Two Wonderful Mountain Climbers
"P ETER, you have been up in the Old Pasture many times, so you must have seen the Sheep there," said Old Mother Nature, turning to Peter Rabbit.
"Certainly. Of course," replied Peter. "They seem to me rather stupid creatures. Anyway they look stupid."
"Then you know the leader of the flock, the big ram with curling horns," continued Old Mother Nature.
Peter nodded, and Old Mother Nature went on. "Just imagine him with a smooth coat of grayish-brown instead of a white woolly one, and immense curling horns many times larger than those he now has. Give him a large whitish or very light-yellowish patch around a very short tail. Then you will have a very good idea of one of those mountain climbers I promised to tell you about, one of the greatest mountain climbers in all the Great World—Bighorn the Mountain Sheep, also called Rocky Mountain Bighorn and Rocky Mountain Sheep.
"Bighorn is a true Sheep and lives high up among the rocks of the highest mountains of the Far West. Like all members of the order to which he belongs his feet are hoofed, but they are hoofs which never slip, and he delights to bound along the edges of great cliffs and in making his way up or down them where it looks as if it would be impossible for even Chatterer the Red Squirrel to find footing, to say nothing of such a big fellow as Bighorn.
"The mountains where he makes his home are so high that the tops of many of them are in the clouds and covered with snow even in summer. Above the line where trees can no longer grow Bighorn spends his summers, coming down to the lower hills only when the snow becomes so deep that he cannot paw down through it to get food. His eyesight is wonderful and from his high lookout he watches for enemies below, and small chance have they of approaching him from that direction.
"When alarmed he bounds away gracefully as if there were great springs in his legs, and his great curled horns are carried as easily as if they were nothing at all. Down rock slopes, so steep that a single misstep would mean a fall hundreds of feet, he bounds as swiftly and easily as Lightfoot the Deer bounds through the woods, leaping from one little jutting point of rock to another and landing securely as if he were on level ground. He climbs with equal ease where man would have to crawl and cling with fingers and toes, or give up altogether.
"Mrs. Bighorn does not have the great curling horns. Instead she is armed with short, sharp-pointed horns, like spikes. Her young are born in the highest, most inaccessible place she can find, and there they have little to fear save one enemy, King Eagle. Only such an enemy, one with wings, can reach them there. Bighorn and Mrs. Bighorn, because of their size, having nothing to dread from these great birds, but helpless little lambs are continually in danger of furnishing King Eagle with the dinner he prizes.
"Only when driven to the lower slopes and hills by storms and snow does Bighorn have cause to fear four-footed enemies. Then Puma the Panther must be watched for, and lower down Howler the Wolf. But Bighorn's greatest enemy, and one he fears most, is the same one so many others have sad cause to fear—the hunter with his terrible gun. The terrible gun can kill where man himself cannot climb, and Bighorn has been persistently hunted for his head and wonderful horns.
"Some people believe that Bighorn leaps from cliffs and alights on those great horns, but this is not true. Whenever he leaps he alights on those sure feet of his, not on his head.
"Way up in the extreme northwest corner of this country, in a place called Alaska, is a close cousin whose coat is all white and whose horns are yellow and more slender and wider spreading. He is called the Dall Mountain Sheep. Farther south, but not as far south as the home of Bighorn, is another cousin whose coat is so dark that he is sometimes called the Black Mountain Sheep. His proper name is Stone's Mountain Sheep. In the mountains between these two is another cousin with a white head and dark body called Fannin's sheep. All these cousins are closely related and in their habits are much alike. Of them all, Bighorn the Rocky Mountain Sheep is the best known."
"I should think," said Peter Rabbit, "that way up there on those high mountains Bighorn would be very lonesome."
Old Mother Nature laughed. "Bighorn doesn't care for neighbors as you do, Peter," said she. "But even up in those high rocky retreats among the clouds he has a neighbor as sure-footed as himself, one who stays winter as well as summer on the mountain tops. It is Billy the Rocky Mountain Goat.
"Billy is as awkward-looking as he moves about as Bighorn is graceful, but he will go where even Bighorn will hesitate to follow. His hoofs are small and especially planned for walking in safety on smooth rock and ice-covered ledges. In weight he is about equal to Lightfoot the Deer, but he doesn't look in the least like him.
"In the first place he has a hump on his shoulders much like the humps of Thunderfoot the Bison and Longcoat the Musk Ox. Of course this means that he carries his head low. His face is very long and from beneath his chin hangs a white beard. From his forehead two rather short, slim, black horns stand up with a little curve backward. His coat is white and the hair is long and straight. Under this long white coat he wears a thick coat of short, woolly, yellowish-white fur which keeps him warm in the coldest weather. He seldom leaves his beloved mountain-tops, even in the worst weather of winter, as Bighorn sometimes does, but finds shelter among the rocks. The result is that he has practically no enemies save man to fear.
"Often he spends the summer where the snow remains all the year through and his white coat is a protection from the keenest eyes. You see, when not moving, he looks in the distance for all the world like a patch of snow on the rocks.
"Not having a handsome head or wonderful horns he has not been hunted by man quite so much as has Bighorn, and therefore is not so alert and wary. Both he and Bighorn are more easily approached from above than from below, because they do not expect danger from above and so do not keep so sharp a watch in that direction. The young are sometimes taken by King Eagle, but otherwise Billy Goat's family has little to fear from enemies, always excepting the hunter with his terrible gun.
"I have now told you of the members of the Cattle and Sheep family, what they look like and where they live and how. There is still one more member of the order Ungulata and this one is in a way related to another member of Farmer Brown's barnyard. I will leave you to guess which one. What is it, Peter?"
"If you please, in just what part of the Far West are the mountains where Billy Goat lives?" replied Peter.
"Chiefly in the northern part," replied Old Mother Nature. "In the Northwest these mountains are very close to the ocean and Billy does not appear to mind in the least the fogs that roll in, and seems to enjoy the salt air. Sometimes there he comes down almost to the shore. Are there any more questions?"
There were none, so school was dismissed for the day. Peter didn't go straight home. Instead he went up to the Old Pasture for another look at the old ram there and tried to picture to himself just what Bighorn must look like. Especially he looked at the hoofs of the old ram.
"It is queer," muttered Peter, "how feet like those can be so safe up on those slippery rocks Old Mother Nature told us about. Anyway, it seems queer to me. But it must be so if she says it is. My, my, my, what a lot of strange people there are in this world! And what a lot there is to learn!"