I will lift up my eyes to the hills—
From whence comes my help?
My help comes from the Lord,
Who made heaven and earth.

He will not allow your foot to be moved;
He who keeps you will not slumber.
Behold, He who keeps Israel
Shall neither slumber nor sleep.

The Lord is your keeper;
The Lord is your shade at your right hand.
The sun shall not strike you by day,
Nor the moon by night.

The Lord shall preserve you from all evil;
He shall preserve your soul.

The Lord shall preserve your going out and your coming in
From this time forth, and even forevermore.

(Psalm 121:1-8, NKJV)

Bill and his good friend Joe worked together on various neighboring ranches from time to time. They were both good hands and often shared plans of one day, maybe, owning a place of their own. But land has never been cheap, even back in the day, and dreams always give way to reality.

As they were saddling up their horses, getting ready to ride a little fence for the day out on the old Hooker place, Joe called out over the back of his patient caballo, “Say, Bill, do you think you’re ever gonna be able to, maybe, one day grab you that parcel I’ve been hearin you talk about for so long now?”

Bill turned, raised one eye, and smiled, “Well now, funny you should ask such a question, Joe, on this of all days.” He continued, “I was just gettin ready to tell ya bout one such opportunity that has happened to come my way… ummmm, our way, if you want in on it.”

With peaked curiosity, Joe couldn’t help but inquire further; even though he did so with much skepticism in light of Bill’s less than stellar track record in the financial department. “Okay, Bill,” Joe said with as much enthusiasm as he could muster, “What’s the deal this time?”

“Well, you see, Joe, I just got word from my sister’s niece, on the other side of the family, that her other brother-in-law, not the one she’s currently related to, but the one now removed by divorce, has an uncle, or is it a second cousin, who lives up in Albuquerque but owns a few sections of rangeland down here in the Burros.”

Joe scratched his head, still trying to figure out the exact family relations of which Bill, himself, seemed a little less than certain. “Well, okay, I think,” he said, “but what’s that got to do with you, or me, us?”

“Well, you see, Joe,” Bill replied, taking on his most paternal tone, which Joe had always despised because, being several years younger than Bill, it always made him feel somewhat inferior, “That rich feller livin up there in ‘A b q q,’ whoever he is exactly, seems to have a little wildcat problem on his hands.”

“What do you mean, ‘wildcat problem?’” Joe asked.

Bill went on, “Well, seems they’ve got themselves a lion hangin round down there, Joe, a real live cougar. Which, in itself, wouldn’t really be any kind of a big issue, I suppose. But this particular kitty seems to have recently expanded his culinary fancy to include veal.

“Veal?” Joe asked.

“Yup,” Bill responded, “Veal, baby calves, little ones. Seems that wise old cat has just about figured out the calving season, which is right around the corner, as you well know; and for the past year and a half he’s been comin round to scout out the mama cows at just that time of year.”

“So, what’s his modus operandi?” Joe inquired, deliberately throwing in what he deemed to be a sophisticated term in an effort to siderail ole Bill and maybe knock him off his high horse kind of talking, at least temporarily.

Joe’s little inquiry had its desired effect. Bill stopped in his tracks, looked back over his shoulder and asked, “His what?”

“You know, his way of goin bout doin things,” Joe said.

“Oh, yeah, well it appears as if, not long after the first calf or two gets born, the cat shows up and goes to stalkin about the herd waitin for an ‘opportune’ moment.” Bill had emphasized the word, “opportune,” in a deliberate attempt to try and match Joe’s newly discovered literary sophistication; not that the word itself was particularly sophisticated but, to Bill’s mind, it had that certain ring to it.

Joe just laughed, saying, “Well, okay then, and what would that ‘opportune’ moment look like?”

Bill, appearing rather pleased with himself, went on to elaborate, “Well ya see, Joe, as soon as that ole cat detects a mama cow steppin out from the others so that she can proceed with givin birth, he starts to circlin round and round.” Bill was waving his finger and drawing imaginary circles in the air above his head as he spoke. “He moves in closer and closer,” and the imaginary circles in the air above him got smaller and tighter. “He’s a waitin, watchin for just that right moment. Then he stops and, crouching down low to the ground, he waits, and he waits a little longer, not movin a muscle.”

Joe stood big-eyed and spellbound, waiting for the rest of the story. But Bill just finished up saddling his pony, checked the headstall, turned his stirrup, and was preparing to mount in complete silence, like there was nothing more to say.

“And then what?” asked Joe.

“What do mean, ‘then what?’” Bill replied as he swung up into the saddle. “I think you know, ‘then what!’”

Joe did know, but the tension created by Bill’s little story begged for resolution—like a movie at the cinema where you already know the ending but you stay to watch it anyway; or an old familiar song you’ve heard too many times and could finish it yourself but you still need to hear those final ending notes anyway; or a high school football game where your local team’s losing and the ending is already written in the scoreboard, but you feel the need to stay to the very end of the game anyway.

Joe mounted his horse and sat motionless in the saddle, then mumbled under his breath just loud enough for Bill to hear, “asshole!”

Bill laughed out loud, “What?” he asked.

“You KNOW what!” Joe replied.

“Oh, stop talkin like my wife!” Bill scolded. “You know what, too…”

As they moved through the open pasture gate and rode side-by-side toward the southeast fence line, Bill couldn’t help finishing up with his narrative. Speaking just loud enough for Joe to hear through the wind in their ears, he said, “Sooo, as soon as that big cat sees that brand new baby calf layin there on the ground, he springs into action, rushin in from behind. And before she even knows what has happened, cat and calf have both disappeared down the draw.”

Even though he had already known what the ending to Bill’s story was going to be, still, Joe felt a little tremor run down his spine at the thought of it all.

After a minute or two of contemplation, Joe asked Bill, “So, what’s the message you got from your sister, wait, your niece, wait, whatever family member it was?”

“I told you, it was my sister’s niece on the other side of the family,” Bill responded without saying anything more.

“That’s NOT what I asked,” Joe stated, becoming increasingly impatient with Bill’s attitude.

“What did you ask?” Bill said.

“Now YOU’RE startin to sound like MY wife!” Joe said flatly.

Continuing as though he hadn’t heard a thing Joe had just said, Bill went on to explain, “So, anyway, my sister’s niece on the other side of the family…” —Joe sighed in exasperation— “just called my wife and asked her to ask me if I, you, we might be willin to head down to the property and see if we can’t track down that old cat and rid them of the problem. Seems it’s become a bit of a financial concern.”

“What’s in it for you, uhh me, us if we agree to this little clean up job?” Joe inquired.

“That’s the good part,” Bill said excitedly. “They say they don’t wanna pay us for our time and trouble.”

“What do you mean, they don’t wanna pay us?” Joe asked.

“I mean no dinero, no mula, no dólares,” Bill stated again. “But that’s a good thing.”

Joe contemplated Bill’s words for a moment and then, looking for all the world like he had just been assured that one plus one really does equal three, he inquired further, “And why is THAT a good thing?”

“It’s a good thing,” Bill said, “because, while they DON’T wanna pay us in cash, they DO wanna pay us in land.”

“LAND?” Joe questioned with newfound excitement?

“That’s right, Joe, land,” Bill replied.

“I think you better do some explainin,” Joe said. “None of this is makin much sense to me.”

“Well then, let ME explain,” Bill replied, reassuming his partronizing demeanor. “You see, Joe, they’ve got quite a bit of land down there, including a few smaller parcels around the White Signal area. Well, I say a lot, it’s a lot of land in comparison to what you and I currently own.”

“Which is pretty much NOTHING,” Joe asserted.

“Yup, but soon we’ll own two and half acres each,” Bill said. “Or maybe I’ll own three and you’ll own two. I haven’t really worked it all out yet.”

“And why would YOU get paid three acres, and I’d only get two?” asked Joe impatiently.

“Well, because I’m the lead and, therefore, I’ll be doing most of the work,” Bill answered.

“Work? What work? You don’t even got no dogs,” Joe responded incredulously. “I have the dogs.”

“Yup, but you only have two dogs,” Bill said.

“What’s that got to do with it,” Joe asked. “You thinkin we’re gonna need more than two dogs?”

“Don’t know,” Bill replied and then carried on as though the whole matter had just been settled.

Joe thought for a moment and decided not to pursue the issue any further. Two acres was still two acres more than he owned at the moment and probably two acres more than he could ever hope to own in his lifetime.

By late afternoon, Bill and Joe had ridden out most of the southernmost fences, replacing a stay here and there and splicing wire in a couple of places, and had returned to their truck and trailer rigs. After loading the horses, Bill turned to Joe and asked, “So, you in?”

“In what?” Joe asked just to be ornery. “Oh, you mean that whole wildcat thing? Yeah, guess I’m in,” he said, rolling his eyes and shaking his head. And with that the deal was settled.

To Joe’s mind, the whole cockamamie story sounded rather far-fetched. Who pays for pest control with land? Still, he thought to himself, Bill’s explanation sure had a ring of legitimacy to it; and it was, after all, honest pay for honest work, even if said payment seemed a little exorbitant. But most of all, the allure of free, or almost free, land had captivated Joe’s imagination. This could turn out to be one of those unexpected windfalls that only come around once in a lifetime. Furthermore, he had come to the conclusion that whether he got two and a half acres out of the deal or maybe only two, or for that matter even just one, there was still an outside chance of finally getting some real estate under his feet that actually belonged to no one else but him. And that was an opportunity Joe simply could not resist, regardless of how outlandish and improbable it all seemed.

_______________

A few weeks later, the day of the hunt had finally arrived. It was the beginning of the calving season and the ranch had already suffered the loss of one calf to the alleged feline perpetrator.

An agreement had been reached between Bill and his sister’s niece’s ex-brother-in-law’s uncle in Albuquerque to allot Bill a five acre parcel near White Signal, to subdivide as he wished, in exchange for the permanent removal of the aforementioned predator. The only caveat being that Bill had to produce the actual lion carcass and that no more evidence of feline criminality would be detected for the duration of the spring calving season.

Joe brought his two prized hunting dogs: an old Bluetick that he had raised from a pup, and who he called Blue, and a much younger Redbone, who he had only recently acquired, called Red. Joe was never one for useless fancy names. He called his horse Fred; no one knew why. Joe was no lion hunter and neither dog had any experience with tracking wildcats, but Joe felt confident that they could complete the assigned mission without having to secure the services of any of the real hunters in the region.

The part-time range manager, a hefty feller by the name of Steve, met up with Bill and Joe near a gathering pen on the property. Steve spread out a map on the hood of his truck and showed them where one of his part-time hands suspected that the cat had taken their most recently lost calf a couple of days earlier.

After saddling their horses and packing their lunches, Joe released his dogs. The dogs remained quiet for the most part, moving in and around the horses, but staying well out of the way so as not to get kicked or stepped on; not that either one of the two old, well-worn cow ponies were particularly bothered by the dogs.

They determined that they would ride out to where the cowhand had detected the recent bovine abduction and see if the dogs could pick up a trail from there. But when they arrived at that location, the dogs gave no immediate indication of finding anything. Joe shook his head, shrugged, and said, “Well, Bill, guess it’s not gonna be that easy. We’re gonna have to try and figure out which way that cat might have gone.”

Bill replied, “They’ll usually carry their kill only a couple hunnerd yards or so, at most, if I’ve got that right? I’m not much of a lion hunter, though!”

“You’re not much of a lion hunter, but you want the lion’s share of the pay outta this deal?” Joe playfully asserted. Bill smiled in appreciation at the joke but said nothing.

“Anyway,” Joe went on to say, “You’re right about that, Bill. Now, I’m no cougar hunter either, as you well know, but I’ve been doin me a bit of research here of late.”

“Research?” Bill inquired.

“You know, just asking around,” explained Joe. “And from what I’ve been told, a cat’s not likely to carry a calf very far unless he’s got a pretty damn good reason for doing so. But light as a baby calf is, no tellin how far he may have run off with it. Also, I’m told they usually head downhill when they’re carryin something. And he’s gonna be lookin for a spot to cover it with some loose dirt and leaves, or maybe even sand, cause he’s gonna come back to eat on it sometime later.”

“So, we sorta know what we’re lookin for then,” Bill added.

“Well, we got some idies anyway,” Joe said. “Now, accordin to ole Steve, it’s only been a couple a days since that last kill. And there ain’t been no rain. So maybe we take the dogs round in a wide circle from this point just to see if there’s any kinda trail left for them to pick up on?”

They rode together upslope in a southerly direction about two hundred yards from where they had been told the mama cow had recently given birth and the calf had been snatched. Above them was a rough looking rocky bluff about ten feet in height blocking them from going any further that direction. The slope continued climbing steeply upward above the bluff.

“Kinda looks like my idea of lion country,” Bill observed.

Joe, who had been nervously scanning the bluff, tensed at Bill’s words. He was gazing up at a ledge just a few feet above them, looking as though he half expected the lion to suddenly materialize right before their eyes. This made Bill more than a bit nervous, as well; and he couldn’t help feeling as if someone, or something, was watching them.

In silence, Joe motioned for them to back away from the bluff and then make a wide arc toward the east and circle back toward the north in the general direction from which they had come. They gently reined their horses around and quietly moved off in the direction Joe was pointing.

Both men breathed a little sigh of relief as they moved out of the shadows of the bluff and back toward the open range. “Well, that was sorta odd,” said Bill under his breath.

“What was?” asked Joe impatiently. But Bill didn’t elaborate any further; and Joe made no further inquiry.

Joe’s tension seemed to dissipate as he watched his dogs busily at work. In his eyes, those dogs made a beautiful sight, running here and there in and out of the brush and looking almost fluid as they busily circled about rapidly checking around one shrub then another.

He knew it was, perhaps, a bit of a stretch for him to refer to them as actual hunting dogs, although that was their breeding, because neither one had ever hunted much of anything, other than the coons up and down the Gila river. But Joe loved his dogs and was immensely proud of them.

“There’s somethin awfully satisfyin bout watchin a good dog at work,” Joe finally said.

“Yup, well, don’t know how ‘good’ they are,” Bill said, “but they’re sure purdy!”

“Why Bill, that’s one of the nicer things you’ve said to me all week,” Joe stated half mockingly.

“Now there you go, Joe,” Bill replied, “sounding like my wife again!” Both laughed.

They continued circling around until they were about 180 degrees north of the bluff and downslope from where they had started their hunt; then continued moving westward toward the steep bank of a small, sandy draw.  There they paused for a moment, letting the dogs work along the top of the bank, down into the sandy bottom, then back up again.  The dogs continued to give no indication of there being any kind of scent they could follow.

As they moved southwestward to complete their circle, Joe sighed and said, “You think we may be in over our heads, Bill?”

“What makes you ask that?” Bill replied.

“I don’t know exactly,” Joe elaborated. “Kinda got this sinkin feeling in my gut. There’s just the two of us, two ole dogs, couple of cow ponies. And none of us too sure just what we’re doin out here. Guess it’s startin to dawn on me just how serious things could get real fast.”

Bill continued riding along in quiet contemplation but made no reply to Joe’s observations.

“Anyway,” Joe continued, “this is lookin like it might turn out to be a multiple day hunt. I don’t see anything that looks like it could be a lion’s cache.”

“What if it’s not a lion at all,” Bill suggested. “What if it’s a pack of coyotes?”

“Well then, there’s goes our chance of acquirin any property outta the deal,” Joe said mournfully. “Cause if it’s coyotes, we won’t be able to hunt em like this. They’ll likely just poison em out. But they don’t seem to suspect coyotes and what little evidence we’ve got sure doesn’t suggest it’s coyotes.”

It was Joe’s turn to be a little smug about something, so putting on his best paternal demeanor, he continued his scholarly narration as the two rode along keeping a sharp eye on the dogs. “Coyotes usually run down their prey, Bill, rather than stalkin em. Also, coyotes wouldn’t stop with just a selective kill here and there every now and then. And, if it was coyotes, we’d likely be findin various body parts strown around and bones scattered about here and there. No, I’m convinced we’re still in the runnin for that little land grab you’ve bargained for, Bill.  It’s not coyotes, and it’s not a bear. Both would be too obvious. Only a cat is calculatin enough to pull off a series of crimes like this and hide the evidence.”

No sooner had Joe finished his sentence than old Blue let out with one long yodel. Joe instantly felt a shiver run down his spine. Excitedly, and maybe a bit fearfully, he called out to Bill, “Sounds like he found sumthin!”

“Yeah, but not much tellin what,” Bill said flatly.

They both trotted their horses in the direction of Blue’s call. Bill was looking around for the now disappeared dogs, but Joe kept scanning the ground until he suddenly reined Fred to a stop and sat up stiff in the saddle, looking like someone had just poked him with a Hot Shot.

“What is it?” Bill asked.

Joe said nothing, but quickly slid out of saddle, walked a few paces out in front of old Fred, and knelt down to the ground. “Come look at this, Bill!” Joe said.

Bill trotted over, dismounted and walked over to where Joe was still kneeling on one knee. Bill’s eyes widened, the brows on his forehead nearly touching the brim of his hat. There before them, imbedded in the soft dust and still looking freshly made, was the biggest paw print either of them had ever seen, or could ever have even imagined seeing.

Noting the position of the track and the direction it seemed to be pointing, Joe looked up and to the east, tracking an imaginary line in his mind that ran directly from the bluff where they had been sitting on their horses just a few minutes earlier straight toward the draw where the dogs had picked up the scent. He looked up at Bill who had been following the line of his gaze and, as their eyes met, they each acknowledged, without speaking a word, just how close they may have already come to meeting up with the cat face to face.

“Well, that sorta explains it,” Bill mumbled without explaining what “it” was, but Joe knew exactly what he was referring to.

Still kneeling on one knee, Joe glared back up at Bill with a mixed look of confusion and concern. “That’s gotta be the biggest cat to ever range anywhere round this whole part of the state,” he said.

Bill swallowed hard saying, “Well, just like you said, Joe, seems things are gettin fairly serious now. You think he’s gonna be too big for us to handle?”

Joe thought a minute and then, shaking his head, he replied, “I dunno, Bill. I’m thinkin, he may be big, but he’s probably old. A young cat would’ve likely moved on through by now. I’m told they like to range far and wide, maybe even fifty miles in a single day. But this old feller doesn’t seem to be much of a ranger. He may be big enough to take down an elk, but he’s found some easy pickins with these lil ole calves. So, I’m thinkin he’s soft. Besides all that, a lion is a lion and they’re all gonna act pretty much the same. I don’t think this old pard is gonna run very far.”

“Well, it ain’t the RUNNIN part that I’m startin to worry bout,” Bill responded matter-of-factly. “But I gotta hand it to your old Blue. I was awfully skeptical, him not bein much of a lion dog and all, but seems now he knows what it is he’s sposed to be lookin for.”

In that very instant, Bill and Joe were alerted by both dogs baying in the distance. “Too late to back out now,” blurted Joe, “the dogs are on the trail.”

They scrambled back up on their horses and quickly trotted up the slope and over the ridge. The dogs were nowhere to be seen, but their baying resounded over the low-lying hills, echoing down the canyon off to their right.

They turned their horses toward the canyon and headed down into the bottom so that they could lope them up the sandy draw a ways. The dogs seemed to be trailing the cat in a westerly direction that crossed the draw horizontally up ahead of them; which allowed Bill and Joe to do some catching up.

Then Joe, reining ole Fred to a stop, pointed toward the west bank of the canyon where it appeared some loose dirt and rocks had been kicked down. Upon closer inspection, he nodded his head at Bill, saying, “This is where they must’ve crossed just ahead of us.”

The baying of the two hounds sounded much closer now as the men spurred their horses along a little, narrow game trail running diagonally up and out of the draw. Bill was ready to continue their lope out over a flat, grassy meadow area, but Joe slowed him and then came to another complete stop.  “Listen,” he said to Bill, “They’ve stopped movin.”

Bill listened for the dogs barking off in the distance. Joe was right; not only were they not moving, as far as he could tell, but the sound they were making had changed from long baying to a mix of sharp yips and barks.

“Treed?” asked Bill.

“Yup,” replied Joe. “They’ve got him!”

They continued westward for another five minutes, up and over a long, low-lying ridge. As they broke over the ridgeline, they spotted the two dogs at the bottom of the next gulch.

Bill couldn’t believe his eyes. Red was circling round and round a moderate sized, shrubby looking, pinõn tree. But Blue looked like he was actually up in the tree; his hind legs perched on a low limb just a couple of feet above the ground and his forelegs drooped between a forking limb just a little higher up. And just a little higher up than Blue, not more than five feet away, was the lion.  

“Wha’d ya do, Joe? Teach that ole dog how to climb?” Bill asked disbelievingly.

Joe, looking shocked and out of breath, shook his head, shrugged, and said with a half-smile, “I had no idea he’d be that eager. Look at em, Bill, they’re almost face-to-face.”

But Joe’s smile instantly vanished as he fully realized what he had just said. Then he saw the big cat reach out with a forearm and give Blue a swipe across the nose. Blue yelped but remained undeterred; and kept excitedly barking right up into the face of the lion.

“What happens if that cat sashays into old Blue?” asked Bill.

“Don’t know, but I’m not waitin to find out,” Joe replied as he quickly slid his old Winchester out of the scabbard and hopped down out of the saddle, gun in hand.

As Joe leveled his .30-30, Bill took firm hold of his reins and braced himself for what he knew was coming next. The cat was poised motionless in the tree, looking like he was about ready to pounce on Blue. Joe knew it would be a tricky shot, being nearly forty yards away, but there was no way he was going to risk losing old Blue.

As he was taking careful aim, Joe spoke softly to Bill saying, “What’s the worst that could happen? I miss, the cat runs!”

Bill’s mind raced through several far worse scenarios flashing before him, but he said nothing.

There were two seconds of dead silence in which it seemed to Bill as if every living thing in the world had come to a complete dead stop. Even the dogs had stopped their yelping, as if they knew what was about to happen in the next sacred moment.

Then, “BAM,” the Winchester spoke, the horses jerked backward sitting down on their hocks, and the cat dropped. The dogs barking and yipping turned to wailing for a moment, then to whining.

“Damn good shot,” said Bill.

Joe remained silent and expressionless, working the lever on the old rifle, exiting the spent casing, then moving the hammer back to the half-cocked safety position. He caught Fred’s reins, spun him around, and slid the rifle back into the scabbard, then remounted; all without saying a word.

The two men walked their horses slowly up toward the tree. The dogs were whining and carrying on excitedly, but Bill noted how that they didn’t want to approach the cat, now lying there on its side with its legs all sprawled out motionless.

“I hate havin to kill such a beautiful thing,” Joe said in a dry and businesslike manner.

There was a fine line of fresh blood dripping from the forehead of the lion. Upon casual observation, Bill and Joe came to the mutual conclusion that it had been a clean headshot—an instant and painless death.

In their enthusiasm for the hunt, neither Bill nor Joe had given much thought as to just how they were going to get the carcass of a large cougar out of the brush and back to the trucks.

“I’ll wager he’s two hunnerd pounds if he’s an ounce,” said Bill.

“Yup, and close to eight feet in length, if you count the tail,” replied Joe, finally breaking his silence.

“How you reckon we haul him out?” Bill inquired.

“Well, your pony seems a little spooked by all this,” said Joe, “But ole Fred here has had to pack almost everything you can imagine at one time or another. I’m fairly sure he’s not gonna make too much of a fuss bout packin out a dead cat.”

But, as Bill and Joe worked together to lift the dead lion up onto the saddle, Fred decided that he wanted no part of the whole affair. It appeared as though he did not appreciate the idea of having to pack out a mountain lion, be it dead or alive. Like the dogs, he didn’t seem to like the smell of that cat and wanted to keep his distance. The horse kept stepping away from the carcass and circling around and around so as to keep Joe between himself and the predator.

Finally, in frustration, Joe said, “I’m just gonna have to get on him,” and proceeded to mount the saddle.

Having Joe in the seat seemed to calm Fred sufficiently. With Joe working from above, while Bill lifted from below, the two men were able to hoist the near two-hundred pounds of dead weight up behind the saddle.

“Do we need to tie him on,” asked Bill.

“Naw,” Joe replied, “We’ll go slow and easy and if old Fred here does happen to take a notion to spook, I sure don’t want the carcass tied hard and fast. Better I just reach back and try to keep it balanced.”

Bill responded, “Well, we never said this little job was gonna be easy, did we? But, think on this, Joe, we’ve each got a little parcel of land comin our way just as soon as we return this old villain to the proper authorities.”

“Yup, guess we do,” Joe said, and his countenance brightened into a full-fledged smile. “C’mon dogs!” he called to Blue and Red as he gently eased ole Fred down slope, intending to work his way back northward between the ridges.

The happy band of lion hunters had moved about fifty yards from the old pinõn tree where the hunt, they thought, had terminated when all of the sudden, the cougar woke up!

Letting loose with what sounded like a loud hissing scream, and gathering his legs up under him, the cat stood nearly upright on the butt of old Fred who instantly let out a loud snort and went to bucking harder than he had ever bucked in his entire life, while Joe let loose himself with a long and frightful scream.

Bill cried out, “What in all helll???” as he wheeled his horse around to witness the nightmare unfolding before his eyes. Fred was bucking his heart out, Joe was screaming his heart out, and the cat appeared to be holding on for dear life, sticking to Fred’s rump like he had been glued there.

Fred had taken half a dozen wild and desperate jumps when, finally, he left both Joe and the cat hanging in midair. Joe did a summersault and tumbled back to earth hitting the ground first; while the cat spread all fours out wide and seemed to parachute back down landing right beside him. Joe looked the lion square in the face and screamed again. The lion looked Joe square in the face and half hissed, half screamed loudly, then turned and bolted in the opposite direction.

Bill sat speechless in the saddle, wide-eyed, jaw-dropped, and completely bewildered by the unimaginable things he had just witnessed. The dogs were both hunkered down nearly beneath Bill’s pony, fretfully whining in fear and discontent. As the dust settled, a dead silence had once again gripped the scene; save for the sound of Fred still snorting and bucking away in the distance. It took Bill and Joe the better part of a minute before either one could even draw breath; and another couple of minutes before either could utter a word.

Finally, with Joe still sitting there in the dirt, both arms hanging limp at his side like a ragdoll, Bill slowly rode over, looked down at him, shook his head, and managed to choke out, “I don’t believe… the things… I think I see,” giving him a little half smile; and then quietly turned and rode off to retrieve Fred.

When Bill returned with Fred a few minutes later, Joe was still sitting in the dirt contemplating heaven and hell and wondering just how close he may have come to finally experiencing one or the other. He looked up at Bill with childlike wonder and softly muttered, “I think I just found the Lord.”

Bill looked down at him with an incredulous smile. “I guess, maybe, that wasn’t such a good shot after all!” he surmised. At which point both men broke out in soft laughter. “Mighty glad to still have you with us, Joe,” he said.

“Mighty glad to still be here,” Joe replied sheepishly.

_______________

The lion escaped with his life, apparently only grazed by the bullet. He was, however, frightened enough by his close encounter with two seemingly half-crazed cowboys that, as word has it, he gave up his life of crime and summarily departed the area. He was never seen in those parts again.

The legend of Bill and Joe’s famous lion hunt still circulates to this day; well, in certain circles anyway. Both returned from their misadventure with a whole new perspective on life. They no longer talked, or even thought very much, about owning a piece of land for themselves. Both seemed happy enough just to receive an honest day’s wage for an honest day’s work. Although they did note, each time they told their story, that they were never paid even a half-day’s wage for all the troubles they were forced to endure that day.

Blue and Red eventually recovered from their shock, but never went after big game again. They were happy with just chasing the coons, or an occasional coati, up and down the Gila River whenever they were given the chance.

Fred never fully trusted Joe again and became increasingly skittish as he aged. He would occasionally spook and jump for no apparent reason and Joe would accuse him of “going wildcats!” But Joe continued to honor ole Fred, even if he did occasionally “go wildcats” on him. And whenever someone called into question the legitimacy of that famous lion hunt, Joe was always delighted to lead them out to the horse pens and show them the single four-clawed scar that Fred wore like a badge of courage on his rump.

Now, to suggest the due chronicling of the preceding venerable apologue is anything shy of archival, or verges on the prodigious, promulgates an exiguous capacity for the approbation of the chivalrous mythos relating to the bygone era under perlustration thereby calling into question the lion-hearted travail of your concomitant annotator to equitably proffer the unvarnished veracity of the artifice herein excogitated… in so far as said annotator recollects – just sayin!

Copyright © 2022 Philip R. Stroud

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