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AN UNSUCCESSFUL HUNT

I REACHED Paso Robles toward evening, after a nine-hour ride along the coast from Los Angeles. One of the first things to be done, after getting a bit settled, was to inquire of the hotel clerk whether there was any one in the town who might be supposed to know something about the birds of the neighborhood; not game birds necessarily, I explained, but birds in general. He looked thoughtful for a moment; then he rang for Victor, one of the bell-boys.

Yes, the boy said, there was a man named Smith, who kept a bicycle-shop and a garage. He took hunters out, and might be able to give me some information.

To Mr. Smith I went, therefore, the next morning. Did he know where I might possibly find any band-tailed pigeons or yellow-billed magpies? His answer was less discouraging than I had feared it would be. The pigeons, he thought, might be found up by the Sand Spring. And the Sand Spring? Why, that was about five miles out, on the road to a certain mine. I might go out on the stage, and walk back. As for magpies, he hadn’t seen one for several years.

At that moment, however, he hailed a neighbor passing along the sidewalk. “I say,” he said, “do you know any place where this man could see magpies? Wouldn’t he be likely to find some down at Santa Margarita?” The neighbor thought it doubtful. He hadn’t known of any there for some time. After further conference they agreed that my best chance was over at So-and-So’s sheep-ranch, twenty-five or thirty miles away. But, indeed, they concluded, there might be some near the Sand Spring.

“Very good,” said I to myself, “I will try the Sand Spring.” The stage, Victor informed me, left the town at seven o’clock, at which hour I should be just sitting down to early breakfast. All things considered, I would walk. Unlike a good part of the visitors at Paso Robles, I was not seriously rheumatic, and ten miles, for all day, would hurt nobody.

With a bite of luncheon in my pocket I started out the next morning (February 22) at half past seven, but the first man whom I asked to put me on the Adelaide road proved to be the stage-driver himself, just leaving the post-office. He was late, he explained — so many errands, and so many waits. Lucky waits, thought I, as I mounted the wagon; and after a few more errands, including the purchase of a sack of cabbages and a stop at his own door to get an overcoat and a hot foot-stone (tenderfoots were not all just out of Yankeeland, it appeared), we were fairly on our way.

Pretty soon I broached the matter of the pigeons. The driver sniffed. I shouldn’t find any. As for the distance to the Sand Spring, it was nearer ten miles than five. In that case, I perceived, it was well I had a pair of horses to draw me. Twenty miles, with the road muddy to desperation, would have been more than so doubtful a chance was worth. (But twenty miles was a gross exaggeration, if my legs told anything like the truth on the return.)

Fortunately I had brought a light overcoat along, and, with a venerable bed-comforter wrapped about our knees, we made the trip in a satisfactory degree of comfort, asking and answering questions, and discussing all sorts of subjects, from Roman Catholicism and almond orchards (in lovely bloom along the roadside) to gall-stones and appendicitis, for the driver, though a cheerful body, seemed inclined to let his mind run upon rather gruesome topics. Some men are like that, it would be hard to say why. Perhaps their ancestors were butchers or body-snatchers, or followers of some similar line of industry. After a while, in an indifferent tone, I inquired whether he knew anything about magpies. Yes; he had frequently seen them up at the Divide, two or three miles beyond the Sand Spring.

“All right,” said I. “I’ll go on to the Divide. No magpies, no pay.”

He laughed. “Oh, no,” he said. “I don’t guarantee anything; but I’ve seen them there.”

His luck had been better than his passenger’s was to prove. I got out of the wagon at the Divide, stretched my legs and shook myself, and then rolled under the close barbed-wire fence, and went down into the “swale,” which had been pointed out as the most likely resort of the yellow-bills.

Birds were flitting about in encouraging numbers: robins, bluebirds, flickers, slender-billed nuthatches, Sierra juncos, and California jays, with others, no doubt, not now remembered. And while I looked at them, and listened with all my ears for a magpie’s voice, a pair of golden eagles sailed over my head, and before long a red-tailed hawk followed suit. It was indeed a birdy spot; but for this morning there were no magpies, and, finding it so, I started slowly back over the road up which we had driven.

The first four miles would be much the most interesting, and, the temperature being by this time perfect, I meant to make the most of them. A merry heart, an untraveled road, wide horizons, and close at hand pretty things more than any one pair of eyes could take account of, — all this, with “health and a day,” and magpies or no magpies, pigeons or no pigeons, a man might esteem himself pretty well off.

Here, now, falling away from my feet, was a broad steep hillside profusely set with wild currant bushes (incense shrubs), six feet or more in height, freshly green, and loaded with racemes of fragrant pink blossoms. Among the most attractive shrubs I had ever seen, whether in field or garden, they seemed to me. And with them were many “Christmas-berry” bushes, — California holly, — splendid in yellow-green leaf and scarlet fruit, and just now haunted by flocks of robins. All along the roadside, too, stood the curious “tree poppy,” — my second sight of it, — rather stiff and homely as a bush (of about my own height), but bearing at the top a sparse crop of sun-bright yellow poppies.

What a little way it turned out to be down to the Sand Spring watering-trough! I was there before I knew it. It would be too bad if the remaining six or seven miles should be of similar brevity.

In the neighborhood of the trough I still entertained a faint hope of coming upon the big blue pigeon. A cañon full of live-oaks and various shrubs ran down from the road, and I followed it for a short distance. No pigeons. And my faith was so weak, and my mood by this time so little ambitious, that I soon returned to the road and to my idle sauntering. For to-day it was enough to loiter and breathe and look. There are other things in the world besides band-tailed pigeons, said I.1

And true to the word, I was soon close upon a flock of golden-crowned sparrows. They were no novelty. I had seen many like them. But these were in song; and that was a novelty; a brief and simple tune, making me think of the opening notes of the Eastern white-throat, but stopping short of that bird’s rollicking triplets, ending almost before it began, as if it had been broken off in the middle, with a sweetly plaintive cadence. Like the white-throat’s, and unlike the white-crown’s, the tone is a pure whistle, so that the strain can be imitated, even at a first hearing, well enough to excite the birds to its repetition. I proved it on the spot.

Wren-tits were often near by, and of course the same was true of the plain titmice. The titmice, indeed, might almost have been called the birds of the day, their voices were so continually in my ears. Three times, at least, I heard what should have been a brand-new bird, and each time the stranger turned out to be a plain tit rehearsing another tune. At the best he is only an indifferent singer, but his versatility is remarkable. He is one of the wise ones who make the most of a small gift. A good example for the rest of us. Robins were in the air, in the trees, and (especially) in the Christmas-berry bushes. Now and then, for some reason, they would set up a chorus of cackles, and anon a hundred or more would go past me on the wing.


AN OAK PASTURE NEAR PASO ROBLES
Photograph by Herbert W. Gleason

One of the sights here (at Paso Robles, I mean) is the leafless oaks, their drooping branches heavily draped with gray lichen. The gray-bearded oaks, they might be called. From my elevated position I could see broad hillsides loosely sprinkled with them. And one of the sights of this particular walk was a great display of manzanita bushes, now in full flower and vocal with bees: the blossoms (of this kind of manzanita) white, the foliage whitish, and the bark of the richest mahogany-red. The bush — which is sometimes almost a tree — is one of the curiosities, not to say one of the glories, of California.

Just at noon my fancy was taken with the look of a solitary ranch lying on a long sunny slope a little below my level; solitary, yet with something uncommonly thrifty and homelike about it, up there by itself among the hills, no neighbors in sight, only the hills, the valley, and the friendly sky. A dog lay asleep on the piazza, and the woman of the house was at work among her plants under the windows. It is encouraging to think that there are still people in the world who do not need to live in a city, or even in a village.

Another ranch, a few miles nearer town, was less pleasing in its aspect: a rough shed of a house, never half built and now long uncared for, a small, straggling orchard of fruit trees, equally unkempt, and a wreck of a barn. A letter-box by the roadside bore in lead-pencil the name of the occupant; a bachelor, he must be, I said; certainly a man with no woman’s hand to care for him; else there would have been at least a geranium or a rose-bush in sight.

The name appealed to me, for personal reasons; and, when I came opposite an old man cutting wood not far down the road, I hailed him. Was he the George whose name I had seen on the letter-box a short distance back? He answered that he was. I explained my cousinly interest in the name, and in an easy, manly tone he told me his story.

He came to California in ‘49, and had been here ever since. Now he was seventy-six years old, well worn out, only waiting for the end.

“You didn’t make your everlasting fortune in the mines?” I said.

It sounds like anything but a pretty question, but the tone, I hope, went some way to save it.

“Well, I made something,” he answered. He had considered himself, not rich, perhaps, no, not rich, but “medium” (and he named a modest figure), till a few years ago, when everything he had was destroyed by fire. Since then he had lived from hand to mouth. At present he was squatting here on an absentee’s ranch, and earning his bread by cutting wood. Oh, no, he had no desire to go back East. His many brothers (he named them over) were every one dead, and a Maine winter, with all that snow and ice, was frightful to think of.

I left him at his task. Two hours of it, he had told me, were enough to wear him out. His great trouble was catarrh. He was “all eaten up with it.” “What, here in California?” said I. Oh, California was the worst place in the world for catarrh, he declared. It was a very natural disease, he had read, and had increased greatly since the fashion of taking snuff had gone out.

So, with a pleasing mixture of humanity and ornithology, which really go well together, a fact that speaks well for both of them, I beguiled the way. And a good time I made of it. It is often so, not of a day only, but of a man’s life: the best things are found after the hunt has failed.


1 A few days later I paid a second visit to the Spring, this time on foot, and Was fortunate enough to find a few of the pigeons flitting about among the oaks.


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