The Boy and Hushwing


    
    A HOLLOW, booming, ominous cry, a great voice of shadowy doom, rang out suddenly and startled the dark edges of the forest. It sounded across the glimmering pastures, vibrating the brown-violet dusk, and made the lame old woman in the cabin on the other side of the clearing shiver with vague fears.
    But not vague was the fear which shook the soul of the red squirrel where he crouched, still for once in his restless life, in the crotch of a thick spruce-top. Not vague was the fear of the brooding grouse in the far-off withe-wood thicket, though the sound came to her but dimly and she knew that the menace of it was not, at the moment, for her. And least vague of all was the terror of the usually unterrified weasel, from whose cruel little eyes the red flame of the blood-lust faded suddenly, as the glow dies out of a coal; for the dread voice sounded very close to him, and it required all his nerve to hold [Page 159] himself rigidly motionless and to refrain from the start which would have betrayed him to his death.
    “Whoo-hoo-oo-h’oo-oo!” boomed the call again, seeming to come from the tree-tops, the thickets, the sky, and the earth, all at once, so that creatures many hundred yards apart trembled simultaneously, deeming that the clutch of fate was already at their necks. But to the Boy, as he let down the pasture bars with a clatter and turned the new-milked cows in among the twilight-coloured hillocks, the sound brought no terror. He smiled as he said to himself: “There’s Hushwing again at his hunting. I must give him a taste of what it feels like to be hunted.” Then he strolled across the pasture, between the black stumps, the blueberry patches, the tangles of wild raspberry; pushed softly through the fringe of wild cherry and young birch saplings, and crept, soundless as a snake, under the branches of a low-growing hemlock. Peering out from this covert he could see, rising solitary at the back of an open glade, the pale and naked trunk of a pine-tree, which the lightning had shattered.
    The Boy’s eyes were keen as a fish-hawk’s, and he kept the fixed upon the top of the pine trunk. Presently it seemed as if the spirit of the dusk took shadowy form for an instant. There was a soundless [Page 160] sweeping of wings down the glade, and the next moment the pine trunk looked about two feet taller in the Boy’s eyes. The great horned owl — “Hush-wing,” the Boy had christened him, for the ghostly silence of his flight — had returned to his favourite post of observation, whereon he stood so erect and motionless that he seemed a portion of the pine trunk itself.
    The Boy lay still as a watching lynx, being minded to spy on Hushwing at his hunting. A moment more, and then came again that hollow summons: Whoo-hoo-hoo-who’o-oo; and the great owl turned his head to listen as the echo floated through the forest.
    The Boy heard, a few paces distant from him, the snap of a twig where a startled hare stirred clumsily. The sound was faint; indeed so faint that he was hardly sure whether he heard or imagined it; but to the wonderfully wide and sensitive drum of the owl’s ear it sounded sharply away down at the foot of the glade. Ere the Boy could draw a second breath he saw great wings hovering at the edge of the thicket close at hand. He saw big, clutching talons outstretched from thick-feathered legs, while round eyes, fiercely gleaming, flamed upon his in passing as they searched the bush. Once [Page 161] the great wings backed off, foiled by some obstruction which the Boy could not see. Then they pounced with incredible speed. There was a flapping and a scuffle, followed by a loud squeak; and Hushwing winnowed off down the glade bearing the limp form of a hare in his talons. He did not stop at the pine trunk, but passed toward the deeper woods.
    “He’s got a mate and a nest ’way back in the cedar swamp, likely,” said the Boy, as he got up, stretched his cramped limbs, and turned his face homeward. As he went, he schemed with subtle woodcraft for the capture of the wary old bird. He felt impelled to try his skill against the marauder’s inherited cunning and suspicion; and he knew that, if he should succeed, there would remain Hushwing’s yet fiercer and stronger mate to care for the little owlets in the nest.
    When Hushwing had deposited his prey beside the nest, in readiness for the next meal of his ever-hungry nestlings, he sailed off again for a hunt on his own account. Now it chanced that a rare visitor, a wanderer from the cliffy hills which lay many miles back of Hushwing’s cedar swamp, had come down that day to see if there might not be a sheep or a calf to be picked up on the outskirts of the [Page 162] settlements. It was years since a panther had been seen in that neighbourhood — it was years, indeed, since that particular panther had strayed from his high fastnesses, where game was plentiful and none dared poach on his preserves. But just now a camp of hunters on his range had troubled him seriously and scattered his game. Gnawing his heart with rage and fear, he had succeeded so far in evading their noisy search, and had finally come to seek vengeance by taking tribute of their flocks. He had traversed the cedar swamp, and emerging upon the wooded uplands he had come across a cowpath leading down to the trampled brink of a pond.
    “Here,” he thought to himself, “will the cattle come to drink, and I will kill me a yearling heifer.” On the massive horizontal limb of a willow which overhung the trodden mire of the margin he stretched himself to await the coming of the quarry. A thick-leaved beech bough, thrusting in among the willow branches, effectually concealed him. Only from above was he at all visible, his furry ears and the crown of his head just showing over the leafage.
    The aerial path of Hushwing, from his nest in the swamp to his watch-tower on the clearing’s edge, led him past the pool and the crouching [Page 163] panther. He had never seen a panther, and he had nothing in his brain-furnishing to fit so formidable a beast. On chance, thinking perhaps to strike a mink at his fishing on the pool’s brink, he sounded his Whoo-hoo-hoo-who’o-oo! as he came near. The panther turned his head at the sound, rustling the leaves, over which appeared his furry ear-tips. The next instant, to his rage and astonishment, he received a smart blow on the top of his head, and sharp claws tore the tender skin about his ears. With a startled snarl he turned and struck upward with his armed paw, a lightning stroke, at the unseen assailant.
    But he struck the empty air. Already was Hushwing far on his way, a gliding ghost. He was puzzled over the strange animal which he had struck; but while his wits were yet wondering, those miracles of sensitiveness, those living telephone films which served him for ears, caught the scratching of light claws on the dry bark of a hemlock some ten paces aside from his line of flight. Thought itself could hardly be more silent and swift than was his turning. The next moment his noiseless wings overhung a red squirrel, where it lay flattened to the bark in the crotch of the hemlock. Some dream of the hunt or the flight had awakened the little [Page 164] animal to an unseasonable activity and betrayed it to its doom. There was a shrill squeal as those knife-like talons met in the small, furry body; then Hushwing carried off his supper to be eaten comfortably upon his watch-tower.
    Meanwhile the Boy was planning the capture of the wise old owl. He might have shot the bird easily, but wanton slaughter was not his object, and he was no partisan as far as the wild creatures were concerned. All the furtive folk, fur and feather alike, were interesting to him, even dear to him in varying degrees. He had no grudge against Hushwing for his slaughter of the harmless hare and grouse, for did not the big marauder show equal zest in the pursuit of the mink and weasel, snake and rat? Even toward that embodied death, the malignant weasel, indeed, the Boy had no antagonism, making allowance as he did for the inherited bloodlust which drove the murderous little animal to defy all the laws of the wild kindred and kill, kill, kill, for the sheer delight of killing. The Boy’s purpose now in planning the capture of Hushwing was, first of all, to test his own woodcraft; and, second, to get the bird under his close observation. He had a theory that the big horned owl might be tamed so as to become an interesting and highly [Page 167] instructive pet. In any case, he was sure that Hushwing in captivity might be made to contribute much to his knowledge, — and knowledge, first-hand knowledge, of all the furtive kindred of the wild, knowledge such as the text-books on natural history which his father’s library contained could not give him, was what he continually craved.
    On the following afternoon the Boy went early to the neighbourhood of Hushwing’s watch-tower. At the edge of a thicket, half concealed, but open toward the dead pine trunk, was a straggling colony of low blueberry bushes. Where the blueberry bushes rose some eight or ten inches above the top of a decaying birch stump he fixed a snare of rabbit wire. To the noose he gave a diameter of about a foot, supporting it horizontally in the tops of the bushes just over the stump. The cord form the noose he carried to his hiding-place of the previous evening, under the thick-growing hemlock. Then he went home, did up some chores upon which he depended for his pocket-money, and arranged with the hired man to relieve him for that evening of his duty of driving the cows back to pasture after the milking. Just before the afternoon began to turn from brown amber to rose and lilac he went back to the glade of the pine trunk. This time he [Page 168] took with him the body of one of the big gray rats which infested his father’s grain-bins. The rat he fixed securely upon the top of the stump among the blueberry bushes, exactly under the centre of the snare. Then he broke off the tops of a berry bush, tied the stubs together loosely, drew them over, ran the string once around the stump, and carried the end of the string back to his hiding-place beside the cord of the snare. Pulling the string gently, he smiled with satisfaction to hear the broken twigs scratch seductively on the stump, like the claws of a small animal. Then he lay down, both cords in his hand, and composed himself to a season of patient waiting.
    He had not long to wait, however; for Hushwing was early at his hunting that night. The Boy turned away his scrutiny for just one moment, as it seemed to him; but when he looked again there was Hushwing at his post, erect, apparently part of the pine trunk. Then — Whoo-hoo-hoo-who’o-oo! sounded his hollow challenge, though the sunset colour was not yet fading in the west. Instantly the Boy pulled his string; and from the stump among the blueberry bushes came a gently scratching, as of claws. Hushwing heard it. Lightly, as if blown on a swift wind, he was at [Page 169] the spot. He struck. His great talons transfixed the rat. His wings beat heavily as he strove to lift it, to bear it off to his nestlings. But what a heavy beast it was, to be sure! The next moment the noose of his rabbit wire closed inexorably upon his legs. He loosed his grip upon the rat and sprang into the air, bewildered and terrified. But his wings would not bear him the way he wished to go. Instead, a strange, irresistible force was drawing him, for all the windy beating of his pinions, straight to an unseen doom in the heart of a dense-growing hemlock.
    A moment more and he understood his discomfiture and the completeness of it. The Boy stood forth from his hiding-place, grinning; and Hush-wing knew that his fate was wholly in the hands of this master being, whom no wild thing dared to hunt. Courageous to the last, he hissed fiercely and snapped his sharp beak in defiance; but the Boy drew him down, muffled wing, beak, and talons in his heavy homespun jacket, bundled him under his arm, and carried him home in triumph.
    “You’ll find the rats in our oat-bins,” said he, “fatter than any weasel in the wood, my Hushwing.”
    The oat-bins were in a roomy loft at one end [Page 170] of the wood shed. The loft was lighted by a large square window in the gable, arranged to swing back on hinges like a door, for convenience in passing the bags of grain in and out. Besides three large oat-bins, it contained a bin for barley, one for buckwheat, and one for bran. The loft was also used as a general storehouse for all sorts of stuff that would not keep well in a damp cellar; and it was a very paradise for rats. From the wood-shed below admittance to the loft was gained by a flight of open board stairs and a spacious trap-door.
    Mounting these stairs and lifting the trap-door, the boy carefully undid the wire noose from Hushwing’s feathered legs, avoiding the keen talons which promptly clutched at his fingers. Then he unrolled the coat, and the big bird, flapping his wings eagerly, soared straight for the bright square of the window. But the sash was strong; and the glass was a marvel which he had never before encountered. In a few moments he gave up the effort, floated back to the duskiest corner of the loft, and settled himself, much disconcerted, on the back of an old haircloth sofa which had lately been banished from the sitting-room. Here he sat immovable, only hissing and snapping his formidable [Page 173] beak when the Boy approached him. His heart swelled with indignation and despair; and, realising the futility of flight, he stood at bay. As the Boy moved around him he kept turning his great horned head as if it were on a pivot, without changing the position of his body; and his round, golden eyes, with their piercing black pupils, met those of his captor with an unflinching directness beyond the nerve of any four-footed beast, however mighty, to maintain. The daunting mastery of the human gaze, which could prevail over the gaze of the panther or the wolf, was lost upon the tame-less spirit of Hushwing. Noting his courage, the Boy smiled approval and left him alone to recover his equanimity.
    The Boy, as days went by, made no progress whatever in his acquaintance with his captive, who steadfastly met all his advances with defiance of hissings and snapping beak. But by opening the bins and sitting motionless for an hour or two in the twilight the Boy was able to make pretty careful study of Hushwing’s method of hunting. The owl would sit a long time unstirring, the gleam of his eyes never wavering. Then suddenly he would send forth his terrifying cry, — and listen. Sometimes there would be no result. At other [Page 174] times the cry would come just as some big rat, grown over-confident, was venturing softly across the floor or down into the toothsome grain. Startled out of all common sense by that voice of doom at his ear, he would make a desperate rush for cover. There would be a scrambling on the floor or a scurrying in the bin. Then the great, dim wings would hover above the sound. There would be a squeak, a brief scuffle; and Hushwing would float back downily to devour his prey on his chosen perch, the back of the old haircloth sofa.
    For a fortnight the Boy watched him assiduously, spending almost every evening in the loft. At length came an evening when not a rat would stir abroad, and Hushwing’s hunting-calls were hooted in vain. After two hours of vain watching the Boy’s patience gave out, and he went off to bed, promising his prisoner a good breakfast in the morning to compensate him for the selfish prudence of the rats. That same night, while every one in the house slept soundly, it chanced that a thieving squatter from the other end of the settlement came along with a bag, having designs upon the well-filled oat-bins.
    The squatter knew where there was a short and handy ladder leaning against the tool-house. He [Page 175] had always been careful to replace it. He also knew how to lift, with his knife, the iron hook which fastened — but did not secure — the gable window on the inside. To-night he went very stealthily, because, though it was dark, there was no wind to cover the sound of his movements. Stealthily he brought the ladder and raised it against the gable of the loft. Noiselessly he mounted, carrying his bag, till his bushy, hatless head was just on a level with the window-sill. Without a sound, as he imagined, his knife-edge raised the hook — but there was a sound, the ghost of a sound, and the marvellous ear of Hushwing heard it. As the window swung back the thief’s bushy crown appeared just over the sill. “Whoo-h’oo-oo!” shouted Hushwing, angry and hungry, swooping at the seductive mark. He struck it fair and hard, his claws gashing the scalp, his wings dealing an amazing buffet.
    Appalled by the cry and the stroke, the sharp clutch, the great smother of wing, the rascal screamed with terror, lost his hold, and fell to the ground. Nothing was further from his imagination than that his assailant should be a mere owl. It was rather some kind of a grossly inconsistent hobgoblin that he thought of, sent to punish him for [Page 176] the theft of his neighbour’s grain. Leaving the ladder where it fell, and the empty bag beside it, he ran wildly from the haunted spot, and never stopped till he found himself safe inside his shanty door. As for Hushwing, he did not wait to investigate this second mistake of his, but made all haste back to his nest in the swamp.
    The frightened outcry of the thief awoke the sleepers in the house, and presently the Boy and his father came with a lantern to find out what was the matter. The fallen ladder, the empty bag, the open window of the loft, told their own story. When the Boy saw that Hushwing was gone, his face fell with disappointment. He had grown very fond of his big, irreconcilable, dauntless captive.
    “We owe Master Hushwing a right good turn this night,” said the Boy’s father, laughing. “My grain’s going to last longer after this, I’m thinking.”
    “Yes,” sighed the Boy, “Hushwing has earned his freedom. I suppose I mustn’t bother him any more with snares and things.”
    Meanwhile, the great horned owl was sitting erect on the edge of his nest in the swamp, one talon transfixing the torn carcass of a mink, while his shining eyes, round like little suns, shone happily upon the big-headed, ragged-feathered, hungry brood of owlets at his feet. [Page 177]