There is a stillness just before dawn in the mountains of southeastern New Mexico that sets this Peter Hurd country apart. The winds sleep late. No sound of bird or beast disturbs the quiet. Shadows move through the ends of night, changing shape as they probe still-blackened canyons. Then daylight rushes into the valleys and along the ridges, arriving everywhere at once.
The air in the morning is misleadingly cool, offering no hint of the scorching heat that will come before noon. The wind and weather are master deceivers, altering course as capriciously as the clouds that pattern the sky. In a region where annual rainfall is only 16" and water is more precious than oil, flash floods can turn dry arroyos into sudden rivers. Winds gone abruptly berserk can rip away the land's cover, hurling it into the sky with such violence that it blacks out the sun. Snow or hail can spew suddenly from the skies, punctuating otherwise sun-filled days with exclamation points.
The mountains themselves do not have the stark look of the Tetons, nor the massive stone monuments of the Rockies. Their silhouettes seem almost pastoral, shaped with curves instead of angles—a deceptively gentle scene. And, as is much else in this wild land, its game is unique. Looking closely at the arid, treeless, shale-covered mountaintops, it is not easy to imagine any animal living here. But in this inhospitable terrain the Barbary sheep not only lives but thrives.
The Barbary (Ammotragus lervia) is not a native here, although it might be called a naturalized citizen since the state of New Mexico declared it an official game animal in 1955. Its modern range is the mountainous country of North Africa, but its origins in pre-Pleistocene times reach back to Eurasia. Like the wild sheep (native) of North America, which also emigrated from Eurasia, the Barbary arrived in North Africa during the glacial period.
In the last half of the 19th century, European parks and zoos discovered the aoudad, as the Barbary is also called, and clamored for it because it bred so well in captivity and adapted to varied climates. In December 1900 the first Barbary was shipped from Liverpool to the Jersey City zoo, which neglected lo import a mate for it. Fortunately, both the New York Zoological Park and the National Zoological Park of the Smithsonian Institution were more farsighted, and within five years each had small but prospering herds. Today every sizable zoo in the U.S. has Barbary sheep, virtually all derived from those two original herds.
If the Barbary has done well in captivity, it has done even better in the wild. Peter Hind's longtime friend and neighbor, Joe McKnight, released the first Barbary sheep in New Mexico 30 years ago, establishing the nucleus for what has become one of the most interesting game-animal populations in the Southwest. McKnight was then, and still is, a sheep rancher. Sheep were his heritage and his life. In 1901 his father, Judd, drove 1,100 mortgaged sheep 400 miles from Eldorado, Okla. across the Texas panhandle to the Hondo Valley. Half a century later his ranch, El Chato, could boast 20,000 sheep and 200,000 acres of the "best damn sheep country in the world."
At 91 Judd McKnight is one of the legends of southeastern New Mexico, as tough, determined and visionary as he was 70 years ago when he homesteaded in the shadow of El Capitan. He raised his five children here, in an era of the West when the weak perished and the meek inherited nothing. His second son. Joe, proved neither weak nor meek, and in his day he has become as much a part of the history and character of New Mexico as his father.
Joe's appearance borrows a good deal from the land in which he lives. Sun and wind and six decades on the range have lined his face so that he looks older than he is. His blue eyes are permanently squinted, his chin is invariably stubbled and his dress at all times is a wrinkled cotton coverall. Cowboy boots and a sweat-stained Stetson complete the ensemble.
Joe McKnight's speech and manner, like his dress, are almost stereotype Western. He drops his g's, muddles his tenses, sprinkles his stories with frontier philosophy, all of which might convey a certain cowboy illiteracy. But if one listens closely to the rambling recollections and unending anecdotes, there emerges a sensitive, highly intelligent individualist, a man of enormous self-reliance and wisdom.
In the field, watching Joe repair a windmill, round up stock or stalk a sheep, it is difficult to imagine him in his many other roles—as a Boy Scout regional executive with the Silver Beaver Award, mounted patrol sergeant, two-time Lincoln County commissioner and president of the southeastern New Mexico state library association. But of all his many activities and interests, the one Joe clearly enjoys most is watching Barbary sheep.