Chapter VIII. Eagles

"Speaking of birds, doctor, there are some big fellows around this winter," said Burtis. "While in the mountains with the wood teams some days since I saw a gray and a bald eagle sailing around, but could not get a shot at them. As soon as it grows milder I am going up to the cliffs on the river to see if I can get within rifle range."

"Oh, come, Burt, I thought you were too good a sportsman to make such a mistake," the doctor rejoined. "A gray eagle is merely a young bald eagle. We have only two species of the genuine eagle in this country, the bald, or American, and the golden, or ring-tailed. The latter is very rare, for their majesties are not fond of society, even of their own kind, and two nests are seldom found within thirty miles of each other. The bald eagle has been common enough, and I have shot many. One morning long ago I shot two, and had quite a funny experience with one of them."

"Pray tell us about it," said Burtis, glad of a diversion from his ornithological shortcomings.

"Well, one February morning (I could not have been much over fourteen at the time) I crossed the river on the ice, and took the train for Peekskill. Having transacted my business and procured a good supply of ammunition, I started homeward. From the car windows I saw two eagles circling over the cliffs of the lower Highlands, and with the rashness and inexperience of a boy I determined to leave the train while it was under full headway. I passed through to the rear car, descended to the lowest step, and, without realizing my danger, watched for a level place that promised well for the mad project. Such a spot soon occurring, I grasped the iron rail tightly with my right hand, and with my gun in my left I stepped off into the snow, which was wet and slushy. My foot bounded up and back as if I had been india-rubber, and maintaining my hold I streamed away behind the car in an almost horizontal position. About once in every thirty feet my foot struck the ground, bounded up and back, and I streamed away again as if I were towed or carried through the air. After taking a few steps of this character, which exceeded any attributed to giants in fairy-lore, I saw I was in for it, and the next time my foot struck I let go, and splashed, with a force that I even now ache to think of, into the wet snow. It's a wonder I didn't break my neck, but I scrambled up not very much the worse for my tumble. There were the eagles; my gun was all right, and that was all I cared for at the time. I soon loaded, using the heaviest shot I had, and in a few moments the great birds sailed over my head. I devoted a barrel to each, and down they both came, fluttering, whirling, and uttering cries that Wilson describes as something like a maniacal laugh. One lodged in the top of a tall hemlock, and stuck; the other came flapping and crashing through another tree until stopped by the lower limbs, where it remained. I now saw that their distance had been so great that I had merely disabled them, and I began reloading, but I was so wild from excitement and exultation that I put in the shot first. Of course my caps only snapped, and the eagle in the hemlock top, recovering a brief renewal of strength after the shock of his wound, flew slowly and heavily away, and fell on the ice near the centre of the river. I afterward learned that it was carried off by some people on an ice-boat. The other eagle, whose wing I had broken, now reached the ground, and I ran toward it, determined that I should not lose both of my trophies. As I approached I saw that I had an ugly customer to deal with, for the bird, finding that he could not escape, threw himself on his back, with his tail doubled under him, and was prepared to strike blows with talons and beak that would make serious wounds, I resolved to take my game home alive, and after a little thought cut a crotched stick, with which I held his head down while I fastened his feet together. A man who now appeared walking down the track aided me in securing the fierce creature, which task we accomplished by tying some coarse bagging round his wings, body, and talons. I then went on to the nearest station in order to take the train homeward. Of course the eagle attracted a great deal of attention in the cars--more than he seemed to enjoy, for he soon grew very restless. I was approaching my destination, and three or four people were about me, talking, pointing, and trying to touch the bird, when he made a sudden dive. The bagging round his wings and feet gave way, and so did the people on every side. Down through the aisle, flapping and screaming, went the eagle; and the ladies, with skirts abridged, stood on the seats and screamed quite as discordantly. Not a man present would help me, but, mounting on their seats, they vociferated advice. The conductor appeared on the scene, and I said that if he would head the bird off I would catch him. This he agreed to do, but he no sooner saw the eagle bearing down on him with his savage eye and beak than he, as nimbly at the best of them, hopped upon a seat, and stood beside a woman, probably for her protection. A minute or two later the train stopped at my station, and I was almost desperate. Fortunately I was in the last car, and I drove my eagle toward the rear door, from which, by the vigorous use of my feet, I induced him to alight on the ground--the first passenger of the kind, I am sure, that ever left the cars at that station. After several minor adventures, I succeeded in getting him home. I hoped to keep him alive, but he would not eat; so I stuffed him in the only way I could, and he is now one of my specimens."

"Well," said Burt, laughing, "that exceeds any eagle adventure that I have heard of in this region. In the car business you certainly brought his majesty down to the prose of common life, and I don't wonder the regal bird refused to eat thereafter."

"Cannot eagles be tamed--made gentle and friendly?" old Mrs. Clifford asked. "I think I remember hearing that you had a pet eagle years ago."

"Yes, I kept one--a female--six months. She was an unusually large specimen, and measured about eight feet with wings extended. The females of all birds of prey, you know, are larger than the males. As in the former case, I had broken one of her wings, and she also threw herself on her back and made her defence in the most savage manner. Although I took every precaution in my power, my hands were bleeding in several places before I reached home, and, in fact, she kept them in a rather dilapidated condition all the time I had her. I placed her in a large empty room connected with the barn, and found her ready enough to eat. Indeed, she was voracious, and the savage manner in which she tore and swallowed her food was not a pleasant spectacle. I bought several hundred live carp--a cheap, bony fish--and put them in a ditch where I could take them with a net as I wanted them. The eagle would spring upon a fish, take one of her long hops into a corner, and tear off its head with one stroke of her beak. While I was curing her broken wing the creature tolerated me after a fashion, but when she was well she grew more and more savage and dangerous. Once a Dutchman, who worked for us, came in with me, and the way the eagle chased that man around the room and out of the door, he swearing meanwhile in high German and in a high key, was a sight to remember. I was laughing immoderately, when the bird swooped down on my shoulder, and the scars would have been there to-day had not her talons been dulled by their constant attrition with the boards of her extemporized cage. Covering my face with my arm--for she could take one's eye out by a stroke of her beak--I also retreated. She then dashed against the window with such force that she bent the wood-work and broke every pane of glass. She seemed so wild for freedom that I gave it to her, but the foolish creature, instead of sailing far away, lingered on a bluff near the river, and soon boys and men were out after her with shot-guns. I determined that they should not mangle her to no purpose, and so, with the aid of my rifle, I added her also to my collection of specimens."

"Have you ever found one of their nests?" Webb asked.

"Yes. They are rather curious affairs, and are sometimes five feet in diameter each way, and quite flat at the top. They use for the substratum of the domicile quite respectable cord-wood sticks, thicker than one's wrist. The mother-bird must be laying her eggs at this season, cold as it is. But they don't mind the cold, for they nest above the Arctic Circle."

"I don't see how it is possible for them to protect their eggs and young in such severe weather," Mrs. Clifford remarked.

"Nature takes care of her own in her own way," replied the doctor, with a slight shrug. "One of the birds always remains on the nest."

"Well," said Squire Bartley, who had listened rather impatiently to so much talk about an unprofitable bird, "I wish my hens were laying now. Seems to me that Nature does better by eagles and crows than by any fowls I ever had. Good-night, friends."

With a wistful glance at Amy's pure young face, and a sigh so low. that only pitiful Mrs. Leonard heard it, Mr. Alvord also bowed himself out in his quiet way.

"Doctor," said Burtis, resolutely, "you have excited my strongest emulation, and I shall never be content until I have brought down an eagle or two."

"Dear me!" cried the doctor, looking at his watch, "I should think that you would have had enough of eagles, and of me also, by this time. Remember, Miss Amy, I prescribe birds, but don't watch a bald-eagle's nest too closely. We are not ready to part with your bright eyes any more than you are."