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School of the Woods by  William J. Long
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QUOSKH THE KEEN EYED

[167]

S
OMETIMES, at night, as you drift along the shore in your canoe, sifting the night sounds and smells of the wilderness, when all harsher cries are hushed and the silence grows tense and musical, like a great stretched chord over which the wind is thrumming low suggestive melodies, a sudden rush and flapping in the grasses beside you breaks noisily into the gamut of half-heard primary tones and rising, vanishing harmonics. Then, as you listen, and before the silence has again stretched the chords of her Eolian harp tight enough for the wind's fingers, another sound, a cry, comes floating down from the air—Quoskh? quoskh-quoskh?  a wild, questioning call, as if the startled night were asking who [168] you are. It is only a blue heron, wakened out of his sleep on the shore by your noisy approach, that you thought was still as the night itself. He circles over your head for a moment, seeing you perfectly, though you catch never a shadow of his broad wings; then he vanishes into the vast, dark silence, crying Quoskh? quoskh?  as he goes. And the cry, with its strange, wild interrogation vanishing away into the outer darkness, has given him his most fascinating Indian name, Quoskh the Night's Question.

To many, indeed, even to some Indians, he has no other name and no definite presence. He rarely utters the cry by day—his voice then is a harsh croak—and you never see him as he utters it out of the solemn upper darkness; so that there is often a mystery about this voice of the night, which one never thinks of associating with the quiet, patient, long-legged fisherman that one may see any summer day along the borders of lonely lake or stream. A score of times I have been asked by old campers, "What [169] is that?" as a sharp, questioning Quoskh-quoskh?  seemed to tumble down into the sleeping lake. Yet they knew the great blue heron perfectly—or thought they did.

Quoskh has other names, however, which describe his attributes and doings. Sometimes, when fishing alongshore with my Indian at the paddle, the canoe would push its nose silently around a point, and I would see the heron's heavy slanting flight, already halfway up to the tree-tops, long before our coming had been suspected by the watchful little mother sheldrake, or even by the deer feeding close at hand among the lily pads. Then Simmo, who could never surprise one of the great birds, however silently he paddled, would mutter something which sounded like Quoskh K'sobeqh, Quoskh the Keen Eyed. At other times, when we noticed him spearing frogs with his long bill, Simmo, who could not endure the sight of a frog's leg on my fry pan, would speak of him disdainfully in his own musical language as Quoskh the Frog Eater, for my [170] especial benefit. Again, if I stopped casting suddenly at the deep trout pool opposite a grassy shore, to follow with my eyes a tall, gray-blue shadow on stilts moving dimly alongshore in seven-league-boot strides for the next bog, where frogs were plenty, Simmo would point with his paddle and say: "See, Ol' Fader Longlegs go catch-um more frogs for his babies. Funny kin' babies dat, eat-um bullfrog; don' chu tink so?"

Of all his names—and there were many more that I picked up from watching him in a summer's outing—"Old Father Longlegs" seemed always the most appropriate. There is a suggestion of hoary antiquity about this solemn wader of our lakes and streams. Indeed, of all birds he is the nearest to those ancient, uncouth monsters which Nature made to people our earth in its uncouth infancy. Other herons and bitterns have grown smaller and more graceful, with shorter legs and necks, to suit our diminishing rivers and our changed landscape. Quoskh is also, undoubtedly, much smaller than he once [171] was; but still his legs and neck are disproportionately long, when one thinks of the waters he wades and the nest he builds and the tracks he leaves in the mud are startlingly like those fossilized footprints of giant birds that one finds in the rocks of the Pliocene era, deep under the earth's surface, to tell what sort of creatures lived in the vast solitudes before man came to replenish the earth and subdue it.

Closely associated with this suggestion of antiquity in Quoskh's demeanor is the opposite suggestion of perpetual youth which he carries with him. Age has no apparent effect on him whatsoever. He is as old and young as the earth itself is; he is a March day, with winter and spring in its sunset and sunrise. Who ever saw a blue heron with his jewel eye dimmed or his natural force abated? Who ever caught one sleeping, or saw him tottering weakly on his long legs, as one so often sees our common wild birds clinging feebly to a branch with their last grip? A Cape Cod sailor once told me that, far out from [172] land, his schooner had passed a blue heron lying dead on the sea with outstretched wings. That is the only heron that I have ever heard of who was found without all his wits about him. Possibly, if Quoskh ever dies, it may suggest a solution to the question of what becomes of him. With his last strength he may fly boldly out to explore that great ocean mystery, along the borders of which his ancestors for untold centuries lived and moved, back and forth, back and forth, on their endless, unnecessary migrations, restless, unsatisfied, wandering, as if the voice of the sea were calling them whither they dared not follow.

Just behind my tent on the big lake, one summer, a faint, woodsy little trail wandered away into the woods, with endless turnings and twistings, and without the faintest [173] indication anywhere, till you reached the very end, whither it intended going. This little trail was always full of interesting surprises. Red squirrels peeked down at you over the edge of a limb, chattering volubly and getting into endless mischief along its borders. Moose birds flitted silently over it on their mysterious errands. Now a jumping, smashing, crackling rush through the underbrush halts you suddenly, with quick beating heart, as you climb over one of the many windfalls across your path. A white flag followed by another little one, flashing, rising, sinking and rising again over the fallen timber, tells you that a doe and her fawn were lying behind the windfall, all unconscious of your quiet approach. Again, at a turn of the trail, something dark, gray, massive looms before you, blocking the faint path; and as you stop short and shrink behind the nearest tree, a huge head and antlers swing toward you, with widespread nostrils and keen, dilating eyes, and ears like two trumpets pointing straight at your head—a bull moose, sh!

[174] For a long two minutes he stands there motionless, watching the new creature that he has never seen before; and it will be well for you to keep perfectly quiet and let him surrender the path when he is so disposed. Motion on your part may bring him nearer to investigate; and you can never know at what slight provocation the red danger light will blaze into his eyes. At last he moves away, quietly at first, turning often to look and to make trumpets of his ears at you. Then he lays his great antlers back on his shoulders, sticks his nose far up ahead of him, and with long, smooth strides lunges away over the windfalls and is gone.

So every day the little trail had some new surprise for you,—owl, or hare, or prickly porcupine rattling his quills like a quiver of arrows and proclaiming his Indian name, Unk-wunk! Unk-wunk!  as he loafed along. When you had followed far, and were sure that the loitering trail had certainly lost itself, it crept at last under a dark hemlock; and there, through an oval frame [175] of rustling, whispering green, was the loneliest, loveliest little deer-haunted beaver pond in the world, where Quoskh lived with his mate and his little ones.

The first time I came down the trail and peeked through the oval frame of bushes, I saw him; and the very first glimpse made me jump at the thought of what a wonderful discovery I had made, namely, that little herons play with dolls, as children do. But I was mistaken. Quoskh had been catching frogs and hiding them, one by one, as I came along. He heard me before I knew he was there, and jumped for his last frog, a big fat one, with which he slanted up heavily on broad vans—with a hump on his back and a crook in his neck and his long legs trailing below and behind—towards his nest in the hemlock, beyond the beaver pond. When I saw him plainly he was just crossing the oval frame through which I looked. He had gripped the frog across the middle in his long beak, much as one would hold it with a pair of blunt shears, swelling it out at either [176] side, like a string tied tight about a pillow. The head and short arms were forced up at one side, the limp legs dangled down on the other, looking for all the world like a stuffed rag doll that Quoskh was carrying home for his babies to play with.

Undoubtedly they liked the frog much better; but my curious thought about them, in that brief romantic instant, gave me an interest in the little fellows which was not satisfied till I climbed to the nest, long afterwards, and saw them, and how they lived.

When I took to studying Quoskh, so as to know him more intimately, I found a fascinating subject; not simply because of his queer ways, but also because of his extreme wariness and the difficulties I met in catching him doing things. Quoskh K'sobeqh was the name that at first seemed most appropriate, till I had learned his habits and how best to get the weather of him—which happened only two or three times in the course of a whole summer.

[177] One morning I went early to the beaver pond and sat down against a gray stump on the shore, with berry bushes growing to my shoulders all about me. "Now I shall keep still and see everything that comes," I thought, "and nothing, not even a blue jay, will see me."

That was almost true. Little birds, that had never seen a man in the woods before, came for the berries, and billed them off within six feet of my face before they noticed anything unusual. When they did see me they would turn their heads so as to look at me, first with one eye, then with the other, and shoot up at last, with a sharp burr!  of their tiny wings, to a branch over my head. There they would watch me keenly, for a wink or a minute, according to their curiosity, then swoop down and whirr their wings loudly in my face, so as to make me move and show what I was.

Across a little arm of the pond, a stone's throw away, a fine buck came to the water, put his muzzle into it, then began to fidget [178] uneasily. Some vague, subtle flavor of me floated across and made him uneasy, though he knew not what I was. He kept tonguing his nostrils, as a cow does, so as to moisten them and catch the scent of me better. On my right, and nearer, a doe was feeding unconcernedly among the lily pads. A mink ran, hopping and halting, along the shore at my feet, dodging in and out among roots and rocks. Cheokhes always runs that way. He knows how glistening black his coat is, how shining a mark he makes for owl and hawk against the sandy shore; and so he never runs more than five feet without dodging out of sight; and he always prefers the roots and rocks that are blackest to travel on.

A kingfisher dropped with his musical k'plop!  into the shoal of minnows that were rippling the water in their play, just in front of me. Farther out, a fishhawk came down heavily, souse!  and rose with a big chub. And none of these sharp-eyed wood folk saw me or knew that they were watched. Then [179] a wide, wavy, blue line, like a great Cupid's bow, came gliding swiftly along the opposite bank of green, and Quoskh hove into sight for his morning's fishing.

Opposite me, just where the buck had stood, he folded his great wings; his neck crooked sharply; his long legs, which had been trailed gracefully, straight out behind him in his swift flight, swung under him like two pendulums as he landed lightly on the muddy shore. He knew his ground perfectly; knew every stream and frog-haunted bay in the pond, as one knows his own village; yet no amount of familiarity with his surroundings can ever sing lullaby to Quoskh's watchfulness. The instant he landed he drew himself up straight, standing almost as tall as a man, and let his keen glance run along every shore just once. His head, with its bright yellow eye and long yellow beak glistening in the morning light, veered and swung over his long neck like a gilded weather-vane on a steeple. As the vane swung up the shore toward me I held my [180] breath, so as to be perfectly motionless, thinking I was hidden so well that no eye could find me at that distance. As it swung past me slowly I chuckled, thinking that Quoskh was deceived. I forgot altogether that a bird never sees straight ahead. When his bill had moved some thirty degrees off my nose, just enough so as to bring his left eye to bear, it stopped swinging instantly. He had seen me at the first glance, and knew that I did not belong there. For a long moment, while his keen eye seemed to look through and through me, he never moved a muscle. One could easily have passed over him, thinking him only one of the gray, wave-washed roots on the shore. Then he humped himself together, in that indescribably awkward way that all herons have at the beginning of their flight, slanted heavily up to the highest tree on the shore, and stopped for a longer period on a dead branch to look back at me. I had not moved so much as an eyelid; nevertheless he saw me too plainly to trust me. Again he humped [181] himself, rose high over the tree-tops, and bore away in strong, even, graceful flight for a lonelier lake, where there was no man to watch or bother him.

Far from disappointing me, this keenness of Quoskh only whetted my appetite to know more about him, and especially to watch him, close at hand, at his fishing. Near the head of the little bay, where frogs were plenty, I built a screen of boughs under the low thick branches of a spruce tree, and went away to watch other wood folk.

Next morning he did not come back; nor were there any fresh tracks of his on the shore. This was my first intimation that Quoskh knows well the rule of good fishermen, and does not harry a pool or a place too frequently, however good the fishing. The third morning he came back; and again the sixth evening; and then the ninth morning, alternating with great regularity as long as I kept tabs on him. At other times I would stumble upon him, far a field, fishing in other lakes and streams; or see him [182] winging homeward, high over the woods, from waters far beyond my ken; but these appearances were too irregular to count in a theory. I have no doubt, however, that he fished the near-by waters with as great regularity as he fished the beaver pond, and went wider afield only when he wanted a bit of variety, or bigger frogs, as all fishermen do; or when he had poor luck in satisfying the clamorous appetite of his growing brood.

It was on the sixth afternoon that I had the best chance of studying his queer ways of fishing. I was sitting in my little blind at the beaver pond, waiting for a deer, when Quoskh came striding along the shore. He would swing his weather-vane head till he saw a frog ahead, then stalk him slowly, deliberately, with immense caution; as if he knew as well as I how watchful the frogs are at his approach, and how quickly they dive headlong for cover at the first glint of his stilt-like legs. Nearer and nearer he would glide, standing motionless as a gray root when he thought his game was watching [183] him; then on again more cautiously, bending far forward and drawing his neck back to the angle of greatest speed and power for a blow. A quick start, a thrust like lightning—then you would see him shake his frog savagely, beat it upon the nearest stone or root, glide to a tuft of grass, hide his catch cunningly, and go on unincumbered for the next stalk, his weather-vane swinging, swinging in the ceaseless search for frogs, or possible enemies.

If the swirl of a fish among the sedges caught his keen eye, he would change his tactics, letting his game come to him instead of stalking it, as he did with the frogs. Whatever his position was, both feet down or one foot raised for a stride, when the fish appeared, he never changed it, knowing well that motion would only send his game hurriedly into deeper water. He would stand, sometimes for a half hour, on one leg, letting his head sink slowly down on his shoulders, his neck curled back, his long sharp bill pointing always straight at the quivering [184] line which marked the playing fish, his eyes half closed till the right moment came. Then you would see his long neck shoot down, hear the splash and, later, the whack of his catch against the nearest root, to kill it; and watch with curious feelings of sympathy as he hid it in the grass and covered it over, lest Hawahak should see, or Cheokhes smell it, and rob him while he fished.

If he were near his last catch, he would stride back and hide the two together; if not, he covered it over in the nearest good place and went on. No danger of his ever forgetting, however numerous the catch! Whether he counts his frogs and fish, or simply remembers the different hiding places, I have no means of knowing.

Sometimes, when I surprised him on a muddy shore and he flew away without taking even one of his tidbits, I would follow his back track and uncover his hiding places to see what he had caught. Frogs, fish, pollywogs, mussels, a baby muskrat,—they were all there, each hidden cunningly under [185] a bit of dried grass and mud. And once I went away and hid on the opposite shore to see if he would come back. After an hour or more he appeared, looking first at my tracks, then at all the shore with greater keenness than usual; then he went straight to three different hiding places that I had found, and two more that I had not seen, and flew away to his nest, a fringe of frogs and fish hanging at either side of his long bill as he went.

He had arranged them on the ground like the spokes of a wheel, as a fox does, heads all out on either side, and one leg or the tail of each crossed in a common pile in the middle; so that he could bite down over the crossed members and carry the greatest number of little frogs and fish with the least likelihood of dropping any in his flight.

The mussels which he found were invariably, I think, eaten as his own particular tidbits; for I never saw him attempt to carry them away, though once I found two or three where he had hidden them. Generally he [186] could crack their shells easily by blows of his powerful beak, or by whacking them against a root; and so he had no need (and probably no knowledge) of the trick, which every gull knows, of mounting up to a height with some obstinate hardshell and dropping it on a rock to crack it.

If Quoskh were fishing for his own dinner, instead of for his hungry nestlings, he adopted different tactics. For them he was a hunter, sly, silent, crafty, stalking his game by approved still-hunting methods; for himself he was the true fisherman, quiet, observant, endlessly patient. He seemed to know that for himself he could afford to take his time and be comfortable, knowing that all things, especially fish, come to him who waits long enough; while for them he must hurry, else their croakings from too long fasting would surely bring hungry, unwelcome prowlers to the big nest in the hemlock.

Once I saw him fishing in a peculiar way, which reminded me instantly of the chumming process with which every mackerel [187] fisherman on the coast is familiar. He caught a pollywog for bait, with which he waded to a deep, cool place under a shady bank. There he whacked his pollywog into small bits and tossed them into the water, where the chum speedily brought a shoal of little fish to feed. Quoskh meanwhile stood in the shadow, where he would not be noticed, knee-deep in water, his head drawn down into his shoulders, and a friendly leafy branch bending over him to screen him from prying eyes. As a fish swam up to his chum he would spear it like lightning; throw his head back and wriggle it head-first down his long neck; then settle down to watch for the next one. And there he stayed, alternately watching and feasting, till he had enough; when he drew his head farther down into his shoulders, shut his eyes, and went fast asleep in the cool shadows,—a perfect picture of fishing indolence and satisfaction.

When I went to the nest and hid myself in the underbrush to watch day after day, I learned more of Quoskh's fishing [188] and hunting. The nest was in a great evergreen, in a gloomy swamp,—a villainous place of bogs and treacherous footing, with here and there a little island of large trees. On one of these islands a small colony of herons were nesting. During the day they trailed far afield, scattering widely, each pair to its own particular fishing grounds; but when the shadows grew long, and night prowlers stirred abroad, the herons came trailing back again, making curious, wavy, graceful lines athwart the sunset glow, to croak and be sociable together, and help each other watch the long night out.

Quoskh the Watchful—I could tell my great bird's mate by sight or hearing from all others, either by her greater size or a peculiar double croak she had—had hidden her nest in the top of a great green hemlock. Near by, in the high crotch of a dead tree, was another nest, which she had built, evidently, years before and added to each successive spring, only to abandon it at last for the [189] evergreen. Both birds used to go to the old nest freely; and I have wondered since if it were not a bit of great shrewdness on their part to leave it there in plain sight, where any prowler might see and climb to it; while the young were securely hidden, meanwhile, in the top of the near-by hemlock, where they could see without being seen. Only at a distance could you find the nest. When under the hemlock, the mass of branches screened it perfectly, and your attention was wholly taken by the other nest, standing out in bold relief in the dead tree-top.

Such wisdom, if wisdom it were and not chance, is gained only by experience. It took at least one brood of young herons, sacrificed to the appetite of lucivee or fisher, to teach Quoskh the advantage of that decoy nest to tempt hungry prowlers upon the bare tree bole, where she could have a clear field to spear them with her powerful bill and beat them down with her great wings before they should discover their mistake.

[190] By watching the birds through my glass as they came to the young, I could generally tell what kind of game was afoot for their following. Once a long snake hung from the mother bird's bill; once it was a bird of some kind; twice she brought small animals, whose species I could not make out in the brief moment of alighting on the nest's edge,—all these besides the regular fare of fish and frogs, of which I took no account. And then, one day while I lay in my hiding, I saw the mother heron slide swiftly down from the nest, make a sharp wheel over the lake, and plunge into the fringe of berry bushes on the shore after some animal that her keen eyes had caught moving. There was a swift rustling in the bushes, a blow of her wing to head off a runaway, two or three lightning thrusts of her javelin beak; then she rose heavily, taking a leveret with her; and I saw her pulling it to pieces awkwardly on the nest to feed her hungry little ones.

It was partly to see these little herons, the thought of which had fascinated me ever [191] since I had seen Quoskh taking home what I thought, at first glance, was a rag doll for them to play with, and partly to find out more of Quoskh's hunting habits by seeing what he brought home, that led me at last to undertake the difficult task of climbing the huge tree to the nest. One day, when the mother had brought home some unknown small animal—a mink, I thought—I came suddenly out of my hiding and crossed over to the nest. It had always fascinated me. Under it, at twilight, I had heard the mother heron croaking softly to her little ones—a husky lullaby, but sweet enough to them—and then, as I paddled away, I would see the nest dark against the sunset, with Mother Quoskh standing over it, a tall, graceful silhouette against the glory of twilight, keeping sentinel watch over her little ones. Now I would solve the mystery of the high nest by looking into it.

The mother, alarmed by my sudden appearance,—she had no idea that she had been watched,—shot silently away, hoping I would [192] not notice her home through the dense screen of branches. I climbed up with difficulty; but not till I was within ten feet could I make out the mass of sticks above me. The surroundings were getting filthy and evil-smelling by this time; for Quoskh teaches the young herons to keep their nest perfectly clean by throwing all refuse over the sides of the great home. A dozen times I had watched the mother birds of the colony push their little ones to the edge of the nest to teach them this rule of cleanliness, so different from most other birds.

As I hesitated about pushing through the filth-laden branches, something bright on the edge of the nest caught my attention. It was a young heron's eye, looking down at me over a long bill, watching my approach with a keenness that was but thinly disguised by the half-drawn eyelids. I had to go round the tree at this point for a standing on a larger branch; and when I looked up, there was another eye watching down over another long bill. So, however I turned, [193] they watched me closely getting nearer and nearer, till I reached up my hand to touch the nest. Then there was a harsh croak. Three long necks reached down suddenly over the edge of the nest on the side where I was; three long bills opened wide just over my head; and three young herons grew suddenly seasick, as if they had swallowed ipecac.

I never saw the inside of that home. At the moment I was in too much of a hurry to get down and wash in the lake; and after that, so large were the young birds, so keen and powerful the beaks, that no man or beast might expect to look over the edge of the nest, with hands or paws engaged in holding on, and keep his eyes for a single instant. It is more dangerous to climb for young herons than for young eagles. A heron always strikes for the eye, and his blow means blindness, or death, unless you watch like a cat and ward it off.

When I saw the young again they were taking their first lessons. A dismal croaking [194] in the tree-tops attracted me and I came over cautiously to see what my herons were doing. The young were standing up on the big nest, stretching necks and wings, and croaking hungrily; while the mother stood on a tree-top some distance away, showing them food and telling them plainly, in heron language, to come and get it. They tried it after much coaxing and croaking; but their long, awkward toes missed their hold upon the slender branch on which she was balancing delicately—just as she expected it to happen. As they fell, flapping lustily, she shot down ahead of them and led them in a long, curving slant to an open shot on the shore. There she fed them with the morsels she held in her beak; brought more food from a tuft of grass where she had hidden it, near at hand; praised them with gurgling croaks till they felt some confidence on their awkward legs; then the whole family started up the shore on their first frogging expedition.

It was intensely interesting for a man who, as a small boy, had often gone a-frogging [195] himself—to catch big ones for a woodsy corn roast, or little ones for pickerel bait—to sit now on a bog and watch the little herons try their luck. Mother Quoskh went ahead cautiously, searching the lily pads; the young trailed behind her awkwardly, lifting their feet like a Shanghai rooster and setting them down with a splash to scare every frog within hearing, exactly where the mother's foot had rested a moment before. So they went on, the mother's head swinging like a weather-vane to look far ahead, the little ones stretching their necks so as to peek by her on either side, full of wonder at the new world, full of hunger for the things that grew there, till a startled young frog said K'tung!  From behind a lily bud, where they did not see him, and dove headlong into the mud, leaving a long, crinkly, brown trail to tell exactly how far he had gone.

A frog is like an ostrich. When he sees nothing, because his head is hidden, he thinks nothing can see him. At the sudden alarm Mother Quoskh would stretch her neck, [196] watching the frog's flight; then turn her head so that her long bill pointed directly at the bump on the smooth muddy bottom, which marked the hiding place of Chigwooltz, and croak softly once. At the sound one of the young herons would hurry forward eagerly; follow his mother's bill, which remained motionless, pointing all the while; twist his head till he saw the frog's back in the mud, and then lunge at it like lightning. Generally he got his frog, and through your glass you would see the unfortunate creature wriggling and kicking his way into Quoskh's yellow beak. If the lunge missed, the mother's keen eye followed the frog's frantic rush through the mud, with a longer trail this time behind him, till he hid again; whereupon she croaked the same youngster up for another try, and then the whole family moved jerkily along, like a row of boys on stilts, to the next clump of lily pads.

[197] As the young grew older, and stronger on their legs, I noticed the rudiments, at least, of a curious habit of dancing, which seems to belong to most of our long-legged wading birds. Sometimes, sitting quietly in my canoe, I would see the young birds sail down in a long slant to the shore. Immediately on alighting, before they gave any thought to frogs or fish or carnal appetite, they would hop up and down, balancing, swaying, spreading their wings, and hopping again round about each other, as if bewitched. A few moments of this crazy performance, and then they would stalk sedately along the shore, as if ashamed of their ungainly levity; but at any moment the ecstasy might seize them and they would hop again, as if they simply could not help it. This occurred generally towards evening, when the birds had fed full and were ready for play or for stretching their broad wings in preparation for the long autumn flight.

Watching them one evening, I remembered suddenly a curious scene that I had stumbled [198] upon when a boy. I had seen a great blue heron sail croaking, croaking, into an arm of the big pond where I was catching bullpouts, and crept down through dense woods to find out what he was croaking about. Instead of one, I found eight or ten of the great birds on an open shore, hopping ecstatically through some kind of a crazy dance. A twig snapped as I crept nearer, and they scattered in instant flight. It was September, and the instinct to flock and to migrate was at work among them. When they came together for the first time some dim old remembrance of generations long gone by—the shreds of an ancient instinct, whose meaning we can only guess at—had set them to dancing wildly; though I doubted at the time whether they understood much what they were doing.

Perhaps I was wrong in this. Watching the young birds at their ungainly hopping, the impulse to dance seemed uncontrollable; yet they were immensely dignified about it at times; and again they appeared to get some fun out of it—as much, perhaps, as [199] we do out of some of our peculiar dances, of which a visiting Chinaman once asked innocently: "Why don't you let your servants do it for you?"

I have seen little green herons do the same thing in the woods, at mating time; and once, in the Zoölogical Gardens at Antwerp, I saw a magnificent hopping performance by some giant cranes from Africa. Our own sand-hill and whooping cranes are notorious dancers; and undoubtedly it is more or less instinctive with all the tribes of the Herodiones, from the least to the greatest. But what the instinct means—unless, like our own dancing, it is a pure bit of pleasure-making, as crows play games and loons swim races—nobody can tell.

Before the young were fully grown, and while yet they were following the mother to learn the ways of frogging and fishing, a startling thing occurred, which made me [200] ever afterwards look up to Quoskh with honest admiration. I was still-fishing in the middle of the big lake, one late afternoon, when Quoskh and her little ones sailed over the trees from the beaver pond and lit on a grassy shore. A shallow little brook stole into the lake there, and Mother Quoskh left her young to frog for themselves, while she went fishing up the brook under the alders. I was watching the young herons through my glass when I saw a sudden rush in the tall grass near them. All three humped themselves, heron fashion, on the instant. Two got away safely; the other had barely spread his wings when a black animal leaped out of the grass for his neck and pulled him down flapping and croaking desperately.

I pulled up my killick on the instant and paddled over to see what was going on, and what the creature was that had leaped out of the grass. Before my paddle had swung a dozen strokes I saw the alders [201] by the brook open swiftly, and Mother Quoskh sailed out and drove like an arrow straight at the struggling wing tips, which still flapped spasmodically above the grass. Almost before her feet had dropped to a solid landing she struck two fierce, blinding, downward blows of her great wings. Her neck curved back and shot straight out, driving the keen six-inch bill before it, quicker than ever a Roman arm drove its javelin. Above the lap-lap  of my canoe I heard a savage cry of pain; the same black animal leaped up out of the tangled grass, snapping for the neck; and a desperate battle began, with short gasping croaks and snarls that made caution unnecessary as I sped over to see who the robber was, and how Quoskh was faring in the good fight.

The canoe shot up behind a point, where, looking over the low bank, I had the arena directly under my eye. The animal was a fisher—black-cat the trappers call him—the most savage and powerful fighter of his size in the whole world, I think. In the instant that I first saw him, quicker than thought [202] he had hurled himself twice, like a catapult, at the towering bird's breast. Each time he was met by a lightning blow in the face from Quoskh's stiffened wing. His teeth ground the big quills into pulp; his claws tore them into shreds; but he got no grip in the feathery mass, and he slipped, clawing and snarling, into the grass, only to spring again like a flash. Again the stiff wing blow; but this time his jump was higher; one claw gripped the shoulder, tore its way through flying feathers to the bone, while his weight dragged the big bird down. Then Quoskh shortened her neck in a great curve. Like a snake it glided over the edge of her own wing for two short, sharp down-thrusts of the deadly javelin—so quick that my eye caught only the double yellow flash of it. With a sharp screech the black-cat leaped away and whirled towards me blindly. One eye was gone; an angry red welt showed just over the other, telling how narrowly the second thrust [203] had missed its mark.—Quoskh's frame seemed to swell, like a hero whose fight is won.

A shiver ran over me as I remembered how nearly I had once come myself to the black-cat's condition, and from the same keen weapon. I was a small boy, following a big good-natured hunter that I met in the woods, from pure love of the wilds and for the glory of carrying the game bag. He shot a great blue heron, which fell with a broken wing into soft mud and water grass. Carelessly he sent me to fetch it, not caring to wet his own feet. As I ran up, the heron lay resting quietly, his neck drawn back, his long keen bill pointing always straight at my face. I had never seen so big a bird before, and bent over him, wondering at his long bill, admiring his intensely bright eye.

I did not know then—what I have since learned well—that you can always tell when the rush or spring or blow of any beast or bird—or of any man, for that matter—will surely come, by watching the eye closely. There is a fire that blazes in the eye before [204] the blow comes, before ever a muscle has stirred to do the brain's quick bidding. As I bent over, fascinated by the keen, bright look of the wounded bird, and reached down my hand, there was a flash deep in the eye, like the glint of sunshine from a mirror; and I dodged instinctively. Well for me that I did so. Something shot by my face like lightning, opening up a long red gash across my left temple from eyebrow to ear. As I jumped I heard a careless laugh—"Look out, Sonny, he may bite you—Gosh! what a close call!" And with a white, scared face, as he saw the scar, he dragged me away, as if there had been a bear in the water grass.

The black-cat had not yet received punishment enough. He is one of the largest of the weasel family, and has a double measure of the weasel's savageness and tenacity. He darted about the heron in a quick, nervous, jumping circle, looking for an opening behind; while Quoskh lifted her great torn wings as a shield and turned slowly on the defensive, so as always to face the danger. A dozen [207] times the fisher jumped, filling the air with feathers; a dozen times the stiffened wings struck down to intercept his spring, and every blow was followed by a swift javelin thrust. Then, as the fisher crouched snarling in the grass, I saw Mother Quoskh take a sudden step forward, her first offensive move—just as I had seen her twenty times at the finish of a frog stalk—and her bill shot down with the whole power of her long neck behind it. There was a harsh screech of pain; then the fisher wobbled away with blind, uncertain jumps towards the shelter of the woods.

By this time Quoskh had the fight well in hand. A fierce, hot anger seemed to flare within her, as her enemy staggered away, burning out all the previous cool, calculating defense. She started after the fisher, first on the run, then with heavy wing beats, till she headed him and with savage blows of wing and beak drove him back, seeing nothing, guided only by fear and instinct, towards the water. For five minutes more [208] she chevied him hither and yon through the trampled grass, driving him from water to bush and back again, jabbing him at every turn; till a rustle of leaves invited him, and he dashed blindly into thick underbrush, where her broad wings could not follow. Then with marvelous watchfulness she saw me standing near in my canoe; and without a thought, apparently, for the young heron lying so still in the grass close beside her, she spread her torn wings and flapped away heavily in the path of her more fortunate younglings.

I followed the fisher's trail into the woods and found him curled up in a hollow stump. He made slight resistance as I pulled him out. All his ferocity was lulled to sleep in the vague, dreamy numbness which Nature always sends to her stricken creatures. He suffered nothing, though he was fearfully [209] wounded; he just wanted to be let alone. Both eyes were gone. There was nothing for me to do, except to finish mercifully what little Quoskh had left undone.

When September came, and family cares were over, the colony beyond the beaver pond scattered widely, returning each one to the shy, wild, solitary life that Quoskh likes best. Almost anywhere, in the loneliest places, I might come upon a solitary heron stalking frogs, or chumming little fish, or treading the soft mud expectantly, like a clam digger, to find where the mussels were hidden by means of his long toes; or just standing still to enjoy the sleepy sunshine till the late afternoon came, when he likes best to go abroad.

[210] They slept no more on the big nest, standing like sentinels against the twilight glow and the setting moon; but each one picked out a good spot on the shore and slept as best he could on one leg, waiting for the early fishing. It was astonishing how carefully even the young birds picked out a safe position. By day they would stand like statues in the shade of a bank or among the tall grasses, where they were almost invisible by reason of their soft colors, and wait for hours for fish and frogs to come to them. By night each one picked out a spot on the clean open shore, off a point, generally, where he could see up and down, where there was no grass to hide an enemy, and where the bushes were far enough away so that he could hear the slight rustle of leaves before the creature that made it was within springing distance. And there he would sleep safe through the long night, unless disturbed by my canoe or by some other prowler. Herons see almost as well by night as by day; so I could never get near [211] enough to surprise them, however silently I paddled. I would hear only a startled rush of wings, and then a questioning call as they sailed over me before winging away to quieter beaches.

If I were jacking, with a light blazing brightly before me in my canoe, to see what night folk I might surprise on the shore, Quoskh was the only one for whom my jack had no fascination. Deer and moose, foxes and wild ducks, frogs and fish,—all seemed equally charmed by the great wonder of a light shining silently out of the vast darkness. I saw them all, at different times, and glided almost up to them before timidity drove them away from the strange bright marvel. But Quoskh was not to be watched in that way, nor to be caught by any such trick. I would see a vague form on the far edge of the light's pathway; catch the bright flash of either eye as he swung his weather-vane head; then the vague form would slide into the upper darkness. A moment's waiting; then, above me and behind, where the light did not dazzle [212] his eyes, I would hear his night cry—with more of anger than of questioning in it—and as I turned the jack upward I would catch a single glimpse of his broad wings sailing over the lake. Nor would he ever come back, like the fox on the bank, for a second look, to be quite sure what I was.

When the bright moonlit nights came, there was uneasiness in Quoskh's wild breast. The solitary life that he loves best claimed him by day; but at night the old gregarious instinct drew him again to his fellows. Once, when drifting over the beaver pond through the delicate witchery of the moonlight, I heard five or six of the great birds croaking excitedly at the heronry, which they had deserted weeks before. The lake, and especially the lonely little pond at the end of the trail, was lovelier than ever before; but something in the south was calling him away. I think that Quoskh was also moonstruck, as so many wild creatures are; for, instead of sleeping quietly on the shore, he spent his time circling aimlessly over the lake and [213] woods, crying his name aloud, or calling wildly to his fellows.

At midnight of the day before I broke camp, I was out on the lake for a last paddle in the moonlight. The night was perfect,—clear, cool, intensely still. Not a ripple broke the great burnished surface of the lake; a silver pathway stretched away and away over the bow of my gliding canoe, leading me on to where the great forest stood, silent, awake, expectant, and flooded through all its dim, mysterious arches with marvelous light. The wilderness never sleeps. If it grow silent, it is to listen. To-night the woods were tense as a waiting fox, watching to see what new thing would come out of the lake, or what strange mystery would be born under their own soft shadows.

Quoskh was abroad too, bewitched by the moonlight. I heard him calling and paddled down. He knew me long before he was anything more to me than a voice of the night, and swept up to meet me. For the first time after darkness fell I saw him—just a vague, [214] gray shadow with edges touched softly with silver light, which whirled once over my canoe and looked down into it. Then he vanished; and from far over on the edge of the waiting woods, where the mystery was deepest, came a cry, a challenge, a riddle, the night's wild question which no man had ever yet answered—Quoskh? quoskh?


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