The cougar, panther, or mountain lion is our largest representative of the cat family. Early settlers in the Eastern States record the existence of this treacherous beast in their conquest of the forests. The cry of the "painter," as he was called, rang through the dark woods and caused many hearts to quaver and little children to run to mother's side. Once in a while stories came of human beings having met their doom at the swift stealthy leap of this dreaded beast. He was bolder then than now. Today he is not less courageous, but more cautious. He has learned the increased power of man's weapons.
Our Indians knew that he would strike, as they struck, without warning and at an advantage. It is a matter of tradition among frontiersmen that he has upon rare occasions attacked and killed bears. Even today he will attack man if provoked by hunger, and can do so with some assurance of success, the statements of certain naturalists to the contrary notwithstanding.
John Capen Adams, in his adventures, [Footnote: The Adventures of James Capen Adams of California, by Theodore H. Hittell.] describes such an episode. The lion in this instance sprang upon a companion, seized him by the back of the neck, and bore him to the ground. He was only saved from death by a thick buckskin collar to his coat and the ready assistance of Adams who heard the cry for help.
I know of an instance where a California lion leaped upon some bathing children and attempted to kill them, but was driven off by the heroic efforts of a young woman school teacher, who in turn died of her wounds.
Those of us who have roamed the wilds of the western country have had varying experiences with this animal, while others have lived their lives in districts undoubtedly infested with cougars and have never seen one, although nearly every mountain rancher has heard that hair-raising, almost human scream echo down the canyon. It is like the wail of a woman in pain. Penetrating and quavering, it rings out on the night gloom, and brings to the human what it must, in a similar way, bring to the lesser animals a sense of impending attack, a death warning. It is part of the system of the predatory beast that he uses fear to weaken the powers of his prey before he assaults it. Animal psychology is essentially utilitarian. Cowering, trembling, muscularly relaxed, on the verge of emotional shock, we are easier to overcome.
The cougar lives principally on deer. His kill averages more than one a week, and often we may find evidence that this murderer has wantonly slain two or three deer in a single night's expedition.
It is not his habit to lie in wait on the limb of a tree, though he often sleeps there; but he makes a stealthy approach on the unsuspecting victim, then, with a series of stupendous bounds, he throws himself upon the deer, and by his momentum bears it to the ground. Here, while he holds on with teeth and forelegs, he rips open the flank with his hind claws and immediately plunges his head into the open abdomen, where he tears the great blood vessels with his teeth and drinks its life blood.
These are facts learned from lion hunters whose observations are accurate and reliable. A lion can jump a distance greater than twenty-four feet, and has been seen to ascend at a single leap a cliff of rock eighteen feet high.
Their weight runs from one hundred to two hundred pounds, and the length from six to nine feet. The skin will stretch farther than this, but we count only the carcass from the tip of the nose to the tip of the extended tail. The speed of a lion for a short distance is greater than that of a greyhound, less than five seconds to the hundred yards.
Some observers contend that the lion never gives that blood-curdling cry assigned to him. They say he is silent, and that this classic scream is made by a lynx in the mating period. However, popular experience to the contrary seems to be too strong and counterbalances this iconoclastic opinion.
For many years, off and on, we have hunted lions, but sad to say, we have done more hunting than finding. They are a very wary creature. Practically, one never sees them unless hunting with dogs; they may be in the brush within thirty yards, but the human eye will fail to discern them.
Our camps have been robbed by lions, our horses killed by them, cattle and sheep ruthlessly murdered; lion tracks have been all about, and yet unless trapped or treed by dogs, we have never met.
Camping at the base of Pico Blanco, in Monterey County, several years ago, a lion was seen to bound across the road and follow a small band of deer. At this very spot a few seasons before one leaped upon an old mare with foal and broke her neck as she crashed through the fence and rolled down the hill. Three years later I rode the young horse. As we passed the tree from which it is thought the lion sprang, where the broken fence was still unmended, my colt jumped and reared, the memory of his fright was still vivid in his mind. Up the trail a half mile beyond we saw other fresh lion tracks. At night we camped on the ridge with our dogs in hope that our feline friend would come again.
It was too late to hunt that evening, so we turned in. Nothing happened save that in the middle of the night I was roused by the whine of our dogs, and looking up in the face of the pale moon, I saw two deer go bounding past, silhouetted like graceful phantoms across the silvered sky. They swept across the lunar disc and melted into blackness over the dark horizon.
No sound followed them, and having appeased the fretful hounds, we returned to sleep. In the morning, up the trail, there were his tracks; too wise to cross the human scent, and knowing that there are more deer in the brush, he had turned upon his course and let his quarry slip.
Because of the heat and the inferior tracking capacity of our dogs, we never got this panther. A lion dog is a specialist and must be so trained that no other track will divert him from his quest. These dogs were willing, but erratic.
The best dogs for this work are mongrels. By far the finest lion dog I ever saw was a cross between a shepherd and an airedale. He had the intelligence of the former and the courage of the latter. The airedale himself is not a good trailer, he is too temperamental. He will start on a lion track, jump off and chase a deer and wind up by digging out a ground squirrel. After a good hound finds a lion, the airedale will tackle him.
We once started an airedale on a lion track, followed him at a fiendish pace, dashed down the side of a mountain, and found that he had an angora goat up a tree.
This cougar on Pico Blanco still roams the forests, so far as I know, and many with him. Once we saw him across a canyon. He appeared as a tawny slow-moving body as large as a deer but low to the earth and trailing a listless tail, while his head slowly swung from side to side. He seemed to be looking for something on the ground. For the space of a hundred yards we watched him traverse an open side hill, deep in ferns and brakes. Seeing him thus was little satisfaction to us, for we had lost our dogs. Ferguson and I were returning from one of our unsuccessful expeditions.
We started with two saddle horses, a pack animal, and five good lion dogs. On the trail to the Ventana Mountains we came across lion tracks and followed them for a day, then lost them; but we knew that a large male and young female were ranging over the country. Their circuit extended over a radius of ten miles; they are great travelers.
The track of a lion is characteristic. The general contour is round, from three to four inches in diameter. There are four toe prints arranged in a semicircle which show no claw marks. But the ball of the foot is the unmistakable feature. It consists of three distinct eminences or pads which lie parallel, antero-posteriorly, and appear in the track as if you had pressed the terminal phalanges of your fingers side by side in the dust. These marks are nearly equal in length and absolutely identify the big cat.
On the morning of the second day of our trailing this lion, our pack was working down in the thick brush below the crest of Rattlesnake Ridge, when suddenly they raised a chorus of yelps. There was a rush of bodies in the chamise brush, and the chase was on at a furious pace. We rode up to an observation point and saw the dogs speeding down the canyon side, close on the heels of a yellow leaping demon. They switched from side to side, as cat and dog races have been carried on since time immemorial.
The undergrowth was so dense we could not follow, so we sat our horses and waited for them to tree. But further and further they descended. They crossed the bottom, mounted a cliff on the opposite side, came scrambling down from this and plunged into the bed of the stream, where their voices were lost to hearing.
We rode around to a spur of the hill that dipped into the brush and overhung the canyon. From this we heard occasional barks away down at least a mile below us. It was a difficult situation. Nothing but a bluejay could possibly get down to the creek below. I never saw such a jungle! So we waited for the indications that the lion was treed, but all became silent.
Evening approached, we ate our supper and then sat on the hill above, sounding our horns. Their vibrant echoes rang from mountain to mountain and returned to us clear and sweet.
Way down below us, where a purple haze hung over the deep ravine, we faintly heard the answering hounds. In their voices we caught the dog's response to his master and friend. It said, "We have him. Come! Come!" We blew the horns again. The elf-land notes returned again and again, and with them came the call of the faithful hound, "We are here. Come! Come!"
Now, there was a pitiful plight. No sane man would venture down such a chasm, impenetrable with thorns, and night descending. So we built a beacon fire and waited for dawn. All during the long dark hours we heard the distant appeal of the hounds, and we slept little.
At the first rays of dawn we took a hasty meal, fed our horses, and stripping ourselves of every unnecessary accoutrement, we prepared to descend the canyon. Our bows and quivers we left behind because it would have been impossible to drag them through the jungle. Ferguson carried only his Colt pistol; I took my hunting knife.
Having surveyed the topography carefully, we attacked the problem at its most available angle and slid from view. We literally dived beneath the brush. For more than two hours we wormed our way down the face of the mountain, crawling like moles at the base of the overhanging thickets of poison oak, wild lilac, chamise, sage, manzanita, hazel and buckthorn. At last we reached the depth of the canyon and, finding a little water, we bathed our sweat-grimed faces and cooled off.
No sound of the dogs was heard, but pressing forward we followed the boulder-strewn bottom of the creek for a mile or more, almost despairing of ever finding them, when suddenly we came upon a strange sight. There was the pack in a circle about a big reclining oak. They were voiceless and utterly exhausted, but sat watching a huge lion crouched on a great overhanging limb of the tree. The moment we appeared they raised a feeble, hoarse yelp of delight. The panther turned his head, saw us, sprang from the tree with a prodigious bound, landed on the side hill, tore down the canyon, and leaped over a precipice below.
The dogs, heartened by our presence, with instant accord charged after the lion. When they came to the precipitous drop in the bed of the stream, they whined a second, ran back and forth, then mounted the lateral wall, circled sidewise and, by a detour, gained the ground below. We ran and looked over. The drop was at least thirty feet. The cat had taken it without hesitation, but we were absolutely stalled. Even if we had cared to take the risk of the descent, we saw so many similar drops beyond that the situation was hopeless. The dogs having lost their voices, we were at a great disadvantage. So we returned to the tree to rest and meditate.
There we saw the evidence of the long vigil of the night. All about its base were little nests, where the tired dogs had bedded down and kept their weary watch. Their incessant barking had served to keep the cougar treed, but it cost them a temporary loss of voice. Poor devils, they had our admiration and sympathy.
At noon, hearing nothing from the hounds, we decided to return to camp. If coming down was hard, going up was herculean. We crawled on hands and knees, dragged ourselves by projecting roots, panted, rested, and worked again. After a three-hours' struggle we came out upon a rough ledge of granite, a mile below the spot at which we aimed, but near enough to the top to permit us, after a little more brush fighting, to gain our camp and lie down, too fatigued to eat.