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Skagit River Journal

of History & Folklore
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One day in November

Bright side of outdoor life in Kansas; A perfect day that the
old sportsman and his beautiful setter did not waste in idleness

(This article by Frank Wilkeson originally appeared in the New York Times on December 9, 1888.
It was collected and transcribed by Patricia McAndrew, a biographer of Wilkeson, who lives in Pennsylvania.)

Frank Wilkeson wrote this eighth column in our Journal series in 1891 while back home at his ranch near Gypsum, Kansas. He would soon move almost full-time out to the new state of Washington to live in Fairhaven, Stehekin and Hamilton at various times in the 1890s. He was born in 1848 to a famous Buffalo, New York, family and served in the Civil War. A mining engineer after the war, he moved with his wife to Kansas, where he established a ranch. A peripatetic sort, he mined in the Rocky mountains and in 1870 he joined Surveyor D.C. Linsley of the Northern Pacific Railway as they explored the Skagit River and the Cascades mountains. Like his father, he became a columnist for New York newspapers, first the Sun and then the Times. Many of his stories came from his experiences in region between old Sedro, Hamilton and Lake Chelan.

      The eastern sky was faintly blushing when I awoke with a start one morning last month, to find that my setter dog, May, had thrust her cold nose against my cheek. Drowsily I asked, "What's up, old girl?" and she growled lowly in answer. That a well-broken, thoroughbred, and ladylike dog should so far forget herself as to awaken her master astonished me. I knew that something was wrong, and as I dropped my arm around the dear dog I sleepily wondered what annoyed her.
      Clear and sharp a coyote chorus sounded as the miserable animals pretended to greet the coming of the sun; they were really mourning over the disappearance of the night, in the darkness of which they engage in predatory raids on hen and turkey roosts. Their cruel, uncanny cries thoroughly awoke me and I sprang from my blankets and grasped my gun. Throwing open the door, I saw two wholly depraved coyotes sitting on their haunches on a little knoll about 100 yards from the house. They made more noise than 50 respectable coyotes, if there be such paradoxical members of that family, which I greatly doubt, should make. I cut their dirge short by tickling them with No. 4 shot. They trotted swiftly off, casting backward glances at me the while, and disappeared in a nearby corn field with the setter May in full pursuit. I followed the chase with my ears, being guided by the yelps of the mistaken but eager hunting dog. Presently the joyful tone of the yelps changed to one that indicated astonishment, and this in turn was quickly followed by yelps of pain, mingled with angry, vicious snarls. I knew that the crafty coyotes had lured May from her support and into an ambuscade, and that they were savagely teaching her a lesson which she would never forget. So I shouted and discharged the other barrel of my gun to frighten them, and then built a fire, preparatory to cooking breakfast.
      The eastern sky was blushing redly. It was a perfect morning. There was not sufficient wind to sway the hoarfrost-coated cornstalks. The grass on the distant hillsides was white with snow. Every weed and every sunflower stalk was silvered with frost. The air was keen and as exhilarating as champagne, but it was better than wine because no heartburn lurked in it. As I bathed in front of my house I heard the beat of many strong wings that were driven with nervous haste. Looking toward the north I saw a pack of prairie chickens flying toward the creek, where large cottonwood trees stood. Prairie chickens dislike to enter corn fields when the ground and weeds and corn are covered with hoarfrost. They are early risers, and after they have gathered into parks, as they invariably do in the Fall, they habitually leave the prairie where they have spent the night to sit in trees in the early morning to talk to one another for a short time. I watched the birds fly to an enormous cottonwood tree and there alight. Almost instantly they began to talk, and the air was filled with the sound of their clucking conversation.
      Standing on the land where many years of my life had been passed, scenes of the past arose before me. I had shot with a rifle hundreds of game birds out of the tree in which the prairie chickens perched. And along the creek which flows around its roots I had spent many happy days with my gun and dog. As I stood looking back at the golden days when a fair-haired girl and I loitered along the creek to talk, and where at short intervals the brisk whir of quail wings and the report of my gun interrupted our conversation, May, with a bloody ear, returned from the hollow pleasures of the chase. Her intelligent face was clouded, and her brown eyes were sorrow-laden. She looked earnestly at me, as though to say: "Those were mighty queer rabbits. I knew that they were very large, and that their voices were rather coarse, but I thought they were sure enough jack rabbits. But I have been shamefully deceived."
      Then, with a wag of her tail, accompanied by a little bark, she dismissed the painful subject and politely inquired about breakfast. I sat on the doorstep and called her to me, and as I stroked her fair head we sat side by side and listened. Down at the bridge, and half a mile distant, we heard the first sweet note of a quail. It was quickly answered. Then almost instantly the musical call of these game birds filled the air. I heard them, separated by short intervals, all along the distant creek, in the side ravines, in dense patches of weeds, in the cornfields and in the sunflower thickets.
      "May," I asked, "shall we have a Delmonico feast of sausage and hoe cakes and then go a-hunting?" Her tail tapped an answer which, when interpreted, meant "Yes." And so it was agreed.
      Breakfast over, I took my gun and cartridge-bag, in which were 100 cartridges, and walked slowly toward the creek which flows for two miles through my farm. The sun was up. The frost was melting. The prairie chickens had left the tree in which they had perched to enter the corn field to feed. Precisely where they were was not easily determined. We might find them, but probably would not. Together we walked, I talking all sorts of nonsense to the handsome dog, while she pretended to find birds.
      "See," said she, "here is a prairie chicken," and she came to a set at a bunch of grass in which a tiny bird sat; then with a bound she broke the pretended set and glanced back playfully, as she again indicated with uplifted forepaw and rigid body the presence of game birds, plainly saying, "And here are quail," to again break, to bound high in the air, to look quickly around, as to ask: "Any rabbits in sight?" Then she ran to me to be caressed or playfully reproved. I knew May's ways, knew that she was as playful as a child, and that when we began to hunt she would be perfectly staunch. It was her greeting to the glories of the November morning, and her way of expressing her joy at being again with me and in the field.
      "May," I said when we arrived at the creek, "we must cross and hunt on the other side and to the north. The birds must fly from the cornfields to the creek. I cannot shoot against the sun." We crossed, and just beyond the creek, in a tangle of wild grapevines, May swung into set and stood motionless, gazing through glowing eyes into the vines, and I knew that she had found a belated or lazy covey of quail. With a bewildering whir of wings, and uttering notes of alarm the while, the beautiful birds sprang into the air. I missed with both barrels, and had to laugh joyously when May looked inquiringly at me. We marked the birds down in a near-by plum thicket and followed them at once.
      They were widely scattered and rose singly, and the shooting was very enjoyable. Here a bird, struck by a single shot in the head, towered high to fall dead almost at my feet; there one fell with outspread wings, and yonder another escaped and whistled as he sailed away. We loitered along the edge of the cornfield, and from plum thicket to plum thicket, shooting with fair luck. We took short excursions up cross ravines, where box-elder bushes stood in thickets, in one of which two wise-looking horned owls lived. These nocturnal birds are among the most destructive enemies of quail. So when they flitted with noiseless stroke of wings from the thicket I shot them both. There is something uncanny about the silent flight of owls. The noiselessness of their flight is essential to their existence, I suppose, but it causes all men who hunt to dislike owls and to shoot them.
      By 9 o'clock the quail were through feeding and had left the corn fields to gather in circles under bushes, from the hawk-protective shelter of which we drove several coveys, all of which took refuge in the corn fields, where it was almost impossible to kill them, owing to the denseness of the cover, and where they whistled musically to one another as parent birds called their young and the latter answered. Hawks speedily discovered that a hunt was on, and several of those white-breasted, aerial wolves circled high above us or beat the ground behind us, searching with keen eyes for wounded or dead birds that we had been unable to find. I saw a hawk that circled 200 yards above me dart down to disappear among the cornstalks to instantly arise with a quail clutched in its talons and fly rapidly away from other hawks and out of my vision. Another, intent on securing a quail breakfast and probably reckless with hunger, ventured too close to me in pursuit of an unwounded quail that he had flushed, and I killed him as he swept past May and me.
      Cottontail rabbits were plentiful, and at short intervals they scampered from under the shelter afforded by piles of driftwood or the tops of trees that had been felled for firewood long ago. When these little animals jumped from shelter May stood motionless and looked at them through glowing eyes as they disappeared in the tall grass, and then she would look wistfully into my face and sigh as though over pleasure lost.

Quail hunt ends, hunting prairie chickens and rabbits with the hounds
      The quail hunt ended at the lower bridge on my farm. There I filled a pipe and sat on a log to smoke and count the dead birds and my remaining cartridges. I smiled rather sorrowfully at the story they told of coming age and dimmed eyesight and unsteady hands. There were 37 cartirdges left. There were 26 dead birds. I had shot two owls and a hawk. I had missed or failed to kill 34 times. But May was as well pleased as her mother, the peerless queen, used to be when the same number of shots would have stuffed my game bag to bursting with quail.
      We walked home through the lean cornfields in which I hoped to find the pack of prairie chickens, but they had probably returned to the grassy prairie. As we passed close to a deep, hidden pool in the ravine May, who was at my heels, stopped and cocked her ears inquiringly to listen. I stood still, also to listen, and I heard the faint, sweet whistle of teal ducks. I cautiously approached the pool and looked at the water. There were over 20 blue-winged teal floating lightly on its surface, and I killed seven of them with two barrels, and May fetched them out of the pool and deposited them at my feet with every manifestation of joy that she was capable of expressing.
      Arrived at my house, we had a royal dinner of broiled quail and strong black coffee, and afterward I smoked a pipe that was indicative of contentment and happiness, and as I smoked I talked to May relative to the probable whereabouts of the pack of chickens. The pipe smoked, I loaded a few shells with five drams of powder and an ounce of No. 6 shot and put them in my pocket. Then taking my gun, May and I walked slowly through the cornstalks toward a grassy hillside, where in the old days prairie chickens had been wont to lie in the short, brown grass to sun themselves and to enjoy life. Arrived at the base of the hill, I earnestly cautioned May to be careful. She slowly beat the ground to and fro before me.
      A thoroughbred, intelligent, well-broken setter dog that understands your moods and that strives to please you is the most lovable animal on earth. May's work was perfect. Long, limber jackrabbits sprang from their forms before her, and she scornfully ignored them. These active animals ran rapidly for 50 or 60 yards; then, seeing that they were not pursued, they sat upright on their haunches, and looked at us through yellow eyes and cocked their exaggerated ears at us in an inquiring manner, and presently hopped slowly away to disappear in the grass. In a tiny ravine, more properly a draw, where the grass was coarse and high, May found the prairie chickens. She stood motionless, save for occasionally turning her head to see if I were coming.
      Arrived at the dog, I saw that she was quivering with excitement and that the scent of the birds had so filled her nostrils that she was as though dead on her feet. The strong scent of game birds must be most delightful to setter dogs. Apparently they become frozen with pleasure, and they are deaf to the voice of their loved masters. I could not coax May to flush the pack, and stood by her in hesitating uncertainty. I heard a low cluck of alarm in the nearby grass, heard it answered further up the draw, then a score of birds sounded the alarm note, and the mighty pack sprang into the air with wings furiously beating.
      They had delayed their flight too long. A score of birds were within gunshot. They were so close that I could distinguish the cocks, and I killed two male birds. May, who had dropped to the report of the gun, crawled to me when she heard the click of the breech, which indicated that the gun was reloaded, and when I waved her on she slowly and carefully beat the grass to find the two or three self-sufficient prairie chickens that always remain after the main pack has taken wing. These birds are lazy or they are indifferent to danger or their mental make-up is defective. They are mentally on a par with half-baked men who always make light of impending disasters. They refuse to accompany their comrades, saying in effect, "This man can't shoot. And granted that he can shoot accurately, he can't find us. There is no hurry." So they remain behind, and invariably get into game bags. These smart prairie chickens are the birds I love to kill. May, who was slowly beating the ground, stopped, threw up her head, smelled inquiringly of the air, and then, advancing a few steps, leaned forward and was rigid. "Good Lord!" exclaimed the chicken and away he flew. I covered him, and, turning over and over, he fell heavily to the ground. As the gun cracked another chicken exclaimed in eager note that he, too, had made a mistake, and he sprang into the air. It was a long side shot. I hardly expected to bag him, but held two feet ahead of him, and he fell dead, shot through the head.
      I had marked the pack down in a deep ravine about a mile distant, and after May had gathered the dead birds we walked briskly through the brown grass toward their hiding place. The sun was sinking, and I feared that the birds would enter the corn fields to feed before we arrived at the ravine, or that the air, becoming cold in the ravine as the shadows cast by the wall-like hills stretched across it, would cause the birds to be alert and spoil the shooting. It was as I feared. They could not be approached.
      As we walked home on a hard, well-beaten road I heard a horse galloping behind. Turning, I saw an old friend, who was well-mounted, galloping toward me, waving his hand the while. Two beautiful greyhounds cantered by his horse. I knew the dogs of old, and when they thrust their long, slender noses into my hand in token of recognition, I gently squeezed their muzzles. Then the larger dog reared up and laid his fore paws on my shoulders. "Fen swipes, Ned," I said, and pushed his nose to one side and hugged him with encircling arm. The greeting over, I told my friend that I had started several jack rabbits when I had previously walked across the prairie, and that if he wanted a chase I would let May beat the ground for rabbits. I called the intelligent animal to me and let her see me draw the cartridges out of the gun; then I said, "Go it, May; we hunt no more to-day," and waved her with a sweeping arm to the prairie. Understand me? Perfectly. There was a short, coquettish play between the gaunt hounds and the golden-haired maiden, May, and then with waving tail and rapid gait she beat the ground for jack rabbits, and the greyhounds trotted after her. It is risky to set a bird dog to hunt rabbits, but if your dog is a female and well broken, and above all intelligent, it will not injure her. She knows that it is but a fling you allow her to have, and she enjoys it as a child enjoys an outing.
      We had arrived at the crest of a low swell in the prairie when May scented the rabbit. I saw her turn. There was no loitering, no smelling inquiringly of the air, no setting, but a furious dash down the aerial rabbit trail. Instantly the rabbit leaped from his form, and May yelped joyously, calling to the hounds: "Here he is! Here is the beast of the prairie! Catch him! Catch him!" The active hounds jumped high, and swept the prairie with yellow eyes, and when they struck the ground they were running in long, low, rapid jumps. Down the road the chase swept, and my friend, shouting at the top of his voice, galloped after the dogs. At the bridge the rabbit, who was closely pressed, doubled back and ran up the road at full speed with the hounds in silent, dangerous pursuit. May, who had been distanced in the chase down the road, saw the rabbit approaching her, and crouched in the grass with the sweet intention of catching the frightened animal as it passed her. She underestimated its speed, and her white teeth snapped together viciously a yard behind the rabbit, and before she recovered the hounds ran her down, and she rolled over and over in the dirt. The rabbit was near his death. The leading hound made "a pass" at him, the jack dodged, and the rear hound, who was prepared for that trick, reached out and picked him up, and held fast. The chase was over. The dogs joined us, and May stole the dead rabbit while we were arranging for a grand jackrabbit round-up, and carried the worthless animal home. The matter of the rabbit hunt or chase or round-up settled, I bade my friend good-day and walked home.
      While I was cooking supper three white-hooded wagons rolled slowly past my house. They were filled with household furniture, and in each wagon rode a woman and children. The tall, gaunt, canvas-clad drivers walked by the fore wheels of the wagon, and talked to their wives as they traveled. I knew that they were emigrants fleeing from the horrors of the American desert. They camped near the bridge at the ravine, and presently a fire glowed by the creek bank, on the spot where hundreds of fires have burned before.
      After supper I loaded a pipe and walked to the emigrants' camp. Arrived there, I sat on a bundle of blankets and listened to the story of their attempt to create a home in the arid zone, in attempting which they lost all their money and three years of their lives. But they were jolly under the disaster. As I walked back through the darkness I heard a banjo sounding and the voices of the emigrants singing a song, the often-repeated refrain of which was,
      "Ain't I glad to get out of the wilderness?"
      And as they sang I murmured, "You well may be."

Some background:
      Frank Wilkeson served as a Union officer in the Civil War and wrote a book about his experiences — Turned Inside Out: Recollections of a Private Soldier in the Army of the Potomac (1887) that rivals Stephen Crane's Red Badge of Courage. His grandfather, Samuel Wilkeson, is credited with being one of the builders of Buffalo, New York, and the Erie Canal. His father, Samuel Wilkeson, was secretary to the board of the Northern Pacific Railway. Frank accompanied D.C. Linsley on the NP survey of the Skagit river watershed in 1870 and then lived here for a few months every year — in Hamilton and Fairhaven, starting in the mid-1880s, and recorded his experiences for the New York Sun and Times.
      Through the Internet, we found Patricia McAndrew, an author living in Pennsylvania, who is researching Wilkeson's life for a book, and she has recorded dozens of his columns. Nearly half of them are about the boom days of Stehekin, Fairhaven, Sedro and Hamilton. He was a prominent boomer in the latter two towns. We have transcribed 15 columns for you and will share many more in the future. We hope you will enjoy them as much as we do and pass them on to your friends and family who want to read first-hand accounts of living near the river more than 100 years ago. We are converting each of these columns to our new domain and will complete the process by the end of 2009.

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Story posted on April 17, 2002, last updated Feb. 19, 2009
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This article originally appeared in Issue 8 of our Subscribers-paid Journal online magazine

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