Sandy Griswold. April 15, 1894. Omaha Sunday Bee p. 19. Continues: April 22, p. 20; April 29, p. 19; May 6, p. 19; and May 13, p. 20.
Home of the Canvasback
Shifting of His Favorite Haunts and the Inevitable Fate That Awaits Him.
A Spring Shoot in Nebraska—A Bit of Scenery at Uncle John's—Hamilton's Ranch—His Family—A Relic of the Frontier and Rex, the King of Dogs.
Wonderful as the statement may seem, it is nevertheless true, as fine canvasback grounds are to be found anywhere within the broad domain of the United States are situated right here in the State of Nebraska—a discovery I made on my recent shooting trip to Ed. Hamilton's ranch, deep amidst the chop hills and sandy wastes of Deuel county.
Before entering into the exhilirating details of the sport, however, it may not be amiss to attempt a brief disquisition on this royal bird, touching upon his shistory, his habits and general characteristics. Years ago, and many do yet for that matter, eastern sportsmen and authorities on game birds held that the Chesapeake canvasback was really the only canvasback, save from the standpoint of the naturalist, to be found in this or any other country—that the Illinois, Texas and California canvasback could no more be compared in gastronomic merit to the bird that frequents the Chesapeake and its myriads of tributaries, than a mud-hen can be likened to an acorn-fed mallard. But this ridiculous opinion has gone for naught for many, many years with sportsmen who have enjoyed the facilities for teaching them better.
I have shot canvasback on the Chesapeake and at Currituck, too, and I know the bird taken there in the proper season is a beauty, a good thing and a joy forever; but I have also shot canvasback at Koshkonong, Wisconsin, and at Liverpool, on the Illinois river, as well as right here, over the waters of the Missouri and Platte, and I assert with emphasis that the canvasback of the Koshkonong and the lower Illinois has no superior in the world, and in fact the Nebraska bird, on an average, is as big, fat, luscious and succulent as the bird that makes his spring and autumn habitat amidst the estuaries and friths of the Atlantic seaboard. More than that, I actually believe that the evidence could not be produced, even by culinary art or science, that would make the Nebraska ducker confess that there is a bird in the world that even equals the tawny-headed, ashen-winged beauty he brings to bag every March and October along the Loup and the Elkhorn, and in the marshes of Honey creek, Lugenbeel or Waubuncy.
The Chesapeake and its companion waters are the oldest canvasback grounds in the country. It was here that the birds were evidently first found in their greatest numbers, and for a long time it was honestly believed that they could be found nowhere else. Why, at one time the eastern savants went so far as to claim that the bird shipped into the eastern market from the west was only an ally of the true canvasback, Aythya Vallisneria.
The aristocratic shots and gourmets of the Atlantic coast were extremely jealous and refused to be convinced that this feathered morceau, so long distinctly their own, could be knocked over by hundreds by even an ordinary shot along the rivers and streams of plebeian and vulgar Illinois.
But such was, and is yet, in a measure, incontrovertibly the case. At one period the canvasback was one of the most numerous visitors to the waters of Illinois. Of the countless millions of wild fowl that made transitory halts in the spring and autumn on their semi-annual migrations, none were more plentiful than this king of them all.
Old Captain Whitehead—and if Joe Long of Boston, who was the author of the cleverest and most valuable volume on wild fowl and wild fowl shooting ever written, was alive he could tell you well who the captain is, but so far as that goes I can tell you myself, although my experience with him was years after Long had encased his old hammer-fowling piece for all time and forever. The captain lived at the little fishing hamlet of Liverpool, fifteen miles above Havana, on the shores of the beautiful Illinois. He was one of the oldest market hunters and one of the very best duck shots along the river, but in latter years run a ducking cabin boat for the accommodation of a younger and visiting sportsmen. There was a party of five of us occupied this famous old craft a couple of weeks in March about ten years ago, and one afternoon when the captain and I were lying in a blind on Grass lake, he told me he had seen the day when he wouldn't waste powder and shot on canvasback, and they flew over him, too, as thick as you have ever saw springtails. That was in the days when the superb qualities of the bird, and his extraordinary value, were unknown in that primeval country—when they called them "gray ducks," and when there was no market in Chicago or St. Louis for any duck but the mallard, and only the greenduck—the drake-at that. The hen mallard, with her soberer hues, was classed with the "mixed ducks"—the redhead, baldpate, bluebill, widgeon and whistler. It was only the drake mallard, with his blazonry of color, his dazzling emerald head and otherwise exquisitely marked plumage, that commanded any market value at all. The edible qualities in wild fowl were not considered then, in fact, not known outside the metropolitan eastern cities, and it was the attractive looks of the bird alone that regulated the fluctuations in trade.
So, at one time, say thirty some years ago, it is quite probable that the canvasback duck existed no more plentifully anywhere on God's green earth than along the tangley sloughs of the picturesque Illinois, and today, as incredible as it may seem, this scene has been shifted to the lake country within the barren sandhills of western Nebraska.
Of course there is good canvasback shooting on the old grounds on the Chesapeake yet today, but nothing like what was known there twenty-five years ago. Generally, now, the birds appear only in limited numbers and are decreasing with every recurring season, and it will not be many years until they are the next thing to unknown entirely—will have gone the way of the wild pigeon and the buffalo. Just now, however, the shooting in Nebraska, especially in the region referred to, is at its height. The birds have been comparatively unmolested up to within a very few years and will not likely give forth any evidence of the gunners' inroads upon their ranks for some seasons to come. That they will finally share the fate of their eastern congeners, however, is one of the facts that cannot be disputed. The wild fowl are as sure to go in time as the sun is to rise, not be reson purely of the hunters' semi-annual onslaughts, but because the conditions conducive to their endurance and multiplication cannot be continued. Nebraska is a flourishing young state and settling up with almost incredible rapidity, and it will require no especial tax upon the vision to behold her broad plains, aye, even the sterile wastes of her sandhills, dotted with the homes of the husbandman and checkered with boundless fields of pasture and grain. The great American desert is already a myth and a fable, and the present home of the canvasback, the redhead, the antelope, gray wolf and coyote, in a few more short years, will know them no more forever.
It was midnight on the 16th of last month when Will Simeral and I jumped from the Pullman on the little platform at Lakeside. Uncle John Schoonover, who owns a well stocked lake just four miles south of the station, and on the road to Hamilton's, was there to receive us, and after we had become thoroughly acquainted via a bottle of Canadian club, he informed us that Hamilton would not be in after us until Monday, as that was his understanding of the arrangements between us. Of course, we were a trifle disappointed, but as Mrs. Briggs keeps a splendid little tavern at the station, and as Uncle John said he would drive us down to his place on the morrow, and on to Hamilton's Monday, we grew as content as a couple of gentlemen laboring under a most malignant attack of duck fever could possibly be, and were shortly huddled up in one of Mother Briggs downy feather beds.
We were up at the first honk of the wild goose in the morning, and although the day was one of the most charming, we were not on our way to Uncle John's until after the noon day hour. During the ride Uncle John regaled us with the wondrous hunting resources of the country, and before we hardly knew it we had skirted the ruins of Barker's ranch, splashing through the alkaline waters of Antelope run, and ascended the huge sandhill, at whose base lay the Schoonover mansion of sod, and the broad expanse of Schoonover lake beyond, reflecting in its broad bosom the blue and the white of the soft heaven, stretching down toward the south until an abrupt curve in the range of hills closed the view. In front was what would be in summer or fall a charming bay, a grass-covered mountain beyond. There was a small island or two in the mid-distance, with long arms of shimmering water extending into the low hills. Thence the vision was shut out, although it still would fain rove on and on where fancy imaged a hundred fairy coves and stately reaches and romantic shades.
"Look at the geese!" exclaimed Uncle John, pointing with his whip off toward the northwest shore.
"Geese! Where?" ejaculated the lawyer and I in concert.
"All 'long them rushes there—don't you see them black dots—a perfect string o' them clear round that pint. Well, thems geese."
And Uncle John was correct. The afternoon was a golden, hazy one, and there were no birds flying, but there were thousands and thousands of them resting and preening themselves on every exposed point of sand in the big lake.
We were shortly at Schoonover's sod house, where we were cordially welcomed by both Uncle John's goodly spouse and handsome collie dog. After unloading our traps and indulging in a cup of tea, we sallied forth for a whirl at the birds during the evening flight, and not expecting to do much we made but little preparation. We were most agreeably disappointed, however, for during the hour and a half we spent in our grass suits amidst the rushes we knocked over six big Canadas—the largest pulling down the scales at fifteen pounds and a half—and four ducks—two redheads and two pintails.
Mrs. Schoonover got us up a splendid dinner that night, and altogether we had a most enjoyable visit, Uncle John exerting himself in every way to make us comfortable and happy.
The next morning we resumed our journey to Hamilton's arriving there about 3 in the afternoon, and an ideal hunters home we found.
Hamilton's sod house—there are nothing but sod houses in this region—was built under the southern shelter of a big sandhill, and gave forth every evidence of the calling of its proprietor, from the scenes of lake and stream upon the walls, to the piles of canvasback and geese decoys in the shed without. Adjoining the house is another adobe structure of equal dimensions owned by the Deadwood Gun club. It is well appointed with stationary berths, gun racks, wash stand, base burner, benches and chairs, and furnishing as cosy a shooting lodge as an ambitious sportsman could hope to find in such a faraway and isolated neighborhood. The walls were neatly papered and adorned with mounted deer and antelope heads, and the wings of the gull, the swan, the canvasback and redtail hawk.
Hamilton's family consists of himself, his estimable wife and two children—a seraphic baby girl and an inimitable chunk of a boy—a veritable chip off the old block—with a fund of knowledge about the birds and animals of the region that is really wonderful. Gus Rudolph completes the household. He is a hunter, trapper and fisherman, who assists Hamilton in his various duties about the ranch, and when not off following his rat, skunk and other lines, makes his home with him. He is a true type of the western trapper, good natured, genial and intelligent, and more than this hs is all he looks, in his tan cap of antelope skin, grass colored hunting wammus, heavy gray breeches and waders—one of the very best trappers, as well as duck hunters, in the whole country. He drifts about the lakes and sloughs with the noiselessness of a shadow in the pursuit of his chosen profession. He is always alert and never misses a sign—a track in the sand, a trail through the reeds, or any disturbance in the yellow grass or dead rice; a riled pool, or discoloration in the water, he sees them all at a glance, it seems, but never fails to closely examine and investigate, as the hundreds of wolf, badger, muskrat, beaver, mink and skunk pelts he has shipped to the fur markets of the east unequivocally attest.
But to know Gus you must spend a day in his native wild lands with him, a lead pencil sketch is utterly inadequate to the subject.
Hamilton himself is a well informed fellow, a sterling sportsman and gentleman. He is a hunter and dog trainer, as well as landlord, after a fashion, as his home is always open to visiting sportsmen, and he depends upon their patronage to tide him through the year. His choice in life was actuated by reason of poor health, which could hardly be credited now, so active and robust has he become. But the charms of the life have grown on him, and as long as Mrs. Hamilton is content with her lot, it is safe to say he will remain there. He has no less than twelve dogs, princely looking Llewellyns, the muscular Irish, the Gordon and English setter, belonging to Deadwood and Denver sportsmen, in his care at the present time, and when he lets them go a dozen thoroughly broken and trained hunters will be expressed back to their masters. "Rex," a big Chesapeake and Irish spaniel cross, is Hamilton's personal property and the pride of his existence, for a better dog never dashed into the rushes or plunged into air hole for wounded waterfowl. In truth, Rex is a phenomenal dog, almost human in his affection and intelligence, and it is doubtful if his superior as a ducking dog could be found in the entire country.
But that hunt. Next week I will tell you about it. Sandy Griswold.
Deep Within the Sandhill Wilderness of Western Nebraska.
An Elysium for the Geese and Ducks
Favorite Food of the Wild Fowl—Wapatoo, Vallisneria, Smartweed and Rice— A Morning Ride—Grouse and Coyote—At Goose Lake.
Even though it may not be particularly interesting a description of the great sandhill wilderness of Western Nebraska where the lawyer and I had our wonderful experience with the canvasbacks and redheads this spring will be anything but innappropriate here. If it is the chosen home of these royal birds, it is but natural that sportsmen will want to know something specific about it, and impelled by the obligtion which rests upon every sportsman to give his fellows in the craft the fruits of his own experience and knowledge, I will attempt to tell them here.
The sandhill country, as all Nebraskans know, extends somewhere from the middle of the state, both north and south, a couple of hundred miles west until the high plateau bordering on Wyoming is reached, when the character of the country materially changes. What I denominate as the sandhill wilderness, however, begins with central Cherry county and stretches away southward beyond the Platte rivers and west into Cheyenne and Dawes counties, Deuel county being its thoracic center. There is range after range of sandhills in this country, undoubtedly left thus by the receding of prehistoric oceanic waters, and presenting in the main such a homogeneousness of scene that actually, at times, becomes bewildering to the senses. Still there is beauty in all this monotony, and a wagon ride through the seemingly measureless waste is full of interest to all those who love nature in any of her many and varied forms. These sandhills present the rounded, domelike summits of all sandhills, though at times, notwithstanding there is nothing of the hypersthene in their formation, they are cloven into jagged, whitish, chalklike peaks, which in heighth sometimes touch many hundred feet. In the summer time they are clothed with matchless verdure, with myriads of flowers, including the yucca, with its fragrant golden blossoms, and the cactus in many forms. Lying within the basin of the hills from the Dakota line clear south through Deuel county to the South Platte, is a remarkable chain of lakes and insignificant streams, filled with pure, cold water, save through the alkalescent districts, which frequently cut through the country, but in almost every instance devoid of piscatorial life, save the sparse waters that have been stocked by the fish commission. In this sea of sterile hills there is no stone, no timber or ore of any kind, but instead it is one vast pasture and hay land, as extensive, probably, as any in the world. When I use the word "wilderness: in connection with this region, it must not be taken in its literal sense, for all the valleys east of the plateau are capable of supplying most all of the agricultural products indigenous to the state, even corn, rye and buckwheat, and peas, beans, turnips, cabbage and potatoes. The soil, however, is especially adapted to grazing and haying, and a cereal patch is a rarity indeed. Among the hills there is absolutely no arable land.
I will not attempt to enlarge upon the grandeur and picturesqueness of this strange region, as that is something that must be seen to be appreciated. Settlements throughout the hills, of any considerable size, there are none. Here and there, under the protection of the hills, are occasional clusters of rough habitations, and along the lakes and streams are the sod ranches of the cattlemen, trappers and hunters. The autumn tent of the sportsman alone, in addition, dots the boundless sweep of grass and sand. All of the wild animals of the western country were here in swarming plentitude up to within a very few years, the elk, black and white-tailed deer, antelope, wolf, both the big gray and prairie, badger, otter, mink, weasel, skunk and muskrat. The elk has entirely disappeared and deer and antelope are following fast. Still, not a season passes but a number of these are slain by the insatiable hunter within those lonely wastes which were once the animals' favorite haunt. Of the feathered family, there is an abundance of life, from the huge golden eagle, hawks of all kinds, loons, swans, geese and ducks, chicken and grouse, down to the swamp-sparrow, meadow lark and the finches. There are but few robins, blue jays or members of the woodpecker family ever encountered here.
A decade ago this whole vast region boasted of but isolated adobe ranches of the cowboy and the trapper, and was but rarely invaved by visitors. But of late farmers and stockmen have poured in and sportsmen have become familiar with its surplus of game. The chicken and grouse, geese and ducks, however, are as plentiful as ever, the coyote is common, the badger, skunk and rat plentiful. Antelope are still to be met with, but in rare instances, and are but little hunted. The howl of the gray wolf and the shout of the loon—those symbols of all that was ever wild and lonely in that desert of sand—are still to be heard breaking like spirit voices on the stillness of the night. It is here then—this wild heart of the wild western sandhill wilderness—my readers are invited to accompany us and linger a few days with the swan, the geese and the ducks.
In the immediate vicinity of Hamilton's there is a veritable archipeligo if I may misapply the word of lakes, among the most prominent of which are Goose, Swan, Blue, Hackberry, Gimlet, Skunk, Roundup and Hamilton, all located within an area of ten square miles. This system is under the control and individual supervision of Hamilton and two or three neighbors—large land-holders, whose one determination is to preserve these water for the exclusive enjoyment of sportsmen, and religiously bar the market hunter.
Each one of these lakes is a picture in itself. Embedded like scintillating gems in their grassy beds, flashing and gleaming in the sunlight of spring or fall time, they make the homeliest landscape animated and beautiful. All are filled with the natural food of the canvasback and the redhead, to say nothing of an exhaustless larder for the bluebill, the mallard, widgeon, teal, ruddy, butterball, the wild goose, and that monarch of the flood, the swan. Here that delicate tuber, called by the Indians wapatoo, and in botanical science, Sagittaria variabilis, abounds most plentifully. It is a species of the arrowhead, an aquatic plant that derives its name from the shape of its leaves, and is the favorite food of the canvasback and redhead. The former of these precious birds are particularly fond of this bulb, and when they strike a ground growing it in abundance, it takes them but a few days to fatten up to their maximum weight. For this morsel the canvasback will dive through from fifteen to twenty feet of water, and then for two more into the soft black mud at the lake's bottom, and dig it up with their strong bills, and when it floats to the surface, voraciously gorge themselves upon it. The redhead, shameless freebooter that he is, wastes no strength or stamina in its quest. He would rather fight than work for his dinner, and lives and waxes fat on the industry of the canvasback and the bluebill. He follows these birds through the air and on the water, and when meal time comes is always on hand. When the fruits of the canvasback's labors makes themselves visible on the top of the water, the redhead sails in and, by dint of hard struggling, generally gets the hog's share. While a much smaller bird than his royal congener, he is much more pugnacious and invariably the master of the situation when it comes to a contention between them. So it is with the wild celery, spralia vallisneria, the canvasback is the producer and the redhead the consumer—that is, he gets his full share.
For the enlightenment of sportsmen who are unfamiliar with this delicate plant, I will give a hurried description here. In the first place, contrary to common belief, it possesses no similitude to our common table celery, although the two plants are distantly related. It grows in almost any depth of either fresh or brackish water, has long, ribbon-like leaves, and is always found entwined with its nearest botanical neighbor. It has a slender root, slightly odorous, of a pungent, bitterish, acrid taste, but not unpleasant. It is the root of this plant the ducks are so inordinately fond of. They are milk-white and nut-like, and the ingredient that imparts that peculiar flavor to the flesh of the canvasback, as well as the other ducks that feed upon it. They also devour the leafy tendrils and the stalk, but there are not nearly so tempting or nutritious as the root. The mallard and the widgeon are also supremely fond of this plant, but being non-divers are incapable of its securement, save by stealing it from the canvasback when he brings it to the surface. The bluebill, however, is as au fait in subacqueous abilities as the canvasback, and he, too, feeds largely upon this delicacy when he happens to find himself where it flourishes. Both the canvasback and bluebill can feed in thirty feet of water, while the mallard and his commoner confreres rarely risk a greater depth than three or four feet. Vallisneria is abundant in all the waters about Hamilton's, as is also umbellularia, another delight of the canvasback, wild rice, smart weed, nut grass, and many other seedbearing aquatic plants upon which the better grade of ducks delight to feast. Umbellularia is a common sight in most all of the waters in northwestern Nebraska, from the Lugenbeel marshes down to the Platte, although by its scientific appellation it is generally unknown. It is a genus of the deep sea alcyonaria, and consists of a large flower-like polyp, filled with seeds or nuts about the size of a marrowfat pea, situated at the top of a long slender stem, which stands upright in the mud, supported by a bulbous base. Smartweed is the especial delectation of the mallard. There are many hundred species of this plant, but the one in question produces a burning sensation when coming in contact with a tender portion of one's skin. A volatile acridity characterizes both leaves and stem, while the roots are very astringent, and gives to it the name of water-pepper or smart-weed. All duck hunters, the observant kind, any way, are, or should be, familiar with the character of wild rice, nut-grass and the commoner food of wild fowl, and I shall consume no space here in unnecessary description.
Around the shores of these lakes are great fields of rice, cane and rushes, interspersed with the wild bugloss, which bears a tiny blue flower, flags, matriccaria, or wild camomile, and countless other swamp plants in which the whole wild fowl genera love to disport themselves. Is it to be wondered at then, that the region is a veritable elysium for the birds?
The morning after our arrival at Hamilton's dawned rather threateningly. Great masses of ragged clouds were wheeling themselves across the heavens, while the breeze from the west was of that soft deceptive character which generally presages a storm. The sunlight, however, was struggling encouragingly through the shifting vapors, and with the hope that it would eventually clear off and give us another lovely day. Pete and Prince were hooked to the spring wagon, shell-boxes, decoys and other impediments tumbled in, and by 9 o'clock General Hamilton, the lawyer, myself and Rex, were on our jocund way to Goose lake, one mile and a half through an embouchure of the hills, north of the ranch.
"Hey, there! Rex, you old devil," yelped Ed, as the king of retrievers started off on a run ahead, and then, as he slunk back to the rear, our host kissed his hand to wife and babies, threw the silk into his restive steeds and away we flew through the sands at a pace that would have put your city drivers to guessing, anyway.
Oh, the delights and enthusiasm of such a morning drive. The air was just crisp enough to be exhilirating, and the straggling shafts of yellow sunshine made artistic studies of sandhills and plain. The lawyer was in ecstasies, and so was I, while Ed himself, the hero of a thousand such trips, was as proud and jubilant as a boy out of school. Remember, we were on the road to the canvasback grounds of the world, which fact alone should be sufficient to start the blood aleaping in the veins of the most stoic sportsman of us all.
An old cock grouse arose with a leap from the roadside, and with an angry cluck went whizzing off toward the distant hills, while the black birds, flying over from roost to feeding grounds in the swails, filled the air with their clear, tinkling notes. Suddenly, in rounding a curvature in the road, we came upon a coyote trotting straight toward us, on the lookout, likely, for some unwary chicken or rabbit. Seeing us he wheeled like a flash of gray-brown light, and straining every nerve and sinew in his graceful body, streaked it off for the low hills with a speed that outstripped the wind. A load of No. 5s from the lawyer's hammerless dusted the sands in his rear, and, swerving aside, he was lost to sight amidst the dead yucca that grew so plentifully here.
We shortly reached the summit of the last dividing hill and Goose lake lay before us, stretching away toward the north, reflecting upon ts rippling bosom the lights and shades of the changeable heavens. In front was an enchanting basin, with a small grass-tangled island a short way out, and a hazy, brownish hill beyond; than a protruding point, rush and flag covered, abruptly shut off the water. It gleamed out again, however, on a quarter of a mile further, more dazzling and beautiful than ever. There was a cool, gray light hovering over the lake, which lay with scarcely perceptible motion most of the time. The opposite hills rose indistinctly, as if reared in the air, with dark pictures of floating fogs between them, and which Ed said meant rain. The air was growing fresher, even to chilliness, but was always sweet with the fragrance of weed and water. A loon off Muskrat point was sending forth his weird bravura, awakening a hundred quavering echoes, and a fish hawk was sailing round and round above the island. Hamilton's boat, long and graceful as a pike, lay half ashore with quiet ripples sparkling around its stern and the rice stalks burying its prow. Again there was a rift in the sullen clouds and the sunlight glanced from the lake and twinkled among the rushes and bathed hill and plain, then all was cold and gray again. That was our first view of Goose lake, and lying as it did, half smothered by the gloomy sandhills, it made a picture that would forver shame the daubs of a Domenichino, a Correggio or a Titian—a chef d'oeuvre of the Master hand.
But that hunt-well, next week, sure.
A Glorious Morning on Otter Island in Goose Lake.
One of King Rex's Aqueous Exploits
Getting Ready for the Flight—The First Flock In—Among the Decoys—A Big Kill and Mr. and Mrs. Canada.
Mounting the wagon seat as we halted on the shores of Goose lake on the morning referred to in my last article, Hamilton pointed with his whip off toward the east side of the big basin, and exclaimed:
"There's your canvasback, Sandy, there they are by the hundred."
And sure enough there they were, an half-acre of them. It is doubtful, though, whether the lawyer and I would ever have discovered that they were canvasback had it not been for our host's declaration. To us they resembled simply an immense flock of ducks, with nothing about them to distinguish their species. But it was different to Hamilton's practiced eye. As far as he can see a bird in the air, and I honestly believe he has the most penetrating vision of any man in the world, he can tell you instantly what it is—canvasback, redhead, mallard, bluebill or spring. He never hesitates, and, more wonderful yet, never errs. When the birds are a long way off—little more than a shadowy line against the background sky—it is apparently from their aerial position and manner of flight he distinguishes them. When closer it is their shape of form which apprises him of their identity, and when closer still, their plumage or cry. He has but to get a flash at a swiftly passing bird to know exactly to what class it belongs.
"Canvasback?" I interrogated half incredulous, but with the one desire of being reassured that no mistake had been made.
"Canvasback! certainly. Don't you see their white backs and breasts flashing in the sun? They are feeding and are under the water about half the time."
That was sufficient. The intermittent fever the lawyer and I had been affected with since leaving Omaha now returned with renewed violence, and we appealed to Ed to get us into our blinds without further delay.
Accordingly it took us but a remarkably short time to transfer our shooting paraphernalia to the island. As we pulled out from the shore the feeding birds in the offing arose in a great cloud, and after circling about in the air for several moments, sailed off over the low sand hills to the south.
Assured that they would come straggling back shortly, Hamilton, the lawyer and I lost no time in getting ready to receive them. Our stool of decoys numbered somewhere in the neighborhood of one hundred. We were to shoot from holes on the eastern shore of the island and, wading out some twenty yards, we scattered the decoys carelessly all around the point, arranged our shell boxes and got into our blinds. Hamilton and I occupied one, while the lawyer took possession of another but a few yards distant, and at Ed's command Rex coiled himself up out of sight in the tall brown grass that stood so luxuriantly all over the island back of our hides.
We were all ready. Squatting low in our blinds, which were surrounded by a fringe of broad-bladed marsh grass, we waited, Simeral and I impatient and feverish, Hamilton inperturable, confident, watchful.
On either side, across the watery expanse, was a broad sweep of barren plain and sand hills, swelling from the very shores of the lake. Here and there bunches of cactus, withered and dead, strewed their dull tints, hardly detectable amid the universal greenish yellow. Heavy clouds, with bright edges, had crowded into the sky, and the whole scene was fitful with lights and darks. Sometimes a struggling beam lighted sudden and startling on the top of a shadowed sandhill, overflowing it with splendor. A fresh shadow then darted from the base, peeling off the light until the whole mass frowned again in gloom. So with the uneasy lake. Now it showed one sullen hue; a gleam would break forth, widening until dazzling gems danced upon the surface, followed by a leaden tint, which closed like an enormous lid over its broad, sparkling face. A growl of thunder echoed around the scene, as if the frowning hills were giving vent to anger.
"I don't like that!" exclaimed Hamilton. "I am afraid it means all kinds of weather. Mark!" The last sharp monosyllable sent the blood coursing through our veins and, bending still lower, behind our grassy barricade, we peered eagerly off across and up and down the lake.
"There they come—canvasback—over the hills to the south," directed Ed, who had evidently noticed the anxious glances of the lawyer and I.
Then we discovered them—a gray line—possibly twenty birds—against the whitish clouds, yet like meteors cleaving the air our way.
"Careful now—they will be onto us before you know it," continued Hamilton. Then he gave three or four sharp, crow-like squawks on his caller and pushed his Lefever out before him. Billy and I, of course, were there before him.
The flight of the canvasback duck is something to be marveled at always. No other bird that I know of cuts the trenchent air with half his lightning speed. He is surely the racer of the skies. On any mission he goes through the air at a rate of anywhere from eighty to one hundred miles an hour. If he has business anywhere and has got to get there he puts at least two miles a minute behind him and does it easily, too. If you do not believe this just shoot at the leader of a string of canvasbacks who are on a business errand sometime and see for yourself. Shot travels pretty fast, especially out of one of Chamberlain's champion shells, and if you are so lucky as to bring down one of the birds, see isn't about the tenth or eleventh one back of the drake or leader. A drake does not always lead, however, as the above remark might induce you to believe, but generally does if there is but one in the bunch. If there are more they seldom pilot, but a wise old hen will be found in this responsible position. If you wish to bring her to grass you must pull ahead ten or twelve feet at least, and if she falls it will most likely be at a long distance off, say one hundred yards or more.
Truly, as Hamilton had admonished us, the birds were onto us before we could realize it. On they came, straight as a string, and looked as though they must pass high over us. But out decoys and the seductive notes Hamilton had sounded on the air, did their work effectually. When five hundred yards away the birds fairly dove down from their onward rush and came in over our decoys with a swish of wing that fairly took our breath.
The lawyer and I were upon our feet together and we gave them four barrels before Ed had time for a word of caution. Seeing what we had done he shot, too, bringing down a big drake, with his last barrel as the birds, with electrical velocity, were cutting across the lake. Billy and I, although we were a trifle premature, hadn't done so bad, though, for two birds with their white bellies uppermost were floating shoreward, while the third, a wing-tipped drake, was cutting through the white caps off toward the line of rushes to the northeast.
"You were too quick. Don't shoot-he's too far out now. He'll dive in a moment, then Rex will tend to his case," remarked Ed hurriedly, as he saw the lawyer about to pull on our wounded duck.
The next instant the drake went down, and motioning to Rex, who had kept his bright, sparkling brown eyes on the escaping duck, Hamilton exclaimed:
"Go get him, Rex."
With a leap the dog was out of his grassy perdu and with an anxious whine plunged into the lake. Straight out, past the floating dead birds, and through the bobbing decoys, with powerful strokes the royal spaniel clove his way to the spot where the drake had disappeared. Here he halted, looked about impatiently, then began paddling in a circle, suddenly raising himself high above the waves, he dashed away again.
"There's your bird," said Ed, as a rufous hood of the drake broke the surface again, off about forty yards to the right of the dog. "Rex will get him, and I want you to watch close and see how he does it. If the canvas dives, so will he. They can't fool Rex."
The dog was now rapidly overhauling the fleeing fowl, and we were expecting to see him nail him any second, when suddenly up shot his pointed tail and into the deep he went like a flash. But you can partake of our surprise when I tell you that Rex did precisely the same thing—went under after him, and with none the less agility at that. To prove this assertion and also that the wounded drake had miscalculated the distance. Rex's shapely head came thrusting itself up through the water again, almost instantly, and the drake was in his mouth!
"Fetch him!" yelped Ed, as he proudly turned to the lawyer and I, who were watching this marvelous work spellbound, but in deepest admiration.
Again, I reiterate, as a retriever, Rex is second to no dog in the world. I have shot over many good dogs, but have yet to see one that could be mentioned in the same day with Hamilton's matchless champion.
"There, knock that redhead down, Sandy! he's yours!" was the cry from Ed that brought the lawyer and I back to earth.
A single bird had swung right into us, notwithstanding our upright positions. I gave it to him, both barrels, and so did Simeral, but he kept going until Hamilton's gun cracked, when he fell, just as if he had flown plump against a stone wall.
"Don't worry over that, you were not ready, you know, and I was, and that makes all the difference in the world in duck shooting. Still, that was a pretty good long shot I made, eh?" and Ed looked quizzically at Bill and I, who felt as if a good kicking would do us good.
"You bet it was," I replied, "but blamed if I ever made a worse shot. Why, he was right on top of me."
"Of course he was," got back the lawyer acrimoniously, "and if you had kept that old cannon of yours down I could have killed him with a bow and arrow!"
Hamilton's quick eyes had descried another flock of birds and, like the component parts of a piece of well-oiled machinery, we all went down into our blinds together.
Rex had brought in the wounded bird, and Ed has crushed his stout skull with his teeth, when he discovered the second gray line above the hills.
"Now, don't be in a hurry this time—yes, they are canvas—they will come down like Helen Blazes, sweep past our decoys, but will circle and come back. They always do this, and if you will allow them they will light right among the decoys. Squawk! squawk! squawk!"
Here they come, just like the first flock, so many white and slate-colored racers, each one apparently striving to get in first, but so evenly are they matched that none are able to outstrip his fellows.
It is a blood-tingling moment, a trying one on the nerves of the restive gunner.
S-w-i-s-h-h-h! They skim along over our decoys with dizzying speed. Then they start off up into space again, as if bound to the clouds. But they are not. They have mistaken our decoys for feeding relatives and intend to join in the banquet. They make a sweeping circle, then come back with that same wild rush of wing and gleaming red of iris. The lawyer and I hold our breath, for before we can fairly credit our senses fully two-thirds of them slide into the water, just off our decoys, like so many feathered apparitions. The balance of the flock, as if by some strange intuition of danger, do not come back, but keep on their way south, and are soon lost to view beyond the hills.
"Don't be in a hurry," whispered Hamilton, "they will not fly. Just watch and see what they do."
For a moment the birds sat perfectly still, then they began to move with the almost imperceptible motion of a thistle down upon calm water, first to this side, then to that, inspecting their wooden counterfeits curiously, half suspiciously all the time. Finally as there seemed to be no cause for alarm, the whole flock, and there must have been three dozen of them, converged slowly together, then timidly began approaching the decoys. Now they would halt and glide off to one side, then back again, as if yet afraid to approach too near. Suddenly, as they bunched together again, and looked as if they might be off at any second, Hamilton said:
"We might as well raise now, boys, and give it to them!"
All together we stood erect, but instead of flying instantly as we expected, the birds sat still a moment on the water, craning their thick necks, until we could see the flash of their deep red eyes, evidently more astonished than ever. They did not dally long, however, to satisfy any useless curiosity, but with a loud splashing and a few spasmodic squeaks arose in a body, and we let them have it.
It seemed as if there was a rain of dead and wounded canvasbacks, for no less than ten birds fell at the reports of our Lefevers. Think of that! Ten canvasback at one fell swoop, or six fell swoops, rather, for each man let go both barrels. More canvasback than many a hunter has killed in this region, anyway, in a half-dozen seasons.
This may not be a very edifying or creditable confession, but I do not believe there is a single sportsman in the country, let it be President Cleveland, ex-President Harrison, George A. Boyd of Philadelphia or even the veteran old president of the far-famed Cuvier club, Cincinnati, and lifelong wild fowl hunter that he is, Len Harris, would have done ought else than we did under similar circumstances. This sentiment about the preservation of game birds is all right enough for discussion, but when it comes to practicing the same in the midst of a scurrying flight of such incomparable birds, why the man isn't there, that's all.
After shooting over the "crips"—which must be done at the quickest possible moment on canvasback, we all crouched down in our blinds again, for the air off to the south now seemed full of birds. They seemed to be moving aimlessly in all directions and Hamilton said a storm was not far distant.
There was no need of this warning, the damp, crispiness of the increasing winds, told us that a change was about to occur. The distant hills were looking darker and darker through the misty air, and glimmering more and more indistinct, until they were entirely shaded in. Over the head of the lake ragged scuds were flitting, and afar to the north we could see that the rain was already falling.
"Mark, boys! Geese!" again warned our vigilant host, who had been standing to better his view of the oncoming storm.
"There are but two of them, but they are Canadas; don't you see 'em there to right low over the water? They are coming straight in and you and Simeral take them; if you fail, I'll be ready."
Hardly had Hamilton delivered these words of advice when the geese, a pair of big Canadas, came flopping nonchalantly in. The lawyer and I were onto our job, and when the great birds were close enough for us to see the whites of their eyes, we arose. There were two quick reports and both birds fell dead among our decoys.
A Morning's Shoot that Will Live in Memory as Long as Life Lasts.
Simeral Tries to Burn Up the Island
A Double on Mallards—One of Rex's Favorite Tricks—The White Goose—Bursting of the Storm and a Run for the Ranch.
Dutifully, at Hamilton's command, Rex brought in both geese, one after the other, and we had barely got settled in our blinds when a flock of snow geese, flying high, came over. Ed said they were too high, but he was too late. The lawyer was already upon his feet, and had the birds been skimming the sky, he couldn't have been restrained from pulling the trigger. Imagine our surprise then, when after he had poured both barrels into them, and they had well passed over our blinds, one let loose and came whirring and gyrating to the water.
It was a chance shot and a long one, but the bird was as dead as the proverbial mackerel when he struck the water.
"Who ever said I couldn't kill geese was mistaken, that's all. Did you ever see a prettier shot?" ejaculated the barrister, as Rex hauled the dead goose up into the yellow grass.
"Mark!" It was a bunch of canvas, and they came hurtling down the wind with tremendous velocity. I took the lead, Hamilton the middle, according to our positions, and Simeral the rear. We all downed our birds, mine the hen and Ed and Billy's drakes. Mine was killed dead, but the other two were but wing tipped. Hamilton shot his over instanter, but the lawyer let his get away from him.
Another bunch came in almost immediately, but they swung out rather far. We heard the shot rattle against their sides, but they were a hard crowd and continued on their way toward the hyperborean regions.
Again, had we hardly recovered from our chagrin, when a flock of canvas, embracing probably sixty birds, came straight into us. We waited until they dropped their bluish legs to light among their wooden prototypes, when we all arose and fired together. A half-dozen birds fell, while a seventh, who had received some stray shot in the fusilade, swerved from the main bunch as they tore straight away and flying back of us, crossed the intervening water, went over the wagon and fell on the hillside, fully a mile away.
"He's all right—we'll get 'im tonight," remarked Hamilton, confidently, "but if you say so, I'll send Rex after him now. He'll get him all right, but he won't bring him here."
"What will he do with him?" I inquired.
"He'll hide him somehwere near the wagon, then when we go on, he'll bring him forth. That's an old trick of his, and he likes to play it. We'll watch him. Go get him, Rex!"
All this time the dog had been half crouching, half standing in his grassy lair with his hazel eyes fastened intently on the distant hillside, but at his master's mandate he sprang eagerly away, ran along the shell-covered shore of the island to the farthest inland point, then plunged into the lake.
At this juncture Hamilton's ever restless eyes had discovered a flock of canvas circling over the wapatoo beds across the lake to the northeast. He brought his called into requisition and after a moment's shrill squawking succeeded in attracting their attention and they quickly started to come over. They were not long in getting their eyes on the decoys, but shied past just as we thought they were going to come in and deflected to the left. They made a circle of a mile or more, then came bearing down upon us again. As they approached Ed gave a running, clucking call. The birds turned and came swiftly on suspectingly toward us. We saw that they were extremely timid and tacitly agreed upon taking a long chance. Sure enough, when within possibly fifty yards of the blinds, they "dished," with a sibilant swish, and began to go up at the rate of a mile a half-minute and, feeling that they were off and that this was our only chance, we jumped to our feet and emptied our Lefevers. To our utter astonishment four birds fell, all killed clean.
"There goes Rex," interrupted Hamilton, and turning we saw the dog climbing up the west bank of the lake.
Once upon solid ground he gave himself a vigorous shaking, rolled over on the grass a time or two, then struck off for the hillside where we knew our canvasback had fallen. He was not long in reaching the place and the next we saw of him he was on his way back to where the wagon stood, and from the high attitude of his noble head and his proud step, we knew what he bore in his mouth. It was the dead canvasback.
Reaching the wagon he deposited his prize on the ground, gazed intently over in our direction a moment, then picking it up he trotted leisurely off among the dead yucca and cactus plants, soon losing himself from sight. Ten minutes later he appeared on the lake shore and stood gazing across at us, as if to say: "I'll surprise you fellows in the evening with an extra duck."
A shrill whistle from Ed, and the dog once more plunged into the restless waters, and a short time after was curled up in the grass back of our blind again.
"Mark! to the north! mallards!" came the same old electrifying admonition from Hamilton, and down the lake we saw them coming, a single pair. The wind was assisting them considerably, and it required but a few seconds to bring them in. As they caught sight of the decoys their natural wariness and caution returned to them and they began to beat upward as if for a better view. Everything seemed satisfactory and down they came plump in our faces, the old drake, with green velvet hear stretched far out, leading his mottled consort by a foot or two.
"There's an easy double, Sandy," whispered Hamilton. "you take them and show Bill and I what you can do."
"All right," I responded, "I'll show you how I always do it," and as the two birds were cupping their wings and dropped their orange pillars, I arose for the shot.
The drake was evidently extremely suspicious, and, in an almost perfectly upright position, he was hovering almost stationary over the decoys, with his glossy chestnut breastplate and ashen belly staring me in the face, while the hen was timorously fluttering just behind. With the most supreme confidence in my skill I banged away without hardly aiming, and thinking, of course, that he was good as dead, I swung off and onto the hen, who had wheeled as if on a pivot, and with distraught squawks was cutting her way through space with all the energy of her sturdy pinions. Bang! went the other barrel, and to my inexpressible disgust and humiliation I saw both birds making good their escape, the old drake spitefully emitting that agravating "mamph! mamph! mamph!" as he dove round and joined his mate in her mad flight across the lake.
A downy feather or two was being buffeted hither and thither by the stiffening wind, and that was all.
I had scored a beautiful double-miss!
The lawyer chuckled in fiendish glee, but Hamilton was more considerate. He smiled in a peculiar way, of course, but as a surcease for my sorrow, said:
"Well, sir, if I have done that once, I've done it 1,000 times, in my experience. The best shot on earth don't know just when he is going to drop a tough old mallard. They seem to get out of the most impossible situations sometimes. You see, you were too anxious to make a double, so you missed both. You shot under both birds, but a few shots whistled through the old drake's tail feathers. Bet you couldn't do that again in twenty trials."
I hadn't a word to say. I simply slipped in a couple of more shells in a sort of perfunctory way, and squatted down in my hole, which I mentally wished, just then, was a few dozen feet deeper, for I know the disciple of Blackstone would have an eruption sooner or later.
Sure enough, after a moment's silence, broken only by the snap of a match as the lawyer lit his old Briarwood, and it came.
"How'd you come to do it, Gris? Looked to me as if I could have killed both of 'em with a base ball bat—they were so close. But you remember what I told you about pulling a little high—"
"You tell me anything?" I interrupted savagely, "not in a hundred years, and I'll bet you $50 you can't prove you're alive now. You tell me how to hold on a duck—you make me sick."
While Ed was enjoying this little by-play, he had kept his visual organs at work, and it was his precautionary exclamation that cut short a colloquy that might have grown incadescent.
The birds were coming down the lake from the north, an immense horde of them, and in our anticipatory enthusiasm—Billy and I gladly turned from the subject of egregious fiasco to the sport ahead.
That was Simeral lighting that odiferous old pipe of his. Think of a true sportsman toying with the filthy weed in such a supreme moment. Lighting his pipe with one hundred royal canvasback, on swift wing, bearing down upon him. Can such a thing be true?
"We'll knock out a dozen this time—they want to light—be careful—don't—
The birds had now dropped low over the water and were slowing up preparatory to sliding into its cooling depths. In another moment they will have settled. What a flock—the like I had never seen before. Every nerve was tingling, every muscle, every fiber quivering with the keenest delight, such as only sportsmen know under such circumstances.
Ed and I crouched like images hewn from stone. Moveless as death, we were waiting until the advance couriers of the approaching myriad had breasted the crest of the restless lake, when suddenly we were startled to our feet by a maniacal shriek, and glancing whence came this eldritch sound we saw Simeral executing a dance, compared with which the ghost dance of the wild and untutored Sioux would have been tame and listless indeed.
One of the cast-aside matches had ignited the exuberant growth of heavy pampas grass and it was blazing furiously all about him. But he was game, and he fought its advancement with heroic vigor, kicking, stamping and threshing about like a huge live lobster in a kettle of boiling water. Rex was frantic, too, and to the din he added his sharp yelps, as he leaped about the fiery circle. In another moment Muskrat island would have been a sea of roaring, lurid flame, for its surface was fairly matted with a rank growth of grass, flags and reeds, dry as tinder and as inflammable as oil. But Hamilton and I were quickly to the rescue. Grabbing the gunny sacks in which we carried the decoys, we attacked the spreading flames with all our energies, and soon had the satisfaction of seeing the last spark extinguished.
The canvasbacks—well, we never saw or heard of that flock again, and judging from our own fright and excitement, it is not improbable to suppose that they are going yet.
"Now I hope," I exclaimed irascibly, as I turned upon the crestfallen lawyer, "that you will thrown that damned old pipe of yours in the lake. I never was in a blind with you in my life but what you were continually lighting that old cesspot, and you know I have told you a hundred times that when you are shooting ducks it is no time to smoke!"
"When you are shooting ducks," he got back, with a good deal of unction, "I should think you'd smoke all the time—it will steady your nerves!"
Then without another word he crawled back in his hole, brushed the grassy embers from his hunting jacket and got down to business, for five minutes later the air seemed fairly alive with canvasbacks and redheads. It was a famous flight, and we did famous work, knocking the feathered beauties right and left, until Rex had the whole end of the island fairly covered with them.
At this inauspicious juncture the storm that had been gathering and threatening all morning broke upon us. The distant sandhills mingled grayly, and then amidst a fine, nasty, driving mist, the whole perspective was swallowed up. The lake blackened, and the shadowy brakes of reed and rush melted away, the further shore line disappeared in the misty mingle, and although the rain had not yet set in in all its culminating fury, we were already shivering and drenched to the skin. Soon, with a rush, the storm was upon us. The lake and plain, so soft and tender and pleasant to the fancy in the early morning sunshine, became, in a waft of Boreas' wand, reeking with wet and cold. Then there was a sudden shifting of the clouds, and hope arose in our swelling hearts; to the magic of sunshine the misty curtain lifted and there was an instantaneous glitter all about. Then it came again, the black and howling tempest, with spits of snow, engulfing wrathful lake, swaying reeds and frowning hills, and changing again into jewel work under the struggling rays of the sun. For an hour there was a quick interweaving of rain and snow, darkness and sunlight, and such another mysterious storm I never encountered before. Foggy shafts would streak the scene, then blue eyes would open in the ragged clouds. The arcades of water, mist and shadow would glow, darken, be masked in the storm, and flash again into gold. But finally all this interesting phenomena came to an end. The face of all nature shrunk as within some murky horror. The sky grew blacker and the lake more wrathful, while the wind came down like blades of steel. The rain grew fiercer and finer, and before we could realize it, it had merged into a driving, blinding sheet of stinging particles of snow, which went howling and shrieking across the lake as if the world was about to come to an end. It was beyond the endurance of the most indomitable sportsman to withstand the furies of such a blast, and we were soon battling with the angry waves in our efforts to reach the shore. But Hamilton's little craft was as staunch as boat ever was, and after a quarter of an hour of almost super-human effort we reached the bank.
"It is a blizzard, boys—the worst of the year!" exclaimed Ed as we crouched into our seats in the wagon, "we must make the ranch with no more fooling. I know what this means."
An hour later we were home, yet is was a close call, for the blizzard raged as blizzard seldom raged before. But once within that happy sod lodge, with the warmth of a great fire filling every nook and cranny, with the party all in, dogs, too, all casting that social spell so congenial to our natures, restored the eqilibrium of our spirits. The gloom without found no entrance there. The feeling of isolation, of cold and fear fled. We were again of the family of man.
What a March Blizzard Means Among the Sand Hills of Western Nebraska.
Bete Noir of Cowboy and Ranchman
Caught in the Storm—Narrow Escape of the Old Trapper—A Fearful Tramp—Rex, the King of Dogs.
Fearful as the blizzard raged on the afternoon of our first day at Goose lake, it was nothing compared to its furious violence of that night, the next day and the night following. While the telegraph told briefly of its extent and destructiveness, it conveyed but a vague idea of its awful character.
A blizzard in the sandhills or on the plains is an entirely different elementary exhibition from a blizzard in town or city. There is a wildness and a horror about it on the desert that is indescribable, and woe is it to man or beast caught in it at any considerable distance from any of the meager shelter that desolate country affords. Cattle perish by the hundreds—by the herd. Their instinct goes for naught when once overwhelmed on those broad plains or in the limitless pasture-lands among the gloomy hills. There is but one hope for the poor beasts and that is to drift with the storm, which they invariably do. Once started nothing seems formidable enough to check or swerve them aside; rugged crag or canon, hill or dale, river, lake or morass offer no impediment to their onward march until absolute exhaustion or death over takes them. They make no detours, but drift straight ahead, and once the shores of a lake or swamp are reached the leaders, pushed onward by the hosts in the rear, plunge blindly in. If enabled to reach the opposite shore they continue on until the fury of the storm has abated sufficiently to allow them to halt for rest and what scanty nourishment they may be able to paw up from under the snow. If the depth of water or mire precludes this possibility they crowd in and on until they are either stuck fast in the mud or drown, hundreds often meeting this terrible fate in a body of water or mushy slough, which in pleasant weather would furnish nothing worse than a haven of refreshment. There are innumberable instances where whole herds have become wedged in, in just such a place, so thickly jammed together that you cross upon their backs, here to remain until completely buried by the drifting snow. When the storm breaks and the disconsolate cowboy or ranchman goes forth in quest of his drifted stock a horn or two glistening in the sun from out a desert of snow often leads him to the mausoleum of his ill-fated bunch. While locomotion is possible, drifting cattle never stop, but keep on their weary way for days and nights, in fact until the storm spends its fury and indications of peace again descend upon the earth.
Truly a blizzard on the western plains is the bete noir of the stockman's life, entailing as it does enormous loss and days and nights of laborious traveling, privation and toil. Many and many a man has been robbed of his all in a single night by one of these tremendous visitation, and no one can appreciate their awful destructiveness until they see it with their own eyes. They are not only dangerous to the lives of stock, but to man himself, and many and many a belated traveler ot improvident herder has met a horrible death on their midst.
The lawyer, Hamilton and myself had regaled ourselves upon one of Mrs. H.'s most bounteous dinners—piles of pike, their crusted skin cracking open from the creamy, white flesh; tender slices of bacon, nicely browned, and canvasback, roasted to a turn, and sprinkled with watercress fresh from the swails of Coyote Run, with Lyonnaise potatoes, light biscuit and a rich mixture of Mocha and Java—and were gathered about the glowing stove—which Clifford kept stuffed full of chips—enjoying our cigars, chatting on the thrilling events of the day and listening to the taunting cries of the Boreas' fiends without, when suddenly the door was pushed rudely opened, admitting a chilly blast of sleet and wind, and the figure of a man, muffled to the eyes and literally coated with ice and snow.
It was Rudolph, the trapper.
With our ready assistance Gus was quickly stripped of his stiffened garments and into warm, dry ones, and then, after the cravings of hunger and thirst had both been allayed, he threw himself contentedly on a pile of wolf skins before the fire and related his experience in the blizzard.
He had been "following his line" down on Hackberry and Roundup lakes, and elated with a big catch of rat and skunk he had failed to keep track of the time of day and the threatening aspect of the weather, and before he fairly realized it the blast was upon him in all its awful impetuosity, and in a blinding swirl of sleet, rain and drifting snow he found himself struggling to get through the hills.
For a time his efforts were futile and, experienced and indurated old plainsman that he was, he felt that there was imminent danger ahead. Still, of course, he persevered, and after frequently stopping to take his bearings and study the character of the surrounding hills and note the direction of the storm, he would move on again with braver steps and sturdier resolution, but just as ignorant of his exact whereabouts and as blind as ever.
The hills were soon swallowed up in the mazes of the blast and there was no determining the true direction of the storm. It seemed to scream in through the arroyos, shriek over the highlands and across the barrens from all sides at once and converge like a howling cohort of rapacious demons upon his devoted head.
The snow and sleet were now streaming over the whole earth in one continuous sheet, the wind sweeping everything before it with the ravings of a hurricane, first this way and then that, like some evil spirit bent upon the most diabolical ends.
From the nature of the ground and the more regular onrush of the blizzard Rudolph at last felt that he had reached the open, but its horrible fury to tell in just which direction refuge lay, or to find the well worn wagon road, was a task he felt hopeless, indeed. Yet he would never for a moment believe he was lost, and though blinded and baffled by the driving snow, which came down upon him in whirls and eddies, he struggled on. In the very midst of all that wild and fearful din Rudolph told how there were intervals of such a deathlike stillness that was even more appalling that all the horrible uproar. This is one of the mysterious features of such a storm on the broad plains of the west, and all those who have encountered such will recall these tomblike spells, which fall ever and anon upon the rageful rush of the tempest.
On, on, ceaselessly on labored the sturdy trapper. There were times when he seemed to make literally no headway at all, when every landmark known to his practiced senses was lost, and he felt, so he said, as he plodded and stumbled forward, as if he was tramping to his own funeral. Now he plunged into some deepening drift, and the next moment was fairly tearing his way through the matted grass and weeds, which in places defied the power of the blast, while all the time was heard that deep, muffled roar, coming and going like the mystic sounds we hear at the dead of night from the lashing and wrathful ocean, and in sooth, Rudolph might have well felt that he was alone with death.
And why not? Even though the old trapper was a native of the hills and plains, even though he was versed in all their darksome vagaries as the student is in his books, he was not superhuman. Why not, I repeat, might not he be plodding to his own funeral? Others as learned in such lore, as wise and fearless and courageous as he had been lost in just such storms—others had been submeged in just such avalanches of sleet and snow, only to be thawed out and found rigid and lifeless in the sunlight of a future day. But Gus wasn't the man to get easily frightened; still an increasing uneasiness was creeping over him. This was about as close a call as he had ever experienced in all his life of privation and exposure and the situation seemed to grow worse with every step he took. He was almost ready to drop from fatigue, but he knew that meant an end to it all sure and speedy, and on, on he pushed. If he could only find shelter somewhere, some wolf's hole in the plain, or some barricade against the face of the storm, he would anyway stop briefly for rest. But the night was settling down upon him blacker than Erebus and he dare not think of rest. His heart began to quicken its pulsations and he began to flounder along more recklessly. A frantic determination seized him. He must get out of that black and howling blast at once or never. Gus was mad, and when he gets mad, well, he is a host within himself upon such occasions.
Hark! He stopped. Surely that was the bark of a dog, or was it but the yawn of some straggling or freebooting coyote, or but another stranger wail of the wind.
Ough-ough-oo-oo-oo. There it is again. There is no coyote or wind about that—it is a dog and no less a dog than King Rex!
Calling the faithful brute at the top of his lungs Rudolph actually broke into a lope and the next moment the dog, with an outburst of joyous barks, was plunging in the snow about him. All thoughts of danger and lonesomeness fled as by magic with Rex's coming, and so did Gus' uncertainty about his exact situation. He had been traveling aright ever since he left the hills and had the dog discovered him or not, in a few more moments he would have actually bumpt up against the sod walls of Hamilton's mansion.
We sat up late that night, tired as we all were, but you see the lawyer had brewed us a bowl of punch, and its exhilirating effects banished all ideas of sleep from our mnds, and until nearly 12 we lolled and lounged about the fire, each one endeavoring to outlie the other. After a close race Willie walked off with the pennant, although at one or two stages it looked as if Gus might come in first. Hamilton was left at the post, while I was a bad third.
Just before retiring Rudolph stepped to the door to ascertain what Old Probabilities proposed to do on the morrow and he wasn't long in finding out.
"Whew-ee!" he ejaculated, as the blast swept by wilder and fiercer than ever, "no ducks tomorrow. I am afraid, boys, we are in it for a day or two. It has simply got to wear itself out when it comes this way. I've seen just such storms before."
And the trapper was right. There was no let-up in the fury of the gale until midnight the next night, when it ceased about as suddenly as it began, and a cold blue sky, studded with millions of lustrous stars, overspread a blank and whitened world.
The morning following broke clear and beautiful, but quite cold. The snow, almost on a level with the lodge top, lay like a winding sheet over the whole environing country, yet nature gave freedom to the voices that told that there was yet life and animation beneath all this semblance of death, that her warm heart still beat under the white shroud which enfolded her rigid breast.
A timid piping came from the myriad of buntings disporting in the fields on every hand, while from beneath their frozen bosoms the distant lakes bewailed their imprisonment with smothered moans that awakened a mournful chorus from the sleeping hills, whose white glare reflected now no caress of ripple or flash of wave. The gentler winds stirred the stripped cane stalks and hollow reeds into murmurs sweet, yet sad, while the April sunshine fell like a soft mantle of tawny gold over the winter-wearied earth.
"I suppose this ends our duck hunting," I remarked to Ed in a disconsolate way, as we stood in the doorway and gazed off over the frozen surface of Lake Hamilton.
"Ends our duck shooting—you don't know the country. It is just getting good. There are plenty of air holes in the big lakes and they will be crowded with birds. Don't you worry—they haven't gone away. I tell you, Sandy, that blizzard was a godsend to us, but the cattle owners, it was—on them. I'll tell you what I'll do, now that you are so doubful, I'll bet you a quart of soda water to a package of cigarettes that we kill more birds today than you ever killed in one day in your life."
"But there is not a bird in the air, Ed," I rejoined interrogatively.
"Of course there isn't and there won't be until we or somebody else jumps them from the airholes. But wait, we'll get grub and be off, and I think you will learn more and faster yourself than I can teach you."
At the breakfast table we agreed to split up for the day, Ed and I, and Rex of course, to go to Goose lake, while the lawyer, and the trapper were to try their luck on the Big Blue. So the meal over and we were off, Ed and I in the spring wagon and Billy and Rudolph in the big road wagon.
The sun shone bright and mellow, but riding the air was a bit too refreshing for comfort, but we forgot all about this when once we reached the shores of the lake, and way off to the north discovered an acre or two of ducks crowded together as close as they could sit in a huge airhole just under the shelter of the rice fields.