Six badly frightened and unhurt "big horns" were scampering over the rocks.
Bang ! Bang ! Bang ! Bang ! Bang! Bang ! A perfect fusillade rang out. Over a ridge and around a crag disappeared six leaping forms.
It had taken about thirty seconds. Suddenly, as we were nearing the top of the ridge, the animals had appeared on our left, had immediately seen us, and stopped. I had seen them as they appeared, had had but one idea, —that they would get away if not instantly shot, —had called out, and turning, as I half knelt, half lay, on the slope, had fired off-hand, and —missed. Hardeman had done the same thing. We had then both jumped up, and fired a half-dozen bullets in the general direction of the fleeing game, without in the slightest degree taking aim. The frightened but unhurt animals had disappeared; and we now found ourselves looking at each other in a dazed sort of way, not just realizing for a second what had taken place. But it dawned on us soon enough.
Hardeman broke the silence.
"Why, they were not more than fifty yards away," said he in an incredulous tone; then, as the full extent of the calamity broke upon him, he shrieked, "Great Heavens, man! We have missed them! We have missed them, I tell you." I was aware of this, and made no reply, but remained sitting where I was, elbows on my knees, and head between my hands. I was trying to puzzle out how we had missed them.
"And they were not over fifty yards," said Hardeman, his voice taking on a discouraged tone of conviction. "Not an inch over fifty yards, and we missed them, we—missed—them." He fell to musing again.
We had forgotten the existence of our guide until now, but we were made aware of it by hearing a subdued chuckling as he appeared from behind the rock where we had left him. His chuckling was not well-timed, and I reached for my rifle.
Hardeman saw the movement, and said, in a weary tone, "No use; you couldn't hit him."
"But you could," I rejoined politely.
As we sat there in silence, ever wondering how we could have missed those sheep, and now and then casting our eyes along the rock, where it seemed one or two must be lying, a marmot came out of his hole near by. Running down the slope a distance, he sat up and whistled at us in an impudent manner.
"How far?" said Hardeman, cocking his piece.
"Fully a hundred yards."
He fired; and the little animal, minus his head, rolled down the shale.
"And we missed a sheep at half that distance," mused Hardeman.
Our return to camp was an unhappy one. The gentlemen left there the day before, having had excellent luck in their piscatorial chase, were in good humor on our arrival, and greeted us with many expectant salutations, which, it seemed to me, were unnecessary, and would have been appropriate and funny in Life's "Useless Questions." But we were in an humble frame of mind, and did not resent their interrogations.
"Oh, yes" (smilingly); "we were back."
"No; we had no sheep."
"Any shots? Well, yes; we had gotten a shot at some."
"Yes," yelled Hardeman, jumping up and wildly gesticulating, "yes; we did get some shots, and we missed 'em, and they weren't fifty yards away, and there wasn't any excuse —and we are a couple of chumps, that's what we are."
After this frank statement of the facts, there was nothing more to be said; and we were soon packed up, and picking our way back toward our permanent camp.
The next day found everybody out of camp but Hardeman and myself. We had not had much to say, both of us thinking the same thing, both afraid to utter our thought.
Finally I could stand it no longer.
Hardeman was sitting in the tent driving some hob-nails in the soles of his shoes. I was standing in the doorway, my eyes fastened on Kootenai, in misty view from here.
"I wonder if they will return," I said, musing to myself.
"Eh," said Hardeman, in a suspiciously eager tone.
"I say," said I, "that they will undoubtedly come back to the same place. We did not have a fair show yesterday," I continued tentatively.
"Yes; we were taken unawares."
I looked over my shoulder at him, and caught his eye.
"All right," he answered; and in a few moments we were retracing our trail of yesterday, some bacon and coffee in our saddle-bag pockets, and two men following to take care of us.
We were going to try them once more.
Three hours later two figures might have been seen toiling up the steep side of Kootenai Mountain. They were on the side of a deep ravine, going slowly, and, in spite of the loose rock, going noislessly. Far above them, near the head of the ravine and on one side, stood a clump of fir-brush. A half-hour later they had gained this shelter, and were lying side by side, softly panting from their exertions. Shortly one of them, leaving his carbine, cautiously crawled to the edge of a ridge separating the ravine up which they had been creeping from another and deeper one to the right. Slowly his head was raised until the eyes looked over the ridge. Slowly the head was lowered again, and slowly did the body wriggle back to the side of its companion. Turning his head, the other caught the look in his eyes, and his lips formed the unspoken words, "How many?" Eight raised fingers gave definite reply.
Together they now made their way upward, and in a moment were lying prone just below the line of the ridge, their eyes drinking in the sight of a bunch of eight Rocky Mountain sheep not a hundred yards distant, quietly licking the outcropping salt from the earth.
"Well, we've got them," whispered Hardeman, as he quietly took from his belt a half-dozen cartridges, and spread them out for quick use on the ground by his side.
" We have," I nodded, adjusting the sight of my carbine for a "half-point" windage to the left.
Two gleaming barrels were slowly thrust over the edge, and all was silent. One, two, three seconds —then two reports that sounded as one.
Six animals fleeing in six different directions. Three more reports in quick succession, and the number of fugitives lessened by one.
Again four shots rang out —those two figures seem to think they are skirmishing at the Department Rifle Competition.
Bang! Bang! Bang!
"That last one dropped at two hundred and fifty at least," said Hardeman coolly, as the last of the animals remaining unhit disappeared behind the rocks.
"That last one" proved to have five bullets in him.
"Well," said I, as a half-hour later we were sitting on the carcass of one of our sheep which had slipped off my shoulder while we were carrying it together, and had sent Hardeman rolling down the shaly slope, "well, let's recapitulate. This is our fifth day out, and the score stands as follows: —
"Sheep seen, eight. Cartridges fired, twelve. Hits: on the stand, two; on the run, six. Misses: on the stand, none; on the run, four. Killed : on the stand, two; on the run, two. We have retrieved ourselves, my friend, and may hold up our heads again."
"And we missed those things yesterday at fifty yards," mused Hardeman.