(Return to Web Text-ures)
Click Here to return to
Old Plymouth Trails
Click Here To Return
To the Previous Chapter
Almost daily in our hottest season the east wind brings coolness and refreshment to the dwellers at the sea beach. Nor does it stop at the seacoast. Often hills a dozen miles inland feel its cool caress.
The inland, simmering beneath the sun, with the thermometer in the eighties or worse, sends heavenward great columns of heated air. To take the place of this the lower strata draws in from the sea, filled with the coolness and sparkle of the brine and informed with that mysterious tonic which seems born of wind-tossed salt water. At such times the east wind brings the breath of life to our nostrils and sets the jaded motor centres of our nerves atingle with new power.
Often we dwellers far inland get more than a cool breath of the sea. Then for a day or two a northeaster comes pelting over the seaward range of hills, murking the sky with dun clouds, whining about the eaves and roaring down the chimney, bringing deluges of rain to the heat-browned pastures and draping them in obscurity of gray mists, blotting out the roar of cities and the flurry of modern life, making us believe for a little that we are children of the farm once more. On sunny days we do not quite get this. Even in the east wind we smell the soot as well as the sea, but the genuine northeaster shuts all that out.
On such days the work of the farm ceases. What hay is out is cocked and capped, snugged down to wait for fair weather. The weeds in the garden drink and drink again and forget the hoe which idles in the tool-house corner, and Jotham putters about the barn, making pretence of indoor work but really luxuriating in idleness. The place is redolent of the rich, sweet odor of the new hay and mingled with, this comes that salt tang of the east wind bearing scent also of all the hills and pastures over which it has blown. You may if you will tell what gust touched the elders in white bloom down by the brook, which one lingered in the swamp a moment to caress the azaleas, and which stopped only long enough to snatch a kiss from the sweet fern on the pasture hill-top.
It is pleasant then to sit sheltered from the rain just within the wide barn doors, to hear the twittering of the swallows as they comfort their young on the beams, and to listen to the wind and to Jotham. The old-time New England farm hand -- he who wore the smock frock as did his master while they both worked about the barn and then, the chores done, stood for half an hour in the dusk, either side of the barn door like caryatids, drinking in the pleasures of rest in the twilight has passed, but Jotham remains. He has told the tales of his grandfather's exploits as a hunter so many times that he not only believes them himself but is equally sure that everyone else believes them.
Yet Jotham is in the main taciturn. It is only when the northeaster soughs in the eaves and brings him leisure that he drops into narrative. His tales are grotesque fancies, simple yarns withal, such as fluttered from the homely life of pasture and woodland in early days of enforced idleness to light on the threshing floor of some great old barn, or to warm themselves at the big kitchen fireplace on winter nights when the wind guffawed down the throat of the big chimney and sprinkled the hearth with an attic salt of snow for the seasoning of them for the country palate. I do not doubt Jotham's grandfather told them of his grandfather and that they belong to neither but are local folk lore, pasture sagas, changelings born of the queer union of east wind and blueberry blooms, brought up by hand -- farm hand.
"My grandfather," says Jotham, "was a great hunter. On stormy days like this he would take down his old long, single-barrelled gun and go out and bring home all kinds of game, mostly ducks and geese. In his day the ducks and geese bred around here and you could get 'em any time, but the best shooting was in the early fall on a northeaster. The heavy waves down on the coast drive the birds out of their feeding grounds and they come up to the fresh-water ponds inland to drink and get a change of feed. It is the same way with the shore birds; yellow-legs and plover and the like; though in my grandfather's day they didn't care much about such small game. Bigger birds were plenty enough. Grandfather used to hate yellow-legs, though, for they are telltales.
"Once he went over to Muddy Pond loaded for duck. It is a great place for ducks. In those days they used to come in there and sometimes pack it solid full. You could hardly see the pond for the ducks in it. Grandfather always knew just the right day to go, and this time when 'he looked down on the pond from the hill he saw hardly any water at all, nothing much but ducks. It was the chance of his life. He slipped down the hill among the scrubs to the cedars and then began to creep carefully up. You know what the pond is like; perfectly round and only a couple of acres or so, with a rim of marsh and then another big rim of swamp cedars, then the hills all about; neither inlet nor outlet; a queer pond anyway and queer things happen on it, same as they did that day. Grandfather had got half way through the swamp cedars when he came to a little opening which he had to cross. Just then there came up on the east wind a big flock of telltales, 762 of them, whirling over the hills without a sound till they saw him. Then they began to yelp."
"Look here, Jotham," I am always careful to say at this point, "How could he tell that there were just 762 of them? He couldn't count so many as they flew."
"Didn't have to count 'em as they flew," answers Jotham. "He counted 'em after he had shot 'em.
"Well, they began to yelp 'Look out for him! Look out for him!' and the ducks knew what that meant. All that great blanket of ducks uncovered the pond with one motion. Grandfather said it was just like a curtain rising straight up, for they were all black ducks. There is no other duck can go straight up in the air. Other ducks slide off on a slant against the wind."
How Jotham manages to put the lonely quaver of the yellow-leg's call into that phrase "Look out for him! Look out for him!" with its four-note repetition is more than I know, but he always does, and you can see the big flock swing through the mist as he says it.
"Grandfather was pretty mad to lose that chance at good game and he made up his mind that he'd take it out of the telltales, so he began to whistle 'em back. He was a master hand at any wild call and pretty soon he lit the flock. There they were, a rim of yellow-legs all around the pond, a perfect circle except in one place, where some dogwood bushes made down to the water's edge. Then granddad had a great idea. He saw his chance to kill every one of those infernal telltales where they sat. He studied on the size of that circle for a minute. Then he put the long barrel of that old gun between two swamp cedar stumps and bent on it carefully. He kept doing this, looking at the circle, then bending the gun barrel till he had the gun bent just on the curve of the circle of yellow-legs sitting round the pond. Then he smiled for he knew he had 'em. He crept carefully into the dogwood bushes till he was in just the right place, took a good aim round that circle, and then he unlatched on 'em.
"Well, he'd figured that circle just right. The shot swung round it and killed every one of them seven hundred and sixty-two yellow-legs right where they stood. But tarnation! He'd forgotten all about himself, he was so interested in the science of it. The back of his neck was right in that circle and the shot came round true as could be and hit him right there. The force of it was pretty well spent going so far and killing so many yellow-legs, but it dented some bits of dogwood leaves right into his system and he had dogwood poisoning pretty bad. He used to have it every year after that, about the time the first northeaster set in."
Anybody who knows Muddy Pond will know that Jotham's story ought to be true, for the pond is there to prove it, just as he describes it.
"Of course," says Jotham at this point, "that was skill. Not one hunter in a hundred would have thought to bend his gun so as to throw the shot in a circle or would have been able to estimate the amount of the curve so exactly right. Another thing happened to my grandfather over at that pond that was part skill and part luck. He was on his way home from partridge shooting one day just before Thanksgiving. He found he was out of shot just before he got to the pond. His flask had leaked and let every bit of the shot out, and when he came to load up after shooting his last partridge he stopped with the powder, for there was no shot to put in. just then he came in sight of the pond and there were seven geese swimming round in it; and that the day before Thanksgiving!
"It was a tough time to be without any shot, but grandfather was equal to the emergency. He simply left his ramrod right in the gun, put on a cap, and began to worm his way through the cedars to the shore, where he could get a good, close shot at the geese. Just as he did this another hunter who was no kind of a shot, came to the other side of the pond and saw the birds. He was one of the kind that have the buck fever at the sight of game, and he put up his gun and shot slam at the flock, too far away to do any execution; then he let out a yell and began to run down to the shore as fast as he could go.
"Of course he scared the geese and they lit out, swinging right by grandfather. Grandfather was a nervy hunter. He held his fire till he got the heads of those seven geese right in line, and then he shot and strung 'em all right through the eyes with the ramrod. Granddad couldn't quite see where he had hit 'em, but when the smoke cleared away he saw the seven geese still flying and his ramrod going off with 'em, and he was some considerable astonished and a good deal put about at losing his ramrod.
"Now here's the queer part of it: Those seven geese were blinded, of course, with a ramrod strung right through their eyes, but the life in a wild goose is powerful strong and they kept flying on just the same, until they went out of sight, right in the direction of granddad's home. But he got home and had hung up his gun without seeing anything more of them and he thought his ramrod was sure gone for good. Then grandmother came to him, kind of scared, saying she heard spirit rappings on the pantry wall. Granddad heard the noise, a sort of tapping, but he couldn't see anything until he looked out the pantry window.
"Yes, there they were seven of 'em, hung on the ramrod and the ramrod hung on a blind-hook, just outside Granddad's pantry window, their wings still flapping a little and making that rapping sound, just as if they were knocking to be let in at the pantry of the man that had shot 'em. All the relations used to come to grandfather's for Thanksgiving, and thirty-five of 'em sat down to dinner that year and every one of 'em had all the roast goose they could eat."
Frightened or injured game birds do perform strange feats as many an honest huntsman will tell you. I myself have a neighbor, no relative of Jotham's, who shot at a partridge in the woods a quarter of a mile from his house and saw the bird fly away. When he got home a half-hour later he found his pantry window broken and a partridge lying dead on the pantry floor, either the one he had shot at or another just as good and as the proverb has it, one story is good until another one is told. Jotham usually caps his list with the following:
"I guess the greatest wild goose hunting grandfather ever did was the time the big flock got caught in the ice storm. It came in November, a foot of soft snow and then one of those rainstorms that freeze as soon as the rain touches anything. Every twig on the trees that storm was as big as your wrist with ice and there was an inch or two of clear ice on everything and more coming all the time, when grandfather heard a big flock of wild geese honking. They didn't seem to be going over, but their voices hung in the air right over the big steep hill from the barn up into the back pasture. After they'd been honking up there for some time grandfather went up to see what it was all about, but he didn't take his gun. As he climbed the hill through the wet snow he heard 'em plainer and plainer, and when he got to the top he saw a most 'strodinary sight. There was a good-sized flock, ninety-seven geese, to be exact, that had got so iced up that they had to settle on the top of the hill. "The ice had formed on their feathers as they flew and they were so weighted down they couldn't fly and they were getting more and more iced up every minute. Granddad didn't care to go back for his gun for fear some of the other nimrods in the neighborhood would come on the scene and bag the game first, but there wasn't any need of a gun. All he had to do was to drive 'em home. They were terribly iced up, but their legs were still free and he chased 'em about for some time before he got 'em started down hill. But once over the edge of the hill the weight of ice on 'em turned 'em right over and over, and so they rolled on down. It was a wet snow and as they rolled they took up more and more of it till by the time they came slap up against the side of the barn every single goose was sealed up in the middle of a hard, round snowball. They all stopped there and all that grandfather had to do was to pile them up, and there they were, in cold storage for the winter. Every time the family wanted roast goose they went out and split open a snowball. The folks in granddad's time used often to freeze their fresh meat and keep it but in the snow all winter, but he was the only one that I ever heard of that stored wild geese in that way."
There are worse tales and more of them, but I fear that cold type chills out the subtle aroma of probability with which Jotham always manages to invest them. One needs to hear them told with the fragrance of a barn full of new-made hay in the nostrils, the swish of the northeaster to accompany the voice in his ears, and with his eye on the distant hillside pastures all hung with mysterious draperies of mist to make a proper background of quaint shadows of romance. Then he can really appreciate the folk lore that goes with us by the familiar title of "Jotham stories."