Birds of Nebraska: Newspaper Accounts, 1854-1923

Sandy Griswold. December 22, 1895. Omaha Sunday Bee p. 23.

On the Legendary Elkhorn

A December Day's Ramble Over Woods and Fields.

Nimble Fox Squirrels and the Quail.

Quail shooting in December.

To the real sportsman the love of nature is paramount to the slaughter of game and the man who sallies forth simply to shoot and lug in a bag of feathers or fur is no sportsman at all. Of course there is an incomparable pleasure in exercising one's knowledge and skill in finding game, but the capture of the same is a secondary sensation to the exquisite delight of being in the bracing, open air, free from thoughts of business and far from the corroding cares of the world.

What is grander than a day spent in the field with a trusty gun and a pair of good dogs, even in the gloom of bleak December? Breathing an air redolent with the odors of the melancholy woods, and the rich pungency of dead leaves, flowers and grasses; gazing upon the brilliant phases of the ever changing scene, with senses alert, as the dogs, sniffing the frosty air, scamper and gallop and leap, here, there, any-everywhere, now plunging into the tangly briar, now emerging onto the open stubble, in frantic search of the the scent of the little brown bird every sportsman loves, and which, surmounting a square of delicately browned toast, makes a feast for the gods, is a sensation indescribable.

And the feeling is a purifying one. The colors are not those with which golden summer or gaudy autumn appeals to the sensuous within us; the somber tone prevalent touches our deepest and holiest emotions. We lament past deficiencies and sins; we form wise and good plans and resolutions; we long to initiate a better and loftier future. Your very soul speaks, that is, be you a sportsman, cleansed for the time from its impurities as the rufous leaf of the cottonwood and the Etruscan gold of the maple whirl and eddy away before the wintry winds.

Charlie Thomas, the stalwart foot ball coach, Barrister Bill Simeral and the historian were the guests of Fred Schroeder on his beautiful farm below Millard last Sunday. And so were Hector and Gordon and Jack, a trio of hunting dogs that would be hard to equal, let alone beat, and to assert that we were royally entertained and had a memorable experience would be to give but a faint idea of the joys of the occasion.

The day was matchless, considering the time of year, with its clear skies, floods of soft sunshine, balmy breeze and exhilarating concomitants, and, while we did not bring back a carload of game, we bagged enough to demonstrate that the dogs worked well and that our skill with the hammerless was far above mediocrity.

An old fox squirrel, the patriarch of the hollow, was the first victim, and he fell in the morning's early light, when the first rays of the timorous wintry sun were glinting the tops of oak and cottonwood, while we were on our way behind Fred's spanking blacks to the Elkhorn bottoms, where Bob White was known to revel. He crossed the road in front of the team from a cornfield to a small grove of timber, but before any of us could get out and get a fair crack at him he scampered up an old gnarled scrub oak and flaunted his yellow brush in our faces as he dove with a taunting cackle into his hole. The barrister shot, however, but too late, and only sent the bark flying in atoms from around the aperture into which foxy had so precipitously plunged.

Bill's shot was an unlucky one, for at that very instant Hector and Jack came to a dead stand in a patch of low hazel at the forks of the road, a few yards on. A roar of whirring wings followed the report as a big bevy of quail rose from the undergrowth, scattering the dry leaves at the first flutter of vigorous wing, and shooting off into the woods, this way and that, like so many russet-colored rockets. I let go with both barrels, a little better than at random, and the barrister emptied his remaining barrel, with no other result, though, than accelerating the speed of the fleeting bevy. The big foot ball player was more fortunate.

He turned on a bird that whizzed out from the bunch over the road and started down the hedge that bordered the western line of a corn field. Like a flash, he cleared the osage fringe and was fleeing away amid the tall cornstalks, still dense in patches over the field, but Charlie was thought itself. "Bang" went his piece and down through the cracking husks whirls something with a thump to the frozen earth.

It was the first quail of the day and it was a marvelously good shot that got him.

After a unanimous anathemization on the unlucky fox squirrel, which had been the cause of our losing one of the best chances of the day, we hurriedly reloaded and took after the dogs, who were already busy. The lawyer climbed the wire fence and followed Hec and Gordon into the grove, while Thomas and I struck Jack's trail down the hedge, where Fred said several birds had flown. I took the field and Charlie the road, and we hadn't gone 100 yards when I saw the red setter toss up his head and sniff daintily in the air, then he turned and looked at me as much as to say: "Hurry up there, Mr. Sporting Editor, Bob will not lie long in this keen morning air." Then he waddled on again, now poking his nose into the hedge, now galloping out into the field. The next moment he whirled half around, with his nose ranging along his mahogany side, and as if carved out of terra cotta, stood pointing into a furrow where the withered corn blades lay thick and deep. I was quickly on to him. Then he straightened himself, worked his nostrils gingerly, took a careful step or two and stopped again.

"Steady, Jack!"

That was the signal.

The buzzing wings I knew would follow burst with a startling flurry from the corn shucks. I was nervous and rusty and made a clean miss with my first barrel and almost another with my second. In fact, I thought I had, but as I watched the bird curve around over the corn toward the hedge I noticed how he lagged and kept lowering as he flew, and it was plain a No. 8 or two had done its work. He almost gained the hedge, then went down to the ground with a bump, bounced over once or twice, then lay on his back on the grassy selvedge with his speckled breast upturned to the sun-dead. Jack loped forward picked him up and stood with him in his mouth until I reached him. Then he dropped him and with wagging tail started down the row of orange bushes again.

Scarcely fifty yards further on Jack again came to a stand, and as he was facing the hedge squarely, and pointing directly into it, I called Charlie up and cautioned him to look out. Neither of us had fairly gotten into good position when out from the thorny labyrinth came a bird like a stone from a slingshot. Contrary to expectations he was on my side and was making for the depths of the standing corn, but he never reached it. I had a fair straight away shot and downed him in true Parmaleesque style. Almost simultaneously with the report of my Lefever two more birds evacuated the cover on the foot baller's side. He missed ignominiously with his first barrel, but made a beautiful stop with his second. Concluding that these were all the birds that had flown down the hedge we started back to the road, where the wagon stood, and found the barrister there awaiting us. He had not succeeded in jumping any of the birds again, but had nailed that old fox squirrel to the cross. Fred told him when he reached the wagon that we had no sooner gone than the squirrel left his hole in the oak, came down, and, running back into the grove a short ways, had gone up a tall cottonwood and disappeared in a nest of leaves that adorned its topmost crotch. That was all Billy wanted to know. He had been there before. So crawling back over the wire fence he stepped up and banged away into the ball of leaves in the cottonwood's top, and after a momentary wait, the old fox came tumbling, grotesquely over and over, from his lofty aerie to the ground, well peppered with bird shot.

We were anxious to reach the bottoms while the hoar frost still sparkled on the stubble and the birds lingered in the cover, and agreeing to lose no further time looking up the scattered bevy, we clambered aboard, Fred cracked his whip and away we went at a rattling pace, the dogs, on a rolling canter, leading the way.

The sun had now found its way into every crevice, picked out the tiny sprouts and minutest twigs and sprinkled tree and bush, hill and vale, with its glorious golden light. The full flush of an October morning in December was upon us. We were passing through a lovely country and everything seemed replete with gladsome life. An old yellowhammer cackled at us from the top of a cotton snag as we dashed by, the radiant blue of a jay flushed athwart the bordering sumachs and the mournful piping of a number of belated bluebirds, hastening south above our heads, caught the ear occasionally as we hurried on.

It was not long before we were in the devious valley of the Elkhorn, and reaching a favorable point the horses were unhitched and hooked to the rear of the wagon; then filling out shoot-pockets with shells we started into the cover. This was more like an old windfall than anything else, full of prostrate logs, moss-covered and grass-grown, tall weeds, huge boulders, treacherous cavities and thickets of wild grape and plum which almost literally defied penetration. We worked over the whole place, however, without so much as jumping a single cottontail, and it was with feelings of relief we finally emerged into a field of standing corn which lay along the shelving bank of the half-frozen but still gurgling Elkhorn. We had started down the western side and had proceeded possibly 200 yards, when the dogs, who were running wild, flushed a fine bevy of birds in the thick brush close to the water. It seemed as if there were a hundred whizzing wings in the air, all spinning at tremendous speed for the timber across the cornfield. We didn't get a shot.

We were quickly in the woods and Hector located the bevy, which had clung together, in short order. They had settled in the weeds about an old tree-top, and this time when they rose we all got in in fine shape, killing three birds. But they did not all flush at once, and while engaged in retrieving a single bird shot out from the bushy top, then another left the whitening grass at our feet, and then another and another and another.

They were scattered now and we separated, Simeral branching off to the left with his two Gordons and Thomas and I following down the edge of the woods behind the Irish, who was not long in coming to a stand. It was back in the woods at the foot of a big oak surrounded by tangly brushwood. I got into an opening and Charlie stepped forward to flush. He got close up to the dog and peered intently into the maze at the point Jack's quivering nostrils indicated, but could, of course, see nothing. Then he rammed his foot into the mass of dead leaves, and out came Bob, Jack making a vain snap at his russet shape as he did so.

The bird curled back over my head and started for a plum thicket near by, but before his browns and whites could blend with the grays of the deeper wood I was onto him. It was a snap shot, but a good one, and I received a pat on the back from the pigskin kicker and a look of affectionate approval from Jack's big brown eyes.

Five minutes later and we again espied the dog in a state of icy rigidity, this time where the fluffy pods of the milk weed made a haze among the hazel. From the dense network of twigs and clinging leaves the bird started, but I was on my mettle, and, catching a glimpse of hurtling white as a mottled breast was whirling against the struggling sunshine in an opening in the plum copse, I pulled the trigger. A puff of feathers, commingled with a shower of twigs and leaves, was all we could discern, but the fatal thump which followed as an echo told that my aim had been all right.

With pleasing promptitude Jack picked up another trail, and it was the refinement of pleasure to see the intelligent animal work. Cautiously he advanced, sneaking under fallen logs and around the standing Anaks of the forest, crawling through the dense tangle of briar and bramble, sniffing eagerly here and there, his nostrils twitching and tail switching nervously. On he goes, but slower and slower, now stopping and with uplifted head peering in front of him, then bending low again until almost upon his belly, his pace becomes a crawl. Al last he comes to a dead halt, and drawing low and back, as if about to spring, he fastens his sparkling eyes, as if fascinated, on a little pile of brush, filled with leaves blown there by the passing breeze, almost under his quivering nose. The frost was opened and Charlie claimed th shot, but I kept well up to get in if he missed.

But he didn't.

I stepped upon the crackling twigs, and a little ball of buff and rosewood color, with a flutter, struggled up through the interstices, and was fairly a-wing, when Thomas' Lefever spoke. And thus another bird was pocketed.

But it would be little better than repetition to detail each individual kill of the day, for thus it was all through that rosy morning. Old Jack never worked better, and it will take years to blot the day from memory's tablets. Slowly on through the woods he went, now up the hillside, where the crowberries still gleamed with silvery sheen amidst gray branches, and where in October the blue gentian had unfolded its fringed petals; now down the opposite slope, over the umbellated baldric of cottonwood, oak and hopple, and the inflorescence of glistening cobweb; now with majestic tred that shows the monarchial pride with which he surveys the weaving solitude; now with the caution of a stalking fox; now halting, now advancing, but never wavering in his pilotage to the leafy crypts where Bob White sought protective haven.

And so, too, was the barrister's hours full of joy and full of profit. His Gordons vied with each other in the excellence of their performance, and when we rejoined him across the squash field beyond the woods at noonday, he counted down six birds, a rabbit and two more squirrels.

But, alas, the day came to an end, as all days have and all days must. Time waits no more for joy than for sorrow, and this day is now only to be looked upon with other happy memories clustered in the past.

An examination of the markets during the past week shows an actual stoppage in the receipt of ducks and an increase in geese. There have been unusually large installments of quail and some few chickens and grouse. Rabbits, jack and the cottontail, as well as squirrels, are exceedingly plentiful.

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