Hunting Cougars with Ben Lilly, the Last of the Mountain Men
Ben Lilly spent a lonely lifetime pursuing predators on foot and with his hounds. Our writer joined him for one last hunt
This story, “Last of the Mountain Men,” originally ran in the May 1948 issue of Outdoor Life. Ben Lilly, a legendary hunter and houndsman of the American West was born in Alabama in 1856, and died in New Mexico in 1936.
MANY OF MY FRIENDS had told me not to see the old man at all. “He’s bushed and he’s and he’s dangerous,” they said. “He talks to imaginary dogs, and he sees people that aren’t there.”
I went out to the ranch near Silver City, New Mexico, nevertheless, and found Ben Lilly, who was then about eighty years old. The pale blue of his eyes, as we shook hands, disturbed me. They were calm blue eyes, with all of the sadness of a man who had lived a lonely life. It was the blue eyes you noticed first and the round and wrinkled face afterward. His white hair had not been cut for many months and hung down over his gnarled ears and forehead like a forkful of hay. His cheeks were pink and he seemed to radiate latent energy. If Lilly was as sick as I had been told, his appearance gave no indication of it.
But I felt uncomfortable in his presence. His placid look had an air of inquiry about it, as though he constantly expected me to say something.
“Lions, young man? I expect it’s panthers you mean. I’ve killed a heap of them.” It was obvious that Lilly wasn’t talking to me, for he never again glanced in my direction, nor even seemed to sense my presence at all. He went right on talking, ignoring my questions and making no effort to stay close to me or make sure that I had heard. We simply started walking from the spot where I had first met him and kept on walking. We were gone three days. I had not come to see Ben Lilly on any casual visit. There was a compelling purpose in my questions, for I had undertaken a study of the American cougar, or mountain lion. This old lion and bear hunter was the first from whom I hoped to learn much.
Range Was Shrinking
A career is doing what you want to do and then finding someone to pay you for it. I was fortunate enough to do just that. In 1933 I was offered a position hunting mountain lions. A group called the Southwestern Conservation League, centered at Albuquerque, New Mexico, professed great interest in these most colorful of American animals, about which there was little or no knowledge, and concern that they were becoming greatly reduced in numbers.
Mountain lions, which formerly ranged all of North America from Canada southward, were now to be found in only small fragments of their former range, for the most part in the rugged mountains of our Western states. Lions still existed in the rank fastnesses of the everglades of Florida and in the comparatively untouched wilderness of central Mexico. It was only in such wild spots that I might yet find enough cougars to get a comprehensive story of their life and habits.
The Southwestern Conservation League furnished me a car, a horse, and a horse trailer. My pockets bulged with letters of introduction to the various professional lion hunters of the Southwest with whom I might hunt to gain the information desired. My instructions were comprehensive and flexible. “Find out all you can about lions,” was all I was told. The project was to take twelve months.
Actually, I must confess, the enthusi asm with which I prepared my equipment and started forth on the quest was not due entirely to the zeal to learn. The hunting fever had seized me, fanning my efforts to a pitch of anticipation. The cry of hunting hounds was ringing in my ears as I started out. In the ensuing months, on some hundreds of lion trails with the most famous hunters in the business, I came to know the cougar for what he is one of the most fascinating and interesting animals in our whole repertory.
But as I asked my first questions and sought a place to begin, the answer was always the same: “If you want information about lions, go to Ben Lilly. He is the dean of lion hunters.” Ranchers, forest rangers, seasoned hunters all said: “Ask Mr. Lilly, he knows more than anyone else.”
A Tenacious Tracker
In telling me about him, they recounted stories of how he left money in banks all over Texas and New Mexico and never kept any accounting of it. He wrote checks on scraps of wrapping paper or a fragment of bone. Ranchers told me how “Mr. Lilly,” as they called him, even behind his back, slept and ate with his dogs and followed the track of a lion or bear with the tenacity of a terrier. And he had made a living all over the West hunting animals for stockmen who wished to be rid of troublesome predators.
But as I started out that morning by the side of the old hunter, I wondered if I was not too late. Before we had gone a few hundred yards it seemed obvious that a young cowboy of whom I had asked directions in Silver City was right: Ben Lilly was “as nutty as a fruit cake.”
He talked quietly as we walked along. He recited the events and painted the scenes of his past—which must have been full of the baying of hounds and the excitement of the chase—with complete lack of emotion. Although he spoke of panthers and bears by the hundred, the story which he wove with his words was the story of himself, certainly one of the most remarkable lives that has ever been lived.
About fifty years before, Ben had had a wife and three children back in Louisiana. There he had killed his first bear with a pocketknife, and with the blood had acquired a lust for killing. You could scarcely believe, as you looked into his gentle blue eyes, that he had killed several thousand bears and several hundred mountain lions—far more than any other living hunter. Ben was a marvelous shot. He could shoot a lion through the paw in the top of a pine tree and then drill it through the heart as it fell end over end through the branches to the ground.
When his wife, to whom he referred as a “daughter of Gomorrah,” thrust a rifle into his hand on a Louisiana morning many years ago, she told him that if he must hunt and shoot, he could at least go out and kill a hawk that was bothering her chickens. Ben didn’t come back from his wife’s errand for almost three years. His explanation was that “the hawk just kept going.”
An Inner Urge
During that time he scoured the Louisiana canebrakes alone, hunting he knew not what. Each bear that he killed seemed only to make him avid to track down and kill another. It was as though he had an inner urge to discover the fullness of life—which is never full.
As Ben Lilly talked and walked, he revealed more than once that he regarded himself as a wild animal. Certainly he showed far more feeling for several of the individual lions he had killed than for any human being he mentioned. He spoke several times of “my friend, Narrowneck”—a lion he had killed in the Mogollon Mountains of Arizona many years before. He also told of a litter of lion kittens which he had fostered after he had killed their mother. He fed them on milk and cared for them the best he could, only to kill them too when they were grown.
Policeman of the Wild
“Panthers don’t get along with us,” he said in half explanation. Lilly, it seemed, regarded himself as a policeman of the wild, a self-appointed leavener of nature. Bears and lions were endowed with a capacity to wreak evil. Several times he referred to panthers as the “Cains” of the animal world. They couldn’t help that, but evil they were and so should be destroyed.
During a pause in his recital, as we stopped for breath on a little ledge high above the river, I asked him if he thought that all bears and mountain lions should be killed. He didn’t answer my question for three hours, nor give any indication that he had heard me in all that time.
“A man has to be accepted into the family,” he said irrelevantly. “You can’t live with them and you can’t hunt them if you aren’t a member.” Apparently Ben Lilly meant, as I gathered from his later remarks, that he regarded himself as a full-fledged member of the wildlife community. He professed quite simply to speaking the language which the animals understood.
He recounted how he had addressed a bear which was brought to bay on a rock. Just before he drove his hunting knife, tied to a long pole, into the bear’s side, Lilly addressed his victim in a court-room manner: “You are condemned, you black devil. I kill you in the name of the law.” And, so he said, the bear answered: “I cannot escape and I die.”
This verbal exchange with animals, dying and otherwise, punctuated Ben Lilly’s account many times. I had the distinct feeling that he talked with them more easily than with men, and that if I had been one of his lion dogs I’d have learned even more.
It goes without saying that his ideal was the wild. The ways of people and of towns he understood practically not at all. Most of his life he had spent on the trail, always by himself except for his dogs. After three days with him I was convinced that he could talk with animals. I am not certain of the contrary even now.
As we climbed the rocky trails above the lowlands, striking ever farther back into the brushy hills, I wondered where we were going. I had made no preparations for an extended trip; I supposed we were just going for a walk. I hadn’t brought with me so much as a bag of lunch.
Lilly, in spite of his age and seeming feebleness, climbed steadily, talking as he climbed. The farther we got away from the scattered ranches, the wilder the country became, the more he seemed to fit with his surroundings. Where I had first met him, with his back against an adobe wall, he had appeared to be a broken and dying old hunter who had been on his last chase. Now, as we paced along a cow trail between the piñon and juniper hills, he seemed to suck new life from the odor of the woods.
In His Element
The farther we went, the lighter was his step. He swung his head from side to side as he moved among the trees, as though taking the wind in animal fashion, and his pale-blue eyes read at a glance every detail of the trail. This was his element; he was indeed a part of it. Every bird that flitted past, every ground squirrel, seemed to know him and to recognize him as a creature of the wild. I was the outsider.
But fortunately the old man seemed unaware of my presence, although he kept up a steady run of talk. I had the feeling that he usually talked out loud to himself when he was in the field. It also began to dawn on me that Ben Lilly hadn’t the slightest intention of returning to his ranch home near Silver City, and that I was on the trail with him certainly for the day, and probably for the night that would follow. A shiver of apprehension spread over me in spite of the hot sun.
Ben Lilly was describing, with gory detail, a grizzly-bear hunt in the state of Coahuila, Mexico: “Old Man Sanborn set me on him. They was grizzlies, four of them, and I tracked them down by myself and killed them. They was desert bears, light-colored with a stripe down their back; but desert or mountain, they didn’t get away. I killed the four of them, brought their skins back to Sanborn. Skins don’t matter, it’s the meat that counts.”
Fascinated by these bits of philosophy that Lilly wove into his discourse, I almost forgot my apprehensions at being alone with him and so far away from my base. He told me, for instance, that he could see the interiors of animals and men through their skins. Indeed, those penetrating blue eyes might have X-ray vision.
But more than once, Lilly implied that if you kept only the skins of animals you didn’t have anything at all. Apparently their hides, and the clothes of men, were simply shabby coverings to conceal what was beneath. A really perceptive person could penetrate this exterior disguise. Why keep the skin of an animal he had hunted down, any more than we would want the clothes of a dead man? Of the thousands of animals that Ben Lilly had killed he had never kept a single skin for himself.
Although he spoke about people much less than he did about lions, it became apparent that his opinion of most humans was very low. He felt rather sorry for them, being confined in houses and in towns where the air was “rancid.” The few people he knew in New Mexico, he said, “never took their place.”
Advantages of Solitude
It was many hours before I realized what he meant: that they did not take their legitimate place in the scheme of wild things. They didn’t fit with the birds and the squirrels. They were not a part of the community. Here was this old man, more lonely, more peculiar than anyone I’d ever met, feeling sorry for me and for other humans because we had not been accepted into the wild community.
Ben Lilly pointed out that there were so many buzzing distractions in a town that a man could never find himself, as he could in the solitude of the woods and mountains. There with the animals, amid the trees and ledges, the soul of a person can develop. Only in such surroundings can a man learn enough to become a member of the community. It became obvious as the afternoon wore on that Lilly and I were traveling, as fast as our legs could carry us and the roughness of the trail would permit, from my community into his.
By late afternoon we had covered eight or ten miles of the rugged, dry terrain of the foothills. The old hunter seemed to be showing his infirmity for the first time since we started. His breath came in whistling gasps and his talk dwindled to a few disconnected sentences.
He was in the midst of a potent bit of philosophy that would have done credit to Thoreau, when he stooped forward at a little bend in the trail with a quick movement as though he had found a valuable coin among the pine needles. He pointed a weather-beaten hand at an indistinct track or depression which he seemed to see—pointing more to assure himself than to mark out anything for me to look at.
“He’s here again,” he muttered beneath his breath, and started off diagonally away from the trail with a new burst of energy. He half ran, always bending forward and with both hands extended as though his finger tips were sensitive to what he hoped to see. He apparently was following a trail which only he could make out, though I could see no tracks imprinted in the débris on the forest floor. From time to time he pushed his battered old black sombrero back on his head and wiped his ruddybrown forehead with one sleeve. After each of these momentary halts he started off again, sure of himself for a few yards, then hesitating once more.
I had seen dogs trail this way when the track was difficult, but Lilly didn’t appear to be looking at any particular place on the ground in front of him. It seemed as though some sixth sense was guiding him more unerringly than the scenting ability of a keen-nosed hunting dog.
A Bizarre Performance
From his peculiar actions, I judged that we were following a bear or a panther, but we had no hounds with which to track down the scent and we had no gun to shoot the animal if we caught up with him. I had heard marvelous stories of Ben Lilly, but never in my wildest expectations did I visualize a grizzled old man who followed a lion track on pine needles unaided by any dog.
The whole process seemed so bizarre, so out of keeping with reality, that when Ben Lilly paused again, as though in doubt as to which way to go, I ventured one of my rare questions: “What are we after, Mr. Lilly?” Those penetrating blue eyes seemed to bore through me with an almost hostile air, as though he had suddenly become aware of my alien presence in his hunting territory. Every time I looked into those eyes they astounded me. Their mildness was deceiving. The placid expression which they habitually wore concealed an inner man which few if any knew. Tenacity, stubborness, lust for the kill—all these properties were there, but invisible.
Following Phantom Trail
Now, in those far-off hills with the shadows of the afternoon slanting long across the trees on the slope where we stood, the eyes looked almost frightening. I had the fleeting thought that the next time the old man turned his back I would slip away and make my way back to town somehow. Ben Lilly was a madman and was following a phantom lion track into unknown places.
In those seconds when his eyes bored into me as if I was the hunted, Ben Lilly seemed to recall who I was and why I had come. “It’s him. He lives here,” he answered enigmatically—and turned once more to resume the track.
I fell in behind him and followed step for step. When he swung his head, with his shaggy white hair bulging from beneath his old hat, I swung my head too. When he dropped to one knee to examine the ground I looked there also. If I were to learn the lore of the wild, here was a wild man who could teach me.
In this manner, then, we traveled across one mountain slope after another, through a low saddle and down into a brushy canyon ringed by ledges of reddish stone. In the gathering twilight we came to where a side gully cut precipitously through, in a shadowy black scar filled with brush and tangled bushes. Lilly, shuffling along the bare rock on the edge of this little side canyon, threw back his head so that the sun showed a ruddy red upon his cheeks and the tip of his nose. As I looked at him from the side, he appeared like an old Dutch burgher, full of the joy of living, who had perhaps taken too much ale.
But Ben Lilly, in spite of the jovial outlines of his fascinating face, was not radiating good humor, at least to the things of the wild. He was still halfcrouched forward, swinging his head from side to side to take the wind. He was sniffing like a dog scenting a covey of quail. He uttered a single grunt of satisfaction, as if to say, “I thought so all the time!”
He dropped down below the little ledge of rocks and ran back and forth for a few steps in the brushy gully beneath. It was so dark among the bushes that I doubted whether even he could discern any tracks, no matter how plain they might be. In a moment Ben Lilly was pulling something from beneath a big cedar. It was the leg of a deer, attached by a ragged strip of skin to the rest of the carcass. Next, from beneath the leaves, he uncovered the head of the deer—a buck with stubby horns that were in velvet.
A Lion Kill
Now, coming near in the gloom, I could make out the long sweeps and scrapes of some mighty paw that had gathered up this leafy débris to cover the dead deer. Its stomach was eaten clear away, with portions of the bowels and viscera torn and bloody. This close, I too could smell the stench which Ben Lilly’s keen nostrils had caught on the ledge above.
This was a lion kill. It was the first one I had seen, but there could be no doubt of what it was, for there were the cougar’s tooth marks and the gashes made by its raking claws on the buck’s neck and shoulder. I had heard that lions cover their meat after they have eaten a meal, and the old man had followed some dim trail to this very carcass.
The old panther hunter had whipped out a big clasp knife and was pulling off the sticks and leaves that adhered to the haunch of venison which he held in his hand. With the gleaming knife he trimmed the torn and putrid skin and dried blood from the top of the leg. He sniffed critically at the clean surface which he had laid bare. Again he gave that inarticulate grunt of satisfaction and swung the deer leg to his shoulder. It was almost dark as we climbed out of the brushy little gully and started up a hogback toward the main ridge that towered high above us.
The old man seemed vastly pleased with himself and resumed a running line of talk, only part of which I could hear as I climbed behind him. “He always goes through that saddle,” Lilly was saying as we topped out over the ridge. “Panthers always go the same way.”
I didn’t realize what a remarkable piece of lion tracking I had witnessed, however, until I too had tried my own hand at it, not once but many times. It also did not occur to me until much later just how strange and peculiar the whole day had been. We had started off without any preparation or supplies. We had headed for an unknown destination which we had never reached. We had followed a phantom lion track which I never saw. We had a haunch of venison without firing a shot or without even carrying a gun. On this whole fantastic hunt I had been with a whitehaired old man who, everybody told me, was mad. I certainly had entered a world which few have ever seen.
Scattered clouds obscured the southwestern stars as we dropped down over the main ridge. I could see the old man—looking like a hunchback with the deer leg on his shoulder—outlined for a moment against the twilight arc of the sky. Only by his running talk could I keep track of him in the darkness after that; yet he seemed on familiar ground, and despite his age he went as fast as he had in the full daylight.
At Mouth of Cave
He dropped down below an outcropping ledge on the slope of the ridge, and I heard the haunch of venison hit the leaves as he threw it down. While I stood, wondering where we were, he scraped together a few leaves and sticks and struck a match. By the light of the tiny flame that benign face of his was again brought into relief, and the sight reassured me; pitch blackness and a madman are an awesome combination.
The little fire leaped up through the dry branches that the old man heaped upon it, and I saw that we were at the mouth of a shallow cave. As the flames grew higher and brightened, I made out an old pair of gray trousers hung on a ledge at the rear. The stump of a blackened and wax-spattered candle was mounted on a projection above my head. There were two or three old bags that seemed to contain food, and a couple of flour sacks piled one on top of the other. Ben Lilly had been here before.
At that moment he was pulling a battered skillet from under the leaves at the back of the cave. With clean strokes he whittled slabs of venison from the deer leg by the fire. In a few moments there came the smell of roasting meat and the cheerful campfire warmth reflected from rocky walls.
We ate in silence—slices of venison, and thin oatmeal. There was no sugar, no cream, no leavener but a handful of dirty salt, but the meal tasted delicious. I was amazed at the amount that Lilly could eat. Chunk after chunk of venison disappeared through his scraggly beard. Without saying so, he seemed to be enjoying himself immensely. I had the distinct feeling that I was the excuse for his going on this excursion which took him away from the civilization he so obviously hated.
Bed of Leaves
Supper done, Ben Lilly simply lay back in the dried leaves by the edge of the fire and was soon snoring contentedly. There was nothing for me to do but follow his example. I was surprised at how comfortable. I felt.
The next morning, when I awakened, the old hunter was hunched over the fire as before, cooking more venison in the bent skillet. He voiced no word of greeting; he simply shoved the old skillet toward me for my share of the meat. Before I could eat, however, I had to have water, not only to wash the wood smoke out of my eyes, but for a long drink, for we had had none since the afternoon before. I started off down the ridge toward the canyon below and did not come back for an hour.
When I returned, Lilly was seated in the leaves with his back against the rocky ledge, reading a small and battered Bible which I had not seen before. I ate my breakfast in silence. The old man did not look up, but continued reading half aloud.
Day of Worship
That whole day we sat there in the leaves by the ledge. Ben Lilly never looked at me in all that time, as far as I can remember. He kept on reading, mumbling an occasional passage to himself as if he derived huge satisfaction from mouthing the words. From time to time he turned the dog’s-eared pages with an ostentatious flourish.
As before, I hesitated to question him—especially now when he seemed so absorbed in the Bible. As the hours wore on, I fidgeted beside the dead fire. Again I debated taking the back trail and leaving Lilly to his solitude and to his Bible. I had stood up and paced back and forth for the tenth time when the old man, without looking up and seemingly as part of the verse he was reading, said sternly, “Sit down, young man; it’s Sunday.”
Now, we had started out on this memorable trip on a Friday. So unless, like Alice, of Wonderland fame, I had somehow lost a day, Ben Lilly was mistaken and it was only Saturday. But I didn’t argue the point. The ranchers had told me that even as a young man he would neither hunt nor travel on a Sunday; so whenever his dogs treed a lion or a bear that day, they had to keep the beast there until Monday morning.
Lilly passed his Sunday and my Saturday in almost complete withdrawal. I heartily wished he would read his Bible to me, for in that case I might have joined him spiritually. As the day wore on I gained at least a small measure of that utter satisfaction with solitude that was a hallmark of Ben Lilly. There was not a single distracting sight or sound in this wild spot. None of the world’s troubles seemed to reach this far. There is no doubt that the aged hunter had found an inner peace which few achieve.
Next morning we arose with the dawn. It was cold and a few cloud wisps showed against the rising sun. Ben Lilly was talkative again. As we prepared our breakfast of venison and oatmeal, he told stories of bear hunts and lion chases all over the West. He spoke of being lured from range to range, from state to state, by tales of bigger and more numerous bruins and panthers. He had hired out to many ranchers to hunt down predators in their sections. Apparently he had made a good deal of money in his life, but had spent very little. It was never the pay that attracted him, however; it was ever the lure of the hunt.
Step Less Certain
We came down out of the low mountains by a different ridge. Even with the path slanting ever downward, Lilly seemed more faltering than he had been on the trip to the cave. He stumbled frequently and shuffled his feet and his knees would hardly bend.
As for his mental processes, if he were mad he was mad in a fixed direction. His every thought was of hunting and the wild. It was all he knew, but he knew that more thoroughly, more intimately than any other man I have ever had the good fortune to meet.
As we paused in the shade of a tree on a rocky point, the old man told me confidentially that he had written two books. I told him I would be very much complimented if he would let me read them, admitting that I too wrote on occasion. He reached into his pocket for his Bible and, opening it, withdrew a piece of brown wrapping paper. Written in a bold hand on the wrinkled scrap was a single line: “Panthers is uncommon cautious.” That was all. Ben Lilly returned the folded bit to its place beneath the cover of his Bible with the air of one who had let me see a great treasure. Then, without further comment, he started along the trail.
His Last Hunt
Upon reaching the ranch late that afternoon, we shook hands and parted. Lilly seemed hardly to see me as he turned away. His blue eyes were misty and had a far-away stare as though he saw clear through me to the Great Beyond.
He was not very distant from the hunting grounds where all of us go; for two years later, in the poorhouse on Silver Creek, Ben Lilly, the great hunter, died. He was alone at the end, misunderstood by the humans around him. The wilderness was his world, the wild things must have marked his passing.
As far as I know, the hunt which I took with Ben Lilly was his last. It was one I shall never forget. We tracked down no game and we fired no shot, but I learned more about lions than on any subsequent hunt. Certainly it was on those three days with a half-mad old hunter that I caught the spirit of the chase. I was infected with a little of the energy and single-mindedness that had brought Ben Lilly through a lifetime of tracking to the end of the trail.
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