Chapter XV. The Last Hunt
 

Of all ranch visits the last day neared. Always we forgot it until the latest possible moment; for we did not like to think of it. Then, when the realization could be no longer denied, we planned a grand day just to finish up on. The telephone's tiny, thin voice returned acceptances from distant neighbours; so bright and early we waited at the cross-roads rendezvous.

And from the four directions they came, jogging along in carts or spring-wagons, swaying swiftly in automobiles whose brass flashed back the early sun. As each vehicle drew up, the greetings flew, charged electrically with the dry, chaffing humour of the out of doors. When we finally climbed the fence into the old cornfield we were almost a dozen. There were the Captain, Uncle Jim, and myself from the ranch; and T and his three sons and two guests from Stockdale ranch; the sporting parson of the entire neighbourhood, and Dodge and his three beautiful dogs.

Spread out in a rough line we tramped away through the dried and straggling ranks of the Egyptian corn. Quail buzzed all around us like angry hornets. We did not fire a shot. Each had his limit of twenty-five still before him, and each wanted to have all the fun he could out of getting them. Shooting quail in Egyptian corn is, comparatively speaking, not much fun. We joked each other, and whistled and sang, and trudged manfully along, gun over shoulder. The pale sun was strengthening; the mountains were turning darker as they threw aside the filmy rose of early day; in treetops a row of buzzards sat, their wings outspread like the heraldic devices of a foreign nation. Thousands of doves whistled away; thousands of smaller birds rustled and darted before our advancing lines; tens of thousands of blackbirds sprinkled the bare branches of single trees, uttering the many-throated multitude call; underneath all this light and joyous life the business-like little quail darted away in their bullet flight.

Always they bore across our front to the left; for on that side, paralleling our course, ran a long ravine or "dry slough." It was about ten feet deep on the average, probably thirty feet wide, and was densely grown with a tangle of willows, berry vines, creepers, wild grape, and the like. Into this the quail pitched.

By the time we had covered the mile length of that cornfield we had dumped an unguessable number of quail into that slough.

Then we walked back the entire distance--still with our guns over our shoulders--but this time along the edge of the ravine. We shouted and threw clods, and kicked on the trees, and rattled things, urging the hidden quail once more to flight. The thicket seemed alive with them. We caught glimpses as they ran before us, pacing away at a great rate, their feathers sleek and trim; they buzzed away at bewildering pitches and angles; they sprang into the tops of bushes, cocking their head plumes forward. Their various clicking undercalls, chatterings, and chirrings filled the thicket as full of sound as of motion. And in the middle distance before and behind us they mocked us with their calls.

"You can't shoot! You can't shoot!"

Some of them flew ever ahead, some of them doubled-back and dropped into the slough behind us; but a proportion broke through the thicket and settled in the wide fields on the other side. After them we went, and for the first time opened our guns and slipped the yellow shells into the barrels.

For this field on the other side was the wide, open plain; and it was grown over by tiny, half-knee high thickets of tumbleweed with here and there a trifle of sagebrush. Between these miniature thickets wound narrow strips of sandy soil, like streams and bays and estuaries in shape. We knew that the quail would lie well here, for they hate to cross bare openings.

Therefore, we threw out our skirmish line, and the real advance in force began.

Every man retrieved his own birds, a matter of some difficulty in the tumbleweed. While one was searching, the rest would get ahead of him. The line became disorganized, broke into groups, finally disintegrated entirely. Each man hunted for himself, circling the tumbleweed patches, combing carefully their edges for the quail that sometimes burst into the air fairly at his feet. When he had killed one, he walked directly to the spot. On the way he would flush two or three more. They were tempting; but we were old hands at the sport, and we knew only too well that if we yielded so far as to shoot a second before we had picked up the first, the probabilities were strong that the first would never be found. In this respect such shooting requires good judgment. It is generally useless to try to shoot a double, even though a dozen easy shots are in the air at once; and yet, occasionally, on a day when Koos-ey-oonek is busy elsewhere, it may happen that the birds flush across a wide, bare space. It is well to keep a weather eye open for such chances.

With a green crowd and in different cover such shooting might have been dangerous; but with an abundance of birds, in this wide, open prairie, cool heads knew enough to keep wide apart and to look before they shot. The fun grew fast and furious; and the guns popped away like firecrackers. In fact, the fun grew a little too fast and furious to suit Dodge.

Dodge had beautiful and well-trained dogs. Ordinarily any one of us would have esteemed it a high privilege to shoot over them. In fact, I have often declared myself to the effect that of the three elements of pleasure comprehended in field shooting that of working the dogs was the chief. Just as it is better to catch one yellowtail on a nine-ounce rod than twenty on a hand line, so it is better to kill one quail over a well-trained dog than a half dozen "Walking 'em up." But this particular case was different. We were out for a high old time; and part of a high old time was a wild and reckless disregard of inhibitive sporting conventions. The birds were here literally in thousands. Not a third had left the slough for this open country; we could not shoot at a tenth of those flushed, yet the guns were popping continuously. Everybody was shooting and laughing and running about. The game was to pelt away, retrieve your bird as quickly as you could, and pelt away again. The dogs, working up to their points carefully and stylishly, as good dogs should, were being constantly left in the rear. They drew down to their points--and behold nobody but their devoted master would pay any attention to their bird! Everybody else was engaged busily in popping away at any one of the dozen-odd other birds to be had for the selection!

Poor Dodge, being somewhat biased by the accident of ownership, looked on us as a lot of barbarians--as, for the time being, we were; nice, happy barbarians having a good time. He worked his dogs conscientiously, and muttered in his beard. The climax came when, in the joyous excitement of the occasion, someone threw out a chance remark on "those ---- dogs" being in the way. Then Dodge withdrew with dignity. Having a fellow-feeling as a dog-handler I went over to console him. He was inconsolable; and so remained until after lunch.

In this manner we made our way slowly down the length of the slough, and then slowly back again. Of the birds originally flushed from the Egyptian corn into the thicket but a small proportion had left that thicket for the open country of the tumbleweed and sage; and of the latter we had been able to shoot at a very, very small percentage. Nevertheless, when we emptied our pockets, we found that each had made his bag. We counted them out, throwing them into one pile.

"Twenty-four," counted the Captain.

"Twenty-four," Tom enumerated.

"Twenty-four," Uncle Jim followed him.

We each had twenty-four. And then it developed that every man had saved just one bird of his limit until after lunch. No one wanted to be left out of all the shooting while the rest filled their bags; and no one had believed that anybody but himself had come so close to the limit.

So we laughed, and shouldered our guns, and trudged across country to the clump of cottonwood where already the girls had spread lunch.

That was a good lunch. We sat under shady trees, and the sunlit plains stretched away and away to distant calm mountains. Near at hand the sparse gray sagebrush reared its bonneted heads; far away it blurred into a monochrome where the plains lifted and flowed molten into the canons and crevices of the foothills. Numberless crows, blackbirds, and wildfowl crossed and recrossed the very blue sky. A gray jackrabbit, thinking himself concealed by a very creditable imitation of a sacatone hummock, sat motionless not seventy yards away.

After lunch we moved out leisurely to get our one bird apiece. Some of the girls followed us. We were now epicures of shooting, and each let many birds pass before deciding to fire. Some waited for cross shots, some for very easy shots, some for the most difficult shots possible. Each suited his fancy.

"I'm all in," remarked each, as he pocketed his bird; and followed to see the others finish.

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Next day, our baggage piled in most anywhere, our farewells all said, we bowled away toward town in the brand-new machine. Redmond sat in the front seat with the chauffeur. It was his first experience in an automobile, and he sat very rigidly upright, eyes front, his moustaches bristling.

Now at a certain point on the road lived a large black dog--just plain ranch dog--who was accustomed to come bounding out to the road to run alongside and bark for an appropriate interval. This was an unvarying ceremony. He was a large and prancing dog; and, I suppose from his appearance, must have been named Carlo. In the course of our many visits to the ranch we grew quite fond of the dog, and always looked as hard for him to come out as he did for us to come along.

This day also the dog came forth; but now he had no steady-trotting ranch team to greet. The road was smooth and straight, and the car was hitting thirty-five miles an hour. The dog bounded confidently down the front walk, leaping playfully in the air, opened his mouth to bark--and, behold! the vehicle was not within range any more, but thirty yards away and rapidly departing. So Carlo shut his mouth and got down to business. For three hundred yards he managed to keep pace alongside; but the effort required all his forces; not once did he manage to gather wind for even a single bark.

Redmond in the front seat sat straighter than ever. From his lordly elevation he waved a lordly hand at the poor dog.

"Useless! Useless!" said he, loftily.

And looking back at the dog seated panting in a rapidly disappearing distance, we saw that he also knew that the Old Order had changed.