Tuesday, June 23, 2009


This is a picture of me and Rowdy. He is now approaching 18 years of age. All of his brothers and sisters turned out to be good dogs, except him. He was bred to be a lion dog, but he never thought it was a good idea. Over the years people who hunted with me often asked why I kept what seemed to be a worthless hound. I told them there was a story that went with that dog. This is his story.

One spring in the late '90's I loaded my hounds and headed off towards the Truth or Consequences area to the Ladder Ranch, a beautiful place owned by the Ted Turner. I was supposed to meet Neal Lawson and Bo Turner about five miles up Animas Creek, but some ranch business came up and they stayed at headquarters to attend a meeting. When I reached the ranch I decided not to wait for them, but to go on ahead and start scouting for lion sign.

The ranch is rough, steep and rocky and the terrain is hard to navigate. With miles and miles of road in various stages of repair, the ranch crew carries radios to help them stay in contact with headquarters. I picked up a radio and tossed it in the truck seat along with the 0.357 pistol that my youngest daughter had insisted that I take with me when I left the house. She insisted long and loud and wore me down until I agreed to carry it. The idea was that if I got injured I could let off a shot so I would be easier to locate. This was during that long lost era before cell phones and GPS equipment that fit in your pocket.

I drove past the old rock house and up Animas Creek looking for sign. The dogs just kept trotting on, checking the underbrush, but gave no indication that a cat had been in the area. I decided to head north, so I topped out on Dollar Road. When I crossed the remains of an old two rut road that had been put in a few years earlier to accommodate a fence building crew, the dogs struck a lion track headed south along that ridge. I slowly drove up the old overgrown and rock strewn fencing road to an overlook where I could hear the dogs trailing down in a deep canyon. Not wanting the dogs to get too far ahead of me, I got out of the truck, stuffed the pistol in its holster and followed a wildlife trail down to where I could hear the dogs better.

By the time I reached the bottom of the canyon the dogs had jumped the cat and soon were barking treed. When I arrived at the tree I found the lion had climbed up in the top of a small juniper. I noticed that all of the dogs were at the tree except for Rowdy. After a few minutes the lion got tired of the dogs harassing him in close proximity. The cat jumped out and ran down the canyon with loose rocks bounding has he slid through the tough going.

Dogs seldom catch a cat on the ground, but he made a mistake and the hounds caught up with him. There was a terrible fight going on and in fear that some of my good dogs were getting badly cut up and some might be killed, I pulled out the pistol and waded into the fight to get a head shot. As I aimed the pistol the lion lunged and made a swipe at me, knocking the gun from my hand and lodging a claw in the end of my thumb.

The fight continued, but now the dogs were pulling the cat one way and I was attached to to the other end by a strip of tough hide.

The cat was reeling me in quickly towards claws and teeth and at the last moment when I knew I was in serious trouble, I caught a flash of red out of the corner of my eye. It was the no good red hound, Rowdy. As Rowdy launched himself ten feet through the air onto the cat and grabbed the big tom by the throat I grabbed the lion by the foot and extracted my bloody thumb from his claw. While Rowdy had the cat by the throat I crawled over to a nearby cactus and fished the pistol out of the spines. Together we made quick work of the cat. So when someone asked me why I keep an old, worthless dog with a grayed muzzle and bleary eyes I tell them this story. Rowdy may be old and gray, but he is still my friend.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Mountain lion and hounds in the San Mateo mountains where "Hazard" takes place.


During one winter in the early seventies Otis Llewellen and I were trapping bobcat, fox and coyotes in the San Mateo Mountains. We had set up our camp down the road from Springtime Campground at an old windmill that provided water for a large stock tank where we could obtain water for our two campers and the hounds and mules we had with us.

Each morning we would divide up the traps, saddle our mules and select a couple of hounds to accompany us as we went our separate ways. This way we could cover a lot of territory and run our traps and look for lion sign. We had a couple of hunts booked during the coming spring and kept a keen eye out for sign of a trophy tom.

I rode a nice, gentle broke molly mule and Otis owned a handsome young mule that he had traded for that was a real outlaw. Otis had named the mule, Hazard, and it was welled named. Hazard came from champion quarterhorse racing stock being an own son of the well known sire Easy Jet, owned by Walter Merrick of Oklahoma. Mule racing was big business at the time and Hazard was bred to run, but had proven too hard to break to make it to the racetrack.

One day Otis decided Hazard needed shod and began to prepare by tying the mule’s front feet to the corral fence. He then roped the mule’s hind legs and tied the rope to the winch on his truck. He slowly winched up the rope until the mule knelt down and rolled over onto his side. When I left to run my traps Otis was working on getting a shoe on a front foot. Later that day when I returned with my catch to find Otis sitting atop Hazard’s belly taking a rest. Both the mule and Otis were lathered, but the mule had on three shoes and Otis was determined to get the last shoe on before nightfall.

Hazard lasted another three months. Govenor Tom Bolack from the B Square Ranch in Farmington had joined us for a couple of days of lion hunting. The dogs had struck a track and were in steep, rugged terrain covered in oak and pine. The dogs were working in the bottom of a deep canyon when Hazard decided to run off the side of the mountain, head down and bucking hard. Otis reached for an overhead tree limb to pull himself out of danger when the limb broke and he hit the ground hard. Bruised, with an ear half torn off he declared he would ride Hazard one last time - in the sales ring.

I patched the ear back up with duct tape which Otis left on for a month or so before trying to remove it. When we finally got the tape of his ear it left another hole that had to heal. That winter we caught 52 fox, 17 bobcat and more than 20 coyotes. Hides were at a premium at the time and our effort was well spent. Every day I carefully de-scented my traps and took time to lay out the area where I set them. Otis never washed his hands, handled his traps unconcernedly and set them without looking back. So, it was no surprise that Otis caught more animals in his traps than I caught in mine.

One morning after I had run my trap line I rode over to Skelton Ridge, then east and back south along the big ridge that is called Devil’s Post Pile. It is one of those places that if any tom lion visited the area they would scrape on that spot. All I found was an old scrape so I kept riding. It was getting late in the day by the time I checked the area and I began looking for a place where I could ride off the rim and head back to camp.

Luckily, or perhaps not so, I found an old deer trail going off through a very rough rimrock. My mule and I had made it half way down when I found the two foot wide trail blocked by a dead oak. I urged my mule over a big limb and she jumped her front feet up onto it, slid down and got her feet wedged between two smaller branches.

I am now in terrible trouble; fifteen miles from camp and in need of an axe or hand saw to chop off some branches to free the mule. I took off the saddle leaving my old single shot .22 rifle tied in the scabbard and placed it on the ground behind the mule. Then I got directly behind my mule and put my shoulder against her tail and began trying to lift her hind end off the ground in hopes that a little encouragement would get us back to camp before dark.

The next thing I remember is the mule pitching a really big fit, flipping over backwards and landing on top of me with her head downhill and all feet thrashing as she tried to get to her feet. She was scared and I thought my time had come. After what seemed an eternity she made it to her feet and I stood up. I wasted no time getting her over the limb and re-saddled her on the other side, climbed aboard and rode down off the mountain to the canyon below. All the time I was finding spots that were bruised, but my right leg was really beginning to hurt. I looked down to see blood dripping down top of my boot and off the stirrup onto the ground. I got off the mule, pulled down my pants and found a .22 bullet sized hole in the calf of my leg. Examining my old rifle I found that the mule’s thrashing had sheared the bolt and I’d been shot with my own gun.

I was bleeding pretty freely, so I took a piece of my under shirt and put a makeshift tourniquet on my leg. As I was getting ready to remount I heard dogs trailing up the canyon. They were Otis’ dogs, but I later found out he had lost them early that morning and they had ended up fifteen miles from where he had started the track. I rode back to camp and went through my camper until I found the bottle of whiskey one of our hunters had left behind. Neither Otis nor I were much of a drinker. By the time Otis made it back to camp at sundown I was jolly well jiggered.

I told him to take his buck knife and fish out the bullet. He told me he thought he couldn’t do the operation, but he boiled the old skinning knife and set to work. Once or twice I could feel him hit the lead with the knife tip, but he couldn’t see it. After about thirty minutes Otis told me that he was getting really sick to his stomach and wanted to quit. In my whiskey voice I told him to reapply to tourniquet to stop the blood until I could make it to a doctor. It was cold and late, so we bandaged the leg. I always meant to have the bullet taken out, but never did. Instead, I got on my mule and ran the trap line the next morning. It has been almost forty years and I still have the lead in my leg. Neither Otis nor I will ever make a good physician, but it was an exciting experience I’d rather not repeat.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Punkin's Story

The photo above was taken about 1965 as Punkin reclined on Orvel's suit jacket at their home in Carnuel Canyon, between Albuquerque and Tijeras. More photos follow the story.

All of us Fletcher kids; my old brother, myself and younger sister have spent part of our lives hunting with my Dad and his hounds. Even my sister’s two grown children hunted mountain lion with their Grandpa from the time they were old enough to sit a horse and follow the pack.

We have always had hounds. My niece can rattle off the pedigree to the fifth generation of every hound my Dad has hunted since the day she was born. Dad never raised many puppies, but the best prospect from a litter got named after a good dog that had died. Some of the more unusual mealtime arguments have been which Dan or Bull or Duke was alive when you were a kid. Having been raised with hounds has taught us a great deal about following the pack.

I will always remember the time I was hunting with my Dad in the San Mateo Mountains and he had walked off and left me (again) with the admonition that the trail was too dangerous and he needed to catch up with the hounds. After thirty minutes or so of waiting I decided that being left behind was much worse than climbing rocks.

I tracked him for several miles through the ascending terrain. It was a hot, dry summer afternoon with a shimmer of heat dancing in the air. After what seemed an endless scramble over rough going I reached a high point on the side of a ridge overlooking the deep canyon below. I could hear the faint sound of the hounds trailing. So I sat down on the edge of a jumble of rock to catch my breath.

Within a few minutes all sound stopped, except for an occasional bird call. I sat wondering if I should get up and move on or wait a few minutes more for the dogs to pick up the scent again. Suddenly, in the canyon below I could hear the dogs running a hot track. It was intermittent, as if they were having difficulty working their way up the mountainside. They were moving the track and they were climbing in my direction. So I sat, listened and enjoyed the chase.

I felt more than heard the noise behind me as the shadow past overhead. A whisper in the air as the cat landed a few feet from where I sat. We looked at each other warily, somewhat surprised by the few yards of rocky ground that separated us. He was not a huge tom cat, but long and finely muscled. His tail twitched. I sat quite still as the hounds ran toward us as the seconds slipped by. Finally, the cat blinked and frowned with ears twitching. He turned his head and studied the ridge below us before gliding away on silent paws.

Hounds boiled over the ledge above my head, landing pell-mell around me, confused by my sudden appearance. They stared at me as if I had the cat in my pocket. Duke was checking out the limbs of the nearby juniper tree to see if the cat had taken refuge there. It took a determined effort to make them pick up the trail and go on.

As the hound ran on from view my Dad came striding up the hill, out of breath and looking a little surprised too to find me already there. We walked out onto the cliff’s edge together where the dogs stood baying out over the slanting rocks, screaming their frustration that the cat had found a way down that they could not follow.

We never hunted that particular cat again, but I still remember the color of his eyes. I suppose given the recent attacks and fatality here in New Mexico that I should have been afraid. I wasn’t particularly concerned because by the time we chased this lion in the San Mateos we had already lived with a pet lion for a number of years. His name was Punkin and this is his story.

Punkin’s tale began during a hunt with Dr. Frank Hibben, famed anthropologist and winner of the 1964 Weatherby Award. Doctor Hibben often hunted with my father through the years between his work on excavations and trips with his wife, Brownie, to all continents of the world. He enjoyed taking photographs, writing stories for sports magazines, and was the author of many books about his studies and travels. He documented not only many of my dad’s hunts, but other hunters who hunted with dogs in the southwest.

On this particular hunt my father was out with Dr. Hibben and Larry Eastman. Larry was riding one of our first quarter horse purchases, Working Cowboy. Cowboy was a smallish, lazy chestnut with a tiny star on his forehead. He also had very small, pointed pin ears to match his heart. He was a strong horse for his size, fairly agile, but could wear out the best of riders by simply not cooperating about anything. That day Larry was in trouble because his mount was balking on the downhill slide toward the dead juniper tree where the hounds had treed a young female cougar.

My dad was already at the tree with Dr. Hibben when Larry hallooed loud enough to get his attention. So he left Frank taking photos and went back to get Larry. He and Larry returned to the tree to find the cat had been killed by the hounds. A big black and white hound named Duke had figured out a way to climb the dead branches high enough to get a grip on the cat and pull her down. My dad was not happy this had occurred. On principle, my dad rarely killed a female lion and never one that obviously had kittens.

They searched for two days, back-tracking the cat through the mountains, hoping that they would find the kittens traveling with her. The sign in the patchy snow was that one yearling and two small kittens had been with the female and were now hiding somewhere in the vast, rocky landscape.

On the third day Duke struck a trail and began baying a rabbit hole. Down the rabbit hole was a small, spotted kitten. My dad plucked him out of the hole and stuffed him inside his jacket. The dogs could find no sign of the other kitten. Calling off the dogs, they rode for camp.

Concerned that they had nothing to feed the kitten they stopped at the Kelly Ranch and asked Mrs. Kelly if she could spare a little milk. Forty-four years later my father would knock on the same ranch house door and when Mrs. Kelly opened it, she took one look at him and said, “I remember you. You and Hibben stopped by and asked for milk to feed a baby lion.”

Unfortunately, the baby lion did not want the dairy product and refused to suck it off my dad’s finger.
Finally, the kitten went to sleep and the hunters stopped for a bite to eat at a restaurant in Socorro. When they got back inside the cab of the truck my dad belched. The kitten woke up and let out a squeaky mew making sucking noises. Dad tried the milk again, belching repeatedly to get the kitten to take it a few drips at a time.

We did not keep pets in the house, so at first the kitten went home with Larry whose wife had housecats. The housecats did not take to the new addition and a few weeks later the kitten ended up in a basket in front of the fireplace in our house. He was wobbly, short legged and his spotted fur stuck out at odd angles as he waddled across the kitchen linoleum. Dr. Hibben dug up a baby formula recipe from the local zoo and Punkin started putting on weight.

By the time he was six months old and the spots were fading he was ransacking the house. It was not a big home, built with a central circular hallway that connected all the rooms of the house and the cat knew every inch of it. He was good at sports, both handball and hockey. He could play hide and seek, pounding down the hallway at break neck speed sounding like a train, then pulling sneak attacks on silent paws. Clever, he never tangled his chain when put out of doors in the front yard for a little fresh air while my mother rescued our scattered belongings.

We took home movies over the years as we grew older and Punkin developed from a young lion into a mature cat. When he was a kitten his eyes were a shade of violet, then blue and finally a light gray as he grew to maturity. Some people can live with claws, but Punkin had a quick, nasty temper and his claws were removed. He liked visiting the hounds, hugging around the neck any dog that he got close enough to play with. Some minded and some ignored it. He irritated a small mule named Festus by grabbing him by the tail and holding him in place. No matter how hard the mule pulled the lion could hold him in a feline tug of war. Punkin lost interest in this game rather quickly and the mule soon learned to stay out of reach.

The growing cat finally outgrew the house with a series of incidents that increasingly destroyed my mother’s furniture and finally ended up with him leaping into my dad’s lounge chair with dad in it. The cat’s momentum knocked the big chair over backwards into the wall. The whole side of the chair came off. After that day Punkin started spending his free time outside in a renovated stone building next to the barn. We had nicknamed the old stone building the chicken house, but hound puppies and chickens don’t coexist. We had litters of puppies alternating with flocks of laying hens throughout the years. The puppies won every round with my mother’s attempts to have chickens. So we converted the building into a nice, dry camp for the cat.

As we moved from Carnuel Canyon to Reserve to Monticello in search of new hunting grounds Punkin came with us. He hated cars and riding in them, so his trips were based on necessity. He once made the El Paso Times edition and spent a few minutes on live public television. He didn’t mind having his picture taken but never liked the sound of cameras rolling.

He was smart and funny and endlessly inventive. He impressed on me at an early age. I was the chief cage cleaner, scrubber and bone collector. We kept a freezer just for Punkin and loaded it with jackrabbits and carcasses from the neighboring ranches who knew to call us when a cow died. The rabbits were his favorite meal, but it was much easier to freeze the rabbits first instead of having to use flea powder on the lion. I have always been amazed at how many ticks can live on a jackrabbit. I skinned a porcupine one time after being told that they were a lion’s favorite game only to have him push it back over to me untouched. Once I gave him several live blue gill only to have him hold them down with his paws until they stopped breathing and walk away unconvinced that grown cats eat fish. He liked deer and elk season because he got all the liver and anything else we considered his part.

What I will always remember about Punkin is how you could tell what he was thinking, or going to do, by the way his eyes seemed to change color. Like most animals he responded to a certain amount of discipline, but his attentiveness was tempered by his curiosity. He was proof that cougar have plenty of little gray cells and the ability to use them.

He lived fifteen years before he grew old and feeble. He lived long enough to become a game animal, no longer just a predator. The local Game and Fish Department was in a slight quandary when the cougar status changed in New Mexico, but considering his age, they decided he should stay with us instead of a zoo. Finally, he began to decline slowly, then rapidly and I had him put to sleep. I would never want another wild animal. Caring for a wild puma no matter how domesticated he may act at any given moment is a never ending learning experience. Punkin was definitely one of a kind.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

The Fletcher's House Cat Remembered

In the mid 1960's, The Fletcher's had a lion of their own, named Punkin, for several years. Below are are a few photos from his life.
Punkin on the bed in Carnuel Canyon, between Albuquerque and Tijeras around 1965. He's reclining on Orvel's suit jacket.
Punkin in a postcard around 1966.
Punkin at hunting lodge outside of Reserve around 1967.