Sandy Griswold. December 5, 1915. Continues: 12/12, 51(12): 3-S; 12/19, 51(12): 3-S; 12/26, 51(13): 14-N; 2 January 1916, 51(14): 2-S.
A Winter Day on Glorious Old Hackberry
Welcome, indeed, was the sight of the Hackberry Ducking club's beautiful and cozy shooting lodge, when on November 13, just three weeks ago, after a long and monotonous auto trip across the gray sandhills from Wood Lake, Charles Cobry and I, it burst into view as we swept 'round the last big mound at the lower end of the lake, and we realized that our voyage was at an end.
Stowing away our shooting impediments in a corner of the commodious summer dining room, we relieved ourselves of superfluous wraps, and after getting thoroughly thawed out at the big baseburner in the exquisitely appointed living room, we partook of some hot coffee, bacon and eggs, deftly supplied by Mrs. Marks, wife of the lodgekeeper, and went forth for a brief reconnoiter before the short early winter twilight faded out.
There was a cool, gray light hovering over Hackberry as we emerged, and gaining a nearby prominence, together, we made a minute survey of the surroundings. The lake was largely frozen over, but here and there, both up and down the lonely expanse, open stretches of water gleamed like sheets of glass, but at first we failed to perceive any birds, and it looked very much to the old duck hunters' vision as if we were on a dead one.
The domes of the bordering sandhills to the south and west ends rose indistinctly, as if reared in the air, with darkly changing pictures below them. The atmosphere was unpleasantly chill, yet sweet with the odors of autumn's decay, and the feathery lace work, veiling the zenith, portended nothing but snow. The outlook was anything but encouraging. The big club house was growing dim in the ghostly light; the hills and prairie gloomy. A lone coyote, squatted on his haunches, on the slope of the hills straight across from us as if in irony at our predicament. There wasn't a duck in the air, anywhere, but a hardy old osprey was curving and dipping over the sullen rice beds at the lower end of the lake.
"It don't look very good to me, Cobe," I remarked as I took a little spiteful kick at a clump of withering yucca, and started down the sloping declivity, and yet, despite the prospect the scene was peculiarly fascinating one, and one of which I never tire, ducks or no ducks.
The steep, rounded, storm-scarred face of the big hill across the ice and gleaming waters to the southwest, for all its naked grimness, looked very cheerful as the gray scud in the west lit up in the last flicker of the warm colored sunset. There were no trees, save the stunted row of low box alders along the ditch skirting the road leading round the head of Hackberry and again reluctant to give up, I stopped and we lingered and gazed. Every tiny plateau, every bit of slope that was not too sandy for clinging roots to find hold, was clothed with a mat of the spinous soap weed. The long lance-like leaves of an opaque bluish green, much more vivid and higher in key than even the wild blue grass can show in June, were still upright and good for the visitation of much rough weather. These, with the withered verdure, gave the barren steeps of all the hills the effect of having been dyed with a wash of cobalt.
Far below, where the mournful wilderness valley was totally forsaken by the expiring flush of the sunken sun, suddenly a long string of dotted lines could be seen. It was a flock of mallards coming in over the hills from off over toward Watts, and as they came on up the lake like a hurtling canister, we could see their out-stretched necks and short wings, beating swiftly, and we kept our eyes glued upon them. They passed us far out, and I thought were bound off over the wild meadow to some reedy pool, when they suddenly curved in toward our side of the lake, came on as if more in a hurry than ever, straight into shore, and were then hidden by the intersecting dome of the sandhill just west of us.
We did not see them rise out over the shore, to cross the hills, and I remarked to Cobe, as I stood motionless, still watching for them:
"Those birds lit."
"I believe they did," Cobe replied, and then we slowly and cautiously worked down and across the canyon and up the side of the hill. Reaching the crest, or close enough to peer over, without exposing our bodies, we took a quick, searching look, and there, grouped in all sorts of attitudes on the ice, and dabbling contentedly in a crescent shaped air hole, the birds had undoubtedly kept open, curving around the shore, close in, in this natural cove, was two or three thousand mallard ducks!
What a sight for a discouraged duck hunter? The sluggish blood leaped into instant active life, the chill went out of the atmosphere, and once more I had visions of the glories of days with the mallards, my spirits went up in leaps and bounds, and turning to Cobe I said:
"We're all right, Charlie-tomorrow we'll have a great shoot."
Then, with another good, long look at the silent birds to get the lay of their position, I motioned to Cobe, and silently we left the scene. I did not want to risk my voice until once again well within the cozy walls of the club house.
On the road we trudged along, Indian file. Above the lake, which washed the feet of all these low-lying hills, high above the ice and water chequered depths, but below the line of shadow creeping up on the slop side, a big dusky owl, on soundless wing, circled slowly, waiting for the deepening twilight to further his grim hunting. The smooth, open stretches streaking Hackberry, glimmered pallidly, while here and there a spreading circular ripple showed where a hungry merganzer had plunged into the icy waters, or where a muskrat voyaged across.
Up from the uncanny flood of the thin sunset, the yucca, the tall stem grass, and the pucker bush globes, gleamed and glowed, now looking like gems to my heightened fancy, then again like blotches in the murk, according to the fall of the fast waning light. Around the shoulder of the sandhill mountain before us, toward the east, it was almost a smear of ebony and purple, all but the grassy crest, where the light yet fell abundant, cool and tender-and out on the lake, a smother of shadows, as a ragged moon, just rising over the far rugged rim of the world to the east, touched the openings with phantom silver. All was ghost-like and unreal, when again the club house, with its garish windows, loomed almost over us, the whole facade shining like a beacon and beckoning us to hurry within.
After a hearty dinner, with baked mallard as the piece de resistance, Cobry and I hugged the fire until late in the evening, discussing our plans for the morrow, and we really enjoyed this pastime almost as much as we did the glorious sport that awaited us.
I felt sure that the big swarm of mallards we had seen on the ice and in the air-hole at the head of the lake would be found there in the morning, as undoubtedly they had been "using" there for several days, and as feeding grounds were limited on account of the frozen sloughs and fields, I felt they would frequent the locality until driven off by continual shooting.
"I'll tell you what we'll do, Cobe," I remarked finally, as I arose to go out for a look at the weather, "in the morning we'll make an effort to sneak on that bunch up there, for if we can get one good pot shot on the ice and as they rise, we'll get enough, anyway, to grease the pan when we get home, for when we do once jump the birds and take a crack at them I'm not sure that they will come back, but I think they will. However, it is best to take no chances, and if we can bag a half dozen on the sneak, we won't get skunked anyway."
"You bet," responded Cobe with much elation. "I think we can get right on top of them, and if we do, we won't do a thing to them. What time shall we start?"
"Oh, there'll be no particular hurry," I replied. "There are no hunters on the lake, and as there is nothing else to disturb the birds, they'll stick round till long towards noon, when they will be apt to swing off over the hills for exercise if nothing else. We'll wait and have breakfast-take our time to it-we've got it all to ourselves, and I think we are going to have a great morning's shoot. But lets take a look out doors," and suiting the action to the words I led the way out of the front door.
The sky was thickly shrouded with heavy gray clouds, through which the moon's rays vainly struggled, but sufficiently to give us a clear view of the icy lake, and there was an insinuating moist wind coming down the valley from the west, that smelt suspiciously like snow. We stood for some minutes looking and listening, and when the querulous quack of some old hen mallard busy at her feeding came softly to our hearing our hearts took an extra bound, and as we turned to go in the club house, I remarked:
"Well, they are still there, Cobe, so lets break for the hay and dream that we are among them."
We were soon curled up in those heavy, luxuriant blankets for which the Hackberry club house in noted, but woo the coy restorer, was more difficult than I had imagined, for it was impossible to suppress the youngster, and from his couch across the room, he shot volley after volley of questions at me, raked me fore and aft, in fact, fairly enfiladed the whole shebang, until finally he rolled over in a dose to the lullaby of his own tongue.
And then, even, I could not follow suit. The boy had stirred my sluggish blood to its depths, and aroused a flood of memories that would not be denied.
Ah's me, what magic is it that we find in this duck shooting? Thousands of times I have undertaken the task of solving it, but as yet I have never been able to, and I guess I never will.
What can make the ageing feel the buoyancy of youth again, or kindle such fervent fires in the bosom of the youngster, as the ecstasies that are theirs as they lie courting slumber on the night before a great shoot in the morning blind?
As the god of day, in riant chariot, approaches the pearly gateway in the eastern horizon through clouds of gold and rose and sapphire, he descries in the warming skies a dim line of grayish dots coming with the onrush of that matutinal energy that never fails to make the heart leap, and begins the bewildering intensity of the situation.
It may be a throng of mallards, with green heads glistening like the couched lances of olden knights, or canvasbacks, like a charge of cavalry, with rosewood helmets, a rioting bunch of greenwings or disorderly widgeon, it matters not, it is all the same to the man in the blind. If a youth, his sensations are little short of insanity; if old tier, he is a youth again. If a youngster no emotions of pity softens the crude savagery of his heart-he wants to annihilate the whole flock; if an old man the whirring birds revive sweet recollections of his heyday, and there is a vague sadness in the thrill. One resplendent victim in response to the crack of his good old Parker is all the compensation he craves.
And again in the evening after the sun has buried itself behind the western barrier of the sandhills, and the light in the hesperian sky is shattered into countless tints; when every object above the horizon is clean cut outline, and yet, resting over all is that pallid glow which intensifies the upper colors, and at the same time throws a weird flush over all below. From the departed sun rose light radiates into the zenith, while in the east the whole heavens are shimmering in a dim green. North and south shafts of fire burn dimly, and waver and shift, while in the west umber tinged turrets thrust themselves up into space, while streams of coppery vapor, with lemon-colored selvage stripe the dulling sky, and over the stage of marsh and lake again pours that troupe of feathered actors that even stirs the marrow in a duck hunter's bones.
And then, at last, my mind yet a riot of the phantasies of memory, I too slept. The morning broke cold, gray and chill, and when I boldly leaped from my covers, and gazed out the window, I found exactly what I expected to find, the whole landscape under a blanket of snow, and the air still a-flurry with the flocculent crystals in a way that filled me with a shivering animation, and boded ill for those mallards down on the ice.
"Get out of that, Cobe," I shouted to the sleeping youth across the room, "the old woman has been busy all night picking her geese, and the ground is covered with their feathers."
But Charlie was game and as he reached my side at the open casement and gazed upon the wintry scene, he exclaimed:
"Isn't that fine! I say, Sandy, we've got 'em now, that sneak'll be a cinch, don't you think?"
Truly, despite the paucity of startling features, in the way of beetling cliffs and roaring cataracts, it was a beautiful and entrancing scene upon which young Cobry and I feasted our bewildered vision as we emerged from the club house that morning. All about the Hackberry demense, interminably, and beneath a gray, chill sky, stretched the white empty miles of snow, broken here and there by the marbled tops of the sandhills, on to the menacing horizon. The young box alders bordering the drain that stretched along the desolate lake shore to the west were heavily splotched with white, and way across, endlessly baffled, yet endlessly unconquered, by the sorcery of the night, the hosts of the hills thrust up their hemispherical domes, like huge white loaves, up boldly into the hostile vacancy of the cold air. Between these dark vanguards, long silent aisles of silvered surface led back and gently upward to the snow-swept prairie.
All about the stately club house, and its spacious environments, fence posts, shrubbery, barn, boathouse, decoy shed, grainery and woodpile, was a miracle of the feathery lavishment of Hyperboreus. Snow covered was everything, inexhaustible, infinitely varied and of unspeakable purity, wherever the vaporous light fell gently upon it. It required a brave struggle for the dawning rays of the sun to break through the wildly scurrying clouds which filled the eastern heavens, and I was half inclined to believe that the storm was over. Through a long, narrow rent, however, torn by a fiercer gust of wind than usual, in the hurrying masses, suddenly came a burst of sunshine, spreading pink, yellow and rose from the growing radiance along the white crest of the eastern hills. It seemed to sift and filter everywhere, into every snow-filled or frost-covered cranny, reflected and re-reflected from innumberable facets, as if radiating from the heart of some enormous and fabulous jewel. Each snow-capped post, each slanting roof, the ridges, besprinkled with Spanish daggers bristling along their sides, seemed to emit a flamelike glare, high and aerial in tone, but of great intensity. It was as if the lonely valley of old Hackberry had been flooded, by the wand of a magician with the dust of emerald, opal, sapphire, amethyst and diamond. As the light, for a moment, grew, the miracle changed slowly one keen gleam dying out as another flashed into life.
Then larger grew the rent in the scurrying clouds in the eastern sky and the sun came in a flood of glory, and silent and wonderful it lay, like silver over the grim sandhills, the forbidding lake, the farmstead and the whole of the enchanted solitude.
I had but wish at the moment, other than to enjoy the marvelous picture, and that was that my generous host, Mr. O.E. Berg, was not there to enjoy it with us. And George Brandeis, too, and Jim Rait, and Al. Krug, and Harry Zimman, Henry Karsch and Charlie Lentz, also, all Hackberry charter members, were included in my longing. But I had little time for idle sentiment, for quicker that it had come, a change took place in the scene. The sun was blotted out at a single whirl of the thickening and hurrying clouds. A few bulky shadows essayed to chase themselves across the now sullen and snow-covered lake, but they did not get far, until all lay under the umbra of the clouds, while the wind rose in shrill shrieks and gray flakes of snow again began to curl and swirl in the air.
"Good!" I ejaculated, as at last, routed from our trance, Cobe and I started up the road toward the head of the lake where our mallard haven lay. "I was afraid it was going to clear off, and if it had our chances would have been greatly lessened," I added.
"This snow will make it good, then," inquiringly interjected the youth, "I've always heard that the duck shooting was best in a snow storm."
"Well, Cobe, that is often true, but not always. Most all of us old duck hunters have had our snowstorm shoots, and some of us the best of our lives in the most terrific kind of a storm. The ducks on such occasions seek the sheltered nooks, obscure retreats, safe from the violence of the gale, and this is generally where feed is to be had, and while the storm lasts they are loath to leave. If disturbed, of course, they will get up and fly away, but only to quickly return. More especially is this true while a large portion of the lake is frozen over, like Hackberry is now, and when they do come back the shooting is simply a cinch. The wind impedes the flight of the birds, and the swirling snow interferes with their keen eye sight, and they are easy. Along they come facing the storm, flying slower than is their usual wont, for if they be new or incoming, or passing birds, they are on the keen lookout for a shelter cove, just like the one we are making for. If they are birds that have already enjoyed the hospitality of this little haven, they will come on blindly back again, veering this way and that in the squall, but finally buffeting in head on against the blast, they slowly slide down-well, it is a crime to take the money."
"Don't you need decoys," very pertinently interposed the youth, showing that he had proper intuition all right, and would prove himself an apt scholar.
"Indeed you do," I hurriedly responded, "but don't worry, I've planned for all that, we're only on a little scouting expedition now, and if we find our birds at their post, as they should be, and everything continues favorable, we are going to have a great morning of it-mind that. Sposin' you slip down now to the edge of the ice and take a squint up the lake, if that bunch is there, we will see what we can do in the way of a sneak, which I must confess I haven't much faith in. But let that go as it may. We're going to have a lot of fun.
"Hey! They are there all right, are they?" I cried as Cobe mentioned favorably, as he clambered back through the snow, to the road.
"I should say they were there-thousands of them, but the snow is flying so thick I couldn't see whether they were in the same place or not," he breathlessly informed me as he reached my side.
"Same place, all right," I replied reassuringly. "We'll turn into the hills here, and come down the second canyon ahead of us," and off I trudged up the ankle-deep declivity with Cobe close at my heels.
With the snow coming thicker and faster, and swirling about our faces, in a most annoying manner, we quickly made our way across the first big draw, and were crawling up the opposite hill when we were startled by a shrill "chee-wee-wee-chee-e-e," which came distinctly from out the scruff of the storm, and stopping short in our tracks, we beheld the black shadowy shape of one of those big sandhill hawks, darting through the flying flakes up the canyon a short way, and right before it, leaping madly down the slope, with his frowsy tail clamped between his legs, was a coyote. Both disappeared in the swirl of the snow like the mutations of a film, before either myself or my youthful partner could realize just exactly what we had seen. Cobe did, however, emit a sort of yelp, in the exuberance of his excitement, but cut it short, as I warningly lifted my hand.
"What was it?" queried he, in a subdued tone, as he turned his dripping face upon me.
"Nothin', only a hawk and a coyote playing tag," I replied, "but wait, Cobe, my boy, we must not talk now, wait until after we perpetrate our grand coup on the mallards, then we can chat a bit."
True to his instincts the boy again became mute and holding our guns at half-ready, we crept on up to the snow-clad crest of the hill, and then along its side until we were in a position to peer over and down onto the snow laden and icy lake.
Despite our caution and vantage of the flying snow, no sooner had our dead grass caps appeared over the summit, than we were startled by a mighty flapping of black and gray wings, and a raucous chorus from green and white collared throats, and our mallards-thousands of them, as Cobe had enthusiastically declared-rose in a cloud, and then, still squawking affrightedly, disintegrated and began to scatter to the four winds, in the ruck of the storm, going off across the lake, and down and up in big bunches, threes and fours, pairs and single birds, until the gray scene was dotted everywhere with their dark, swiftly moving bodies.
Many of them came right out over us, and it was only by emphatic persuasion that I prevailed upon my youthful comrade-and say, let me add right here, before I neglect it, he is a bully one, one of the most likable men I ever hunted with, and I have hunted with more of the best known men of this country, than one man in a hundred, and these two include two ex-presidents of the United States, Harrison and Cleveland, as well as with General Crook, General Ray, Joseph Murphy, Colonel Shepherd, Fred Mather, New Buntline, Francis Smith, Major George Whittle, George A. Boyd, and countless others equally prominent in the country's vital affairs, and as great sportsmen as ever breathed the pure air of heaven.
But, as I said, many birds came right out over where Cobe and I were standing, and made off across the hills towards Watts' and other adjacent lakes. We would have had a number of good shots, but so long as our plans had been frustrated, I considered it wise to let them go until we got ready to welcome them back.
"Now what did that?" ejaculated Cobe as at last the birds seemed to have all been swallowed up in the storm.
"Must have been that screech you let go at the coyote," I ventured, to the deep discomfiture of my youthful pal.
But I knew better and I quickly hastened to relieve his criminating doubts.
"No, Cobe, it wasn't that, for they couldn't have heard you back there in the draw, in this storm, if you had tried your hardest to make them. It was just one of those inexplicable things that have happened to me many times before and which will happen to you, too, again, if you are fortunate enough to take many more duck hunts."
"I'm awfully glad to hear you say that Sandy, for if I thought I had scared those birds, I'd get up and start back for Omaha on foot without a minute's delay, for I wouldn't have spoiled your plans for a deed to the new World-Herald building, and that goes, too."
And take it from me, I think the boy meant it.
"The mallard duck, Cobe," I went on to further assure him, "let me tell you, like all wild game birds, loves the absolute silence of the solitude-wildness is born in them, and they need no experience with the hunter to develop it."
"Yes, I know myself, that the mallard is about the wariest of all the ducks," very truthfully interposed the boy, ambitious, no doubt, to show me that he wasn't absolutely shy on wild fowl lore.
"Well, that is about true," I resumed as we started up over the rise and down through the big white drifts, toward the lake, "the mallard is a smart one all right. Even when feeding at night in some out-of-the-way slough, or hidden away in the heart of some measureless marsh, like the one up at Lake Creek, for instance, they never for a moment abandon their alertness, nor trust to the seemingly safe hiding places alone for protection. Even when floating with their heads tucked under their wings on the open waters of a broad lake, or among the reeds in an isolated pond, there is a nervous vigilance about them that suggests the subtile sense of danger which is always with them. Generally we have to content ourselves with studying old Anas Boschas with a shot gun or from a distance, and yet I have gotten right upon a flock, up to within a few yards, and secreted in the tall grass, watched them for many moments. But you must be perfectly hidden to escape the quick hearing and bright eyes of a mallard, for they are a part of the wildest phases of nature. They understand all the many cries of the crow and the hawk, the piping of the gulls, rattle of kingfisher and trust largely to them for a signal of peril. Crows as you have doubtless seen, can fly over and all about a flock of feeding mallards, hawing to beat the band, and yet not a duck will give any heed to the clamor, or make an uneasy move in their feeding, but the instant a crow utters his danger caw, every duck is on the alert in a jiffy, and without delay will jump up into the air and scurry away for safer quarters. Their constant watchfulness is really remarkable. But here we are, and just look what a hole those birds have kept open in the ice."
And together the boy and I cross the road, leaped the intersecting ditch, crawled through the box alders and stood gazing on the water hole and off over the surrounding snow covered ice.
The air hole was semi-circular, and extended out from the shore for the distance of one hundred yards, when it met the thick ice again. The waters were roilly and covered with small feathers and won from the birds' bodies, and I knew instantly that they had been frequenting the spot ever since the freeze up, and also that the shallow waters were full of some kind of feed, and that they would be hopping back in no time.
"Everything is lovely, Cobe," I remarked after a careful survey of the situation, "so now we'll hurry back to the club house, get some decoys, the ax and an armful of hay. In this ditch, behind this low shrubbery we can make an ideal blind and don't worry, we're goin' to get 'em! But lets get down to business without delay. See! there come a bunch now, see them off there, buffeting the wind and snow. No, no use getting down, we don't want to fire a shot until we get good and ready. Come on."
And leaving our guns among the alders, with highly beating hearts, we started back down the road bound lickety split for the club house.
Surely not more than half an hour had elapsed before Cobry and I were back at the hole with two dozen decoys, a big bundle of hay and an ax. Quite a bunch of ducks had returned during our absence, but we refrained from molesting them as they rose, and went to work energetically arranging our blind. This was easy of accomplishment. With the ax I cut out a sufficient quantity of the dead alder branches from the bordering trees and forcing these into the frozen earth along the lake side of the ditch, which was fully three feet deep, we filled in the interstices with hay and weeds and leaves, and in a short time had an ideal hide. In the flying snow I felt that we would be perfectly secure from the keenest-eyed bird that ever flew, and at the same time have the easiest kind of shooting through the alder branches.
The blind completed, we proceeded to throw out our decoys. No attempt was made to place them in orthodox order, we were in a thundering big hurry, and just flung them haphazard, out into the open water from the shore, letting them light where they might, and I must say, after they were all out, they made a decidedly attractive stool. No sooner had we scrambled back up the bank and gotten snugly ensconced in the ditch behind the alder branches and hay, than eight or ten mallards came in silently and without warning and bowed their wings to come down to the decoys. It was a long hard shot, for I was still panting from my exertion in building the blind, as they struck the water, Cobe could not repress his exhilaration and he cried:
"A dandy shot! Wasn't that great?"
"Yes," I replied, "I was afraid at first that they were too far out; but did you shoot?"
"Me! No. I didn't want to spoil your shot. I'd just as leave see you kill 'em as do it myself."
"Well, I don't want you to do that again-we've got plenty of shells, and I want you to shoot. That is the only way you will ever learn, and after this, shoot, hit or miss, never mind me. I can take care of myself-Shish! There comes one lone bird now; keep perfectly still, and when it swings in over that little jutting point of ice, let it have it. Still now-wait-hold a foot ahead of its bill, and it's yours! Shoot!"
And, bang! went the boy's gun, and down dove the bird-an old hen mallard, probably the mate of one of the birds I had just killed and she had returned to she what had become of her liege. She kept up in the air, hit as hard as she was, until she had cleared the open water, when down she went, striking the smooth ice with her brown mottled breast and sledding away for yards, when she brought up against a little ridge of snow and lay still.
"Bully!" I cried. I couldn't help it, for Cobe had really made a grand shot, for the old hen was going straight across with the wind in front of us, and it required the real stuff to stop her.
"I thought you said you couldn't kill ducks?" I shot at Cobe.
"Accident!" was the boy's modest and laconic rejoinder, and before I could proceed with my complimentary approval, he fairly shouted in his intense excitement: "But look! Sandy, look! There comes a hundred of them!"
And sure enough, there they did come, probably not a hundred of them, but plenty enough to make the blood leap in the veins and the heart bound in the bosom of the most experienced duck hunter that ever crouched in a blind. On they came, like the charge of a band of wild Cossacks, through the almost blinding snow. Straight at us from across the lake, but before reaching the outer edge of the airhole, they went up into the air, describing a curve like a huge sleigh runner, and round off over the lake to the east, and it looked very much as if they had smelled a mouse and were off. However, our disappointment was quickly dispelled, as Cobe whispered breathlessly: "Look, Sandy, they are turning, they'll come back. Yes, there they come. My gawd, Sandy, isn't that a sight for you?"
It was. They were now coming down wind, with their long necks stretched out straight before them, fully three dozen grand, old redlegged winter mallards, and they streamed along the narrow water strip in front of us.
"Steady, now Cobe-let them have it!"
We pulled together, so closely that the first two reports sounded as one, and then our second barrels with a second's space between them, and we were electrified to see four big birds fall, all in the water, as the rest climbed the air with throbbing wings. We saw another bird sag, lower and lower, and then with wobbly flight, part from the flock which had gathered together again. We watched this bird as it lowered to the ice. It made a heroic effort to keep going, but it was gut-shot, and suddenly like the snapping of a tout cord, let go altogether, striking the ice way up near the west shore of the lake.
"That's five out of that bunch," I remarked, as I poked in a couple of more shells. "Oh, yes, we'll get that last one, when we start to retrieve. None of those birds in the water-either dead or crippled-can get away from us-and those on the ice will be just like finding them, especially when we send Brownie out after them."
Brownie, by the way, is a beautiful little spaniel belonging to President Jim Rait, and one of the best retrievers I have had the joy of seeing work since up at Metz a year ago, when I was out several times with Fred Metz' incomparable Dandy.
Still the snow was coming down in great swirls, and it became a difficult matter for us to see much further out than the confines of the open water, otherwise we should have gotten a number of shots which we missed by not detecting the birds in time.
For a few minutes, however, there was a lull in the flight, and there was nothing to be heard or seen excepting the soft susurration of the drifting flakes and our indistinct environments. True, a fish hawk floated down over the nearby hills, but as he caught sight of our bobbing decoys, he uttered a weak cry and shot wildly away into the storm. A muskrat, too, made his appearance in the water among our floats, paddled around investigating a few seconds, then hit the water a smack with his flat, hairless tail, and was gone.
"Mark! There comes a couple, Sandy," and the boy scrooched deeper down in the ditch, indicating with his gun barrel the direction from which the birds were coming.
It was a pair of mallards. They were low down over the icy surface of the lake and were coming with their usual speed on a course that would carry them right over the decoys in front of us. As if to help us out, the wind rose stronger for the moment, and blew the descending flakes aside, so that we could at least catch clear glimpses of the approaching mallards.
They were evidently suspicious and slowed up as the airhole glistened beneath them, and I concluded that they had already been shot at, but became quickly reassured, urged by hunger probably, and swung into us. The drake was in the lead, and was dropping his orange legs when Cobe straightened up, without a hint from me, and killed him as clean as a whistle. The hen twisted round in some sort of an impossible way and squawking in fright sought to make good her escape back over the icy lake. But the boy, like Cassablanca, was still there, and at the crack of his left barrel she went down on the ice with a thud like a bomb dropped from an aeroplane. The drake had fallen into the water.
"Great!" I cried, "that last shot was unbeatable. I thought she was going to get away and made no effort to shoot. I tell you, Cobe, she was fully seventy yards away-every inch of it. You see that dead widgeon out there, with its belly upturned, well she was right there, but you killed her too dead to skin! First thing you know I'll be taking shooting lessons from you."
"Oh, not quite, I don't think," replied Cobry, "but I must say my cap is really getting a bit small for me. Honestly, I can't tell you how I did it. But it was surely shootin'."
"Mark! Down! Still, now!"
This from me.
It was a bunch of blue bills, and they came hurtling down through the whirling snow like canister from a cannon. I took the lead, for they were coming from my side, at the same time telling the youth to take the middle, and while we both downed a bird, in fact, three fell, but one was slow in making up his mind. Still I was considerably nettled, because there were forty or fifty of them, and they crosses us in a massed line, and we ought to have gotten a half dozen. The first two were stone dead, but the other one only wing tipped, and as hard as it is to shoot over a wing tipped bluebill, as they are great divers, like the canvasback, we didn't let it get away. At that, it took seven or eight shots to put him on his back. But so far as that is concerned, all you old duck shooters know what it is to over shoot a wounded duck, let it be of whatsoever kind it may-what a hard thing it is to kill a bird on the water, and how many magnificent chances you have often spoiled by continuing to whang away at a cripple, only to see him get away at last, rapidly paddling out into the lake or stream out of gunshot, with nothing but a faint triangle of ripples receding back from the top of its head and bill, all that remains of is unsubmerged. But, although our bluebill couldn't have got away from us, anyway, on account of the ice, Cobe and I were piqued that he didn't gracefully turn over at our first fusillade, so we kept it up until it did succumb.
Another bunch of bluebills came in almost immediately, but they swung out rather far. We heard our No. 6's rattle up against their sides, but aside from loosening a feather or two from one of the rear birds, the flock swerved out over the ice undamaged.
Again! We had barely recovered from this mild disappointment when a flock of mallards, embracing over a half hundred birds, without exaggeration, came straight into us again, just like that first sizable flock. But Cobe was onto the job by this time, and I did not have to even whisper an admonition. We waited until they dropped their red legs to light among the wooden counterfeits, when we rose to our feet together, and poured it into them. Five birds fell, while a sixth, which had received some stray pellets in the general onslaught, dropped out of the main bunch, as they curved out and tore straight sway, then veered round, flying actually over the airhole and out over our blind and off over the hills toward Watts' lake, before either of us could reload.
But that was getting them, and we were both electrified right after this, to see birds hurling themselves through the flying snow in almost every direction.
"Purty good prophet, eh, Cobe?" I remarked as I scooped out a handful of melting snow from the back of my neck under my sweater collar, and then poked my gun out through the alders.
"I'll bet you strained that old Parker of yours that time, Sandy," laughed the boy, as I knocked an old green head out of a bunch of three that had swung in towards the hole, but dodged out over the ice again before getting within real good gu shot, it seemed, yet the old drake came down kerplunk, dead as a mackerel, on the ice but a few rods from the long shot Cobe had made, and when I had merely taken a long chance at them, at that.
"Oh, I don't know, me boy," I responded glibly, "those kind of shots are not only easy, but common-that is with these grand old Peters' shells we are using. Now watch! I'll take him. See him coming down there to your right? He'll pass right over the blind."
And sure enough he did-a lone greenhead, coming in from up the head of the lake, from off over the hills. I had to lean far back, way out of shape, to get ahead of him right, as he passed over the boxalders in front of us, but I led him just right, and at the crack of my gun he folded up like a jackknife and came straight down with great force, like a brick slammed from a sky scraper, into the snow-ridden flags but a few yards from our hole.
Cobe was out and on to him like a thoroughbred Chesapeake, as it was the first chance we had to retreive a single bird, and of course the boy was crazy to get one in his hands, and as he came back smoothing the glossy, beautifully pencilled back of the royal bird, he said:
"Did you ever see anything more beautiful, Sandy?"
And then he held the bird up before my admiring eyes by one red leg and then turned it round and round that we both might feast our vision on its perfect symmetry, its wondrous plumage and glorious markings, from the greenish, yellow tip of its broad bill to the velvet curl on its rump.
"No, I never did, Cobe," I replied as the youth cast the bird on the hay at the side of the ditch, and for moments I could not take my eyes off of it. And it was with peculiar emotions, too, I gazed upon that peerless bird, as he lay there at my feet, in all his wild and delicate loveliness-lay there among the dun-straws of the hay and the streamers of dead flags-there he lay, the king of the skies, so lately cleaving the wintry air in the glory of his strength and the speed of his ashen and iridescent wing, in his wariness and his caution-lay there before me with a bloody splotch on his snowy breast. A thing of exquisite beauty to the last, his deep brown eye seemingly still upon me, dimming with terror through the mists of death.
What was it stirring, that snowy November day, in the old duck hunter's heart? With what little reference, indeed, are the greater portion of the Deity's creations to man. Many things appear to be made for his use, but what myriads and myriads of others, grand and beautiful, have no relationship to him or his presence.
The mallard drake and the tendrils of grass and vine glistening alongside of each other in the solitude of that lonely lake side. The graceful bird, the falling snow, icy expanse in front, leafless alders, and the marbled wall of knoll and hill behind, silent in their matchless charm; the broad lake, the grandeur of all our wild surroundings, all there in endless existence, and not asking the eye of man to admire or praise them. Man, the mote, in the countless and marvelous expressions of the Creator, one of the all but invisible links in the infinite series of creation, what was he to that dead mallard?
"Mark!" from Cobry.
Sure enough, the youngster's keen eyes had descried another approaching flock, and at his admonitory whisper, like the component parts of a nicely-oiled piece of machinery, we crouched low down behind the alder branches and peered out through the still thickly flying snow.
As I caught a good, but momentary view of the birds as they came rushing on a line straight for the airhole, and noted their short, choppy flight, I made out what they were.
"They are redheads! Cobe, redheads!" I excitedly informed him, and as the long line came on tearing in, I cautioned:
"Now, don't get in a hurry, Cobe-yes, they are redheads, the first we have seen, but don't shoot until I tell you. If we give them the chance they'll light-they will come down like shooting stars, sweep past our decoys, but will circle and come back. They always do this, and if we will let them they will light among the stools!"
"Let 'em light," the boy answered, as the whole flock, like so many white and slate-covered racers, each one apparently striving to get in first, but so evenly were they matched that none were able to outstrip the others, came on right at us.
It was a blood-tingling moment-extremely trying on the nerves of the restive gunner.
"S-w-s-s-h-h-h," they skim along over the bobbing decoys with marvelous velocity. Then they start off up into space again, as if bound for the gray zenith. But they are not. They have mistaken our stools for feeding relatives and intend to join in the banquet. They make a sweeping detour in the snow-filled air, then come back with that same wild rush of wing and gleaming red of iris. The boy and I hold our breath. We are anxious to make a kill of redheads, as so far none had been brought to bag. Before we could fairly credit our senses fully two-thirds of them slide gracefully into the icy waters, just beyond our decoys, like so many feathered apparitions. The balance of the flock, as if by some strange intuition of danger, do not come down, but keep on their way down and over the lake and are soon swallowed up in the scud of the lake.
"Now don't be in a hurry, Cobe, my boy!" I again lowly warn my companion: "they'll not fly-let's watch them a moment and see what they'll do. They are out a trifle far for a good shot, anyway."
For a moment the birds sat perfectly still. Then they began to move with the almost imperceptible motion of a thistle down upon the calm water, first to this side, then to that, inspecting the wooden counterfeits curiously, half suspicious all the time. Finally, as there seemed to be no occasion for alarm the whole flock, and there must have been four dozen of them, converged slowly together, then timidly began approaching the decoys. Now they halt and glide of to one side, then back again, as if yet afraid to approach too near.
Suddenly, as they bunched well together, and looked as if they might be off at any second, I said:
"We might as well rise now, and give it to them."
Together we stood erect. Instead of flying instantly, as we expected, the birds sat still a moment on the water, craning their lavender necks, until we could see the flash of their deep yellowish-red eyes, evidently more astonished than ever. They did not dally long, however, to satisfy their curiosity, but with a loud splashing and a few spasmodic squeaks, arose in a body, and we sent the contents of four good Peters shells among them.
It seemed as if there was a cloudburst of dead and wounded redheads, but it was mostly feathers and snow, for they were too far out, and only two birds fell at the reports of our Parkers.
However, that was better than a miss altogether, and we were much elated to add to the variety of our bag, if it was only by that single pair of redheads, which lay, belly-up, out there on the ice.
In every direction now we could see ducks, for the air seemed suddenly filled with hurriedly scurrying flocks. Along the ice, low down, skimmed many bunches of mallards, while from over the dim hills from the north came many more, but the air was clarifying and they seemed to be dodging the hole.
"It is going to clear off," I remarked, after a look up at the disintegrating clouds, which now seemed to be absolutely curling around each other, like smoke from a chimney: "see! it has quit snowing, and our shoot will soon be over. You take"-
"Shish! Sandy, there comes one-you take it!" interjected Cobe, as he pointed down the lake.
And there he did come, an old cock redhead, as I could easily see now through the lessening snow flakes, an old cock, resplendent in mahogany, velvety gray and checkered white and black, whizzing into us from my side of the blind. As I whirled my Parker toward him, a bunch of greenwing teal, bound for across the hills to reedy swails bordering Watts, came whizzing from right out over the hole, catacornered from the rushing redhead, and they must have been twenty yards past the latter by the time I let go with the first barrel. How I then jerked the gun around and got onto the teal, without dislocating my neck, I don't know.
But I did, and my second barrel cracked simultaneously with the double report of Cobe's piece, and three little beauties dropped from the flock on the snow-covered hillside, and then I turned to the boy and asked, "What became of my redhead?"
"Oh, you salivated him too slick. There he is floating off there across the hole."
But I shall not attempt to recount the incidents of the next hour, but I will say by that time the heavens had cleared up wonderfully, just as if the clouds had been swept away with a broom, the snow quit flying, of course, and the sun came out as bright as May. And the birds, likewise quit flying, and as it was long past noon I remarked to the boy that we would lay off, until evening at least, go to the club house, get a snack to eat and a little spurt of Yellowstone, take a snooze, then get Marks, Brownie and a boat, and retrieve our day's kill.
All of which we did, and it was great sport, almost as keen as shooting mallards in a snow storm. Eating and drinking and snoozing, as the Hon. O.E. Berg's guests, in that matchless Hackberry club house, was the life, and greater sport still, if that be possible, retrieving our birds in the falling light of eventide down about the hole. While Cobe and Marks worked the boat around in and out of the open cul-de-sacs in the lake, picking up the dead and crippled that had fallen in the water, Brownie attended to the business on the ice, and when they were all through, a careful count disclosed just forty-one birds, twenty-six of which were mallards, three redheads and a mixture of bluebill, widgeon and teal.
All the real work, if such fun can be called work, over, we secreted the boat as best we could, and lingered about the hole, sometime longer, but the birds had left the country, seemingly, and the three of us got but four more-two merganzers and two hen mallards. But it was a day never-to-be-forgotten and an evening, after all that gray, snowy day, of matchless beauty.
The sun, as it slowly dropped toward the rim of the western hills, seemed to sprinkle the icy lake and grim hills, all roofed over as they were with an arabesque of alabaster more delicate even than the green and fleezy canopy of June, with golden rain-the surface of old Hackberry, like a floor lain with a white carpet, traced with shifting shadows and beautiful patterns. In all the still aisles of hill and vale and icy expanse the echoes of our shouts were smothered before they could start. There was no response to the faint call of the wind, or to that of the hardy little chickadee, in his velvet cap, which persisted in lingering about in the alder branches all the evening and watching every move we made.
Through the dusk of advancing night we plod back to the club house; the farther shore of the lake was scarcely distinguishable, but the white domes of the muskrats' winter homes along the nearby marsh estuaries, thrust themselves up into the cold air here and there like milestones to guide our way.
Far away, even to the hoary distant hills, stretching like sentinels off toward Pelican, catch the last rays and shine like glittering gleam against the empurpled heavens, and everywhere stretched that universal whiteness. Coldly came the last dying wisps of light, and so mournfully sounded the slightest whisper of wind from over the icy lake, that it required a prodigious tax on the imagination to picture any land on all the earth where summer flowers were blooming and the mellifluous note of bird or running waters were heard.
How far beyond the ken of the world seems the possibilities of such a change as the first real snow storm of winter will bring to us, as we found it in the sandhills, and yet as we gazed, as in a trance, the truth of how enduring and how relentless is the roll of seasons, came to us.
And then, once again, within those cozy walls of the club house, with the fire roaring a gleeful welcome, the lights shining with unwonted refulgence, and the savory aroma of fried bacon, eggs, cornpone and coffee filling all the warm crannies, indeed it was like being launched into paradise.
Our wonderful snowstorm shoot had accomplished wonders in stocking us with enthusiasm and Cobe and I were up early the next morning and out on the knoll behind the clubhouse before breakfast. Matutinal reconnaissance, of course, was the object of this sortie. The first of the light lay sharp upon the still but little sullied snow. The sun was just lifting over the far and low horizon. Long, level rays, streaking the virgin coverlet with straight, attenuated stains of pinkish, gold and sharp lines of smoke-blue shadow, pierced the edges of the deep yucca-covered rifts and arroyos back of the clubhouse within the marbled hills separating us from the low hay valley of Watts lake. Though every faint tint of the chequered snow spaces was unspeakably delicate, the atmosphere was of a transparency and brilliancy almost vitreous. You felt as if the whole scene might shatter and vanish at the shock of any sudden sound.
And then a sound did come-but it was not sudden-and the mystic landscape did not dissolve. It was a sound, clear, clanging and penetrating, but indescribable, like some half-barbaric marital call, that fell from a high-voyaging flock of Canada geese. Out of the nebulous northern sky the big wedge came beating, on wings that drove them through the heights of air at literally marvelous speed. Over the high, white looming hills, with their bright, but mysterious solitudes, and the reek of their wind-torn confines, the dark gray wedge, shining almost as white as the snow itself, came unswervingly on.
There is something unaccountably inspiring in the sight and the outcries of a voyaging flock of geese, whether it be upon a chill, tenuous evening in the spring, or a chill, wintry morning late in the fall, to the old sportsman, and in tacit silence Cobe and I gazed, as if entranced, at the advance of that rushing flock, outlined so sharply against the brightening sky and listened to the clarion music that fell from their white-collared throats.
Who is there who can explain or account for the magic there is, to the old sportsman, in the Auk-unk of the wild goose? No other sound made by bird or beast holds anything like its strange potency. Of course, there is the tenderest melody in both the summer and autumn call of Bob White, a real thrill in the kuk-kuk-kuk! of the chicken, rising from the tall grass before you, or his boom oom-oom! wafted to your hearing from some distant knoll on the gentle breeze of the spring morning; the pur-rut! pur-rut! of the sandhill crane; the wild hooroo-oooooo! of the swan; the quack of the mallard; the skeape of the jacksnipe; the turwhettle of the upland plover and the whistle of the dove's wing, but no sound that can be compared or likened to far-reaching, vibrant clangor of the traveling goose. It is a call that has in it the music of bugles and horns. It makes the things of the wild solitudes, of lake, stream and tarn, simpler to understand. When you are out waiting in a reedy blind for the morning flight, or returning to camp after the day's hunt is over in the shadows of the falling eventide, and out of the misty darkness under the overarching blue comes that wild, thrilling clangor that makes your nerves tingle with an exquisite feeling you know at no other time.
Ask any old wild fowler and he will tell you that the call of the goose arouses him as no other call can, from his clanging jubilate in early March, when we wonder what there is up in the ghastly lonely, frozen north that so irresistibly lures him, to that sweet, metallic jangle in late November, as he honks his melancholy way to the gulf. Fall or spring, any time, it is all the same to the old hunter when the wild signal of those wide voyaging birds floats earthward from the steely arch above; his eyes follow eagerly the rush of that great living wedge sweeping northward or southward, to love and liberty, always, let us hope, something at such times, like the wonders of breaking spring, the riant rise of the sun, of a holy night under the harvest moon, stirs and awakens something in his heart that makes him long to follow them.
And so it was with me, as with my good pal Cobe, we watched and listened to the sorcery I have attempted to portray. In the mighty throbbing rhythm of their cleaving speed, each broad gray wing flashed, slowly it seemed, but with almost lightning quickness, really, like snowy banners against the eternal blue of the background sky, struck by the level rays of the sum, not yet an hour above the eastern hills.
There must have been fully half a hundred of the great trumpet-voiced birds, and they came over in well preserved array, a big black monarch, the most dominant, of course, of all the flock, the undisputed leader, at the apex of the huge triangle.
They had a last, reluctantly, perhaps, heard the peremptory edict of the polar winter, and they were now on their way-on their way to the blue and gold of the mossy lagoons of the gulf, glad enough, no doubt, to get away from a land locked in ice and howled over by savage Arctic winds.
Their keen, bead-like eyes catching sight of the club house, and our immobile forms, as well, they honked sonorously than ever as they cleft their way over us, and again and again as they swung out over and across the snow-splotched and gleaming lake, and finally, as the gray line grew dim over the southern hills and then blended indefinitely with the atmosphere, like an echo from nowhere came the bell-toned honk of their sturdy old leader.
Those great birds were gone and listening to soft gurglings like those of a hidden rivulet, I remained irresolute a moment, while Cobe stood with his usual unfailing patience staring blankly off over the hills across the lake on the trail of the geese.
The bustle and charm of a great newspaper office, the daily hearty greetings of scores of good friends, and even the sacrificed joys of a perfect home, all vanished for the instant, and I was a boy again, back in the clover fields of youth. The bare, snow-covered and cold clad sandhills, became tender and beautiful in the chill of the sunrise, the old lake rich in memory's glorification, the low sighing of the morning's breeze coming as if from an angel's lute, and the chicadie's call from the alders a fairy's answer; the years fell from my shoulders like a useless garment,-yes, I was a boy again.
There was not now even the faintest cadence of the wild gander's call to tillilate the silence, and heaving a deep sigh, as if those were the last wild geese I was ever to hear, I turned suddenly on the boy and said:
"Come, Cobe, lets go in, breakfast must be ready, and you know last night we agreed to go over to Watts lake this morning and try and break our way out of the open water around the ricebeds, and if we intend to do it, we've got to be moving.
"Sure!" heartily responded the youth, and as we half walk, half run down the snowy declivity, he went on: "If we can't get out to that open water, no one can, and say, Sandy, I'll bet we get some shooting if we do."
"Yes, I think we will, too," I added, "for it looked mighty good to me when we were over there Saturday evening, with all those ducks squatting on the ice at both ends of the lake."
Eggs and bacon, fried potatoes and coffee attended to, we laid our plans before Marks, to carry us across the hills to Watts, a bundle of hay, some brush and a couple dozen of decoys, and undertake to break out our way out through the ice to a big clump of tules and rice, which stood amidst a considerable area of open water along the north shore, which was low, swampy and rush bound.
Marks helped us get ready, chopped up an old storm wreaked willow in the back yard for blind material, tied up a big bundle of hay for us, and got two dozen mallard decoys ready, and thus laden we made our laborious way across the range of hills, carrying the hay and decoys and dragging the brush behind us.
We had hardly gotten over the first rise and down in the intervening hollow, when suddenly Cobe flung down his hay and decoys and up with his gun and banged away at something evidently scuttling through the snow clogged covert in front of us, but as I was trailing along down the depression, I couldn't see what it was.
"What was it?" I called, as he dashed forward disappeared for a few seconds, then rose to view again holding high up in the air by its long ears, a big jackrabbit, still kicking spasmodically in the final throes of its existence.
"A cottontail!" yelled Cobe.
"Cottontail! Well I should say so, and the biggest cottontail you ever saw. That's a jack, Cobe, and an old dog, at that. What did you kill him for?" and the boy tossed it in the snow at my feet. I rolled it over, with my foot.
"I couldn't help it," he responded. "He jumped up so quick, and right in my face, he like to scared me into a duck fit, and I was after him before I knew it. But isn't he good to eat?"
"The dogs think so. But come, leave him lay, we don't want him, and just see how that sun is climbing."
In due course of time we reached the shores of Watts lake and found the boat-an old flat-bottomed scow, square at both ends, but just the kind of a boat for the sandhill marshes, and a style of craft, by the way, that I myself introduced into that region for the first time nearly thirty years ago-just where Marks said we would find it, at the end of the second line fence running down to the lake.
Of course the boat was pulled down to the lake on the naked shore, but solidly frozen in, at that, and we saw it the moment we got to the top of the grassy bank bordering the south side of the lake. But to find the oars-that was another matter. The caretaker said they wouldn't be hard to find, as he had simply slid them under the tall wire grass on the bank, just south and a few yards east of where we would find the boat. But they were not there. We found them, however, finally, a quarter of a mile down shore, and if Colonel Marks had been there, he would probably listened to a little oratory not found in the Sunday school psalms. And yet, after all, this vexatious delay had its compensation, for in the search along the shore I flushed and killed four jacksnipe, every one of them falling over the reeds on the ice.
The first one I killed fell fully twenty-five yards from the shore out in the ice, but Cobe after a little investigation, walked boldly out and picked him up. When he got back he said:
"I believe we can walk all over the lake, the ice hardly cracked. But say, Sandy, isn't this a little late for jacks?"
"It would seem so," I replied, "as they are a delicate bird, very susceptible to the cold, and can't feed when the ground is frozen like it is now. But they are erratic little devils, and I've killed them up along the Loup as late as December. These birds have evidently been able to find all the food they needed in the ooze along the outer edge of these tules, and back in the protected, low places in the grass. I guess we won't have a bully supper this evening? But here we are, lets get to work.
We had reached the boat again, and after a little kicking, and knocking, jerking and hauling, we got the old ship loose, and shover her out onto the ice. Then we loaded on the decoys, hay and brush and started to push the cargo out to the open water hole two hundred yards away.
There were a good many ducks to be seen rowed in phalapes of a hundreds or so, along on the ice, where it had been swept as clean as a window pane by the night's wind, at the lower end of the lake, and we were anxious to get out to the open water and put our plans to the test.
But the ice began to crack ominously as we shoved the boat along ahead of us, and finally I was convinced that it would not bear us much longer, so we halted, and as Cobe hurried back to the shore to get an old boxwood fence post we had seen lying there. I took one of the oars, and with the blunt handle-end broke a hole in front of the boat sufficiently large to admit it, and before the boy got back I had her afloat.
And then talk about your beavers, your trojans, sections hands or soldiers in the trenches, none of them, nor all of them combined, worked like Cobe and I did for the next two solid hours. First Cobe would stand in the prow of the boat-if it had a prow, for both ends were exactly alike-and break the tough ice with the boxwood post, inch by inch, for a quarter of an hour, while I would use one of the oars at the stern, pushing and prying the old hulk along as best I could and then we would change positions. Scores of time we had to get out on the ice, and in the water up to our hips, often, pulling, pushing and hauling the contrary old barge to keep her in a straight channel, and once, after a particular long and trying experience of this kind, I fairly tumbled back into the hay and into the brush in the boat, all in, and in my desperation, I exclaimed: "I'd give a ten dollar bill if we only had Ollie Beard and George Brandeis here, Cobe, to do this work, with Jim Poit and Harry Zimman, as overseers, and I think I could die contented and in peace."
But to make a short story out of a long one, we finally reached our goal-the open water-kept so by feeding ducks at night-around quite an extensive little islet of reeds, rushes and storm-torn rice and cane. In to this we worked the old scow, after we had thrown out the decoys, and fifteen minutes later I had her as well hidden with the brush and hay and fragmentary riff-raff we were enabled to gather within reach of the boat, as could possibly be accomplished with our slender stock of material, and with a fervent and heartfelt thanks offering to the gods on high, we sipped a little of that topaz liquid manufactured by those time honored old distillers, Taylor & Williams, down at Louisville, Ky., ate a hardboiled egg and a slice of bread and butter, and curled up ready for any feathered monster that might have the temerity to come our way.
"What is that, a duck flying down there, or what?" and Cobe pointed down the lake.
It was a big gray hawk-a Cooper's-and it was sweeping in rather circumscribed spirals above a matted tangle of tules in a point extending out from the south shore. Suddenly it poised as if upon a perch, and with pinions winnowing with inconceivable rapidity, hung seemingly moveless in the air.
"He sees his dinner!" I remarked, and the words were hardly away from my lips, when the great bird folded his brown-gray wings against his ashen sides, and with lightning quickness absolutely hurled himself head downward toward the tangly labyrinth, whizzing through the trenchant air like a bullet.
Of course we could not see what he was after, and for a second the standing trees hid him from our view, but the next instant we saw an old mallard hen scurrying, and flapping and squawking affrightedly from out the brown tules at a spot the hawk must have aimed at, and still pank! pank! panking! as she half flew, half skated across the ice and into another open water hole. Almost at the same instant the hawk burst into view, we saw the hawk rise, and as he lifted himself majestically into the air, a fluffy feather or two floated lazily away from where his scimitar-like talons were curled up under his whitish belly, and Cobe and I realized, indeed, what a close call Mrs. Mallard had had.
"A miss is as good as a mile," I said, "and I'm glad he didn't get her."
"Do the hawks kill many birds, do you think?" asked the boy.
"No, very few," I replied, "but what they do get they are entitled to, and they are generally wounded birds like the one evidently is we just saw, which the hunters were unable to retrieve. You see Cobe," I continued, "I am not one of those illy-advised sportsmen who make a bugaboo out of the hawks, owls and crows-they kill ducks to eat; but don't we? Ducks are the natural food of these birds, as much as hay is of the horse and cow, and it is absolutely foolish in us to grumble and complain and bluster and threaten when they take a bird or two we think they ought to leave for us. But I was delighted to see that old hen get away-wasn't she scared, and then-well, she may reach our frying pan yet before we get out of the hills."
That was but one of the numerous little incidents Cobe and I enjoyed on that trip, and if I had the space, rest assured, I could never tire of telling of them. Like Thor, whose picture of the outdoors held me enthralled when I was younger than I am today. I have loved just such things since I was a boy in short pants, and unbeguiled and unswerving nature lover. There is no scene, however, black and uninteresting to ordinary eyes, but what I find much beauty in. Hills or plain, sky, clouds, lake, stream, field or wood, it is all the same. I love and worship them all-the same when alone as when with as genial a comrade as I found Cobe to be.
"Down, Cobe, down, there comes our birds at last!" and way down the lake, almost a flurry of wings and raucous calls, the bunch of birds that had been squatted there on the ice ever since we had reached the lake hours before, rose into the air, and while the most of them broke up into small flocks, and to our disappointments, not to say disgust, started off to the south over the hills to Hackberry, a goodby gang swung round over the center of the lake and came tearing like missiles toward us.
They quickly caught sight of our bobbing decoys, and came straight on toward the blind, but the next instant, it must have been, that unnatural looking stack of hay and brush concealing the outlines of our boat, roused their suspicions and they swerved round out over the brown tule beads along the north shore, came on up the shore round over the lake again to the west of us, and as if to tantalize us all the more, once more headed our way, but this time from the entirely opposite direction. Just when they seemed to be really decoying right into the decoys, they circled gently round in the air, and slid quietly to the ice and lit two hundred yards to the west of us.
"Wouldn't that jar you?" said Cobe, and admitting that it surely would, I turned my attention to watching the birds, who sat straight up out on the ice just like so many sentinels, just as if they knew, as well as we did, just where we were and what we were there for.
I tried calling them, using the most seductive of notes, from the loud feeding quack to the running cackle that speaks of amours in warm and sunny pools, but no use, they never batted an eye so far as we could see.
In the meantime several single birds and small bunches decoyed into them and took their positions along on the ice with them, and seeing that this would never do, I remarked to Cobe, that if we hoped to get any shooting we'd have to scare them up.
"Shall I take a poke at them?" asked the boy.
"No-wait, I've got a plan-I'll get them up all right without firing a shot, and it may be that they'll come our way-I've known the trick to work many's the time!"
Then cautioning Cobe to be ready, I took the handle of one of the oars and knocked it loudly against the gunwale of the boat. And the hollow sound echoed up the lake, up jumped the birds, and as I had hoped, came hurtling down the wind straight for our blind.
While they didn't come quite close enough in to give us a decent shot, we got three out from among them with our four barrels anyway, two dead as door nails, on the ice, while the third, inclining toward the ice as he went on over us, finally went down kerplunk among the reeds upon the distant point.
"Well, young fellow, that wasn't half bad, after all, was it?" I blurted as I rammed in a couple of fresh shells.
"I should say not-but wait, there comes a bunch now, from across the hills there, and I believe they are coming into us?"
And they did come into us, and again our toll was three birds-gadwalls, two drakes and a hen. The first were mallards. But the gadwalls, like the pintails, they are ducks, but poorly appreciated by the average gunner, for they are a grand bird, almost as delicious as the mallard itself-the king ot them all, between you and I-and if properly served not one good eater in a thousand could tell them from the mallard.
The gadwalls used to be known as the gray ducks altogether, almost, and they are always more ot less plentiful on our sandhill ducking grounds, as, differing from the mallard, they very seldom frequent a wooded country, preferring the open prairie ponds, sloughs and lakes and low marshy places to feed and roost in. Their flight is similar to the mallards, only swifter, and they are often mistaken for the mallard when shot at, the illusion only being dispelled when the bird is retrieved. They decoy finely, and linger here along with the mallards till late in the winter. Their call is much the same as the latter species, also, although much finer and less vibrant and far-carrying. They are easily killed, and not hard to retrieve when wounded, all of which I imparted to Cobe, in answer to his queries, while waiting for the next birds, which came, of course, but with long intervals between, and wary and hard to get when they did come.
However, we had a fairly good afternoon of it, a dozen birds or so, but left off a little earlier than we would have done if it hadn't been for the work we knew lay before us to pick up our kill and get to shore. All, however, was happily accomplished before the sun had dropped behind the hills, and by dark we were back at the club house, with our bag, the decoys and all, for we had concluded that if we did any more shooting it would be on Hackberry.
Our last night came at last, after a hearty dinner, as a sort of farewell to our winter days on glorious old Hackberry. Cobe and I felt the cheery warmth and light of the club house and sauntered up the snowy and moonlit road toward the old Stilwell ranch, some miles away. The night, instead of being forbidding in any way, was really pleasant in a marked degree, with the bland airs coming from over the lake breathing the peculiar odors of melting snow and the teeming earth again and after enjoying a brief stroll, we came back and mounted the big sandhill just east of the clubhouse, lay down in a snug blow out and mutely enjoyed the solitude of our surroundings. The moon, now full, wheeled slowly up above the eastern ramparts and there were no signs of life on the face of earth or lake. No sound broke the restful stillness, save the tinkle of the broken ice against the hard rim around the many open stretches in the lake. The silvery light fell gently over slope and hillside, sending the timid shadows scuttling down between, and across the glistening and glimmering stretches of the sandhills lake. No sound of any kind from its surface, no plop of muskrat or leap of bass sent their vibrations up into the frosty air, but once or twice we caught the far cry of a yipping and whining coyote, which only added to the deep silence and sanctity of the lonely place, and Cobe and I lay there and feasted eye and heart on the mystic pictures woven so mysteriously under the moonlight for once in our lives, alive to the subtler dreams of the world. It is at such a moment when nature reveals herself to those she feels responsive to her gentler moods in the solitudes.