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School of the Woods by  William J. Long
Table of Contents


 

 

THE PARTRIDGES' ROLL CALL

[117]

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 [118] 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, "punkin-seeds," perch, boiled up at your flies, or chased each other in savage warfare through the forbidden water, which seemed to intoxicate them by its cool freshness. You had only to swing your canoe up near the shadowy edge of the pool, among the lily pads, and draw your cast once across the open water to know whether or not you would eat trout for breakfast. If the small fish chased your flies, then you might as well go home or study nature; you would certainly get no trout. But you could never tell when the change would come. With the smallest occasion sometimes—a coolness in the air, the run of a cats-paw breeze, a cloud shadow drifting over—a transformation would sweep over the speckled Ahabs lying deep under the lily pads. Some blind, unknown warning would run through [119] the pool before ever a trout had changed his position. Looking over the side of your canoe you would see the little fish darting helter-skelter away among the pads, seeking safety in shallow water, leaving the pool to its tyrant masters. Now is the time to begin casting; your trout are ready to rise.

A playful mood would often follow the testy humor. The plunge of a three-pound fish, the slap-dash of a dozen smaller ones would startle you into nervous casting. But again you might as well spare your efforts, which only served to acquaint the trout with the best frauds in your fly book. They would rush at Hackle or Coachman or Silver Doctor, swirl under it, jump over it, but never take it in. They played with floating leaves; their wonderful eyes caught the shadow of a passing mosquito across the silver mirror of their roof, and their broad tails flung them up to intercept it; but they wanted nothing more than play or exercise, and they would not touch your flies.

[120] 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. [121] 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, prut, pr-r-r-rt! Whit-kwit? whit-kwit? Pr-r-rt, pr-r-rt! Ooo-it, ooo-it? Pr-r-reeee!  this last with a swift burr of wings. And the curious sounds, half questioning, half muffled in extreme caution, gave a fleeting impression of gliding in and out among the tangled underbrush. "A flock of partridges," I thought, and turned to listen more intently.

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 [122] 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 [123] 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 Whit-kwit?  of partridges—and there they were, just vanishing glimpses of alert forms [124] and keen eyes gliding among the tangled alder stems. When near the brook they had changed the soft, gossipy chatter, by which a flock holds itself together in the wild tangle of the burned lands, into a curious liquid sound, so like the gurgling of water by a mossy stone that it would have deceived me completely, had I not seen the birds. It was as if they tried to remind the little alder brook of the music it had lost far back among the hills.

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, full-grown and strong of wing, that had not yet decided to scatter to the four winds, as [125] had most of the coveys which one might meet on the burned lands. All summer long, while berries are plenty, the flocks hold together, finding ten pairs of quiet eyes much better protection against surprises than one frightened pair. Each flock is then under the absolute authority of the mother bird; and one who follows them gets some curious and intensely interesting glimpses of a partridge's education. If the mother bird is killed by owl or hawk or weasel, the flock still holds together, while berries last, under the leadership of one of their own number, more bold or cunning than the others. But with the ripening autumn, when the birds have learned or think they have learned all the sights and sounds and dangers of the wilderness, the covey scatters; partly to cover a wider range in feeding as food grows scarcer; partly in natural revolt at maternal authority, which no bird or animal likes to endure after he has once learned to take care of himself.

[126] 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 [127] 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—Whit-kwit? pr-r-r, pr-r-r, prut, prut!—and saw five or six of them running rapidly. The little leader saw me at the same instant and dodged back out of sight. Most of his flock followed him; but one bird, more inquisitive than the rest, jumped to a fallen log, drew [128] himself up straight as a string, and eyed me steadily. The little rifle spoke promptly; and I stowed him away comfortably, a fine plump bird, minus his head, in a big pocket of my hunting shirt.

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 [129] 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 [130] 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 [131] 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 [132] 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 another call, [135] and from the distant hillside a faint kwit-kwit  and a rush of wings in answer, and another partridge would shoot in on swift pinions to pull himself up on the log beside his fellows. The line would open hospitably to let him in; then the row grew quiet again, as the leader called, turning their heads from side to side for the faint answers.

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, pr-r-r-reee!  called the leader, and the chatter ceased as the whole flock listened.

I turned my head to the hillside to listen also for the laggards; but there was no [136] answer. Save for the cry of a low-flying loon and the snap of a twig—too sharp and heavy for little feet to make—the woods were all silent. As I turned to the log again, something warm and heavy rested against my side. Then I knew; and with the knowledge came a swift thrill of regret that made me feel guilty and out of place in the silent woods. The leader was calling, the silent flock were waiting for two of their number who would never answer the call again.

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.

[137] Again the leader called. The flock drew itself up, like a row of gray-brown statues, every eye bright, every ear listening, till some vague sense of fear and danger drew them together; and they huddled on the ground in a close group, all but the leader, who stood above them, counting them over and over, apparently, and anon sending his cry out into the darkening woods.

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. [138] 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 whit-kwit  of a running partridge. Instantly the leader answered; the flock sprang to the log again and turned their heads in my direction to listen. Another call, and now the flock dropped to the ground and lay close, while the leader drew himself up straight on the log and became part of a dead stub beside him.

[139] 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, questioning kwit-kwit?  to where his flock were waiting. A low signal that I could barely hear, a swift movement—then the flock thundered away in scattered flight into the silent, friendly woods.

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. [140] 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.


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