Chapter XXV. Owls and Antwerps
 

Each day at dawn, unless it was stormy, Merton patrolled the place with his gun, looking for hawks and other creatures which at this season he was permitted to shoot. He had quite as serious and important an air as if he were sallying forth to protect us from deadlier foes. For a time he saw nothing to fire at, since he had promised me not to shoot harmless birds. He always indulged himself, however, in one shot at a mark, and was becoming sure in his aim at stationary objects. One evening, however, when we were almost ready to retire, a strange sound startled us. At first it reminded me of the half-whining bark of a young dog, but the deep, guttural trill that followed convinced me that it was a screech-owl, for I remembered having heard these birds when a boy.

The moment I explained the sound, Merton darted for his gun, and my wife exclaimed: "O dear! what trouble is coming now? Mother always said that the hooting of an owl near a house was a bad omen."

I did not share in the superstition, although I disliked the uncanny sounds, and was under the impression that all owls, like hawks, should be destroyed. Therefore, I followed Merton out, hoping that he would get a successful shot at the night prowler.

The moonlight illumined everything with a soft, mild radiance; and the trees, with their tracery of bough and twig, stood out distinctly. Before we could discover the creature, it flew with noiseless wing from a maple near the door to another perch up the lane, and again uttered its weird notes.

Merton was away like a swift shadow, and, screening himself behind the fence, stole upon his game. A moment later the report rang out in the still night. It so happened that Merton had fired just as the bird was about to fly, and had only broken a wing. The owl fell to the ground, but led the boy a wild pursuit before he was captured. Merton's hands were bleeding when he brought the creature in. Unless prevented, it would strike savagely with its beak, and the motions of its head were as quick as lightning. It was, indeed, a strange captive, and the children looked at it in wondering and rather fearful curiosity. My wife, usually tender-hearted, wished the creature, so ill-omened in her eyes, to be killed at once, but I granted Merton's request that he might put it in a box and keep it alive for a while.

"In the morning," I said, "we will read all about it, and can examine it more carefully."

My wife yielded, and I am not sure but that she thought we might avert misfortune by showing mercy.

Among my purchases was a recent work on natural history. But our minds had been engrossed with too many practical questions to give it much attention. Next morning we consulted it, and found our captive variously described as the little red, the mottled, or the screech owl. Then followed an account of its character and habits. We learned that we had made war upon a useful friend, instead of an ill-boding, harmful creature. We were taught that this species is a destroyer of mice, beetles, and vermin, thus rendering the agriculturist great services, which, however are so little known that the bird is everywhere hunted down without mercy or justice.

"Surely, this is not true of all owls," I said, and by reading further we learned that the barred, or hoot owl, and the great horned owl, were deserving of a surer aim of Merton's gun. They prey not only upon useful game, but also invade the poultry-yard, the horned species being especially destructive. Instances were given in which these freebooters had killed every chicken upon a farm. As they hunt only at night, they are hard to capture. Their notes and natures are said to be in keeping with their deeds of darkness; for their cry is wild, harsh, and unearthly, while in temper they are cowardly, savage, and untamable, showing no affection even for each other. A female has been known to kill and eat the male.

"The moral of this owl episode," I concluded, "is that we must learn to know our neighbors, be they birds, beasts, or human beings, before we judge them. This book is not only full of knowledge, but of information that is practical and useful. I move that we read up about the creatures in our vicinity. What do you say, Merton? wouldn't it be well to learn what to shoot, as well as how to shoot?"

Protecting his hands with buckskin gloves, the boy applied mutton suet to our wounded owl's wing. It was eventually healed, and the bird was given its liberty. It gradually became sprightly and tame, and sociable in the evening, affording the children and Junior much amusement.

By the 7th of April there was a prospect of warmer and more settled weather, and Mr. Jones told us to lose no time in uncovering our Antwerp raspberries. They had been bent down close to the ground the previous winter and covered with earth. To remove this without breaking the canes, required careful and skilful work. We soon acquired the knack, however, of pushing and throwing aside the soil, then lifting the canes gently through what remained, and shaking them clear.

"Be careful to level the ground evenly," Mr. Jones warned us, "for it won't do at all to leave hummocks of dirt around the hills;" and we followed his instructions.

The canes were left until a heavy shower of rain washed them clean; then Winnie and Bobsey tied them up. We gave steady and careful attention to the Antwerps, since they would be our main dependence for income. I also raked in around the hills of one row a liberal dressing of wood ashes, intending to note its effect.