Wood Folk at School
WOOD FOLK AT SCHOOL
WILLIAM J. LONG
WOOD FOLK SERIES BOOK FOUR
GINN & COMPANY BOSTON . NEW YORK . CHICAGO . LONDON
ENTERED AT STATIONERS' HALL
COPYRIGHT, 1902, 1903 BY WILLIAM J. LONG
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
The Athenaeum Press GINN & COMPANY . CAMBRIDGE . MASSACHUSETTS
It may surprise many, whose knowledge of wild animals is gained from rare, fleeting glimpses of frightened hoof or wing in the woods, to consider that there can be such a thing as a school for the Wood Folk; or that instruction has any place in the life of the wild things. Nevertheless it is probably true that education among the higher order of animals has its distinct place and value. Their knowledge, however simple, is still the result of three factors: instinct, training, and experience. Instinct only begins the work; the mother's training develops and supplements the instinct; and contact with the world, with its sudden dangers and unknown forces, finishes the process.
For many years the writer has been watching animals and recording his observations with the idea of determining, if possible, which of these three is the governing factor in the animal's life. Some of the results of this study were published last year in a book called "School of the Woods," which consisted of certain studies of animals from life, and certain theories in the form of essays to account for what the writer's eyes had seen and his own ears heard in the great wilderness among the animals.
A school reader is no place for theories; therefore that part of the book is not given here. The animal studies alone are reproduced in answer to the requests from many teachers that these be added to the Wood Folk books. From these the reader can form his own conclusions as to the relative importance of instinct and training, if he will. But there is another and a better way open: watch the purple martins for a few days when the young birds first leave the house; find a crow's nest, and watch secretly while the old birds are teaching their little ones to fly; follow a fox, or any other wild mother-animal, patiently as she leaves the den and leads the cubs out into the world of unknown sights and sounds and smells,—and you will learn more in a week of what education means to the animals than anybody's theories can ever teach you.
These are largely studies of individual animals and birds. They do not attempt to give the habits of a class or species, for the animals of the same class are alike only in a general way; they differ in interest and intelligence quite as widely as men and women of the same class, if you but watch them closely enough. The names here given are those of the Milicete Indians, as nearly as I can remember them; and the incidents have all passed under my own-eyes and were recorded in the woods, from my tent or canoe, just as I saw them.
WILLIAM J. LONG.
STAMFORD, CONN., March, 1903.
PAGE WHAT THE FAWNS MUST KNOW 1
A CRY IN THE NIGHT 11
ISMAQUES THE FISHHAWK 31
A SCHOOL FOR LITTLE FISHERMEN 48
WHEN YOU MEET A BEAR 58
QUOSKH THE KEEN EYED 75
UNK WUNK THE PORCUPINE 111
A LAZY FELLOW'S FUN 124
THE PARTRIDGES' ROLL CALL 134
UMQUENAWIS THE MIGHTY 151
AT THE SOUND OF THE TRUMPET 175
GLOSSARY OF INDIAN NAMES 187
"THERE AT A TURN IN THE PATH, NOT TEN YARDS AHEAD, STOOD A HUGE BEAR" Frontispiece
FACING PAGE "THE WHITE FLAG SHOWING LIKE A BEACON LIGHT AS SHE JUMPED AWAY" 9
"HER EYES ALL ABLAZE WITH THE WONDER OF THE LIGHT" 24
"PRESENTLY THEY BEGAN TO SWOOP FIERCELY AT SOME ANIMAL" 43
"GRIPPING HIS FISH AND pip-pipping HIS EXULTATION" 53
"A DOZEN TIMES THE FISHER JUMPED, FILLING THE AIR WITH FEATHERS" 104
"BOTHERS AND IRRITATES THE PORCUPINE BY FLIPPING EARTH AT HIM" 118
"THEY WOULD TURN THEIR HEADS AND LISTEN INTENTLY" 145
"PLUNGING LIKE A GREAT ENGINE THROUGH UNDERBRUSH AND OVER WINDFALLS" 152
"A MIGHTY SPRING OF HIS CROUCHING HAUNCHES FINISHED THE WORK" 183
What the Fawns Must Know
To this day it is hard to understand how any eyes could have found them, they were so perfectly hidden. I was following a little brook, which led me by its singing to a deep dingle in the very heart of the big woods. A great fallen tree lay across my path and made a bridge over the stream. Now, bridges are for crossing; that is plain to even the least of the wood folk; so I sat down on the mossy trunk to see who my neighbors might be, and what little feet were passing on the King's highway.
Here, beside me, are claw marks in the moldy bark. Only a bear could leave that deep, strong imprint. And see! there is where the moss slipped and broke beneath his weight. A restless tramp is Mooween, who scatters his records over forty miles of hillside on a summer day, when his lazy mood happens to leave him for a season. Here, on the other side, are the bronze-green petals of a spruce cone, chips from a squirrel's workshop, scattered as if Meeko had brushed them hastily from his yellow apron when he rushed out to see Mooween as he passed. There, beyond, is a mink sign, plain as daylight, where Cheokhes sat down a little while after his breakfast of frogs. And here, clinging to a stub, touching my elbow as I sit with heels dangling idly over the lazy brook, is a crinkly yellow hair, which tells me that Eleemos the Sly One, as Simmo calls him, hates to wet his feet and so uses a fallen tree or a stone in the brook for a bridge, like his brother fox of the settlements.
Just in front of me was another fallen tree, lying alongside the stream in such a way that no animal more dangerous than a roving mink would ever think of using it. Under its roots, away from the brook, was a hidden and roomy little house with hemlock tips drooping over its doorway for a curtain. "A pretty place for a den," I thought; "for no one could ever find you there." Then, as if to contradict me, a stray sunbeam found the spot and sent curious bright glintings of sheen and shadow dancing and playing under the fallen roots and trunk. "Beautiful!" I cried, as the light fell on the brown mold and flecked it with white and yellow. The sunbeam went away again, but seemed to leave its brightness behind it; for there were still the gold-brown mold under the roots and the flecks of white and yellow. I stooped down to see it better; I reached in my hand—then the brown mold changed suddenly to softest fur; the glintings of white and yellow were the dappled sides of two little fawns, lying there very still and frightened, just where their mother had hidden them when she went away.
They were but a few days old when I found them. Each had on his little Joseph's coat; and each, I think, must have had also a magic cloak somewhere about him; for he had only to lie down anywhere to become invisible. The curious markings, like the play of light and shadow through the leaves, hid the little owners perfectly so long as they held themselves still and let the sunbeams dance over them. Their beautiful heads were a study for an artist,—delicate, graceful, exquisitely colored. And their great soft eyes had a questioning innocence, as they met yours, which went straight to your heart and made you claim the beautiful creatures for your own instantly. Indeed, there is nothing in all the woods that so takes your heart by storm as the face of a little fawn.
They were timid at first, lying close without motion of any kind. The instinct of obedience—the first and strongest instinct of every creature born into this world—kept them loyal to the mother's command to stay where they were and be still till she came back. So even after the hemlock curtain was brushed aside, and my eyes saw and my hand touched them, they kept their heads flat to the ground and pretended that they were only parts of the brown forest floor, and that the spots on their bright coats were but flecks of summer sunshine.
I felt then that I was an intruder; that I ought to go straight away and leave them; but the little things were too beautiful, lying there in their wonderful old den, with fear and wonder and questionings dancing in their soft eyes as they turned them back at me like a mischievous child playing peekaboo. It is a tribute to our higher nature that one cannot see a beautiful thing anywhere without wanting to draw near, to see, to touch, to possess it. And here was beauty such as one rarely finds, and, though I was an intruder, I could not go away.
The hand that touched the little wild things brought no sense of danger with it. It searched out the spots behind their velvet ears where they love to be rubbed; it wandered down over their backs with a little wavy caress in its motion; it curled its palm up softly under their moist muzzles and brought their tongues out instantly for the faint suggestion of salt that was in it. Suddenly their heads came up. All deception was over now. They had forgotten their hiding, their first lesson; they turned and looked at me full with their great, innocent, questioning eyes. It was wonderful; I was undone. One must give his life, if need be, to defend the little things after they had looked at him just once like that.
When I rose at last, after petting them to my heart's content, they staggered up to their feet and came out of their house. Their mother had told them to stay; but here was another big, kind animal, evidently, whom they might safely trust. "Take the gifts the gods provide thee" was the thought in their little heads; and the salty taste in their tongues' ends, when they licked my hand, was the nicest thing they had ever known. As I turned away they ran after me, with a plaintive little cry to bring me back. When I stopped they came close, nestling against me, one on either side, and lifted their heads to be petted and rubbed again.
Standing so, all eagerness and wonder, they were a perfect study in first impressions of the world. Their ears had already caught the deer trick of twitching nervously and making trumpets at every sound. A leaf rustled, a twig broke, the brook's song swelled as a floating stick jammed in the current, and instantly the fawns were all alert. Eyes, ears, noses questioned the phenomenon. Then they would raise their eyes slowly to mine. "This is a wonderful world. This big wood is full of music. We know so little; please tell us all about it,"—that is what the beautiful eyes were saying as they lifted up to mine, full of innocence and delight at the joy of living. Then the hands that rested fondly, one on either soft neck, moved down from their ears with a caressing sweep and brought up under their moist muzzles. Instantly the wood and its music vanished; the questions ran away out of their eyes. Their eager tongues were out, and all the unknown sounds were forgotten in the new sensation of lapping a man's palm, which had a wonderful taste hidden somewhere under its friendly roughnesses. They were still licking my hands, nestling close against me, when a twig snapped faintly far behind us.
Now, twig snapping is the great index to all that passes in the wilderness. Curiously enough, no two animals can break even a twig under their feet and give the same warning. The crack under a bear's foot, except when he is stalking his game, is heavy and heedless. The hoof of a moose crushes a twig, and chokes the sound of it before it can tell its message fairly. When a twig speaks under a deer in his passage through the woods, the sound is sharp, dainty, alert. It suggests the plop of a raindrop into the lake. And the sound behind us now could not be mistaken. The mother of my little innocents was coming.
I hated to frighten her, and through her to destroy their new confidence; so I hurried back to the den, the little ones running close by my side. Ere I was halfway, a twig snapped sharply again; there was a swift rustle in the underbrush, and a doe sprang out with a low bleat as she saw the home log.
At sight of me she stopped short, trembling violently, her ears pointing forward like two accusing fingers, an awful fear in her soft eyes as she saw her little ones with her archenemy between them, his hands resting on their innocent necks. Her body swayed away, every muscle tense for the jump; but her feet seemed rooted to the spot. Slowly she swayed back to her balance, her eyes holding mine; then away again as the danger scent poured into her nose. But still the feet stayed. She could not move; could not believe. Then, as I waited quietly and tried to make my eyes say all sorts of friendly things, the harsh, throaty K-a-a-a-h! k-a-a-a-h! the danger cry of the deer, burst like a trumpet blast through the woods, and she leaped back to cover.
At the sound the little ones jumped as if stung, and plunged into the brush in the opposite direction. But the strange place frightened them; the hoarse cry that went crashing through the startled woods filled them with nameless dread. In a moment they were back again, nestling close against me, growing quiet as the hands stroked their sides without tremor or hurry.
Around us, out of sight, ran the fear-haunted mother, calling, calling; now showing her head, with the terror deep in her eyes; now dashing away, with her white flag up, to show her little ones the way they must take. But the fawns gave no heed after the first alarm. They felt the change; their ears were twitching nervously, and their eyes, which had not yet grown quick enough to measure distances and find their mother in her hiding, were full of strange terror as they questioned mine. Still, under the alarm, they felt the kindness which the poor mother, dog-driven and waylaid by guns, had never known. Therefore they stayed, with a deep wisdom beyond all her cunning, where they knew they were safe.
I led them slowly back to their hiding place, gave them a last lick at my hands, and pushed them gently under the hemlock curtain. When they tried to come out I pushed them back again. "Stay there, and mind your mother; stay there, and follow your mother," I kept whispering. And to this day I have a half belief that they understood, not the word but the feeling behind it; for they grew quiet after a time and looked out with wide-open, wondering eyes. Then I dodged out of sight, jumped the fallen log to throw them off the scent should they come out, crossed the brook, and glided out of sight into the underbrush. Once safely out of hearing I headed straight for the open, a few yards away, where the blasted stems of the burned hillside showed faintly through the green of the big woods, and climbed, and looked, and changed my position, till at last I could see the fallen tree under whose roots my little innocents were hiding.
The hoarse danger cry had ceased; the woods were all still again. A movement in the underbrush, and I saw the doe glide out beyond the brook and stand looking, listening. She bleated softly; the hemlock curtain was thrust aside, and the little ones came out. At sight of them she leaped forward, a great gladness showing eloquently in every line of her graceful body, rushed up to them, dropped her head and ran her keen nose over them, ears to tail and down their sides and back again, to be sure that they were her own little ones and were not harmed. All the while the fawns nestled close to her, as they had done a moment before to me, and lifted their heads to touch her sides with their noses, and ask in their own dumb way what it was all about, and why she had run away.
Then, as the smell of the man came to her from the tainted underbrush, the absolute necessity of teaching them their neglected second lesson before another danger should find them swept over her in a flood. She sprang aside with a great bound, and the hoarse K-a-a-a-h! k-a-a-a-h! crashed through the woods again. Her tail was straight up, the white flag showing like a beacon light as she jumped away. Behind her the fawns stood startled a moment, trembling with a new wonder. Then their flags went up too, and they wabbled away on slender legs through the tangles and over the rough places of the wood, bravely following their leader. And I, watching from my hiding, with a vague regret that they could never again be mine, not even for a moment, saw only the crinkling lines of underbrush and here and there the flash of a little white flag. So they went up the hill and out of sight.
First, lie still; and second, follow the white flag. When I saw them again it needed no danger cry of the mother to remind them of these two things that every fawn must know who would live to grow up in the big woods.
A Cry in the Night
This is the rest of the story, just as I saw it, of the little fawns that I found under the mossy log by the brook. There were two of them, you remember; and though they looked alike at first glance, I soon found out that there is just as much difference in fawns as there is in folks. Eyes, faces, dispositions, characters,—in all things they were as unlike as the virgins of the parable. One of them was wise, and the other was very foolish. The one was a follower, a learner; he never forgot his second lesson, to follow the white flag. The other followed from the first only his own willful head and feet, and discovered too late that obedience is life. Until the bear found him, I have no doubt he was thinking, in his own dumb, foolish way, that obedience is only for the weak and ignorant, and that government is only an unfair advantage which all the wilderness mothers take to keep little wild things from doing as they please.
The wise old mother took them both away when she knew I had found them, and hid them in a deeper solitude of the big woods, nearer the lake, where she could the sooner reach them from her feeding grounds. For days after the wonderful discovery I used to go in the early morning or the late afternoon, while mother deer are away feeding along the watercourses, and search the dingle from one end to the other, hoping to find the little ones again and win their confidence. But they were not there; and I took to watching instead a family of mink that lived in a den under a root, and a big owl that always slept in the same hemlock. Then, one day when a flock of partridges led me out of the wild berry bushes into a cool green island of the burned lands, I ran plump upon the deer and her fawns lying all together under a fallen treetop, dozing away the heat of the day.
They did not see me, but were only scared into action as a branch, upon which I stood looking for my partridges, gave way beneath my feet and let me down with a great crash under the fallen tree. There, looking out, I could see them perfectly, while Kookooskoos himself could hardly have seen me. At the first crack they all jumped like Jack-in-a-box when you touch his spring. The mother put up her white flag—which is the snowy underside of her useful tail, and shows like a beacon by day or night—and bounded away with a hoarse Ka-a-a-a-h! of warning. One of the little ones followed her on the instant, jumping squarely in his mother's tracks, his own little white flag flying to guide any that might come after him. But the second fawn ran off at a tangent, and stopped in a moment to stare and whistle and stamp his tiny foot in an odd mixture of curiosity and defiance. The mother had to circle back twice before he followed her, at last, unwillingly. As she stole back each time, her tail was down and wiggling nervously—which is the sure sign, when you see it, that some scent of you is floating off through the woods and telling its warning into the deer's keen nostrils. But when she jumped away the white flag was straight up, flashing in the very face of her foolish fawn, telling him as plain as any language what sign he must follow if he would escape danger and avoid breaking his legs in the tangled underbrush.
I did not understand till long afterwards, when I had watched the fawns many times, how important is this latter suggestion. One who follows a frightened deer and sees or hears him go bounding off at breakneck pace over loose rocks and broken trees and tangled underbrush; rising swift on one side of a windfall without knowing what lies on the other side till he is already falling; driving like an arrow over ground where you must follow like a snail, lest you wrench a foot or break an ankle,—finds himself asking with unanswered wonder how any deer can live half a season in the wilderness without breaking all his legs. And when you run upon a deer at night and hear him go smashing off in the darkness at the same reckless speed, over a tangled blow-down, perhaps, through which you can barely force your way by daylight, then you realize suddenly that the most wonderful part of a deer's education shows itself, not in keen eyes or trumpet ears, or in his finely trained nose, more sensitive a hundred times than any barometer, but in his forgotten feet, which seem to have eyes and nerves and brains packed into their hard shells instead of the senseless matter you see there.
Watch the doe yonder as she bounds away, wigwagging her heedless little one to follow. She is thinking only of him; and now you see her feet free to take care of themselves. As she rises over the big windfall, they hang from the ankle joints, limp as a glove out of which the hand has been drawn, yet seeming to wait and watch. One hoof touches a twig; like lightning it spreads and drops, after running for the smallest fraction of a second along the obstacle to know whether to relax or stiffen, or rise or fall to meet it. Just before she strikes the ground on the down plunge, see the wonderful hind hoofs sweep themselves forward, surveying the ground by touch, and bracing themselves, in a fraction of time so small that the eye cannot follow, for the shock of what lies beneath them, whether rock or rotten wood or yielding moss. The fore feet have followed the quick eyes above, and shoot straight and sure to their landing; but the hind hoofs must find the spot for themselves as they come down and, almost ere they find it, brace themselves again for the push of the mighty muscles above.
Once only I found where a fawn with untrained feet had broken its leg; and once I heard of a wounded buck, driven to death by dogs, that had fallen in the same way never to rise again. Those were rare cases. The marvel is that it does not happen to every deer that fear drives through the wilderness.
And that is another reason why the fawns must learn to obey a wiser head than their own. Till their little feet are educated, the mother must choose the way for them; and a wise fawn will jump squarely in her tracks. That explains also why deer, even after they are full grown, will often walk in single file, a half-dozen of them sometimes following a wise leader, stepping in his tracks and leaving but a single trail. It is partly, perhaps, to fool their old enemy, the wolf, and their new enemy, the man, by hiding the weakling's trail in the stride and hoof mark of a big buck; but it shows also the old habit, and the training which begins when the fawns first learn to follow the flag.
After that second discovery I used to go in the afternoon to a point on the lake nearest the fawns' hiding place, and wait in my canoe for the mother to come out and show me where she had left her little ones. As they grew, and the drain upon her increased from their feeding, she seemed always half starved. Waiting in my canoe I would hear the crackle of brush, as she trotted straight down to the lake almost heedlessly, and see her plunge through the fringe of bushes that bordered the water. With scarcely a look or a sniff to be sure the coast was clear, she would jump for the lily pads. Sometimes the canoe was in plain sight; but she gave no heed as she tore up the juicy buds and stems, and swallowed them with the appetite of a famished wolf. Then I would paddle away and, taking my direction from her trail as she came, hunt diligently for the fawns until I found them.
This last happened only two or three times. The little ones were already wild; they had forgotten all about our first meeting, and when I showed myself, or cracked a twig too near them, they would promptly bolt into the brush. One always ran straight away, his white flag flying to show that he remembered his lesson; the other went off zigzag, stopping at every angle of his run to look back and question me with his eyes and ears.
There was only one way in which such disobedience could end. I saw it plainly enough one afternoon, when, had I been one of the fierce prowlers of the wilderness, the little fellow's history would have stopped short under the paw of Upweekis, the shadowy lynx of the burned lands. It was late afternoon when I came over a ridge, following a deer path on my way to the lake, and looked down into a long narrow valley filled with berry bushes, and with a few fire-blasted trees standing here and there to point out the perfect loneliness and desolation of the place.
Just below me a deer was feeding hungrily, only her hind quarters showing out of the underbrush. I watched her awhile, then dropped on all fours and began to creep towards her, to see how near I could get and what new trait I might discover. But at the first motion (I had stood at first like an old stump on the ridge) a fawn that had evidently been watching me all the time from his hiding sprang into sight with a sharp whistle of warning. The doe threw up her head, looking straight at me as if she had understood more from the signal than I had thought possible. There was not an instant's hesitation or searching. Her eyes went direct to me, as if the fawn's cry had said: "Behind you, mother, in the path by the second gray rock!" Then she jumped away, shooting up the opposite hill over roots and rocks as if thrown by steel springs, blowing hoarsely at every jump, and followed in splendid style by her watchful little one.
At the first snort of danger there was a rush in the underbrush near where she had stood, and a second fawn sprang into sight. I knew him instantly—the heedless one—and knew also that he had neglected too long the matter of following the flag. He was confused, frightened, chuckle-headed now; he came darting up the deer path in the wrong direction, straight towards me, to within two jumps, before he noticed the man kneeling in the path before him and watching him quietly.
At the startling discovery he stopped short, seeming to shrink smaller and smaller before my eyes. Then he edged sidewise to a great stump, hid himself among the roots, and stood stock-still,—a beautiful picture of innocence and curiosity, framed in the rough brown roots of the spruce stump. It was his first teaching, to hide and be still. Just as he needed it most, he had forgotten absolutely the second lesson.
We watched each other full five minutes without moving an eyelash. Then his first lesson ebbed away. He sidled out into the path again, came towards me two dainty, halting steps, and stamped prettily with his left fore foot. He was a young buck, and had that trick of stamping without any instruction. It is an old, old ruse to make you move, to startle you by the sound and threatening motion into showing who you are and what are your intentions.
But still the man did not move; the fawn grew frightened at his own boldness and ran away down the path. Far up the opposite hill I heard the mother calling him. But he heeded not; he wanted to find out things for himself. There he was in the path again, watching me. I took out my handkerchief and waved it gently; at which great marvel he trotted back, stopping anon to look and stamp his little foot, to show me that he was not afraid.
"Brave little chap, I like you," I thought, my heart going out to him as he stood there with his soft eyes and beautiful face, stamping his little foot. "But what," my thoughts went on, "had happened to you ere now, had a bear or lucivee lifted his head over the ridge? Next month, alas! the law will be off; then there will be hunters in these woods, some of whom leave their hearts, with their wives and children, behind them. You can't trust them, believe me, little chap. Your mother is right; you can't trust them."
The night was coming swiftly. The mother's call, growing ever more anxious, more insistent, swept over the darkening hillside. "Perhaps," I thought, with sudden twinges and alarms of conscience, "perhaps I set you all wrong, little chap, in giving you the taste of salt that day, and teaching you to trust things that meet you in the wilderness." That is generally the way when we meddle with Mother Nature, who has her own good reasons for doing things as she does. "But no! there were two of you under the old log that day; and the other,—he's up there with his mother now, where you ought to be,—he knows that old laws are safer than new thoughts, especially new thoughts in the heads of foolish youngsters. You are all wrong, little chap, for all your pretty curiosity, and the stamp of your little foot that quite wins my heart. Perhaps I am to blame, after all; anyway, I'll teach you better now."
At the thought I picked up a large stone and sent it crashing, jumping, tearing down the hillside straight at him. All his bravado vanished like a wink. Up went his flag, and away he went over the logs and rocks of the great hillside; where presently I heard his mother running in a great circle till she found him with her nose, thanks to the wood wires and the wind's message, and led him away out of danger.
One who lives for a few weeks in the wilderness, with eyes and ears open, soon finds that, instead of the lawlessness and blind chance which seem to hold sway there, he lives in the midst of law and order—an order of things much older than that to which he is accustomed, with which it is not well to interfere. I was uneasy, following the little deer path through the twilight stillness; and my uneasiness was not decreased when I found on a log, within fifty yards of the spot where the fawn first appeared, the signs of a big lucivee, with plenty of fawn's hair and fine-cracked bones to tell me what he had eaten for his midnight dinner.
* * * * *
Down at the lower end of the same deer path, where it stopped at the lake to let the wild things drink, was a little brook. Outside the mouth of this brook, among the rocks, was a deep pool; and in the pool lived some big trout. I was there one night, some two weeks later, trying to catch some of the big trout for my next breakfast.
Those were wise fish. It was of no use to angle for them by day any more. They knew all the flies in my book; could tell the new Jenny Lind from the old Bumble Bee before it struck the water; and seemed to know perfectly, both by instinct and experience, that they were all frauds, which might as well be called Jenny Bee and Bumble Lind for any sweet reasonableness that was in them. Besides all this, the water was warm; the trout were logy and would not rise.
By night, however, the case was different. A few of the trout would leave the pool and prowl along the shores in shallow water to see what tidbits the darkness might bring, in the shape of night bugs and careless piping frogs and sleepy minnows. Then, if you built a fire on the beach and cast a white-winged fly across the path of the firelight, you would sometimes get a big one.
It was fascinating sport always, whether the trout were rising or not. One had to fish with his ears, and keep most of his wits in his hand, ready to strike quick and hard when the moment came, after an hour of casting. Half the time you would not see your fish at all, but only hear the savage plunge as he swirled down with your fly. At other times, as you struck sharply at the plunge, your fly would come back to you, or tangle itself up in unseen snags; and far out, where the verge of the firelight rippled away into darkness, you would see a sharp wave-wedge shooting away, which told you that your trout was only a musquash. Swimming quietly by, he had seen you and your fire, and slapped his tail down hard on the water to make you jump. That is a way Musquash has in the night, so that he can make up his mind what queer thing you are and what you are doing.
All the while, as you fish, the great dark woods stand close about you, silent, listening. The air is full of scents and odors that steal abroad only by night, while the air is dew-laden. Strange cries, calls, squeaks, rustlings run along the hillside, or float in from the water, or drop down from the air overhead, to make you guess and wonder what wood folk are abroad at such unseemly hours, and what they are about. So that it is good to fish by night, as well as by day, and go home with heart and head full, even though your creel be empty.
I was standing very still by my fire, waiting for a big trout that had risen and missed my fly to regain his confidence, when I heard cautious rustlings in the brush behind me. I turned instantly, and there were two great glowing spots, the eyes of a deer, flashing out of the dark woods. A swift rustle, and two more coals glow lower down, flashing and scintillating with strange colors; and then two more; and I know that the doe and her fawns are there, stopped and fascinated on their way to drink by the great wonder of the light, and by the witchery of the dancing shadows that rush up at timid wild things, as if to frighten them, but only jump over them and back again, as if inviting them to join the silent play.
I knelt down quietly beside my fire, slipping on a great roll of birch bark which blazed up brightly, filling the woods with light. There, under a spruce, where a dark shadow had been a moment agone, stood the mother, her eyes all ablaze with the wonder of the light; now staring steadfastly into the fire; now starting nervously, with low questioning snorts, as a troop of shadows ran up to play hop-scotch with the little ones, which stood close behind her, one on either side.
A moment only it lasted. Then one fawn—I knew the heedless one, even in the firelight, by his face and by his bright-dappled Joseph's coat—came straight towards me, stopping to stare with flashing eyes when the fire jumped up, and then to stamp his little foot at the shadows to show them that he was not afraid.
The mother called him anxiously; but still he came on, stamping prettily. She grew uneasy, trotting back and forth in a half circle, warning, calling, pleading. Then, as he came between her and the fire, and his little shadow stretched away up the hill where she was, showing how far away he was from her and how near the light, she broke away from its fascination with an immense effort: Ka-a-a-h! ka-a-a-h! the hoarse cry rang through the startled woods like a pistol shot; and she bounded away, her white flag shining like a wave crest in the night to guide her little ones.
The second fawn followed her instantly; but the heedless one barely swung his head to see where she was going, and then came on towards the light, staring and stamping in foolish wonder.
I watched him a little while, fascinated myself by his beauty, his dainty motions, his soft ears with a bright oval of light about them, his wonderful eyes glowing like burning rainbows kindled by the firelight. Far behind him the mother's cry ran back and forth along the hillside. Suddenly it changed; a danger note leaped into it; and again I heard the call to follow and the crash of brush as she leaped away. I remembered the lynx and the sad little history written on the log above. As the quickest way of saving the foolish youngster, I kicked my fire to pieces and walked out towards him. Then, as the wonder vanished in darkness and the scent of the man poured up to him on the lake's breath, the little fellow bounded away—alas! straight up the deer path, at right angles to the course his mother had taken a moment before.
Five minutes later I heard the mother calling a strange note in the direction he had taken, and went up the deer path very quietly to investigate. At the top of the ridge, where the path dropped away into a dark narrow valley with dense underbrush on either side, I heard the fawn answering her, below me among the big trees, and knew instantly that something had happened. He called continuously, a plaintive cry of distress, in the black darkness of the spruces. The mother ran around him in a great circle, calling him to come; while he lay helpless in the same spot, telling her he could not, and that she must come to him. So the cries went back and forth in the listening night,—Hoo-wuh, "come here." Bla-a-a, blr-r-t, "I can't; come here." Ka-a-a-h, ka-a-a-h! "danger, follow!"—and then the crash of brush as she rushed away followed by the second fawn, whom she must save, though she abandoned the heedless one to prowlers of the night.
It was clear enough what had happened. The cries of the wilderness all have their meaning, if one but knows how to interpret them. Running through the dark woods his untrained feet had missed their landing, and he lay now under some rough windfall, with a broken leg to remind him of the lesson he had neglected so long.
I was stealing along towards him, feeling my way among the trees in the darkness, stopping every moment to listen to his cry to guide me, when a heavy rustle came creeping down the hill and passed close before me. Something, perhaps, in the sound—a heavy, though almost noiseless onward push which only one creature in the woods can possibly make—something, perhaps, in a faint new odor in the moist air told me instantly that keener ears than mine had heard the cry; that Mooween the bear had left his blueberry patch, and was stalking the heedless fawn, whom he knew, by the hearing of his ears, to have become separated from his watchful mother in the darkness.
I regained the path silently—though Mooween heeds nothing when his game is afoot—and ran back to the canoe for my rifle. Ordinarily a bear is timid as a rabbit; but I had never met one so late at night before, and knew not how he would act should I take his game away. Besides, there is everything in the feeling with which one approaches an animal. If one comes timidly, doubtfully, the animal knows it; and if one comes swift, silent, resolute, with his power gripped tight, and the hammer back, and a forefinger resting lightly on the trigger guard, the animal knows it too, you may depend. Anyway, they always act as if they knew; and you may safely follow the rule that, whatever your feeling is, whether fear or doubt or confidence, the large and dangerous animals will sense it instantly and adopt the opposite feeling for their rule of action. That is the way I have always found it in the wilderness. I met a bear once on a narrow path—but I must tell about that elsewhere.
The cries had ceased; the woods were all dark and silent when I came back. I went as swiftly as possible—without heed or caution; for whatever crackling I made the bear would attribute to the desperate mother—to the spot where I had turned back. Thence I went on cautiously, taking my bearings from one great tree on the ridge that lifted its bulk against the sky; slower and slower, till, just this side a great windfall, a twig cracked sharply under my foot. It was answered instantly by a grunt and a jump beyond the windfall—and then the crashing rush of a bear up the hill, carrying something that caught and swished loudly on the bushes as it passed, till the sounds vanished in a faint rustle far away, and the woods were still again.
All night long, from my tent over beyond an arm of the big lake, I heard the mother calling at intervals. She seemed to be running back and forth along the ridge, above where the tragedy had occurred. Her nose told her of the bear and the man; but what awful thing they were doing with her little one she knew not. Fear and questioning were in the calls that floated down the ridge and across the water to my little tent.
At daylight I went back to the spot. I found without trouble where the fawn had fallen; the moss told mutely of his struggle; and a stain or two showed where Mooween grabbed him. The rest was a plain trail of crushed moss and bent grass and stained leaves, and a tuft of soft hair here and there on the jagged ends of knots in the old windfalls. So the trail hurried up the hill into a wild, rough country where it was of no use to follow.
As I climbed the last ridge on my way back to the lake, I heard rustlings in the underbrush, and then the unmistakable crack of a twig under a deer's foot. The mother had winded me; she was now following and circling down wind to find out whether her lost fawn were with me. As yet she knew not what had happened. The bear had frightened her into extra care of the one fawn of whom she was sure. The other had simply vanished into the silence and mystery of the great woods.
Where the path turned downward, in sight of the lake, I saw her for a moment plainly, standing half hid in the underbrush, looking intently at my old canoe. She saw me at the same instant and bounded away, quartering up the hill in my direction. Near a thicket of evergreen that I had just passed, she sounded her hoarse K-a-a-h, k-a-a-h! and threw up her flag. There was a rush within the thicket; a sharp K-a-a-h! answered hers. Then the second fawn burst out of the cover where she had hidden him, and darted along the ridge after her, jumping like a big red fox from rock to rock, rising like a hawk over the windfalls, hitting her tracks wherever he could, and keeping his little nose hard down to his one needful lesson of following the white flag.
ISMAQUES, THE FISHHAWK
Whit, whit, ch'wee? Whit, whit, whit, ch'weeeeee! over my head went the shrill whistling, the hunting cry of Ismaques. Looking up from my fishing I could see the broad wings sweeping over me, and catch the bright gleam of his eye as he looked down into my canoe, or behind me at the cold place among the rocks, to see if I were catching anything. Then, as he noted the pile of fish,—a blanket of silver on the black rocks, where I was stowing away chub for bear bait,—he would drop lower in amazement to see how I did it. When the trout were not rising, and his keen glance saw no gleam of red and gold in my canoe, he would circle off with a cheery K'weee! the good-luck call of a brother fisherman. For there is no envy nor malice nor any uncharitableness in Ismaques. He lives in harmony with the world, and seems glad when you land a big one, even though he be hungry himself, and the clamor from his nest, where his little ones are crying, be too keen for his heart's content.
What is there in going a-fishing, I wonder, that seems to change even the leopard's spots, and that puts a new heart into the man who hies him away to the brook when buds are swelling? There is Keeonekh the otter. Before he turned fisherman he was probably fierce, cruel, bloodthirsty, with a vile smell about him, like all the other weasels. Now he lives at peace with all the world and is clean, gentle, playful as a kitten and faithful as a dog when you make a pet of him. And there is Ismaques the fishhawk. Before he turned fisherman he was probably hated, like every other hawk, for his fierceness and his bandit ways. The shadow of his wings was the signal for hiding to all the timid ones. Jay and crow cried Thief! thief! and kingbird sounded his war cry and rushed out to battle. Now the little birds build their nests among the sticks of his great house, and the shadow of his wings is a sure protection. For owl and hawk and wild-cat have learned long since the wisdom of keeping well away from Ismaques' dwelling.
Not only the birds, but men also, feel the change in Ismaques' disposition. I hardly know a hunter who will not go out of his way for a shot at a hawk; but they send a hearty good-luck after this winged fisherman of the same fierce family, even though they see him rising heavily out of the very pool where the big trout live, and where they expect to cast their flies at sundown. Along the southern New England shores his coming—regular as the calendar itself—is hailed with delight by the fishermen. One state, at least, where he is most abundant, protects him by law; and even our Puritan forefathers, who seem to have neither made nor obeyed any game laws, looked upon him with a kindly eye, and made him an exception to the general license for killing. To their credit, be it known, they once "publikly reeprimanded" one Master Eliphalet Bodman, a son of Belial evidently, for violently, with powder and shot, doing away with one fishhawk, and wickedly destroying the nest and eggs of another.
Whether this last were also done violently, with powder and shot, by blowing the nest to pieces with an old gun, or in simple boy-fashion by shinning up the tree, the quaint old town record does not tell. But all this goes to show that our ancestors of the coast were kindly people at heart; that they looked upon this brave, simple fisherman, who built his nest by their doors, much as the German village people look upon the stork that builds upon their chimneys, and regarded his coming as an omen of good luck and plenty to the fisher folk.
Far back in the wilderness, where Ismaques builds his nest and goes a-fishing just as his ancestors did a thousand years ago, one finds the same honest bird, unspoiled alike by plenty or poverty, that excited our boyish imagination and won the friendly regard of our ancestors of the coast. Opposite my camp on the lake, where I tarried long one summer, charmed by the beauty of the place and the good fishing, a pair of fishhawks had built their nest in the top of a great spruce on the mountain side. It was this pair of birds that came daily to circle over my canoe, or over the rocks where I fished for chub, to see how I fared, and to send back a cheery Ch'wee! chip, ch'weeee! "good luck and good fishing," as they wheeled away. It would take a good deal of argument now to convince me that they did not at last recognize me as a fellow-fisherman, and were not honestly interested in my methods and success.
At first I went to the nest, not so much to study the fishhawks as to catch fleeting glimpses of a shy, wild life of the woods, which is hidden from most eyes. The fishing was good, and both birds were expert fishermen. While the young were growing there was always an abundance in the big nest on the spruce top. The overflow of this abundance, in the shape of heads, bones and unwanted remnants, was cast over the sides of the nest and furnished savory pickings for a score of hungry prowlers. Mink came over from frog hunting in the brook, drawn by the good smell in the air. Skunks lumbered down from the hill, with a curious, hollow, bumping sound to announce their coming. Weasels, and one grizzly old pine marten, too slow or rheumatic for successful tree hunting, glided out of the underbrush and helped themselves without asking leave. Wild-cats quarreled like fiends over the pickings; more than once I heard them there screeching in the night. And one late afternoon, as I lingered in my hiding among the rocks while the shadows deepened, a big lucivee stole out of the bushes, as if ashamed of himself, and took to nosing daintily among the fish bones.
It was his first appearance, evidently. He did not know that the feast was free, but thought all the while that he was stealing somebody's catch. One could see it all in his attitudes, his starts and listenings, his low growlings to himself. He was bigger than anybody else there, and had no cause to be afraid; but there is a tremendous respect among all animals for the chase law and the rights of others; and the big cat felt it. He was hungry for fish; but, big as he was, his every movement showed that he was ready to take to his heels before the first little creature that should rise up and screech in his face: "This is mine!" Later, when he grew accustomed to things and the fishhawks' generosity in providing a feast for all who might come in from the wilderness byways and hedges, he would come in boldly enough and claim his own; but now, moving stealthily about, halting and listening timidly, he furnished a study in animal rights that repaid in itself all the long hours of watching.
But the hawks themselves were more interesting than their unbidden guests. Ismaques, honest fellow that he is, mates for life, and comes back to the same nest year after year. The only exception to this rule that I know is in the case of a fishhawk, whom I knew well as a boy, and who lost his mate one summer by an accident. The accident came from a gun in the hands of an unthinking sportsman. The grief of Ismaques was evident, even to the unthinking. One could hear it in the lonely, questioning cry that he sent out over the still summer woods; and see it in the sweep of his wings as he went far afield to other ponds, not to fish, for Ismaques never fishes on his neighbor's preserves, but to search for his lost mate. For weeks he lingered in the old haunts, calling and searching everywhere; but at last the loneliness and the memories were too much for him. He left the place long before the time of migration had come; and the next spring a strange couple came to the spot, repaired the old nest, and went fishing in the pond. Ordinarily the birds respect each other's fishing grounds, and especially the old nests; but this pair came and took possession without hesitation, as if they had some understanding with the former owner, who never came back again.
The old spruce on the mountain side had been occupied many years by my fishing friends. As is usually the case, it had given up its life to its bird masters. The oil from their frequent feastings had soaked into the bark, following down and down, checking the sap's rising, till at last it grew discouraged and ceased to climb. Then the tree died and gave up its branches, one by one, to repair the nest above. The jagged, broken ends showed everywhere how they had been broken off to supply the hawks' necessities.
There is a curious bit of building lore suggested by these broken branches, that one may learn for himself any springtime by watching the birds at their nest building. Large sticks are required for a foundation. The ground is strewed with such; but Ismaques never comes down to the ground if he can avoid it. Even when he drops an unusually heavy fish, in his flight above the trees, he looks after it regretfully, but never follows. He may be hungry, but he will not set his huge hooked talons on the earth. He cannot walk, and loses all his power there. So he goes off and fishes patiently, hours long, to replace his lost catch.
When he needs sticks for his nest, he searches out a tree and breaks off the dead branches by his weight. If the stick be stubborn, he rises far above it and drops like a cannon ball, gripping it in his claws and snapping it short off at the same instant by the force of his blow. Twice I have been guided to where Ismaques and his mate were collecting material by reports like pistol shots ringing through the wood, as the great birds fell upon the dead branches and snapped them off. Once, when he came down too hard, I saw him fall almost to the ground, flapping lustily, before he found his wings and sailed away with his four-foot stick triumphantly.
There is another curious bit of bird lore that I discovered here in the autumn, when, much later than usual, I came back through the lake. Ismaques, when he goes away for the long winter at the South, does not leave his house to the mercy of the winter storms until he has first repaired it. Large fresh sticks are wedged in firmly across the top of the nest; doubtful ones are pulled out and carefully replaced, and the whole structure made shipshape for stormy weather. This careful repair, together with the fact that the nest is always well soaked in oil, which preserves it from the rain, saves a deal of trouble for Ismaques. He builds for life and knows, when he goes away in the fall, that, barring untoward accidents, his house will be waiting for him with the quiet welcome of old associations when he comes back in the spring. Whether this is a habit of all ospreys, or only of the two on Big Squatuk Lake—who were very wise birds in other ways—I am unable to say.
What becomes of the young birds is also, to me, a mystery. The home ties are very strong, and the little ones stay with the parents much longer than most other birds do; but when the spring comes you will see only the old birds at the home nest. The young come back to the same general neighborhood, I think; but where the lake is small they never build nor trespass on the same waters. As with the kingfishers and sheldrakes, each pair of birds seem to have their own pond or portion; but by what old law of the waters they find and stake their claim is yet to be discovered.
There were two little ones in the nest when I first found it; and I used to watch them in the intervals when nothing was stirring in the underbrush near my hiding place. They were happy, whistling, little fellows, well fed and contented with the world. At times they would stand for hours on the edge of the nest, looking down over the slanting tree-tops to the lake, finding the great rustling green world, and the passing birds, and the glinting of light on the sparkling water, and the hazy blue of the distant mountains marvelously interesting, if one could judge from their attitude and their pipings. Then a pair of broad wings would sweep into sight, and they would stretch their wings wide and break into eager whistlings,—Pip, pip, ch'wee? chip, ch'weeeeee? "did you get him? is he a big one, mother?" And they would stand tiptoeing gingerly about the edge of the great nest, stretching their necks eagerly for a first glimpse of the catch.
At times only one of the old birds would go a-fishing, while the other watched the nest. But when luck was poor both birds would seek the lake. At such times the mother bird, larger and stronger than the male, would fish along the shore, within sight and hearing of her little ones. The male, meanwhile, would go sweeping down the lake to the trout pools at the outlet, where the big chub lived, in search of better fishing grounds. If the wind were strong, you would see a curious bit of sea lore as he came back with his fish. He would never fly straight against the wind, but tack back and forth, as if he had learned the trick from watching the sailor fishermen of the coast beating back into harbor. And, watching him through your glass, you would see that he always carried his fish endwise and head first, so as to present the least possible resistance to the breeze.
While the young were being fed, you were certain to gain new respect for Ismaques by seeing how well he brought up his little ones. If the fish were large, it was torn into shreds and given piecemeal to the young, each of whom waited for his turn with exemplary patience. There was no crowding or pushing for the first and biggest bite, such as you see in a nest of robins. If the fish were small, it was given entire to one of the young, who worried it down as best he could, while the mother bird swept back to the lake for another. The second nestling stood on the edge of the nest meanwhile, whistling good luck and waiting his turn, without a thought, apparently, of seizing a share from his mate beside him.
* * * * *
Just under the hawks a pair of jays had built their nest among the sticks of Ismaques' dwelling, and raised their young on the abundant crumbs which fell from the rich man's table. It was curious and intensely interesting to watch the change which seemed to be going on in the jays' disposition by reason of the unusual friendship. Deedeeaskh the jay has not a friend among the wood folk. They all know he is a thief and a meddler, and hunt him away without mercy if they find him near their nests. But the great fishhawks welcomed him, trusted him; and he responded nobly to the unusual confidence. He never tried to steal from the young, not even when the mother bird was away, but contented himself with picking up the stray bits that they had left. And he more than repaid Ismaques by the sharp watch which he kept over the nest, and indeed over all the mountain side. Nothing passes in the woods without the jay's knowledge; and here he seemed, for all the world, like a watchful terrier, knowing that he had only to bark to bring a power of wing and claw sufficient to repel any danger. When prowlers came down from the mountain to feast on the heads and bones scattered about the foot of the tree, Deedeeaskh dropped down among them and went dodging about, whistling his insatiable curiosity. So long as they took only what was their own, he made no fuss about it; but he was there to watch, and he let them know sharply their mistake, if they showed any desire to cast evil eyes at the nest above.
Once, as my canoe was gliding along the shore, I heard the jays' unmistakable cry of danger. The fishhawks were wheeling in great circles over the lake, watching for the glint of fish near the surface, when the cry came, and they darted away for the nest. Pushing out into the lake, I saw them sweeping above the tree-tops in swift circles, uttering short, sharp cries of anger. Presently they began to swoop fiercely at some animal—a fisher, probably—that was climbing the tree below. I stole up to see what it was; but ere I reached the place they had driven the intruder away. I heard one of the jays far off in the woods, following the robber and screaming to let the fishhawks know just where he was. The other jay sat close by her own little ones, cowering under the shadow of the great dark wings above. And presently Deedeeaskh came back, bubbling over with the excitement, whistling to them in his own way that he had followed the rascal clear to his den, and would keep a sharp watch over him in future.
When a big hawk came near, or when, on dark afternoons, a young owl took to hunting in the neighborhood, the jays sounded the alarm, and the fishhawks swept up from the lake on the instant. Whether Deedeeaskh were more concerned for his own young than for the young fishhawks I have no means of knowing. The fishermen's actions at such times showed a curious mixture of fear and defiance. The mother would sit on the nest while Ismaques circled over it, both birds uttering a shrill, whistling challenge. But they never attacked the feathered robbers, as they had done with the fisher, and, so far as I could see, there was no need. Kookooskoos the owl and Hawahak the hawk might be very hungry; but the sight of those great wings circling over the nest and the shrill cry of defiance in their ears sent them hurriedly away to other hunting grounds.
There was only one enemy that ever seriously troubled the fishhawks; and he did it in as decent a sort of way as was possible under the circumstances. That was Cheplahgan the eagle. When he was hungry and had found nothing himself, and his two eaglets, far away in their nest on the mountain, needed a bite of fish to vary their diet, he would set his wings to the breeze and mount up till he could see both ospreys at their fishing. There, sailing in slow circles, he would watch for hours till he saw Ismaques catch a big fish, when he would drop like a bolt and hold him up at the point of his talons, like any other highwayman. It was of no use trying to escape. Sometimes Ismaques would attempt it, but the great dark wings would whirl around him and strike down a sharp and unmistakable warning. It always ended the same way. Ismaques, being wise, would drop his fish, and the eagle would swoop down after it, often seizing it ere it reached the water. But he never injured the fishhawks, and he never disturbed the nest. So they got along well enough together. Cheplahgan had a bite of fish now and then in his own high-handed way; and honest Ismaques, who never went long hungry, made the best of a bad situation. Which shows that fishing has also taught him patience, and a wise philosophy of living.
The jays took no part in these struggles. Occasionally they cried out a sharp warning as Cheplahgan came plunging down out of the blue, over the head of Ismaques; but they seemed to know perfectly how the unequal contest must end, and they always had a deal of jabber among themselves over it, the meaning of which I could never make out.
As for myself, I am sure that Deedeeaskh could never make up his mind what to think of me. At first, when I came, he would cry out a danger note that brought the fishhawks circling over their nest, looking down into the underbrush with wild yellow eyes to see what danger threatened. But after I had hidden myself away a few times, and made no motion to disturb either the nest or the hungry prowlers that came to feast on the fishhawks' bounty, Deedeeaskh set me down as an idle, harmless creature who would, nevertheless, bear watching. He never got over his curiosity to know what brought me there. Sometimes, when I thought him far away, I would find him suddenly on a branch just over my head, looking down at me intently. When I went away he would follow me, whistling, to my canoe; but he never called the fishhawks again, unless some unusual action of mine aroused his suspicion; and after one look they would circle away, as if they knew they had nothing to fear. They had seen me fishing so often that they thought they understood me, undoubtedly.
There was one curious habit of these birds that I had never noticed before. Occasionally, when the weather threatened a change, or when the birds and their little ones had fed full, Ismaques would mount up to an enormous altitude, where he would sail about in slow circles, his broad vans steady to the breeze, as if he were an ordinary hen hawk, enjoying himself and contemplating the world from an indifferent distance. Suddenly, with one clear, sharp whistle to announce his intention, he would drop like a plummet for a thousand feet, catch himself in mid-air, and zigzag down to the nest in the spruce top, whirling, diving, tumbling, and crying aloud the while in wild, ecstatic exclamations,—just as a woodcock comes whirling, plunging, twittering down from a height to his brown mate in the alders below. Then Ismaques would mount up again and repeat his dizzy plunge, while his larger mate stood quiet in the spruce top, and the little fishhawks tiptoed about the edge of the nest, pip-pipping their wonder and delight at their own papa's dazzling performance.
This is undoubtedly one of Ismaques' springtime habits, by which he tries to win an admiring look from the keen yellow eyes of his mate; but I noticed him using it more frequently as the little fishhawks' wings spread to a wonderful length, and he was trying, with his mate, by every gentle means to induce them to leave the nest. And I have wondered—without being able at all to prove my theory—whether he were not trying in this remarkable way to make his little ones want to fly by showing them how wonderful a thing flying could be made to be.
A School for Little Fishermen
There came a day when, as I sat fishing among the rocks, the cry of the mother osprey changed as she came sweeping up to my fishing grounds,—Chip, ch'wee! Chip, chip, ch'weeeee? That was the fisherman's hail plainly enough; but there was another note in it, a look-here cry of triumph and satisfaction. Before I could turn my head, for a fish was nibbling, there came other sounds behind it,—Pip, pip, pip, ch'weee! pip, ch'wee! pip, ch'weeee! a curious medley, a hail of good-luck cries; and I knew without turning that two other fishermen had come to join the brotherhood.
The mother bird—one can tell her instantly by her greater size and darker breast markings—veered in as I turned to greet the newcomers, and came directly over my head, her two little ones flapping lustily behind her. Two days before, when I went down to another lake on an excursion after bigger trout, the young fishhawks were still standing on the nest, turning a deaf ear to all the old birds' assurances that the time had come to use their big wings. The last glimpse I had of them through my glass showed me the mother bird in one tree, the father in another, each holding a fish, which they were showing the young across a tantalizing short stretch of empty air, telling the young in fishhawk language to come across and get it; while the young birds, on their part, stretched wings and necks hungrily and tried to whistle the fish over to them, as one would call a dog across the street.
In the short interval that I was absent mother wiles and mother patience had done their good work. The young were already flying well. Now they were out for their first lesson in fishing, evidently; and I stopped fishing myself, letting my bait sink into the mud—where an eel presently tangled my hooks into an old root—to see how it was done. For fishing is not an instinct with Ismaques, but a simple matter of training. As with young otters, they know only from daily experience that fish, and not grouse and rabbits, are their legitimate food. Left to themselves, especially if one should bring them up on flesh and then turn them loose, they would go straight back to the old hawk habit of hunting the woods, which is much easier. To catch fish, therefore, they must be taught from the first day they leave the nest. And it is a fascinating experience for any man to watch the way they go about it.
The young ospreys flew heavily in short irregular circles, scanning the water with their inexperienced eyes for their first strike. Over them wheeled the mother bird on broad, even wings, whistling directions to the young neophytes, who would presently be initiated into the old sweet mysteries of going a-fishing. Fish were plenty enough; but that means nothing to a fishhawk, who must see his game reasonably near the surface before making his swoop. There was a good jump on the lake, and the sun shone brightly into it. Between the glare and the motion on the surface the young fishermen were having a hard time of it. Their eyes were not yet quick enough to tell them when to swoop. At every gleam of silver in the depths below they would stop short and cry out: Pip! "there he is!" Pip, pip! "here goes!" like a boy with his first nibble. But a short, clear whistle from the mother stopped them ere they had begun to fall; and they would flap up to her, protesting eagerly that they could catch that fellow, sure, if she would only let them try.
As they wheeled in over me on their way down the lake, one of the youngsters caught the gleam of my pile of chub among the rocks. Pip, ch'weee! he whistled, and down they came, both of them, like rockets. They were hungry; here at hand were fish galore; and they had not noticed me at all, sitting very still among the rocks. Pip, pip, pip, hurrah! they piped as they came down.
But the mother bird, who had noted me and my pile of fish the first thing as she rounded the point, swept in swiftly with a curious, half-angry, half-anxious chiding that I had never heard from her before,—Chip, chip, chip! Chip! Chip!—growing sharper and shriller at each repetition, till they heeded it and swerved aside. As I looked up they were just over my head, looking down at me now with eager, wondering eyes. Then they were led aside in a wide circle and talked to with wise, quiet whistlings before they were sent back to their fishing again.
And now as they sweep round and round over the edge of a shoal, one of the little fellows sees a fish and drops lower to follow it. The mother sees it too; notes that the fish is slanting up to the surface, and wisely lets the young fisherman alone. He is too near the water now; the glare and the dancing waves bother him; he loses his gleam of silver in the flash of a whitecap. Mother bird mounts higher, and whistles him up where he can see better. But there is the fish again, and the youngster, hungry and heedless, sets his wings for a swoop. Chip, chip! "wait, he's going down," cautions the mother; but the little fellow, too hungry to wait, shoots down like an arrow. He is a yard above the surface when a big whitecap jumps up at him and frightens him. He hesitates, swerves, flaps lustily to save himself. Then under the whitecap is a gleam of silver again. Down he goes on the instant,—ugh! boo!—like a boy taking his first dive. He is out of sight for a full moment, while two waves race over him, and I hold my breath waiting for him to come up. Then he bursts out, sputtering and shaking himself, and of course without his fish.
As he rises heavily the mother, who has been circling over him whistling advice and comfort, stops short with a single blow of her pinions against the air. She has seen the same fish, watched him shoot away under the plunge of her little one, and now sees him glancing up to the edge of the shoal where the minnows are playing. She knows that the young pupils are growing discouraged, and that the time has come to hearten them. Chip, chip!—"watch, I'll show you," she whistles—Cheeeep! with a sharp up-slide at the end, which I soon grow to recognize as the signal to strike. At the cry she sets her wings and shoots downward with strong, even plunge, strikes a wave squarely as it rises, passes under it, and is out on the other side gripping a big chub. The little ones follow her, whistling their delight, and telling her that perhaps now they will go back to the nest and take a look at the fish before they go on with their fishing. Which means, of course, that they will eat it and go to sleep perfectly satisfied with the good fun of fishing; and then lessons are over for the day.
The mother, however, has other thoughts in her wise head. She knows that the little ones are not yet tired, only hungry; and that there is much to teach them before the chub stop shoaling and fishhawks must be off to the coast. She knows also that they have thus far missed the two things she brought them out to learn: to take a fish always as he comes up; and to hit a wave always on the front side, under the crest. Gripping her fish tightly, she bends in her slow flight and paralyzes it by a single blow in the spine from her hooked beak. Then she drops it back into the whitecaps, where, jumping to the top of my rock, I can see it occasionally struggling near the surface.
Cheeeep! "try it now," she whistles.
Pip, pip! "here goes!" cries the little one who failed before; and down he drops, souse! going clear under in his impatient hunger, forgetting precept and example and past experience.
Again the waves race over him; but there is a satisfied note in the mother's whistle which tells me that she sees him, and that he is doing well. In a moment he is out again with a great rush and sputter, gripping his fish and pip-pipping his exultation. Away he goes in low heavy flight to the nest. The mother circles over him a moment to be sure he is not overloaded; then she goes back with the other neophyte and ranges back and forth over the shoal's edge.
It is clear now to even my eyes that there is a vast difference in the characters of young fishhawks. The first was eager, headstrong, impatient; the second is calmer, stronger, more obedient. He watches the mother; he heeds her signals. Five minutes later he makes a clean, beautiful swoop and comes up with his fish. The mother whistles her praise as she drops beside him. My eyes follow them as, gossiping like two old cronies, they wing their slow way over the dancing whitecaps and climb the slanting tree-tops to the nest.
The day's lessons are over now, and I go back to my bait-catching with a new admiration for these winged members of the brotherhood. Perhaps there is also a bit of envy or regret in my meditation as I tie on a new hook to replace the one that an uneasy eel is trying to rid himself of, down in the mud. If I had only had some one to teach me like that, I should certainly now be a better fisherman.
Next day, when the mother came up the lake to the shoal with her two little ones, there was a surprise awaiting them. For half an hour I had been watching from the point to anticipate their coming. There were some things that puzzled me, and that puzzle me still, in Ismaques' fishing. If he caught his fish in his mouth, after the methods of loon and otter, I could understand it better. But to catch a fish—whose dart is like lightning—under the water with his feet, when, after his plunge, he can see neither his fish nor his feet, must require some puzzling calculation. And I had set a trap in my head to find out how it is done.
When the fishermen hove into sight, and their eager pipings came faintly up the lake ahead of them, I paddled hastily out and turned loose a half-dozen chub in the shallow water. I had kept them alive as long as possible in a big pail, and they still had life enough to fin about near the surface. When the fishermen arrived I was sitting among the rocks as usual, and turned to acknowledge the mother bird's Ch'wee? But my deep-laid scheme to find out their method accomplished nothing; except, perhaps, to spoil the day's lesson. They saw my bait on the instant. One of the youngsters dove headlong without poising, went under, missed his fish, rose, plunged again. He got him that time and went away sputtering. The second took his time, came down on a long swift slant, and got his fish without going under. Almost before the lesson began it was over. The mother circled about for a few moments in a puzzled sort of way, watching the young fishermen flapping up the slope to their nest. Something was wrong. She had fished enough to know that success means something more than good luck; and this morning success had come too easily. She wheeled slowly over the shallows, noting the fish there, where they plainly did not belong, and dropping to examine with suspicion one big chub that was floating, belly up, on the water. Then she went under with a rush, where I could not see, came out again with a fish for herself, and followed her little ones to the nest.
Next day I set the trap again in the same way. But the mother, with her lesson well laid out before her, remembered yesterday's unearned success and came over to investigate, leaving her young ones circling along the farther shore. There were the fish again, in shallow water; and there—too easy altogether!—were two dead ones floating among the whitecaps. She wheeled away in a sharp turn, as if she had not seen anything, whistled her pupils up to her, and went on to other fishing grounds.
Presently, above the next point, I heard their pipings and the sharp, up-sliding Cheeeep! which was the mother's signal to swoop. Paddling up under the point in my canoe, I found them all wheeling and diving over a shoal, where I knew the fish were smaller and more nimble, and where there were lily pads for a haven of refuge, whither no hawk could follow them. Twenty times I saw them swoop only to miss, while the mother circled above or beside them, whistling advice and encouragement. And when at last they struck their fish and bore away towards the mountain, there was an exultation in their lusty wing beats, and in the whistling cry they sent back to me, which was not there the day before.
The mother followed them at a distance, veering in when near my shoal to take another look at the fish there. Three were floating now instead of two; the others—what were left of them—struggled feebly at the surface. Chip, ch'weee! she whistled disdainfully; "plenty fish here, but mighty poor fishing." Then she swooped, passed under, came out with a big chub, and was gone, leaving me only a blinding splash and a widening circle of laughing, dancing, tantalizing wavelets to tell me how she catches them.
When You Meet a Bear
There are always two surprises when you meet a bear. You have one, and he has the other. On your tramps and camps in the big woods you may be on the lookout for Mooween; you may be eager and even anxious to meet him; but when you double the point or push into the blueberry patch and, suddenly, there he is, blocking the path ahead, looking intently into your eyes to fathom at a glance your intentions, then, I fancy, the experience is like that of people who have the inquisitive habit of looking under their beds nightly for a burglar, and at last find him there, stowed away snugly, just where they always expected him to be.
Mooween, on his part, is always looking for you when once he has learned that you have moved into his woods. But not from any desire to see you! He is like a lazy man looking for work, and hoping devoutly that he may not find it. A bear has very little curiosity—less than any other of the wood folk. He loves to be alone; and so, when he goes hunting for you, to find out just where you are, it is always with the creditable desire to leave you in as large a room as possible, while he himself goes quietly away into deeper solitudes. As this desire of his is much stronger than your mere idle curiosity to see something new, you rarely see Mooween even where he is most at home. And that is but another bit of the poetic justice which you stumble upon everywhere in the big woods.
It is more and more evident, I think, that Nature adapts her gifts, not simply to the necessities, but more largely to the desires, of her creatures. The force and influence of that intense desire—more intense because usually each animal has but one—we have not yet learned to measure. The owl has a silent wing, not simply because he needs it—for his need is no greater than that of the hawk, who has no silent wing—but, more probably, because of his whole-hearted desire for silence as he glides through the silent twilight. And so with the panther's foot; and so with the deer's eye, and the wolf's nose, whose one idea of bliss is a good smell; and so with every other strongly marked gift which the wild things have won from nature, chiefly by desiring it, in the long years of their development.
This theory may possibly account for some of Mooween's peculiarities. Nature, who measures her gifts according to the desires of her creatures, remembers his love of peace and solitude, and endows him accordingly. He cares little to see you or anybody else; therefore his eyes are weak—his weakest point, in fact. He desires ardently to avoid your society and all society but his own; therefore his nose and ears are marvelously alert to discover your coming. Often, when you think yourself quite alone in the woods, Mooween is there. The wind has told your story to his nose; the clatter of your heedless feet long ago reached his keen ears, and he vanishes at your approach, leaving you to your noise and inquisitiveness and the other things you like. His gifts of concealment are so much greater than your powers of detection that he has absolutely no thought of ever seeing you. His surprise, therefore, when you do meet unexpectedly is correspondingly greater than yours.
What he will do under the unusual circumstances depends largely, not upon himself, but upon you. With one exception, his feelings are probably the reverse of your own. If you are bold, he is timid as a rabbit; if you are panic-stricken, he knows exactly what to do; if you are fearful, he has no fear; if you are inquisitive, he is instantly shy; and, like all other wild creatures, he has an almost uncanny way of understanding your thought. It is as if, in that intent, penetrating gaze of his, he saw your soul turned inside out for his inspection. The only exception is when you meet him without fear or curiosity, with the desire simply to attend to your own affairs, as if he were a stranger and an equal. That rare mental attitude he understands perfectly—for is it not his own?—and he goes his way quietly, as if he had not seen you.
For every chance meeting Mooween seems to have a plan of action ready, which he applies without a question or an instant's hesitation. Make an unknown sound behind him as he plods along the shore, and he hurls himself headlong into the cover of the bushes, as if your voice had touched a button that released a coiled spring beneath him. Afterwards he may come back to find out what frightened him. Sit perfectly still, and he rises on his hind legs for a look and a long sniff to find out who you are. Jump at him with a yell and a flourish the instant he appears, and he will hurl chips and dirt back at you as he digs his toes into the hillside for a better grip and scrambles away whimpering like a scared puppy.
Once in a way, as you steal through the autumn woods or hurry over the trail, you will hear sudden loud rustlings and shakings on the hardwood ridge above you, as if a small cyclone were perched there for a while, amusing itself among the leaves before blowing on. Then, if you steal up toward the sound, you will find Mooween standing on a big limb of a beech tree, grasping the narrowing trunk with his powerful forearms, tugging and pushing mightily to shake down the ripe beechnuts. The rattle and dash of the falling fruit are such music to Mooween's ears that he will not hear the rustle of your approach, nor the twig that snaps under your careless foot.
If you cry aloud now to your friends, under the hilarious impression that you have Mooween sure at last, there is another surprise awaiting you. And that suggests a bit of advice, which is most pertinent: don't stand under the bear when you cry out. If he is a little fellow, he will shoot up the tree, faster than ever a jumping jack went up his stick, and hide in a cluster of leaves, as near the top as he can get. But if he is a big bear, he will tumble down on you before you know what has happened. No slow climbing for him; he just lets go and comes down by gravitation. As Uncle Remus says—who has some keen knowledge of animal ways under his story-telling humor—"Brer B'ar, he scramble 'bout half-way down de bee tree, en den he turn eve'ything loose en hit de groun' kerbiff! Look like 't wuz nuff ter jolt de life out'n 'im."
Somehow it never does jolt the life out of him, notwithstanding his great weight; nor does it interfere in any way with his speed of action, which is like lightning, the instant he touches the ground. Like the coon, who can fall from an incredible distance without hurting himself, Mooween comes down perfectly limp, falling on himself like a great cushion; but the moment he strikes, all his muscles seem to contract at once, and he bounds off like a rubber ball into the densest bit of cover at hand.
Twice have I seen him come down in this way. The first time there were two cubs, nearly full-grown, in a tree. One went up at our shout; the other came down with such startling suddenness that the man who stood ready with his rifle, to shoot the bear, jumped for his life to get out of the way; and before he had blinked the astonishment out of his eyes Mooween was gone, leaving only a violent nodding of the ground spruces to tell what had become of him.
All these plans of ready action in Mooween's head, for the rare occasions when he meets you unexpectedly, are the result of careful training by his mother. If you should ever have the good fortune to watch a mother bear and her cubs when they have no idea that you are near them, you will note two characteristic things. First, when they are traveling—and Mooween is the most restless tramp in all the woods—you will see that the cubs follow the mother closely and imitate her every action with ludicrous exactness, sniffing where she sniffs, jumping where she jumps, rising on their hind legs, with forearms hanging loosely and pointed noses thrust sharp up into the wind, on the instant that she rises, and then drawing silently away from the shore into the shelter of the friendly alders when some subtle warning tells the mother's nose that the coast ahead is not perfectly clear. So they learn to sift the sounds and smells of the wilderness, and to govern their actions accordingly. And second, when they are playing you will see that the mother watches the cubs' every action as keenly as they watched hers an hour ago. She will sit flat on her haunches, her fore paws planted between her outstretched hind legs, her great head on one side, noting every detail of their boxing and wrestling and climbing, as if she had showed them once how it ought to be done and were watching now to see how well they remembered their lessons. And now and then one or the other of the cubs receives a sound cuffing; for which I am unable to account, except on the theory that he was doing something contrary to his plain instructions.
It is only when Mooween meets some new object, or some circumstance entirely outside of his training, that instinct and native wit are set to work; and then you see for the first time some trace of hesitation on the part of this self-confident prowler of the big woods. Once I startled him on the shore, whither he had come to get the fore quarters of a deer that had been left there. He jumped for cover at the first alarm without even turning his head, just as he had seen his mother do, a score of times, when he was a cub. Then he stopped, and for three or four seconds considered the danger in plain sight—a thing I have never seen any other bear imitate. He wavered for a moment more, doubtful whether my canoe were swifter than he and more dangerous. Then satisfied that, at least, he had a good chance, he jumped back, grabbed the deer, and dragged it away into the woods.
Another time I met him on a narrow path where he could not pass me and where he did not want to turn back, for something ahead was calling him strongly. That short meeting furnished me the best study in bear nature and bear instinct that I have ever been allowed to make. And, at this distance, I have small desire to repeat the experience.
It was on the Little Sou'west Mirimichi, a very wild river, in the heart of the wilderness. Just above my camp, not half a mile away, was a salmon pool that, so far as I know, had never been fished. One bank of the river was an almost sheer cliff, against which the current fretted and hissed in a strong deep rush to the rapids and a great silent pool far below. There were salmon under the cliff, plenty of them, balancing themselves against the arrowy run of the current; but, so far as my flies were concerned, they might as well have been in the Yukon. One could not fish from the opposite shore—there was no room for a back cast, and the current was too deep and swift for wading—and on the shore where the salmon were there was no place to stand. If I had had a couple of good Indians, I might have dropped down to the head of the swift water and fished, while they held the canoe with poles braced on the bottom; but I had no two good Indians, and the one I did have was unwilling to take the risk. So we went hungry, almost within sight and sound of the plunge of heavy fish, fresh run from the sea.
One day, in following a porcupine to see where he was going, I found a narrow path running for a few hundred yards along the side of the cliff, just over where the salmon loved to lie, and not more than thirty feet above the swift rush of water. I went there with my rod and, without attempting to cast, dropped my fly into the current and paid out from my reel. When the line straightened I raised the rod's tip and set my fly dancing and skittering across the surface to an eddy behind a great rock. In a flash I had raised and struck a twenty-five pound fish; and in another flash he had gone straight downstream in the current, where from my precarious seat I could not control him. Down he went, leaping wildly high out of water, in a glorious rush, till all my line buzzed out of the reel, down to the very knot at the bottom, and the leader snapped as if it had been made of spider's web.
I reeled in sadly, debating with myself the unanswerable question of how I should ever have reached down thirty feet to gaff my salmon, had I played him to a standstill. Then, because human nature is weak, I put on a stronger, double leader and dropped another fly into the current. I might not get my salmon; but it was worth the price of fly and leader just to raise him from the deeps and see his terrific rush downstream, jumping, jumping, as if the witch of Endor were astride of his tail in lieu of her broomstick.
A lively young grilse plunged headlong at the second fly and, thanks to my strong leader, I played him out in the current and led him listlessly, all the jump and fight gone out of him, to the foot of the cliff. There was no apparent way to get down; so, taking my line in hand, I began to lift him bodily up. He came easily enough till his tail cleared the water; then the wiggling, jerky strain was too much. The fly pulled out, and he vanished with a final swirl and slap of his broad tail to tell me how big he was.
Just below me a bowlder lifted its head and shoulders out of the swirling current. With the canoe line I might easily let myself down to that rock and make sure of my next fish. Getting back would be harder; but salmon are worth some trouble; so I left my rod and started back to camp for the stout rope that lay coiled in the bow of my canoe. It was late afternoon and I was hurrying along the path, giving chief heed to my feet in the ticklish walking, with the cliff above and the river below, when a loud Hoowuff! brought me up with a shock. There at a turn in the path, not ten yards ahead, stood a huge bear, calling unmistakable halt, and blocking me in as completely as if the mountain had toppled over before me.
There was no time to think; the shock and scare were too great. I just gasped Hoowuff! instinctively, as the bear had shot it out of his deep lungs a moment before, and stood stock-still, as he was doing. He was startled as well as I. That was the only thing that I was sure about.
I suppose that in each of our heads at first there was just one thought: "I'm in a fix; how shall I get out?" And in his training or mine there was absolutely nothing to suggest an immediate answer. He was anxious, evidently, to go on. Something, a mate perhaps, must be calling him up river; else he would have whirled and vanished at the first alarm. But how far might he presume on the big animal's timidity who stood before him blocking the way? That was his question, plainly enough. Had I been a moment sooner, or he a moment later, we would have met squarely at the turn; he would have clinched with me in sudden blind ferocity, and that would have been the end of one of us. As it was he saw me coming heedlessly and, being peaceably inclined, had stopped me with his sharp Hoowuff! before I should get too near. There was no snarl or growl, no savageness in his expression; only intense wonder and questioning in the look which fastened upon my face and seemed to bore its way through, to find out just what I was thinking.
I met his eyes squarely with mine and held them, which was perhaps the most sensible thing I could have done; though it was all unconscious on my part. In the brief moment that followed I did a lot of thinking. There was no escape, up or down; I must go on or turn back. If I jumped forward with a yell, as I had done before under different circumstances, would he not rush at me savagely, as all wild creatures do when cornered? No, the time for that had passed with the first instant of our meeting. The bluff would now be too apparent; it must be done without hesitation, or not at all. On the other hand, if I turned back he would follow me to the end of the ledge, growing bolder as he came on; and beyond that it was dangerous walking, where he had all the advantage and all the knowledge of his ground. Besides, it was late, and I wanted a salmon for my supper.
I have wondered since how much of this hesitation he understood; and how he came to the conclusion, which he certainly reached, that I meant him no harm, but only wanted to get on and was not disposed to give him the path. All the while I looked at him steadily, until his eyes began to lose their intentness. My hand slipped back and gripped the handle of my hunting knife. Some slight confidence came with the feel of the heavy weapon; though I would certainly have gone over the cliff and taken my chances in the current, rather than have closed with him, with all his enormous strength, in that narrow place. Suddenly his eyes wavered from mine; he swung his head to look down and up; and I knew instantly that I had won the first move—and the path also, if I could keep my nerve.
I advanced a step or two very quietly, still looking at him steadily. There was a suggestion of white teeth under his wrinkled chops; but he turned his head to look back over the way he had come, and presently he disappeared. It was only for a moment; then his nose and eyes were poked cautiously by the corner of rock. He was peeking to see if I were still there. When the nose vanished again I stole forward to the turn and found him just ahead, looking down the cliff to see if there were any other way below.