Chapter V. Quail

The family assembled took my statement with extraordinary calm, contenting themselves with a general inquiry as to the species. I was just a trifle crestfallen at this indifference. You see at this time I was not accustomed to the casual duck. My shooting heretofore had been a very strenuous matter. It had involved arising many hours before sun-up, and venturing forth miles into wild marshes; and much endurance of cold and discomfort. To make a bag of any sort we were in the field before the folk knew the night had passed. Upland shooting meant driving long distances, and walking through the heavy hardwood swamps and slashes from dusk to dusk. Therefore I had considered myself in great luck to have blundered upon my ducks so casually; and, furthermore, from the family's general air of leisure and unpreparedness, jumped to the conclusion that no field sport was projected for that day.

Mrs. Kitty presided beside a copper coffee pot with a bell-shaped glass top. As this was also an institution, it merits attention. A small alcohol lamp beneath was lighted. For a long time nothing happened. Then all at once the glass dome clouded, was filled with frantic brown and racing bubbling. Thereupon the hostess turned over a sand glass. When the last grains had run through, the alcohol lamp was turned off. Immediately the glass dome was empty again. From a spigot one drew off coffee.

But if perchance the Captain and I wished to get up before anybody else could be hired to get up, the Dingbat could be so loaded as to give down an automatic breakfast. The evening before the maid charged the affair as usual, and at the last popped four eggs into the glass dome. After the mysterious alchemical perturbations had ceased, we fished out those eggs soft boiled to the second! One day the maid mistook the gasoline bottle for the alcohol bottle. That is a sad tale having to do with running flames, and burned table pieces, not to speak of a melted-down connection or so on the Dingbat. We did not know what was the matter; and our attitude was not so much that of alarm, as of grief and indignation that our good old tried and trained Dingbat should in his old age cut up any such didoes. Especially as there were new guests present.

After breakfast we wandered out on the verandah. Nobody seemed to be in any hurry to start anything. The hostess made remarks to Pollymckittrick; the General read a newspaper; the Captain sauntered about enjoying the sun. After fifteen minutes, as though the notion had just occurred, somebody suggested that we go shooting.

"How about it?" the Captain asked me.

"Surely," I agreed, and added with some surprise out of my other experience, "Isn't it a little late?"

But the Captain misunderstood me.

"I don't mean blind shooting," said he, "just ram around."

He seized a megaphone and bellowed through it at the stables.

"Better get on your war paint," he suggested to me.

I changed hastily into my shooting clothes, and returned to the verandah. After some few moments the Captain joined me. After some few moments more a tremendous rattling came from the stable. A fine bay team swung into the driveway, rounded the circle, and halted. It drew the source of the tremendous rattling.

Thus I became acquainted with the Liver Invigorator. The Invigorator was a buckboard high, wide, and long. It had one wide seat. Aft of that seat was a cage with bars, in which old Ben rode. Astern was a deep box wherein one carried rubber boots, shells, decoys, lunch, game, and the like. The Invigorator was very old, very noisy, and very able. With it we drove cheerfully anywhere we pleased--over plowed land, irrigation checks, through brush thick enough to lift our wheels right off the ground, and down into and out of water ditches so steep that we alternately stood the affair on its head and its tail, and so deep that we had to hold all our belongings in our arms, while old Ben stuck his nose out the top bars of his cage for a breath of air. It could not be tipped over; at least we never upset it. To offset these virtues it rattled like a runaway milk wagon; and it certainly hit the high spots and hit them hard. Nevertheless, in a long and strenuous sporting career the Invigorator became endeared through association to many friends. When the Captain proposed a new vehicle with easier springs and less noise, a wail of protest arose from many and distant places. The Invigorator still fulfills its function.

Now there are three major topics on the Ranch: namely, ducks, quail, and ponies. In addition to these are five of minor interest: the mail, cattle, jackrabbits, coons, and wildcats.

I was already familiar with the valley quail, for I had hunted him since I was a small boy with the first sixteen-gauge gun ever brought to the coast. I knew him for a very speedy bird, much faster than our bob white, dwelling in the rounded sagebrush hills, travelling in flocks of from twenty to several thousand, exceedingly given to rapid leg work. We had to climb hard after him, and shoot like lightning from insecure footing. His idiosyncrasies were as strongly impressed on me as the fact that human beings walk upright. Here, however, I had to revise my ideas.

We drove down the avenue of palms, pursued by four or five yapping dachshunds, and so out into a long, narrow lane between pasture fences. Herds of ponies, fuzzy in their long winter coats, came gently to look at us. The sun was high now, so the fur of their backs lay flat. Later, in the chill of evening, the hair would stand out like the nap of velvet, thus providing for additional warmth by the extra air space between the outside of the coat and the skin. It must be very handy to carry this invisible overcoat, ready for the moment's need. Here, too, were cattle standing about. On many of them I recognized the familiar J-I brand of many of my Arizona experiences. Arizona bred and raised them; California fattened them for market. We met a cowboy jingling by at his fox trot; then came to the country road.

Along this we drove for some miles. The country was perfectly flat, but variegated by patches of greasewood, of sagebrush, of Egyptian-corn fields, and occasionally by a long, narrow fringe of trees. Here, too, were many examples of that phenomenon so vigorously doubted by most Easterners: the long rows of trees grown from original cotton wood or poplar fence posts. In the distance always were the mountains. Overhead the sky was very blue. A number of buzzards circled.

After a time we turned off the road and into a country covered over with tumbleweed, a fine umber red growth six or eight inches high, and scattered sagebrush. Inlets, bays, and estuaries of bare ground ran everywhere. The Captain stood up to drive, watching for the game to cross these bare places.

I stood up, too. It is no idle feat to ride the Invigorator thus over hummocky ground. It lurched and bumped and dropped into and out of trouble; and in correspondence I alternately rose up and sat down again, hard. The Captain rode the storm without difficulty. He was accustomed to the Invigorator; and, too, he had the reins to hang on by.

"There they go!" said he, suddenly, bringing the team to a halt.

I looked ahead. Across a ten-foot barren ran the quail, their crests cocked forward, their trim figures held close as a sprinter goes, rank after rank, their heads high in the alert manner of quail.

The Captain sat down, jerked off the brake, and spoke to his horses. I sat down, too; mainly because I had to. The Invigorator leaped from hump to hump. Before those quail knew it we were among them. Right, left, all around us they roared into the air. Some doubled back; some buzzed low to right or left; others rose straight ahead to fly a quarter mile, and then, wings set, to sail another quarter until finally they pitched down into some bit of inviting cover.

The Captain brought his horses to a stand with great satisfaction. We congratulated each other gleefully; and even old Ben, somewhat shaken up in his cage astern, wagged his tail in appreciation of the situation.

For, you see, we had scattered the covey, and now they would lie. If the band had flushed, flown, and lighted as one body, immediately on hitting the ground they would have put their exceedingly competent little legs into action, and would have run so well and so far that, by the time we had arrived on the spot, they would have been a good half mile away. But now that the covey was broken, the individuals and small bands would stay put. If they ran at all, it would be for but a short distance. On this preliminary scattering depends the success of a chase after California quail. I have seen six or eight men empty both barrels of their guns at a range of more than a hundred yards. They were not insane enough to think they would get anything. Merely they hoped that the racket and the dropping of the spent shot would break the distant covey.

We hitched the horses to a tree, released old Ben, and started forth.

For a half hour we had the most glorious sport, beating back and forth over the ground again and again. The birds lay well in the low cover, and the shooting was clean and open. I soon found that the edges of the bare ground were the most likely places. Apparently the birds worked slowly through the cover ahead of us, but hesitated to cross the open spots, and so bunched at the edge. By walking in a zigzag along some of these borders, we gathered in many scattered birds and small bunches. Why the zigzag? Naturally it covers a trifle more ground than a straight course, but principally it seems to confuse the game. If you walk in a straight line, so the quail can foretell your course, it is very apt either to flush wild or to hide so close that you pass it by. The zigzag fools it.

Thus, with varying luck, we made a slow circle back to the wagon. Here we found Mrs. Kitty and Carrie and the lunch awaiting us with the ponies.

These robust little animals were not miniature horses, but genuine ponies, with all the deviltry, endurance, and speed of their kind. They were jet-black, about waist high, and of great intelligence. They drew a neat little rig, capable of accommodating two, at a persistent rapid patter that somehow got over the road at a great gait. And they could keep it up all day. Although perfectly gentle, they were as alert as gamins for mischief, and delighted hugely in adding to the general row and confusion if anything happened to go wrong. Mrs. Kitty drove them everywhere. One day she attempted to cross an irrigation ditch that proved to be deeper than she had thought it. The ponies disappeared utterly, leaving Mrs. Kitty very much astonished. Horses would have drowned in like circumstances, but the ponies, nothing daunted, dug in their hoofs and scrambled out like a pair of dogs, incidentally dipping their mistress on the way.

In the shade of a high greasewood we unpacked the pony carriage. This was before the days of thermos bottles, so we had a most elaborate wicker basket whose sides let down to form a wind shield protecting an alcohol burner and a kettle. When the water boiled, we made hot tea, and so came to lunch.

Strangely enough this was my first experience at having lunch brought out to the field. Ordinarily we had been accustomed to carry a sandwich or so in the side pockets of our shooting coats, which same we ate at any odd moment that offered. Now was disclosed an astonishing variety. There were sandwiches, of course, and a salad, and the tea, but wonderful to contemplate was a deep dish of potted quail, row after row of them, with delicious white sauce. In place of the frugal bite or so that would have left us alert and fit for an afternoon's work, we ate until nothing remained. Then we lit pipes and lay on our backs, and contemplated a cloudless sky. It was the warm time of day. The horses snoozed, a hind leg tucked up; old Ben lay outstretched in doggy content; Mrs. Kitty knit or crocheted or something of that sort; and Carrie and the Captain and I took cat naps. At length, the sun's rays no longer striking warm from overhead, the Captain aroused us sternly.

"You're a nice, energetic, able lot of sportsmen!" he cried with indignation. "Have I got to wait until sunset for you lazy chumps to get a full night's rest?"

"Don't mind him," Mrs. Kitty told me, placidly; "he was sound asleep himself; and the only reason he waked is because he snored and I punched him."

She folded up her fancy work, shook out her skirts, and turned to the ponies.

It was now late in the afternoon. We had disgracefully wasted our time, and enjoyed doing it. The Captain decided it to be too late to hunt up a new covey, so we reversed to pick up some of those that had originally doubled back. We flushed forty or fifty of them at the edge of the road. They scattered ahead of us in a forty-acre plowed field.

Until twilight, then, we walked leisurely back and forth, which is the only way to walk in a plowed field, after all. The birds had pitched down into the old furrows, and whenever a tuft of grass, a piece of tumbleweed, or a shallow grassy ditch offered a handful of cover, there the game was to be found. Mrs. Kitty followed at the Captain's elbow, and Carrie at mine. Carrie made a first-rate dog, marking down the birds unerringly. The quail flew low and hard, offering in the gathering twilight and against the neutral-coloured earth marks worthy of good shooting. At last we turned back to our waiting team. The dusk was coming over the land, and the "shadow of the earth" was marking its strange blue arc in the east. As usual the covey was now securely scattered. Of a thousand or so birds we had bagged forty-odd; and yet of the remainder we would have had difficulty in flushing another dozen. It is the mystery of the quail, and one that the sportsman can never completely comprehend. As we clambered into the Invigorator we could hear from all directions the birds signalling each other. Near, far, to right, to left, the call sounded, repeating over and over again a parting, defiant denial that the victory was ours.

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

And nearer at hand the contented chirping twitter as the covey found itself.