Wild Horses

Everyone knows that horses evolved in North America, then spread out to Asia, and thence (thence?) to Europe and Africa.

And everybody knows that horses then became extinct in the New World, and that there were no horses here until the Spaniards brought them back, with Columbus, and succeeding expeditions.

Right?

Well, yeah, kinda.

See, the part where I was wrong, and you may be too, is that I thought horses had gone extinct here millions, or at least hundreds of thousands of years ago.

Oops.  Wrong.  Not true.

Because there were horses here, in North America, up until about twelve thousand years ago.  They weren’t extinct millennia ago – they were here even as the first people were coming into the Continent.

Cool, right?

But now they are extinct.  Gone.  The mustangs out west, and the ponies of Chincoteague are not truly wild, but instead are feral – horse who live in the wild, are not domesticated, but are, nonetheless, descended from domestic horses.

No, we are talking about truly wild horses.

The wild horse is Equus ferus.  All domesticated horses descend from them.  Domesticated horses are known, taxonomically, as Equus ferus caballus.   Horses have been domesticated for thousands of years, and all kinds of different breeds have been developed.  But as far as is known, no-one on North America twelve, fifteen thousand years ago had domesticated any of the horses living here at the time.  There were no different breeds.

So what were the horses here, then, like?

There are two species of wild horse – wild, not feral – which may bear on this point.

The first is Przewalski’s Horse.

wild-horse_758_600x450

Przewalski’s Horse was, until recently, extinct in the wild; it’s line preserved only in captive populations, in zoos.  In 1992, however, a small population was reintroduced to its former habitat in Mongolia, and it is successfully reproducing there.  But Prezwaleski’s Horse, though an intriguing candidate for a modern analogue to the extinct North American horse, is probably not what we want.  Although it can mate, and produce viable offspring with modern horses, it has extra chromosomes.  So, for that reason we rule it out as the basis for our model.

The second truly wild horse was the Tarpan, regrettably, now extinct.  But it died out in historic times, and quite recently at that – the last known specimen died in 1090.

And it is the tarpan, we believe, which is the progenitor of the modern domesticated horses.

The tarpan lived in Europe, and on the plains of Russia, and Mongolia.  But it is reasonable to surmise that the horse found in North America looked like the tarpan.

The tarpan stood about 56 inches high at the shoulders, and probably had a falling mane, rather than a mane that stood upright.  It was commonly dun colored, but other colors were seen.  It legs may have been darker than its body.

resizedimage550370-Steppe-Tarpan

This illustration is by Alkiviadis Geskos, and may bee seen at  the Large Herbivore Network, http://www.lhnet.org/steppe-tarpan/

There have been several attempts to breed domestic horses “back,” so that they look and behave like the wild tarpan.  Superficially, they may appear similar, but they are domesticated horses, not truly tarpans.

The tarpan and Przewalski’s Horse were painted in the caves at Lascaux, Pech Merle, and other places.  What those artists saw, is, I think, what you would have seen had you been able to gaze out on the plains of North America twelve thousand years ago.

And there’s an interesting article about the accuracy of the cave paintings in depicting the horses of that time, at

http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2011/11/cave-painting-colors/

titled:  “Cave Paintings Showed True Colors of Stone Age Horses,”  from which this illustration is taken

horse-cave-paintings-pnas

But really, wouldn’t it have been interesting to see bands of wild horses running across the prairies of North America twelve thousand years ago?

I’ve decided to serialize my novel – The Clovis Mission.  So here is the first installment.  I”d appreciate your thoughts, comments and criticisms.

Prologue

The screaming shocked me.  A huge, high, squalling, screaming blast. It came from up ahead, but our vision was obscured by a grove of trees.  As the three of us rode past the trees though, I saw what had caused the noise.  Two mastodon bulls were facing off, both equally large, heavy, strong, and ready, apparently, for a fight.  Not with us – with each other.  Mating season.  The rut. They were only about ten feet apart.  The one with his back to us was lashing his tail.  The trunk of the other was waving in the air.  Both were shaking their heads from side to side.  Beyond them, in the near distance, several cows stood placidly.

Again the screaming blast. And they closed with one another fast and hard.  They slammed into one another, piston legs driving, slashing and stabbing with their tusks, pushing with their heads.    A cloud of dust arose around them from the impact.  The fight was swift and savage.  Neither backed down for several seconds.  Then they separated, and again smashed into each other. They twisted sideways, each seeking some purchase, some advantage.  And again they separated, and again smashed together.  This time, though one slipped the guard of the other, and his tusk drove into the shoulder of the other.  The injured bull screamed and backed off.  But again they charged.  And again.  And again.  Only the injured shoulder started to tell on the one bull.  He slipped sideways a little.  The other bull was relentless.  He kept pushing forward, slamming his trunk against the other’s, twisting his tusks furiously, trying to find another opening.  And again, he slipped the guard of the other.  This time, though, his tusk drove deep into the chest of the injured bull.  With that, the injured bull had had enough. He backed away, and started to turn, to flee.  But the victor would not stop.  He slammed forward again, into the side of the other bull.  Both tusks drove into the bull’s side, and he staggered, but did not fall.  When the victor backed out, the injured bull moved off at the fastest walk he could.  The victor lumbered after him for twenty yards or so, and then finally relented.  He stood for a moment, breathing heavily, then raised his trunk and bugled another loud cry.  The injured bull walked past the females and disappeared in the woods beyond them.

Fossil evidence shows that mastodons fought, but seeing this battle  – so shockingly raw, and sudden, and real- was a far cry from fossil ribs showing healed fractures.

That’s me, on the horse there.  This is what I saw, twelve thousand years ago, in my ride across country, from where St. Louis now stands, to Arizona.

Summers

 It’s funny, the things you remember.  I remember I was wearing my new teal shirt.  Teal.

I was working in my office late one afternoon, preparing notes for next week’s classes when I got the call.  It was Dean Mendelsohn, who asked if I could meet with him and two gentlemen from the Government.  “Sure,” I said, “when?”

“They’re here, now,” he said.  I’ve known Nate since I came to the University, and he sounded the same as ever.  Cool, imperturbable, patrician.  “I’m on my way.”  I said.

His office was two floors below mine.  I wasn’t particularly hurried.  I had worked with officials from the National Forest Service in the past, examining archeological sites, so, although I thought it was unusual that they’d just shown up, instead of calling, I didn’t think it was likely to be anything out of the ordinary.  So I walked down the stairs, and into Nate’s office, and got surprised.

Nate introduced me to Dr. Kramer, and Dr. White.  They took it from there.  Kramer was short, stocky.  Short blond crew-cut, black-rimmed glasses, short-sleeved white shirt, black tie.  Looked like a stereotypical scientist from the nineteen fifties.  White was tall, thin, beaky nose, longish brown and gray hair, swept back over his ears.  Tweed sport coat.  The politician of the bunch, if I had to guess.

White told me that they were from DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, not the Park Service. 

“Professor Summers, you know of Dr. Leonard Carver, of course.”  White spoke. “His interests and research are quite similar to yours, I think.”

I agreed.  As a paleo-ecologist, I was, of course, familiar with Dr. Carver’s work, and so I knew of his investigation into the megafauna extinctions possibly associated with the Clovis culture.  We were not friends, although I had met him a couple of times at various symposia.  I thought his work was meticulous, and that he certainly deserved his reputation as one of the foremost archeologists working in the peopling of the Americas.  I knew he was one of the very few scientists awarded the grant and opportunity to travel back in time to conduct research, and had gone back in time from the station at Arizona State University.  I was eagerly awaiting his report.

Then Dr. Kramer took it up. “You’re aware that he’s been selected to go back in time, to study the extinctions associated with the Clovis culture, some 12,000 years ago? We’d like to talk to you about that, if you can give us some time.”

“Sure,” I said. “What’s going on?”

We all sat down.  Nate started chewing on that goddamned pipe of his.  Unlit, of course – no smoking on campus. 

“Basically,” White explained, “Carver has disappeared.  He hasn’t sent any of the time beacons back to us, for the last three days, our time.  And then, yesterday afternoon, the ASU station stopped.”

“Wait a minute.  I didn’t think he’d gone back yet – isn’t that set for later this summer?”

“Yes, that’s correct.  Only he inserted a couple days ago, just for a brief scouting expedition.”

“So what do you mean he’s disappeared?”

“He’s been out of touch – no time beacons for three days now.  That shouldn’t happen.  He’s supposed to light off a beacon every day, so we can track his place in time and space, but he hasn’t.  He’s gone.  Missing.”

Kramer chimed in.  “And now the station itself, the one in Arizona has gone down.  It isn’t working.  We can’t send anyone back to see where he is, or what’s going on.”

Well, shit.  This didn’t sound good, at all.

“So, wait.  How big was Carver’s group?”

“There was no group.  It was just him.”

“Are you kidding me?  That’s crazy.  I mean, I have the highest respect for him, but that’s nuts.”

“Look, it was just supposed to be a quick look around.  Only four days, in preparation for his work this summer.  He wanted to walk the ground, do some preliminary reconnaissance of where to begin his studies.”

“You’re serious?  He went back alone?  Who let that happen?”

I was pissed.  I mean, I was no mountain man, not even a park ranger, but I knew how stupid that was.  Carver was probably sixty, sixty-one, twenty-five years older than me.  No way should he have been wandering around out there by himself.

“Well,” White began, and then trailed off.

“Look, Professor,” Kramer said, “We have never had a problem with any of the technology, with any prior trips sending or retrieving.  And we had no reason to think that there’d be any problem this time.”

“Who runs this?” I asked.

“What do you mean?” White said.

“I mean, who makes the decisions to go and who gets to go, and when and for how long.  Who’s in charge of this?”

“Why, we are,” White said.  “I mean, DARPA has been given authority over administration of the time travel program.  We have a budget, and there is a grants program that we administer, and from the list of applicants, we select who gets to go, and work out the details of the trips.  We answer to the Secretary of the Interior.  Is that what you meant?”

Well, no, not really.  What I guess I meant was how was anyone stupid enough to let someone go back twelve thousand years alone.  But whatever had happened was already done.  No point in stirring it up.

“Yeah, I guess so,” I said.  “I thought it might have been under the supervision of the Army or the CIA or something.”

“Oh, no,” Kramer said.  “That’s all been worked out.  If they, or anyone else wants to use one of our facilities, they have to come through us, just like everyone else.”

“So what you’re telling me is that Carver is gone, or lost – out of touch anyway, twelve thousand years in the past, and you don’t have any way to get back there and rescue him.”

“Well, not exactly,” White said.

“No,” Kramer said.  “Not exactly.  That’s why we’re here.  We want to talk to you about going back there to find him.”

“Me?”

“Yes.”

“But you just said that the station was down or dead or something.”

“Yeah, it is.  But only the station at ASU.  The one in St. Louis is still running.”

“Yeah?”

“Yes.  So the team would insert at St. Louis, and then go the Arizona and find him.”

“Oh, okay.  But why me?  Why not just send a chopper, fly out, pick him up and bring him back?”

“Too big,” Kramer said, just as White said, “too far.”

“No infrastructure,” Kramer added.

“What?”

“We can’t,” White said.  “A chopper big enough to fly out there and return – that’s about three thousand miles all told – is to big and heavy to fit inside the tesseract.  We can’t send it back.”

“And even it we could, it doesn’t have the range.  Can’t fly that far without refueling, even with extra tanks.  And there’s no infrastructure back then – no place for it to land, to refuel, no GPS to let it navigate.”

“Same problem with a truck,” Kramer added.

Well.  Not good.

“So, how would I – ?” I began.  “I mean, how can I help?”

“That’s where you come in,” Kramer said. “We are planning to send a team – a small team – back to find Dr. Carver, and see if we can figure out what happened.  We’d like you to join that team.”

I kept thinking about what they were offering me.  A chance to go back for myself and see the world I’d spent my whole life studying?  Fantastic.  Amazing.  Look, I’m in.  If its safe, if I can go back in time, and then come back home safely, I’m in.

Only – how in heck do we get there?

“Horseback,” White said.

“You and the team travel on horseback to Arizona, to find Dr. Carver,” he continued, like it was the most obvious, sanest thing in the world.

What?”

“Yes,” he said. “You and the team insert at St. Louis – Washington University – and ride cross country to find him and bring him home.”

I think I just stared at him.  My mind was racing.  On the one hand it would be fantastic to go back in time to see the mammoths, and cave lions, and horses, and everything that went extinct.  A paleo-ecologist’s dream.  But on the other hand, I didn’t really know anything about the science (or witchcraft, or voodoo) of time travel, and I wondered what had gone wrong with Dr. Carver.  That was a little scary.

Sitting there, I wondered what Mom would have thought?  Dead now, for over three years.  I missed her, when I thought of her, but as time had passed, I thought of her less and less.  I guess it’s good that memories fade, because no one could maintain such intensity of grief forever.  Could they? Still, I think –  I know – she would have been proud.  And worried.  Wear a raincoat.  Look both ways before you cross the river.  Sheesh.

And what would my father have thought, whoever the hell he was?  They’d been divorced when I was two, and he had pretty much disappeared.  I think I got a birthday card once, when I turned eight, but that was it.  That’s weird, isn’t it?  Why wouldn’t a father want to know his own son?  If I ever got married and had a kid, I’d make damn sure he (or she) knew he had a dad.

Yeah, well, if.  Wasn’t going to be with Jeanine, that’s for sure.  After six months, I was better, hardly missed her at all – not more than twice an hour.  Well, I hope she’s happy with the dentist or endodontist or whatever the hell he is.  Sure I do.

 “So, who would go?”  I asked.

“We think it’s best if it’s just a small party – three of you.”

“Three?  That’s all?  Why?”

“Distance, and weight, mostly,” White replied.  “You have a lot of ground to cover, and everything you take has to fit on the horses.  We have weight limits, as we’ve discussed.” 

I thought about that for a moment.  At first, it seemed crazy, foolhardy.  That was a big, wide dangerous world back there.  But by the same token, this may have been a case where size didn’t matter.  First, this was before (or, strictly speaking, just around the time that) humans were first coming into the Americas, so essentially there wouldn’t be any people– no dangerous criminals, or marauding armies  – to worry about.  Then too, without resources, what good would a larger party be?  How could a surgeon, say, operate, without an operatory, without anesthesia?   Didn’t lessen the risk any – you got sick, you died, is what it boiled down to, but that fact alone didn’t mean you’d be any better off with a larger group.

But still, only three of us?

“We think you’d be a good fit,” White said.  You know more about the ecology and terrain of the North American Pleistocene than almost anybody, and you’re young, fit, like to camp – We think you’d be a real asset to this trip.”

Kramer jumped in, playing the bad cop.  “Don’t get us wrong, Professor,” he said.” We’re not saying that this trip will be easy.  Far from it.  Because ASU is down, we’re going to have to insert in St. Louis.  You’ll have to travel from there to New Mexico, by horseback, just like the pioneers.  The trip will take four months at a minimum – maybe much longer.  You’ll be out in all kinds of weather, and most of all, you’ll be involved in a mystery , because we can’t tell you what the hell went wrong.”  He sat back, belligerently, if that makes any sense.

“Well?” White said.  “Will you help us?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I have classes. . ..”

“Oh, I don’t think that would be a problem,” Nate said. “I’m sure we could get coverage for your classes.”  Thanks a lot, Chief, I thought.

“When do you need to know?”  I asked. “I’d like to think it over for –“

“Now,” Kramer interrupted .  “We’re sorry to be so abrupt, but we’re treating this as an emergency, and we need to know now.”

“Your help is important to us,” Dr. White said.  “To DARPA, and the program, and to Dr. Carver.”

“I think it would be a feather in the University’s cap, if you’d go,” Nate said, “but of course, I don’t want you to worry about that at all.”  Thanks again, Chief.

Great.  A trip lasting four months, at least, twelve thousand years ago, and they need an answer right this minute. 

Well, let’s see.  I’m single.  The past has always been my passion.  Nate and the University will apparently cover for me.  Why not?  Oh, yeah –that’s why not.

“I have a dog,” I said.  

That’s how Jack came to be with us on the expedition.

The American Lion

 

Once there were lions.  Once lions roamed this country.  Here, where we are, lions hunted, and ate, mated, drowsed through the long afternoons, roared as the moon rose.  Lions.

Specifically, the now-extinct American Lion (panthera leo atrox).

800px-Panthera_leo_atrox_Sergiodlarosa

There has some controversy about the taxonomy of the American Lion;  about just where it fits in; about its relationship to modern lions, tigers, and other big cats.  For a while, it was thought that it might have been more closely related to the jaguar, but now, the prevalent view is that it is most closely related to the lion of today, and to the now extinct European cave lion (panthera leo spelaea).

So we are talking about real lions.  Only bigger.  Like so many of the animals back then, twelve, fifteen thousand years ago, the American lion was bigger than its modern counterpart.  20 -25% bigger.   It might have weighed as much as seven hundred pounds, and been seven feet long – excluding its tail.  Its legs were proportionally longer, and its bite was considerably stronger than modern lions.

That is one hell of a predator.

But it wasn’t the only apex predator roaming around back then.  In North America, there were four top predators, all at the same time:  The great short-faced bear; Smilodon; Dire Wolves, and the American Lion.  In modern Africa, lions and hyenas are competitors and adversaries.  But here, there were not only two teams of rivals, but four.

So how, exactly did that work?  Were they competitors, chasing the same game?  They certainly could have been – each was fully capable of taking down a horse, or bison, a camel, an elk.  Or did they preferentially take different animals?  The Lion taking horses, for example, while Smilodon took bison.  And what if they met?

If the American Lion was close kin to the modern lion (as seems likely), then we can suppose that its behavior was similar too.  So it probably hunted in prides; males probably fought each other for access to females.

The La Brea tar pits have produced incredible amounts of animal fossils – lots and lots of dire wolves; many Smilodon.  But not too many lions.   And most of them were males.

Why?  Perhaps lions were too intelligent to be drawn into danger (the sticky asphalt morass) by the cries of entrapped prey animals.  Perhaps only solitary males were hungry enough, desperate enough to venture in.  Maybe lions were simply rare.

And yet, their remains have been found nationwide.  There really were lions roaming here.

In historic times, there were enormous herds of buffalo (which, yes, I know should be called bison). There were (and are) elk, and deer.  Those would be suitable prey for any of them – The great short-faced bear; Smilodon; Dire Wolves, and the American Lion.

So what the hell happened?  Why did the American Lion, like the others, go extinct?

Climate change?  Hunting pressure by humans moving into the Continent?  Some disease?

A couple studies have shown that the animals appeared to be well-fed – i.e. not starving, just before they became extinct.  So, the mystery remains:

Once lions walked and stalked here, and now they are gone.

Here’s a link to an informative site:  http://library.sandiegozoo.org/factsheets/_extinct/lion_american/lion_american.htm*** 

Here are two short excerpts from my novel, dealing with American Lions:

 

I don’t know what the hell happened.  Maybe Devereaux was unbelievably passive-aggressive.  Maybe he didn’t give a fuck.  Maybe he fell asleep.  It was his second watch of the night, anyway.

 I was in my tent, tossing, trying to get to sleep.  Kinda half-awake.  And I heard the horses snorting, stamping, whinnying.  Devereaux yelling ‘Hey!  Hey!’ Then, two quick shots.

Snarling.

“Hey! Dammit!  Lasher, help!”

Gunshots. 

I ran out of my tent in my boxers, carrying my rifle, struggling to put my night vision goggles on. Lasher was already out.  He had his goggles on and his boots, too.  And his rifle.  We ran toward the horses. 

In the eerie greenish glow of the goggles, I could see the horses milling frantically, Devereaux at the edge, yelling, and firing. And dimly, beyond him, I could see lions, large, thickly muscled gray shapes, surrounding the downed mare.  It was obviously too late.  One leg was still kicking a little, but she was surrounded, engulfed by the lions.  There were five or six all around her, eating.  Snapping and snarling at each other, jostling for position. Noisy, harsh, brutal.

“Christ, Devereaux,” Lasher said, “stop shooting.  It’s too late.  Don’t waste the ammo.”

From time to time several pairs of green eyes would lift and regard us for a moment.  Not curious, not threatened, not particularly threatening. Simply noting that we were there.

Off to one side, I could see a lioness standing, head down, panting.  Part of her belly was black.  It took me a minute to figure out that she was wounded – gutshot.  The blood appeared black in the goggles.  I raised my rifle, aimed carefully, and put her down.   Lasher turned to me and nodded, once.

“Well, let’s get ‘em!” Devereaux whispered urgently.  “Fuckers! Let’s take them down!”

“What for?” I whispered back.  “They already got her.”

Yeah, but they’ll come for the other horses, next.”

“No they won’t – that’s enough meat right there for all of them.” 

Unbelievable – we’re having a debate in the middle of the night, twenty five or thirty feet away from a welter of feeding lions.

“All, right, let’s go,” Lasher said. “Devereaux, Summers, you guys pack up the tents, I’ll move the horses over to the other side of the camp, and we‘ll load up and move down the road a ways.”

For all of my avowed confidence that the lions were done hunting for the night, it was still creepy, moving around in the dark, (still with the goggles on) packing everything up.  I moved fast, real fast, just this side of panicky.  And then, of course, your mind goes into overdrive, and I started thinking not only of the lions, but of what else might – even now – come bounding or padding out of the darkness to take me.  A wolf; or a whole pack.  A bear.  Smilodon, stalking and creeping.  Teeth and claws and death in the night.

Even moving as fast as I could, packing up took several minutes. The stupid goddam goggles kept slipping around, but I didn’t want to take time to re-tighten the straps. 

Lasher came around with the horses, and we loaded up as quickly and quietly as we could. And got out of there.

We rode for a mile or so, by my estimate, and then Lasher said “Hold up, a minute. We got two choices – we can stop here for the rest of the night, or press on and try to make the mountains later today.”

That choice was easy.  “Let’s keep going,” I said.

“Damn straight.” Devereaux.

“All right.  We’ll get up into the hills, anyway, and find water.  Let’s go.”

In the dark as we rode, I asked Devereaux what had happened – back there – with the lions.

“Jesus, I don’t know.   I had the goggles on and saw one, walking toward the horses, in that crouched down, hurrying way they get.  So I yelled, but it didn’t stop.  So I shot – two times –  but I missed.  But the lion stopped.  But then three more came from the other side.  They charged out and grabbed her.  That’s when I really started shooting and calling for help.”

“The bastards are too dumb to be afraid of us.”

“No, they’re not too dumb,” I said.  “It’s just that they’ve never encountered humans before.  They haven’t learned to associate gunshots with death.  So they don’t fear us, you’re right, but not because they’re too dumb.  We’re just outside any of their experience.”

“Yeah, well, I still think we should’ve killed those bastards.  Jesus.”

End of conversation.  Devereaux had not been asleep, or passive aggressive.  Just overwhelmed by the coordinated attack of a pride of lions.

 

 

 

One day, riding across a basin, through grass that grew to our horses’ bellies, we saw a pride of lions take down a camel. The hunting seemed similar to that of modern African Lions.  The pride, all females, startled a herd of grazing camels, and then chased down a hugely pregnant female.  Shortly after she was down, a pair of male lions came trotting up quite briskly, and then, at the last second charged into the lionesses already gathered tightly around the carcass, and usurped the kill.  Seen in daylight, in action, these lions were awesome.  They seemed much bigger than modern African lions, huge, and strong, and so very quick.   I know from fossil reconstructions that they are estimated to have only been twenty percent larger than modern lions, but I’m telling you, these lions looked enormous. The males snarled and swiped at the females they had displaced, females who were trying to get back and eat.  The cacophony of growls, snarls and snaps was fearsome.  Not all of the lionesses were trying to fight their way back to the kill, however.  Some of the displaced females saw us, and began to stalk us.  The camel’s panicked flight had brought the pride nearer to us, and our path had brought us close enough to the kill, that the lions thought we presented them with another opportunity.  They weren’t charging us – yet; instead they displayed that nervous half-crouched low stalking creep that we’ve all seen on the nature shows.  Three of them, large, lean and hungry, approaching us from about four o’clock.  In this convention, 12:00 o’clock is directly ahead of us, and the other hours of the clock face represent the approximate direction from which the animals (or any other attack) were coming.

Lasher said, “Devereaux, take the [pack and spare] horses and move up – slowly.  Don’t run them; don’t trot; just keep ‘em bunched together.  Summers, you get up front, too, and stay right behind the horses. I’ll drop back and scare ‘em off.”

Yeah, well, good luck with that.  You aren’t going to be able to scare them off – they don’t know us or fear us.  They see horses within the kill zone, and they are hungry.  They don’t know that the sound of a shot equals danger. They see food.

“Watch the front and flanks,” Lasher said.  He pulled up and let us pass him.  Both Devereaux and I had our rifles out, and were looking, looking, looking, every which way, for lions to come exploding up out of the grass, or from the trees.

Behind me, I heard Lasher’s horse snort, and Lasher talking to it in a low, soothing voice.  “Hold on, girl. That’s it. That’s a good girl.  Hold on here.”  That sort of talk.  I glanced back briefly, and saw he was sitting on his horse, not moving forward toward the lions, nor back to rejoin us.  Just sitting astride his horse, rifle held up, and ready.

We kept moving steadily. The wind, what there was of it, was into our faces, so I guess the horses didn’t smell the lions. In any event they remained calm, as we walked them forward.

I looked back again, and saw Lasher now, thirty or forty feet behind us, still sitting his horse. Now his rifle was down and aimed at one of the lionesses.  Still he had not fired. 

We kept moving.  Devereaux detoured around a little grove of tree, and kept us out in a more open meadow, where at least we could see (I hoped) anything sneaking up on us.  Another thirty feet, fifty feet, eye still scanning everywhere.  Hot bright sun, midges or some kind of insect, swarming and swooping over the grass heads.  Very quiet, but for the creaking of the saddles, and some bird song.

Still no shots fired.

“BAM!  BAM!”  Two shots, in quick succession. And another, “BAM!”

Shit.  I jumped.  I saw Devereaux jump a little, too.  I looked back.  Lasher was still sitting, still holding his rifle aimed at a target I could not see.  After a minute, he turned his horse, and trotted up to us.

“Okay,” he said. “They won’t bother us no more. Let’s move out.”

“What happened?” I asked’

“Well, I heard somewhere that if you don’t run before them, don’t give ‘em something to chase, that lions most probably won’t attack.  So I tried that.”

“Yeah, but what happened?”

“Well, they stopped and started looking me over.  They wanted that horse, that was for sure, but they couldn’t figure out why she wasn’t running.  And I expect my smell was unusual, and gave them something to think about.  So anyway, you could see they was thinking about what to do –whether to try to catch another dinner, or just go back to that camel, before it’s all gone.  And then one of ‘em took a couple quick steps forward, like she was thinking she’d rather eat horse.  So I put two quick shots down into the ground right under her feet.  Tried to spray some dirt and gravel up in her face.  And then she stopped and looked like she was going to change her mind and eat some camel.  So I fired again, to encourage her.  And the three of them left.  We still better keep our eyes peeled, though.”

“Yeah,” Devereaux said, “but why didn’t you just shoot them?  I mean, Jesus.”

“Well, I’ll tell you,” Lasher said. “I thought about it, but I don’t like shooting anything unless I have to.  And even more important, we still gotta think about them boys behind us.  I hope we’ve given ‘em the slip, but I’m not counting on that. And if they’re still trying to track us, finding three lions that been shot would let ‘em know for sure that they’re on the right track.  So I woulda shot ‘em if I had to, but I’d rather not.  And it worked out okay.”