away.

The situation was desperate and final. Fire Eye could not retreat the way he had come, for the moment he turned the lion would be on his back. He could not pass by, for the way was barred. It was the inevitable thing that had been pending for weeks, the last move in a lifelong game, and the old ram played it stoically as he had lived his life. Slowly he backed toward the lip of the ledge in a series of dignified. mincing steps. His great horns shook in menace; in the black-gold eyes was the burn of rage and hate untinged by fear, for though he gave ground it was only as a fencer manoeuvring for position. Almost imperceptibly the lion advanced upon him, flat to the ground, his tawny body a study in curves and sinuosity.

There was a second or two of suspense, tense and terrible. Then with bared fangs and spread claw» the great cat launched through the air. Old Fire Eye’s hoofs rasped the rocks of the ledge as he reared upward with a vicious goat-

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\ like thrust of his battering head. It caught the lion in mid-air. half turning the descending body. The lion’s claws scored the patriarch’s shrunken sides like grappling hooks, and his sheer weight bore the ram back on his haunches so close to the edge of the precipice that the killer sprang free in trepidation, uttering a scream of rage and disappointment. Then began again a slow series of retreats and advances.

Head between his paws, black lips wrinkled back, the cougar crouched, then shuttled forward, his movements defying the eye to follow. Abruptly he seemed jerked upward by invisible wires and fell on top of the old ram’s back. For a full minute thereafter the ram pitched and staggered about, bearing the lion’s entire weight, while the great cat tried for a throat hold, his claws rowelling Fire Eye’s back like burning brands, plowing furrows through the thick brown mantle of his wool. Then a lucky thrust of one upflung horn tip found its mark, deep in the tender flesh over the killer’s vitals, and once more the fighters broke apart.

The cougar was surprised and taken aback. He had thought the old ram would be the easiest of prey, but never before had he met such a show of pugnacity. He was up against a fighting spirit which asked no quarter, which only death could quench. It was a magnificent exhibition of unbeatable grit that knows not the meaning of defeat. Desperation had given Fire Eye almost his old strength again. He reared and feinted masterfully, dancing sidewise at times as lightly as a fawn. His matted coat was streaked with red, but his challenging battle cry was undaunted, unwavering.

WHEN MATT KENNEDY had fired at the old ram a half hour back he had naturally thought the entire flock was following close behind its leader. And when old Fire Eye had disappeared he had little hope of even sighting the band again. However, he was not one to give up lightly, and he had gone on climbing doggedly around the northern side of the mountain. Therefore, as he halted beside a boulder some minutes later to ease his laboring lungs, he was amazed to see the sheep flock suddenly ap[x*ar round an outcrop on the adjacent peak, the ram in the lead. Could it be that the old ram was losing his cunning among the peaks?

The range was long, but Kennedy was a marksman. Cautiously, with shoulder braced against the rock, lie drew a bead and fired. Then his heart gave a great surge as he saw that he had scored. The great ram in the ! lead stumbled forward upon his knees, then pitched over the rim of the ledge like a half! filled sack of grain, to bring up on a br »ader outcrop some sixty feet below. An exultant , cry bursting from his lips. Kennedy hastened on around the mountain to retrieve the trophy, all his weariness vanished.

11 was not until he had crossed almost to the dead ram on the other peak that his eye was drawn to the almost silent battle in progress on the high plateau across the canyon. He trained a pair of powerful glasses upon the tableau before he made out that it was old Fire Eye himself which the lion fought. He saw it all then. The old ram had been dispossessed and it was the younger conqueror that his bullet had brought down. Fascinated, he crouched beside a boulder, knowing that he was watching a tableau that perhaps no other living hunter had witnessed.

The cougar was just launching his second attack, and Kennedy thrilled as he watched the old ram hold his own and finally heave the big cat from him. Fiercer and swifter the battle waxed, while the crouching man looked on with bated breath. The fighters closed, broke, closed again. One moment the cougar was on the ground, the next he was miraculously riding the ram’s back, claws rowelling.

Then came a final snarling, heaving tangle, from which the lion, as he bounded

free, alighted almost on the lip of the ledge. Old Fire Eye, heaving, trembling from exertion as he was, saw it, and with'no perceptible pause gathered himself for one final effort. At the risk of a mangled death on the rocks far below, he sprang forward again like a catapult. The cougar tried to twist aside, but, slewing sidewise as he reared, the old ram struck him fairly with his battering head. It was a brilliant stroke, worthy of his years and cunning, and it lifted the cougar clear of the ground and hurled him out into space. Kennedy, risen to his feet in that final moment, saw the ram check himself on the very brink and the cougar whirl over and over as he fell. Then the rocks moaned once, far below.

Head held high and triumphant, Fire Eye stood out on the rim of the ledge for a moment, and to Kennedy’s ears came his bleating cry of victory. Still shaken, his pulses leaping from the effects of the battle he had witnessed, the hunter laid down his glass and reached for his rifle. What a shot ! The range was long, but the old ram was silhouetted against the sky and Kennedy knew he would not miss. One bullet in that fatal spot an inch or two back of the shoulder and the trophy he had longed for would be his.

But in the very act of drawing bead, a repugnance for the part he was playing swept over him. The sheer nobility of the old ram in his moment of victory came home to him, and as he hesitated, like a tribute to that prowess, the hunter’s eye was drawn to movement among the rocks beyond the old warrior’s shoulder. It was the flock which had been scattered and demoralized, returning in panic to the protection of their original lord.

Ascending by some pathway invisible to Kennedy they came clambering over the rim of the ledge, seeking the generalship and assurance of security they had known for years in the presence of Fire Eye, the old flock warden, still the mightiest and craftiest of his kind in the ranges. Sheeplike, upon sight of him their terror and responsibility seemed to slip from them. The mothers clustering about him began searching at once for forage, and the tired little lambs lay down close by with heaving sides. Proudly the old ram overlooked the throng.

Kennedy laid his rifle down. It would be sheer butchery to spoil such a picture with a rifle bullet. He had already bagged one splendid trophy.

Slight as his movement had been, it had caught the telescope eye of the old leader. What followed was an example of selfeffacement carried to a fine art. How a band of such bulky creatures could melt so instantly and completely into its surroundings was a lasting marvel of Nature’s legerdemain. The skill with which they put every scrap of cover, every boulder and rise of ground between themselves and the watching man, whisked them into nothing almost as magically as if they had been the component parts of an exploding shell. The hunter, bewildered, watched an empty peak.