Chapter XXI - Wild-fowling Adventures

My sporting brother and the armoury--I attend him on his shooting expeditions--Adventure with Golden Plover--A morning after Wild Duck-- Our punishment--I learn to shoot--My first gun--My first wild duck--My ducking tactics--My gun's infirmities--Duck-shooting with a blunderbus--Ammunition runs out--An adventure with Rosy-bill Duck-- Coarse gunpowder and home-made shot--The war danger comes our way--We prepare to defend the house--The danger over and my brother leaves home.

I have said I was not allowed to shoot before the age of ten, but the desire had come long before that; I was no more than seven when I used to wish to be a big, or at all events a bigger, boy, so that, like my brother, I too might carry a gun and shoot big wild birds. But he said "No" very emphatically, and there was an end of it.

He had virtually made himself the owner of all the guns and weapons generally in the house. These included three fowling-pieces, a rifle, an ancient Tower musket with a flint-lock--doubtless dropped from the dead hands of a slain British soldier in one of the fights in Buenos Ayres in 1807 or 1808; a pair of heavy horse pistols, and a ponderous, formidable-looking old blunderbuss, wide at the mouth as a tea-cup saucer. His, too, were the swords. To our native neighbours this appeared an astonishingly large collection of weapons, for in those days they possessed no fire-arm except, in some rare instances, a carbine, brought home by a runaway soldier and kept concealed lest the authorities should get wind of it.

As the next best thing to doing the shooting myself, I attended my brother in his expeditions, to hold his horse or to pick up and carry the birds, and was deeply grateful to him for allowing me to serve him in this humble capacity. We had some exciting adventures together. One summer day he came rushing home to get his gun, having just seen an immense flock of golden plover come down at a spot a mile or so from home. With his gun and a sack to put the birds in, he mounted his pony, I with him, as our ponies were accustomed to carry two and even three at a pinch. We found the flock where he had seen it alight-- thousands of birds evenly scattered, running about busily feeding on the wet level ground.

The bird I speak of is the Charadrius dominicanca, which breeds in Arctic America and migrates in August and September to the plains of La Plata and Patagonia, so that it travels about sixteen thousand miles every year. In appearance it is so like our golden plover, Charadrius pluvialis, as to be hardly distinguishable from it. The birds were quite tame: all our wild birds were if anything too tame, although not shockingly so as Alexander Selkirk found them on his island--the poet's, not the real Selkirk. The birds being so scattered, all he could do was to lie flat down and fire with the barrel of his fowling-piece level with the flock, and the result was that the shot cut through the loose flock to a distance of thirty or forty yards, dropping thirty-nine birds, which we put into the sack, and remounting our pony set off home at a fast gallop. We were riding barebacked, and as our pony's back had a forward slope we slipped further and further forward until we were almost on his neck, and I, sitting behind my brother, shouted for him to stop. But he had his gun in one hand and the sack in the other, and had lost the reins; the pony, however, appeared to have understood, as he came to a dead stop of his own accord on the edge of a rain-pool, into which we were pitched headlong. When I raised my head I saw the bag of birds at my side, and the gun lying under water at a little distance; about three yards further on my brother was just sitting up, with the water streaming from his long hair, and a look of astonishment on his face. But the pool was quite clean, with the soft grass for bottom, and we were not hurt.

However, we did sometimes get into serious trouble. On one occasion he persuaded me and the little brother to accompany him on a secret shooting expedition he had planned. We were to start on horseback before daybreak, ride to one of the marshes about two miles from home, shoot a lot of duck, and get back about breakfast-time. The main thing was to keep the plan secret, then it would be all right, since the sight of the number of wild duck we should have to show on our return would cause our escapade to be overlooked.

In the evening, instead of liberating our ponies as usual, we took and tethered them in the plantation, and next morning about three o'clock we crept cautiously out of the house and set off on our adventure. It was a winter morning, misty and cold when the light came, and the birds were excessively wild at that hour. In vain we followed the flocks, my brother stalking them through the sedges, above his knees in the water; not a bird could he get, and at last we were obliged to go back empty-handed to face the music. At half-past ten we rode to the door, wet and hungry and miserable, to find the whole house in a state of commotion at our disappearance. When we were first missed in the morning, one of the workmen reported that he had seen us taking our horses to conceal them in the plantation at a little after dark, and it was assumed that we had run away--that we had gone south where the country was more thinly settled and wild animals more abundant, in quest of new and more stirring adventures. They were greatly relieved to see us back, but as we had no ducks to placate them we could not be forgiven, and as a punishment we had to go breakfastless that day, and our leader was in addition sternly lectured and forbidden to use a gun for the future.

We thought this a very hard thing, and for the following days were inclined to look at life as a rather tame, insipid business; but soon, to our joy, the ban was removed. In forbidding us the use of the guns my father had punished himself as well as us, since he never thoroughly enjoyed a meal--breakfast, dinner, or supper--unless he had a bird on the table, wild duck, plover, or snipe. A cold roast duck was his favourite breakfast dish, and he was never quite happy when he didn't get it.

Still, I was not happy, and could not be so long as I was not allowed to shoot. It was a privilege to be allowed to attend, but it seemed to me that at the age of ten I was quite old enough to have a gun. I had been a rider on horseback since the age of six, and in some exercises I was not much behind my brother, although when we practised with the foils or with the gloves he punished me in rather a barbarous manner. He was my guide and philosopher, and had also been a better friend ever since our fight with knives and the cowbird episode; nevertheless he still managed to dissemble his love, and when I revolted against his tyranny I generally got well punished for it.

About that time an old friend of the family, who took an interest in me and wished to do something to encourage me in my natural history tastes, made me a present of a set of pen-and-ink drawings. There was, however, nothing in these pictures to help me in the line I had taken: they were mostly architectural drawings made by himself of buildings-- houses, churches, castles, and so on, but my brother fell in love with them and began to try to get them from me. He could not rest without them, and was continually offering me something of his own in exchange for them; but though I soon grew tired of looking at them I refused to part with them, either because his anxiety to have them gave them a fictitious value in my sight, or because it was pleasing to be able to inflict a little pain on him in return for the many smarts I had suffered at his hands. At length one day, finding me still unmoved, he all at once offered to teach me to shoot and to allow me the use of one of the guns in exchange for the pictures. I could hardly believe my good fortune: it would have surprised me less if he had offered to give me his horse with "saddle and bridle also."

As soon as the drawings were in his hand he took me to our gun-room and gave me a quite unneeded lesson in the art of loading a gun--first so much powder, then a wad well rammed down with the old obsolete ramrod; then so much shot and a second wad and ramming down; then a percussion cap on the nipple. He then led the way to the plantation, and finding two wild pigeons sitting together in a tree, he ordered me to fire. I fired, and one fell, quite dead, and that completed my education, for now he declared he was not going to waste any more time on my instruction.

The gun he had told me to use was a single-barrel fowling-piece, an ancient converted flintlock, the stock made of an iron-hard black wood with silver mountings. When I stood it up and measured myself by it I found it was nearly two inches taller than I was, but it was light to carry and served me well: I became as much attached to it as to any living thing, and it was like a living being to me, and I had great faith in its intelligence.

My chief ambition was to shoot wild duck. My brother shot them in preference to anything else: they were so much esteemed and he was so much commended when he came in with a few in his bag that I looked on duck-shooting as the greatest thing I could go in for. Ducks were common enough with us and in great variety; I know not in what country more kinds are to be found. There were no fewer than five species of teal, the commonest a dark brown bird with black mottlings; another, very common, was pale grey, the plumage beautifully barred and pencilled with brown and black; then we had the blue-winged teal, a maroon-red duck which ranges from Patagonia to California; the ringed teal, with salmon-coloured breast and velvet-black collar; the Brazilian teal, a lovely olive-brown and velvet-black duck, with crimson beak and legs. There were two pintails, one of which was the most abundant species in the country; also a widgeon, a lake duck, a shoveller duck, with red plumage, grey head and neck, and blue wings; and two species of the long-legged whistling or tree duck. Another common species was the rosy-billed duck, now to be seen on ornamental waters in England; and occasionally we saw the wild Muscovy duck, called Royal duck by the natives, but it was a rare visitor so far south. We also had geese and swans: the upland geese from the Megellanic Straits that came to us in winter--that is to say, our winter from May to August. And there were two swans, the black-necked, which has black flesh and is unfit to eat, and the white or Coscoroba Swan, as good a table bird as there is in the world. And oddly enough this bird has been known to the natives as a "goose" since the discovery of America, and now after three centuries our scientific ornithologists have made the discovery that it is a link between the geese and swans, but is more goose than swan. It is a beautiful white bird, with bright red bill and legs, the wings tipped with black; and has a loud musical cry of three notes, the last prolonged note with a falling inflection.

These were the birds we sought after in winter; but we could shoot for the table all the year round, for no sooner was it the duck's pairing and breeding season than another bird-population from their breeding- grounds in the arctic and sub-arctic regions came on the scene-- plover, sandpiper, godwit, curlew, whimbrel,--a host of northern species that made the summerdried pampas their winter abode.

My first attempt at duck-shooting was made at a pond not many minutes' walk from the house, where I found a pair of shoveller ducks, feeding in their usual way in the shallow water with head and neck immersed. Anxious not to fail in this first trial, I got down flat on the ground and crawled snake-fashion for a distance of fifty or sixty yards, until I was less than twenty yards from the birds, when I fired and killed one.

That first duck was a great joy, and having succeeded so well with my careful tactics, I continued in the same way, confining my attention to pairs or small parties of three or four birds, when by patiently creeping a long distance through the grass I could get very close to them. In this way I shot teal, widgeon, pintail, shovellers, and finally the noble rosy-bill, which was esteemed for the table above all the others.

My brother, ambitious of a big bag, invariably went a distance from home in quest of the large flocks, and despised my way of duck- shooting; but it sometimes vexed him to find on his return from a day's expedition that I had succeeded in getting as many birds as himself without having gone much more than a mile from home.

Some months after I had started shooting I began to have trouble with my beloved gun, owing to a weakness it had developed in its lock--one of the infirmities incidental to age which the gunsmiths of Buenos Ayres were never able to cure effectually. Whenever it got bad I was permitted to put it into the cart sent to town periodically, to have it repaired, and would then go gunless for a week or ten days. On one of these occasions I one day saw a party of shoveller duck dibbling in a small rain-pool at the side of the plantation, within a dozen yards of the old moat which surrounded it. Ducks always appeared to be exceptionally tame and bold when I was without a gun, but the boldness of those shovellers was more than I could stand, and running to the house I got out the old blunderbuss, which I had never been forbidden to use, since no one had ever thought it possible that I should want to use such a monster of a gun. But I was desperate, and loading it for the first (and last) time, I went after those shovellers.

I had once been told that it would be impossible to shoot wild duck or anything with the blunderbuss unless one could get within a dozen yards of them, on account of its tremendous scattering power. Well, by going along the bottom of the moat, which was luckily without water just then, I could get as near the birds as I liked and kill the whole flock. When I arrived abreast of the pool I crept up the grassy crumbling outside bank, and resting the ponderous barrel on the top of the bank, fired at the shovellers at a distance of about fifteen yards, and killed nothing, but received a kick which sent me flying to the bottom of the foss. It was several days before I got over that pain in my shoulder.

Later on there was a period of trouble and scarcity in the land. There was war, and the city from which we obtained our supplies was besieged by an army from the "upper provinces" which had come down to break the power and humble the pride of Buenos Ayres. Our elders missed their tea and coffee most, but our anxiety was that we should soon be without powder and shot. My brother constantly warned me not to be so wasteful, although he fired half a dozen shots to my one without getting more birds for the table. At length there came a day when there was little shot left--just about enough to fill one shot-pouch-- and knowing it was his intention to have a day out, I sneaked into the gun-room and loaded my fowling-piece just to have one shot more. He was going to try for upland geese that day, and, as I had expected, carried off all the shot.

After he had gone I took my gun, and being determined to make the most of my one shot, refused to be tempted by any of the small parties of duck I found in the pools near home, even when they appeared quite tame. At length I encountered a good-sized flock of rosy-bills by the side of a marshy stream about two miles from home. It was a still, warm day in mid-winter, and the ducks were dozing on the green bank in a beautiful crowd, and as the land near them was covered with long grass, I saw it would be possible to get quite close to them. Leaving my pony at a good distance, I got down flat on the ground and began my long laborious crawl, and got within twenty-five yards of the flock. Never had I had such a chance before! As I peeped through the grass and herbage I imagined all sorts of delightful things--my brother far away vainly firing long shots at the wary geese, and his return and disgust at the sight of my heap of noble rosy-bills, all obtained near home at one shot!

Then I fired just as the birds, catching sight of my cap, raised their long necks in alarm. Bang! Up they rose with a noise of wings, leaving not one behind! Vainly I watched the flock, thinking that some of the birds I must have hit would soon be seen to waver in their course and then drop to earth. But none wavered or fell. I went home as much puzzled as disappointed. Late in the day my brother returned with one upland goose and three or four ducks, and inquired if I had had any luck. I told him my sad story, whereupon he burst out laughing and informed me that he had taken care to draw the shot from my gun before going out. He was up to my little tricks, he said; he had seen what I had done, and was not going to allow me to waste the little shot we had left!

Our duck-shooting was carried on under difficulties during those days. We searched for ammunition at all the houses for some leagues around, and at one house we found and purchased a quantity of exceedingly coarse gunpowder, with grain almost the size of canary-seed. They told us it was cannon-powder, and to make it fit for use in our fowling- pieces we ground it fine with glass and stone bottles for rollers on a tin plate. Shot we could not find, so had to make it for ourselves by cutting up plates of lead into small square bits with a knife and hammer.

Eventually the civil war, which had dragged on for a long time, brought an unexpected danger to our house and caused us to turn our minds to more important things than ducks. I have said that the city was besieged by an army from the provinces, but away on the southern frontier of the province of Buenos Ayres the besieged party, or faction, had a powerful friend in an estanciero in those parts who was friendly with the Indians, and who collected an army of Indians hungry for loot, and gauchos, mostly criminals and deserters, who in those days were accustomed to come from all parts of the country to put themselves under the protection of this good man.

This horde of robbers and enthusiasts was now advancing upon the capital to raise the siege, and each day brought us alarming reports-- whether true or false we could not know--of depredations they were committing on their march. The good man, their commander, was not a soldier, and there was no pretence of discipline of any kind; the men, it was said, did what they liked, swarming over the country on the line of march in bands, sacking and burning houses, killing or driving off the cattle, and so on. Our house was unfortunately on the main road running south from the capital, and directly in the way of the coming rabble. That the danger was a real and very great one we could see in the anxious faces of our elders; besides, nothing was now talked of but the coming army and of all we had to fear.

At this juncture my brother took it upon himself to make preparations for the defence of the house Our oldest brother was away, shut up in the besieged city, but the three of us at home determined to make a good fight, and we set to work cleaning and polishing up our firearms- the Tower musket, the awful blunderbuss, the three fowling-pieces, double and single-barrelled, and the two big horse-pistols and an old revolver. We collected all the old lead we could find about the place and made bullets in a couple of bullet-moulds we had found--one for ounce and one for small bullets, three to the ounce. The fire to melt the lead was in a shelter we had made behind an outhouse, and here one day, in spite of all our precautions, we were discovered at work, with rows and pyramids of shining bullets round us, and our secret was out. We were laughed at as a set of young fools for our pains. "Never mind," said my brother. "Let them mock now; by and by when it comes to choosing between having our throats cut and defending ourselves, they will probably be glad the bullets were made."

But though they laughed, our work was not interfered with, and some hundreds of bullets were turned out and made quite a pretty show.

Meanwhile the besiegers were not idle: they had in their army a cavalry officer who had had a long experience of frontier warfare and had always been successful in his fights with the pampas Indians; and this man, with a picked force composed of veteran fighters, was dispatched against the barbarians. They had already crossed the Salado river and were within two or three easy marches of us, when the small disciplined force met and gave them battle and utterly routed them. Indians and gauchos were sent flying south like thistle-down before the wind; but all being well-mounted, not many were killed.

So ended that danger, and I think we boys were all a little disappointed that no use had been made of our bright beautiful bullets. I am sure my brother was; but soon after that he left home for a distant country, and our shooting and other adventures together were ended for ever.