Chapter V. Goats

As we were finishing breakfast my eye was attracted to a snow speck on the mountainside some two thousand feet above us and slightly westward that somehow looked to me different from other snow specks. For nearly a minute I stared at it through my glasses. At last the speck moved. The game was in sight!

We drew straws for the shot, and Fisher won. Then we began our climb. It was the same old story of pumping lungs and pounding hearts; but with the incentive before us we made excellent time. A shallow ravine and a fringe of woods afforded us the cover we needed. At the end of an hour and a half we crawled out of our ravine and to the edge of the trees. There across a steep canon and perhaps four hundred yards away were the goats, two of them, lying on the edge of small cliffs. We could see them very plainly, but they were too far for a sure shot. After examining them to our satisfaction we wormed our way back.

"The only sure way," I insisted, "is to climb clear to the top of the ridge, go along it on the other side until we are above and beyond the goats, and then to stalk them down hill."

That meant a lot more hard work; but in the end the plan was adopted. We resumed our interminable and toilsome climbing.

The ridge proved to be of the knife-edge variety, and covered with snow. From a deep, wide, walled-in basin on the other side rose the howling of two brush wolves. We descended a few feet to gain safe concealment; walked as rapidly as possible to the point above the goats; and then with the utmost caution began our descent.

In the last two hundred yards is the essence of big-game stalking. The hunter must move noiselessly, he must keep concealed; he must determine at each step just what the effect of that step has been in the matters of noise and of altering the point of view. It is necessary to spy sharply, not only from the normal elevation of a man's shoulders, but also stooping to the waist line, and even down to the knees. An animal is just as suspicious of legs as of heads; and much more likely to see them.

The shoulder of the mountain here consisted of a series of steep grass curves ending in short cliff jump-offs. Scattered and stunted trees and tree groups grew here and there. In thirty minutes we had made our distance and recognized the fact that our goats must be lying at the base of the next ledge. Motioning Harry to the left and Fisher to the front, I myself moved to the right to cut off the game should it run in that direction. Ten seconds later I heard Fisher shoot; then Harry opened up; and in a moment a goat ran across the ledge fifty yards below me. With a thrill of the greatest satisfaction I dropped the gold bead of my front sight on his shoulder!

The bullet knocked him off the edge of the cliff. He fell, struck the steep grass slope, and began to roll. Over and over and over he went, gathering speed like a snowball, getting smaller and smaller until he disappeared in the brush far below, a tiny spot of white.

No one can appreciate the feeling of relaxed relief that filled me. Hard and dangerous climbs, killing work, considerable hardship and discomfort had at length their reward. I could now take a rest. The day was young, and I contemplated with something like rapture a return to camp, and a good puttery day skinning out that goat. In addition I was suffering now from a splitting headache, the effects of incipient snow-blindness, and was generally pretty wobbly.

And then my eye wandered to the left, whence that goat had come. I saw a large splash of blood; at a spot before I had fired! It was too evident that the goat had already been wounded by Fisher; and therefore, by hunter's law, belonged to him!

I set my teeth and turned up the mountain to regain the descent we had just made. At the knife-edge top I stopped for a moment to get my breath and to survey the country. Diagonally across the basin where the wolves were howling, half way down the ridge running at right angles to my own, I made out two goats. They were two miles away from me on an air line. My course was obvious. I must proceed along my ridge to the Citadel, keeping always out of sight; surmount that fortress; descend to the second ridge; walk along the other side of it until I was above those goats, and then sneak down on them.

I accomplished the first two stages of my journey all right, though with considerably more difficulty in spots than I should have anticipated. The knife edge was so sharp and the sides so treacherous that at times it was almost impossible to travel anywhere but right on top. This would not do. By a little planning, however, I managed to reach the central "keep" of the Citadel: a high, bleak, broken pile, flat on top, with snow in all the crevices, and small cliffs on all sides. From this advantage I could cautiously spy out the lay of the land.

Below me fifty feet dipped the second ridge, running nearly at right angles. It sloped abruptly to the wolf basin, but fell sheer on the other side to depths I could not at that time guess. A very few scattered, stunted, and twisted trees huddled close down to the rock and snow. This saddle was about fifty feet in width and perhaps five hundred yards in length. It ended in another craggy butte very much like the Citadel.

My first glance determined that my original plan would not do. The goats had climbed from where I had first seen them, and were now leisurely topping the saddle. To attempt to descend would be to reveal myself. I was forced to huddle just where I was. My hope was that the goats would wander along the saddle toward me, and not climb the other butte opposite. Also I wanted them to hurry, please, as the snow in which I sat was cold, and the wind piercing.

This apparently they were not inclined to do. They paused, they nibbled at some scanty moss, they gazed at the scenery, they scratched their ears. I shifted my position cautiously--and saw below me, lying on the snow at the very edge of the cliff, a tremendous billy! He had been there all the time; and I had been looking over him!

At the crack of the Springfield he lurched forward and toppled slowly out of sight over the edge of the cliff. The two I had been stalking instantly disappeared. But on the very top of the butte opposite appeared another. It was a very long shot, but I had to take chances, for I could not tell whether or not the one I had just shot was accessible or not. On a guess I held six inches over his back. The goat gave one leap forward into space. For twenty feet he fell spread-eagled and right side up as though flying. Then he began to turn and whirl. As far as my personal testimony could go, he is falling yet through that dizzy blue abyss.

"Good-bye, billy," said I, sadly. It looked then as though I had lost both.

I worked my way down the face of the Citadel until I was just above the steep snow fields. Here was a drop of six feet. If the snow was soft, all right. If it was frozen underneath, I would be very likely to toboggan off into space. I pried loose a small rock and dropped it, watching with great interest how it lit. It sunk with a dull plunk. Therefore I made my leap, and found myself waist deep in feathery snow.

With what anxiety I peered over the edge of that precipice the reader can guess. Thirty feet below was a four-foot ledge. On the edge of that ledge grew two stunted pines about three feet in height--and only two. Against those pines my goat had lodged! In my exultation I straightened up and uttered a whoop. To my surprise it was answered from behind me. Frank had followed my trail. He had killed a nanny and was carrying the head. Everybody had goats!

After a great deal of manoeuvring we worked our way down to the ledge by means of a crevice and a ten-foot pole. Then we tied the goat to the little trees, and set to work. I held Frank while he skinned; and then he held me while I skinned. It was very awkward. The tiny landscape almost directly beneath us was blue with the atmosphere of distance. A solitary raven discovered us, and began to circle and croak and flop.

"You'll get your meal later," we told him.

Far below us, like suspended leaves swirling in a wind, a dense flock of snowbirds fluttered.

We got on well enough until it became necessary to sever the backbone. Then, try as we would, we could not in the general awkwardness reach a joint with a knife. At last we had a bright idea. I held the head back while Frank shot the vertebrae in two with his rifle!

Then we loosed the cords that held the body. It fell six hundred feet, hit a ledge, bounded out, and so disappeared toward the hazy blue map below. The raven folded his wings and dropped like a plummet, with a strange rushing sound. We watched him until the increasing speed of his swoop turned us a little dizzy, and we drew back. When we looked a moment later he had disappeared into the distance--straight down!

Now we had to win our way out. The trophy we tied with a rope. I climbed up the pole, and along the crevice as far as the rope would let me, hauled up the trophy, jammed my feet and back against both sides of the "chimney." Frank then clambered past me; and so repeat.

But once in the saddle we found we could not return the way we had come. The drop-off into the feather snow settled that. A short reconnaissance made it very evident that we would have to go completely around the outside of the Citadel, at the level of the saddle, until we had gained the other ridge. This meant about three quarters of a mile against the tremendous cliff.

We found a ledge and started. Our packs weighed about sixty pounds apiece, and we were forced to carry them rather high. The ledge proved to be from six to ten feet wide, with a gentle slope outward. We could not afford the false steps, nor the little slips, nor the overbalancings so unimportant on level ground. Progress was slow and cautious. We could not but remember the heart-stopping drop of that goat after we had cut the rope; and the swoop of the raven. Especially at the corners did we hug close to the wall, for the wind there snatched at us eagerly.

The ledge held out bravely. It had to; for there was no possible way to get up or down from it. We rounded the shoulder of the pile. Below us now was another landscape into which to fall--the valley of the stream, with its forests and its high cliffs over the way. But already we could see our ridge. Another quarter mile would land us in safety.

Without warning the ledge pinched out. A narrow tongue of shale, on so steep a slope that it barely clung to the mountain, ran twenty feet to a precipice. A touch sent its surface rattling merrily down and into space. It was only about eight feet across; and then the ledge began again.

We eyed it. Three steps would take us across. Alternative: return along the ledge to attack the problem ab initio.

"That shale is going to start," said Frank. "If you stop, she'll sure carry you over the ledge. But if you keep right on going, fast, I believe your weight will carry you through."

We readjusted our packs so they could not slip and overbalance us; we measured and re-measured with our eyes just where those steps would fall; we took a deep breath--and we hustled. Behind us the fine shale slid sullenly in a miniature avalanche that cascaded over the edge. Our "weight had carried us through!"

In camp, we found that Harry's shooting had landed a kid, so that we had a goat apiece.

We rejoined the main camp next day just ahead of a big snowstorm that must have made travel all but impossible. Then for five days we rode out, in snow, sleet, and hail. But we were entirely happy, and indifferent to what the weather could do to us now.