Bow-shooting on the St. John's
Part 2 of 2
I believe I am not the first observer to remark the singular fact that all wild birds at times suddenly, and it might be said mysteriously, congregate in a particular spot, irrespective of species or order. In a Western forest, for example, one may, at one hour of the day, range up and down without seeing a feather or hearing a note. The trees are deserted, the underbrush is abandoned. A few minutes or hours later the same region will be alive with an almost countless variety of birds, small and large. Standing on one spot, the observer may count a half-dozen different kinds of woodpecker; the blue-jays will scream, the fly-catchers, the nut-hatches, and thrushes, and wrens, the warblers, and the finches, cardinal-birds and bluebirds, robins and chewinks, and on through the catalogue, will all be visible and audible, appearing so suddenly that one half decides that all of them have, on one impulse, sprung from hiding-places there on the spot.
So it happened late that afternoon, as I slowly pushed my skiff through the sinuous ways of the lily-pads and stiff water-weeds-all at once there came a storm of birds. First a flock of ducks, then a line of cranes, a small flock of geese next, and then I could not count what I saw. Herons labored this way and that; scaup-ducks whistled through the air; the little buffle-heads went by like gayly feathered darts; gannets and curlews displayed their long wings and contrasting colors as they sped past, while all about, in every direction, the little rails, and still smaller aquatic birds, flitted among the rushes, or stood as if on tiptoe atop of the bonnets. Wood-ducks, those gorgeous beauties, swam in their dainty but stately way across the dimly shaded avenues below the pendent air-plants; and now and then a bright, trim teal would cut the water like a sword, from one clump of brush to another. The bass, too, as if catching the prevailing spirit of the hour, leaped up among the pads, making the small fry spin in every direction. Narrow-winged hawks shot hither and thither, turning their heavy heads from side to side; and little flocks of snipe whirled down into a small prairie to the southward. Right in the midst of this confusion of game, I met Will in his skiff, emerging from one of those dim little lanes of water that everywhere set into the forests from the lake. He had killed a small turkey-hen, but had a lively run for it after clipping it through the very centre of its lungs. He was mud from head to foot.
One would think that we ought to have had some extraordinary sport during the hour of day-light that now remained for us; but, though our part of the lake was thus teeming with game, the birds were so watchful, so cautious and shy, that all kept cleverly beyond bow-shot. We wasted many arrows on promising wing-shots, but it may as well be understood that hitting a flying bird with an arrow is more like accident than admirable skill. To be sure, a goose or a crane at thirty yards is not difficult to bring to a stop, but it is only the rarest chance that one gets such an opportunity. Occasionally, when we started a raft of duck from some weed-circled pool, an arrow slung at random through the thickest of the flock would send back to our cars the short, sudden sound of a hit, and the victim, strung midway of the shaft, would come whirling clown, to beat the water a moment with his wings and die. Much oftener, however, our missiles would, by some inexplicable manoeuvre, find their way through the dense mass of the flock, without so much as tipping a feather. Once a half-dozen gannet came round a point of woods, flying very low, and were right upon us before they saw us or we them. They turned suddenly, with a loud sound of wings, but Will, who had a shaft ready, let fly, hitting one a dead blow "amid-breast," bringing him to a short stop and settling him beautifully. This ended our luck; we shot and shot, but hit nothing, and finally, weary and armsore, pulled back to camp, on arriving at which we found Cesar the most woe-begone and disconsolate negro in the world. Somehow, he had let our tent get on fire and burn up, together with our box of crackers. Fortunately, however, he saved our bird-skins and our chemicals. Poor fellow! his eyes were wonderfully enlarged, and he had severely burned one of his hands; but when he saw that I was not offended he brightened up and set us a good supper, barring the lack of bread.
We lingered at the lake for two weeks longer, after having sent Caesar to a landing on the St. John's, where, from a passing steamer, he succeeded in getting a keg of hard-tack.
One day, devoted by Will to feathering a lot of shafts, I got out my fishing-tackle to try the bass, or trout, as the Southerners call them. Of course I took my bow and a case of arrows along, but my object was to test some flies of my own make. Directly across the lake from our camp, at the mouth of a little run, was a place that seemed to me just the feeding-ground for trout, and a most delightful spot in which to dream away a half-day with rod and line. I was not prepared at all for the result of my excursion. Never have I seen such voracious, such utterly rapacious fish. I spun out my fly, dropping it between the lily-pads; and I think it only half-touched the water when a trout (black bass) took it like a steel-trap, and hanging himself thoroughly, showed fight from the start. He fouled my line at once, and then began a series of gymnastic feats, in the water and out of it, that made a great circle of bubbles and foam on the rippling surface. I finally had to shoot him, and lost a full half-hour disengaging my line.
I now saw I must give my game no line, and forthwith I began to haul it in on a short pull, till nineteen, averaging three pounds each, lay in the bottom of my skiff. These were as many as we could use at camp, so I desisted; but I am sure I could have taken many more. If the water had been free of bonnets, and brush, and roots, and lettuce, and what not of obstructions, the sport would have been delightful.
On my way back to camp I made a shot that a rifleman might equal, but never excel. Seeing a male wood-duck of magnificent plumage swim across a little opening and dart under some great drooping aquatic leaves, I circled round the spot till I saw his bright head shining through a small circular rift not larger than the palm of one's hand. I was standing in my skiff, pushing it through the shoal water by poling with an oar, and I had to put down the latter and string my bow. Doing this I lost sight of the rift. No one but a sports-man knows the difficulty in discovering such a mark once lost. I looked with "all my eyes," to no effect. There were the pads and the lush (no word like "lush") grass-leaves and the overhanging water-bushes, but the rift was gone. It must have been fully fifteen minutes' time I spent puzzling over this mysterious disappearance; then for a moment a hawk darting by called my eyes away, and on looking again, lo! there was the rift, and there was my wood-duck's head plain as could be. How could I have overlooked it even for a moment? So intent was I in making the shot I did not notice I had selected a broad-headed arrow. Balancing myself in the skiff, I drew the full twenty. eight inches and let go. No knife could have cut that duck's head in two at the eyes more nicely than did that arrow. The distance was about sixty feet.
Broiled trout for supper and a song from Caesar, then Will and I discussed the merits of a plan for a night-visit to a little prairie about a mile distant, in the marshy places of which we had seen numberless tracks of deer. The moon was now a little past the full, and just struggling up in the cast. It would be almost as light as day. By the time I had finished my pipe we had determined to go. Quivers were buckled on, and filled with select arrows, rubber-boots donned, and the march commenced. I lashed the hound to my belt, contrary to Will's judgment, and made him follow at my heels. I calculated that we would need him, and calculated correctly. True, he was rather unmanageable at first, bent on flying off at a tangent whenever we crossed the trail of a wild thing, but, by dint of coaxing, scolding, and at last a sound beating, I subdued him.
The prairie reached, I took my stand in the dusky shadow of a clump of palms, near what seemed a favorable run while Will beat stealthily round the edge of the opening, which was about twenty acres in extent, and fringed for the most of its perimeter with dense jungle. Making the hound crouch at my feet, I leaned on my bow, and, while waiting developments, gave myself up to the enjoyment of the scene.
The landscape was one of singular weirdness, every feature strangely affected by the oblique rays of the moon. In some places on the farther wall of woods the long moss looked like festoons of pale gold, while at others it was dusky almost to blackness, swinging across dim openings like the deadly snares of some night monster. Nearer, and in the strong light, graceful vines and air-plants in full flower let fall their airy sprays set in the rugged framing of gnarled branches and twisted trunks. The silence was utter. Not even an owl was heard. The grassy stretch of the little prairie, dotted here and there with palms, singly or in clusters, standing out singularly sharp, made one think of pictures of the far East, that old land of palms and ruins. Now and then as I would get a glimpse of Will gliding noiselessly along the border, his bow in his left hand an arrow in his right, and his quiver at his side, the picture became a perfect antique underscored with snatches from the old poets.
Suddenly, through the stillness and silence, from a dark angle of the border, the peculiar muffled sound of a bow's recoil, and distinctly the thin hiss of a flying arrow, ending with a deadly thud. I raised my bow and listened. The hound gave out a sharp whine, and was eager to be off. I kicked him down, and then I plainly heard the noise of bounding feet -- Will pursuing something. The next moment I saw a deer coining at a slashing run right upon me. In a second I loosed the dog, and he parted from me like a bolt, meeting the deer abreast, and dragging it to the ground within ten steps of me; but it shook him off, and gained the jungle before I could fix an arrow. The hound followed. A yell from Will attracted my attention, and, looking out on the prairie, I saw him racing after another deer, in whose head I could distinctly see an arrow. The animal, blinded and crazy from an oblique shot in the eye, was rearing and plunging this way and that, while Will was evidently trying to get hold of it.
"Run here! Oh, run here quick! I've lost my quiver-quick, quick!" he shouted, slashing round after the game with the energy of desperation.
I gave a few shrill blasts on my whistle for the dog, and ran out to join in the chase. As soon as I was near enough I drove an arrow into the animal's body, but this seemed rather to bring it to life than otherwise, for now it suddenly sped off on a right line. The dog came up just in time and overtook it, dragging it down at the edge of the jungle and holding it till I had put an arrow through its heart. Will was exhausted. The deer -two of them-had stepped into the edge of the prairie within twenty feet of him. He shot hurriedly, and hit one in the head, knocking it clear over. Running up to it, he took hold of its foreleg to turn it upon its back, thinking to cut its throat, when it began to struggle, and in some way broke his quiver-belt, so that his arrows fell to the ground. Then it dragged him some distance, and finally freed itself. He followed it, bow in hand, for some time, not knowing the loss of his quiver. This discovered, he could not go back to hunt it, so he followed the deer on, hoping to get hold of it again. He had to acknowledge that my hound was not so bad, after all. We found his quiver after a short search; then tying the deer's feet together and swinging it on a pole, we lugged it into camp.
As we trudged along with our game hanging between us all bristling with arrows, I fancied we looked like a couple of foresters in the merry days of Richard Coeur de Lion-say Friar Tuck and Robin Hood making preparations for a feast.
When the time came for us to bid farewell to our little lake, Will and Caesar volunteered to pole the boat down the stream by which we had entered, allowing me to follow at leisure in my skiff. It was early morning; and, feeling that some vigorous exercise would not hurt me, I pulled round the circle of the lake's shore, snatching some farewell shots, and completing some sketches of water-plants, in which I had been greatly interested. While pulling my way through a sort of elbow thicket, I discovered a very singular-looking bird skulking about under some long, arching blades of water-grass; it had much the appearance of a wood-duck, but out of the centre of its back, at an angle of about forty-five degrees, a strange appendage, tipped with a tuft of bright scarlet feathers, protruded in an unnatural way. The motion of the bird was awkward in the extreme, and it seemed that it was with the utmost effort that it moved at all. I bowled it over at the second shot, and, on securing it, found that it was nothing but a wood-duck after all, with one of Will's light-barbed arrows worn in its back for ornament. The shaft had been iii the wound several days.
It is one of the peculiarities of your true archer, that he shoots at anything in the shape of bird or wild animal that presents itself. With him "all fish is game" in the broadest sense. Having a bunch of light deal arrows with me, I began practising on the redwing blackbirds that now and then perched within easy shot on the "bonnets" of the lilies, and so utterly oblivious of everything else did I be-come, that it was like being startled from a dream when a great blue heron sprang heavily into the air from a little tussock in the midst of a clump of water-growing shrubs, not more than twenty-five feet from me. My arm was in good training, however. Instinctively I let fly at him just as he made a half-turn, and poised himself for a vigorous sweep. The light arrow struck him somewhere about the thigh, and remained stiffly sticking in the wound. The huge bird whirled over and over a few times, and then mounted perpendicularly through the air. Up, up he went. I launched two or three unsuccessful shafts after him, but he heeded them not. Right up he struggled, by a narrow spiral course, till he began to rapidly diminish in apparent size, and finally, after flickering indistinctly on the sky for a time, he utterly vanished. But this was not all. Several minutes afterwards the headless shaft of the arrow came whirling down, and fell near me. It had been broken off close up to the brazing, and was quite bloody. Where did that stricken, powerful bird go to? Did he continue to mount till, suddenly exhausted, he fell with outstretched wings through a long incline into the merciful bosom of some wild everglade? Or did he go up until his piercing eye discovered that paradise of birds where no archer ever lies in wait? No matter; I lost a beautiful tuft of plumes by his energy and pluck. I lingered on the lake long after the happy minstrel song of Caesar ceased its echoing, or, if heard at all, so in distinctly in the distance that it might have been taken for wind-tones in the vine-clad live-oaks. I was loth to leave the spot. It was an archer's paradise. It might have been a gunner's paradise, too, if fowling-pieces could have been used without noise, but one day's sport with a double-barrel on that little lake would have frightened everything away, excepting, perhaps, the snake-birds and the alligators. Fifty bowmen, even if they could kill as much game as that many sportsmen with shot-guns, would not in two weeks' time drive off and render unapproachable the feathered tribes of a choice hunting-spot, which would be completely cleaned by one man with a blunderbuss in a single day. The sound of a gun is a terror to all wild things, especially fowl. I am ready to admit that, during our somewhat protracted sojourn on the lake, we did not take with our weapons half so much game as either of us could alone have taken with a good gun, but we took enough, and the sport was far better than can be had in any other way-unless the mere destruction of game is sport.
Many days passed during which we did not bend our bows at all, but lay in our skiffs and watched the habits of birds and reptiles, or filled our books with sketches of curious plants, trees, birds, insects, and whatever seemed worth a study. We were troubled very little with mosquitoes, and there were but few over-warm days, while the nights were cool and refreshing, with just breeze enough to rock one to sleep in his hammock.
The one great drawback to all our wanderings on the St. John's and its tributaries was our boat. It was too large for our purpose, and otherwise badly constructed. For days at a time we had to row, and pole, and do everything that is hard, but, after all, whenever we reached a choice spot, which was generally by turning into some tributary, we were doubly repaid for all our toil. So stealthily would we creep into those charming haunts of the feathered tribes, and so noiselessly and systematically did we prosecute our hunting, that all the wild things seemed to recognize us, if at all, as some other wild things, bent, as were they, on procuring food simply. Caesar presided over our cuisine with marked ability, and in his way enjoyed the life to the full. His skill as a bird-skinner I have never seen equalled, and in this alone he more than saved us his wages and fare. I f the reader will allow me for a moment to come squarely down to sordid considerations, I will just here add that our cruise, so far from being an expensive one, resulted in a net gain of about tell dollars. This was somewhat owing to the accidental exhibition at a Jacksonville hotel of a pair of heron-skins, resulting in their sale to a New York man at an enormous price. He was bent on having them, and offered a sum that I was ashamed to take, it was so large; but Will, in a very business-like way, closed the trade and pocketed the money.
How dreary a thing it is to come back to the humdrum and vexation of business life after four months of freedom, and all the charms of wild camp-life in such a region as Florida! For a time one is restless, and champs the bits of restraint, but all is for the best, and eight months will soon run by. They have run by again and again, and Will and I have drawn the bow on spots in Florida where never a white man fired a gun. Our steel arrow-heads will be found imbedded in the trees of those strange forests a hundred years from now. But to what good? you ask. What good? It is a foolish question. Some men delight in Wall Street. What good? Some men travel in foreign lands. What good? Some delve at the desk, or rant at the forum, or dicker at the counter, year in and year out. What good? It is all good.