Sandy Griswold. November 16, 1913. Omaha Sunday World-Herald 49(7): S-3. Includes one picture. Continues: 11/23, 49(8): S-3; 11/30, 49(9): S-3; 12/7, 49(10): S-3; 12/14, 49(11): S-3; 12/21, 49(12): S-3; 12/28, 49(13): S-2; 1/4/1914, 49(14): S-2; 1/11, 49(15): S-2, includes a picture; 1/18, 49(16): S-2.
The Wild Fowler's Harbor Out in the Sandhills
Not for many long years, say fifteen or twenty of them, and all liberally interspersed with felicitous experiences, have I enjoyed a more glorious, or a more satisfactory hunting trip than the one that fell to my fortune during the first week of the present month.
I was the guest of the Hon. Charlie Metz, and the happy and congratulatory response this statement will evoke from the scores and scores of Omaha sportsman citizens, who have been similarly fortunate, is attestation enough to symbolize this philanthropic and generous soul with the highest and noblest type of men who have ever drawn the sweet breath of blessed life and blessed liberty. That Charlie Metz makes more of his fellow men forget the corroding cares of business and conventional life, and gives them a real tale of the unalloyed existence, than any score of the man fully as able, and maybe as capable as he, who call the microcosmic burrough of Omaha home, is a fact, I think, that few will dispute. All the year round, his beautiful ranch, up in the wilds of Cherry county, is not only the sanctuary, but a haven of untrammeled joy and content, to more men, women and children, than all similar institutions of the kind in the state together, and when there, they are Mr. Metz's guests in the completest and fullest sense of the expression. Being a most ardent and inveterate sportsman himself, a great preponderance of the men and women who have enjoyed his unstinted bounty, have been of the persuasion, either in a mild or most virulent type. In the sweet spring days, it has been the wild fowl that have been the lure; in the suave days of summer, the golden perch and bronze sunfish, the flowers, undulating in riant waves the live long day, before life-giving prairie winds, the haying and the harvesting; in the fall, the wondrous and gaudy beauties of all nature, and once again the geese and the ducks, the crane and the chicken, as well as hordes of good things this genial host showers upon the chosen, in a gastronomic and culinary way. Studious attention ceases only when the vital functions are dormant in that physiological state, called sleep. And, oh, me! oh, my! how you do eat, and how you do sleep, out at Metz's.
But, enough. After Charlie Metz has been gathered to his fathers, he will need no marble monument to perpetuate his fame. In the memory of those who know him, and they are legion, he will go on in the reflection of his kindly deeds, in the genuine pleasure he always felt in the happiness of others, his smiles, when a hunter had succeeded in bringing in a nice bag or birds, or the angler his basket of perch-all these, and many more, with the remembrances of his fervent inquiries about those absent from the circle, around the stove, in the cozy living room, after the day's delights afield are over, who have also been guests at the old Merganzer Lodge and mingled in the most fascinating of all outdoor sport-the shooting of the wild fowl-all these things will be recalled with devout fervor and thankfulness, of a man, the like of whom is but infrequently met along life's weary journey.
And the Metz preserve, as it has become known from land's end to land's end, let me say once more, there is nothing like it, not here, nor there, or anywhere else, so far as that is concerned. I have been the guest of other good men, but not quite up the Charlie's notch, and shot at some of the best known boxes along the legendary old Chesapeake, at Currituck, the St. Clair Flats, Koshkonong, on the Kankakee and Illinois, as well as on the Sui Sun marshes, and at La Jolla, on the auriferous coast of California, and yet have I ever been at one that could match Merganzer Lodge. It lays them all in the shade in every detail and from any and all angles.
Briefly, the lay of the country compassed by the Metz ranch, and all about environing, is ideal in both beauty and configuration, with a big, gleaming gem of a lake. Three Springs, by name, lying along the full two-mile base of Old Dunderberg, as I christened the big sandhill buttressing the northern horizon, over a quarter of a century ago-when the pointed Sioux used to come down through the passes on their little rats of ponies for water-and the wild fowl knew naught of the crack of nitro, till I got there. Then there is a spring fed rill bisecting the ranch, and singing its endless song; great grazing lands, covered with herds of sleek kine, as far as the vision can reach, with some clumps of puckerbush and wild rose, and a few mottes of timber. And the ranch houses. Clustered in perfect symmetry, they resemble a little villa on the plain, with Bowman's big, modern residence, appointed with everything modern, from electric light, hot and cold water, telephone, furnace and all-garage, with its big 60-Buick, motorboat, store and ice houses, blacksmith and carpenter shop, spacious barns, runs, corrals and stock sheds in the rear-artificial lake, teeming with bass, perch and crappie, and with its flotillas of semi-domesticated Canada geese, mallards, teal and widgeon-in fact, a perfect sportsman's refuge, as well as a complete ranch of the most modern accessories and conveniences.
The hunter's haven-Merganzer Lodge-is a gothic building of well-planned design and finish, and while very roomy, will be materially enlarged by Mr. Metz the coming spring. But in describing this I can do no better than repeat what I said in this connection a year ago. Once there you would imagine that nothing more is needed, but in the bigness of his heart, Charlie Metz is not quite satisfied. He wants more to give his friends! As it is at present the dormitory, the principal apartment, a long, airy and commodious room, running back from the front porch, to the big living room on the east side, with roomy cuisine and cold storage department to the west, tiled bathroom following, and butler's and chef's quarters, still in the rear, is all that the most exacting can desire or ask for.
The big sleeping room is appointed with the single aim for the hunter's convenience and pleasure, with its large southern stove, its gun, clothes and boot racks, alongside; with its stationary wash stands, with hot and cold water all the time, and its double row of white iron, single bedsteads, box-mattressed, snowy linened and blanketed to suit the taste of the most luxurious. There are eight of these beds, four on each side of the room, with a berugged area way down the center and between each. At the head of each bed is a handsomely appointed, individual locker, with departments for both hunting and dress apparel. In fact, the whole apartment is one of the most complete to be found anywhere, even outrivaling the famous Sui-sun Teal club in California, or the Saranac lodge in the Adirondacks.
The dining room is also a thing of beauty, and a joy forever, with his long Flemish oak tables and chairs; its most seductive buffet, sideboard, china closet and larder. And the cuisine, presided over by Jim Heironymous, one of the most skilled of all the best known dining car chefs, is a dream in appointment and completion. In fact, the Merganzer Hunting Lodge stands peerless and alone in all this broad land in its unique and charming ensemble.
I made the trip this time out to the ranch alone, but once there the radiating influence of Frank Bowman, the ranch overseer, and of Ray, his big, strapping son, and all his family, and Jim Heironymous, the chef at the lodge, made me forget everybody else. Bowman is a sterling man every way, and a grand hunter and a crack shot, and Jim, well, he is the best chef this side of the Ritz-Carlton, and with plenty of wood in the box, plenty of rare, old cigars, good, cold, spring water, choicely-selected literature, superb automatic music box, and a downy couch fit for a king, what more could I ask, what more could I want? No chance for ennui or lonesomeness at Old Merganzer when the ducks are flying, during the trenchant golden day time, and the fire a-roaring in the stove at night.
Notwithstanding the next day, after my arrival, at the Metz ranch, was Sabbath, Colonel Frank Bowman and I were busy as the proverbial beaver at a very early hour. Excepting Jim, the chef, whom I heard whistling merrily about the kitchen, long before there were any signs of the approaching dawn, I was the first one up.
When I stepped out into the chilly morning air, the sky was robed in blue and gold, with an embroidery of pearl. I looked down and out over the dim marsh, which was dull and silent. It was breathless, even the long ragged streamers, on the wild rice stalks, were hanging still and listless.
All the fascinating mythology of the old times is born of a picture such as surrounded Merganzer Lodge, that sacred and beloved old harbor of the duck hunter, in those ghostly sandhills. To the still dark labyrinths of the marsh's tangly depths, did the antique fancy give the dryad and naiad to the silvery waters of Three Springs. On the misty dome of old Dunderberg, with its gleaming crown, perched the thunder-bearing Zenus-it was like a summer morn-and from the glancing light, over the distant range, was created the golden sandalled Hermes and Aphrodite from the lake's softly lapping waves.
"Look yonder, Mister Griswold!" cried Jim, as he appeared at the kitchen door. "There goes a kiyote!"
And, sure enough, there he slunk, the frowsy, comical, little nomad of the plain-away from the vicinity of the duck pond, where the enticing scent of Charlie's three old Canadas and flock of domestic mallards had drawn him, trotting complacently down toward the tule beds, but with his pointed muzzle constantly pointed our way.
"You could have gotten a shot at that fellow," continued Jim, as the little wolf's dark, gray form vanished within the frill of rice below the landing.
"Yes, Jim," I replied, "but I wouldn't have taken it if I could. I'd as leave shoot a redwinged blackbird as I would a coyote."
As you may know, my day of the wanton killing of any of the little wild folk of our silent places has gone these many years.
Breakfast, as tempting, delicate and appetizing as it was-with its grape fruit and maraschino cherry, thick sirloin, done to an epicurean nicety, swimming in its ruddy juices and fresh grass butter, German fried potatoes, corn muffins and gold, brown nectar, brewed from 65-cent coffee-only half done justice to, in the fever that was upon me, was soon over, and Frank and I were on our way to the landing for our first day together for a long twelvemonth. As we plodded along the deep, worn cattle path, the gray light had given place to the soft glow preceding the sunrise. Rosy clouds smiled overhead, and in the east a mass of feathery vapor burned into tawny gold. As we neared the old plank platform, where the boats were moored, the conical backs of the distant hills shown as in the glare of some fabulous furnace, and in a few more seconds, "Apollo was pitching his darts," thick and fast, over the measureless desert of yellowing grass and into the marshy fields of glistening cane and rice.
Splinters of thin ice leaped scintillating like intangible gems, into the light from beneath our Bannigan rubbered feet, as we stepped from the landing, and the sudden sound startled a bunch of greenwings from a quiet little cove within the rice, and as, with a splash, they shot in a mass before us, Frank exclaimed, but cautiously, of course, like the old duck hunter that he is.
"We are going to have a bully day, Sandy."
Then a belated bittern, or squwok-as we kids used to call them-spread his rufous sails from the mucky islet and flapped lazily away down the lake, way across which, around a background sandhill, a couple of Marsh hawks were pin-pointing. Blackbirds, yellow and scarlet-winged, chimed and tinkled from every reedy clump-their "kong-kong-karee," being sweetest melody always to the wild fowler's heart, and seemingly always auguring an extra flight of birds.
Out across the small open stretch and into the narrow, shallow channel-the tortuous and muddy link connecting landing and lake-we toiled in our sheet-iron skiffs, and in defiance of our slow progress, and unavoidable noisy splashings, a big, black eagle swept almost under our noses, and then, with a sudden and a wondrous accumulation of pinion muscles, as if daunted by its own temerity, it rushed lessening away, over the ruffled surface of the broad lake, opening like a sheet of sapphire before us. A flock of Canada geese, "auk-unking" in resonant chorus, rose from the mid marsh, and getting well up into the sunlit air, harrowed off over the smiling brow of Old Dunderberg, while long lines of dark dots against the rose of the distant sky showed us where the traveling mallards were going.
The Wild Fowler's Harbor in the Sandhills
Indurated as he is, by vigorous action about the ranch at all seasons, it was the toughest kind of a job for even Frank to row, pole and push his boat through that shallow channel, out to the open lake. But if it was a task for Bowman, it was a herculean one for me. But what a duck hunter can't do, with the lure of good shooting before him, is something that I am not going to try to figure out, and I know all my old Omaha shooting comrades would risk money on the proposition that I would get there, no matter where Frank led.
And I did. But I was next to all in when we gained the little rice-covered peninsular point on the west side of the first considerable body of open water we reached, and had to take a good, long rest before I was much more than able to move comfortable about. After a careful survey of the situation we had mutually agreed that the location was the very best in sight, and so it proved before many hours had gone by.
As we entered the open water from the narrow channel, and started to row across, huge flocks of mallards, as well as many other kinds of wild fowl, jumped from the adjacent sloughs and puddles on our right, some of them so close that the burnished green of their necks and heads, and the glistening bands of blue upon their wings, was as clear as the blacks and whites of the skimming butterballs. But we let them all go. We knew it was a bad plan to shoot at ducks when you drive them out of their roosting grounds, and we felt that it was altogether nothing to what we would see when once we had our decoys out and were safely and securely anchored in our blind among the arrowy shafts of the tules.
Most of the birds we flushed had curved round and over us, and after a series of preliminary circles, settled in the shallow rice beds back of us, and Frank said that they must be bedded in there by the thousands, as that is where he had seen them settle in countless flocks the evening before. But it was impossible to get a boat there, and wading was entirely out of the question.
However, after much drudgery, we got our decoys out, and finally our boats located along side of each other, well within the outer fringe of rice and tules, and all fixed, began to look about us.
Over across the open water to the north and west, the mucky shore line and low waters, as far as the eye could reach, were actually studded with birds-mallards, bluebill and teal principally, but with the usual complement of mixed fowl. There were smaller birds there, too, in great numbers and variety, and Frank and I certainly did enjoy the charming scene. Among the black, soft tule tussocks, close to us, we saw a number of jacksnipe, a rare sight any time, lounging with easy grace or indolently probing the mirey soil, and occasionally actually wallowing in its warming embrace.
Sometimes they would arise in erratic flight and their long bills and peculiar heads, large, lustrous eyes and gamey hues, made a lovely picture, mirrored as they were, in the still water in front of us. A number of yellowlegs, both the greater and the lesser, were also there and they marched in stately dignity along the wet shores, while small wisps of lovely phalaropes were either quietly feeding or sweeping in short sorties from mud bar to mud bar.
While a bunch of these exquisite little game birds was engaged in one of these sallies through the air they were suddenly attacked by a fine old marsh hawk, but he was unable to get his beak or talon into any of them. After some remarkable aerial feats, as if in the ecstasy of his delight or else as a demonstration of his lordly power, he made a swoop among them, but it was a fruitless one, as the little feathered sprites actually tumbled into the water, and dove out of harm's way. We could have shot the hawk as he rose up over us, but he was safe, as neither Bowman or I ever dream of molesting one of these beautiful and useful birds. The same as we, they have their appetite for game, and the small bounty they levy upon their lesser kindred is infinitesimal in comparison to the great good they do, in their destruction of field mice and obnoxious and hurtful insect life. We are fond of wild duck flesh, while the hawks, not averse to the same diet, prefer phalarope. And where's the difference?
This particular hawk seemed to know the character of the two men in the blind. He was bound to have his breakfast, and refused to leave the enticing vicinity. Suddenly there was a great commotion among the mallards and other birds about us, and with raucous cries of affright, the whole smear arose and squawking distractedly, went sailing away over the lake toward the tangled depths of the tule and rice at the north end. It was our hawk. Dissatisfied with his luck with the phalaropes, he had singled out a particular fat, old mallard hen, and the pair, the duck a few yards in the lead, came dashing on a bee line for our blind.
It looked very much as if the duck was a goner, and as the hawk seemed about to make the final clutch with those cruel scimitar outstretched talons of his, Frank pulled off his cap, and whirling it around his head, cried out:
"Good by, Mrs. Mallard!"
But Bowman had calculated without his host, for at this instant, and not forty yards to our left, the old hen, like a flash of brown and yellow light, shot down into the water. Both seemed to strike the surface together. There was a loud splash, an upheaval of foam and spray, and the hawk was seen lifting himself in the air, but no duck was to be seen. A few fluffy feathers danced buoyantly on the ripples that eddied away from the spot where the two birds had struck the water and that was all. The mallard had dove and if uninjured by the impact when she hit the surface, had made good her escape by swimming to the cover of the near rushes.
"Good!" I cried, as the disconcerted hawk flapped away in disgust, and kept on in rapid flight down toward Frank's great hay fields, as if he had concluded that he might find better fare along the runways of the field mice, than with the feathered marceau of the marsh.
"Yes, that leaves one more mallard for us," was Bowman's ironical response, as he seated himself on the peaked prow of the boat, smiling quizzical into my face.
A considerable lull in the morning's excitement followed this last frustration of that bold harrier of the marsh. There was little commotion among the ducks in any direction, the full flush of the golden sunshine had flooded the whole landscape, and about the only sounds audible was the still sweet kong! kong! ko-ree! of the redwings, the pink! pink! pink! of drifting warblers above and the whispered lapping of the tiny waves a freshing southern breeze had set to dancing.
Frank and I smoked and chatted, and gazed and dreamed, until finally everything became so hushed, that we both grew quiet, too, but never relaxed our vigilance for the coming of the birds which we felt were due at any moment.
As usual, I fell amusing. Such surroundings always have had a poetical and philosophical influence over me, as I suppose, they do over all lovers of nature. From Lucretius to Wordsworth the poets have ever been the avant-couriers of philosophy. They lover nature and nature loves them and they whisper their secrets to each other.
Nature, I thought, is the one true university. Her teachings are free, generously and delightfully so, and her portals are always wide open to the student with a welcome hospitality. She takes you by the hand and leads you into her charmed realm of beauty and mystery. The uninitiated rejoice in what they do not understand, but the sage, having spent his life in her school, knows that even he has but begun to appreciate the infinite opulence of her knowledge and the inexhaustible kindness of her maternal heart toward those striving to learn. Nature is the one sublime source of all literature, all art, all science, and of all religion, I might add, worthy of the name. She is a great astronomical observatory, a wheeling cyclorama of the stars, and her laboratories are filled with instruments for both celestial and terrestrial research.
As we go forth into these broad, dim marshes, over such unsullied waters as those of Three Springs, we feel a moral freedom we feel nowhere else. Everything about us is friendly. There is no envious or jealous eye, no critical or venomous tongue, anywhere in all the expansive open. Everything is chaste, benevolent and healthful. All in the earth, in the water and in the sky are combining in our pleasure.
Nature is free and munificent in her offers of knowledge. Her book is unclasped, plainly printed, and open to the light of the sun. We have but to study and learn to read. When the Father made the human race he cradled it in the open among the flowing grass and the swaying trees, and when he made a great nation he led it out into the unrooted wilderness.
In the solitudes, like those that breathe in the shade of Old Dunderberg, out on the Metz ranch, one becomes absorbed by the smallest things about him. No phenomenon, however trivial, fails to attract his attention-the wind, the water, the clouds, the tiny marsh wren, the cleaving mallard, the whimpering muskrat, are his beloved companions, and he invests them with much above the material. Everything is gentle, pleasing and kind, out there, within the borders of the rice, and with the haycocks, like the scattered tents of some vast army, dotting the distant plain for miles-everything is uplifting and inspired. It is a heavenly and enrapturing harmony, this becoming a part of the sweet harmony of God and nature. We are in fellowship with lake and reed and grass, with hill and plain, with the flutings of the meadowlark, the quacking of the wild fowl; with the fleecy piles of clouds, in the flashing sunshine by day, and the softening luster of moon and star borealis by night.
Scarcely had Bowman spoken, when a lone drake mallard, resplendent in chestnut, velvety gray and iridescent blacks, with is burnished green head poked far out in front, and fairly glistening in the sunlight, hove into view. As he was about to pass over us I pulled up my Parker, and as Frank ejaculated "too high! too high!" the gun cracked, and the big drake stopped as if he had run into a stone wall, folded his wings, and came straight down, like a falling brick, stone dead! He missed hitting the boat by no more than a foot, and as her kerplunked into the low water just over the gunwales from Frank, the impact splashed the black mud in oozy clots over his laughing face and canvas shooting coat. As he reached over, he grabbed the splendid bird by the neck, shook the wet and mud from his handsome plumage, and laying it on the hay at my feet, he said:
"A dandy shot, sure! I thought he was too high, but I was mistaken," and with something akin to pique in the movement, he pushed the bird closer to me with his foot.
As I looked down upon it I could not help but think that such an exquisite creature ought to be sacred from the hand of man, and it was with emotions, such as I frequently find stealing over me now, after nearly a half a century of this shooting and killing, that I steadfastly gazed upon the dead bird. There he lay, the lord of all that wild lake and wilder marsh land, so lately cutting the shimmering autumn air in the glory of the strength and loveliness-bejeweled head, banded wing and curling tail-there he lay-dead, with a crimson smear on his regal bronze breast-dead, in his purity and beauty.
I was smitten with compunctious thrills as I thought of the short, but innocent life, he had lived in the undefiled realm of nature, that he had never harmed a living thing, and again, I felt that it is fast becoming something else besides this destruction that calls me so persistently, spring and fall, to the solitudes of the faraway sandhills, with their unfailing freshness and unfailing charms.
"The Sunday hunters are getting out at last," and Frank's voice brought me out of my reverie, as a distant report, and then another and another, broke in on the stillness, the first faraway over the big hill, no doubt, on the North lake, or Raccoon, as it should be called, and the others from up the west end.
"We'll have plenty of shooting now," continued Frank, "and see," he went on, "they have raised them by the thousands on the upper lake!"
And, sure enough, weaving lines of birds, but dimly descried, were pouring over the farther hills. Before, however, any of these had reached the outer borders of Three Springs, we saw a fine bunch of mallards lift themselves from the masses of the tules and rice, from our own lake, way this side of them, and getting well up into the air, come straight for us!
The Wild Fowler's Harbor in the Sandhills
Abrupt, as the opening of the morning flight was, Frank and I were prepared for it-it was just what we had been waiting for and just what we had expected. As we crouched and peered through the rice we not only saw the bunch of mallards, like aerial racers, approaching us, up the marsh, but there were birds quickly in sight in almost every direction. A mass of them were circling round and round over the tule beds down at the west end, and large and small flocks were flying aimlessly across and back to the north and over the glinting sandhills, over about Raccoon lake. The guns were now popping pretty regular on all the outer edges of the marsh, but we had little time to enjoy the commotion, when our mallards-about fifteen or twenty of them-swung up the arm of open water, and then round straight for our decoys. We waited until they had cupped their wings, and began to drop their bright orange legs, when we rose together, and there were several sharp reports in quick succession, and four birds let go, all falling in the open before us, while the est, with loudly beating pinions and louder squawking, climb up into the air, and went dashing away in all directions. One more bird, however, was induced to remain with the quartet floating on the gentle waves before us. He had failed to get up sufficient steam to get out of reach of Frank's dandy little twenty-bore Parker, although he had been compelled to reload, and at the crack of the gun, down he came, stone dead, falling fully seventy-five yards out in the lake. It was a great shot, but just like hundreds of others I had seen this matchless duck shot make the fall before.
"We needn't mind about retrieving those birds," remarked Bowman as he slipped in a couple of shells, "the wind is just right, and will carry them against the north shore. This evening-"
Further remarks were cut short by a long line of birds that were whizzing down upon us from the same direction the mallards had come, I fairly fell upon my back. There was no need of admonishing Frank, for, of course, he had caught sight of them, too.
On they came like bats out of hades.
"Green wings!" whispered Bowman.
They had now reached the open waters, but instead of coming straight on, they suddenly swerved as if to go round us. However, they had not detected us, and this turn was but a whim of their erratic nature. But it was probably a good thing they didn't come straight at us, for we couldn't have possibly done much execution, for a line of incoming green-wing teal make about as an elusive a target as any birds I know of.
As it was this bunch of birds, swung round just right, in answer to Frank's low piping whistle, giving us a raking shot from crescent end to crescent end, right through the main bunch.
For a few seconds I thought it was raining green wings, and as the dead and crippled went gyrating over and over, amidst puffs of feathers, into the ricey shallows, just back of us, I thought we had killed a dozen of them.
Bowman let out a yelp, and as he did so, the remainder of the flock flew together, going up into the air like a sledge runner, and then, with another of those incomprehensible convolutions for which Anas Crecca is famous, and alone capable, swooped round with a whiz of wing, and started right back toward us again.
Again Frank sounded that little soft, jerky whistle that is so seductive to the teal, and down they dove toward our decoys, as if determined to find out what became of our missing companions. But they wasted no time in their investigations, nor did we in preparing for them, and as they swept around the clump of rice in which we were anchored, we gave them a second dose of chilled 7s, but in contradistinction to our first efforts, we only dropped a single bird, and it was only crippled, and hitting the water with a bound, was quickly within the rushes.
"Behind them!" remarked Frank, as I stood watching the gathering bunch, which, once more together, like little streaks of rufous light, scudded off over the rice beds, and off over the shining brow of Old Dunderberg toward Raccoon, and at the rate they were going I think they reached the north pole long before sunset.
In every direction the air was filled with the aimlessly scurrying birds. Along the sky streamed lines of redheads, while from over the reeds and the nearer shore in all directions came bunches, big flocks and single ducks.
Scarcely had we settled ourselves when a cock redhead, resplendent in rosewood and velvety gray, came whizzing past from the right, my side. As I whirled my gun toward him, a bunch of mallards, bound for the lakes down below Cody, came whizzing from the opposite direction, and they must have been ten yards past the redhead by the time I fired my first barrel. How I jerked that gun back again toward the mallards without breaking my neck I don't know to this day.
But I got there all the same, as you all have, many a time, made shots for which you could not account by any process of ratiocination. My second barrel cracked simultaneously with the double report of the rancher's little twenty. Three birds dropped from the flock and went drifting toward the opposite line of tules.
"Mark!" from Frank.
It was a bunch of bluebills, and they came hurtling down the wind like canister from a cannon. I took the lead and Bowman the middle, according to out positions, and we both downed our bird. In fact, three fell, as in the case of the mallards. Two were stone dead, but the other one was only wing-tipped. But we didn't let him get away, and yet it took a half dozen loads to put him on his back. All of you old hunters know what it is to overshoot a wounded duck-what a hard matter it is to kill a bird on the water and how many fine chances you have often spoiled by continuing to bang away at a cripple, only to see him get away at last.
Another bunch of broadbills came in almost immediately, but they swung out rather far. We heard the No. 6s rattle against their dark sides, but aside from loosening out a feather ot two, the flock swerved off out over the rice fields undamaged.
Again. We had barely recovered from our chagrin when a flock of mallards, embracing possibly sixty birds, came straight into us. We waited until they dropped their orange pillars to light among the decoys, when we arose together and poured it into them. Five birds fell, while a sixth, which had received some stray shot in the onslaught, dropped out of the main bunch as they tore straight away, flying back of our blind, crossing the intervening channel, them over the tules, out on the shore, and falling dead on the slope's side, fully half a mile away.
"Look out, Frank, you'll strain that little popgun of yours," I facetiously remarked, as Bowman knocked an old drake mallard out of a wisp of three that had swung into our decoys, while we were still gabbing over the last shot, and then dodged out over the marsh again before within real gunshot, it seemed, yet the old emerald-hooded drake came down with a plunk, dead as a door nail, when the rancher took a long chance at them.
No I won't Sandy, those shots are not only easy with this toy Parker of mine, but common-that is, whenever you get any sort of a decent crack at them."
"Well, I guess you're right," I replied, "but from the way you kill ducks, I've to a sort of a hunch that there is a good deal in the man behind the gun. Of course-Mark, to the west,-call them!"
And Bowman, from back somewhere in the rear of his face, let go the feeding call of the mallard.
It was another splendid bunch of those royal birds, but instead of responding to the call, they went up into the air, as if some one had touched off a bomb under them, veered off to the right, swung clean round, and in a long line went back up the marsh, out over the North lake.
"That's queer," I said, "I thought they'd turn sure-they must have seen us."
"No, they didn't. It was simply that asthmatic call I let out-you don't have to call mallards, and I never do it. They are too slick for me. I know other hunters do, and have great success at it-but with me, I simply keep still and I think I get my share of them. But here comes a pair of baldpates. Down!"
"To your right-they are on your side, so you take them."
The pair were low down over the glistening reeds and were coming with their usual lightning speed on a course that would carry them right over the middle of the channel in front of us.
They are suspicious and slow up as the decoy-covered opening bursts upon their vision through the swaying cane, and the drake had actually dropped his lead-colored legs when I jumped to my feet and killed him as clean as a whistle. The hen twisted around, in some sort of an impossible way, and squawking in fright, sought to make good her escape back over the nodding cane and rice.
But the old rancher was right there, and at the crack of his 20, she went down into the soggy rice like a brick thrown from the top of the Woodmen of the World building.
"Good," I cried, "that last shot was a dandy. I thought she was going to get away. She was fully seventy-five yards distant-every inch of it. You see that tall rice stalk out there, the one with the long streamer dangling from its top? Well, she fell right there, and she's dead, too, dead as a mackerel. Wonder if we can get her?"
"Easy enough. We can push the boat right into that little inlet, when we get ready to retrieve and reach her with an oar!"
"That was the popgun again," Frank went on with much evident pride, "and I tell you, Sandy, they are the stuff!"
"Well, to say the least, in your hands they are great, and another fall I'll run you a race with a 20-Parker. If that old baldpate hen was a yard away, she was eighty of them, and you knocked her stiff-yes, I see them!"
And down we crouched again.
The Wild Fowler's Harbor in the Sandhills
The rancher's keen eyes had caught another approaching flock, and at his low, admonition, like component parts of one machine, we both stooped low behind the rice stalks.
"Redheads, Sandy," he continued as second later, "and as they are the first seen, don't be in a hurry. If we let them, they'll light, and we can take our time."
And true enough they did light, but not just where we would have had them. Down they came, like meteors, swept over and past our decoys, with that sibilant sound of wing the redhead always makes, and then after a circle of a few hundred yards, they swung round and came our way again.
"Let them light," Frank repeated, as the beautiful birds began to descend, and while it was extremely trying on the nerves, I obeyed.
Swish-ish-ss-siss! They again swept over our bobbing counterfeits, but instead of stopping kept right on with marvelous velocity, and off up into space, as if bound for the rosy zenith. But they were not. Another sweeping detour, and back they came in that same wild rush of wing and gleaming red of iris.
Bowman and I both kept our strained positions. We were mutually anxious to bag a redhead or two, as so far this fall but few had been seen, let alone killed.
Before we could possibly have taken advantage of the opportunity they again gave us as they swept by, they shot on out into the lake a hundred yards beyond our decoys, and slid gracefully into the crystal waters, as if that had been their intended destination from the start. Two or three birds, however, as if by some indefinable intimation of danger, did not stop with the rest, but kept on their way down the lake, and very soon lost to view among the many other birds that were weaving a warp and woof in the golden air to the west of us.
To say that we were disappointed would be but illy expressing it, and yet we extracted much solace by watching the birds as they floated out there before us. For a few seconds they sat perfectly still. Then they began to move with the almost imperceptible motion of a gossamer upon the gently rippling surface, from side to side, inspecting their surroundings, for they were evidently half suspicious all the time.
Finally, as there seemed no real occasion for alarm, the whole flock, and there must have bee forty of them, converged toward one point, and we thought they were going to feed, but instead, at a strange half guttural "meow!" from one of the old cocks, with a loud splashing, they rose in a body, and were off like so many feathered apparitions, leaving Frank and I gazing blankly into each other's faces.
As the blur of gray and brown grew indistinct in the distance, Frank, seating himself with his customary imperturbability on the prow of his boat, remarked.
"Well, we didn't want any of that lot, anyway! Did you notice, Sandy, how lean and poor they were-just like a lot of fish ducks."
"Sure," I replied, not to be outdone, "I wouldn't have given more than $100 for a shot at them under any circumstances."
But we were given but precious little time to continue this humorous exchange, for with a suddenness that caused us both to tilt our boats dangerously, a dozen mallards rushed at and over us. Frank leaped to his feet and let them have one barrel, and two greenheads, dead as stones, plunged into the reedy muck back of us, and as the flock went sweeping on toward the rice beds, he cut out the third one. Another of those remarkable long range shots of his, which, so many times, had already all but taken my breath away. No, I didn't shoot, or even attempt to. I was too wise to waste ammunition in such an undertaking.
But the last bird, and as unusual as it was, was another cock. It was only wounded, but with that tenacity for which the heroic old mallard is so justly celebrated, he kept into the air until the mirey sluice way in our rear had been cleared, when he sagged, wobbled uncertainly on a few more yards, then went down out of sight within the fringe of yellow rice stalks.
"Lunch for some hawk," said Frank sententiously, as he slipped in a couple more of those tiny red shells, but before really ready, I saw another flock of birds approaching, in fact, several of them.
But it would be only repetition to recount the numerous interesting incidents of that rare morning's shoot, yet I will add that quietude, along toward the noon hour, had again settled over Three Springs, and the last bird had settled in the mucky rice fields in front and behind us. We shoved our boats out into the open lake, and across to the opposite line of rushes, where most of our birds had drifted and lodged, and finished up our retrieving. Thence back into the blind again for luncheon, a pipe and a chat and doze.
We had no more shooting till well along toward the shank of the afternoon, when again those feathered hosts became restless and again the distant reports of numerous guns were heard off on the marsh. Of course, Frank and I had another great shoot. We couldn't help it. It was an ideal evening for the birds and we were in the very best position on the whole lake. We got the limit and didn't half try, at that. Hundreds of birds came within range, at which we did not even shoot. As we were sure of our lawful quota, Bowman said we would confine ourselves to drake mallards exclusively. And we did, and I wish you could have seen that man shoot that little 20-bore Parker of his. I believe he could reach them where I could not. Anyway, he made many more kills, and cleaner ones, than I did, at long distance. However, I told you a year ago that Frank Bowman is the best duck shot in the state, and that probably had much to do with it. And yet, you got to give that little 20-bore Parker the fullest credit. It is certainly a hum dinger!
It was one of those evenings encountered nowhere but in the sandhills, and the shoot we had took me back to the very best I had ever experienced, and that is saying much, for I have had great shooting on every well-known ducking grounds in the country, from the Chesapeake to Sui Sun.
The sun went down, and in a liquid, ambient light, which overspread the great expanse of green and dun and yellow, from the blazing brow of Old Dunderberg to the line of leafless cottonwoods that in the summer time cast their cooling shades over Merganzer Lodge. Ah, me! Could I but surely count upon once more seeing that wild, wondrous, beautiful and thrilling scene, and have but one-tenth of the sport we had that lovely evening on that grand but lonely lake, I would be happy and content for evermore. Nerves that felt but a slight tremor at the going and the coming of the birds that morning, now fairly quaked at their aerial maneuvers in all directions. It was truly like an old-day flight which I had witnessed on this very lake, when feathered host upon feathered host, that had been putting in the day on the great Lake Creek marsh, fifty miles to the north, and on the low, wet lands about Clear and Indian lakes, would begin to steer for this unexcelled feeding and roosting grounds-the Metz lake, white the colossal armies of wild fowl, bound for the sandy bars of the rivers further south, came whizzing down the hyperborean heavens. Ah, those flights! Now, forever, a thing for memory's conjuring only, when long lines came widening out and sliding down, as all of you old timers have seen them do, time and time again in the happy days of the past; rising out of the dark horizon in clouds, hanging against the rose-colored fleece in the heavens a moment, then come bearing down upon you like a tide of fierce wind. Thrilling spectacle, indeed! Some of the birds used to come over the hills so low that they were on a line with our eyes, and as the twilight deepened we frequently caught ourselves dodging to avoid them.
Over the low undulations to the west of us, where the land rolled like the broken billows of some mighty ocean, they used to hurry, not in frequent or isolated flocks, but in an unending army, and swifter than the prairie's gust itself, while thousands would stream in on the expiring beams of the sinking sun.
Before dark Three Springs lake would be a sight, for all over its broad surface, and on the farther shores even, floating and sitting in the grandeur of their solitude, ducks could have been seen by the tens of thousands. A wild and wondrous scene, indeed, and quite incredible now, in the days of the birds' waning glory, to see the wild fowl throng at nightfall on the waters of Nebraska's wild, sandhill lakes! And yet, what Frank Bowman and I watched together on the evening of November 2 last, was, at least, in a small way, much like it.
Amidst the scene of matchless charm we attempted but few shots, we had all the birds we were entitled to, and it was only obeying a good law laid down by Mr. Metz, as well as the one on the statute books. So we just sat and in silence enjoyed the thrilling act on the stage of that wild country in the delicious chill of that mellow November evening.
The sinking sun sprinkled the rice flags and tules like golden ran, and over the far-off sandhills sailed swift lights and shades, like the play of color on velvet, as gauzy clouds, streaming with the colors of an opal, drifted athwart the empyrean. Occasionally the whole marsh would glow in golden sheen, then an immense shadow would rise from the expanse of glittering waters and weeds like the Afrite from his crystal vase, and clamber out on the plain, the timid sunshine shrinking before it until it vanished over the hay fields. The irregular line of the dark morass was traced around the whole horizon, but the scene was irresistible enchanting, with the soft, semi-light, the rose-leaf clouds, the crimson west, the darkening prairies, the blackening east and purpling hills. Blended with the goodnight twitter of the swamp sparrows, was the rush of strong pinions in the air above, and the quick reports and dying cadences of the guns of the hunters, up and down the lake.
Most any of the nature-loving sportsmen who have enjoyed the rare hospitality of Charlie Metz, on his beautiful sandhills' ranch, will tell you that a late autumn sunset on Three Springs lake, is one of the rarest spectacles of a lifetime-a spectacle to be viewed from few spots on this earth. We bow before the grandeur of Niagara, where seas plunge upon the globe's heart in reverberating thunders, but glance merely at the startling pictures painted by the dying sun down the November sky slope, almost any place the old masters-of Titian, Tintoretto and Gigorgione, whose names glitter with the magic tints of the Alpine world, and ring with the golden richness of her music, but too often to even consider in the smallest way the colors born of that one painter-the atmosphere, and which, on Three Springs, flash disdain upon the tame blazonry of their mimic tones. Even the divine frescoes of Raphael must give way to the commonest tints of a sandhill sunset. And aye, the architecture of Angelo and Giotto must yield to the architecture the vapors build in this evening sky, with its pillars and arches, and colonnades, never monotonous, but in the shimmering air, changing as you gaze. On crumbling foundations of living sapphire, and flushed with the fitting tints of the dropped orb of day, they far transcend the divinest dreams that ever fell to the lot of any of those mighty masters.
It was plumb dark, and the coyote was chanting his jubilate out on the distant plain, but the flush of Hesperus was in the sky, as Frank and I, with out ducks strung over an oar and on our shoulders, staggered up to the door of Merganzer Lodge, where we were cordially greeted by Jim, who, as alert as ever, soon had all our wants attended to. After a bounteous dinner of broiled squab, shoestring potatoes, combination salad, cornbread and coffee, we touched the button to the orchestreon and to the plaintive cadences of "When It Is Apple Blossom Time in Normandy," passed along into the land of felicitous dreams of flying mallards and dazzling sundowns.
The Wild Fowler's Harbor in the Sandhills
Although the next morning broke beautifully, with a clear, summer sky, and a caressing breeze from the south, neither Frank nor myself were quite as alert as ordinarily. As for myself, I was still somewhat fatigued from my opening day's work with the rancher and was inclined to linger in the hay. But along about half past 8, when Jim, the chef, burst enthusiastically into the room with the assertion that the biggest flight of birds that he had seen any morning during the fall, was on, I got up hastily, slipped into my shooting scenery, and joined Frank in the back yard.
About the first thing I observed when I emerged into the open air, was dotted lines, V-shaped columns and massed bunches of birds streaking the whole heavens, from the rim of the low sandhills to the west, and over them and far away to the north. There were hundreds of them, and principally mallards, and as they trooped across the blue canopy, we stood and watched them in silence. The flight was of but short duration, yet we noticed that all the birds that came into Three Springs congregated in one locality-in the vast rice and tule fields stretching away to the north end of the lake.
"What do you say, Sandy, eat your breakfast and we'll go out and spend the balance of the morning in the blind anyway? Of course, we don't want to kill many more birds at this time, for we've got more than we can use now hanging in the game coop, and there's no danger but what you can get the limit almost any time to take home with you."
An hour later and we were all snugly ensconced in the same old blind at the northern border of the first big expanse of open water. We had hardly got our boats solidly anchored in the muck, by sticking the anchor-pole down through the hole in the prow, when [word n.l.] splendid mallards swung into our decoys with the [n.l.]ciance of barnyard pigeons, and I regret to say that only one of them got up and went way to tell [word n.l.] to the feeding birds in the rice beds.
"Wow, what do you think of that?" and Bowman looked at me in that quizzical way he has, "well, we'll [word n.l.] easy from now on-it is about as much fun to watch the birds as it is to kill them."
"Say, Sandy" he said, "did you ever see finer [word n.l.] these?" ANd he picked up a big fat mallard drake and tossed it into my lap.
"I don't believe that I have, but I think they get still handsomer later in the winter, when their colors reach their height, but so far as that is concerned, they all look alike to me, on a morning like this, with its sunshine and bracing breeze, and with the next best mallard shot on earth as a partner."
"Nixey on that stuff, Sandy, you're some duck shot yourself. But say, do you know that all these birds but one, are right down from the north?" And the rancher hauled the birds over, critically scrutinizing them as he did so.
"Well, I suppose they are, but I'd like to know how you determine the fact?"
"Well, look here," and Frank picked up the only hen there was among the four birds, and leaning over toward me, "Here is the only bird of this lot that has been here all through the fall months, and perhaps raised her brood here, as I see she is an old one. See! This is a sure sign she is a local bird," and with his finger and thumb he forced a dozen grains of corn or more out of her crop, up through the neck and out of her bill, "You see she has been off in once of the few small patches of corn to be found in this neighborhood, and has gorged herself on the grain."
"Yes, and I notice she has a different look from the rest of the birds. She looks bulkier and her plumage is soiled and not nearly so bright in color."
"You're right. See, there is no corn in the crops of these males-it is nothing but buck brush leaves and grasses. Of course, being males, they are brighter-hued than the hen, but she is much duller than a northern hen would be, which I will show when we kill one. When I am able to distinguish the birds perfectly in the air, I can tell, almost to a certainty, the nature of the grounds where they have been feeding, without seeing them go there!"
"How do you do that?"
"Mallards, teal, widgeon, pintails and spoonbills, invariable 'use' in shallow waters, where they can reach the muddy bottom with their bills by tipping up on end, as you have seen the tame ducks do back in the pond by the house. They resort to deep water only for rest and to quench their thirst after their hunger has been satisfied. Canvasback, redhead and bluebills, work only in the deep water, because they are divers and gather their food from the bottom of a lake from anywhere to ten or thirty feet in depth. Of course, there are exceptional cases, in both instances, cases in which the non-divers will prosecute their search for food, floating seeds, mollusks or the refuse left by the canvasbacks and redheads-the stems of wild celery, bits of whapoto-see, that is whapoto"-and Frank pointed down into the pelluscent water at the side of the boat, where there was growing clumps of a species of the arrowhead, known to botanists as Sagittaria Variabilis, the tuber of which, exactly resembling a tiny turnip, is delightfully edible, and a favorite food of all wild fowl, but especially the canvasback-"also nut grass and such, and the divers to the shallows, when an abundance of their particular feed, such as rice, tender sprouts and other aquatic delicacies, is to be found there. But both, as you well know, prefer their natural grounds, the first named, the low, mucky ponds, and the latter the broad expanses of deep water, clear, rushing rivers or inland lakes. So you see, Sandy, when you can tell what the birds are, really, in flight, you can tell where they are bound for, and if you can line them correctly you will have little trouble, generally, in getting good shooting. Mark! There comes a big bunch of mallards.
Sure enough, a flock of perhaps sixty birds, had swept down from over the eastern spur of Old Dunderberg and were sweeping across the lake diagonally from us, and while I did not have much hope of attracting their attention, I said:
"I'll see what I can do with the caller, Frank," and with that I sounded the quick, shrill cry of the hen bird when disturbed at her feeding by the sudden arrival of a bunch of strange birds.
The whole flock, which were flying in a straight line like a detachment of infantry, swept up into the air as the imitated notes of the female bird struck their acute hearing, and when at a sufficient altitude to insure safety from the deadly Parker of any hunter who might be lurking in the bordering rice or tules, they swerved around and came our way, evidently bent on learning the cause of the sudden outcry of their relative.
Once up in the air and turned our way, their slow-like eyes quickly discovered our decoys, bobbing and glistening in the open waters just off the rice surrounded point, where we crouched in breathless expectancy, and taking them for a feeding flock, they came sliding down the aerial bannisters toward us.
"Ready, Frank?" I whispered, peering through the interstices in the rice stalks at the swiftly advancing birds, and shoving out my Parker for quick action.
"All ready," echoed the rancher.
Heralded by that mellow cackle, which invariably signalizes the descent of a flock of hungry mallards, the long line came speedily on, growing rapidly larger as the line widened out; for the mallard, seemingly a slow flyer compared with almost any of his congeners, is really a bird of swift flight. On they came, with the cackle increasing and becoming clearer, until it was hard to resist the impulse to rise up and peer over the tassellated rice tops. But we were too old at the game, and neither of us did such an indiscreet thing, but we grasped our guns a little tighter, to be sure, and shifted a bit, to have them in the right position for quick and certain work when the supreme moment should arrive.
Alas, me! Bill and Ray and George, how many times have you and I crouched just so in the sweet old days agone; what tingling, thrilling moments we have known in the fabled past in our tule blind, or on the bar, at break of day, or set of night, in the self-same, old sandhills?
"Sh, sh!" and Bowman's tan cap protruded slightly, like a miniature sand dune, above the fleecy line of vegetation in our front, and, thinking that it was a signal to me, I, too, began to rise, and then, all too late, hastily ducker.
"You've spilled the beans!" said Frank, as he stood up straight in the boat.
But such has been my experience, and yours, too, old comrade of the marsh, hundreds of times before. I had done just what I said that neither of us would do. But such is duck hunting. A lack of patience has many a time proven the undoing of the oldest and most experienced wild fowler, even when the birds seemed within easy killing distance, and when we saw the long line, with a confused cracking of wildly beating wings, and a querulous volley of pamph! pamph! pamphs! swing off just enough to carry the nearest bird safely beyond all reach of even Bowman's wondrous little twenty-bore parker, we realized that there are some things in duck shooting that always repay their cost, and the foremost of these is patience.
But we had no time, on this joyous occasion, for vain regrets or criminations, for where the fleecy tan of the rice field joined the blue sky another feathered cloud quickly rose into view.
Along the lapus lazuli vault the mass widened out and again came straight our way. This time there was no use in resorting to the caller, which is all to often done by inexperienced duck shooters, for the birds were on the course they had instinctively selected, and all we had to do was to lay low, mind you-and stay low, until the time to crack away arrived. No danger of another mistake on our part. We were, at that, more chagrined than we were disappointed over the contretemps of a few moments previous for we were getting all the sport any sane man could desire, and more, too.
So quickly did these second birds come on that I fancied shortly that I could hear the hiss of their pinions as they set them ready to slide down among our decoys, with their green heads and white collars almost over us. But not yet, not yet. It is the critical time as which we lost out just a moment or two before, and the time when more shots are thrown away than at any other. If you show the top of your head of crook an elbow, you will probably seethe line turn away just comfortably out of reach of your gun-the hardest and longest killing gun the Parkers ever made, at that.
Wait just a brief second or two more and you will hear the tips of their ashen wings fanning the golden air, and feel an intenser tone in the loud quack of the leader, that stirs a tumult in your blood. And seldom do you see such excitement condensed into so short a space of time, as when you arise to see the air filled with dismayed and affrighted wild fowl.
We made no mistake this time, and at the combined explosion of our pieces five big, plump, beautiful birds dropped dead or wounded among their wooden prototypes, while the rest fairly made the atmosphere vibrate-a wild medley of flapping and climbing dark gray and blue banded wings, with raucous throats outstretched toward all points of the compass.
By quick action and good luck, both Frank and I got in an additional pair of shells, and before the distraught birds could get their bearings, each got down another; in fact, Bowman got down two, one an old hen with a badly shattered wing. She was curling back over the blind, and when she fell it was in the narrow strip of tules that extended out from the east shore, and, seeing that she was so hampered by the surrounding stems and drift to be unable to move any distance, we decided not to overshoot her, but let her remain where she was until we got ready to pull out. Then, too, Frank said she would make a bully decoy, if she was in the humor, and this proved to be the case.
Some little time had elapsed when suddenly this old hen lifted up her uninjured wing and, flopping it spasmodically, began to quack softly to a bunch of birds hurrying across, far above us, toward Raccoon lake. They failed to respond, and whirling round and round in her narrow confines, the hen began to signal to every bird she saw, calling vigorously to a flock of passing, chucking redwings, which had been playing around our blind all morning. Finally a pair of her own kind came down to her entreaties and we killed them both.
She was certainly a queer old duck, and the way she acted made Frank think that she might be one of those that he had raised up in the pond back of the club house, but I hardly thought so, as I had seen many a wounded bird act just like she did.
After we had killed the pair she sat still a moment, looking inquiringly our way, then she began to tilt-up and guttered along the tule roots with her bill, as much at home as if she had been up in Ungava and had no broken wing.
I had just risen in the boat to stretch myself, when far down the sky to the west came the confused clamor of a flock of traveling baldpates, whistling and squealing as if out for a lark. Bowman heard them, and so did the wounded hen, as she floated out on the blue and gold mirror of the little cut off in which she had fallen.
Nearer and nearer came those squealing voices, and blacker and larger grew the line against the sky. The mallard hen perked up as if her heart was swelling with hope and yearning. They were not mallards, but they were her own kin, those gray voyagers of the far north. Suddenly she raised herself as far as she could in the water, and with her uninjured wing up-lifted, called and called again, inviting the travelers to come down and eat.
Hearing this real summons, the gray flock dipped unhesitantly and came slanting down toward the little hen. In their eagerness, they broke rank, and abandoned all order, when they plainly saw the mallard hen, who had ceased her cluttering, but ducked and bowed and swam round in a circle, as if over-joyed at the chance to entertain them.
In another second the whole big bunch would have slid into the waters about her, but just here, Frank's little 20-Parker snapped spitefully, first one barrel and then the other, and while several of the bald pates were tumbling with folded necks and flapping wings to the surface, I gave them the contents of my double, and instead of settling gleefully around her, three gray shapes, with whitish crowns, fell in front and behind her, beating the wavelets spasmodically a moment with their expiring strength, then lying still.
As the rest of the betrayed birds dashed away in all directions in dismayed silence, the little mallard hen, quacked harshly, but with a mournful tone in its harshness, it seemed to me, and struggled in vain to lift herself out of the waters and join them. But her efforts were vain, and silent, and evidently much disappointed, she resumed her guttering of the tule roots.
The Wild Fowler's Harbor in the Sandhills
"Just think, Sandy, isn't that a remarkable thing?" remarked Bowman to me, as the little mallard hen, apparently as contented and free from care as any of the red-winged blackbirds singing from the tule and rice tops all about her, went back to her guttering for mollusks and other tidbits among the roots of the rushes lining the little pocket in which she had fallen, "that old mallard hen acts just as if she knew exactly what she was doing, and that she takes a keen enjoyment in calling her relatives into trouble."
"But I don't think she does, Frank," I replied, "it's only her eagerness to be with her kind, and she does not appreciate the dire strait she is in. Wild creatures are very peculiar, and paradoxical as it may seem, the wilder and warier, the more so they are and the easier they are tamed. As you know a Canada goose is about the shyest and wariest of all our wild birds, and will make miles and miles of a detour to avoid approaching anything that resemble man or his handiwork. And then you wing-tip a wild goose here this afternoon, for instance, carry it home alive, and [word n.l.] it in the coop up at the house all night, and [word n.l.] tomorrow morning, when it is hungry, it will [word n.l.] corn from your hand."
"Yes, that is a fact, I know of my own experience," replied the rancher, but do you know I never thought of it in that way-it never occurred to me [n.l.] anything particularly extraordinary.
"Well, Frank, you are just like countless other [word n.l.], you overlook these little but most important things in all our wild life, and only ponder and marvel at them when your attention is called to an especially fact, just like the one we are discussing. Then, being a man of wide experience and general observation, you recognize the truth of these things when brought face to face with them, otherwise you would continue on and on and never give them but a passing thought. The wildest of all our little woods and waters folk, Frank, are the very easiest tamed, as I said before, although there are a number of these-the ruffed grouse and the black cat of the north woods, for instance-that will not live in captivity but a short time. They will refuse to eat, and finally succumb to starvation. Hello! the little hen sees something!"
Again we were startled by her frantic quacking, and rising cautiously we saw her again swimming round and round in her narrow confines, and ducking and bowing like a tango dancing master, kept up a most vigorous and insistent calling.
"There they come, to the left, Sandy, down the lake!" and together Bowman and I again crouched in our boats, and sure enough there they came straight for our decoys.
There was no hesitation on the part of this flock-some fifteen or sixteen in number, and all mallards. Reaching the head of the open waters, in obedience to the friendly calling of the little hen, they dipped and came slanting down into us. Seeing them the little hen again stood up as high as she could in the water, and flapped her uninjured wing in a very paroxysm of delight. When so close we could see their black eyes gleaming, and their orange legs drop, we arose together and gave them four loads in quick succession, and again several birds fell dead or dying about the little hen, only out in the open water.
As the remainder of the birds climbed up into the air and in terror scurried away, the little hen struggled valiantly to follow, but that poor broken wing would not respond, and she fell back with a splash, but still vainly struggling to get out of that treacherous little weedy pocket. Again she lifted up her sound wing and stretched her neck to join her kindred, beating her breast against the obstructing tule stalks and calling, and calling again, to the flock which was now fast merging into a tangled blur far off over the smiling brow of Old Dunderberg, leaving her to her woes and loneliness. For a few brief seconds she continued to call, but when the flock disappeared, she settled back like a little brown bark and floated aimlessly on the waters of the little hole, and quietude fell over Three Springs.
"That's enough, Sandy, we must have a dozen birds or more-don't let's kill any more-but just look on a while, then pull in for lunch."
"That is just what I was going to suggest," I replied, "and if you'll believe me, I didn't try to kill any of those birds just now; I just poked my Parker out and puled the trigger mechanically."
"Well, I couldn't resist, and I can't miss them with this little 20-bore, and if I want to. I tell you Sandy, those Parkers are some gun-makers."
And we never shot another bird, but sat there, perhaps an hour, watching the maneuvers of that little wounded hen and the restless birds about us.
It wasn't long before another flock was passing over, and yet they turned and came courageously down to the wailings of the little hen. But there was no leaden reception from our reedy covert. We simply stood up in our boats, and watched the birds veer madly away, this way and that, just as if they had been shot at, until out over the lake again, where the bunch welded together and vanished up the lake.
This time the little hen made much less of a fuss. She gave two or three spasmodic squawks, then went on to her guttering again.
"Can it be," inquired Frank with unusual gravity, "that that poor little hen has tumbled-had she discovered that this particular spot, while exceedingly enticing to the mallard taste, is a deadly spot to visit. Has she realized the part she has been playing; that she is helpless, and that her seductive plaint is only calling her brothers and sisters to their destruction. But look, here comes a pair, let's see what she'll do this time."
The birds had caught sight of our glistening decoys in the open, and came in straight as a string, from a direction that brought them squarely over the little hen. But she didn't open her greenish-yellow ball. Then ducked her head and lay as still as a floating chip, as they caught sight of us, went hustling away like a couple of bullets from a gun.
"Now what do you think of that?" from the rancher.
"Oh, nothing-only it answers your former question, and the little hen has caught on, and it is plain she has made up her mind to lure no more of her kindred to their doom."
And then again, when a flock came cackling glibly, like mallards always do when they are ravenously hungry, down the sky and right over our blind, the little hen did not stir, but kept her eyes on the receding birds in despairing silence.
And who can say but what, that which Frank had so pertinently touched upon had not at last penetrated the brain of that little wounded hen, as she swam, listlessly and alone, on the golden waters of her little reedy prison? Had the piteous tragedies through which she had just passed, and in which she had been such a resistless factor, convinced her of the sinister designs of the monsters who had broken her own gaudy wing, and turn her into a malevolent instrument of destruction of her own kindred, and inveigled her into a blameless treason.
"Hear the geese!" cried Frank and pointed off over the round hump of Old Dunderberg, he added, "there they go!"
And as I got sight of the arrow head of dark dots, majestically clearing their way high up, through the sunlit heavens, over the big hill, I caught the soft, musical, yet sonorous and far-reaching trumpet cry-"Auh-unk! unk! Auk-unk! unk! unk!" of the noblest of all the broad world's most royal game birds.
The rancher and I stood as in a trance watching that gray harrow-shaped flock, as it cleared its way through the hazy, golden ether, and listened with more intentness, than is usually aroused by any sound, to the music of their hollow clamor.
What is it in the cry of the wild goose that so stirs the blood of a sportsman and sweeps the mists of years away and takes him back to the days of his youth?
To me, the bugle call of this big gray bird has been a weird music ever since I was a lad knee high to a duck, as it was even then the spirit of the hunter was awakened within my soul, the heritage from the grandest old father who ever lived.
Always, in the spring, when the call of the wide voyagers was expected to come falling from the evening skies. I was alert to catch the first sound and to detect the first file of gray trailing athwart the steely dome of the heavens. When the winter broke, and the seeping drifts shrank together, and the muggy brown of the plowed fields came through the snow in patches; when the dun slopes leading to the river's shore were gurgling loud with running water, my feverish resistlessness became so eager that chilly as it was, I could not remain indoors.
I instinctively felt it was time for the northward flight of the wild geese!
For hours I have lingered and watched the softening skies, knowing that sooner or later that big dotted wedge would appear on its northward journey, and then, when the first jubilant trumpet clanged upon the trenchant stillness, I was at once inspired with the wanderlust and the ambition to do great and splendid things in the world, even to the following of that auh-unking gray phalanx to the lonely waste places where the ice cakes lay glittering beneath the opalescent magic of the northern lights.
The Wild Fowler's Harbor in the Sandhills
With the clangor of the geese having died away, and the big harrow shaped flock but a thread of gray against the distant western sky, Frank and I resumed our seats in the boats and after a moment's reflection, Bowman said:
"Has it ever struck you as anything peculiar, Sandy, this flight of the wild geese in wedge-shaped flocks."
"Indeed it has," I quickly replied as the rancher had touched upon a problem that for many long years received much attention at my hands, "and I have written columns on the subject, and yet have never reached a satisfactory explanation why these birds assume this form of flight in all their migrations. Have you?"
"No, I cannot say that I have," Frank responded, "but I have my ideas. I have also noticed that every flock of geese has its leader, and in their long spring and fall migrations, it is invariably an old gander found in the pilot's position."
"Yes, that is a fact," I answered, "but especially so in the fall."
"Well, in the fall, it is mostly young birds that we see coming south, and it is probably quite necessary that they have a leader that has just been over the course before.
"True, but why a gander?"
"That I'll have to leave to wiser heads than mine, but we know in the life of humanity, as well as in all the lower animals, it is the male that is generally found at the head of the procession."
"Except over in that old Lunnun, Sandy," and Bowman laughed over his interruption, and then asked: "But have you ever seen a female leading a flock?"
"As a fact, I cannot answer that, but I haven't the slightest doubt in the world that under certain contingencies the hen bird would assume the role of pilot, and I think that I have seen them in the lead many times. You know, with some of our birds, the female bird-as the mother quail, for instance-is the whole works at all seasons of the year, even to the making the old cock sit his full share of time on the nest in the hatching time."
"Yes, and the hen grouse is no slouch when it comes to doing a little artistic domineering-you've seen them, I suppose?"
"Oh, yes, have watched them in the mating season, in the early spring time, hundreds of times, but as for the geese, Frank, I've been told many times by old hunters, in fact, know it to be the case from my own observation, that if the leader of a flock of traveling geese dies from natural causes, or is killed by a hunter or other foe, another leader, and the most competent member of the flock, is chosen, in the place, and it would seem for the purpose of showing the way on their long journeys, from pole to pole. Many of the old goose hunters are of this opinion. Sam Richmond, and he is about the best posted man on the lore of the wild goose, I know of, believes that geese shape their course by the mountain ranges, the long, level stretches, the headlands and other landmarks, and not by any intuition born in them, flying over in a straight course over land and sea, and so high that a mighty sweep of country is always in view, thus enabling them to maintain their way with unbroken regularity. And yet, this does not really explain the wedge-shaped flight. Many other kinds of birds make these same journeys, but fly with no concerted action or in any regular or systematic form. Some, too, make the wonderful journeys over the sea entirely, never more than skirting the ocean's shores. Among these are the true blank brant, the cormorants and several other species of the latter kindred, which we never see here, always following the winding way of the line of the ocean's shore, which, of course, makes them fly hundreds of miles more than they would if they took a straight course over land and sea."
"But in the dark of the nocturnal hours," insisted the analytic old rancher, "in impenetrable fogs and blinding storms, how is it then that the geese hold their way with such precision? We know that their sight is not of such phenomenal acuteness that they can see under such conditions, and yet we know that they make portions of their long pilgrimage under just such conditions, and here is where those relying on the instinct of the birds to maintain their course have the best of the argument."
"Still, I think instinct has nothing to do with it," I went on, "and that it is a pure matter of training by the older geese, and has been from the beginning of time. But the first flock that ever made this long flight from the polaric regions of the tropical south, or from the south to the north, who taught them, you ask? But that would be a little far-fetched. Might as well ask about the origin of any thing.
"And while this does not account for the harrow-shaped flight, it is leading up to it. The theory of their traveling by the familiarity of landmarks, is a good one, for by this manner of flight, each bird in both wings of the wedge has an equal birdseye view of the vast stretch of country beneath him, with every other goose, which they would not have if they followed the leader in a straight, or flew in a horizontal line.
"By the wedge shape flight, I do not think that the two wings of the harrow are on a gradual curve, but straight or in a parallel with the leader, and in this form each bird always has the leader in plain sight, as well as the whole of the passing landscape beneath him. Those that have been over the course before, the older birds, would of course, need no leader, as the mountainous headlands, plains and waters would be familiar to them-the memory of all wild things is almost preternaturally perfect-and they could make the long flight alone as well as in company. But the younger birds, those that had never taken this long pilgrimage, would need a leader, if fact several of them, and the wedge shape flight is adopted to give them in uninterrupted view of the country in transit."
"Well, one thing is certain, anyway," and Frank rose in his boat and began to tug at the anchor pole in the prow of his boat, "and that it, Sandy, that you have got some mighty good ideas, and it is a pleasure to talk with you, and we will surely resume this little confab some night up in the lodge, but see, it is high noon, the flight has been over for an hour, lets pick up what birds we have, and go in, have Jim fix us up a swell lunch, and take things easy for a while. Then we'll map out something for the afternoon."
As Frank's idea suited me perfectly we were soon out of the rice clump and retrieving our birds, and as there were but few of them, we quickly had them in our boats, and were on our way back through the narrow channel to the landing.
The little mallard hen, who had played such an interesting role in the morning performance, we found to be much more seriously wounded than we had though, and, as much as we regretted the necessity, she was put out of her misery as speedily and humanely as possible.
In another half hour we were at Merganzer lodge, and Jim, with his usual promptitude, quickly had a palatable luncheon spread for us, and this attended to, we put in another hour smoking and chatting, and by 3 o'clock we were back in our blinds.
There were no birds stirring, and after a tiresome wait, Bowman said he would push over into the rice and tule fields at the north end of the lake and make me a little shooting, any way. All morning we had seen the birds converging toward the north end, and Frank said that they were bedded in there by the thousands.
It was a long and arduous journey to the point that Frank had designated as his objective point, and he got busy, as he always does, without further delay. Getting his boat out into the open water, he sat down and rowed across this in jig time, but when he struck the low waters of the tule beds a half mile away, he had to abandon the oars for the push pole. I saw him rise and take his position in the stern, and then the little craft was pushed up one of the reticulated sluice-ways until he finally vanished amidst the labyrinthian tangle of rice, tule and squaw cane.
No sooner had his tan canvas coat ceased glancing and shimmering in the slanting sun's rays, than a raft of greenwing teal arose from somewhere amidst the tangle which he was slowly and laboriously penetrating, and although they started to come my way, they went up into the air when they reached the open water, swerved to the west and disappeared down the lake.
Following this interruption, there was a full hour of absolute quietude, that is, so far as any movement among the wild fowl was concerned, and when I grew tired of watching for a feathery uprising in Frank's direction, I lit a cigar, seated myself contentedly on a gunny sack on the prow of the boat, and settled myself for a quiet study of my environment, until either the report of Frank's little 20-bore Parker should warn me that there was something apt to be doing, or the actual vision of flying birds made the thing certain.
With the whole wide expanse of the Metz marshland palpitant with busy life, I had plenty to occupy my mind, even should there come no tidings from Bowman, nor the birds make up their minds to fly, even should I remain there until the stars came out. The black birds-redwings-were there as they always seemed to be, and as they would often whir down and settled in among the rice stalks, or on the muddy buttresses all about my blind, within a yard or two of me, I did not lack for company. And then, too, there is no sweeter orchestra in all the wild places, than the autumn "kong-kong-koreeing" of the flocking redwings. Of all the feathered creatures-for there were also gulls and hawks, swamp sparrows and wrens, always in the vision from one point or another-that furnishes me entertainment while waiting, as I was at this time, for the shooting I knew was to come-none please of interest me more than the blackbirds, and had I the tome to have devoted to them on the trip in question, I thoroughly believe that before the time came for my leave taking, I could have caused some of those beautiful red wings to have taken feed from my outstretched hand. As it was, they frequently came and perched on the gunwales of my boat, and as they cocked their pretty heads from one side to the other, critically endeavoring to make out what that huge silent creature sitting there like a dun heap of verdure on the prairie, was, they would, now and then, open those sharp-pointed, black, little beaks of theirs, and bead the soft, golden haze with the pearly triplet-"kong-kong-koree."
There were myriads of them about Three Springs this fall, more than usual, in fact, and of all varieties, from the big, sheeny-robed grackle, to the scarlet-winged, yellow-hooded and the gray, dun and dusty-garbed. They swarmed like the infusoria in the air, crossing and recrossing over head, singly or in bands, casting a shifting network of reflections on the placid waters beneath. They filled the leaning tules and bedraggled rice, like the odorous air, tinkling as if with a thousand silver bells, confusing, yet stimulating both hearing and sight, and enthralling me with the witchery of their magic cries.
But the muskrats!
My mind always will run riot when reveling, even in memory, over just such, enchanting pictures, and again does the grateful fragrance of the moldering world crown my nostrils. From every side seem to ring the peans of departing autumn-the caressing swish of the wind-pushed waters to the soothing, but mournful lilt ever vibrating through reed and cane. Nature is under the wand of the vague but listlessly tangible frost gods, and is fast preparing for the tousling she is to receive from the rugged play of the coming winter winds, and I am always chained as with links of steel.
But before proceeding with the little treatise that has just come to me, let me say, that it must have been a full hour from the time I sat down until I heard the crack! crack! of Frank's little Parker, and rising, beheld veritable clouds of mallards-principally-lifting up against the drab back ground of Old Dunderberg, and then after hanging there, in the confusing light, apparently motionless a few moments, lifting themselves up still higher and higher, until the whole enormous mass was in full view, clean cut against the turquoise skies in the east, as ebony cameos, and then contrary to all rule, go sailing swiftly off to the north, down below the skyline of Old Dunderberg, and out of sight, and down, no doubt, into the reedy coverts blanketing the whole of the north lake-Raccoon-from outlet to Hay creek. Not a single flock came my way, but I didn't care much at that. Hadn't I the muskrats and the redwings to claim my time and please all my senses.
Once more I heard the faint reports of Frank's little Parker, and finally caught sight of his tan canvassed form, poling slowly up the runway leading to the north landing, saw him get out of the boat, pick up a little bunch of ducks, wave them several times, my way, then trudge off across the hay field, up the deeply trodden cattle path, home. He had evidently had a sufficiency for the day, and while I had, too, of shooting, I concluded to remain where I was and enjoyed the society of my tiny furred and feathered neighbors, a little longer.
And well was I repaid. For another half hour the inquisitive redwings, the soaring hawks, dipping gulls and twittering wrens, more than held my keenest attention, and then, as I said before, the muskrats came out.
As the western sky began to burn in coppery colors, a softer, holier light fell upon hill and plain and marshland, the black wall began to climb up in the east, the breeze died away to a fairy whisper, and the tall rice stalks stood straight and silent, as if cut of tawny stone. Everything is hushed, save off in the slough, a little way to my left, where some diligent mudhens wallowed in the shallows. An occasional note, however, is heard, subdued and silvery, as though the little brown wren who voiced it, was in awe of some impending calamity, and then the muskrats came out!
From the flotsam and jetsam of the dead and dying flags, reeking reeds, sodden cane stalks and floating froth, drift, rushes and grass, from domed domicile and hidden burrough, came the little bewhiskered, flat-tailed artisans.
Look! There comes one straight at me, leaving a harrow of tiny ripples for a wake. On he comes with never a fear, straight as a plummet for the crumpled pile in which I crouched. He reaches a point within a couple of yards of our waterline, when, perchance, the tainted atmosphere strikes his acute nostrils, or the floating empty shells catch his vision, or perhaps, my watching eyes, like baleful stars, beam suddenly upon him, and with a flop, no acrobat could imitate, he upends, his broad tail smiles the surface with a smack, and he is gone!
There! Off on that little arm reaching out from the shore, I see one, two, yes, a half dozen, moving quickly about gathering the arrowy tules, mosses, grass and other material for their home building, back further beyond the open spaces. Now one swims quietly to a spot where the reeds protrude invitingly from the glutinous shallows, and landing on the first foothold, he shakes himself rid of his roriferous jewels-beads of the water-then sets busily about biting, tugging and pulling at those feathery spikes until he has a burden to his liking. With tiny, flexible hands it is pulled together, and then seizing it in his broad, crescented teeth, he waddles into the water and plows vigorously away to the site of his home building. Here goes a racing pair down through a corridor of rice, over there a couple are diving and cavorting like porpoises at play, and out yonder the wedged shaped ripples show where another and still another pursue their thrifty way. While many were occupied in transporting building material, as many others were harvesting the wapoto crop, and carrying it to their dome-like store houses, back in the marsh. The wapoto, as it is of the canvasback and other ducks, is also a favorite food of the muskrats. It is a small tuber, say half as big as a black walnut, shaped exactly like a miniature turnip, and is exceedingly palatable. It grows in the rich muck, along the line of the rice beds, and is exceedingly plentiful about the Metz lake. Hundreds of rats passed by my blind, cleaving the amber waters as gracefully and smoothly as a fish itself, and each with one of these little white, turnip-shaped tubers in its mouth.
Oh yes, the mallards finally flew in the rosy light of eventide, plenty enough, but I was otherwise engrossed and did not fire another shot that evening.
Here, there and in almost every direction, the rippling harrows are seen moving along the gleaming water, but as the pall of eventide thickened these visions became rarer and rarer, and when i was ready to go in to the lodge, and that was when the amber had faded from out the western sky, they disappeared entirely, but loud wallowings in the darkened depths, splashes, plunges and other queer sounds were heard all about me, and I know the muskrats were still busy with their voyaging, their racing, their playing and their work.
To the whizz of the mallards' wings and the b-zeep! bzeep! of the night hawk in the ebony vault above, the whining of the prairie wolf on the distant hillside, and the far-sounding bay of Ray's collie at the ranchstead, and I, still musing, rowed back over the star-bedizened bosom of the lake, and in the breathing darkness of the night, trudged across the big hay field-home.
The Wild Fowler's Harbor in the Sandhills
That night after one of the most sumptuous duck dinners ever served in Charlie Metz's famous old hunting lodge, to the dulcet strains of the orchestrion and over our cigars, Bowman and I had a long talk on matters, of course, always interesting to nature student and sportsman.
"When the rats come out as numerously as they did last evening," observed the rancher, "it generally means colder weather up this way, and I shouldn't be surprised if we found quite a heavy coating of ice over the lake in the morning."
"It was much chillier," I replied, "when I came in, but we had another beautiful red sunset, and that you know, is a sure sign of another bright day."
"Sure thing. And yet those rats weren't so busy for nothing last night, and we'll get the ice in the morning, all right."
"Well, ice or no ice, I'm going to put in the biggest part of the day on the lake-I want a few more mallards to take home with me."
"That'll be easy, but I'm afraid I can't be with you, anyway, till afternoon, as I've got to ride over to Livermont's and see about some cattle. You'll have a tough job getting out through the channel, I'm afraid, but once there, I'm sure you'll get the mallards, all right. It has never failed, the day after a busy season by the muskrats in the evening, the birds seem to fly exceedingly well."
"They were sure busy last night, in fact, I never saw so many, at least, on the Metz marsh. Don't you ever trap them?"
"Oh, yes, and I find a nice little income on the side comes from this very source, and that is the reason I am always careful to request the duck hunters not to kill any of them. They make a tempting target, you know, when there are no birds flying, especially for the green hand. Why last winter we got as high as 75 cents a piece for our best pelts, and I see the demand is going to be greater than ever this winter. As valuable as the muskrat is, in various ways, I should the legislature would pass a law protecting them, anyway, say from the last of March to the middle of October."
"Many states have just such a law," I replied, "and for several years, now, I have been urging the necessity of this legislation in our state, but up to date seem to have made but little impression. Why, do you know, down in Jersey and all along the Atlantic seaboard, the muskrat is valued almost as much for his marketable flesh as he is for his fur?"
"I've heard they are fair eating," rejoined Bowman, "but up here we are satisfied with mallard and teal, duck, and upland plover, doves and chicken-we haven't quite reached the rat stage yet. However, I'll bet Jim Hieronymus, our chef here, can fix 'em up so that you would eat 'em before you'd starve."
"Jim Heironymous-well, I should smile, if there ever was a culinary maestro, his name if Jim Heironymous. And now that you've mentioned it, I'll bet you that Jim can serve a muskrat that would tax the ingenuity of a gastronome to tell it from canary bird tongues-that's what I think of Mr. Metz's chef. And, by the way, I'm going to get a nice tender rat tomorrow afternoon and get him to cook it for me. You remember poor old Abner-peace to the good old soul-how he fixed up that mud hen for me last fall, and how we all went crazy over it. Well, now I'm going to see what Jim can do with a musquash."
"Yes, I remember your mud hen, and what pains Abner took in roasting it for you. I was here in the lodge the afternoon he cooked it and he didn't do much else but laugh and talk about you. Say, Sandy, that old fellow had a warm place in his heart for you."
"Indeed he had, and while it is pleasant to hear it from you, I've known it for nearly a quarter of a century, and when I got home from my spring hunt on the Loup last spring, and heard that he was one of the victims of that awful tornado, I shed many a silent tear in his memory. I think poor old Abner had few as sincere mourners as myself."
"I believe you, for there never has been a hunting party here since I've been in charge of the ranch, but what Abner has said to me, 'wish ole Sandy was here.'"
And then after an interval of silence, during which my mind went back through a misty vista of a quarter of a century, and in the wander, stirred my heart to its depths, I finally said:
"Yes, yes, Frank, that's true, and it is a solace, too, to know that I had a warm corner in that old black man's heart, that was all my own. You know, I discovered Abner, and together with Charlie Metz-the High Boss then, as he is today, of all the grand men I have ever hunted with-George Scribner, who has also joined the pale caravan; T.J. Foley and Billy Marsh, the charter members of the old Merganzer club-took him on his first hunt, way up above here, on the Reshaw flats, at Lake Creek. And, by the way, so complex and mysterious are the workings of fate, I was with Abner here, just a year ago, on the last hunt the dear old fellow was ever on, or a happy party to, and I shall always keep that hunt stored away with other precious and sacred things in my memory.
Here Frank made a trip out to sideboard in the dining room, and when he came back there was the suggestion of a most appetizing aroma hanging around and seating himself, he said:
"Speaking about the many useful things about the muskrat, Sandy, did you ever know that he is a great friend of the black bass, and by the way, Charlie has planted many thousand bass fry in the lake during the past few seasons, and I expect some sport with them at no distant day, as any good muskrat lake is always a favorite place for bass."
"That's true, Bowman, and I well know of the value of the muskrat to the bass. For one thing he makes it possible for this grand game fish to exist in these sandhill lakes."
"Why, you see most of these natural bodies of water in these sterile regions are the primeval habitat of the bass, but in none of them do they ever become very abundant. This is because these lakes are very shallow, and freeze hard in the winter, and thus many fish perish. I think, too, as the state grows older, more fish are frozen, and that in time they will disappear altogether save from the lakes that are carefully watched, protected and annually re-stocked, like Three Springs is, by Mr. Metz. The advance of civilization, with its increased ditching, draining and irrigation lessens the water supply in these lakes, they freeze more readily and harder, and consequently more fish are destroyed.
"It is a well proven truth that the most of these fish die for a want of air. The supply is cot off more and more every winter, but the muskrat and the otter and the mink, too, are great air suppliers. These animals always keep the water open in places and make it accessible to the air in a limited way, yet sufficient for the usage of the bass. It is true, while they supply the fish with air, they also live largely on the fish themselves, that is, especially the otter and the mink. The muskrat rarely, if ever, touches a live fish, that is excepting the smallest minnows, and a dead one never unless pressed sorely by hunger. However, what the otter and mink catch and eat is a small number, indeed, compared to those that perish for a want of air. And say, don't you think there are no otter about this lake, for there is, and twenty some years ago I saw a fight right up in the channel leading north from the open water where our blind is, between one of these queer animals and a pointer dog-Ted Ackerman's old Duke, by the way-that was a thriller, I tell you. But that is another story."
"Yes, I'll take that later, but about the muskrat, some people say that they are the fish's enemy, and are very destructive to their advancement in certain waters."
"There is nothing whatever to that," I quickly replied, "and I think I am qualified to say so. Rather than an enemy, the musquash is the fish's greatest friend and benefactor. He either lives in a house where he thinks there will be water all the winter round, or at least where he can reach it from his abode at all times, or in the bank, if one can be found steep enough, and the water is of sufficient depth. You know a muskrat's house looks like a cock of sodden hay, two or three feet high. They are erected, as we told in Sunday's World-herald a few weeks ago, of tules and cane during autumn months, but the high waters of spring and early summer generally wash them away. The materials, tules and cane, mixed with roots of various kinds, grasses and mud, have decayed and are easily disintegrated by wind and wave. If you should open up one of these houses, as I have done many and many a time, you would find a nicely arched dome, with a raised platform above the level of the water, on which the rat passes his leisure hours when not out in the water feeding and exercising. I have seen trappers open many of these houses to get the rat they had killed through the shell of reeds and tules with a long, sharp one-tined spear. From their houses there little animals have roads running to the homes of their neighbors and to deep water. To the larger houses they have four or five of these runways, where the mud and rushes are cleared away as the rat goes to and from the house by no other route. If the roads freeze, with clear ice sufficiently strong to bear a man, they make an excellent place to spear the muskrat through the ice. These runways are white with air under the ice, carried in by the rats, I presume, for their own use, and to keep the ice from freezing so hard over the road. This air and the open water at the end kept in motion by the rat, supplies the bass with all that is necessary for his existence in the cold weather.
"That is very plausible and I think absolutely true," reassured the rancher, "and then I have heard people say that the muskrat kills and eats a great many fish of all kinds.
"Well that does not surprise me, for of course, there are some authorities who will tell you that the rats will kill the fish and that they will also kill and destroy crippled ducks, and while it is possible they may feed on the dead fish when on the verge of starvation, as I observed before, but I think not, and I never knew of an authentic case where a muskrat molested a wounded duck, and yet many of our duck hunters think they do. When you find the feathers and bones of one on some trip to the ducking grounds, out on the high, dry shore or among the reeds where you had been shooting the evening before, you can depend upon it, that it was either a coyote, mink, otter, owl or hawk that had enjoyed the meal and not the musquash. Muskrats feed upon the roots and nuts at the bottom of these sloughs and when the water is not frozen, on mussels and slugs.
"When the water is deep, or the bank above steep, he digs a hole back into the same, beyond the reach, under the surface of the ground into the water, which he always keeps open under the ice, making the same traveled roads with a deposit of air along under the ice, running from one hole to another, or from house to house. The otter makes his hole in the bank like the muskrat, and keeps the water open in the same manner, but instead of living on roots and vegetable matter, as the rat does, he subsists principally on the fish which resort there for air."
"While I am not sure about the muskrat, I know that the mink, and there are quite a few about Three Springs, is death on fish" interrupted Bowman, tilting back in his chair and inserting a new record into the orchestrion.
"You bet he is. So far as my researches go the mink is the worst of the bunch, an insatiable, blood-thirsty little thug all the time. I do not believe he ever makes a hole of his own, but uses the muskrat's when he wants a mess of bass. I am not very familiar with the ways of the beaver, for my opportunities of studying him have been comparatively few. You will find, however, that it is in the shallow places of the lake, where the rats do not work, where the fish die in cold weather, while nearer the deep holes, where are musquash houses adjacent, no dead fish are to be found. Wherever the muskrat stays the bass will survive, and it is to them I give the credit for the preservation of the fish in just such cold snaps as we are liable to have in the winter. In deep holes where moss grows at the bottom, the bass will survive through the severest winters. The growth of moss, although slow in the water, makes some air or oxygen, which the fish must have to keep alive."
"Instead of permitting the indiscriminate slaughter of the musquash as you say, Sandy, in all seasons, they should have their periods of protection like all other useful animals, and I think that this will be accorded them at the next legislature, at least I hope so," and the rancher rose and stretched himself like a big caribou bull after a nap and ready to start across the bleak barren.
"I hope so, too, for as I mentioned before they are absolutely harmless and being exceedingly prolific, would, if unmolested by conscienceless hunters and trappers, in a very large measure take care of the air supply so necessary to the thrift of our fishes, and then in proper season, furnish quite an income to the intelligent trapper. As for their edible qualities, I'll know more after Jim fixes one up for me day after tomorrow. Going?"
"Yes, it's nearly eleven, and about time specially if you intend to go out tomorrow, for you'll want to make an early start, for it's going to be hard work getting out through the channel. Don't you notice how cold it has gotten?" and as Frank opened the outside door, a keen wind came whistling in that made me shiver like a reed in a storm.
"Phew!" ejaculated Frank as he stepped out on the porch, "you bet it's cold, but as clear as crystal. Well good night. I'll see you in the morning."
The Wild Fowler's Harbor in the Sandhills.
And true to the predictions of the rancher, and the instincts of the muskrats, the next morning broke keenly cold and keenly clear. Frank and I, after one of Jim's dainty breakfasts, stepped out upon the back porch to take a survey of the condition of things. The sun was flooding the whole dun world with its golden refulgence, and while the air was tingingly frigid, we knew that it would not remain so long as there were but a few flecks to be seen anywhere in the heavens, and a softening breeze was still breathing over the fields from the south.
"It is going to warm up all right, Sandy, but I am afraid that you will have a tough old time getting out through the channel, for the ice must be fully a quarter of an inch thick. The pond, you see, is frozen completely over."
"Well, I'm going to go out, anyway. I have had tougher work duck shooting that it can possibly be today, hundreds of times. You can't go-you say?"
"No. Not this morning. Gotta to over to the north lake to look up some cattle, but if I get back in time, I'll join you this afternoon."
"All right, but I'm sorry you can't go this morning, for you know, if I get what mallards I want, this will be the last duck shooting I intend to do. You know we are going after grouse tomorrow, and the next day, I'm going to hike home."
"That is, you think you are-but anyway, I'll promise to get back in time to spend the evening with you on the lake, and tomorrow we'll put in down among the hills with the chicken, and say, we'll have some good shooting, too."
"You think so?"
"I know so. The pintail grouse does not seem to 'pack' out here like the pinnated, and we'll find plenty of them in the hills."
"Purty wild, I expect?"
"Oh, yes, but when the birds are feeding singly or in pairs, they generally rise within range, and we'll have no difficulty in getting all we want. They have not been so plentiful for years hereabouts, and down in the hills we will find good shooting in the draws. Well, don't work too hard, going out through the channel. So long, till this afternoon." And Bowman started for the barn to saddle up his horse.
A half-hour later I was at the landing, and after storing shells and other paraphernalia away in the stern, I broke the ice with my rubbered boots about the craft and stepped in. By the way, I found those heavy tan-colored Bannigan hip waders of Al McClure's, just the thing for the tough job I found before me. With the push-pole I would break the ice, which was about half an inch thick, in front of the boat, then turn and shove her forward that distance. It was a laborious job, and had the weather been cold and disagreeable I don't think I would have made it. Frequently I was unable to break the ice with the push-pole, standing in the boat, and was compelled to get out and accomplish the trick with my boots, stepping up on the ice near the edge and standing there until it gave way.
That night, safely back in the lodge, Frank told me that he and Ray, with Joe, the farm hand, and Jim the chef, stood for a long time on the back porch, watching me work my way out through the channel and noting my slow progress, and the long rests I was obliged to take. Ray said that I would soon give it up.
"Oh, no he won't," quickly retorted Frank, "he's a duck hunter, and with the good shooting he knows awaits him, he'll get there or die in the attempt."
And the old rancher was right. There was not time, severe as the strain was, that I even thought of abandoning the job, and finally, after the lapse, probably, of a couple of hours, I reached the clumps of cane bordering the open water on the side I was approaching, and getting out upon the ice, until I had it pretty close to the open water. There was a long stretch of this, something like a hundred yards in width, running from end to end, which extended back into the shallow marsh, on both sides. Our decoys were well frozen in, when I got there, but the open was fairly teeming with birds, largely mallards, and when they arose at my approach, there was a veritable net work of confused birds, flying this way and that, until finally they welded into big bunches, and moved off over the vast rice beds of the north, disappearing to a bird over the glistening dome of old Dunderberg, in the direction of Raccoon. Although there were several chances offered while the birds were aimlessly circling, I refrained from taking advantage of them-just simply sat across the boat, getting my wind and watching them until they, at last, sailed off over the big hill. I knew that they would soon come dropping back stragglingly, and that I was bound to have great sport, and was too wise to frighten them by useless shooting. Once, fully recovered from the enervating labors I had experienced in getting where I was, I got out, pushed my boat still further into the rice, cut several armfuls of stalks with my jack knife, covered the boat with them, and crawled back in and awaited my reward.
The sun was now well up toward the zenith and shining blandly down upon the glistening waters and frozen marsh, and I soon joyfully discovered that the ice along the edges was already rapidly receding toward the line of rushes and rice on each side, and I calculated that by noon that it would be all gone, excepting where better protected by the standing tules and other vegetation.
The blackbirds were all about me, filling the trenchant air with their sweet kong-kong-ko-ree, twittering calls and signals. They had absolutely no fear of me, and alighted among the squaw cane about my boat, frequently within reach of my hand. They seemed to be waiting for me to clear away the rest of the ice. Not a single muskrat had yet showed his comical little face, but later in the day they were romping and working everywhere, even in greater numbers than had been in evidence the evening before.
At last I saw a good size bunch of mallards coming over the big hill from the north, and dipping down pretty low over the expanse of rice and tules, steered for the south side of the lake. I gave a running call and was thrilled by their immediate answer, and more so, when they veered round on a graceful curve and started my way. I saw that they had caught sight of our decoys-still ice-fettered way across the open water. Round they came, but too far to my right, and I began a low, subdued running clucking on my caller. That did the business. They turned just right and set their imperial wings and decoyed just as I would have had them, out from the decoys and over the water. Just as they dropped their bright yellow legs, I gave them my right barrel and dropped two and another with my left, before they could begin to climb.
With pounding pinions the remainder of the flock arose straight up and curving round, welded together again and went back whence they came.
Of course, there was no such thing as retrieving my birds then, but I noticed that a splendid little southern breeze was crinkling the waters, and this, in conjunction with the sun, I felt would quickly take the ice, and then everything would be plain sailing, even across ot our old blind in the rice to the west of this point where I was now stationed.
Another hour, in which I had several long and ineffectual shots, things developed just as I had expected. The first thing I knew I saw our decoys bobbing in the open water across the way, and taking a hasty inventory, I saw that the ice had about all disappeared from in front of me, as by the wand of some invisible magician, and wasting no time, I was speedily across the open stretch, and once more firmly anchored in the same old blind I had occupied every day I had been there.
A little wait, and my sport began in earnest. Bird after bird came in, oftenest alone, but occasionally in fragmentary flocks, and giving me an opportunity ot a lifetime. But, at that , I did not do very creditable work. While the day was one of the scintillating one on my long career a an ardent wild fowl hunter, I have known hundreds of times when I killed five times as many birds-of course, back in the days when the limit bag was unknown. I do not know what was the matter, but I couldn't recall the time when I did such ragged and unsatisfactory shooting. I wasn't even in ordinary form and some of my clean misses were actually preposterous. Perhaps I missed the guiding spirit of that peerless old shot-Frank Bowman, and then again my eagerness to make a final record bag might have had lots to do with it. I have known such things to happen before, and so have you, my old duck shooting friends, man and many times. Off days we are all prone to call them.
I had opened up in brilliant fashion, getting three out of the initial bunch, and at good, long range at that, but fell down ignominiously when the flight became the thickest and the best.
About the only real exploit of the morning, aside from that opening achievement, was when three chickens came flying at long range over the lake and I got them all. Two birds were on a line in the lead and I dropped them both with my first barrel, and the third one, off almost out of reach, t seemed to the off side, ceased his choppy flight at the crack of my second. There is no getting away from my beloved old Parker, when she'd held right.
But for two hours there was but brief cessation in the excitement. Every ten minutes or so the birds would come and most all decoyed in the most satisfactory manner. While, as I said, my shooting was sloppy and most provokingly unaccountable, I got down plenty of birds, all that I should have, in fact, and my one consolation was that when I did hit a birds, I killed it clean, and still I wasn't satisfied. In cogitating over the matter, I tentatively attributed my poor work to the dead easy way it came to me, to the fact that I was shooting too far behind, or that I was too eager, and did not take the proper time. And then I would set myself about remedying these derelictions, but no good, I simply went on making miss after miss, and, finally philosophically concluded that I was a rotten shot and that was all there was to it.
Along about half past twelve the birds began to fall off and for at least an hour at one time, I did not see one in the air. I was in the act of pulling my lunch box out from under the stern of the boat, when I saw a long line of mallards coming over Dunderberg. I thought they were going too far to the west, so I squawked vigorously on my caller, and as long way off as they were, I saw that I had attracted their attention. In that low valley of Metz's a good caller can be heard readily for easily a mile, and by birds in the air, I think, a good deal farther. Anyway, the bulk of the approaching flock had heard my signal, for as they rounded over the lake, they came down with the rush of the wind, and when I gave utterance to the chattering notes of an old hen, a fragment of the flock, that had deviated a trifle further to the west, turned and followed the main flock, which was headed my way. When about two hundred yards away they all swerved a little, the way of all newcomers when approaching an unfamiliar line of rushes or rice, and I took these for fresh arrivals from the north. I called when they swung off and chattered as they turned again, and down they came, on a line, like a charge of impetuous dragoons, with long, white-collared necks stretched to their utmost tension and heads gleaming like flashing gems in the slanting sunlight.
They cupped their wings and dropped their bright-colored legs, and three birds, somewhat in the advance of the main line, like generals leading their troops, alighted right in among the decoys before the others had bunched sufficiently to give me a good rake into them, but I let drive, anyway! Then there was a whirl and a wild scramble in the air, which seemed filled with thumping wings, sheering upward and outward amidst a weird chorus of affrighted cries, but that was all. Even my second barrel failed to bring a single shiney feather floating back upon the air.
That was the limit, and the oratorial outburst I indulged in would have made even the Hon. Bill Bryan turn green with envy.
Breaking my Parker, I stood watching the scattered flock gathering together again far down the lake, and as they at last united into a solid phalanx and went with the winds off back over the frowning brow of old Dunderberg, I collapsed.
That was the limit-the last straw-and with my back caved in like that of the fabled dromedary, I fell prone in the hay in the bottom of the boat, pulled the lunch box out from under the stern, and ravenously devoured a couple of cold roasted teal, a loaf of brown bread, a tumbler of stewed prunes, a pickle or two, and a slab of Switzer as big as your foot, all washed thitherward with bottle of Apollinaris. Then I felt better, and with the warm sunshine gloriously flooding my little crypt in the rice, although there was again a well defined chill in the atmosphere, I pulled my raincoat up over my prostrate form, and, to the tinkling of the redwings and the soft whispering of the breeze through the rice, fell asleep, and stayed there until the sun had dropped well down the western sky slope.
I stood up in the boat, yawned, and after shaking myself like old Dandy shakes himself after a nap, I looked about. There were no birds in the air, and aside from the never-ceasing jingle of the blackbirds, the wide marsh was as silent as the tomb. Nobody was visible about the ranch house, and I inferred from this that Bowman was still absent, and would not join me, after all, so I arranged a handful of shells on the host seat, where they would be handy, and then reclined in the hay again to await the evening flight.
As the red disk of the hazy sun dropped lower and lower toward the roof of the old trapper's shanty at the west end of the lake, coddling down in my snug sounce in the hay, I was as cozy as of by the lodge fireside, and for over an hour, when the evening flight of the mallards set in, I was again royalty entertained by the little sights and sounds of the sun-glinted marsh. Along the near shore the flags waved their tattered banners and a tinge of gauzy gray and brown had crept over all the erstwhile tan world. Everywhere the creatures of the sprawling lake were flitting and twittering with that restlessness, which always precedes the close of day. A flock of mudhens, piping and paddling contentedly about the little estuary, penetrating far inland to the south of me, afforded us much delectation, as any sound I ever heard, while among the straggling rice and cane and over the open sheets to the north, east and west, marsh sparrows and blackbirds were noisily engaged with their vespertine duties, and keeping all my senses alert. It was a pleasing accompaniment to the waning glories of a perfect autumn day and I asked myself if ever there was sweeter music made or sweeter scene looked upon?
As I have said before, of all the little feathered creatures of the marshland, none are more interesting than the blackbirds. They swarmed like the infusoria in the air, crossing and recrossing overhead, singly or in bands, and casting a shifting network of reflections on the placid waters beneath. They filled the leaning tules and bedraggled rice like shafts and splinters and dots of colored light, and kept the odorous air tinkling as if with a thousand silvery bells, confusing, yet stimulating both the hearing and sight and enthralling me with the witchery of their magic notes. And once again the muskrats came out, and were busier, even, than the night before. My mind runs riot when reveling, even in memory, over those enchanting pictures, and again does the grateful fragrance of the mouldering world crowd my nostrils. From every side seem to ring the peans of departing autumn-the caressing swish of the wind pushed waters, to the soothing, but mournful lilt ever vibrating through reed and cane. Nature is under the wand of the as yet but listlessly tangible frost gods, but is fast preparing for the tousling she is to receive from the rugged play of the coming wintry winds, and I am chained as with links of steel.
But here comes a flock of mallards. I scrooch down closer in the hay, and watch them, as like another charge of gaily uniformed aerial cavalrymen, on they come, their white necks and emerald heads gleaming like flashing sabers, and with their red orange feet folded like fans, stretched out, behind, rigid and level, they stream over the checkered waters in front of me.
At the crack of my grand old Parker a pair wilts in the low air, and drop with a loud splash among the decoys, while on speed their unheeding companions until they fade away in the burning western sky. Then there is a brief stillness, like that of the grave. Blackbirds have locked their silvery throats, and muskrats have gone down in the aqueous depths, like so many chunks of lead, at the reports of my gun. Then a softer, holier light falls upon hill, and plain and lake. The black wall begins to climb up in the east, the tall rice stalks stand straight and silent, as if cut of tawny stone. Everything is still, save off in the slough a little way, where soon the ever diligent mudhens again begin wallowing in the shallows. An occasional twitter, is also heard, subdued and silvery, as the shy little swamp wren is not so sure of himself as the thick-pated coots, or even the light-hearted redwings, who are soon again all atune.
Then a little later, from the flotsam and jetsam of dead and dying flags, reeking reeds, sodden cane stalks and foamy froth, drift, tules and grass-from domed domicile and hidden burrough, comes the little army of brown-furred, bright-eyed, bewhiskered, flat-tailed warriors.
There is little call to tell about the shooting, how many birds I killed or how I killed them, that would be both tiresome and supererogatory, I am afraid, but I will say, that when I did finally again reach that old landing, in the shivery gloaming, I found I had more than I had any inclination to carry across that broad hay field, so I carefully covered them up in the hay, to await Joe's pleasure to bring them in, and with my Parker over my shoulder, again plodded along the old cattle path, and in a few more moments found myself in that glorious old lodge again. It wasn't long until I had toasted myself in a perfect degree of physical comfort before Jim's roaring blaze in the big stove; then we gorged ourselves on roast canvasback, crisp potatoes, salad, fluffy biscuits and coffee, and go to bed feeling that we have seen a picture no master of the brush could paint, and learned a lesson from the little brown-coated teaches of the marshland-a lesson of simple thrift and self-reliance, resolution and courage, to be leaned in no other school than that which nature opens to us in the lonely but romantic sandhills.
I missed my customary evening chat with Frank on this occasion, as he did not get back from the hills until late, and tired out with my long vigil on the lake, and the strenuous work I had done, I was speedily in my bed and as speedily in the land of dreams.
It did not seem as if I had been slumbering but a few moments, but it was well along toward 3 o'clock in the morning when a human tornado struck the lodge.
First it was the honking of Bowman's big automobile, then a tramping on the side porch like that of a drove of buffalo bulls set adrift in a china shop, then the portals were thrown ajar and into the big dormitory swarmed Arthur Metz, Dan Butler, Lee Greer, Charlie Lewis, Gus Renze and Albert Cahn, and from the babble they kept us I gathered such exclamatory fragments as:
"Well, we're here at last!"-Arthur.
"Whew, I'm as cold as a fish!"-Butler.
"Hurry up with those old fashions, Charlie!"-Renze.
"Where's that hatchet I brought along to kill the crippled ducks?"-Cahn.
"Where's my grip?"-Lewis.
"Drop that-that's mine!"-Butler.
"Well, it is the one I carried out of the sleeper."-Lewis.
"Can't help it-it's mine!"-Butler.
"It is just like mine, only not quite so good. Did you carry one out, Dan?"-Lewis.
"Nope, I had an armful of overcoats."-Butler.
"Well, it's not here-that's all there is to it."-Lewis.
"Hurry up with those cocktails, Charlie!"-Renze.
"Ohtohel with the cocktails-I want my grip."-Lewis.
"Let's look over the whole outfit carefully. By George, I guess we've left it behind."-Metz.
"Too bad, but I want my hatchet."-Cahn.
"And I want a drink!"-Greer.
"Well, go down to the lake, break a hole in the ice, an' founder yourself! We must find Charlie's valise!"
"Oh, it's gone; there's nothing to it-it was the mate of Dan's and we've left in on the Pullman."
"Hell!" the whole chorus.
And so it proved, in the bustle and excitement of disembarking at Cody, Lewis' grip had been overlooked, and as it contained his flannel robe du nuit, his corduroy shooting wammus, slippers, shirts, handkerchiefs, ties, razor, mug and toilette case, etcetera, that gentleman was in anything but an enviable frame of mind. But after Arthur, who is ever provident in such an emergency, had called up the station agent at Cody, and requested him to telegraph on the Chadron and catch the conductor and request the official to express the grip back on the down train, and had received a favorable response, this contretemps, always inevitable with a hunting party, the old roistering good humor was restored, and then the ducks and the old fashions had their innings.
"Say," exclaimed Cahn in high C, "if we don't make any more noise, we won't wake Sandy. See 'im curled up over there in the corner like a woodchuck in a corn shock. Shish! Not so loud, boys-don't wake 'im."
"No that would be too bad-bet a dollar he's been in bed all day," yelped Renze.
"Don't you believe it-he's a duck hunter. I know his family-and I'll bet he's got a stack of mallards out there in the game coop as high as the Woodman of the World building. Catch on old duck shooter sleepin' in the daytime-not up here!" interjoined Lewis.
"That's what," chipped in Arthur, "I've got a chunk of coin to wager that he and Frank Bowman will kill as many ducks in a day as any two shots in the country. Look what they did last fall-the limit-both of 'em, the first morning out."
"That's a fact. I was here then, myself-and don't you remember, Artie, that was the day you shot that mallard drake through the lip, and I had to wade out in the slough and finish it with an ax!" and Cahn, clad in red, white and blue silk night shirt, crawled into the hay and pulled the blankets up over him just in time to avoid the rubber boot that Greer hurried his way.
And so the merry hubbub continued until almost daylight, but the last man was finally stowed way beneath the blankets, and talk about your grand opera on nasal instruments, it beat the band, and what's more, every mother's son of them blamed it on the other at the breakfast table that morning, and it was all Jim and I could do to keep them apart.
The Wild Fowler's Harbor in the Sandhills
And now I reach my last day on the Metz shooting preserve. It was a rarely golden one for November and will long hold its place in happy memory. With all the mallards I wanted, ready for shipment home, this day, the afternoon of which was devoted to the prairie chicken, was but a continuation of the grand excitement of my late autumn outing.
No bird, of all the game birds of these enchanted shooting grounds, ever lent a greater charm, or more sport to its environments that the pinnated and sharp tailed grouse, both of which appropriately come under the generic title of prairie chicken, and while both species are common in this particular locality, the sharp tail is the commoner of the two at the tail-end of the autumn months, and it was the sharp-tail which we had on this day exclusively to do. The pinnated had packed-gathering together in vast flocks, when grasshopper and other insect life begins to vanish before the frosty atmosphere of the nights and mornings-weeks before and migrated on down from the hills into the greater agricultural regions, where the vast corn and stubble fields still furnished them an inviting banquet board. But the sharp-tailed, the harder and more resourceful of the duo, still lingered in the preferable wild haunts beyond the areas of extensive cultivation in great plenitude, and where even through the cold and snow of our worst winters, they manage to eke out a livelihood on the frozen buds of the wild rose, on seeds of infinite variety, and on ground and choke cherries, wild grapes, sumach and buck berries which abound amidst the tangles of the low draws and creek beds.
But as I said before, no bird gives the life and color, or affords such charms to his surroundings as does this very bird-the prairie chicken to the wastes of the monotonous plains and wind-blown sandhills. He is more to it than is the Canada goose to the ice-gorged rivers, the mallard duck to the springfed rills, the upland plover to the big summer hay fields, the jacksnipe to the oozy bog, or the quail to the stubble, the brakes, the windbreak of hedge row. Without the chicken, Nebraska's prairies and Nebraska's hills would be a dreary waste, indeed, in the usual dim and dull days of November. Of all the teeming feathered life of summer days, nothing would be left to gladden the eye but an occasional flurry of snowbirds over the still plain, before the gusts of the pendant storm, or the flash of the black and white of the solitary magpie along the bleak and frozen river ways. As it is yet, thanks to a beneficient power, all seasons are given added beauty and added animation by the presence of the prairie chicken.
In the early spring time, when loud howl the winds of March, and sullenly scowls her skies-when long reaches of splotched snow lingers along the northern slopes of the low hills, or streak the low arroyos of the plain-before the tender blue of the moss-like hepatica had thrust itself up through the withered mat, or the lights from the little clatonia illumined the sunken gullies of the fire-guards, how ineffably sweet came the weird "boom-oom, oom-ooo-oom," swelling on the keen morning air from distant side hill and lonely valley, of the trysting chicken. How often have we heard of it when trudging dolefully to our ducking blind through the dim light of an early spring morning, and now, by a little stretch of the imagination, we can still catch the mellifluous cadences, even up to this very moment.
In the late autumn, when the wild fowl have been driven on south, when the shallow waters of lake and slough are frozen solid; when the quail have fled perceptitately to the cover of plum and willow covert, and the auh-unk of the Canada goose falls but rarely from the steely vault above, as he hurries on, with neck outstretched toward the languorous swales along the gulf-the prairie chicken still undaunted is about the only wild life to be encountered, save now and then a frowsy coyote or ghostlike jackrabbit. And what a beauty and what a joy is this heroic brown bird, with his snowy under garments, to the lonely wayfarer, as he sits huddled and silent on the top of crested hay stack, along the bare branches of the low cottonwoods, or sails in solitude, or bewildering company, in choppy flight from hill to hill, or draw to draw.
Oh yes, he is the one real charm of sandhill and plain, and while the rising young sportsmen of the day may yet hear the flute-like call of Bob White floating across the odorous June meadows, or the rallying signal "haleeo! hee-lee-o!" welling up from the creek's thick borders in the frosty fall time-may start the jack from his boring in the wet meadows, with his shrill "scaipe! scaipe!" and even hear the honking of the Canadas, and the cackle of the speckle fronts, at least as they pass over, high up in the lachrymose skies in the spring, or the vibrant vault of autumn, but few of them will recognize the "boom-oom-oom" of the prairie chicken, if he ever gets to hear it, and fewer still ever know the thrills that I knew on that memorable day last November, as the big strong birds roared up from the dead grass at my very feet almost, as Frank and I roamed the hills below Metz's. The prairie chicken is fast going, and must go, until there is no feather even left to tell of his early reign, even among our favorite grounds in the distant sandhills. Unlike th quail, which is of a semi-domestic order, and may thrive on perennially, the prairie chicken is necessarily a creature of the wild, and-battle as bravely as he may, is is sure to fade away, and fade forever, before the rapid advancement of the line of settlement and civilization.
That was a busy old morning, that last one of mine, as the old Merganzer hunting lodge, as Arthur's party laid out their program for the day, and then in pairs made their way to the points agreed upon out on the lake for the day's shooting. All were bubbling over with excitement and anticipation, and the murmur of their bantering and challenging only died away, when they reached the shore line, and their paths diverged. The day was a continuation of all those that had gone before-bright and sunshiny, and the temperature just right for outdoor frolic or exercises. The morning flight had not been over abundant, and Frank, who piloted one party out upon the marsh, said that he doubted very much whether there would be much shooting or not.
I did not go out, remained behind to rest and get packed for departure homeward that night, and as Bowman said he would be in by noon, when he and I and Ray would take the automobile, run down into the hills, and get my limit of chicken.
And we did.
We got away long about 2 o'clock, and after a half hour's flight across the Metz domain in Frank's big car, we found ourselves at the head of one of those long draws at the ridge top, looking down over the undulations of the seared grass spread out before us.
"Ah! old Sport smells them!" whispers Frank, and as the old settler snuffs the breeze with upturned muzzle, and waves his feathery tail with cautious motion, Bowman and I get out of the auto, and get ready for business, while Ray drives the car up the ridge a ways.
Old Sport pauses a moment, peers searchingly around, then points his nose ahead and goes off on a slow gallop, and into the draw and on down to where it melts into the flat bottom again.
Suddenly, wheeling half about old Sport halts a second or two, then again starts through the grass. We hurry after him.
Where the lobed corolla, in white and yellow and red-the flower of the Illyrian King-had nodded over the still emerald wild hay a month ago, the setter crouched low and bellys his way on ahead, coming to a halt where the old dried rosin weed and bunch grass intermingle in straggling tufts, and glances furtively around to see if we are coming. Then on he crawls down the quiet slope and into the longer grass beyond. We follow, with swelling hearts, close behind. Over another gradual acclivity the dog crawls with slower motion, on down into the deep brown of the faded wild flax, which stretched away to still another rise, where old Sport stopped as if at fault.
"It is only an old cock," whispers Frank, "and he'll flush a long ways ahead."
The setter, with another solicitous glance back our way, licks his chops as if satisfied, and moves slowly on around a small knoll, with his nose up in the odorous breeze, and the chalk of his eyes showing beneath the strain.
He has stopped as rigid as a corpse, with set tail and up-lifted forepaw. Then, as we stepped forward, a big bird arose from the grass a hundred yards on one side and vanished over the next swale. But old Sport only dropped flat, with nose still pointing toward the place where the bird had risen.
As we came up to him, he gave Frank a wistful glance, then licked his chops and stared ahead, vacantly, but earnestly. We moved a trifle ahead of him, but he declined to follow, and there was no change in his face, except for an air of deeper concern. With a sudden roar a half dozen birds, with deeply mottled backs, and snowy underskirts, burst from the grass just out of gunshot, I thought, ahead, and go off somewheres towards Wyoming at a rate of speed surpassed only by that of a green wing teal when you send a load of 7s a little too close to his tail feathers, as he swishes past your blind, and yet not very much by even him. But we never lost a wink of time. Both our guns cracked in concert, and the old grouse in front of Frank's little 20-bore Parker, went down in a flutter of white, but I did not have the satisfaction of clipping even a feather out of the tail of mine.
"Too far!" squeaked the rancher.
"Yes, but you got yours," I answered satisfyingly.
"Sure! but look who I am," and Frank laughed and so did I, "and look at what I'm shooting!" and proudly he held aloft his toy little Parker.
"Huh!" was all I could articulate.
"But no jokin', Sandy, they were too far-mine was an accident. But see, Sport says there is still another one-"
Two more birds, with a flutter of white wings, bounced from the grass where the others had been, and like balls out of a cannon they went over the low rise. Then setting their wings rode swiftly down the breeze as if to alight; then suddenly, with more rapid stroke, they rose a bit higher, and then they did go, a mile or two away, when they sailed with a majestic sweep over a big round-backed sandhill, where all the others had gone.
But what was a couple of miles to get a shot at such birds. We were quickly, but very short of wind, at the crest of the hill over which the birds had disappeared. Spreading away on either side was a long slop of the best kind of grassy cover, and even as we gazed, the swing of old Sport's tail grows slow, and into his brown eyes a serious look crept.
"They aren't far off!" said Frank.
And as if answer to the admonition, the old setter raised his head and smelt the air with evident satisfaction. He was a yard or two in the lead of us, and before starting, he looked around as much as to say, "now be careful, come on!"
Two hundred yards or more, he trotted, with tail becoming slower and slower in its sweeping oscillations. Another fifty yards he crawled, then stood a moment with black muzzle upraised to the cool western breeze. Expecting the birds to lie a bit closer after their long flight we moved briskly up close to the dogs. Everything was as quiet as the grave, save the faint pink! pink! pink!, of some snowbirds flying over high up in the sunlit air. After standing so, a brief time, old Sport started on again, proceeded another hundred yards, when he settled to a point more rigid than before, and with absolute certainty written in every wrinkle of his nose.
"They are closer," from Frank, "Step up!"
I did as commanded when blu-bbbb-oooo, a big bird, with that same old uproar, took wing, and as we drew up our Parkers, a dozen more thundered into motion.
Crack, crack went Borman's 20-bore, and whang, whang, went my 12. There were four puffs of white feathers in the air, simultaneously it seemed, and four fine, plump rosebud fattened grouse bumped to the earth with a bound. With the fallen birds all duly accounted for, Frank turned and waving to Ray, who had trailed us with the car, and we chatted on our luck, till he arrived, when Frank said:
"Get in Sandy; it's hard going up and down these hills. When old Sport says so, we'll get out," and down the long draw we went, and up over the ridge, to the more likely country whence we had just come.
And so it went all the afternoon, until I had my limit of ten, and Frank had his. While it would be a pleasure to continue on and tell how we found and killed each bird, it would be pretty much of repetition, and as the reader is already tired of the long grind, I will draw the record of one of the most delightful autumn rambles I have had for a quarter of a century, to a close, and with a tender adios to my patient readers go back to my dreaming of the golden fall days that may once again find me with good old Charlie Metz, as a partner, out in those same odorous fields and upon those same amber waters.