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    Section 799.2

    Red Letter Days: With Woodcock

    At the point where the Belden Brook leaves the hills above the Old Beaver Meadow its character undergoes a change. Its youthful turbulence subsides when it reaches the valley. It assumes the reflective demeanor of maturity as its amber flood slips quietly along the old channels twisting about through the wide thickets of birch, pine and black alder. After miles of apparently purposeless wandering it joins a larger tributary and eventually reaches the sea.

    The Captain, with three years of camps, battlefields and hospitals behind him and a new bird gun tucked away in his baggage, was returning home from the wars. Despite his eagerness to reach the old white house among the maples, he paused for a moment on the wooden bridge to survey the familiar landscape. Nothing had changed here. The farmers’ “young cattle” had probably forged new paths through the thickets; the stands of young poplar, golden in the October sunlight, were undoubtedly a bit taller than when he saw them last, but all else appeared as he remembered it. This was his favorite shooting ground. It had been favorite for Sody Baker and Old Man Juckett, too. They used to gun for the marker and had taken many a bag of woodcock and grouse from these covers, but that had been before the Captain’s time. The grouse remained but the woodcock had vanished, probably never to return.

    The Captain sighed for the lost birds and drove on to his welcome.

    * *

    His room under the eaves was just as he had left it. Loving hands had attended to that. There was the ragged bullet hole in the wall left unrepaired to remind an overconfident youngster that guns are dangerous tools. How it had scared him that day when the old green pistol cartridge turned out to be no dud after all! His old Indian blanket lay folded across the foot of the bed and on shelf and walls were the accumulated trophies and treasures of boyhood, harmless things that reminded him of happy, peaceful years before the grim times came.

    And, bless her heart! If she hadn’t dug out his old shooting kit, the stained corduroy jacket and breeches, the battered wreck of a hat, and the scarred boots.

    The Captain put out his hands to touch the stuff.

    “You haven’t changed one single bit!” She was watching him from the doorway with shining eyes. “When you used to come home from school you never could wait to get into those awful looking things and found a gun or a fish pole.”

    The Captain’s eyes twinkled as he corrected her gently.

    “It’s a fishing rod, not a pole, Mother. I’ve told you that times enough.”

    “Well, I’m sure I can’t see why.” She smiled, delighted that he had remembered their old joke. Then she resumed: “Everyone in town will be coming to see you tomorrow. You always got away when company came. I suppose, as usual, I’ll have to explain that you’ve gone off shooting.”

    “Yes, ma’am I guess so,” he admitted meekly. Then, with a motion too swift for her to avoid he swung her up in his arms. “That is if I can find anyone around here who’ll fix up a little lunch for me. Maybe I’ll bring her a partridge feather and a handful of wintergreens.”

    There was a white frost that night to make the ancient timbers of the house creak and sigh. It put a border of thin crystals along the edges of the brook and on the puddles of the cow path that the Captain followed. He carried his new gun, a slim, polished twenty-bore that had cost him a month’s pay in a famous gun shop in the City. Occasionally he paused momentarily to pitch the weapon to his shoulder at an imaginary target, trying to recover the bird shooter’s knack, so long unpracticed.

    His boot crushed a mushroom of ice crystals. The small sound set off an explosion in a thicket of birch and a grouse roared up, its marking of gray and brown and black clear and distinct in the light. The gun caught the old drummer at the top of his leap and tumbled him back in a cloud of shattered leaves and floating feathers.

    There were two more at the edge of a well-remembered cluster of thorn-apple bushes. One vanished instantly among the thick growth, but the second bird rose like a pigeon in a high sweeping course that carried it back over the gunner’s head and squarely into a lethal charge of no. 7’s that the new gun sent aloft to intercept the arrowy flight.

    “I wish old Stub could have seen that one,” thought the Captain, but his friend and comrade of other days slept now in a far foreign field and would never again go gunning in the covers of Tranquility Township.

    With two plump birds in his pockets, the Captain was in no mood to hasten. It was enough to wander again through the autumnal landscape, sniffing the pungent odors that betrayed the dissolution of the lush growths of summer and listening to the peaceful sounds that told of the shy, busy harvesters, furred and feathered, at work all about him. It was enough to see the misty blue walls of the Adirondacks beyond the shimmering waters of the Lake and the darker masses and peaks of his own Green Mountains, standing firm and constant above the lesser hills. If he thought of the friends now gathering to greet him he forgave himself any discourtesy, for those hills and valleys also were his friends welcoming him home again with a carnival of color fit for an emperor.

    The sun was slanting toward the crest of the western mountains when the solitary hunter turned his steps toward the brook. He wanted a drink of cold water and he knew there was a good prospect, at this time of the day, of finding grouse feeding in the wild grapevines that grew along the stream side. The thickets were less dense here and interspersed with small grassy glades and the tangled strongholds of blackberry bushes.

    The Captain was crossing one of these faint clearings when it happened. A woodcock sprang from underfoot and with a brief provocative whistle and a light whirr of cupped wings darted down the glade before the eyes of the astonished gunner. It hung suspended for an instant against the sky, then it vanished like a wraith. But there was no mistaking the royal orange and black of the bird’s plumage nor the long bill seen for a moment as the tinkling bird turned sharply to fly down some invisible passageway of air.

    “By the Lord Harry! That’s the first –”

    The exclamation was left unfinished, for another bird was in the air. This time the gun was ready and the woodcock collapsed into the birches, leaving a small puff of soft feathers floating in the air to mark the spot where its last flight had ended.

    The Captain gathered his game tenderly, observing as he did so that the ground ’round about was marked with the white splashes that are the woodcock’s sign.

    “Just two birds couldn’t have done all this,” he reflected. “There must be more around here somewhere.”

    He began a careful exploration, giving special attention to the edges of the thickets and the bare damp earth of the cattle paths.

    Almost immediately he flushed another bird which offered a ridiculously easy shot as it went straight away across the clearing.

    “Well,” muttered the Captain as he snapped out the smoking cases and reloaded. “Old Man Juckett used to say that the easy-looking ’cocks were the hardest to hit – and he must have known.”

    The next bird was neatly dropped, although half the charge struck the trunk of an elm tree that the Captain hadn’t even seen until the bark flew.

    And then from the path ahead two woodcock rose together and went drifting and darting away through the tops of the birches against the sunset sky.

    The first fell at the shot, but the other seemed to be hopelessly out of range, no bigger than a butterfly, when the Captain finally had him over the rib and pulled the trigger.

    He reloaded and found the first woodcock.

    Then he went toward the spot where the other had vanished, checking his course by the white shot scars on the twigs. While doing so he found his bird, not on the ground, but hanging lifeless among the twigs of a sapling.

    “That’s enough,” said the Captain aloud, “and even if it wasn’t, a man would be a fool to risk spoiling the flavor of that double with another miss.”

    He found a log in the clearing, laid his birds in a neat row on the cool grass and lighted a cigarette.

    He had always held a notion that at the close of a day in the field, on along a stream, a man ought to thank Someone for these gifts, and the Indian way was as good as any — an offering of the incense of tobacco and a few minutes of quiet contemplation. The sun had gone and over the Adirondacks the glory of the sky glowed and faded with the ebbing pulse of the dying day. The Captain watched, and as he watched, pondered long on the mystery of the woodcock’s return.


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