Chapter IX. Uncle Jim
 

Each morning, while we still sat at breakfast, Uncle Jim drove up from the General's in his two-wheeled cart to see if there might be anything doing. Uncle Jim was a solidly built elderly man, with the brown complexion and the quizzical, good-humoured eye of the habitual sportsman. He wore invariably an old shooting coat and a cap that had seen younger, but perhaps not better, days. His vehicle was a battered but serviceable two-wheeled cart drawn by a placid though adequate horse. His weapon for all purposes was a rather ponderous twelve-gauge.

If we projected some sporting expedition Uncle Jim was our man; but if there proved to be nothing in the wind, he disappeared promptly. He conducted various trapping ventures for "varmints," at which he seemed to have moderate success, for he often brought in a wildcat or coyote. In fact, he maintained one of the former in a cage, to what end nobody knew, for it was a harsh and unsociable character. Uncle Jim began to show signs of life about July fifteenth when the dove season opened; he came into his own from the middle of October until the first of February, during which period one can shoot both ducks and quail; he died down to the bare earth when the game season was over, and only sent up a few green shoots of interest in the matter of supplying his wildcat with that innumerable agricultural pest, the blackbird.

Sometimes I accompanied Uncle Jim, occupying the other side of the two-wheeled cart. We never had any definite object in view; we just went forth for adventure. The old horse jogged along very steadily, considering the fact that he was as likely to be put at cross country as a road. We humped up side by side in sociable silence, spying keenly for what we could see. A covey of quail disappearing in the brush caused us to pull up. We hunted them leisurely for a half hour and gathered in a dozen birds. Always we tried to sneak ducks, no matter how hopeless the situation might seem. Once I went on one hand and my knees through three inches of water for three hundred yards, stalking a flock of sprig loafing in an irrigation puddle. There was absolutely no cover; I was in plain sight; from a serious hunting standpoint the affair was quixotic, not to say imbecile. If I had been out with the Captain we should probably not have looked twice at those sprig. Nevertheless, as the general atmosphere of Uncle Jim's expeditions was always one of adventure and forlorn hopes and try-it-anyway, I tried it on. Uncle Jim sat in the cart and chuckled. Every moment I expected the flock to take wing, but they lingered. Finally, when still sixty yards distant, the leaders rose. I cut loose with both barrels for general results. To my vast surprise three came down, one dead, the other two wing-tipped. The two latter led me a merry chase, wherein I managed to splatter the rest of myself. Then I returned in triumph to the cart. The forlorn hope had planted its banner on the walls of achievement. Uncle Jim laughed at me for my idiocy in crawling through water after such a fool chance. I laughed at Uncle Jim because I had three ducks. We drove on, and the warm sun dried me off.

In this manner we made some astonishing bags; astonishing not by their size, but by the manner of their accomplishment.

We were entirely open minded. Anything that came along interested us. We investigated all the holes in all the trees, in hopes of 'coons or honey or something or other. We drove gloriously through every patch of brush. Sometimes an unseen hummock would all but upset us; so we had to scramble hastily to windward to restore our equilibrium.

The country was gridironed with irrigation ditches. They were eight to ten feet deep, twenty or thirty feet wide, and with elevated, precipitous banks. One could cross them almost anywhere--except when they were brimful, of course. The banks were so steep that, once started, the vehicle had to go, but so short that it must soon reach bottom. On the other side the horse could attain the top by a rush; after which, having gained at least a front footing over the bank, he could draw the light vehicle by dead weight the rest of the distance. Naturally, the driver had to take the course at exactly right angles, or he capsized ingloriously.

One day Uncle Jim and I started to cross one of these ditches that had long been permitted to remain dry. Its bottom was covered by weeds six inches high, and looked to be about six feet down. We committed ourselves to the slope. Then, when too late to reconsider, we discovered that the apparent six-inch growth of weeds was in reality one of four or five feet. The horse discovered it at the same time. With true presence of mind, he immediately determined that it was up to him to leap that ditch. Only the fact that he was hitched to the cart prevented him from doing so; but he made a praiseworthy effort.

The jerk threw me backward, and had I not grabbed Uncle Jim I would most certainly have fallen out behind. As for Uncle Jim, he would most certainly have fallen out behind, too, if he had not clung like grim death to the reins. And as for the horse, alarmed by the check and consequent scramble, he just plain bolted, fortunately straight ahead. We hit the opposite bank with a crash, sailed over it, and headed across country.

Consider us as we went. Feet in air, I was poised on the end of my backbone in a state of exact equilibrium. A touch would tumble me out behind; an extra ounce would tip me safely into the cart; my only salvation was my hold on Uncle Jim. I could not apply that extra ounce for the simple reason that Uncle Jim also, feet in air, was poised exactly on the end of his backbone. If the reins slackened an inch, over he went; if he could manage to pull up the least bit in the world, in he came! So we tore across country for several hundred yards, unable to recover and most decidedly unwilling to fall off on the back of our heads. It must have been a grand sight; and it seemed to endure an hour. Finally, imperceptibly we overcame the opposing forces. We were saved!

Uncle Jim cursed out "Henry" with great vigour. Henry was the mare we drove. Uncle Jim, in his naming of animals, always showed a stern disregard for the female sex. Then, as usual, we looked about to see what we could see.

Over to the left grew a small white oak. About ten or twelve feet from the ground was a hole. That was enough; we drove over to investigate that hole. It was not an easy matter, for we were too lazy to climb the tree unless we had to. Finally we drove close enough so that, by standing on extreme tip-toe atop the seat of the cart, I could get a sort of sidewise, one-eyed squint at that hole.

"If," I warned Uncle Jim, "Henry leaves me suspended in mid-air I'll bash her fool head in!"

"No, you won't," chuckled Uncle Jim, "it's too far home."

It was a very dark hole, and for a moment I could see nothing. Then, all at once, I made out two dull balls of fire glowing steadily out of the blackness. That was as long as I could stand stretching out my entire anatomy to look down any hole.

On hearing my report, Uncle Jim phlegmatically thrust the flexible whip down the hole.

"'Coon," he pronounced, after listening to the resultant remarks from within.

And then the same bright idea struck us both.

"Mrs. Kitty here makes good with those angleworms," Uncle Jim voiced the inspiration.

We blocked up the hole securely; and made rapid time back to the ranch.