September 25, 2018
The steep incline was no match for the bottom gear of the 1985 Dodge Power Wagon, though my stomach did drop a bit when I felt the grip start to give over the loose surface of the washboard road scratched through the desert like a faded, white scar. Easing off the gas allowed the tires to bite, pushing the classic hunting rig the rest of the way up the hill to a small flat below the towering basalt columns that make up much of the Chinati Mountains of Southwest Texas.
This gravelly climb was just one short stretch of what had to be a hundred miles or more of trail Texas businessman J.B. Poindexter had bulldozed through the tire-chewing chert that makes up much of the 30,000-acre ranch’s rocky terrain. His reason for the trailblazing was twofold: All those roads make it easier for the vaqueros to work cattle and, most importantly, give Poindexter plenty of territory to run his beloved bird dogs for the area’s native quail population. An added benefit is access to the most remote corners of the rough country, where Barbary sheep, better known to hunters as aoudad, clamber among the high, rugged peaks.
One of those trails also leads to a lonely seep of water tucked deep in the Chinati Mountains, where El Fortin de la Cienega looks much the way it did in the 1850s. A flagstone pathway ends at a single oversized door carved from heavy wood, the only access through the fort’s imposing adobe walls. In the mid-1800s, la Cienega was just one piece of the vast empire of one of Texas’s other enterprising sons, Milton Faver.
A former freighter turned cattle baron, Faver built his business selling cattle to the quartermaster at nearby Fort Davis. The military’s need for ready chow allowed Faver to expand his holdings, but even close relations with the U.S. Army wasn’t enough to protect his herds from rustlers, bandits, and the occasional Apache and Comanche raiders – all common threats on the dangerous frontier of the borderlands.
To guard against the ongoing raids, Faver built three forts across his ranch – la Cienega, del Cibolo, and de la Morita or the Fort at the Little Mulberry Tree. From the safety of the thick adobe walls, the frontiersman expanded his business, building a stock of rangy Texas longhorns to a herd numbering as many as 200,000 head. Sheep and goats also ranged the lands, and irrigated agricultural fields lined the ranch’s few itinerant waterways. Faver even gained a small measure of fame among the soldiers for his particularly powerful peach brandy.
Blame the sun and wind. West Texas has a way of wearing down man’s most valiant efforts at civilization, and by the turn into the 20th century, Faver’s forts had started a long decline into decrepitude. Texans aren’t the type to accept their fate, however, and a little more than 100 years later, Poindexter acquired the ranch and invested no small amount of cash into rebuilding the forts. Once reserved for the ranch’s top hands and their families, each fort now serves as a waystation for travelers and hunters drawn to the region for its rarefied beauty and varied wildlife, including the aoudad.
The Immigrant Sheep
Although the aoudad is not native to the area, there is perhaps no better West Texas avatar. First introduced to Texas post-World War II, the exotic falls into the goat category, carrying the distinctive beard of the species. The long, flowing mane carries down the front legs and gives the appearance of a cowboy’s chaps. Thick, sweeping horns reach over stout shoulders, and a true trophy aoudad may measure 28 inches or more in length, with 30 inches being the magic number so many hunters look for. But truly, any adult ram is considered a trophy, due to the difficulty in hunting them in the unforgiving habitat they call home.
Immigrants from the Atlas Mountains of northern Africa, aoudad are most comfortable at high elevation. Not unlike their ivory-colored cousins of the Far North, they can ascend steep country all but insurmountable to humans. The basalt columns that make up the Chinati Mountains are mostly vertical, searing the lungs and legs of hunters making the scrambling climbs to get into range of a sheep. Anywhere the country flattens out grows some type of plant bent on pricking whatever comes near it. Barrel, bunny ear, and strawberry cacti compete with spiny yucca and Spanish daggers to puncture passers-by, but it’s the dreaded cholla that inflicts the most damage to the unsuspecting hunter.
So, of course, that’s where I found myself: jammed between a prickly cholla and a scrubby mesquite bush, crouched uncomfortably low over a set of shooting sticks. It was late in the afternoon on our second day of hunting, but the February light lingered in the high desert, and my guide, Robert Curry, had spotted a small band of rams picking their way through the brush. Surprisingly, these aoudad were relatively low, taking a difficult climb out of the equation for this flatlander.
The Poor Man’s Bighorn
Still, we had to get close. Though the rams on this ranch aren’t hunted hard, they are still wary by nature. Our previous stalks had been blown by the sharp-eyed aoudad, which immediately scrambled to safety over the ridges whenever we made a move toward them. These hadn’t spotted us yet, although they were in the wide open. One small hill between us and them, and we used it to our full advantage – until I was looking through my scope at a fine aoudad ram.
Most of this herd were juveniles, horn length barely flirting with what we were looking for. That lack of size, in both body and horn, made the ram in my scope all the more impressive. While the others gamboled about, playing grab-ass with one another as adolescents of all species do, the big ram rested on the sunny slope just 117 yards distant from our hide. The scrub hid the aoudad’s vitals, eliminating any chance for an ethical shot. We were well hidden, and the wait allowed me to slow my heartbeat and, in the words of one old hunter, “get acquainted with the quarry.”
We watched the aoudad intently. The arthritis in my knees protested, but I stayed tight on the rifle, not wanting to miss the shot. The ram dozed, head bobbing and beard flickering in the wind that blew from the herd to us. Finally, one of the younger rams stepped too close, pushing the herd boss to stand. Instead of giving me the broadside I was anticipating, the ram started to turn as he got to his hooves. Before Curry could even whisper “wait,” I steadied the crosshairs a bit back on his body, imagining a line to its off shoulder. At the break of the trigger, the ram faltered, then sprinted down the hill. A second shot hit high on the shoulder and anchored the aoudad in the ravine just below us.
This wasn’t my first hunt for what some call the “poor man’s bighorn,” but it was the first time I’d put my hands on the unique ridged horns of an aoudad. Perhaps it was the failure of those previous hunts that bred this success. Certainly, it was the challenges those attempts presented that added to my addiction for aoudad. Like a woman bent on wandering, West Texas is hard to love, and the rangy native goats of north Africa, difficult to chase. But, here, wincing out a smile as I struggled to lift the heavy horns, ideas were already hatching for a return trip to hunt the rams of the Chinati.