Chapter XI. In Search of Adventure
 

Uncle Jim had friends everywhere. Continually we were pulling up by one of the tiny two-roomed shacks wherein dwelt the small settlers. The houses were always of new boards, unpainted, perched on four-by-fours, in the middle of bare ground, perhaps surrounded by young poplars or cottonwoods, but more likely fully exposed to the sun. A trifling open shed protected a battered buggy on the thills and wheels of which perched numerous chickens. A rough corral and windmill completed the arrangements. Near the house was usually a small patch of alfalfa. Farther out the owner was engaged in the strenuous occupation of brushing and breaking a virgin country.

To greet us rushed forth a half-dozen mongrel dogs, and appeared a swarm of children, followed by the woman of the place. Uncle Jim knew them all by name, including even the dogs. He carefully wound the reins around the whip, leaned forward comfortably, and talked. Henry dozed; and I listened with interest. Uncle Jim had the natural gift of popularity. By either instinct or a wide experience he knew just what problems and triumphs, disappointments and perplexities these people were encountering; and he plunged promptly into the discussion of them. Also, I was never able to make out whether Uncle Jim was a conscious or unconscious diplomat; but certainly he knew how judiciously to make use of the subtle principle, so well illustrated by Moliere, that it pleases people to confer small favours. Thus occasionally he gravely "borrowed" a trifle of axle grease, which we immediately applied, or a cup of milk, or a piece of string to mend something. When finally our leisurely roadside call was at an end, we rolled away from unanimously hearty signals of farewell.

In accordance with our settled feeling of taking things as they came, and trying for everything, we blundered into varied experiences, none of which arrange themselves in recollection with any pretence of logical order. Perhaps it might not be a bad idea to copy our method, to set forth and see where we land.

One of the most amusing happened when we were out with my younger, but not smaller, brother. This youth was at that time about eighteen years old, and six feet two in height. His age plus his stature equalled a certain lankiness. As we drove peacefully along the highway we observed in the adjacent field a coyote. The animal was some three or four hundred yards away, lying down, his head between his paws, for all the world like a collie dog. Immediately the lad was all excitement. We pointed out the well-known facts that the coyote is no fool and is difficult to stalk at best; that while he is apparently tame as long as the wagon keeps moving, he decamps when convinced that his existence is receiving undue attention; that in the present instance the short grass would not conceal a snake; and that, finally, a 16-gauge gun loaded with number-six shot was not an encouraging coyote weapon. He brushed them aside as mere details. So we let him out.

He dropped into the grass and commenced his stalk. This he accomplished on his elbows and knees. A short review of the possibilities will convince you that the sight was unique. Although the boy's head and shoulders were thus admirably close to the ground, there followed an extremely abrupt apex. Add the fact that the canvas shooting coat soon fell forward over his shoulders.

The coyote at first paid no attention. As this strange object worked nearer, he raised his head to take a look. Then he sat up on his haunches to take a better look. At this point we expected him to lope away instead of which he trotted forward a few feet and stopped, his ears pricked forward. There he sat, his shrewd brain alive with conjecture until, at thirty-five yards, the kid emptied both barrels. Thereupon he died, his curiosity as to what a movable brown pyramid might be still unsatisfied.

Uncle Jim, the kid, and I had great fun cruising for jackrabbits. Uncle Jim sat in the middle and drove while the kid and I hung our feet over the sides and constituted ourselves the port and starboard batteries. Bumping and banging along at full speed over the uneven country, we jumped the rabbits, and opened fire as they made off. Each had to stick to his own side of the ship, of course. Uncle Jim's bird dog, his head between our feet, his body under the seat, watched the proceedings, whining. It looked like good fun to him, but it was forbidden. A jackrabbit arrested in full flight by a charge of shot turns a very spectacular somersault. The dog would stand about five rabbits. As the sixth turned over, he executed a mad struggle, accomplished a flying leap over the front wheel, was rolled over and over by the forward momentum of the moving vehicle, scrambled to his feet, pounced on that rabbit, and most everlastingly and savagely shook it up! Then Uncle Jim descended and methodically and dispassionately licked the dog.

Jackrabbits were good small-rifle game. They started away on a slow lope, but generally stopped and sat up if not too seriously alarmed. A whistle sometimes helped bring them to a stand. After a moment's inspection they went away, rapidly. With a .22 automatic one could turn loose at all sorts of ranges at all speeds. It was a good deal of fun, too, sneaking about afoot through the low brush, making believe that the sage was a jungle, the tiny pellets express bullets, the rabbits magnified--I am sorry for the fellow who cannot have fun sometimes "pretending!" In the brush, too, dwelt little cottontails, very good to eat. The jackrabbit was a pest, but the cottontail was worth getting. We caught sight of him first in the bare open spaces between the bushes, whereupon he proceeded rapidly to cover. It was necessary to shoot rather quickly. The inexperienced would be apt to run forward eagerly, hoping to catch a glimpse of the cottontail on the other side; but always it would be in vain. That would be owing to the fact that the little rabbit has a trick of apparently running through a brush at full speed, but in reality of stopping abruptly and squatting at the roots. Often it is possible to get a shot by scrutinizing carefully the last place he was seen. He can stop as suddenly as a cow pony.

Often and often, like good strategic generals, we were induced by circumstances to change our plans or our method of attack at the last moment. On several occasions, while shooting in the fields of Egyptian corn, I have killed a quail with my right barrel and a duck with my left! Continually one was crouching in hopes, when some unexpected flock stooped toward him as he walked across country. These hasty concealments were in general quite futile, for it is a fairly accurate generalization that, in the open, game will see you before you see it. This is not always true. I have on several occasions stood stock still in the open plain until a low-flying mallard came within easy range. Invariably the bird was flying toward the setting sun, so I do not doubt his vision was more or less blinded.

The most ridiculous effort of this sort was put into execution by the Captain and myself.

Be it premised that while, in the season, the wildfowl myriads were always present, it by no means followed that the sportsman was always sure of a bag. The ducks followed the irrigation water. One week they might be here in countless hordes; the next week might see only a few coots and hell divers left, while the game was reported twenty miles away. Furthermore, although fair shooting--of the pleasantest sort, in my opinion--was always to be had by jumping small bands and singles from the "holes" and ditches, the big flocks were quite apt to feed and loaf in the wide spaces discouragingly free of cover. Irrigation was done on a large scale. A section of land might be submerged from three inches to a foot in depth. In the middle of this temporary pond and a half dozen others like it fed the huge bands of ducks. What could you do? There was no cover by which to sneak them. You might build a blind, but before the ducks could get used to its strange presence in a flat and featureless landscape the water would be withdrawn from that piece of land. Only occasionally, when a high wind drove them from the open, or when the irrigation water happened to be turned in to a brushy country, did the sportsman get a chance at the great swarms. Since a man could get all the ducks he could reasonably require, there was no real reason why he should look with longing on these inaccessible packs, but we all did. It was not that we wanted more ducks; for we held strictly within limits, but we wanted to get in the thick of it.

On the occasion of which I started to tell, the Captain and I were returning from somewhere. Near the Lakeside ranch we came across a big tract of land overflowed by not deeper than two or three inches of water. The ducks were everywhere on it. They sat around fat and solemn in flocks; they swirled and stooped and lit and rose again; they fed busily; they streamed in from all points of the compass, cleaving the air with a whistling of wings.

Cover there was none. It was exactly like a big, flat cow pasture without any fences. We pulled up the Invigorator and eyed the scene with speculative eyes. Finally, we did as follows:

Into the middle of that field waded we. The ducks, of course, arose with a roar, circled once out of range, and departed. We knew that in less than a minute the boldest would return to see if, perchance, we might have been mere passers-by. Finding us still there, they would, in the natural course of events, circle once or twice and then depart for good.

Now we had noticed this: ducks will approach to within two or three hundred yards of a man standing upright, but they will come within one hundred--or almost in range--if he squats and holds quite still. This, we figured, is because he is that much more difficult to recognize as a man, even though he is in plain sight. We had to remain in plain sight; but could we not make ourselves more difficult to recognize?

After pulling up our rubber boots carefully, we knelt in the two inches of water, placed our chests across two wooden shell boxes we had brought for the purpose, ducked our heads, and waited. After a few moments overhead came the peculiar swift whistle of wings. We waited, rigid. When that whistle sounded very loud indeed, we jerked ourselves upright and looked up. Immediately above us, already towering frantically, was a flock of sprig. They were out of range, but we were convinced that this was only because we had mistakenly looked up too soon.

It was fascinating work, for we had to depend entirely on the sense of hearing. The moment we stirred in the slightest degree away went the ducks. As it took an appreciable time to rise to our feet, locate the flock, and get into action, we had to guess very accurately. We fired a great many times, and killed a very few; but each duck was an achievement.

Though the bag could not be guaranteed, the sight of ducks could. When my brother went with me to the ranch, the duck shooting was very poor. This was owing to the fact that sudden melting of the snows in the Sierras had overflowed an immense tract of country to form a lake eight or nine miles across. On this lake the ducks were safe, and thither they resorted in vast numbers. As a consequence, the customary resorts were deserted. We could see the ducks, and that was about all. Realizing the hopelessness of the situation we had been confining ourselves so strictly to quail that my brother had begun to be a little sceptical of our wildfowl tales. Therefore, one day, I took him out and showed him ducks.

They were loafing in an angle of the lake formed by the banks of two submerged irrigating ditches, so we were enabled to measure them accurately. After they had flown we paced off their bulk. They had occupied a space on the bank and in the water three hundred yards long by fifty yards wide; and they were packed in there just about as thick as ducks could crowd together. An able statistician might figure out how many there were. At any rate, my brother agreed that he had seen some ducks.

There was one thing about Uncle Jim's expeditions: they were cast in no rigid lines. Their direction, scope, or purpose could be changed at the last moment should circumstances warrant.

One day Uncle Jim came after me afoot, with the quiet assurance that he knew where there were "some ducks."

"Tommy is down there now," said he, "in a blind. We'll make a couple more blinds across the pond, and in that way one or the other of us is sure to get a shot at everything that comes in. And the way they're coming in is scand'lous!"

Therefore I filled my pockets with duck shells, seized my close-choked 12-bore, and followed Uncle Jim. We walked across three fields.

"Those ducks are acting mighty queer," proffered Uncle Jim in puzzled tones.

We stopped a moment to watch. Flock after flock stooped toward the little pond, setting their wings and dropping with the extraordinary confidence wildfowl sometimes exhibit. At a certain point, however, and while still at a good elevation, they towered swiftly and excitedly.

"Doesn't seem like they'd act so scared even if Tommy wasn't well hid," puzzled Uncle Jim.

We proceeded cautiously, keeping out of sight behind some greasewood, until we could see the surface of the pond. There were Tommy's decoys, and there was Tommy's blind. We could not see but that it was a well-made blind. Even as we looked another flock of sprig sailed down wind, stopped short at a good two hundred yards, towered with every appearance of lively dismay, and departed. Tommy's head came above the blind, gazing after them.

"They couldn't act worse if Tommy was out waving his hat at 'em," said Uncle Jim.

We climbed a fence. This brought us to a slight elevation, but sufficient to enable us to see abroad over the flat landscape.

Immediately beyond Tommy was a long, low irrigation check grown with soft green sod. On the farther slope thereof were the girls. They had brought magazines and fancy work, and evidently intended to spend the afternoon in the open, enjoying the fresh air and the glad sunshine and the cheerful voices of God's creatures. They were, of course, quite unconscious of Tommy's sporting venture not a hundred feet away. Their parasols were green, red, blue, and other explosive tints.

Uncle Jim and I sat for a few moments on the top of that fence enjoying the view. Then we climbed softly down and went away. We decided tacitly not to shoot ducks. The nature of the expedition immediately changed. We spent the rest of the afternoon on quail. To be sure number-five shot in a close-choked twelve is not an ideal load for the purpose; but by care in letting our birds get far enough away we managed to have a very good afternoon's sport. And whenever we would make a bad miss we had ready consolation: the thought of Tommy waiting and wondering and puzzling in his blind.