Chapter XII. The Grand Tour

Almost always our sporting expeditions were of this casual character, sandwiched in among other occupations. Guns were handy, as was the game. To seize the one and pursue the other on the whim of the moment was the normal and usual thing. Thus one day Mrs. Kitty drove me over to look at a horse I was thinking of buying. On the way home, in a corner of brush, I hopped out and bagged twelve quail; and a little farther on, by a lucky sneak, I managed to gather in five ducks from an irrigation pond. On another occasion, having a spare hour before lunch, I started out afoot from the ranch house at five minutes past eleven, found my quail within a quarter mile, had luck in scattering them, secured my limit of twenty-five, and was back at the house at twelve twenty-five! Before this I had been to drive with Mrs. Kitty; and after lunch we drove twelve miles to call on a neighbour. Although I had enjoyed a full day's quail shoot, it had been, as it were, merely an interpolation.

Occasionally, however, it was elected to make a grand and formal raid on the game. This could be either a get-up-early-in-the-morning session in the blinds, a formal quail hunt, or the Grand Tour.

To take the Grand Tour we got out the Liver Invigorator and as many saddle horses as might be needed to accommodate the shooters. On reaching the hog field it was proper to disembark, and to line up for an advance on the corner of the irrigation ditch where I had so unexpectedly jumped the ducks my first morning on the ranch. In extended order we approached. If ducks were there, they got a great hammering. Everybody shot joyously--whether in sure range or not, it must be confessed. The birds went into a common bag, for it would be impossible to say who had killed what. After congratulations and reproaches, both of which might be looked upon as sacrifices to the great god Josh, we swung to the left and tramped a half mile to the artesian well. The Invigorator and saddle horses followed at a respectful distance. When we had investigated the chances at the well, we climbed aboard again and rattlety-banged across country to the Slough.

The Slough comprised a wide and varied country. In proper application it was a little winding ravine sunk eight or ten feet below the flat plain, and filled with water. This water had been grown thick with trees, but occasionally, for some reason to me unknown, the growth gave space for tiny open ponds or channels. These were further screened by occasional willows or greasewood growing on the banks. They were famous loafing places for mallards.

It was great fun to slip from bend to bend of the Slough, peering keenly, moving softly, trying to spy through the thick growth to a glimpse of the clear water. The ducks were very wary. It was necessary to know the exact location of each piece of open water, its surroundings, and how best it was to be approached. Only too often, peer as cautiously as we might, the wily old mallards would catch a glimpse of some slight motion. At once they would begin to swim back and forth uneasily. Always then we would withdraw cautiously, hoping against hope that suspicion would die. It never did. Our stalk would disclose to us only a troubled surface of water on which floated lightly a half dozen feathers.

But when things went right we had a beautiful shot. The ducks towered straight up, trying to get above the level of the brush, affording a shot at twenty-five or thirty yards' range. We always tried to avoid shooting at the same bird, but did not always succeed. Old Ben delighted in this work, for now he had a chance to plunge in after the fallen. As a matter of fact, it would have been quite useless to shoot ducks in these circumstances had we not possessed a good retriever like Old Ben.

The Slough proper was about two miles long, and had probably eight or ten "holes" in which ducks might be expected. The region of the Slough was, however, a different matter.

It was a fascinating stretch of country, partly marshy, partly dry, but all of it overgrown with tall and rustling tules. These reeds were sometimes so dense that one could not force his way through them; at others so low and thin that they barely made good quail cover. Almost everywhere a team could be driven; and yet there were soft places and water channels and pond holes in which a horse would bog down hopelessly. From a point on the main north-and-south ditch a man afoot left the bank to plunge directly into a jungle of reeds ten feet tall. Through them narrow passages led him winding and twisting and doubting in a labyrinth. He waded in knee-deep water, but confidently, for he knew the bottom to be solid beneath his feet. On either side, fairly touching his elbows, the reeds stood tall and dense, so that it seemed to him that he walked down a narrow and winding hallway. And every once in a while the hallway debouched into a secret shallow pond lying in the middle of the tule jungle in which might or might not be ducks. If there were ducks, it behooved him to shoot very, very quickly, for those that fell in the tules were probably not to be recovered. Then more narrow passages led to other ponds.

Always the footing was good, so that a man could strike forward confidently. But again there are other places in the Slough region where one has to walk for half a mile to pass a miserable little trickle only just too wide to step across. The watercress grows thick against either oozy bank, leaving a clear of only a foot. Yet it is bottomless.

The Captain knew this region thoroughly, and drove in it by landmarks of his own. After many visits I myself got to know the leading "points of interest" and how to get to them by a set route; but their relations one to another have always remained a little vague.

For instance, there was an earthen reservoir comprising two circular connecting ponds, elevated slightly above the surrounding flats, so that a man ascended an incline to stand on its banks. One half of this reservoir is bordered thickly by tules; but the other half is without growth. We left the Invigorator at some hundreds of yards distance; and, single file, followed the Captain. We stopped when he did, crawled when he did, watched to see what dry and rustling footing he avoided, every sense alert to play accurately this unique game of "follow my leader." He alone kept watch of the cover, the game, and the plan of attack. We were like the tail of a snake, merely following where the head directed. This was not because the Captain was so much more expert than ourselves, but so as to concentrate the chances of remaining undiscovered. If each of us had worked out his own stalk we should have multiplied the chances of alarming the game; we should have created the necessity for signals; and we should have had the greatest difficulty in synchronizing our arrival at the shooting point. We moved a step at a time, feeling circumspectly before resting our weight. At the last moment the Captain motioned with his hand. Wriggling forward, we came into line. Then, very cautiously, we crawled up the bank of the reservoir and peered over! That was the supreme moment! The wildfowl might arise in countless numbers; in which case we shot as carefully and as quickly as possible, reloading and squatting motionless in the almost certain hope of a long-range shot or so at a straggler as the main body swung back over us. Or, again, our eager eyes were quite likely to rest upon nothing but a family party of mud-hens gossiping sociably.

Just beyond the reservoir on the other side was an overflowed small flat. It was simply hummocky solid ground with a little green grass and some water. Behind the hummocks, even after a cannonade at the reservoir, we were almost certain to jump two or three single spoonbills or teal. Why they stayed there, I could not tell you; but stay they did. We walked them up one at a time, as we would quail. The range was long. Sometimes we got them; and sometimes we did not.

From the reservoir we drove out into the illimitable tules. The horses went forward steadily, breasting the rustling growth. Behind them the Invigorator rocked and swayed like a small boat in a tide rip. We stayed in as best we could, our guns bristling up in all directions. The Captain drove from a knowledge of his own. After some time, across the yellow, waving expanse of the rushes, we made out a small dead willow stub slanted rakishly. At sight of this we came to a halt. Just beyond that stub lay a denser thicket of tules, and in the middle of them was known to be a patch of open water about twenty feet across. There was not much to it; but invariably a small bunch of fat old greenheads were loafing in the sun.

It now became, not a question of game, for it was always there, but a question of getting near enough to shoot. To be sure, the tiny pond was so well covered that a stranger to the country would actually be unaware of its existence until he broke through the last barrier of tules; but, by the same token, that cover was the noisiest cover invented for the protection of ducks. Often and often, when still sixty or seventy yards distant, we heard the derisive quack, quack, quack, with which a mallard always takes wing, and, a moment later, would see those wily birds rising above the horizon. A false step meant a crackle; a stumble meant a crash. We fairly wormed our way in by inches. Each yard gained was a triumph. When, finally, after a half hour of Indian work, we had managed to line up ready for the shot, we felt that we had really a few congratulations coming. We knew that within fifteen or twenty feet floated the wariest of feathered game; and absolutely unconscious of our presence.

"Now!" the Captain remarked, aloud, in conversational tones.

We stood up, guns at present. The Captain's command was answered by the instant beat of wings and the confused quicker calling of alarm. In the briefest fraction of a second the ducks appeared above the tules. They had to tower straight up, for the pond was too small and the reeds too high to permit of any sneaking away. So close were they that we could see the markings of every feather--the iridescence of the heads, the delicate, wave-marked cinnamons and grays and browns, even the absurd little curled plumes over the tails. The guns cracked merrily, the shooters aiming at the up-stretched necks. Down came the quarry with mighty splashes that threw the water high. The remnant of the flock swung away. We stood upright and laughed and joked and exulted after the long strain of our stalk. Ben plunged in again and again, bringing out the game.

Of these tule holes there were three. When we had visited them each in turn we swung back toward the west. There, after much driving, we came to the land of irrigation ditches again. At each new angle one of us would descend, sneak cautiously to the bank and, bending low, peer down the length of the ditch. If ducks were in sight, he located them carefully and then we made our sneak. If not, we drove on to the next bend. Once we all lay behind an embankment like a lot of soldiers behind a breastwork while one of us made a long detour around a big flock resting in an overflow across the ditch. The ruse was successful. The ducks, rising at sight of the scout, flew high directly over the ambuscade. A battery of six or eight guns thereupon opened up. I believe we killed three or four ducks among us; but if we had not brought down a feather we should have been satisfied with the fact that our stratagem succeeded.

So at the last, just as the sun was setting, we completed the circle and landed at the ranch. We had been out all day in the warm California sun and the breezes that blow from the great mountains across the plains; we had worked hard enough to deserve an appetite; we had in a dozen instances exercised our wit or our skill against the keen senses of wild game; we had used our ingenuity in meeting unexpected conditions; we had had a heap of companionship and good-natured fun one with another; we had seen a lot of country. This was much better than sitting solitary anchored in a blind. To be sure a man could kill more ducks from a blind; but what of that?