by Max Colgrove
Merlue Frasier Irwin, Quarter Horse trainer and breeder, knew a mountain lion was prowling her pasture. For weeks she had seen tracks along the river. A couple of her neighbor's guineas were missing, but so far no big animals had been attacked.
About 7:30 p.m., Irwin went to the pasture to check on her horses. It was a beautiful, warm, summer evening. The dry bed of the Hassayampa River and the ranch lands near Wickenburg, Ariz., are marginal habitat for mountain lions. One passes through occasionally. Generally, only tracks are spotted; sometimes the remains of a deer kill are found. Mountain lions seldom attack people. They are nocturnal hunters, and they usually avoid human contact.
The 70-acre horse pasture where Irwin grazes her horses runs along the river bottom, where heavy mesquite scrub fringes the cleared ground. In the south 30 acres, Irwin runs six yearlings, two mares, and a burro.
Part of Irwin's training routine consists of daily attention, even to pasture horses. So when she enters the pasture, the horses come up for a little TLC.
On this fateful day, only seven horses met her. After looking thebunch over, Irwin began looking for the missing colt.
She found it in a mesquite thicket, tangled in a neighbor's wire fence. Fortunately, the wire had not cut the horse, and it had not spooked. After freeing the colt, Irwin spotted a sagging fence wire. She gathered dead branches to fix it. She decided to keep an extra limb, a mesquite stick about 11/2 inches thick and 50 inches long. From experience, she knew it would come in handy for some ranch use. Finished with the fence mending, she picked up the stick and headed for the barn.
As she walked the trail along the fenceline next to a heavy overgrowth of mesquite trees, her horses continued to forage about 50 feet from her.
Suddenly, the horses spooked. They pranced in circles, snorted, and took defensive stances. A cold chill came over her as she realized that the sound to her right was not made by a horse.
She wheeled to identify the noise. To her astonishment, she saw a mountain lion coming right at her! With long bounds it closed the gap between them. Perhaps because of her ranch background, she knew she should not run. The cat stopped and crouched.
She stared at the cat that was less than one body-length away from her. His eyes were fixed on her, his ears were laid back. He hesitated, tensed his leg muscles, and sprang!
As the lion flew toward her, Irwin swung the mesquite club. The stout stick caught the cat in the head. Momentarily dazed, the lion landed inches short of her. It turned its head to the side and produced a hissing growl.
Irwin shouted, "Get out of here! Get out of here!" The lion growled again, but stayed where it was. Irwin began backing up. Each step seemed dangerous. She was about 200 yards from the gate. But if she made the gate, she still had twice as far to go to reach her house.
As she backed up, the cat slunk forward, its mouth open and tail twitching. Irwin yelled at the cat again, and then her horses came galloping up.
"I don't know why they came, but I feel they saved my life," she said.
Finally, the lion abandoned the hunt and ran off toward the mesquite thicket. Irwin hurried to the house, called the sheriff, the Arizona Fish and Game officials, and a friend, her farrier.
A deputy and farrier Dave Sailer arrived first. Irwin showed them where she had last seen the cat, and within minutes they found it in a mesquite tree.
Because the Fish and Game department had asked to avoid shooting the cat, the two men watched the lion from a distance.
But it grew restless, and when it started to jump from the tree, the deputy shot it. Unfortunately, the cat was only wounded, and it retreated into a thicket. The deputy, the farrier, and the farrier's Australian shepherd tracked it in the dark, and finally the cat was shot and killed.
Harley Shaw, a mountain lion biologist, confirmed that euthanizing the animal had been the correct action. He said, "A mountain lion that isn't afraid of humans is one that will get into conflicts with them."
To remind herself of the benefit of carrying a stick, Irwin kept the mesquite branch she used to defend herself. "Now I never walk in the pasture without carrying a club for protection," she said.
The author is a free-lance writer who specializes in farm and ranch stories. He lives near Wickenburg, Arizona.
This article was published in the May 1994 issue of Western Horseman.