A WHITE DAY AND A RED FOX
The day was indeed white, as white as three feet of snow and a cloudless St. Valentine's sun could make it. The eye could not look forth without blinking, or veiling itself with tears. The patch of plowed ground on the top of the hill, where the wind had blown the snow away, was as welcome to it as water to a parched tongue. It was the one refreshing oasis in this desert of dazzling light. I sat down upon it to let the eye bathe and revel in it. It took away the smart like a poultice. For so gentle and on the whole so beneficent an element, the snow asserts itself very proudly. It takes the world quickly and entirely to itself. It makes no concessions or compromises, but rules despotically. It baffles and bewilders the eye, and it returns the sun glare for glare. Its coming in our winter climate is the hand of mercy to the earth and to everything in its bosom, but it is a barrier and an embargo to everything that moves above.
We toiled up the long steep hill, where only an occasional mullein-stalk or other tall weed stood above the snow. Near the top the hill was girded with a bank of snow that blotted out the stone wall and every vestige of the earth beneath. These hills wear this belt till May, and sometimes the plow pauses beside them. From the top of the ridge an immense landscape in immaculate white stretches before us. Miles upon miles of farms, smoothed and padded by the stainless element, hang upon the sides of the mountains, or repose across the long sloping hills. The fences or stone walls show like half-obliterated black lines. I turn my back to the sun, or shade my eyes with my hand. Every object or movement in the landscape is sharply revealed; one could see a fox half a league. The farmer foddering his cattle, or drawing manure afield, or leading his horse to water; the pedestrian crossing the hill below; the children wending their way toward the distant schoolhouse, the eye cannot help but note them: they are black specks upon square miles of luminous white. What a multitude of sins this unstinted charity of the snow covers! How it flatters the ground! Yonder sterile field might be a garden, and you would never suspect that that gentle slope with its pretty dimples and curves was not the smoothest of meadows, yet it is paved with rocks and stone.
But what is that black speck creeping across that cleared field near the top of the mountain at the head of the valley, three quarters of a mile away? It is like a fly moving across an illuminated surface. A distant mellow bay floats to us, and we know it is the hound. He picked up the trail of the fox half an hour since, where he had crossed the ridge early in the morning, and now he has routed him and Reynard is steering for the Big Mountain. We press on and attain the shoulder of the range, where we strike a trail two or three days old of some former hunters, which leads us into the woods along the side of the mountain. We are on the first plateau before the summit; the snow partly supports us, but when it gives way and we sound it with our legs, we find it up to our hips. Here we enter a white world indeed. It is like some conjurer's trick. The very trees have turned to snow. The smallest branch is like a cluster of great white antlers. The eye is bewildered by the soft fleecy labyrinth before it. On the lower ranges the forests were entirely bare, but now we perceive the summit of every mountain about us runs up into a kind of arctic region where the trees are loaded with snow. The beginning of this colder zone is sharply marked all around the horizon; the line runs as level as the shore line of a lake or sea; indeed, a warmer aerial sea fills all the valleys, submerging the lower peaks, and making white islands of all the higher ones. The branches bend with the rime. The winds have not shaken it down. It adheres to them like a growth. On examination I find the branches coated with ice, from which shoot slender spikes and needles that penetrate and hold the cord of snow. It is a new kind of foliage wrought by the frost and the clouds, and it obscures the sky, and fills the vistas of the woods nearly as much as the myriad leaves of summer. The sun blazes, the sky is without a cloud or a film, yet we walk in a soft white shade. A gentle breeze was blowing on the open crest of the mountain, but one could carry a lighted candle through these snow-curtained and snow-canopied chambers. How shall we see the fox if the hound drives him through this white obscurity? But we listen in vain for the voice of the dog and press on. Hares' tracks were numerous. Their great soft pads had left their imprint everywhere, sometimes showing a clear leap of ten feet. They had regular circuits which we crossed at intervals. The woods were well suited to them, low and dense, and, as we saw, liable at times to wear a livery whiter than their own.
The mice, too, how thick their tracks were, that of the white-footed mouse being most abundant; but occasionally there was a much finer track, with strides or leaps scarcely more than an inch apart. This is perhaps the little shrew-mouse of the woods, the body not more than an inch and a half long, the smallest mole or mouse kind known to me. Once, while encamping in the woods, one of these tiny shrews got into an empty pail standing in camp, and died before morning, either from the cold, or in despair of ever getting out of the pail.
At one point, around a small sugar maple, the mice-tracks are unusually thick. It is doubtless their granary; they have beech-nuts stored there, I'll warrant. There are two entrances to the cavity of the tree, one at the base, and one seven or eight feet up. At the upper one, which is only just the size of a mouse, a squirrel has been trying to break in. He has cut and chiseled the solid wood to the depth of nearly an inch, and his chips strew the snow all about. He knows what is in there, and the mice know that he knows; hence their apparent consternation. They have rushed wildly about over the snow, and, I doubt not, have given the piratical red squirrel a piece of their minds. A few yards away the mice have a hole down into the snow, which perhaps leads to some snug den under the ground. Hither they may have been slyly removing their stores while the squirrel was at work with his back turned. One more night and he will effect an entrance: what a good joke upon him if he finds the cavity empty! These native mice are very provident, and, I imagine, have to take many precautions to prevent their winter stores being plundered by the squirrels, who live, as it were, from hand to mouth.
We see several fresh fox-tracks, and wish for the hound, but there are no tidings of him. After half an hour's floundering and cautiously picking our way through the woods, we emerge into a cleared field that stretches up from the valley below, and just laps over the back of the mountain. It is a broad belt of white that drops down and down till it joins other fields that sweep along the base of the mountain, a mile away. To the east, through a deep defile in the mountains, a landscape in an adjoining county lifts itself up, like a bank of white and gray clouds.
When the experienced fox-hunter comes out upon such an eminence as this, he always scrutinizes the fields closely that lie beneath him, and it many times happens that his sharp eye detects Reynard asleep upon a rock or a stone wall, in which case, if he be armed with a rifle and his dog be not near, the poor creature never wakens from his slumber. The fox nearly always takes his nap in the open fields, along the sides of the ridges, or under the mountain, where he can look down upon the busy farms beneath and hear their many sounds, the barking of dogs, the lowing of cattle, the cackling of hens, the voices of men and boys, or the sound of travel upon the highway. It is on that side, too, that he keeps the sharpest lookout, and the appearance of the hunter above and behind him is always a surprise. We pause here, and, with alert ears turned toward the Big Mountain in front of us, listen for the dog. But not a sound is heard. A flock of snow buntings pass high above us, uttering their contented twitter, and their white forms seen against the intense blue give the impression of large snowflakes drifting across the sky. I hear a purple finch, too, and the feeble lisp of the redpoll. A shrike (the first I have seen this season) finds occasion to come this way also. He alights on the tip of a dry limb, and from his perch can see into the valley on both sides of the mountain. He is prowling about for chickadees, no doubt, a troop of which I saw coming through the wood. When pursued by the shrike, the chickadee has been seen to take refuge in a squirrel-hole in a tree. Hark! Is that the hound, or doth expectation mock the eager ear? With open mouths and bated breaths we listen. Yes, it is old "Singer;" he is bringing the fox over the top of the range toward Butt End, the Ultima Thule of the hunters' tramps in this section. In a moment or two the dog is lost to hearing again. We wait for his second turn; then for his third.
"He is playing about the summit," says my companion.
"Let us go there," say I, and we are off.
More dense snow-hung woods beyond the clearing where we begin our ascent of the Big Mountain, a chief that carries the range up several hundred feet higher than the part we have thus far traversed. We are occasionally to our hips in the snow, but for the most part the older stratum, a foot or so down, bears us; up and up we go into the dim, muffled solitudes, our hats and coats powdered like millers'. A half-hour's heavy tramping brings us to the broad, level summit, and to where the fox and hound have crossed and recrossed many times. As we are walking along discussing the matter, we suddenly hear the dog coming straight on to us. The woods are so choked with snow that we do not hear him till he breaks up from under the mountain within a hundred yards of us.
"We have turned the fox!" we both exclaim, much put out.
Sure enough, we have. The dog appears in sight, is puzzled a moment, then turns sharply to the left, and is lost to eye and to ear as quickly as if he had plunged into a cave. The woods are, indeed, a kind of cave, a cave of alabaster, with the sun shining upon it. We take up positions and wait. These old hunters know exactly where to stand.
"If the fox comes back," said my companion, "he will cross up there or down here," indicating two points not twenty rods asunder.
We stood so that each commanded one of the runways indicated. How light it was, though the sun was hidden! Every branch and twig beamed in the sun like a lamp. A downy woodpecker below me kept up a great fuss and clatter, all for my benefit, I suspected. All about me were great, soft mounds, where the rocks lay buried. It was a cemetery of drift boulders. There! that is the hound. Does his voice come across the valley from the spur off against us, or is it on our side down under the mountain? After an interval, just as I am thinking the dog is going away from us along the opposite range, his voice comes up astonishingly near. A mass of snow falls from a branch, and makes one start; but it is not the fox. Then through the white vista below me I catch a glimpse of something red or yellow, yellowish red or reddish yellow; it emerges from the lower ground, and, with an easy, jaunty air, draws near. I am ready and just in the mood to make a good shot. The fox stops just out of range and listens for the hound. He looks as bright as an autumn leaf upon the spotless surface. Then he starts on, but he is not coming to me, he is going to the other man. Oh, foolish fox, you are going straight into the jaws of death! My comrade stands just there beside that tree. I would gladly have given Reynard the wink, or signaled to him, if I could. It did seem a pity to shoot him, now he was out of my reach. I cringe for him, when crack goes the gun! The fox squalls, picks himself up, and plunges over the brink of the mountain. The hunter has not missed his aim, but the oil in his gun, he says, has weakened the strength of his powder. The hound, hearing the report, comes like a whirlwind and is off in hot pursuit. Both fox and dog now bleed, the dog at his heels, the fox from his wounds.
In a few minutes there came up from under the mountain that long, peculiar bark which the hound always makes when he has run the fox in, or when something new and extraordinary has happened. In this instance he said plainly enough, "The race is up, the coward has taken to his hole, ho-o-o-le." Plunging down in the direction of the sound, the snow literally to our waists, we were soon at the spot, a great ledge thatched over with three or four feet of snow. The dog was alternately licking his heels and whining and berating the fox. The opening into which the latter had fled was partially closed, and, as I scraped out and cleared away the snow, I thought of the familiar saying, that so far as the sun shines in, the snow will blow in. The fox, I suspect, has always his house of refuge, or knows at once where to flee to if hard pressed. This place proved to be a large vertical seam in the rock, into which the dog, on a little encouragement from his master, made his way. I thrust my head into the ledge's mouth, and in the dim light watched the dog. He progressed slowly and cautiously till only his bleeding heels were visible. Here some obstacle impeded him a few moments, when he entirely disappeared and was presently face to face with the fox and engaged in mortal combat with him. It is a fierce encounter there beneath the rocks, the fox silent, the dog very vociferous. But after a time the superior weight and strength of the latter prevails and the fox is brought to light nearly dead. Reynard winks and eyes me suspiciously, as I stroke his head and praise his heroic defense; but the hunter quickly and mercifully puts an end to his fast-ebbing life. His canine teeth seem unusually large and formidable, and the dog bears the marks of them in many deep gashes upon his face and nose. His pelt is quickly stripped off, revealing his lean, sinewy form.
The fox was not as poor in flesh as I expected to see him, though I'll warrant he had tasted very little food for days, perhaps for weeks. How his great activity and endurance can be kept up, on the spare diet he must of necessity be confined to, is a mystery. Snow, snow everywhere, for weeks and for months, and intense cold, and no henroost accessible, and no carcass of sheep or pig in the neighborhood! The hunter, tramping miles and leagues through his haunts, rarely sees any sign of his having caught anything. Rarely, though, in the course of many winters, he may have seen evidence of his having surprised a rabbit or a partridge in the woods. He no doubt at this season lives largely upon the memory (or the fat) of the many good dinners he had in the plentiful summer and fall.
As we crossed the mountain on our return, we saw at one point blood-stains upon the snow, and, as the fox-tracks were very thick on and about it, we concluded that a couple of males had had an encounter there, and a pretty sharp one. Reynard goes a-wooing in February, and it is to be presumed that, like other dogs, he is a jealous lover. A crow had alighted and examined the blood-stains, and now, if he will look a little farther along, upon a flat rock he will find the flesh he was looking for. Our hound's nose was so blunted now, speaking without metaphor, that he would not look at another trail, but hurried home to rest upon his laurels.
A POTOMAC SKETCH
While on a visit to Washington in January, 1878, I went on an expedition down the Potomac with a couple of friends to shoot ducks. We left on the morning boat that makes daily trips to and from Mount Vernon. The weather was chilly and the sky threatening. The clouds had a singular appearance; they were boat-shaped, with well-defined keels. I have seldom known such clouds to bring rain; they are simply the fleet of Æolus, and so it proved on this occasion, for they gradually dispersed or faded out and before noon the sun was shining.
We saw numerous flocks of ducks on the passage down, and saw a gun (the man was concealed) shoot some from a "blind" near Fort Washington. Opposite Mount Vernon, on the flats, there was a large "bed" of ducks. I thought the word a good one to describe a long strip of water thickly planted with them. One of my friends was a member of the Washington and Mount Vernon Ducking Club, which has its camp and fixtures just below the Mount Vernon landing; he was an old ducker. For my part, I had never killed a duck, except with an axe, nor have I yet.
We made our way along the beach from the landing, over piles of driftwood, and soon reached the quarters, a substantial building, fitted up with a stove, bunks, chairs, a table, culinary utensils, crockery, etc., with one corner piled full of decoys. There were boats to row in and boxes to shoot from, and I felt sure we should have a pleasant time, whether we got any ducks or not. The weather improved hourly, till in the afternoon a well-defined installment of the Indian summer, that had been delayed somewhere, settled down upon the scene; this lasted during our stay of two days. The river was placid, even glassy, the air richly and deeply toned with haze, and the sun that of the mellowest October. "The fairer the weather, the fewer the ducks," said one of my companions. "But this is better than ducks," I thought, and prayed that it might last.
Then there was something pleasing to the fancy in being so near to Mount Vernon. It formed a-sort of rich, historic background to our flitting and trivial experiences. Just where the eye of the great Captain would perhaps first strike the water as he came out in the morning to take a turn up and down his long piazza, the Club had formerly had a "blind," but the ice of a few weeks before our visit had carried it away. A little lower down, and in full view from his bedroom window, was the place where the shooting from the boxes was usually done.
The duck is an early bird, and not much given to wandering about in the afternoon; hence it was thought not worth while to put out the decoys till the next morning. We would spend the afternoon roaming inland in quest of quail, or rabbits, or turkeys (for a brood of the last were known to lurk about the woods back there). It was a delightful afternoon's tramp through oak woods, pine barrens, and half-wild fields. We flushed several quail that the dog should have pointed, and put a rabbit to rout by a well-directed broadside, but brought no game to camp. We kicked about an old bushy clearing, where my friends had shot a wild turkey Thanksgiving Day, but the turkey could not be started again. One shooting had sufficed for it. We crossed or penetrated extensive pine woods that had once (perhaps in Washington's time) been cultivated fields; the mark of the plow was still clearly visible. The land had been thrown into ridges, after the manner of English fields, eight or ten feet wide, with a deep dead furrow between them for purposes of drainage. The pines were scrubby, what are known as the loblolly pines, and from ten to twelve inches through at the butt. In a low bottom, among some red cedars, I saw robins and several hermit thrushes, besides the yellow-rumped warbler.
That night, as the sun went down on the one hand, the full moon rose up on the other, like the opposite side of an enormous scale. The river, too, was presently brimming with the flood tide. It was so still one could have carried a lighted candle from shore to shore. In a little skiff, we floated and paddled up under the shadow of Mount Vernon and into the mouth of a large creek that flanks it on the left. In the profound hush of things, every sound on either shore was distinctly heard. A large bed of ducks were feeding over on the Maryland side, a mile or more away, and the multitudinous sputtering and shuffling of their bills in the water sounded deceptively near. Silently we paddled in that direction. When about half a mile from them, all sound of feeding suddenly ceased; then, after a time, as we kept on, there was a great clamor of wings, and the whole bed appeared to take flight. We paused and listened, and presently heard them take to the water again, far below and beyond us. We loaded a boat with the decoys that night, and in the morning, on the first sign of day, towed a box out in position, and anchored it, and disposed the decoys about it. Two hundred painted wooden ducks, each anchored by a small weight that was attached by a cord to the breast, bowed and sidled and rode the water, and did everything but feed, in a bed many yards long. The shooting-box is a kind of coffin, in which the gunner is interred amid the decoys, buried below the surface of the water, and invisible, except from a point above him. The box has broad canvas wings, that unfold and spread out upon the surface of the water, four or five feet each way. These steady it, and keep the ripples from running in when there is a breeze. Iron decoys sit upon these wings and upon the edge of the box, and sink it to the required level, so that, when everything is completed and the gunner is in position, from a distance or from the shore one sees only a large bed of ducks, with the line a little more pronounced in the centre, where the sportsman lies entombed, to be quickly resurrected when the game appears. He lies there stark and stiff upon his back, like a marble effigy upon a tomb, his gun by his side, with barely room to straighten himself in, and nothing to look at but the sky above him. His companions on shore keep a lookout, and, when ducks are seen on the wing, cry out, "Mark, coming up," or "Mark, coming down," or, "Mark, coming in," as the case may be. If they decoy, the gunner presently hears the whistle of their wings, or maybe he catches a glimpse of them over the rim of the box as they circle about. Just as they let down their feet to alight, he is expected to spring up and pour his broadside into them. A boat from shore comes and picks up the game, if there is any to pick up.
The club-man, by common consent, was the first in the box that morning; but only a few ducks were moving, and he had lain there an hour before we marked a solitary bird approaching, and, after circling over the decoys, alighting a little beyond them. The sportsman sprang up as from the bed of the river, and the duck sprang up at the same time, and got away under fire. After a while my other companion went out; but the ducks passed by on the other side, and he had no shots. In the afternoon, remembering the robins, and that robins are game when one's larder is low, I set out alone for the pine bottoms, a mile or more distant. When one is loaded for robins, he may expect to see turkeys, and vice versa. As I was walking carelessly on the borders of an old brambly field that stretched a long distance beside the pine woods, I heard a noise in front of me, and, on looking in that direction, saw a veritable turkey, with a spread tail, leaping along at a rapid rate. She was so completely the image of the barnyard fowl that I was slow to realize that here was the most notable game of that part of Virginia, for the sight of which sportsmen's eyes do water. As she was fairly on the wing, I sent my robin-shot after her; but they made no impression, and I stood and watched with great interest her long, level flight. As she neared the end of the clearing, she set her wings and sailed straight into the corner of the woods. I found no robins, but went back satisfied with having seen the turkey, and having had an experience that I knew would stir up the envy and the disgust of my companions. They listened with ill-concealed impatience, stamped the ground a few times, uttered a vehement protest against the caprice of fortune that always puts the game in the wrong place or the gun in the wrong hands, and rushed off in quest of that turkey. She was not where they looked, of course; and, on their return about sundown, when they had ceased to think about their game, she flew out of the top of a pine-tree not thirty rods from camp, and in full view of them, but too far off for a shot.
In my wanderings that afternoon, I came upon two negro shanties in a small triangular clearing in the woods; no road but only a footpath led to them. Three or four children, the eldest a girl of twelve, were about the door of one of them. I approached and asked for a drink of water. The girl got a glass and showed me to the spring near by.
"We's grandmover's daughter's chilern," she said, in reply to my inquiry. Their mother worked in Washington for "eighteen cents a month," and their grandmother took care of them.
Then I thought I would pump her about the natural history of the place.
"What was there in these woods, what kind of animals, any?"
"Oh, yes, sah, when we first come here to live in dese bottoms de possums and foxes and things were so thick you could hardly go out-o'-doors." A fox had come along one day right where her mother was washing, and they used to catch the chickens "dreadful."
"Were there any snakes?"
"Yes, sah; black snakes, moccasins, and doctors."
The doctor, she said, was a powerful ugly customer; it would get right hold of your leg as you were passing along, and whip and sting you to death. I hoped I should not meet any "doctors."
I asked her if they caught any rabbits.
"Oh, yes, we catches dem in 'gums.' "
"What are gums?" I asked.
"See dat down dare? Dat's a 'gum.' "
I saw a rude box-trap made of rough boards. It seems these traps, and many other things, such as beehives, and tubs, etc., are frequently made in the South from a hollow gum-tree; hence the name gum has come to have a wide application.
The ducks flew quite briskly that night; I could hear the whistle of their wings as I stood upon the shore indulging myself in listening. The ear loves a good field as well as the eye, and the night is the best time to listen, to put your ear to Nature's keyhole and see what the whisperings and the preparations mean.
"Dark night, that from the eye his function takes,
The ear more quick of apprehension makes,"
says Shakespeare. I overheard some muskrats engaged in a very gentle and affectionate jabber beneath a rude pier of brush and earth upon which I was standing. The old, old story was evidently being rehearsed under there, but the occasional splashing of the ice-cold water made it seem like very chilling business; still we all know it is not. Our decoys had not been brought in, and I distinctly heard some ducks splash in among them. The sound of oar-locks in the distance next caught my ears. They were so far away that it took some time to decide whether or not they were approaching. But they finally grew more distinct, the steady, measured beat of an oar in a wooden lock, a very pleasing sound coming over still, moonlit waters. It was an hour before the boat emerged into view and passed my post. A white, misty obscurity began to gather over the waters, and in the morning this had grown to be a dense fog. By early dawn one of my friends was again in the box, and presently his gun went bang! bang! then bang! came again from the second gun he had taken with him, and we imagined the water strewn with ducks. But he reported only one. It floated to him and was picked up, so we need not go out. In the dimness and silence we rowed up and down the shore in hopes of starting up a stray duck that might possibly decoy. We saw many objects that simulated ducks pretty well through the obscurity, but they failed to take wing on our approach. The most pleasing thing we saw was a large, rude boat, propelled by four colored oarsmen. It looked as if it might have come out of some old picture. Two oarsmen were seated in the bows, pulling, and two stood up in the stern, facing their companions, each working a long oar, bending and recovering and uttering a low, wild chant. The spectacle emerged from the fog on the one hand and plunged into it on the other.
Later in the morning, we were attracted by another craft. We heard it coming down upon us long before it emerged into view. It made a sound as of some unwieldy creature slowly pawing the water, and when it became visible through the fog the sight did not belie the ear. We beheld an awkward black hulk that looked as if it might have been made out of the bones of the first steamboat, or was it some Virginia colored man's study of that craft? Its wheels consisted each of two timbers crossing each other at right angles. As the shaft slowly turned, these timbers pawed and pawed the water. It hove to on the flats near our quarters, and a colored man came off in a boat. To our inquiry, he said with a grin that his craft was a "floating saw-mill."
After a while I took my turn in the box, and, with a life-preserver for a pillow, lay there on my back, pressed down between the narrow sides, the muzzle of my gun resting upon my toe and its stock upon my stomach, waiting for the silly ducks to come. I was rather in hopes they would not come, for I felt pretty certain that I could not get up promptly in such narrow quarters and deliver my shot with any precision. As nothing could be seen, and as it was very still, it was a good time to listen again. I was virtually under water, and in a good medium for the transmission of sounds. The barking of dogs on the Maryland shore was quite audible, and I heard with great distinctness a Maryland lass call some one to breakfast. They were astir up at Mount Vernon, too, though the fog hid them from view. I heard the mocking or Carolina wren alongshore calling quite plainly the words a Georgetown poet has put in his mouth, "Sweetheart, sweetheart, sweet!" Presently I heard the whistle of approaching wings, and a solitary duck alighted back of me over my right shoulder, just the most awkward position for me she could have assumed. I raised my head a little, and skimmed the water with my eye. The duck was swimming about just beyond the decoys, apparently apprehensive that she was intruding upon the society of her betters. She would approach a little, and then, as the stiff, aristocratic decoys made no sign of welcome or recognition, she would sidle off again. "Who are they, that they should hold themselves so loftily and never condescend to notice a forlorn duck?" I imagined her saying. Should I spring up and show my hand and demand her surrender? It was clearly my duty to do so. I wondered if the boys were looking from shore, for the fog had lifted a little. But I must act, or the duck would be off. I began to turn slowly in my sepulchre and to gather up my benumbed limbs; I then made a rush and got up, and had a fairly good shot as the duck flew across my bows, but I failed to stop her. A man in the woods in the line of my shot cried out angrily, "Stop shooting this way!"
I lay down again and faced the sun, that had now burned its way through the fog, till I was nearly blind, but no more ducks decoyed, and I called out to be relieved.
With our one duck, but with many pleasant remembrances, we returned to Washington that afternoon.