[originally posted here at Castalia House]
“Old White Face” by Allen Borders appeared in the June 1944 issue of The Wide World.
We get our first real high-stakes thriller in the June issue with “Old White Face”. Not that keeping a gold-mine open and the workers employed or one man’s quest to not starve in Depression era California weren’t high stakes… but those stories didn’t have a giant cougar. While I didn’t have time to give this one a proper review, I did want to try to highlight excerpts of this so as illustrate the kind of writing we get in these ‘true stories of adventure’.
Sort of a mix of True Tales Tarzan and Jack London, Allen Borders recounts life as a rancher in the wilds of Montana and his run in with “Old White Face”, something of a local legend – a fierce, cunning and fearless cougar that kills for the fun of it, seemingly can’t be caught or killed, and has even attacked men! A perfectly frightful beast-villain:
“Old White Face” was widely known along the Flathead, not only for his huge size, but also because, either by a freak of nature or age, the hair on his face and back to his ears had turned a whitish-grey. In addition, he possessed a cunning and ferocity unusual even for a cougar, his depredations on the cattle-ranches of the scattered farmers being appalling in the extent of the value of the livestock destroyed. The loss directly and indirectly traceable to him, since he first started his marauding expeditions on the upper reaches of the Wheeler, four years before, amounted to many thousands of dollars. And he seemed to slay for the sheer love of killing, often not offering to touch his victim after breaking its back by leaping upon it from a high overhanging limb or ripping it up with one sweep of his murderous claws.
Old White Face has eluded hunters and their dogs, frequently killing the latter, and has gained such a reputation for ferocity that “no rancher could be tempted to leave his house unarmed after nightfall, and there were many rumours to the effect that he had been known to stalk and attack travelers overtaken by darkness on some mountain trail or lonely plateau.”
Though the alleged death of a local rancher at the hands of the beast brought the bounty on Old White Face’s pelt from one thousand to two hundred and fifty thousand dollars, Borders initially discounted many of these rumours as exaggerations: “I had spent many years ranching and hunting in Montana and British Columbia, and was, I thought, fairly well acquainted with the peculiarities of these big cats, and I instantly discredited these stories of his enormous strength and proneness to attack the lord of creation.”
Unfortunately for Borders, at least some of the rumors are true and Old White Face turns his attention to his herd. Borders fails in some early efforts to trap the big cat, who is striking wherever the ranch showed weakness, preying upon shoats and scattering cattle for funzies. One evening, Borders finds some of his cattle have been ‘herded’ by the cat to a nearly inaccessible mountain side. In the process of trying to recover them, Borders loses his horse and finds himself stuck on the mountain with night falling. Trying to get down the mountain, Borders realizes he’s being hunted. What ensues is a thrilling life and death struggle between Borders and Old White Face that leads to both tumbling down a hillside and finds the former cornered on a ledge of a ravine, fighting for survival:
A faint scratching sound caused me to raise the coat ever so slightly—and then the blood froze in my veins! Only a dozen feet away, and almost on a level with my own, a pair of greenish eyes flamed like coals of fire in the blackness. Not the faintest trace of the outline of the animal was visible—only those gleaming eyes, seemingly floating in space, burning into my very soul.
For one moment, I gazed as if hypnotized, too paralyzed to move, and then I involuntarily gave a violent start, imparting a sharp movement to the carbine. At the same instant a great form catapulted itself out of the blackness and the stillness was broken by a scream that will ring in my ears to my dying day. The carbine was almost torn from my hand by a violent impact; and then a greyish bulk, shadowy and indistinct, was struggling on the sloping rock, within a foot of me. A shout of wild exultation broke from my lips as I raised the carbine above my head to drive its butt into the struggling brute; but he did not require any assistance from me.
Snarling and slashing at the rock, his claws making a metallic sound as they frantically sought a purchase on the unyielding surface, my pursuer plunged almost unchecked over the brink and instantly disappeared in the inky depths. For a long moment there was a sickening silence, and then a sodden thud far below told me I had now but little to fear from my tormentor.
Heaven save me from ever passing another night such as that one.
Borders spends the night clinging tenaciously to the cliff-wall, trying to stay awake and avoid falling into the ravine below.
The coming of dawn unfolded a scene but little less terrifying than the night had been. I found myself perched on the protruding face of a great rock which, worn and undercut by the rush of waters during the centuries, dropped very abruptly for a distance of fifteen feet.
Then came a sheer drop of seventy feet to the circular basin-like, boulder strewn bottom of the fall. Outstretched among these boulders was the lithe body of Old White-Face. He was still alive, though his legs and nearly all his ribs had apparently been broken in the fall. He lay motionless, but his eyes were ever on me, unconquerable ferocity still lurking in their yellowish depths. How I hated that creature—and yet, when he attempted to move, I almost found it in my heart to pity the brute. Poor devil! his sufferings had been as intense as my own.
Borders’ ranch hand eventually finds him and is able to haul him back up; Borders puts Old White-Face out of his misery with one clean shot. Borders concludes his tale with an admonishing to hunters, warning them to have a healthy respect of big cats.