When I saw him again he was deep in less creditable business. It was a perfect autumn day,—the air full of light and color, the fragrant woods resting under the soft haze like a great bouquet of Nature's own culling, birds, bees and squirrels frolicking all day long amidst the trees, yet doing an astonishing amount of work in gathering each one his harvest for the cold dark days that were coming.
At daylight, from the top of a hill, I looked down on a little clearing and saw the first signs of the game I was seeking. There had been what old people call a duck-frost. In the meadows and along the fringes of the woods the white rime lay thick and powdery on grass and dead leaves; every foot that touched it left a black mark, as if seared with a hot iron, when the sun came up and shone upon it. Across the field three black trails meandered away from the brook; but alas! under the fringe of evergreen was another trail, that of a man, which crept and halted and hid, yet drew nearer and nearer the point where the three deer trails vanished into the wood. Then I found powder marks, and some brush that was torn by buck shot, and three trails that bounded away, and a tiny splash of deeper red on a crimson maple leaf. So I left the deer to the early hunter and wandered away up the hill for a long, lazy, satisfying day in the woods alone.
Presently I came to a low brush fence running zigzag through the woods, with snares set every few yards in the partridge and rabbit runs. At the third opening a fine cock partridge swung limp and lifeless from a twitch-up. The cruel wire had torn his neck under his beautiful ruff; the broken wing quills showed how terrible had been his struggle. Hung by the neck till dead!—an atrocious fate to mete out to a noble bird. I followed the hedge of snares for a couple of hundred yards, finding three more strangled grouse and a brown rabbit. Then I sat down in a beautiful spot to watch the life about me, and to catch the snarer at his abominable work.
The sun climbed higher and blotted out the four trails in the field below. Red squirrels came down close to my head to chatter and scold and drive me out of the solitude. A beautiful gray squirrel went tearing by among the branches, pursued by one of the savage little reds that nipped and snarled at his heels. The two cannot live together, and the gray must always go. Jays stopped spying on the squirrels—to see and remember where their winter stores were hidden—and lingered near me, whistling their curiosity at the silent man below. None but jays gave any heed to the five grim corpses swinging by their necks over the deadly hedge, and to them it was only a new sensation.
Then a cruel thing happened,—one of the many tragedies that pass unnoticed in the woods. There was a scurry in the underbrush, and strange cries like those of an agonized child, only tiny and distant, as if heard in a phonograph. Over the sounds a crow hovered and rose and fell, in his intense absorption seeing nothing but the creature below. Suddenly he swooped like a hawk into a thicket, and out of the cover sprang a leveret (young hare), only to crouch shivering in the open space under a hemlock's drooping branches. There the crow headed him, struck once, twice, three times, straight hard blows with his powerful beak; and when I ran to the spot the leveret lay quite dead with his skull split, while the crow went flapping wildly to the tree tops, giving the danger cry to the flock that was gossiping in the sunshine on the ridge across the valley.
The woods were all still after that; jays and squirrels seemed appalled at the tragedy, and avoided me as if I were responsible for the still little body under the hemlock tips. An hour passed; then, a quarter-mile away, in the direction that the deer had taken in the early morning, a single jay set up his cry, the cry of something new passing in the woods. Two or three others joined him; the cry came nearer. A flock of crossbills went whistling overhead, coming from the same direction. Then, as I slipped away into an evergreen thicket, a partridge came whirring up, and darted by me like a brown arrow driven by the bending branches behind him, flicking the twigs sharply with his wings as he drove along. And then, on the path of his last forerunner, Old Wally appeared, his keen eyes searching his murderous gibbet-line expectantly.
Now Old Wally was held in great reputation by the Nimrods of the village, because he hunted partridges, not with "scatter-gun" and dog,—such amateurish bungling he disdained and swore against,—but in the good old-fashioned way of stalking with a rifle. And when he brought his bunch of birds to market, his admirers pointed with pride to the marks of his wondrous skill. Here was a bird with the head hanging by a thread of skin; there one with its neck broken; there a furrow along the top of the head; and here—perfect work!—a partridge with both eyes gone, showing the course of his unerring bullet.
Not ten yards from my hiding place he took down a partridge from its gallows, fumbled a pointed stick out of his pocket, ran it through the bird's neck, and stowed the creature that had died miserably, without a chance for its life, away in one of his big pockets, a self-satisfied grin on his face as he glanced down the hedge and saw another bird swinging. So he followed his hangman's hedge, treating each bird to his pointed stick, carefully resetting the snares after him and clearing away the fallen leaves from the fatal pathways. When he came to the rabbit he harled him dexterously, slipped him over his long gun barrel, took his bearings in a quick look, and struck over the ridge for another southern hillside.
Here, at last, was the secret of Wally's boasted skill in partridge hunting with a rifle. Spite of my indignation at the snare line, the cruel death which gaped day and night for the game as it ran about heedlessly in the fancied security of its own coverts, a humorous, half shame-faced feeling of admiration would creep in as I thought of the old sinner's cunning, and remembered his look of disdain when he met me one day, with a "scatter-gun" in my hands and old Don following obediently at heel. Thinking that in his long life he must have learned many things in the woods that I would be glad to know, I had invited him cordially to join me. But he only withered me with the contempt in his hawk eyes, and wiggled his toe as if holding back a kick from my honest dog with difficulty.
"Go hunting with ye? Not much, Mister. Scarin' a pa'tridge to death with a dum dog, and then turnin' a handful o' shot loose on the critter, an' call it huntin'! That's the way to kill a pa'tridge, the on'y decent way"—and he pulled a bird out of his pocket, pointing to a clean hole through the head where the eyes had been.
When he had gone I kicked the hedge to pieces quickly, cut the twitch-ups at the butts and threw them with their wire nooses far into the thickets, and posted a warning in a cleft stick on the site of the last gibbet. Then I followed Wally to a second and third line of snares, which were treated in the same rough way, and watched him with curiously mingled feelings of detestation and amusement as he sneaked down the dense hillside with tread light as Leatherstocking, the old gun over his shoulder, his pockets bulging enormously, and a string of hanged rabbits swinging to and fro on his gun barrel, as if in death they had caught the dizzy motion and could not quit it while the woods they had loved and lived in threw their long sad shadows over them. So they came to the meadow, into which they had so often come limping down to play or feed among the twilight shadows, and crossed it for the last time on Wally's gun barrel, swinging, swinging.
The leaves were falling thickly now; they formed a dry, hard carpet over which it was impossible to follow game accurately, and they rustled a sharp warning underfoot if but a wood mouse ran over them. It was of little use to still-hunt the wary old buck till the rains should soften the carpet, or a snowfall make tracking like boys' play. But I tried it once more; found the quarry on a ridge deep in the woods, and followed—more by good-luck than by good management—till, late in the afternoon, I saw the buck with two smaller deer standing far away on a half-cleared hillside, quietly watching a wide stretch of country below. Beyond them the ridge narrowed gradually to a long neck, ending in a high open bluff above the river.
There I tried my last hunter's dodge—manœuvered craftily till near the deer, which were hidden by dense thickets, and rushed straight at them, thinking they would either break away down the open hillside, and so give me a running shot, or else rush straightaway at the sudden alarm and be caught on the bluff beyond.
Was it simple instinct, I wonder, or did the buck that had grown old in hunter's wiles feel what was passing in my mind, and like a flash take the chance that would save, not only his own life, but the lives of the two that followed him? At the first alarm they separated; the two smaller deer broke away down the hillside, giving me as pretty a shot as one could wish. But I scarcely noticed them; my eyes were following eagerly a swift waving of brush tops, which told me that the big buck was jumping away, straight into the natural trap ahead.
I followed on the run till the ridge narrowed so that I could see across it on either side, then slowly, carefully, steadying my nerves for the shot. The river was all about him now, too wide to jump, too steep-banked to climb down; the only way out was past me. I gripped the rifle hard, holding it at a ready as I moved forward, watching either side for a slinking form among the scattered coverts. At last, at last! and how easy, how perfectly I had trapped him! My heart was singing as I stole along.
The tracks moved straight on; first an easy run, then a swift, hard rush as they approached the river. But what was this? The whole end of the bluff was under my eye, and no buck standing at bay or running wildly along the bank to escape. The tracks moved straight on to the edge in great leaps; my heart quickened its beat as if I were nerving myself for a supreme effort. Would he do it? would he dare?
A foot this side the brink the lichens were torn away where the sharp hoofs had cut down to solid earth. Thirty feet away, well over the farther bank and ten feet below the level where I stood, the fresh earth showed clearly among the hoof-torn moss. Far below, the river fretted and roared in a white rush of rapids. He had taken the jump, a jump that made one's nostrils spread and his breath come hard as he measured it with his eye. Somewhere, over in the spruces' shadow there, he was hiding, watching me no doubt to see if I would dare follow.
That was the last of the autumn woods for me. If I had only seen him—just one splendid glimpse as he shot over and poised in mid-air, turning for the down plunge! That was my only regret as I turned slowly away, the river singing beside me and the shadows lengthening along the home trail.