I WAS fishing, one September afternoon, in the pool at the foot of the lake, trying in twenty ways, as the dark evergreen shadows lengthened across the water, to beguile some wary old trout into taking my flies. They lived there, a score of them, in a dark well among the lily pads, where a cold spring bubbled up from the bottom; and their moods and humors were a perpetual source of worry or amusement, according to the humor of the fisherman himself.
For days at a time they would lie in the deep shade of the lily pads in stupid or sullen indifference. Then nothing tempted them. Flies, worms, crickets, redfins, bumblebees,—all at the end of dainty hair leaders, were drawn with crinkling wavelets over their heads or dropped gently beside them; but they only swirled sullenly aside, grouty as King Ahab when he turned his face to the wall and would eat no bread.
At such times scores of little fish swarmed out of the pads
and ran riot in the pool. Chub, shiners,
A playful mood would often follow the testy humor. The
plunge of a
Once in a way there would come a day when your study and patience found their rich reward. The slish of a line, the flutter of a fly dropping softly on the farther edge of the pool—and then the shriek of your reel, buzzing up the quiet hillside, was answered by a loud snort, as the deer that lived there bounded away in alarm, calling her two fawns to follow. But you scarcely noticed; your head and hands were too full, trying to keep the big trout away from the lily pads, where you would certainly lose him with your light tackle.
On the afternoon of which I write the trout were neither playful nor sullen. No more were they hungry. The first cast of my midget flies across the pool brought no answer. That was good; the little fish had been ordered out, evidently. Larger flies followed; but the big trout neither played with them nor let them alone. They followed cautiously, a foot astern, to the near edge of the lily pads, till they saw me and swirled down again to their cool haunts. They were suspicious clearly; and with the lower orders, as with men, the best rule in such a case is to act naturally, with more quietness than usual, and give them time to get over their suspicion.
As I waited, my flies resting among the pads near the canoe,
curious sounds came floating down the hillside—Prut,
The shadows had grown long, with a suggestion of coming night; and other ears than mine had heard the sounds with interest. A swifter shadow fell on the water, and I looked up quickly to see a big owl sail silently out from the opposite hill and perch on a blasted stub overlooking the pool. Kookooskoos had been sleeping in a big spruce when the sounds waked him, and he started out instantly, not to hunt—it was still too bright—but to locate his game and follow silently to the roosting place, near which he would hide and wait till the twilight fell darkly. I could see it all in his attitude as he poised forward, swinging his round head to and fro, like a dog on an air trail, locating the flock accurately before he should take another flight.
Up on the hillside the eager sounds had stopped for a moment, as if some strange sixth sense had warned the birds to be silent. The owl was puzzled; but I dared not move, because he was looking straight over me. Some faint sound, too faint for my ears, made him turn his head, and on the instant I reached for the tiny rifle lying before me in the canoe. Just as he spread his wings to investigate the new sound, the little rifle spoke, and he tumbled heavily to the shore.
"One robber the less," I was thinking, when the canoe swung slightly on the water. There was a heavy plunge, a vicious rush of my unheeded line, and I seized my rod to find myself fast to a big trout, which had been watching my flies from his hiding among the lily pads till his suspicions were quieted, and the first slight movement brought him up with a rush.
Ten minutes later he lay in my canoe, where I could see him plainly to my heart's content. I was waiting for the pool to grow quiet again, when a new sound came from the underbrush, a rapid plop, lop, lop, lop, lop, like the sound in a bottle as water is poured in and the air rushes out.
There was a brook near the sounds, a lazy little stream that
had lost itself among the alders and forgotten all its
music; and my first thought was that some animal was
standing in the water to drink, and waking the voice of the
brook as the current rippled past his legs. The canoe
glided over to find out what he was, when, in the midst of
the sounds, came the unmistakable questioning
Now I had been straitly charged, on leaving camp, to bring back three partridges for our Sunday dinner. My own little flock had grown a bit tired of trout and canned foods; and a taste of young broiled partridges, which I had recently given them, had left them hungry for more. So I left the pool and my fishing rod, just as the trout began to rise, to glide into the alders with my pocket rifle.
There were at least a dozen birds there,
I followed the flock rapidly, though cautiously, through an interminable tangle of alders that bordered the little stream, and learned some things about them; though they gave me no chance whatever for a rifle shot. The mother was gone; their leader was a foxy bird, the smallest of the lot, who kept them moving in dense cover, running, crouching, hiding, inquisitive about me and watching me, yet keeping themselves beyond reach of harm. All the while the leader talked to them, a curious language of cheepings and whistlings; and they answered back with questions or sharp exclamations as my head appeared in sight for a moment. Where the cover was densest they waited till I was almost upon them before they whisked out of sight; and where there was a bit of opening they whirred up noisily on strong wings, or sailed swiftly away from a fallen log with the noiseless flight that a partridge knows so well how to use when the occasion comes.
Already the instinct to scatter was at work among them. During the day they had probably been feeding separately along the great hillside; but with lengthening shadows they came together again to face the wilderness night in the peace and security of the old companionship. And I had fortunately been quiet enough at my fishing to hear when the leader began to call them together and they had answered, here and there, from their feeding.
I gave up following them after a while—they were too quick for me in the alder tangle—and came out of the swamp to the ridge. There I ran along a deer path and circled down ahead of them to a thicket of cedar, where I thought they might pass the night.
Presently I heard them coming—
At the report another partridge, questioning the unknown sound, flew to a thick spruce, pressed close against the truck to hide himself, and stood listening intently. Whether he was waiting to hear the sound again, or was frightened and listening for the call of the leader, I could not tell. I fired quickly, and saw him sail down against the hillside, with a loud thump and a flutter of feathers behind him to tell me that he was hard hit.
I followed him up the hill, hearing an occasional flutter of wings to guide my feet, till the sounds vanished into a great tangle of underbrush and fallen trees. I searched here ten minutes or more in vain, then listened in the vast silence for a longer period; but the bird had hidden himself away and was watching me, no doubt, out of some covert, where an owl might pass by without finding him. Reluctantly I turned away toward the swamp.
Close beside me was a fallen log; on my right was another; and the two had fallen so as to make the sides of a great angle, their tops resting together against the hill. Between the two were several huge trees growing among the rocks and underbrush. I climbed upon one of these fallen trees and moved along it cautiously, some eight or ten feet above the ground, looking down searchingly for a stray brown feather to guide me to my lost partridge.
Suddenly the log under my feet began to rock gently. I stopped in astonishment, looking for the cause of the strange teetering; but there was nothing on the log beside myself. After a moment I went on again, looking again for my partridge. Again the log rocked, heavily this time, almost throwing me off. Then I noticed that the tip of the other log, which lay balanced across a great rock, was under the tip of my log and was being pried up by something on the other end. Some animal was there, and it flashed upon me suddenly that he was heavy enough to lift my weight with his stout lever. I stole along so as to look behind a great tree—and there on the other log, not twenty feet away, a big bear was standing, twisting himself uneasily, trying to decide whether to go on or go back on his unstable footing.
He discovered me at the instant that my face appeared behind the tree. Such surprise, such wonder I have seldom seen in an animal's face. For a long moment he met my eyes steadily with his. Then he began to twist again, while the logs rocked up and down. Again he looked at the strange animal on the other log; but the face behind the tree had not moved nor changed; the eyes looked steadily into his. With a startled movement he plunged off into the underbrush, and but for a swift grip on a branch the sudden lurch would have sent me off backward among the rocks. As he jumped I heard a swift flutter of wings. I followed it timidly, not knowing where the bear was, and in a moment I had the second partridge stowed away comfortably with his brother in my hunting shirt.
The rest of the flock had scattered widely by this time. I found one or two and followed them; but they dodged away into the thick alders, where I could not find them quick enough with my rifle sight. After a vain, hasty shot or two I went back to my fishing.
Woods and lake were soon quiet again. The trout had stopped rising, in one of their sudden moods. A vast silence brooded over the place, unbroken by any buzz of my noisy reel, and the twilight shadows were growing deeper and longer, when the soft, gliding, questioning chatter of partridges came floating out of the alders. The leader was there, in the thickest tangle—I had learned in an hour to recognize his peculiar Prut, prut—and from the hillside and the alder swamp and the big evergreens his flock were answering; here a kwit, and there a prut, and beyond a swift burr of wings, all drawing closer and closer together.
I had still a third partridge to get for my own hungry flock; so I stole swiftly back into the alder swamp. There I found a little game path and crept along it on hands and knees, drawing cautiously near to the leader's continued calling.
In the midst of a thicket of low black alders, surrounded by
a perfect hedge of bushes, I found him at last. He was on
the lower end of a fallen log, gliding rapidly up and down,
spreading wings and tail and budding ruff, as if he were
drumming, and sending out his peculiar call at every pause.
Above him, in a long line on the same log, five other
partridges were sitting perfectly quiet, save now and then,
when an answer came to the leader's call, they would turn
their heads and listen intently till the underbrush parted
cautiously and another bird flitted up beside them. Then
and from the distant hillside a faint
There were nine on the log at last. The calling grew louder
and louder; yet for several minutes now no answer came back.
The flock grew uneasy; the leader ran from his log into the
brush and back again, calling loudly, while a low chatter,
the first break in their strange silence, ran back and forth
through the family on the log. There were others to come;
but where were they, and why did they tarry? It was growing
late; already an owl had hooted, and the roosting place was
still far away. Prut, prut,
I turned my head to the hillside to listen also for the
laggards; but there was no
answer. Save for the cry of a
I lay scarcely ten yards from the log on which the sad little drama went on in the twilight shadows, while the great silence grew deep and deeper, as if the wilderness itself were in sympathy and ceased its cries to listen. Once, at the first glimpse of the group, I had raised my rifle and covered the head of the largest bird; but curiosity to know what they were doing held me back. Now a deeper feeling had taken its place; the rifle slid from my hand and lay unnoticed among the fallen leaves.
Again the leader called. The flock drew itself up, like a
I took one of the birds out of my pocket and began to smooth the rumpled brown feathers. How beautiful he was, how perfectly adapted in form and color for the wilderness in which he had lived! And I had taken his life, the only thing he had. Its beauty and something deeper, which is the sad mystery of all life, were gone forever. All summer long he had run about on glad little feet, delighting in nature's abundance, calling brightly to his fellows as they glided in and out in eager search through the lights and shadows. Fear on the one hand, absolute obedience to his mother on the other had been the two great factors of his life. Between them he grew strong, keen, alert, knowing perfectly when to run and when to fly and when to crouch motionless, as danger passed close with blinded eyes. Then when his strength was perfect, and at last he glided alone through the wilderness coverts in watchful self-dependence—a moment's curiosity, a quick eager glance at the strange animal standing so still under the cedar, a flash, a noise; and all was over. The call of the leader went searching, searching through the woods; but he gave no heed any more.
The hand had grown suddenly very tender as it stroked his
feathers. I had taken his life; I must answer for him now.
I raised my head and gave the clear
Something was wrong in my call; the birds were suspicious,
knowing not what danger had kept their fellows silent so
long, and now threatened them out of the black alders. A
moment's intent listening; then the leader stepped slowly
down from his log and came towards me cautiously, halting,
hiding, listening, gliding, swinging far out to one side and
back again in stealthy advance, till he drew himself up
abruptly at sight of my face peering out of the underbrush.
For a long two minutes he never stirred so much as an
eyelid. Then he glided swiftly back, with a faint, puzzled,
Ten minutes later I was crouched in some thick underbrush looking up into a great spruce, when I could just make out the leader standing by an upright branch in sharp silhouette against the glowing west. I had followed his swift flight, and now lay listening again to his searching call as it went out through the twilight, calling his little flock to the roosting tree. From the swamp and the hillside and far down by the quiet lake they answered, faintly at first, then with clearer call and the whirr of swift wings as they came in.
But already I had seen and heard enough; too much, indeed, for my peace of mind. I crept away through the swamp, the eager calls following me even to my canoe; first a plaint, as if something were lacking to the placid lake and quiet woods and the soft beauty of twilight; and then a faint question, always heard in the kwit of a partridge, as if only I could explain why two eager voices would never again answer to roll call when the shadows lengthened.