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Across Mongolian Plains A Naturalist's Account of China's 'Great Northwest' By Roy Chapman Andrews Characters: 20809

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02

Although we had seen nearly a dozen sheep where we killed our first three rams, the mountains were deserted when Harry returned the following morning. He hunted faithfully, but did not see even a roebuck; the sheep all had left for other feeding grounds. I remained in camp to superintend the preparation of our specimens.

The next day we had a glorious hunt. By six o'clock we were climbing the winding, white trail west of camp, and for half an hour we stood gazing into the gloomy depths of the stupendous gorge, as yet unlighted by the morning sun. Then we separated, each making toward the grassy uplands by different routes.

Na-mon-gin led me along the summit of a broken ridge, but, evidently, he did not expect to find sheep in the ravines, for he kept straight on, mile after mile, with never a halt for rest. At last we reached a point where the plateau rolled away in grassy waves of brown. We were circling a rounded hill, just below the crest, when, not thirty yards away, three splendid roe deer jumped to their feet and stood as though frozen, gazing at us; then, with a snort, they dashed down the slope and up the other side. They had not yet disappeared, when two other bucks crossed a ridge into the bottom of the draw. It was a sore trial to let them go, but the old hunter had his hand upon my arm and shook his head.

Passing the summit of the hill, we sat down for a look around. Before us, nearly a mile away, three shallow, grass-filled valleys dropped steeply from the rolling meadowland. Almost instantly through my binoculars caught the moving forms of three sheep in the bottom of the central draw. "Pan-yang," I said to the Mongol. "Yes, yes, I see them," he answered. "One has very big horns." He was quite right; for the largest ram carried a splendid head, and the other was by no means small. The third was a tiny ewe. The animals wandered about nibbling at the grass, but did not move out of the valley bottom. After studying them awhile the hunter remarked, "Soon they will go to sleep. We'll wait till then. They would hear or smell us if we went over now."

I ate one of the three pears I had brought for tiffin and smoked a cigarette. The hunter stretched himself out comfortably upon the grass and pulled away at his pipe. It was very pleasant there, for we were protected from the wind, and the sun was delightfully warm. I watched the sheep through the glasses and wondered if I should carry home the splendid ram that night. Finally the little ewe lay down and the others followed her example.

We were just preparing to go when the hunter touched my arm. "Pan-yang," he whispered. "There, coming over the hill. Don't move." Sure enough, a sheep was trotting slowly down the hillside in our direction. Why he did not see or smell us, I cannot imagine, for the wind was in his direction. But he came on, passed within one hundred feet, and stopped on the summit of the opposite swell. What a shot! He was so close that I could have counted the rings on his horns-and they were good horns, too, just the size we wanted for the group. But the hunter would not let me shoot. His heart was set upon the big ram peacefully sleeping a mile away.

"A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush" is a motto which I have followed with good success in hunting, and I was loath to let that argali go even for the prospect of the big one across the valley. But I had a profound respect for the opinion of my hunter. He usually guessed right, and I had found it safe to follow his advice.

So we watched the sheep walk slowly over the crest of the hill. The Mongol did not tell me then, but he knew that the animal was on his way to join the others, and his silence cost us the big ram. You may wonder how he knew it. I can only answer that what that Mongol did not know about the ways of sheep was not worth learning. He seemed to think as the sheep thought, but, withal, was a most intelligent and delightful companion. His ready sympathy, his keen humor, and his interest in helping me get the finest specimens of the animals I wanted, endeared him to me in a way which only a sportsman can understand. His Shansi dialect and my limited Mandarin made a curious combination of the Chinese language, but we could always piece it out with signs, and we never misunderstood each other on any important matter.

We had many friendly differences of opinion about the way in which to conduct a stalk, and his childlike glee when he was proved correct was most refreshing. One morning I got the better of him, and for days he could not forget it. We were sitting on a hillside, and with my glasses I picked up a herd of sheep far away on the uplands. "Yes," he said, "one is a very big ram." How he could tell at that distance was a mystery to me, but I did not question his statement for he had proved too often that his range of sight was almost beyond belief.

We started toward the sheep, and after half a mile I looked again. Then I thought I saw a grasscutter, and the animals seemed like donkeys. I said as much but the hunter laughed. "Why, I saw the horns," he said. "One is a big one, a very big one." I stopped a second time and made out a native bending over, cutting grass. But I could not convince the Mongol. He disdained my glasses and would not even put them to his eyes. "I don't have to-I know they are sheep," he laughed. But I, too, was sure. "Well, we'll see," he said. When we looked again, there could be no mistake; the sheep were donkeys. It was a treat to watch the Mongol's face, and I made much capital of his mistake, for he had so often teased me when I was wrong.

But to return to the sheep across the valley which we were stalking on that sunlit Thursday noon. After the ram had disappeared we made our way slowly around the hilltop, whence he had come, to gain a connecting meadow which would bring us to the ravine where the argali were sleeping. On the way I was in a fever of indecision. Ought I to have let that ram go? He was just what we wanted for the group, and something might happen to prevent a shot at the others. It was "a bird in the hand" again, and I had been false to the motto which had so often proved true.

Then the "something" I had feared did happen. We saw a grasscutter with two donkeys emerge from a ravine on the left and strike along the grassy bridge five hundred yards beyond us. If he turned to the right across the upper edge of the meadows, we could whistle for our sheep. Even if he kept straight ahead, possibly they might scent him. The Mongol's face was like a thundercloud. I believe he would have strangled that grasscutter could he have had him in his hands. But the Fates were kind, and the man with his donkeys kept to the left across the uplands. Even then my Mongol would not hurry. His motto was "Slowly, slowly," and we seemed barely to crawl up the slope of the shallow valley which I hoped still held the sheep.

On the summit of the draw the old hunter motioned me behind him and cautiously raised his head. Then a little farther. Another step and a long look. He stood on tiptoe, and, settling back, quietly motioned me to move up beside him.

Just then a gust of wind swept across the hilltop and into the ravine. There was a rush of feet, a clatter of sliding rock, and three argali dashed into view on the opposite slope. They stopped two hundred yards away. My hunter was frantically whispering, "One more. Don't shoot. Don't shoot." I was at a loss to understand, for I knew there were only three sheep in the draw. The two rams both seemed enormous, and I let drive at the leader. He went down like lead-shot through the shoulders. The two others ran a few yards and stopped again. When I fired, the sheep whirled about but did not fall. I threw in another shell and held the sight well down. The "putt" of a bullet on flesh came distinctly to us, but the ram stood without a motion.

The third shot was too much, and he slumped forward, rolled over, and crashed to the bottom of the ravine. All the time Na-mon-gin was frantically whispering, "Not right. Not right. The big one. The big one." As the second sheep went down I learned the reason. Out from the valley directly below us rushed a huge ram, washed with white on the neck and shoulders and carrying a pair of enormous, curling horns. I was too surprised to move. How could four sheep be there, when I knew there were only three!

Usually I am perfectly cool when shooting and have all my excitement when the work is done, but the unexpected advent of that ram turned on the thrills a bit too soon. I forgot what I had whispered to myself at every shot, "Aim low, aim low. You are shooting down hill." I held squarely on his gray-white shoulder and pulled the trigger. The bullet just grazed his back. He ran a few steps and stopped. Again I fired hurriedly, and the ball missed him by the fraction of an inch. I saw it strike and came to my senses with a jerk; but it was too late, for the rifle was empty. Before I could cram in another shell the sheep was gone.

Na-mon-gin was absolutely disgusted. Even though I had killed two fine rams, he wanted the big one. "But," I said, "where did the fourth sheep come from? I saw only three." He looked at me in amazement. "Didn't you know that the ram which walked by us went over to the others?" he answered. "Any one ought to have known that much."

Well, I hadn't known. Otherwise, I should have held my fire. Right there the Mongol read me a lecture on too much haste. He said I was like every other foreigner-always in a rush. He said a lot of other things which I accepted meekly, for I knew that he was right. I always am in a hurry. Missing that ram had taken most of the joy out of the others; and to make matters worse, the magnificent animal stationed himself on the very hillside where we had been sitting when we saw them first and, with the little ewe close beside him, watched us for half an hour.

Na-mon-gin glared at him and shook his fist. "We'll get you to-morrow, you old rabbit," he said; and then to me, "Don't you care. I won't eat till we kill him."

For the next ten minutes the kindly old Mongol devoted himself to bringing a smile to my lips. He told me he knew just where that ram would go; we couldn't have carried in his head anyway; that it would be much better to save him for to-morrow; and that I had killed

the other two so beautifully that he was proud of me.

I continued to feel better when I saw the two dead argali. They were both fine rams, in perfect condition, with beautiful horns. One of them was the sheep which had walked so close to us; there was no doubt of that, for I had been able to see the details of his "face and figure." Every argali has its own special characters which are unmistakable. In the carriage of his head, the curve of his horns, and in coloration, he is as individual as a human being.

While we were examining the sheep, Harry and his hunter appeared upon the rim of the ravine. They brought with them, on a donkey, the skin and head of a fine two-year-old ram which he had killed an hour earlier far beyond us on the uplands. It fitted exactly into our series, and when we had another big ram and two ewes, the group would be complete.

Poor Harry was hobbling along just able to walk. He had strained a tendon in his right leg the previous morning, and had been enduring the most excruciating pain all day. He wanted to stay and help us skin the sheep, but I would not let him We were a long way from camp, and it would require all his strength to get back at all.

At half-past four we finished with the sheep, and tied the skins and much of the meat on the two donkeys which Harry had commandeered. Our only way home lay down the river bed, for in the darkness we could not follow the trail along the cliffs. By six o'clock it was black night in the gorge.

The donkeys were our only salvation, for by instinct-it couldn't have been sight-they followed the trail along the base of the cliffs. By keeping my hands upon the back of the rearmost animal, and the two Mongols close to me, we got out of the ca?on and into the wider valley. When we reached the village I was hungry enough to eat chips, for I had had only three pears since six o'clock in the morning, and it was then nine at night.

Harry, limping into camp just after dark, had met my cousin, Commander Thomas Hutchins, Naval Attache of the American Legation, and Major Austin Barker of the British Army, whom we had been expecting. They had reached the village about ten o'clock in the morning and spent the afternoon shooting hares near a beautiful temple which Harry had discovered among the hills three miles from camp. The boys had waited dinner for me, and we ate it amid a gale of laughter-we were always laughing during the five days that Tom and Barker were with us.

Harry was out of the hunting the next day because his leg needed a complete rest. I took Tom out with me, while Barker was piloted by an old Mongol who gave promise of being a good hunter. Tom and I climbed the white trail to the summit of the ridge, while Barker turned off to the left to gain the peaks on the other side of the gorge. Na-mon-gin was keen for the big ram which I had missed the day before. He had a very definite impression of just where that sheep was to be found, and he completely ignored the ravines on either side of the trail.

Not half a mile from the summit of the pass, the Mongol stopped and said, "Pan-yang-on that ridge across the valley." He looked again and turned to me with a smile. "It is the same ram," he said. "I knew he would be here." Sure enough, when I found the sheep with my glasses, I recognized our old friend. The little ewe was with him, and they had been joined by another ram carrying a circlet of horns, not far short of the big fellow's in size.

For half an hour we watched them while the Mongols smoked. The sheep were standing on the very crest of a ridge across the river, moving a few steps now and then, but never going far from where we first discovered them. My hunter said that soon they would go to sleep, and in less than half an hour they filed down hill into the valley; then we, too, went down, crossed a low ridge, and descended to the river's edge. The climb up the other side was decidedly stiff, and it was nearly an hour before we were peering into the ravine where the sheep had disappeared. They were not there, and the hunter said they had gone either up or down the valley-he could not tell which way.

We went up first, but no sheep. Then we crossed to the ridge where we had first seen the argali and cautiously looked over a ledge of rocks. There they were, about three hundred yards below, and on the alert, for they had seen Tom's hunter, who had carelessly exposed himself on the crest of the ridge. Tom fired hurriedly, neglecting to remember that he was shooting down hill, and, consequently, overshot the big ram. They rushed off, two shots of mine falling short at nearly four hundred yards as they disappeared behind a rocky ledge.

My Mongol said that we might intercept them if we hurried, and he led me a merry chase into the bottom of the ravine and up the other side. The sheep were there, but standing in an amphitheater formed by inaccessible cliffs. I advocated going to the ridge above and trying for a shot, but the hunter scoffed at the idea. He said that they would surely scent or hear us long before we could see them.

Tom and his Mongol joined us in a short time, and for an hour we lay in the sunshine waiting for the sheep to compose themselves. It was delightfully warm, and we were perfectly content to remain all the afternoon amid the glorious panorama of encircling peaks.

At last Na-mon-gin prepared to leave. He indicated that we were to go below and that Tom's hunter was to drive the sheep toward us. When we reached the river, the Mongol placed Tom behind a rock at the mouth of the amphitheater. He took me halfway up the slope, and we settled ourselves behind two bowlders.

I was breathing hard from the strenuous climb, and the old fellow waited until I was ready to shoot; then he gave a signal, and Tom's hunter appeared at the very summit of the rocky amphitheater. Instantly the sheep were on the move, running directly toward us. They seemed to be as large as elephants, for never before had I been as close to a living argali. Just as the animals mounted the crest of a rocky ledge, not more than fifty yards away, Na-mon-gin whistled sharply, and the sheep stopped as though turned to stone.

"Now," he whispered, "shoot." As I brought my rifle to the level it banged in the air. I had been showing the hunters how to use the delicate set-trigger, and had carelessly left it on. The sheep instantly dashed away, but there was only one avenue of escape, and that was down hill past me. My second shot broke the hind leg of the big ram; the third struck him in the abdomen, low down, and he staggered, but kept on. The sheep had reached the bottom of the valley before my fourth bullet broke his neck.

Tom opened fire when the other ram and the ewe appeared at the mouth of the amphitheater, but his rear sight had been loosened in the climb down the cliff, and his shots went wild. It was hard luck, for I was very anxious to have him kill an argali.

The abdomen shot would have finished the big ram eventually, and I might have killed the other before it crossed the creek; but experience has taught me that it is best to take no chances with a wounded animal in rough country such as this. I have lost too many specimens by being loath to finish them off when they were badly hit.

[Illustration: Where the Bighorn Sheep Are Found]

[Illustration: A Mongolian Roebuck]

My ram was a beauty. His horns were almost equal to those of the record head which Harry had killed on the first day, but one of them was marred by a broken tip. The old warrior must have weathered nearly a score of winters and have had many battles. But his new coat was thick and fine-the most beautiful of any we had seen. As he lay in the bottom of the valley I was impressed again by the enormous size of an argali's body. There was an excellent opportunity to compare it with a donkey's, for before we had finished our smoke, a Mongol arrived driving two animals before him. The sheep was about one-third larger than the donkey, and with his tremendous neck and head must have weighed a great deal more.

After the ram had been skinned Tom and I left the men to pack in the meats skin, and head, while we climbed to the summit of the pass and wandered slowly home in the twilight. Major Barker came in shortly after we reached the village. He was almost done, for his man had taken him into the rough country north of camp. A strenuous day for a man just from the city, but Barker was enthusiastic. Even though he had not killed a ram, he had wounded one in the leg and had counted twenty sheep-more than either Harry or I had seen during the entire time we had been at Wu-shi-tu.

When we awoke at five o'clock in the morning, Torn stretched himself very gingerly and remarked that the only parts of him which weren't sore were his eyelids! Harry was still hors de combat with the strained tendon in his leg, and I had the beginning of an attack of influenza. Barker admitted that his joints "creaked" considerably; still, he was full of enthusiasm. We started off together but separated when six miles from camp. He found sheep on the uplands almost at once, but did not get a head. Barker was greatly handicapped by using a special model U.S. Army Springfield rifle, which weighed almost as much as a machine gun, and could not have been less fitted for hunting in rough country. No man ever worked harder for an argali than he did, and he deserved the best head in the mountains. By noon I was burning with fever and almost unable to drag myself back to camp. I arrived at four o'clock, just after Tom returned. He had not seen a sheep.

The Major hunted next day, but was unsuccessful, and none of us went to the mountains again, for I had nearly a week in bed, and Harry was only able to hobble about the court. On the 28th of October, Tom and Barker left for Peking. Harry and I were sorry to have them leave us. I have camped with many men in many countries of the world, but with no two who were better field companions. Neither Harry nor I will ever forget the happy days with them.

It was evident that I could not hunt again for at least a week, although I could sit a horse. We had seven sheep, and the group was assured; therefore, we decided to shift camp to the wapiti country, fifty miles away hoping that by the time we reached there, we both would be fit again.

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