August 28, 1884. Forest and Stream 23(5): 84-85.
Goose Shooting on the Platte.
While sauntering along O street, down in the business part of Lincoln, on the 31st of last March, I was accosted by U.S. District Attorney Lambertson:
"Hello, Polk! You are the very man I have been looking for. Get your traps ready and go with us up to Central City after geese. "Scip" was up there last week and reports them there by the million. He will be up from Falls City on the first train and wants us to meet him at the depot."
Looking at my watch I found I had barely an hour and a half in which to run up to the house, load a few extra shells, pack my outfit, tell the folks good-bye, and get down to the depot in time for the northward-bound train. So I expressed some doubts about being able to accomplish all this in time.
"Oh, pshaw, you can do it. I have heard you were always ready. I will see to your pass. We can't do without you as it is important that we have your big flock of decoys, so hurry up and get ready."
Ordinarily I am ready on call. But here was a call for a "right smart" trip for spring shooting of geese at a point where it was reported they were congregated by millions, and I knew I would be short on shells unless I 1oaded a few. Then I had my traps to pack. Still, on hasty reflections, I thought I could do it, and told my friend I would meet him at the depot on time. And I did it; I was ahead of time.
"Scip," whom I have already mentioned, is properly named E. S. Dundy, Jr., the son of Hon. E.S. Dundy, Sr, Judge of the U. S. Court for Nebraska, Scip being deputy clerk of said court. Both are enthusiastic sportsmen, generally spending their summer vacation among the deer and antelope further West. I have several times listened with much interest to the Judge's humorous and entertaining recitals of his experiences of his party while on these exhilarating hunts. But I doubt if he loves the sport more than his boy, if he even loves it nearly so well.
Well, when the train pulled in from the South, there was Scip and his dog Joe. Helping him make the transfer, the two were snugly ensconced in one of the comfortable cars of the B. & M., and steaming away for the scene of the coming slaughter, About that time it had been raining some in Nebraska, as the phrase goes, the country was a "sea of mud." I think the new moon came in with her point down, or lying flat on her back, I don't just precisely remember which, but all the weather wise predicted wet weather. It was surely a wet moon and it was certain to bring much rain. My memory does not allow me to state positively if these predictions were subsequently verified by the facts for the entire moon, but it distinctly occurs to me at this moment that our train had not passed out of sight of Lincoln before the flood gates above were thrown wide open and poured down torrents on people already soaked with water, which operation was continued all the afternoon without an intermission or change of programme. Scip drew out a "deck" and he and I whiled away the time by a contest of skill in sundry games of "old sledge." It may be some consolation to my friends, especially in view of what followed at the hunting grounds, to learn that I generally "flaxed" the young man. We could see none of the country as we sped through it, the rain being so furious that the landscape was entirely shut out. So "old sledge" prevented the surroundings from growing monotonous.
During the trip Lambertson and I put many questions to Scip, touching his former visit to Central City, the state of the weather, the stage of water in the Platte, whether one could get out on the bars with "waders," how far from the hotel were the best grounds, if the geese were wild, how many he killed, and sundry other questions naturally arising as the witness submitted to the examination and made his replies. The best grounds are about a mile from the hotel; he did not know about the depth of the river as he had not tried it; he did not think the geese were wild; he and a friend laid behind a hay stack and got a shot now and then as they flew over when gong out to feed or return to the river; they killed six or seven during his stay there, and so on. I told him if we found geese anything like as abundant as he reported them, I would, for a very slight compensation, guarantee better results than had followed his first trip, especially if we could get out into the river.
When the train pulled on to the long bridge over the Platte the rain had ceased, and the lights of the town shone dimly through the mist and the night. Of course we could not see the thousands of geese we knew to be huddled up on the little flat bars on either side of us, but we could almost imagine we heard them blabbering and sputtering away as they usually do when together in large congregations. Arrived at the depot we were jammed into a "free bus" which was filled to overflowing, and hauled off through mud and quagmires to the hotel, where they gave us a first-rate supper, the waiter not being able to repress her look of astonishment as Scip cleared up things within his reach. The young man had left home early in the morning and not having had time to lunch at Lincoln, was clearly not "off his feed" when sat down to the table at Central City. After supper we smoked our cigars in the office, eliciting, during the time, that geese were fairly numerous but not so abundant as they had been the week before. We then arranged with a local teamster to call for us early in the morning and haul us down to the river. The wind had whipped around to the north and the mercury had run down near the freezing point, so that when we were turned into the room assigned to us for our stay, we found a cheerful fire blazing away in the stove, quite a luxury.
We got up early next morning—people out with me have a habit of doing that—and by the time breakfast was announced we had on our hunting clothes and our outfit made ready so we could start when the wagon should call for us. Breakfast did not fall behind the supper in quality, an Scip lent a willing, helping band, as before. The programme was to stay out all day, so we had the folks prepare a stout lunch for us to carry along. It had turned colder during the night and a crust of ice had formed over the mud and water, which made it rough work on the horses that hauled us down to the river. But we got there in time, and were dumped out in a willow thicket on the margin of the unsightly Platte, our driver showing us the route he thought shallow enough to enable us to wade well out in the stream. There were great flocks of ducks to be seen in every direction, flying about here and there or sitting in the water, no doubt greatly discommoded both by the swift rolling river and the young gale that was sweeping down from the north across the stream. The geese had mostly gone out to the fields to feed.
The absorbing question now was how were we to get ourselves and our traps out to good bars near the center of the river. The prospect did not appear at all inviting. Lambertson and Scip had only hip boots, while I had wading pants, but I am a very light weight, and the swift water and numerous quicksands intimidate me.
"Well, we've got to try it," said Scip, and, gathering up a load of one thing and another, he slipped down the bank into the river, Lambertson and I following. There were a couple of little towheads close together, apparently about a quarter of a mile from shore, and we concluded to make for those and when there rest and reconnoiter. We all carried heavy loads and the wading was tedious and tiresome, the water being fearfully swift, the bottom treacherous, and often the gentlemen with the boots being compelled to tiptoe in order to prevent taking in water. But our path carried us across numerous little sandbars, where we could stop and "blow" and set up stakes to guide us on our return and to avoid the necessity of hunting again for a path. On reaching them we found our towheads perfect wind-breaks, and covered with such stuff—willows, dead grass, plum bushes and cedar—as we needed for blinds.
I advised Scip to locate on a small bar nearly a quarter of a mile further out, and gave him my ideas of a blind. Taking his gun and ammunition, about fifteen decoys and a bundle of brush—a monster load for a light weight—the young man struck out. Lambertson and I concluded to build a blind together on a bar further down the river and not quite so far out. As we worked at it, we every now and then took a look at our young friend whom we saw slowly making his way by zigzag lines, with now and then a square retreat, when be found himself likely to get beyond his depth until at last he tumbled his load upon the bar I had designated, and sat down to rest a spell. Poor Joe, his faithful dog, had the more serious time of it. He was made to go before, and when the water was deep enough to compel him to swim the master was warned to turn back and try another way. The water was ice cold and the animal must have suffered no little, though he never shrank from it when ordered to go in.
We first put out our decoys, and then began work on our blind. A few erratic geese were maneuvering around, and once in a while set sail for our outfit, but shied off again when they got near enough to ascertain there were a couple of buccaneers about. This, of course, threw us into consternation, and we labored like Turks fighting to complete the work. It seemed an age before the blind reached a point that gave us any satisfaction. Lambertson was so awfully tall that nothing short of a hay stack would hide him unless he would lie down and submit to being covered up with sand, which he persistently declined doing. Now and then when we thought the thing had cost labor enough, I would walk back to the towhead and take a look at it. It loomed up large enough to scare a goose a mile away, but for all that I could see my companion as plain as day. And so we kept on building, stopping a crack here, plugging a hole there, increasing the height in this place and that until near 10 o'clock, when we threw up the job and swore we would not put another lick upon it. In the meantime, Scip had made a pilgrimage or two to the towhead after more brush and had, at last, erected himself a fair blind, but rather "open" for a real wild fowl. He had succeeded in picking a sandhill crane out of a flock at long range, which, up to that hour, constituted our entire bag. The hour having arrived when the geese usually begin returning from the fields to rest and drink and fuss with each other as they congregate in flocks on the bars, we made ourselves as comfortable as possible by sitting down in the blinds, Lambertson and I using for seats the two decoy boxes and Scip a box he had that morning brought out from town. The morning had been cold and blustery, with the wind square from the north, the sky being overcast by angry looking clouds hurrying southward, as if in haste to reach Florida that they might there warm up. During their flight they treated us alternately to rain, sleet, hail and snow, now and then driving the frozen rain against us with such force as to sting our hands and faces when these were exposed to the blows. While at work making the blinds we experienced no discomfort from this state of weather, but now, having no work to do and nothing to engage our minds, we grew cold and our teeth rattled together as we sat there waiting for the tardy geese. We danced imaginary war dances in the sands around the blinds and did what we could to keep up an active circulation and "down" the cold. There being no flight, we took turns about of going out to the towheads and having a little peace and less discomfort out of the wind.
At length Scip came in end announced his intention of abandoning his position for that day. We all thought it a good idea. I think that before this occurred, however, the young man had gotten a goose that was silly enough to go too near his decoys. Lambertson and I had gotten two, one of which came around early in the day and had fallen wounded into the strong current, the result of our combined fusillade of four shots. I at once gave chase, but before I got that contrary goose I lost wind and temper, no doubt swore a little and wasted six or seven loads in trying to flatten him out flatter on the water. At last I claimed my own and started back toward the blind. While going up there, and when near it I saw a white brant coming in with wings set for the decoys. I dropped down on the bar and watched him sail in and light down right among them. I think the man on watch did not see the bird till it was down. I supposed he would flush it and knock it over in the air but in a moment or two a puff of smoke rolled out of the blind and the brunt rolled over on his hack and began a series of flopping. At this juncture a pair of geese sailed in and Lambertson downed one of them, which fell in the current and began drifting away when he tried his legs on a chase. His bird being dead was soon overhauled and brought back, but as the hunter neared the blind the wounded brant arose from his recumbent position, took wing and lit out for the north pole, Lambertson giving him two parting shots without apparent effect. On coming up myself, nearly fagged out, I found some of my decoys knocked into smithereens, two of them each having nine holes through them, mostly in the head and neck. And then to think the cause of all this trouble had made its escape.
Along in the middle of the afternoon, while Scip was holding the fort and L. and I were seated behind the towhead toasting ourselves over the fire we had built there, and which we kept alive by homeopathic doses of small brush and twigs, two large geese alighted on a bar in front of us and about three hundred yarns from Scip.
"I'm going out there and shoo them up," said I, "and maybe they may go over to the boy." So, taking my gun, I walked out to the outer edge of the second bar, as far as I cared to go for the deep water, which brought me to within about a hundred and fifty yards of the geese. At first they declined to fly, but by yelling at the top of my voice and waving the tails of my rubber coat frantically in the air, they at length arose, but instead of going off, as a sensible goose would do, they put for me in as straight a line as they could fly, coming directly up the wind. This freak astonished me. I stood there as steadily as possible, holding my gun at port, so as to be ready in case they came within range. When about seventy-five yards from me one of them turned aside and went away, but the other came slowly along as though I were the chap he had been in quest of all his days. "Honk, honk," he said repeatedly, as he came on, while I held my fire, for once, at least, in my life, to be sure of my game. When within forty yards of me the silly fowl seemed, all at once, to realize the situation, for he suddenly came to a halt and attempted to turn and start down the wind, when I stopped proceedings in that direction by tumbling him over into the rivet, using both barrels, the first apparently scoring a clear miss. That goose proved to be the largest one I ever saw, bringing up the scales strongly at fourteen and a half pounds, and measuring sex feet eight inches from tip to tip of wings.
The day grew more uncomfortable as night came on, so that it was as much as either of us cared to do to remain in the blind as long as half an hour at a time. The geese did not return from the fields either at their morning hour or night, consequently we had no flight, and scored only one sandhill crane and six geese during the day. Of course, none of us felt very enthusiastic though not greatly discouraged, feeling satisfied that the furious wind had kept the geese either out in the fields or in lakes and ponds near them. But we were glad when we heard the yell of our teamster announcing his arrival to take us to town, and leaving all our traps except guns in the blinds, we hurried over to him, laid down in the dry straw he had brought along with him in the wagon, and were driven to the hotel, tired, cold and hungry, in addition to which both Lambertson and Scip had wet feet from getting over boot top. Besides, we were in a strictly temperance town, and bitters could not be obtained for love or money, by coaxing, by bribes, or any other means ordinarily available in such emergencies. But a good hot supper, with steaming tea, brought on the desired reaction, and when we retired to our rooms and had cleaned our guns, and dried our damp clothes, we rolled into bed feeling none the worse for the day's experience. Before 10 o'clock the clouds had all drifted away, leaving the sky as clear as one could wish. The wind also died away during the night.
On getting up in the morning we found the country white with frost and the ground considerably frozen, but the sun came up bright and cheerful and soon began to warm things up. Our enthusiasm having calmed down somewhat we were later getting down to the river than on the previous day. The water between the shore and the towhead had become deeper on account of the wind having subsided in the night and allowing the water, which was driven to the southern shore during the prevalence of the gale, to return to its natural channel in time of calm. The big blind and the decoys around it were all in the water, one or two of the latter having been washed away. The entire bar on which the blind was located was covered, and quite a current was sweeping over it. Some of our traps, including a portion of Lambertson's shells, had taken a soaking, but the most serious feature of the case was the fact that we were compelled to pull up and locate elsewhere, a thing we did reluctantly, but with all dispatch, though not in time for the first incoming geese. These having probably remained out two days and nights, began their return unusually early in the day, and, what was still more unusual, very few of them left the river after they came in.
Their favorite rendezvous was on the bars just above the bridge, about a mile and a half below us. Here they congregated in almost countless numbers, the white brant at that distance appearing like a vast snow bank. This display grew so conspicuous and the geese there being so noisy as to attract incoming geese a mile or more away, it is a wonder our pigmy outfit of dead geese and sheet-iron decoys brought in any at all. About 2 o'clock in the afternoon Lambertson waded out to shore and walked down there and fired some shots from shore. They rose up in clouds with a terrible racket, and a few came up to Scip and me and were saluted, but much the greater number merely, after much ado, settled down on bars further out, already occupied by geese that had not been disturbed by the shots.
The shooting was fairly good all day. The geese came along often enough to keep up the interest, but not so often as to bring on a surfeit. Lambertson and I did bad shooting and had bad luck in other ways. In the first place, our blind was an absolute scarecrow, and no doubt frightened off many a goose. We had a small bar, with a deep and swift channel on all sides of it, into which every goose we brought down and many of them were lost, especially the wounded ones. We wore ourselves out chasing them. One who has ever tried it cannot realize how quick a man may become exhausted trying to capture a wounded goose in the river Platte. The stiff current and the numerous quicksands render locomotion as trying upon a man's powers of endurance as a hearty foot race. In one of Lambertson's pilgrimages after a wounded goose he got into quicksands, sank into water nearly to his hips, and came hack utterly out of wind and without his fowl. We both failed so often to kill, we grew desperate and shot wider still. At last four geese came and hovered over our decoys. I put my aim dead on one, saying, "Now, confound you, let me see you fly away." So I banged away at that one and then at another, Lambertson doing the same. They did not drop at once, and we stood there speechless with amazement and watched three of them tumble dead in the river half a mile away.
In the meantime Scip was doing much better work. The geese came up to his decoys from the south between two towheads, near which he was located, and when a goose or a flock once started for him they seldom changed their course. The young man was evidently cool about his work much more so than we were, for it seemed to us as the game came in, they were often nearly on line before his No. 10 limbered up. He made but few bad shots. Two puffs of smoke, two unshapely objects falling through the air, two splashes in the water, and faithful Joe rushing out to retrieve the dead fowl, was what we generally witnessed when a flock sailed in to Scip. During the day he brought down thirty two, twenty-eight of which Joe brought in, the others either falling too faraway or out swimming Joe in their race for life.
The flight having ceased near sundown, we signalled Scip to pull up and come in. When he brought his first load over to the towhead, which had been our rendezvous, we met and congratulated the young man on his day's work. He said he had never in all his life had such royal sport, or learned so much as to how to kill geese. He had secured just twice as many as Lambertson and I both together, our score for that day being only fourteen.
The muscle of every one of us was thoroughly tested before we succeeded in getting our outfit and game to the main shore, notwithstanding the teamster who came after us having come with waders on, and rendering us all the aid he could. If any one had seen Lambertson carry out both boxes of decoys at one load he would not ever doubt that gentleman's strength. The geese were tied together in bunches and dragged through the water. I think some of the party made three trips before everything was brought off the bars. Of course we were tired, and it was nearly 10 o'clock when we reached the hotel. Our total score was forty eight geese, one brant and sundry ducks that had been killed as they flew over the blinds. We left on the early morning train the next day for home, satisfied with the hunt.
The big goose was given to me in the divide. I had a suspicion it was tough, and quietly insisted on Scip taking it down home as a curiosity. He politely declined on the ground that he did not want to deprive me of my trophy, though I suspect he also had an idea the bird was ancient. The spring before, while in company with Mr. Hathaway, I had killed a goose that weighed precisely fourteen and a half pounds. It was the only goose we had, and we settled the question of division by giving it to Dan Lauer, the local editor of the State Journal here. He had it roasted, but it was too tough for any member of his family, and he gave it to a festival then in progress for the benefit of some church, but no one there could masticate it. Dan says the last he saw of any part of the carcass was when two little Negro boys, each with a leg, were going down street creating amusement by their efforts to pull meat off the bone.
I thought this last goose was a brother of the one that passed unscathed through a festival, and I made up my mind to give it to Charley Baum, a neighbor, against whom I had a grudge. As the gentle ruler over my household was saving up feathers, we picked all our geese before giving them away. I had told her of my scheme to wreak vengeance on Charley. When we picked the big goose it was as fat as butter, its meat was white, and there was every indication that it was a tender fowl, the lady aforesaid in stating that it was so, and that we keep it for our own table. But I was afraid of it. I was sure it was tough and I carried out my original intention. Two or three days after this I met Charley and he thanked me most cordially for the goose, alleging he had never eaten a more delicious one. I related this conversation to the lady aforesaid.
"I told you so," she said.
"Oh, yes," I replied, "that is what the woman said to her husband, when he told her the cow had eaten up the grindstone."
My doubts as to that goose being tender will never be set at rest until every member of Charley's household, including the cook then in charge, is put upon oath and swears it was not tough.