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   Chapter 6 CLOUD WINGS THE EAGLE.

Wilderness Ways By William J. Long Characters: 24680

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03


"Here he is again! here's Old Whitehead, robbing the fish-hawk."

I started up from the little commoosie beyond the fire, at Gillie's excited cry, and ran to join him on the shore. A glance out over Caribou Point to the big bay, where innumerable whitefish were shoaling, showed me another chapter in a long but always interesting story. Ismaquehs, the fish-hawk, had risen from the lake with a big fish, and was doing his best to get away to his nest, where his young ones were clamoring. Over him soared the eagle, still as fate and as sure, now dropping to flap a wing in Ismaquehs' face, now touching him with his great talons gently, as if to say, "Do you feel that, Ismaquehs? If I grip once 't will be the end of you and your fish together. And what will the little ones do then, up in the nest on the old pine? Better drop him peacefully; you can catch another.-Drop him! I say."

Up to that moment the eagle had merely bothered the big hawk's flight, with a gentle reminder now and then that he meant no harm, but wanted the fish which he could not catch himself. Now there was a change, a flash of the king's temper. With a roar of wings he whirled round the hawk like a tempest, bringing up short and fierce, squarely in his line of flight. There he poised on dark broad wings, his yellow eyes glaring fiercely into the shrinking soul of Ismaquehs, his talons drawn hard back for a deadly strike. And Simmo the Indian, who had run down to join me, muttered: "Cheplahgan mad now. Ismaquehs find-um out in a minute."

But Ismaquehs knew just when to stop. With a cry of rage he dropped, or rather threw, his fish, hoping it would strike the water and be lost. On the instant the eagle wheeled out of the way and bent his head sharply. I had seen him fold wings and drop before, and had held my breath at the speed. But dropping was of no use now, for the fish fell faster. Instead he swooped downward, adding to the weight of his fall the push of his strong wings, glancing down like a bolt to catch the fish ere it struck the water, and rising again in a great curve-up and away steadily, evenly as the king should fly, to his own little ones far away on the mountain.

Weeks before, I had had my introduction to Old Whitehead, as Gillie called him, on the Madawaska. We were pushing up river on our way to the wilderness, when a great outcry and the bang-bang of a gun sounded just ahead. Dashing round a wooded bend, we came upon a man with a smoking gun, a boy up to his middle in the river, trying to get across, and, on the other side, a black sheep running about baaing at every jump.

"He's taken the lamb; he's taken the lamb!" shouted the boy. Following the direction of his pointing finger, I saw Old Whitehead, a splendid bird, rising heavily above the tree-tops across the clearing. Reaching back almost instinctively, I clutched the heavy rifle which Gillie put into my hand and jumped out of the canoe; for with a rifle one wants steady footing. It was a long shot, but not so very difficult; Old Whitehead had got his bearings and was moving steadily, straight away. A second after the report of the rifle, we saw him hitch and swerve in the air; then two white quills came floating down, and as he turned we saw the break in his broad white tail. And that was the mark that we knew him by ever afterwards.

That was nearly eighty miles by canoe from where we now stood, though scarcely ten in a straight line over the mountains; for the rivers and lakes we were following doubled back almost to the starting point; and the whole wild, splendid country was the eagle's hunting ground. Wherever I went I saw him, following the rivers for stranded trout and salmon, or floating high in air where he could overlook two or three wilderness lakes, with as many honest fish-hawks catching their dinners. I had promised the curator of a museum that I would get him an eagle that summer, and so took to hunting the great bird diligently. But hunting was of little use, except to teach me many of his ways and habits; for he seemed to have eyes and ears all over him; and whether I crept like a snake through the woods, or floated like a wild duck in my canoe over the water, he always saw or heard me, and was off before I could get within shooting distance.

Then I tried to trap him. I placed two large trout, with a steel trap between them, in a shallow spot on the river that I could watch from my camp on a bluff, half a mile below. Next day Gillie, who was more eager than I, set up a shout; and running out I saw Old Whitehead standing in the shallows and flopping about the trap. We jumped into a canoe and pushed up river in hot haste, singing in exultation that we had the fierce old bird at last. When we doubled the last point that hid the shallows, there was Old Whitehead, still tugging away at a fish, and splashing the water not thirty yards away. I shall not soon forget his attitude and expression as we shot round the point, his body erect and rigid, his wings half spread, his head thrust forward, eyelids drawn straight, and a strong fierce gleam of freedom and utter wildness in his bright eyes. So he stood, a magnificent creature, till we were almost upon him,-when he rose quietly, taking one of the trout. The other was already in his stomach. He was not in the trap at all, but had walked carefully round it. The splashing was made in tearing one fish to pieces with his claws, and freeing the other from a stake that held it.

After that he would not go near the shallows; for a new experience had come into his life, leaving its shadow dark behind it. He who was king of all he surveyed from the old blasted pine on the crag's top, who had always heretofore been the hunter, now knew what it meant to be hunted. And the fear of it was in his eyes, I think, and softened their fierce gleam when I looked into them again, weeks later, by his own nest on the mountain.

Simmo entered also into our hunting, but without enthusiasm or confidence. He had chased the same eagle before-all one summer, in fact, when a sportsman, whom he was guiding, had offered him twenty dollars for the royal bird's skin. But Old Whitehead still wore it triumphantly; and Simmo prophesied for him long life and a natural death. "No use hunt-um dat heagle," he said simply. "I try once an' can't get near him. He see everyt'ing; and wot he don't see, he hear. 'Sides, he kin feel danger. Das why he build nest way off, long ways, O don' know where." This last with a wave of his arm to include the universe. Cheplahgan, Old Cloud Wings, he proudly called the bird that had defied him in a summer's hunting.

At first I had hunted him like any other savage; partly, of course, to get his skin for the curator; partly, perhaps, to save the settler's lambs over on the Madawaska; but chiefly just to kill him, to exult in his death flaps, and to rid the woods of a cruel tyrant. Gradually, however, a change came over me as I hunted; I sought him less and less for his skin and his life, and more and more for himself, to know all about him. I used to watch him by the hour from my camp on the big lake, sailing quietly over Caribou Point, after he had eaten with his little ones, and was disposed to let Ismaquehs go on with his fishing in peace. He would set his great wings to the breeze and sit like a kite in the wind, mounting steadily in an immense spiral, up and up, without the shadow of effort, till the eye grew dizzy in following. And I loved to watch him, so strong, so free, so sure of himself-round and round, up and ever up, without hurry, without exertion; and every turn found the heavens nearer and the earth spread wider below. Now head and tail gleam silver white in the sunshine now he hangs motionless, a cross of jet that a lady might wear at her throat, against the clear, unfathomable blue of the June heavens-there! he is lost in the blue, so high that I cannot see any more. But even as I turn away he plunges down into vision again, dropping with folded wings straight down like a plummet, faster and faster, larger and larger, through a terrifying rush of air, till I spring to my feet and catch the breath, as if I myself were falling. And just before he dashes himself to pieces he turns in the air, head downward, and half spreads his wings, and goes shooting, slanting down towards the lake, then up in a great curve to the tree tops, where he can watch better what Kakagos, the rare woods-raven, is doing, and what game he is hunting. For that is what Cheplahgan came down in such a hurry to find out about.

Again he would come in the early morning; sweeping up river as if he had already been a long day's journey, with the air of far-away and far-to-go in his onward rush. And if I were at the trout pools, and very still, I would hear the strong silken rustle of his wings as he passed. At midday I would see him poised over the highest mountain-top northward, at an enormous altitude, where the imagination itself could not follow the splendid sweep of his vision; and at evening he would cross the lake, moving westward into the sunset on tireless pinions-always strong, noble, magnificent in his power and loneliness, a perfect emblem of the great lonely magnificent wilderness.

One day as I watched him, it swept over me suddenly that forest and river would be incomplete without him. The thought of this came back to me, and spared him to the wilderness, on the last occasion when I went hunting for his life.

That was just after we reached the big lake, where I saw him robbing the fish-hawk. After much searching and watching I found a great log by the outlet where Old Whitehead often perched. There was a big eddy hard by, on the edge of a shallow, and he used to sit on the log, waiting for fish to come out where he could wade in and get them. There was a sickness among the suckers that year (it comes regularly every few years, as among rabbits), and they would come struggling out of the deep water to rest on the sand, only to be caught by the minks and fish-hawks and bears and Old Whitehead, all of whom were waiting and hungry for fish.

For several days I put a big bait of trout and whitefish on the edge of the shallows. The first two baits were put out late in the afternoon, and a bear got them both the next night. Then I put them out in the early morning, and before noon Cheplahgan had found them. He came straight as a string from his watch place over the mountain, miles away, causing me to wonder greatly what strange sixth sense guided him; for sight and smell seemed equally out of the question. The next day he came again. Then I placed the best bait of all in the shallows, and hid in the dense underbrush near, with my gun.

He came at last, after hours of waiting, dropping from above the tree-tops with a heavy rustling of pinions. And as he touched the old log, and spread his broad white tail, I saw and was proud of the gap which my bullet had made weeks before. He stood there a moment erect and splendid, head, neck, and tail a shining white; even the dark brown feathers of his body glinted in the bright sunshine. And he turned his head slowly from side to side, his keen eyes flashing, as if he would say, "Behold, a king!" to Chigwooltz the frog, and Tookhees the wood mouse, and to any other chance wild creature that might watch him from the underbrush at his unkingly act of feeding on dead fish. Then he hopped down-rather awkwardly, it must be confessed; for he is a creature of the upper deeps, who cannot bear to touch the earth-seized a fish, which he tore to pieces with his claws and ate greedily. Twice I tried to shoot him; but the thought of the wilderness without him was upon me, and held me back. Then, too, it seemed so mean to pot him from ambush when he had come down to earth, where he was at a disadvantage; and when he clutched some of the larger fish in his talons, and rose swiftly and bore away westward, all desire to kill him was gone. There were little Cloud Wings, it seemed, which I must also find and watch. After that I hunted him more diligently than before, but without my gun. And a curious desire, which I could not account for, took possession of me: to touch this untamed, untouched creature of the clouds and mountains.

Next day I did it. There were thick bushes

growing along one end of the old log on which the eagle rested. Into these I cut a tunnel with my hunting-knife, arranging the tops in such a way as to screen me more effectively. Then I put out my bait, a good two hours before the time of Old Whitehead's earliest appearance, and crawled into my den to wait.

I had barely settled comfortably into my place, wondering how long human patience could endure the sting of insects and the hot close air without moving or stirring a leaf, when the heavy silken rustle sounded close at hand, and I heard the grip of his talons on the log. There he stood, at arm's length, turning his head uneasily, the light glinting on his white crest, the fierce, untamed flash in his bright eye. Never before had he seemed so big, so strong, so splendid; my heart jumped at the thought of him as our national emblem. I am glad still to have seen that emblem once, and felt the thrill of it.

But I had little time to think, for Cheplahgan was restless. Some instinct seemed to warn him of a danger that he could not see. The moment his head was turned away, I stretched out my arm. Scarcely a leaf moved with the motion, yet he whirled like a flash and crouched to spring, his eyes glaring straight into mine with an intensity that I could scarce endure. Perhaps I was mistaken, but in that swift instant the hard glare in his eyes seemed to soften with fear, as he recognized me as the one thing in the wilderness that dared to hunt him, the king. My hand touched him fair on the shoulder; then he shot into the air, and went sweeping in great circles over the tree-tops, still looking down at the man, wondering and fearing at the way in which he had been brought into the man's power.

But one thing he did not understand. Standing erect on the log, and looking up at him as he swept over me, I kept thinking, "I did it, I did it, Cheplahgan, old Cloud Wings. And I had grabbed your legs, and pinned you down, and tied you in a bag, and brought you to camp, but that I chose to let you go free. And that is better than shooting you. Now I shall find your little ones and touch them too."

For several days I had been watching Old Whitehead's lines of flight, and had concluded that his nest was somewhere in the hills northwest of the big lake. I went there one afternoon, and while confused in the big timber, which gave no outlook in any direction, I saw, not Old Whitehead, but a larger eagle, his mate undoubtedly, flying straight westward with food towards a great cliff, that I had noticed with my glass one day from a mountain on the other side of the lake.

When I went there, early next morning, it was Cheplahgan himself who showed me where his nest was. I was hunting along the foot of the cliff when, glancing back towards the lake, I saw him coming far away, and hid in the underbrush. He passed very near, and following, I saw him standing on a ledge near the top of the cliff. Just below him, in the top of a stunted tree growing out of the face of the rock was a huge mass of sticks that formed the nest, with a great mother-eagle standing by, feeding the little ones. Both birds started away silently when I appeared, but came back soon and swept back and forth over me, as I sat watching the nest and the face of the cliff through my glass. No need now of caution. Both birds seemed to know instinctively why I had come, and that the fate of the eaglets lay in my hands if I could but scale the cliff.

It was scaring business, that three-hundred-foot climb up the sheer face of the mountain. Fortunately the rock was seamed and scarred with the wear of centuries; bushes and stunted trees grew out of countless crevices, which gave me sure footing, and sometimes a lift of a dozen feet or more on my way up. As I climbed, the eagles circled lower and lower; the strong rustling of their wings was about my head continually; they seemed to grow larger, fiercer, every moment, as my hold grew more precarious, and the earth and the pointed tree-tops dropped farther below. There was a good revolver in my pocket, to use in case of necessity; but had the great birds attacked me I should have fared badly, for at times I was obliged to grip hard with both hands, my face to the cliff, leaving the eagles free to strike from above and behind. I think now that had I shown fear in such a place, or shouted, or tried to fray them away, they would have swooped upon me, wing and claw, like furies. I could see it in their fierce eyes as I looked up. But the thought of the times when I had hunted him, and especially the thought of that time when I had reached out of the bushes and touched him, was upon Old Whitehead and made him fear. So I kept steadily on my way, apparently giving no thought to the eagles, though deep inside I was anxious enough, and reached the foot of the tree in which the nest was made.

I stood there a long time, my arm clasping the twisted old boll, looking out over the forest spread wide below, partly to regain courage, partly to reassure the eagles, which were circling very near with a kind of intense wonder in their eyes, but chiefly to make up my mind what to do next. The tree was easy to climb, but the nest-a huge affair, which had been added to year after year-filled the whole tree-top, and I could gain no foothold, from which to look over and see the eaglets, without tearing the nest to pieces. I did not want to do that, and I doubted whether the mother-eagle would stand it. A dozen times she seemed on the point of dropping on my head to tear it with her talons; but always she veered off as I looked up quietly, and Old Whitehead, with the mark of my bullet strong upon him, swept between her and me and seemed to say, "Wait, wait. I don't understand; but he can kill us if he will-and the little ones are in his power." Now he was closer to me than ever, and the fear was vanishing. But so also was the fierceness.

From the foot of the tree the crevice in which it grew led upwards to the right, then doubled back to the ledge above the nest, upon which Cheplahgan was standing when I discovered him. The lip of this crevice made a dizzy path that one might follow by moving crabwise, his face to the cliff, with only its roughnesses to cling to with his fingers. I tried it at last, crept up and out twenty feet, and back ten, and dropped with a great breath of relief to a broad ledge covered with bones and fish scales, the relics of many a savage feast. Below me, almost within reach, was the nest, with two dark, scraggly young birds resting on twigs and grass, with fish, flesh and fowl in a gory, skinny, scaly ring about them-the most savage-looking household into which I ever looked unbidden.

But even as I looked and wondered, and tried to make out what other game had been furnished the young savages I had helped to feed, a strange thing happened, which touched me as few things ever have among the wild creatures. The eagles had followed me close along the last edge of rock, hoping no doubt in their wild hearts that I would slip, and end their troubles, and give my body as food to the young. Now, as I sat on the ledge, peering eagerly into the nest, the great mother-bird left me and hovered over her eaglets, as if to shield them with her wings from even the sight of my eyes. But Old Whitehead still circled over me. Lower he came, and lower, till with a supreme effort of daring he folded his wings and dropped to the ledge beside me, within ten feet, and turned and looked into my eyes. "See," he seemed to say, "we are within reach again. You touched me once; I don't know how or why. Here I am now, to touch or to kill, as you will; only spare the little ones."

A moment later the mother-bird dropped to the edge of the nest. And there we sat, we three, with the wonder upon us all, the young eagles at our feet, the cliff above, and, three hundred feet below, the spruce tops of the wilderness reaching out and away to the mountains beyond the big lake. I sat perfectly still, which is the only way to reassure a wild creature; and soon I thought Cheplahgan had lost his fear in his anxiety for the little ones. But the moment I rose to go he was in the air again, circling restlessly above my head with his mate, the same wild fierceness in his eyes as he looked down. A half-hour later I had gained the top of the cliff and started eastward towards the lake, coming down by a much easier way than that by which I went up. Later I returned several times, and from a distance watched the eaglets being fed. But I never climbed to the nest again.

One day, when I came to the little thicket on the cliff where I used to lie and watch the nest through my glass, I found that one eaglet was gone. The other stood on the edge of the nest, looking down fearfully into the abyss, whither, no doubt, his bolder nest mate had flown, and calling disconsolately from time to time. His whole attitude showed plainly that he was hungry and cross and lonesome. Presently the mother-eagle came swiftly up from the valley, and there was food in her talons. She came to the edge of the nest, hovered over it a moment, so as to give the hungry eaglet a sight and smell of food, then went slowly down to the valley, taking the food with her, telling the little one in her own way to come and he should have it. He called after her loudly from the edge of the nest, and spread his wings a dozen times to follow. But the plunge was too awful; his heart failed him; and he settled back in the nest, and pulled his head down into his shoulders, and shut his eyes, and tried to forget that he was hungry. The meaning of the little comedy was plain enough. She was trying to teach him to fly, telling him that his wings were grown and the time was come to use them; but he was afraid.

In a little while she came back again, this time without food, and hovered over the nest, trying every way to induce the little one to leave it. She succeeded at last, when with a desperate effort he sprang upward and flapped to the ledge above, where I had sat and watched him with Old Whitehead. Then, after surveying the world gravely from his new place, he flapped back to the nest, and turned a deaf ear to all his mother's assurances that he could fly just as easily to the tree-tops below, if he only would.

Suddenly, as if discouraged, she rose well above him. I held my breath, for I knew what was coming. The little fellow stood on the edge of the nest, looking down at the plunge which he dared not take. There was a sharp cry from behind, which made him alert, tense as a watch-spring. The next instant the mother-eagle had swooped, striking the nest at his feet, sending his support of twigs and himself with them out into the air together.

He was afloat now, afloat on the blue air in spite of himself, and flapped lustily for life. Over him, under him, beside him hovered the mother on tireless wings, calling softly that she was there. But the awful fear of the depths and the lance tops of the spruces was upon the little one; his flapping grew more wild; he fell faster and faster. Suddenly-more in fright, it seemed to me, than because he had spent his strength-he lost his balance and tipped head downward in the air. It was all over now, it seemed; he folded his wings to be dashed in pieces among the trees. Then like a flash the old mother-eagle shot under him; his despairing feet touched her broad shoulders, between her wings. He righted himself, rested an instant, found his head; then she dropped like a shot from under him, leaving him to come down on his own wings. A handful of feathers, torn out by his claws, hovered slowly down after them.

It was all the work of an instant before I lost them among the trees far below. And when I found them again with my glass, the eaglet was in the top of a great pine, and the mother was feeding him.

And then, standing there alone in the great wilderness, it flashed upon me for the first time just what the wise old prophet meant; though he wrote long ago, in a distant land, and another than Cloud Wings had taught her little ones, all unconscious of the kindly eyes that watched out of a thicket: "As the eagle stirreth up her nest, fluttereth over her young, spreadeth abroad her wings, taketh them, beareth them on her wings,-so the Lord."

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