He didn't know if he could climb one more rocky, sliding, rolling step.
The rocks were like ball bearings, stealing a step backward for every one forward. Dust clogged the air.
The relentless form of his guide kept pulling ahead, dusty hop by dusty hop, climbing and weaving, drawing him upward, as it had for three brutal days.
"If that...ram...isn't...there...I'm done..."
He'd have hollered it, if he had any breath.
It's just as well he didn't.
Peering through a cedar at the canyon lip, the guide quickly pulled back and waved him up, as a wide grin split his leathery face.
With sudden energy, he crawled underneath the cedar and collapsed.
"Straight below," the guide whispered. "About 200 yards. The big ram and a couple of others and a bunch of ewes. The big one is on the left. Take your time, catch your breath, and then ease over the edge. Take a rest on that cedar limb."
He waited a rushed moment, let the wind return to his lungs, then unslung the .300 Winchester and bolted a round into the chamber.
He squirmed into the sweet-smelling cedar, farther, farther, easing the rifle over the limb and down toward the canyon bottom.
He saw the ewes first, a dozen almost dainty golden shapes bobbing over the rocks. Then a hump-shouldered ram. Was it the big one? No, there he was, like a golden buffalo, on a separate ledge.
The crosshairs settled on the ram's shoulder. He waited, admiring the regal air of the big sheep, the lord of the canyon.
And then the big magnum roared. The ram bucked, hopped a dozen feet, watched after his scattering harem, then fell to his side.
"Great shot! Congratulations!" the old rancher whooped.
"And thank goodness he didn't make me walk any farther..." the hunter admitted to himself.
Serious hunters can name the great sheep of North America in their sleep - Alaskan dalls, Rocky Mountain bighorns, elusive Canadian Stones and rare desert bighorns.
Then there is another great sheep of North America. Like many new Texans, he wasn't born here, but he got here as quickly as he could.
He is the aoudad sheep.
Aoudads are now firmly established in the Hill Country and in the Trans-Pecos. But it is on the wind-swept High Plains of Texas, deep in the rugged Palo Duro Canyon, where this noble game animal comes into his own.
Aoudad, or Barbary sheep, are native to the rocky desert mountains of North Africa, not Texas or North America. They were introduced in the mid-1900s first as a zoo attraction, then as a novelty for a few Texas and New Mexico ranchers. The sturdy sheep quickly adapted to the rocky high deserts of far West Texas and the deep canyons of the Texas Panhandle.
Calvin Richardson and Dana Dalchau-Wright, who published a Texas Parks & Wildlife Department brochure on aoudads, report that the first aoudads were stocked in the Panhandle in 1957-58. At the request of landowners, that year TPWD obtained 44 sheep from New Mexico and released them in Armstrong and Briscoe counties.
The sheep expanded rapidly in Palo Duro Canyon and the first state-run hunt was held in 1963, when 44 permits were issued and nine sheep were taken.
Although considered exotics elsewhere, in these early years the sheep in the Palo Duro were under state control, with a limited number of permits and a season. Sheep numbers and demand for permits increased until 622 permits were issued in 1980, when 189 sheep were taken.
State biologists surveyed sheep populations annually in those early years and estimated at least 1,200 sheep lived in the canyon by 1977.
In 1984, the Panhandle aoudads were removed from game animal status, with no permits required and no closed season.
TPWD biologist Danny Swepston of Canyon says that population surveys also ended in 1984, because the department doesn't typically survey non-game animals. Estimates that year pointed to no more than 700 sheep in the Panhandle.
However, guides who hunt them regularly believe there are thousands of aoudads ranging from the upper end of the Palo Duro near Amarillo to the Caprock south of Post.
Aoudads are very distinctive animals, large of shoulder and thin of hip, a big ram can stand 40 inches at the shoulder and weigh over 300 pounds. Ewes will weigh half as much.
Both rams and ewes have horns that curve back and down in a semicircle. Horns continue to grow until the sheep is at least 10 years old. Mature rams' horns will measure 26 to 28 inches, while they can reach 36 inches in length and 16 inches at the base. Any mature ram over 28 inches is an admirable trophy. Ewes grow horns up to 20 inches, with only half the mass of ram horns.
Aoudads are a striking golden to almost red color. Long hair runs from the ram's chin, down his neck and brisket to each hoof, forming distinctive "chaps" on each foreleg. An impressive wall mount includes the whole front half of the ram, including front legs and chaps.
On the rocky rim of a sliver of Caprock, with the wind whipping their long chaps, horns curving like heavy scimitars and the High Plains sun lighting them like gold, they are among the most gorgeous animals on earth.
They have split hooves with soft center pads and hard-rimmed edges that can grip any ledge. They can scamper up sheer cliffs that would give a lizard pause. And they are always close to a vertical escape.
Like other sheep, the biggest rams fight for dominance each fall and gather their own harems of ewes. The sheep range over several thousand acres in summer foraging for food, while in winter they may confine their travels to a few hundred acres.
Some landowners worry that the tough aoudads may compete with and even crowd out native whitetail and mule deer, TPWD's Swepston says.
"Since aoudads will both browse and graze, they can offer some competition with mule deer because they inhabit some of the same country. I don't think the deer will move out, though. The problem comes in times like now when it's so dry," he continues. "Then they can have an impact because they'll compete directly with deer for browse. This used to be offset by the sheep coming up on top (out of the canyons) and feeding on wheat fields. When they were first stocked in the '50s and '60s, it was not unusual to see them on wheat fields.
"It seems the biggest number of folks just enjoy the experience of trying to take an aoudad under natural conditions," Swepston says. "And some folks like the chance to hunt them after other seasons close, or to combine aoudads with mule deer on one hunt."
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