We finally reached the ridge, cautiously approached our point selected, and peered over.
Disappointed, but not very surprised, we passed on to a parallel ridge, a hundred yards farther, which until now had been hidden from view.
Again nothing. But stop!
Simultaneously we inclined our heads in a listening attitude. The far-distant tinkle of rolling shale —a sound the significance of which we were quick to appreciate — met our ears. My glasses were out in an instant; and a moment later I passed them to my companion, directing him as I did so to a point in the valley hundreds of feet below. There, strung out in single file, were eight Rocky Mountain sheep. They were moving straight up the bed of a dry ravine which headed, a few hundred yards on, between two vertical cliffs.
The temptation was strong to run up our sights, and take a chance shot; but they were practically out of range, and the noise would decrease the chances of our seeing them later on. How beautiful and how much to be desired did they appear to us, and how supremely secure did they seem to consider themselves! They would trot a short distance, then stop and look up in our direction, then on again, in single file always, never bunched, until finally, turning off to the right of the ravine, they proceeded to perform some wonderful gymnastics by taking their way up what seemed to be a perfectly vertical cliff, going from one ledge to another by a series of the easiest and most graceful leaps imaginable.
Half-way up the cliff they stopped, and to our surprise began placidly grazing, as though no enemy was within a hundred miles. So far as securing them from where we were, we might, indeed, have been a hundred miles distant. We were separated from them by a deep valley, and any movement that way would be certain to attract their attention.
No, there was no doubt that they had heard and seen us, —saw us now probably; and the only thing left for us to do was to go back over the ridge, keep below it on the farther side, pass clear around the head of the intervening valley, and, coming in from the opposite side, creep up to the edge of the cliff to a point directly above where our foolish mutton was so peacefully grazing.
It appeared but a short walk to our goal, yet two hours were consumed in making the distance. In order to keep ourselves concealed from view during this brilliant manoeuvre, we necessarily lost sight of our game; but as we neared our destination, and made our stealthy, four-footed way to the edge of the cliff, we were confident that they would be where last seen, and we prepared to drop our cartridges down among them like a shower of hailstones. We ought to get every one.
But we did not. They had not waited for us. We could not explain it, and we did not try. We cast a few rocks down on to the ledge where we had last seen them so unsuspectingly browsing, "just to see," as Hardeman said, "how dead easy they would have been;" and then, in silence, we took up our carbines, and started to retrace our steps campward.
The weariness of limb which we had felt just before I made the unfortunate discovery of the sheep on the ridge, and which had been forgotten from then till now, suddenly returned with redoubled intensity. Our carbines were heavy; and we concluded, too, that to carry an excess of ammunition, forty rounds for instance, on a trip like this, was simply absurd. Well, we were learning fast; and with this comforting thought to cheer us, we plodded on in silence. We were very glad, in a despondent sort of way, when we reached our horses.
We needed no "plain, blazed trail" to follow on the homeward trip; our horses, with a wonderful intelligence, took us at a rapid gait straight back over the trail we had followed coming up. At first we often thought we knew better than our beasts, and turned them right when they would go left; but as every time we did this we were forced to retrace our steps to the point where we had turned off, and give in to our horses' better judgment, we soon learned to let them have their own way, and from that time on we never left the trail.
Late that night we reached camp, and first of all sought the guide. We wished to have a little talk with him about "plain, blazed trails." We found him, had our talk, and then, feeling relieved and in a better mood, ate a tremendous supper, and betook ourselves to our tent.
We were weary and sore, but more determined than ever to get a sheep. "We will go straight back to-morrow and bag them sure," said I, as I rolled myself in my blanket that night.
"We will," said my companion, falling into an audible sleep.
The next day, Tuesday, broke bright and warm; and at an early hour we were on our way. It proved to be a most uninteresting chase; we saw no game, though we worked hard to find it. Again we returned to camp empty-handed.
As our party sat discussing the next day's programme that night, after dinner was finished and cigars were lighted, it appeared that three of the gentlemen wished to go to Red Eagle Lake, some ten or more miles distant, to try their luck at catching some of the wonderfully large trout said to abound there. Their intention was to take a camping outfit along, and remain over night.
The "sheep-chasers," as Hardeman and I were now called, having had enough of Flat Top, proposed to accompany this party, intending to make a side trip from the camp on the lake to a near mountain, "Kootenai," where, according to our guide, we were "sure, dead sure," to get a shot at some sheep.
The next morning found us up with the dawn, and busy making preparations for the journey. Two docile mules were picked out from the herd, aparejos were adjusted, camping outfit packed, and at an early hour we started.
Three hours of tedious travelling, through timber very similar to that on Flat Top, brought us to a beautiful park near the lake. Camp was quickly pitched and quickly deserted; the anglers heading for the lake, my friend and I toddling along in the footsteps of the guide, bound for a "sheep-lick" some two miles distant, where, we were repeatedly assured, we would get "plenty of mutton, all right."