Sandy Griswold. October 18, 1914. Omaha Sunday World-Herald 50(3): 3-S. Continues: 10/25, 50(4): 3-S.
The Glories of Autumnal Days on the Metz Ranch
A September sunset on Three Springs lake, way up on the Hon. Charles Metz' Cherry county far-famed ranch. A soft golden light lies dreamily over all the surroundings, kindling the barren summits of the chain of sandhills to the north into a glorious flame, streaming down their acacia-tufted sides and causing the lake, with its fields of yellowing rice, green tules, clumps of squaw cane and mirey little islets, to glitter like some fabulous gem in a setting of tan and green and gray.
Off to the east the beautiful ranch house, with its numerous artistic concomitants, hunters' lodge, and auxiliaries, boat houses, tool house, game coop, big barns, corral, windmills, water troughs, and all the accessories that go to make up an ideal consummation of a prairie home and shooting and fishing preserve, loom up to the delight of all so fortunate as to behold them. An irregular line of cut hay and alfalfa fields, and grazing lands, all dotted with haystacks, as the great bivouacks across the Atlantic are dotted with the tents of savage armies, are traced around the horizon. No scene could have been more pleasing to the eye, lake and landscape stretching away, this way and that, only in waves of matchless beauty, the gentle swaying of the tasselated rice and cane tops, and majestic chameleon arch, the dimming hills, these and many more things, clamored not for the vision of man to admire them, yet against even his will, he could but stand and gaze in dumb admiration. And yet we think the universe is but a toy for us to play with-from the burning heavens, and its hidden constellations, to the wild duck and golden perch, the tiniest wisp of reed or morass plant, every tinted splash of water, every breath of wind, and yet we are but atoms of dust on the shores of life's ocean, almost invisible threads in the inscrutable mantle in which all creation is wrapped.
There were but five of us in the little preliminary expedition out at Metz' in September. Charlie, the High Boss, himself, Colonel Louis Metz, myself, and a couple of Yale students, Philip Metz, the son of his father, and Carl Holmes, from Cincinnati. And oh, yes, there was Jim, the chef, of course-how could I, for a moment, have overlooked the most potent adjunct to our whole expeditionary force.
But the boys-Carl and Phil-they were the life of the party, and it is doubtful, comb as you might, the whole country over, could a finer pair of young fellows be discovered. Clean cut in mind and limb, as pure as the prairie breezes themselves, as bright as polish Damascus and as keen edged as any blade ever wrought therefrom-they kept the ranch alive and every one busy, from the frowsy cat that had her lair under the tool-house to the cook and the High Boss, himself. Nor did any of us escape, even Frank Bowman, the ever obliging ranch keeper himself, barely able to limp about on crutches on account of a terrible kick he had received from a fractious colt, to Ray, his big son, and even Colonel Louis and myself, we all got it in allopathic doses.
Up or down, in bed or out, day in and day out, they fought battles, devised pageants and partitioned empires. They both gloried in details. There was nothing unreal to them, and their adventures sounded every page of history. There was nothing they left undone or crypt they did not explore. They were cavemen with their knotted clubs and axes of stone, they were soldiers, German, Belgian, English and French, aye even unto the outlaws of Mexico. All ways on the side of the weak, and generally in the lost cause. It was a circus to watch them and hear them, especially after each night's Victrola musicale in the hunting lodge, and once tucked in for the night. They feasted with Robin Hood, on the king's venison, just like they did on the High Boss' choicest viands, and then fared with Villa on the cactus plains of Sonora, they vied with Wilson in reaching for a world's peace, and then joined some buccaneer for a sortie into strange and exotic lands for pleasure and treasure. It is a wonderful gift of vision that is the young college student's in these piping days of the twentieth century-the dove-light flight of the embryonic mind to whom the unreal is still the real.
And such was Carl Holmes and Philip Metz-strong, virile young fellows, with whom it was a boon to hunt and fish and pleasure make, and to whom we old owls were indebted for one of the most enjoyable fortnights with the wild fowl that has ever been our happy portion.
The first evening out, the one in question, Charlie and I went together, down at the rice beds, south of the landing, while Carl, poled further out to where the clumps of cane were thickest and Phil, to the "mallard hole," still on beyond the point where Charlie and I had stooled our decoys. Louis, with Ray, in Frank's big Buick, had gone down on the south range to look over the horses.
Once in our boat Charlie and I were not long in reaching the shooting grounds. We skirted the east line of tules, passing the shallows sparkling between irregular rows of rushes, pulled on through the smart weed, and a little open pool burst upon us. Reflecting in its still bosom the blue and white of the soft heaven, it stretched up toward the west, until an abrupt curve in the tall cane closed the view. In front was a charming bay, with the shimmering hills off beyond. A long alley of blue-green water led away to the north, with another bay rounding in among the rice to our right. Thence the vision was closed by the exuberant growths of water plants, although it still would fain have roved beyond where fancy imaged a hundred fairy coves and stately reaches and romantic shades.
All fixed, with our boat solidly anchored back in the cane, we lit our cigars, and then gazed on the little lake in its enchanting loveliness. There was playful breezes darting over its gloss and the slanting sunlight kissed it into radiant smiles, and I could not help but think of what a splendid wilderness it really all made-there within easy reach of all the comforts and luxuries of home-so lonely in its surrounding details, so imposing in its sweep of grandeur. Far to the north, towered the cloud-cleaving Dunderberg, with the wild lake gemming like dew drops his giant feet. Southward, from its silvery sands, down passed our lurking place, down through the vast expanse of cane and rice and tule glittered the network of the waters of Three Springs, the storied lake of the sandhills. To the west wound a dim artery to the core of the whole region's heart, its gloomy fastnesses of reedy shallows, where the wild fowl congregate for rest and refreshment and where yet still haunt the snakey mink and mythic otter.
"There are no birds in yet, Sandy," observed Charlie, as he arose from his seat for a glance around the horizon, "excepting the blue wings, and that is about all the shooting we'll get for some weeks yet."
"Of course there are some native mallards and spoonbills here," I ventured, as I too stood erect.
"Oh yes, but they are scarce, and what there are here, don't seem inclined to move much. But the sun is getting low and we'll soon be popping away at them."
"Sure! They have been dropping in here in bunches every evening, and I have kept the place exclusively for you, and you are not going to be one bit disappointed."
And I wasn't.
A splendid cloud ridge that had risen suddenly in the west commenced to kindle, as if under a strong wind, for a gorgeous sunset. And gorgeous it was-peaks of gold, ridges of crimson, waves of purple, filling all the sloping sky and firing the lake.
Have you ever gazed upon a sandhills sunset? No! Then you have missed a spectacle of incomparable magnificence. You cannot possibly credit this, but still it is so. In no part of the world is there grander sunsets than in these gray old prairie hills in the autumn time.
We bow before the grandeur of Niagara and the Yosemite, where seas plunge upon the globe's heart in reverberating thunders; but glance merely at some vapory cataract dashing down the western sky slope on the lonely plains, and yet Niagara and Yosemite are the merest cascades by comparison!
We linger on the beamy lights, and velvet shades of the old masters, whose names glitter with the magic tints of foreign and mythical lands, and ring with the golden richness of their music. But the colors born in the sandhills autumn skies, its countless atmospheric tints, flash disdain upon the tame blazonry of the master's mimic hues. The divinest frescoes ever evolved by the brush must yield to the commonest tints of dawn and twilight on the plains and in the sandhills. And the architecture of ancient or modern adept, they have cast a spell over the world's dreams, and yet in these autumn heavens there is architecture, with its pillars, and arches and colonnades and towers, that never tire the eye in their sameness, but change as you look, on foundations of living sapphire, and flushed with transient and flitting tints that transcend the wildest delirium of the grandest architect, or the grandest painter, or any of the other great heirs of time.
"What is that out there to your right, Charlie, a hawk?"
"No, down, it's a duck, and it is coming straight in."
But it was not only a duck, but three of them-three bluewing teal, and it was quickly evident that they were going to swing into our decoys on my side. And they did, and I let Charlie have the first one, which he killed in splendid style, and I attended to the remaining two with equal skill-as the three little bodies, speckled bellies uppermost, floating out on the surface of the still pool, attested.
And then what an exhilarating scene the reports of our guns brought about. Before the short echoes had rebounded more than once from Dunderberg's flaming facade, a million blackbirds, crimson-winged and yellow-hooded, filled the air, whirring off in twittering clouds, crossing over and darting by in undulatory flight, in squads of a dozen to a thousand, and then settling clamorously again among the reeds and rushes. Many ducks, too, mostly teal and but few big birds, jumped up into the air, and scurried off in whichever way their fancy took them. Alone the old redtail hawk, rising and dipping, soaring up then floating down, out over the shallows where the blackbirds scolded, and the white terns, squeaking pathetically as they curvetted in the dome alone, seemed undisturbed by the spiteful detonations of our Parkers.
"There comes a bird, Sandy, and by George it's a mallard-if he comes on your side, you take him; if on mine I'll do the shooting," and we crouched and waited.
And the High Boss was correct, it was a mallard, a mallard drake and alone. Again as like the teal, it soon indicated that it was going to swing into the decoys on my side. And he did, and I made on of the most grotesque misses of my long and varied career as a wild fowl shooter. The big mallard came simply wobbling through the air, made a couple of circles around the pool, wagging his head from side to side, as if he wasn't quite sure that everything was as it should be. The absence of any birds on the lake, one of the best feeding grounds in the country, was probably what puzzled him, but finally he began to lower, and in he thin sunshine which was still pouring in through the cane, he swung down close to the decoys on my side. I saw the light flash on his burnished green hood and it seemed absolutely foolhardy to pull anywhere but dead on to him.
"Better lead him a little," said Charles, as I raised my gun, but I paid no heed to this advice. The bird by this time wasn't more than twenty-five yards away from me and hovering in the air, a dozen feet or more above the decoys, for all the world like a sparrow hawk hovers over a mouse on the prairie, and aiming deliberately at his cream and chestnut breast, I let him have the right barrel. But the old drake, with madly thumping wings, bounded skyward at the crack of my Parker, like a rocket. I was too rattled to resort to my left with the promptitude the exigency of the case demanded, but finally covering him again, as he was bearing off over the barren ridge of sand, I again cut loose. But the wary old bird had placed too much space between himself and me by this time and I failed to stop him. I did notice, though, that that good old Peters load pushed him on his way considerably faster, and a downy tuft or two of cottony feathers came floating back on the glistening waters.
I had little time for either chagrin or disappointment when three more teal came hurtling our way, this time on Charlie's side. They were quickly into us, and as I had done, Charlie let me take the leader, and he took the pair behind and again we made good-killed all three clean as a whistle.
"There is nothing to it now, Sandy, from this on till dark," and Charlie had hardly made this declaration when a green-wing came flashing over the sun-tipped tules, and once more on my side.
"Take him," said the Boss; and I pulled up to the right spot I thought ahead of the little tufted beauty's black bill, and pulled the trigger, first the right and then the left. But again to my deep disgust, at the crack of each barrel, the little meteor only dodged a trifle and then every glistening feather shot straight on out over the banks and up into the air as smoothly as a spider's banner floats the morning breeze. Right here, as a matter of course, being an artistic sort of student, I indulged in a flight of oratory soothing to the vexed spirit, and was glancing suspiciously at the shell I held in my fingers, when, like a charge of wild Cossacks, in their weird and picturesque regalia, and with their chestnut crests and iridescent necks gleaming like the couched lances of the wild Bedouins, a grand flock of green-wings, some thirty or forty of them, streamed along the water in front of us. They had ducked in over the rice with such speed that we did not discover them until they were fairly upon us. Though I could see six or seven gray and brown heads in line as I touched the trigger, but two ducks fell. But when Charlie let go he seemed to mow a lane through the wildly scurrying mass of startled fowl. His shot added five to the two already floating on the water. As the rest of the big bunch climbed affrightedly into space, I released my second barrel on a fine old cock who was leading the stampede. He parted from his comrades in wavering flight, hung in the sunlit air for a second, then folding his little green splotched sails, fell with a loud splash into the low flags along the farther shore, where I concluded, it would not pay to lose time at this moment to undertake to retrieve him, for the birds were now coming, it would not pay to lose time at this moment to undertake to retrieve him, for the birds were now coming, it seemed, from all directions. Truly, this bunch of green-wings proved but the forerunners of the thousands of birds we had started from the lake when we had first arrived, and hardly had their gray bodies blended wit the distant background's hazy curtains than two distinct bunches, rival messengers to distant relatives, probably, came down the east wind with the speed of aerolites.
It was way after dark when Charlie and I left the blind, and after a weary trudge across the big hayfield, with our ducks over our shoulders, we just entered the lodge door in time to hear Philip explode as he lay sprawled out on one of the couches, with Carl, still in his shooting togs, lounging on another beside him, and Colonel Louis, acting as censor, with cigaret poised jauntily in the air, from the High Boss' big rocking chair.
"Don't he make you sick, Uncle Louie-just listen to him," and Phil cut short one of Carl's voluminous exegetical perorations on the subject of logarithms, preterits, rhomboids and the edible qualities of gold fish! "Just listen to him," repeated the critical Philip, "did you ever in your life, Uncle Louie, hear such an appalling, heterogeneous conglomeration of incoherent and undigested delirium of balderdash. Just listen. In every sentence he slaughters syntax, outrages orthoepy, rips rhetoric up the back and perpetrates preposterous pollutions on prosody. In every utterance"-
As we dropped our ducks Charlie stood like one in the presence of his grandsire's ghost, looking at Phil in blank amazement, while Louis arose from his chair slamming the butt of his Pall Mall into the cuspidor, strode up to the High Boss and said:
"I say, Charlie, you've got to do something for these kids, for they've got my goat. You might parse anything either one says from now till the old cat dies, subject each word and each syllable to a chemical analysis, and consult all the dictionaries and encyclopedias between here and Zansibar, and still I'll defy you to tell what their talking about."
At this outburst, and from the sedate and placid Louis himself, Charlie fell back helpless in the big arm chair, while I, stumbling over the pile of ducks and upsetting the spittoon, found lodgement in the big woodbox behind the stove.
Nobody asked us what luck we had, and we might as well have been out chopping cord wood as shooting blue-wings by twilight.
Finally recovered from these vollies of oratory, we occupied a good half hour or more with individual recountals of the evening's experiences, all of which were varied and interesting. It seems that Carl had left his blind in the cane long before the evening movement among the birds had begun, although he had managed to pick up a stray teal or two. He said it got too monotonous out there alone, so he pulled in to the north landing, and thence to the lodge.
"On my way back," he remarked, "while pulling through the shallow channel, I saw hundreds of gold fish basking in the sun near the surface and I brought a couple of them in with me."
"How'dye catch 'em," interrogated Phil.
"Stunned them with an oar," replied Carl. "I tried to shoot them, but couldn't make it, so I resorted to the oar and secured two."
What are you going to do with them?"
"Eat 'em. What do you suppose?"
"Get out? They are not fit to eat."
"Cause they arn't. Ask Sandy."
And appealed to, I replied that while I had never tried them, I did not think they were much good, and was corroborated in this by the High Bass, himself, who said they were too fat and flabby and too much on the carp order, and that they never monkied with them, as long as the lake was teeming with yellow perch, one of the best of all American pan fish.
"Well, I'm going to try one of mine, anyway," continued the young Cincinnatian. "I can't see why as nice looking fish as they are, are not as good as any other fish, and I'm going to have Jim serve one for my breakfast. Where'd they come from, anyway. I never saw a gold fish before, outside an aquarium, in my life?"
And thereupon Charlie gave the history of the gold fish in Three Springs lake, and which have been such a source of wonderment to the countless sportsmen who have been guests at his famous hunting preserve.
Twenty-seven or eight years ago, when Anse Newberry built his sod shack exactly where the beautiful Bowman ranch now stands, the state fish car, in charge of the Hon. Lew May, then fish commissioner, went into a ditch just east of Cody, and the invoice of fish cans, filled with fry for planting purposes, were dumped into the mire. Among there cans was one containing ornamental fish, largely gold fish, and this was so badly battered that May turned it over to Newberry, who happened to be passing the scene in his wagon at the time. Anse took the can, which, although badly dented, still held water and something like 100 gold fish fry, loaded it into his wagon, and drove off to Three Springs, dumping the whole mess into the water at a point were the lower landing now is.
Anse says he did it just for fun, as he never looked to see the delicate fish thrive in the cold waters of Three Springs. But they did, and one spring day, three years later, Newberry was much puzzled and surprised at the sight of many of these beautiful fish building their nests and preparing to spawn in the shallows of the channel leading out into the lake. After reflecting over the circumstance, he recalled the incident of the wrecked fish car, and the can of gold fish fry Lew May had given him.
Today these fish, and some of them weigh as much as one pound and a half, are very plentiful in the Metz lake, where they are to be seen in myriads, any warm day, basking near the surface in the soothing flood of sunshine.
In shape and general conformation these gold fish are almost the perfect prototype of the rock bass, only thicker through and of a uniform bright red gold color, and with the sucker-like mouth of the buffalo or carp. As. Mr. Metz said, they are fat, viscous and flabby, with an insipidity of flavor that is almost emetic in intensity. Still Carl Holmes never rested until he had Jim, the chef, place one of these vapid specimens, well-browned, on a plate before him. But one small forkful or two was sufficient, and while the irrepressible Yale spirit would have it, that it wasn't half bad, he passively suffered Jim to remove in hence, and then fell to, on the carcass of a broiled teal, with the voracity of a hungry coyote.
Unlike Carl, Phil stuck to his post at the mallard hole, until just a short time before the High Boss and I had given up the day's sport, and as an evidence that he is the heir to the real Metz luck, he had a pair of fine, plumaged widgeon and three bluewings to attest to his impressive skill with the Parker, and the true hunting instinct that kept him at his post until chances for further sport vanished with the gathering darkness.
With the tales of the day told, obeying a summons from Jim, whose white-capped and be-aproned form appeared at the dormitory door, we went forth and ranged ourselves at the dinner table, which was voluminously supplied with the staple luxuries of marsh and field. A huge platter of roasted teal, beautifully browned and diffusing a most appetizing fragrance, filled the space between the a big tureen of baked potatoes and a long salver of fried perch, lapped in golden cream. The rich coffee, also quickly mantled in cream, whose luscious clots looked like bits of golden ingots, while the white, crumbly biscuits almost melted on the tongue.
The meal over and we were back in the big living room, where a cheerful fire roared in the big stove, for the nights were chilly, despite what the days were, and cigars and pipes all atune, we enjoyed ourselves as only a compatible bunch of duck hunters can enjoy themselves.
"Well," said Carl, stretching his long, youthful limbs at full length out toward the hearth, "I am stuck on this hunting stunt, for fair, but I demand more luck. Of course, I can kill gold fish with a club, but I sat over two long, blessed hours out there in the cane, among mosquitoes as big as black birds, and I got but four shots and two ducks little larger than English sparrows, and here Phil Metz kills a half dozen, two of them swidgeon"-
"Widgeon, you mutt," from Phil.
"Well, swidgen answers the purpose, but that is not all, he gets twice as many teal as I did besides, and doesn't walk over three hundred yards to do it, either. Well, so goes the world, Phillip, and suppose we have a Bronx, your mixings are as good as your shootin', at all events. But I say, gentlemen, if I had got a shot at a mallard, wouldn't I have given it fits?"
"Yes, fits-that's about all, though, you would have given it," and Phil snipped the ash from his cigaret in a way that added much emphasis to his observation.
"Spoofles, for you," and Carl proceeded. "Yes, not only you bring in a nice bag but your estimable sire and Sandy G., they all but sunk the barge. But, whew! I don't see how they did it. Those mosquitoes? Must have been like the Jews on the walls of Jerusalem, righting with one hand and working with the other. But they don't seem to have minded it-must have tougher hides than we'uns from Cincinnati have."
"On, Stanley, on!" roared Louis from the big rocker, and it was on, Stanley, on, till Carl and Phil grew tired with their bandiage, and after a hurried canvass of the program for the morrow, we fell a-musing over the fire, for a brief real rest before going to the hay.
And a solace the surcease was.
There is an impalpable, invisible and softly stealing charm in the hunting lodge or about the evening campfire, a charm that is beyond analysis. Enumerate all their delights, and yet there is much intangible that remains. There are paths of light that chase the darkness; here are elfish forms winking and blinking at you in the glowing, but ash-veiled, embers; there are fearsome dragons, with hideous heads and green eyes, jaws grinning to show their teeth, in the campfire, whether in stove or the open. The cottonwoods whisper to the silence; the shadows seem to advance and retire; you hear the howl of the distant coyote, or the auh-unk of a passing Canada, the note of the ever vigilant night hawk, or squawk of feeding mallard. All these surround and conceal some deeper delight, as the body veils as it reveals the soul.
According to the law laid down by the High Boss, Carl and I were to do the morning shoot together, while, himself and Phillip, were to form the other party. Louis again elected to remain at the lodge, dash off a few sonnets and then hike to town for the mail. All set, the glim was doused, and a quietude, deep and profound, quickly enwrapt Merganzer lodge.
There was a cool, gray light hanging over the lake at day break, which found me out overlooking the lovely scene. The nearer line of rushes rose indistinctly, as if reared in air, with dark splotches beyond them, while the atmosphere was fresh, even unto chilliness, but sweet and revivifying, with the odors of marsh, and hay field. The distant outlines of old Dunderberg looked ghostly, the low hills dark and shadowy. A number of bittern near the margin were complaining with low croaks; a fish hawk was already circling the lacustral borders, and the drowsy twitter of the black birds was creeping through the cane.
Soon, however, the pearl of the east commenced to clear into semi-transparent gray, then to kindle into faint lemon, growing into orange. The shore line began to emerge from the massed mists, which were rapidly lifting from the lake. The sandhills stood out more boldly. The redwinged orchestra increased, and long dotted lines appeared against the background sky.
Carl and I reached our blinds in the thick cane, while the open waters were still showing sober tints. But decoys once out, and our boats well anchored within the break, the cheeks of the floating clouds at the zenith blushed into rose, while one long, vapory mass in the east began to glow with ruby, then gold, while gemmed hues-emerald, sapphire, topaz, amethyst and opal-glanced upon the open stretch of water in our front. Diamond flashes ran along the tassellated rice tops, the occidental span gleamed with royal crimsons and purples, and the sun arose.
"Here's your chance, Carl," I whispered, as I detected a couple of aerial sprinters, with bright blue splotches on their whizzing wings, darting up the channel for our decoys.
Bang! went one barrel, but on went the teal!
"Lead 'em, Carl, lead 'em!" I cried, but seeing that the boy wasn't going to try it again, I pulled on the rapidly departing couple and cut loose. To my satisfaction, and Carl's delighted chagrin-if there is such an article-the last bird, which, yards in the rear of its mare, went down slantingly into the water with a broken pinion.
"That was a fine shot, Sandy, but they flew too many for me. If I had"-
But there was no time for further comment, for our part of the lake, now actually seemed the converging point of a legion of teal, rushing our way at different rates of speed, even the slowest distractingly fast. The reports of our guns had lifted the roosting birds out of the rice. There wasn't much necessity of hiding, so Carl and I stood boldly up in our boats, and banged away at the scurrying hosts whenever opportunity offered, and for the period of a full half hour. Our quick reports would no more than disperse one flock and the birds would radiate away to all points of the compass, and the air would again become vibrant around us with hissing wings and whizzing meteors of white and blue and gray. We made the best of the morning's flurry, and while we shot poorly, both of us, we did fairly well. The flight was over as abruptly as it began, and when we gathered our birds, and spread them out in the bottom of Carl's boat, we saw that we had an even two dozen. All the morning Carl and I remained in the cane, and while the shooting was lax, we experienced many little nature thrills, and enjoyed ourselves abundantly.