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Home > Books > The Witchery of Archery > Chapter 13: Some wing shots, and other fancy work
Chapter XIII
Some wing shots, and other fancy work

RETURNING to Berkley's from Coquina Island, we stopped for one tide to shoot marsh-hens, on a sort of salt meadow. Here we did some shooting "on the wing," an account of which may serve as a lecture to the young toxophilite. The birds were wonderfully abundant, and the rushes and sea-grass quite low, making the conditions all we could ask. Caesar, negro-like, posted himself 0n a sort of sand-dune overlooking our field of 0perations, and prepared himself for a quiet hour or two 0f uninterrupted enjoyment.

The game began to rise as soon as we entered the cover, one or two .at a time, winging lazily along for fifty yards, then dropping down into the rushes again. We shot rapidly, and at first rather wildly, losing nearly every arrow; but they were only feathered reeds, and of little cost. After a half-dozen hasty trials each, we took more pains, and began to clip close, which deepened our ardor, till finally Will cried out: "Who'll get first meat?"

The words had scarcely left his lips when I strung a fine bird along my shaft, bringing him straight down not fifty feet from my bow. Cesar applauded me in a voice like a railroad whistle.

Will, after four or five more shots, clipped one through the thighs, not quite enough to bring it down, and it began a rolling flight with the arrow sticking in the wound. For a mere trial of chance, I let drive at it, although I was full forty yards away, and, by one of those marvellous windfalls of luck, centred it, killing it neatly. A stranger would have thought Caesar a raving maniac. My note-book of the day bears the following entry: "One of the birds wounded by Will, killed by me, forty yards, by happy accident, before it could get away. Cesar turned somersaults on sand and yelled like possessed. Lost sixty reed arrows, and seventeen broad-head shafts by this foolishness."

Will's metal was now up, and he did some pretty work, hitting with two successive shots. The beauty of the whole thing was the way the birds flew. They would get up from almost under our feet and fan away slowly in a direct line from us, not much above the level of our eyes. Along towards the last we were knocking them quite regularly every two or three shots; but the tide came on, creeping into the grass and rushes, and soon got too deep for us. My score was ninety-eight shots, seventy-seven arrows lost, sixteen birds killed on the wing-the best score I ever made. Will shot one hundred and twenty-one times, lost forty-six arrows, and killed nineteen birds. We could carry only twenty arrows each in our quivers, and so lost some time in going back and forth to get fresh supplies, from the boat, at need. Once in my hurry I snatched up a bundle of broad-headed shafts instead of the reeds. I had got back to where the birds began to rise before I noticed the mistake, so I shot them away, of course, though they cost five dollars! They were a foot shorter than the reeds, wherefore they were lost more easily in the rushes.

Speaking of these reed arrows, we used them a great deal in the South. Williams recommended them for killing fish; but we tried feathering them for birding-arrows, retaining the length of thirty-eight inches. The reed is cut when green, held in a flame till hot and straightened, One end nocked and feathered, the other end sharpened and charred in the fire to harden it; then, lo! the arrow-a missile not to be excelled for any range inside of fifty yards. A man can make ready for feathering two hundred of them in a day. The reeds when dried are very rigid and extremely light. Narrow feathers must be used on them. No heads are needed.

Since it is the purpose of this chapter to give the beginner in sylvan archery an exhibition of what has been aptly termed fancy shooting, the following from one of my note-books may serve a good turn in that line: I was wading down a shoal lagoon, and had just crept out of a dense growth of tall water-weeds and grass, when I chanced to spy a lonely teal, some hundred or so yards off, and at the same moment Will appeared on a hummock-point and prepared to shoot at the bird from the cover of a clump of palms. It would be a pleasantly bizarre painting which would truthfully represent the scene in all its peculiarities of feature and color. The archer's attitude, his dress of greenish tweed, green belt, and quiver of red, white, and yellow-feathered arrows, his broad, drab hat with looped-up brim, and the vivid tints of the foliage against which he appeared, made a strikingly picturesque composition of novel outline and gay colors. Each separate stem in the cluster of palms had been caught in the embrace of the rubber tree, and at the top, the fronds and feathers of the one, and the clear green leaves of the other of the trees, thus almost hideously bound together, produced a strange effect; whilst curious parasites hung here and there in the network, the fiery fingers of the empiphitis pointing in every direction, like spikes of real flame; and down among the knotted and warped-up roots grew rank ferns and spears of variegated saw-grass, all interwoven with flowering creepers and strange weeds. In the foreground a shallow lake, four 0r five inches deep at best; in the background a solid wall of foliage; dark avenues on this hand, leading away to blackness; on the other hand, bright glimpses, the merest hints, of green savannahs or grass-prairies. Will threw himself into the position of an archer at "ready," and drew a light hunting arrow t0 the head. The teal was full sixty yards from him and sitting quite still. Standing thus in the attitude of a full draw, for a long shot, the archer, if he be at all natural and sincere in his work, will always present a striking picture of perfect muscular and mental tension. The right foot is planted firmly, and the left advanced a half-pace, with the upper portion 0f the body thrown slightly back-ward, the left arm thrust out straight on a line with the shoulders, the face turned square over the left, and the right hand drawn above the right shoulder, in the position 0f that of a boxer ready to strike a straight blow, excepting that the arrow-fingers are a little elevated, being on a line with the ear. The features of the face are rigid, giving every evidence of intense concentration of thought. The eyes are fixed eagerly, almost fiercely, on the point of aim. You see the biceps and shoulder muscles roll up into great balls on arm and shoulder, quiver a little, then for a second, in an heroic effort, settle into utter stiffness. This is the point of loosing. The time is come. Twang! The recoil follows sharply, and the arrow, with a well-known, indescribable sound, darts away like a ray of light. But, after all, Will did not hit his bird. Here, however, comes in one of the beau-ties of archery. He hit so close to the teal, and so hard, that the water from the blow flew in little jets of spray all over it, and, in an ecstasy of convulsive flight, away it went! When you shoot with a gun, one miss is just as vexatious as another. It is a miss-maybe an inch, maybe an ell, who knows?-and you gain nothing from it. Your bird is missed, that is all. But with the bow it is the reverse. Will's miss was almost as pleasurable as a hit-the bird had such a hairbreadth escape-the shot was so well sent. I took off my hat and hallooed my applause till the forests rang again, and some long-legged aquatic birds awoke from their dreams in the tall grass and flapped lazily away across the lake.

The following is from my notes on mallard-shooting on a "back-water" pond in the "bottoms" of the Salliquoy River in North Georgia:
We had lost a great number of arrows and as yet had not bagged a bird. Will was across the pond from me, some four hundred yards away. Two mallards sprang from a clump of water-hazel near him. He let go two shafts before they got beyond reach, but, as usual for the day, missed. The ducks came directly towards me, rising higher and higher as they neared. I prepared for them and shot at an angle of forty-five degrees, striking one of them through with a very heavy broad-headed arrow from a seventy-pound bow. He was very high, and came whirling down in a way that made my nerves tingle with delight. This was full compensation for a hundred misses, for I was then but seventeen years of age, and Will only a little turned from twelve!

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