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Wilderness Ways By William J. Long Characters: 18450

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03

The day was cold, the woods were wet, and the weather was beastly altogether when Killooleet first came and sang on my ridgepole. The fishing was poor down in the big lake, and there were signs of civilization here and there, in the shape of settlers' cabins, which we did not like; so we had pushed up river, Simmo and I, thirty miles in the rain, to a favorite camping ground on a smaller lake, where we had the wilderness all to ourselves.

The rain was still falling, and the lake white-capped, and the forest all misty and wind-blown when we ran our canoes ashore by the old cedar that marked our landing place. First we built a big fire to dry some boughs to sleep upon; then we built our houses, Simmo a bark commoosie, and I a little tent; and I was inside, getting dry clothes out of a rubber bag, when I heard a white-throated sparrow calling cheerily his Indian name, O hear, sweet Killooleet-lillooleet-lillooleet! And the sound was so sunny, so good to hear in the steady drip of rain on the roof, that I went out to see the little fellow who had bid us welcome to the wilderness.

Simmo had heard too. He was on his hands and knees, just his dark face peering by the corner stake of his commoosie, so as to see better the little singer on my tent.-"Have better weather and better luck now. Killooleet sing on ridgepole," he said confidently. Then we spread some cracker crumbs for the guest and turned in to sleep till better times.

That was the beginning of a long acquaintance. It was also the first of many social calls from a whole colony of white-throats (Tom-Peabody birds) that lived on the mountain-side just behind my tent, and that came one by one to sing to us, and to get acquainted, and to share our crumbs. Sometimes, too, in rainy weather, when the woods seemed wetter than the lake, and Simmo would be sleeping philosophically, and I reading, or tying trout flies in the tent, I would hear a gentle stir and a rustle or two just outside, under the tent fly. Then, if I crept out quietly, I would find Killooleet exploring my goods to find where the crackers grew, or just resting contentedly under the fly where it was dry and comfortable.

It was good to live there among them, with the mountain at our backs and the lake at our feet, and peace breathing in every breeze or brooding silently over the place at twilight. Rain or shine, day or night, these white-throated sparrows are the sunniest, cheeriest folk to be found anywhere in the woods. I grew to understand and love the Milicete name, Killooleet, Little Sweet-Voice, for its expressiveness. "Hour-Bird" the Micmacs call him; for they say he sings every hour, and so tells the time, "all same's one white man's watch." And indeed there is rarely an hour, day or night, in the northern woods when you cannot hear Killooleet singing. Other birds grow silent after they have won their mates, or they grow fat and lazy as summer advances, or absorbed in the care of their young, and have no time nor thought for singing. But not so Killooleet. He is kinder to his mate after he has won her, and never lets selfishness or the summer steal away his music; for he knows that the woods are brighter for his singing.

Sometimes, at night, I would, take a brand from the fire, and follow a deer path that wound about the mountain, or steal away into a dark thicket and strike a parlor match. As the flame shot up, lighting its little circle of waiting leaves, there would be a stir beside me in the underbrush, or overhead in the fir; then tinkling out of the darkness, like a brook under the snow, would come the low clear strain of melody that always set my heart a-dancing,-I'm here, sweet Killooleet-lillooleet-lillooleet, the good-night song of my gentle neighbor. Then along the path a little way, and another match, and another song to make one better and his rest sweeter.

By day I used to listen to them, hours long at a stretch, practicing to perfect their song. These were the younger birds, of course; and for a long time they puzzled me. Those who know Killooleet's song will remember that it begins with three clear sweet notes; but very few have observed the break between the second and third of these. I noticed, first of all, that certain birds would start the song twenty times in succession, yet never get beyond the second note. And when I crept up, to find out about it, I would find them sitting disconsolately, deep in shadow, instead of out in the light where they love to sing, with a pitiful little droop of wings and tail, and the air of failure and dejection in every movement. Then again these same singers would touch the third note, and always in such cases they would prolong the last trill, the lillooleet-lillooleet (the Peabody-Peabody, as some think of it), to an indefinite length, instead of stopping at the second or third repetition, which is the rule with good singers. Then they would come out of the shadow, and stir about briskly, and sing again with an air of triumph.

One day, while lying still in the underbrush watching a wood mouse, Killooleet, a fine male bird and a perfect singer, came and sang on a branch just over my head, not noticing me. Then I discovered that there is a trill, a tiny grace note or yodel, at the end of his second note. I listened carefully to other singers, as close as I could get, and found that it is always there, and is the one difficult part of the song. You must be very close to the bird to appreciate the beauty of this little yodel; for ten feet away it sounds like a faint cluck interrupting the flow of the third note; and a little farther away you cannot hear it at all.

Whatever its object, Killooleet regards this as the indispensable part of his song, and never goes on to the third note unless he gets the second perfectly. That accounts for the many times when one hears only the first two notes. That accounts also for the occasional prolonged trill which one hears; for when a young bird has tried many times for his grace note without success, and then gets it unexpectedly, he is so pleased with himself that he forgets he is not Whippoorwill, who tries to sing as long as the brook without stopping, and so keeps up the final lillooleet-lillooleet as long as he has an atom of breath left to do it with.

But of all the Killooleets,-and there were many that I soon recognized, either by their songs, or by some peculiarity in their striped caps or brown jackets,-the most interesting was the one who first perched on my ridgepole and bade me welcome to his camping ground. I soon learned to distinguish him easily; his cap was very bright, and his white cravat very full, and his song never stopped at the second note, for he had mastered the trill perfectly. Then, too, he was more friendly and fearless than all the others. The morning after our arrival (it was better weather, as Simmo and Killooleet had predicted) we were eating breakfast by the fire, when he lit on the ground close by, and turned his head sidewise to look at us curiously. I tossed him a big crumb, which made him run away in fright; but when he thought we were not looking he stole back, touched, tasted, ate the whole of it. And when I threw him another crumb, he hopped to meet it.

After that he came regularly to meals, and would look critically over the tin plate which I placed at my feet, and pick and choose daintily from the cracker and trout and bacon and porridge which I offered him. Soon he began to take bits away with him, and I could hear him, just inside the fringe of underbrush, persuading his mate to come too and share his plate. But she was much shyer than he; it was several days before I noticed her flitting in and out of the shadowy underbrush; and when I tossed her the first crumb, she flew away in a terrible fright. Gradually, however, Killooleet persuaded her that we were kindly, and she came often to meals; but she would never come near, to eat from my tin plate, till after I had gone away.

Never a day now passed that one or both of the birds did not rest on my tent. When I put my head out, like a turtle out of his shell, in the early morning to look at the weather, Killooleet would look down from the projecting end of the ridgepole and sing good-morning. And when I had been out late on the lake, night-fishing, or following the inlet for beaver, or watching the grassy points for caribou, or just drifting along shore silently to catch the night sounds and smells of the woods, I would listen with childish anticipation for Killooleet's welcome as I approached the landing. He had learned to recognize the sounds of my coming, the rub of a careless paddle, the ripple of water under the bow, or the grating of pebbles on the beach; and with Simmo asleep, and the fire low, it was good to be welcomed back by a cheery little voice in the darkness; for he always sang when he heard me. Sometimes I would try to surprise him; but his sleep was too light and his ears too keen. The canoe would glide up to the old cedar and touch the shore noiselessly; but with the first crunch of gravel under my foot, or the rub of my canoe as I lifted it out, he would waken; and his song, all sweetness and cheer, I'

m here, sweet Killooleet-lillooleet-lillooleet, would ripple out of the dark underbrush where his nest was.

I am glad now to think that I never saw that nest, though it was scarcely ten yards from my tent, until after the young had flown, and Killooleet cared no more about it. I knew the bush in which it was, close by the deer path; could pick out from my fireplace the thick branch that sheltered it; for I often watched the birds coming and going. I have no doubt that Killooleet would have welcomed me there without fear; but his mate never laid aside her shyness about it, never went to it directly when I was looking, and I knew he would like me better if I respected her little secret.

Soon, from the mate's infrequent visits, and from the amount of food which Killooleet took away with him, I knew she was brooding her eggs. And when at last both birds came together, and, instead of helping themselves hungrily, each took the largest morsel he could carry and hurried away to the nest, I knew that the little ones were come; and I spread the plate more liberally, and moved it away to the foot of the old cedar, where Killooleet's mate would not be afraid to come at any time.

One day, not long after, as I sat at a late breakfast after the morning's fishing, there was a great stir in the underbrush. Presently Killooleet came skipping out, all fuss and feathers, running back and forth with an air of immense importance between the last bush and the plate by the cedar, crying out in his own way, "Here it is, here it is, all right, just by the old tree as usual. Crackers, trout, brown bread, porridge; come on, come on; don't be afraid. He's here, but he won't harm. I know him. Come on, come on!"

Soon his little gray mate appeared under the last bush, and after much circumspection came hopping towards the breakfast; and after her, in a long line, five little Killooleets, hopping, fluttering, cheeping, stumbling,-all in a fright at the big world, but all in a desperate hurry for crackers and porridge ad libitum; now casting hungry eyes at the plate under the old cedar, now stopping to turn their heads sidewise to see the big kind animal with only two legs, that Killooleet had told them about, no doubt, many times.

After that we had often seven guests to breakfast, instead of two. It was good to hear them, the lively tink, tink-a-tink of their little bills on the tin plate in a merry tattoo, as I ate my own tea and trout thankfully. I had only to raise my eyes to see them in a bobbing brown ring about my bounty; and, just beyond them, the lap of ripples on the beach, the lake glinting far away in the sunshine, and a bark canoe fretting at the landing, swinging, veering, nodding at the ripples, and beckoning me to come away as soon as I had finished my breakfast.

Before the little Killooleets had grown accustomed to things, however, occurred the most delicious bit of our summer camping. It was only a day or two after their first appearance; they knew simply that crumbs and a welcome awaited them at my camp, but had not yet learned that the tin plate in the cedar roots was their special portion. Simmo had gone off at daylight, looking up beaver signs for his fall trapping. I had just returned from the morning fishing, and was getting breakfast, when I saw an otter come out into the lake from a cold brook over on the east shore. Grabbing a handful of figs, and some pilot bread from the cracker box, I paddled away after the otter; for that is an animal which one has small chance to watch nowadays. Besides, I had found a den over near the brook, and I wanted to find out, if possible, how a mother otter teaches her young to swim. For, though otters live much in the water and love it, the young ones are afraid of it as so many kittens. So the mother-

But I must tell about that elsewhere. I did not find out that day; for the young were already good swimmers. I watched the den two or three hours from a good hiding place, and got several glimpses of the mother and the little ones. On the way back I ran into a little bay where a mother shelldrake was teaching her brood to dive and catch trout. There was also a big frog there that always sat in the same place, and that I used to watch. Then I thought of a trap, two miles away, which Simmo had set, and went to see if Nemox, the cunning fisher, who destroys the sable traps in winter, had been caught at his own game. So it was afternoon, and I was hungry, when I paddled back to camp. It occurred to me suddenly that Killooleet might be hungry too; for I had neglected to feed him. He had grown sleek and comfortable of late, and never went insect hunting when he could get cold fried trout and corn bread.

I landed silently and stole up to the tent to see if he were exploring under the fly, as he sometimes did when I was away. A curious sound, a hollow tunk, tunk, tunk, tunk-a-tunk, grew louder as I approached. I stole to the big cedar, where I could see the fireplace and the little opening before my tent, and noticed first that I had left the cracker box open (it was almost empty) when I hurried away after the otter. The curious sound was inside, growing more eager every moment-tunk, tunk, tunk-a-trrrrrrr-runk, tunk, tunk!

I crept on my hands and knees to the box, to see what queer thing had found his way to the crackers, and peeped cautiously over the edge. There were Killooleet, and Mrs. Killooleet, and the five little Killooleets, just seven hopping brown backs and bobbing heads, helping themselves to the crackers. And the sound of their bills on the empty box made the jolliest tattoo that ever came out of a camping kit.

I crept away more cautiously than I had come, and, standing carelessly in my tent door, whistled the call I always used in feeding the birds. Like a flash Killooleet appeared on the edge of the cracker box, looking very much surprised. "I thought you were away; why, I thought you were away," he seemed to be saying. Then he clucked, and the tunk-a-tunk ceased instantly. Another cluck, and Mrs. Killooleet appeared, looking frightened; then, one after another, the five little Killooleets bobbed up; and there they sat in a solemn row on the edge of the cracker box, turning their heads sidewise to see me better.

"There!" said Killooleet, "didn't I tell you he wouldn't hurt you?" And like five winks the five little Killooleets were back in the box, and the tunk-a-tunking began again.

This assurance that they might do as they pleased, and help themselves undisturbed to whatever they found, seemed to remove the last doubt from the mind of even the little gray mate. After that they stayed most of the time close about my tent, and were never so far away, or so busy insect hunting, that they would not come when I whistled and scattered crumbs. The little Killooleets grew amazingly, and no wonder! They were always eating, always hungry. I took good pains to give them less than they wanted, and so had the satisfaction of feeding them often, and of finding their tin plate picked clean whenever I came back from fishing.

Did the woods seem lonely to Killooleet when we paddled away at last and left the wilderness for another year? That is a question which I would give much, or watch long, to answer. There is always a regret at leaving a good camping ground, but I had never packed up so unwillingly before. Killooleet was singing, cheery as ever; but my own heart gave a minor chord of sadness to his trill that was not there when he sang on my ridgepole. Before leaving I had baked a loaf, big and hard, which I fastened with stakes at the foot of the old cedar, with a tin plate under it and a bark roof above, so that when it rained, and insects were hidden under the leaves, and their hunting was no fun because the woods were wet, Killooleet and his little ones would find food, and remember me. And so we paddled away and left him to the wilderness.

A year later my canoe touched the same old landing. For ten months I had been in the city, where Killooleet never sings, and where the wilderness is only a memory. In the fall, on some long tramps, I had occasional glimpses of the little singer, solitary now and silent, stealing southward ahead of the winter. And in the spring he showed himself rarely in the underbrush on country roads, eager, restless, chirping, hurrying northward where the streams were clear and the big woods budding. But never a song in all that time; my ears were hungry for his voice as I leaped out to run eagerly to the big cedar. There were the stakes, and the tin plate, and the bark roof all crushed by the snows of winter. The bread was gone; what Killooleet had spared, Tookhees the wood mouse had eaten thankfully. I found the old tent poles and put up my house leisurely, a hundred happy memories thronging about me. In the midst of them came a call, a clear whistle,-and there he was, the same full cravat, the same bright cap, and the same perfect song to set my nerves a-tingling: I'm here, sweet Killooleet-lillooleet-lillooleet! And when I put crumbs by the old fireplace, he flew down to help himself, and went off with the biggest one, as of yore, to his nest by the deer path.

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