WE laid the heavy canoe on the beach, — my brother and I, — and sat down, panting, to rest. The smell of morning was in the air: a breath of dew on spicy sage, mingled with the aroma of salt creeks. The fantastic masses of the San Carlos Hills loomed in sharp definition against the dawn. The tide was almost at the ebb, slipping through a maze of channels to the lagoon, and on and out through the breachway to the Pacific; in the morning calm we could hear the rumble of the surf beyond the barrier.
A chaparral cock fluttered down from his roosting-place, regarded us for a moment without curiosity, lowered his head, erected his crest, and shook himself thoroughly awake. Then, with a brighter look in his eye, he smoothed his feathers and stepped off jauntily in search of breakfast. From the sedges beyond the creek a rail announced that day had begun for the dwellers in the marsh, his abrupt clattering cry echoed by others of his kind — a babel of mysterious voices. Next moment we saw him wedge his way through a fringe of reeds and emerge on the mudflat at the water’s edge. He walked slowly, with mincing steps, peering about in readiness for an instant retreat; his parody of a tail, cocked up like that of an adolescent rooster, jerking at each step with an absurdly nervous air. We watched with particular interest as he searched for crabs in the pools left by the tide; for among the pets at home, one of his kind (a light-footed rail) was not the least engaging.
I captured him one afternoon while wading through the marsh; there was a sudden splash, and I saw something dark, like a small black fish, swimming rapidly under water across the creek. Plunging in with a boy’s instinct for pursuit, I brought up a downy railchick; sooty black, sharp-eyed, and resentful. In a packing-case covered with wire, with a sanded floor and plenty of air and sunlight, he throve amazingly — within a week he was tame to the point of impudence. Rice seemed the best substitute for the seeds of his natural diet; we were relieved to find that he gobbled it without hesitation. My brother and I had a theory that rails ate crabs; for we had seen dozens of neatly cleaned-out shells littering their haunts. So one day, with some misgivings, we caught halfa-dozen fiddlers and put them in the box. The baby rail, whose feathers were just beginning to sprout, stood for a moment regarding the strange visitors with bright-eyed interest, while his head, and the small pointed stern which would one day sport a tail, jerked spasmodically. The fiddlers sidled off to seek shelter, waving their formidable claws. Suddenly, with a sort of passionate impetuosity, the rail threw himself on the nearest crab. While he grasped it with one foot, two darting twists of his beak tore off the nippers.
The legs came next, and when the body, shorn of all means of locomotion, lay helpless, he turned at once to the next crab. Not until every fiddler was at his mercy did our marsh-chick begin to tear off the under shells and peck out the tender meat within. It was a pretty example of instinct or simple reasoning. ‘It’s not every day that one finds a lot of crabs,’ I fancied him thinking; ‘I must keep my head! I’m hungry, no doubt, but if I stop to make a meal of the first, the others will get away. Better make sure of them all.’
As time went on, the young rail grew to the size of a bantam hen — tame, impudent, and inquisitive. Though he seemed perfectly content with his quarters, we decided at last that he had outgrown the box, and transferred him to a large covered aviary where we kept our water-birds: a Hutchins goose, a pair of shovellers, a cock widgeon, three pintail, a green-winged teal, a couple of ruddies, and a fulvous tree duck. There was a shallow pool in this place, where the waterfowl loved to dabble and bathe; and the rail — a feathered gamin if ever there was one — made himself at home from the first. He was not lazy like his friends the ducks, who spent the warm hours of the day dozing in the sun on one leg, with half-closed eyes and bills buried in the feathers of their backs. The rail was always in motion, wading the shallows on the lookout for tadpoles, or walking jauntily through the shrubbery, head and tail jerking in unison with the steps. In one respect he puzzled me, Now and then, when hungry, irritated, or surprised, he uttered an abrupt grating cry; but though I listened eagerly, I never once heard him, while inhabiting the box or the aviary, give the long clattering call of his race.
In the spring, one of my friends trapped a number of valley quail; and as we were both interested in breeding them in captivity, he was good enough to give me a pair. I placed a pile of thick evergreen boughs in the quietest corner of the enclosure, and loosed my quail. To breed in captivity, wild birds must have absolute quiet; so it was not until several weeks later that I ventured a peep into the pile of brush. There, in a rough hollow of the earth, crudely lined with grass, lay a dozen or more brown-speckled eggs! One morning later on, when I came with cracked corn for the birds, I saw the mother quail slip into her shelter, followed by a brood of striped puffs of down, supported on twinkling legs. As they grew older, the quail began to bring her young into the open to feed, and I had opportunity to count the little ones and to observe that they were decreasing in a fatal and mysterious manner. Rats and weasels were almost unknown on our place, and nothing larger could gain admittance to the enclosure; the waterfowl were innocent neighbors — it never occurred to me that the rail might be a murderer. Then one day, the gardener, who loved our birds and spent many an hour watching them while he puffed his short clay pipe, came to me.
‘Do you know what’s killin’ them quail?’ he said; ‘it’s that long-legged sneaky rascal of a water-rail! I just seen him at it — he grabbed the poor little quail in his bill, run over to the water with him, and held him under till he was drowned. Next minute he was eatin’ him!’
I went at once to the aviary, and there, sure enough, was the barbarian, finishing his unnatural meal. He had gone too far — we drove him from his Eden and closed the door forever behind his jerking tail, leaving him to pick up a living about the farmyard. The rail glanced right and left. There was half an acre of alfalfa, thick, green, and tall, close by; true to the generations behind him, he ran straight for this novel variety of sedge, disappearing in an instant among the leafy stems. Early next morning, as I walked out from the barn, I was thrilled to hear — rolling with a curious ventriloquistic quality from the midst of the clover — the sunrise call of the rail! Something had been lacking hitherto; in spite of his air of confidence, this dweller in the reed-beds had not been fully at his ease. Now, at last, in the shelter of the tall lucerne, he had found courage to announce his presence to the world about.
We saw him often after that — emerging at daybreak to feed among the chickens, or to peer in cynically at his old companions — treading delicately, with an air of wariness, always ready for a run or a flutter back to his green home. At length he ceased to appear. Living in the half-flooded alfalfa, through which his wedge of a body could move at uncanny speed, he was too cunning to have been caught by a prowling cat or skunk. I like to think that he fluttered off, some moonlit night of early summer, to seek a mate and build a nest in a marsh as pleasantly damp and malarial as the heart of rail could desire.
A weakness for the rearing and turning of wild birds (which does not lessen with the years) must serve as my excuse for digressing from the story of our day on the lagoon.
The sun was up and meadow larks were whistling when we arranged our gear in the canoe; a moment later we were gliding down the creek with the last of the ebb. The salt marshes are places of infinite and varied charm. One feels, in these flat expanses of the earth, traversed by a thousand arms of the sea, purified by the strong salt winds and refreshed by the ebb and flow of the tides, that one is in touch with the realities — very close, perhaps, to the sources of life itself. At dawn, when the sun dissipates the light mist rising from the creeks, the marshes are buoyantly alive: fish leap in the channels, shorebirds whistle from the flats, wildfowl speed overhead on singing wings. At midday, when the sun is bright and the trade-wind sweeps over miles of swaying reeds, the marshes glow with color: blues of water and sky, gold of the sunlight, the endless pale green of the sedge. At sunset, as the western sky flushes and fades to darkness, and the land breeze sighs mournfully among the reeds; when the voices of the birds are stilled and the salt creeks steal wearily out to sea, then the marshes bring a sense of melancholy age — a realization, at once saddening and indifferent, that life is a small thing before the enormous fact of time.
Gliding out with the tide, we passed the last point of reeds and entered the head of the lagoon, now a thousandacre plain of mud, cut by deep channels leading to the sea. A few willet were feeding on the flats, probing the mud with their bills and running nimbly from pool to pool; most of their kind — with the plover and curlew — had flown north long since.
The flats at low tide provided us with bountiful and wholesome food; we knew their resources and loved to gather these salty harvests. At one place, where a spring of fresh water flowed from the shore, there were beds of small oysters, delicate and fat. On a certain low island we knew where to find great quantities of cockles — not unlike the cherry-stone clam, and delicious as they were abundant. In the deeper pools, scallops snapped and swam about with startling vivacity; beside them we often found a species of giant clam, one of which made a meat for a hungry man. When the flood-tide filled the channels, the water was alive with fish: flounder, croaker, ladyfish, and dainty mullet. At night, when the air was still, and the fish passing beneath us were outlined in pale fire, we knew where to listen for the gasps of the green turtles, floating in with the current to graze on their pastures of eel-grass.
Stopping at the island to rake up a pail of cockles, we followed the channel down to where it joined the main artery of the lagoon, which turned at right angles as it met the barrier, ran three miles to the north, separated from the surf by a hundred yards of dunes and stunted vegetation, and turned abruptly west, through the breachway, to the Pacific. The mud of the upper reaches was here replaced by banks of white sand, shelving steeply to a depth of three or four fathoms. The waters of the lagoon, gathered into this single deep and narrow vent, raced out swiftly, scouring bottom and banks — carrying with them the impurities of the night. The ebb-tide was always murky; but we knew that in an hour the flood would begin, a flow of blue water from the sea, so clear that one could watch each passing fish or count the folds of the bottom’s ruffled sand.
Close to the breachway, where breakers tumbled on the half-exposed bar, and hair seals galloped clumsily to the water’s edge at our approach, we beached the canoe. The corbina bites on the turn of the tide, and we loved above all things to cast in the surf for this splendid fish. The sun was already warm overhead; we threw off our few clothes, rigged rods and reels, and strolled toward the outer beach, as naked and nearly as brown as any pair of savages. A covey of the valley quail which inhabit this waterless sandspit rose close ahead and drifted away like ghosts across the dunes. I wondered for the hundredth time how they could exist without fresh water, unless the fog, condensing in beads on every leaf and coarse blade of grass, gave them enough.
I looked ahead. My brother, like any healthy boy of eleven, was unable to travel in a straight line; led by the keenness of his senses and a fresh interest in everything about him, he advanced like a setter puppy quartering a field for partridge. Now he was off to one side, kneeling in the sand while he ate something with great speed and relish. ‘Hey, come here,’ he called with a full mouth; ‘the sand figs are ripe!’
I was only sixteen; in a moment I was beside him, plucking and gobbling the delicious things. They grow on a creeping vine, with thick fleshy leaves, a vine which thrives only in the sand close to salt water. The fruit is pearshaped, the size of a large strawberry, and turns red when ripe. One plucks it from the vine, puts the small end to one’s lips, and squeezes. The result is a spoonful of juicy pulp which separates itself from the rind like the inside of a Concord grape; a pulp of delicate flavor, sweet, and unlike that of any other fruit. We postponed our fishing and ate until the red ones were exhausted.
The look of the surf at the breachway told us that the tide had turned: the ebb has a way of cutting the water from under a breaker, giving the surf a weak and baffled air. Once the flood sets in, on the other hand, the waves break with a smooth forward rush, each one outdistancing the one before. The tide was rising — it was time to begin a search for bait.
The corbina, like the coral polyp, is a dweller in troubled waters, passing his life in the frothy turmoil of the surf. For food, Nature has provided him with the sand-crab, a creature like an overgrown woodlouse, inhabiting the zone of sand washed by the advancing and receding waves. It lies buried in the wet sand, its antennae protruding a fraction of an inch above the surface, on the lookout for the minute organic particles on which it feeds. As a wave retreats, you can see where they hide by hundreds; the rush of water, parted by the tiny stiff antennæ, etching scores of little V’s on the sand. A dozen or more are often left exposed, crawling and tumbling, in frantic haste to bury themselves. No creature I have seen — not even the armadillo in soft earth — can dig faster (in proportion to its size) than the sand-crab. One moment it lies tumbling and exposed, in manifest anxiety that the advancing wave may wash it forever from its colony. Down goes its head; the legs begin to dig, and next moment it sinks magically out of sight. From time to time the sand-crab sheds its armor — a tough shell, curved like the back of a beetle — and retires to grow a new and larger suit. At this period, enfeebled by the shock of change, it finds its strength inadequate to the boisterous life of the surf, and seeks refuge at the limit of damp sand, close to high-water mark, where there is moisture enough, without the wash and buffeting of the waves. Deeply buried for the sake of greater quiet, its hiding-place is marked by a tiny hole. At such times, if by mischance a wave at high tide exposes the unfortunate, it forms the chief delicacy of the corbina bill-of-fare.
I baited my hook with a pièce de résistance of this description, waded into the undertow, and cast out beyond the first, line of breakers. Two hundred yards down the beach, my brother, ridiculously expert for his years, stood up to his waist in the surf—a small buff human creature, perfectly adequate and at. home. The long Pacific swell, unimpeded in its thousand-league course, swung in to die on these lonely beaches, hissing as it withdrew from the firm rampart of the sands. Each glassy sea reared as the water shallowed beneath it, curved forward without a sound, seemed to hang for an instant,— a cool blue cavern, arched and motionless, — and broke with the splitting report of cannon. Several times, as a wave rose high above the surrounding sea, I caught glimpses of fish suspended in these walls of clear water, illuminated by light from before and behind — revealed as if frozen in masses of blue ice.
Unbalanced by the pull of the undertow, I raised my foot incautiously and set it down on something slippery and quivering with life. A thrill of pain — I had stepped on a sting-ray which had defended itself in the only way it knew. My foot came up streaming blood, but I had been fortunate; the bony weapon had only grazed me. This ray carries his spear lightly attached to a slender and muscular tail, whipped over his back like lightning when he strikes. The sting itself is sometimes six inches long (in the case of the big rat-tails), sharp, flattened, armed with a row of wicked barbs on either side. When the wound is deep and the fish lashes out to free himself, the sting is apt to break off in place. Then pity the victim. A painful amount of cutting is required to extract the barbed bone; not infrequently a kind of blood-poisoning results — probably from the slime adhering to the bone.
I bound a handkerchief about the scratch and went on with my fishing, taking care to shuffle my feet along the bottom. Presently there was a sharp tug at my line: the characteristic strike of the corbina. I had him — a powerful and dogged fighter. Ten minutes later he lay gleaming in the shallows. I shouted to my brother, who ceased his sport and came toward me, with a brace of silver fish hanging from one hand.
The wind was rising. Out on the Bay of All Saints, the water, ruffled by a steady breeze from the northwest, changed to a brighter and deeper blue. The sand whispered as it began to move, moulding itself into new patterns for the day. We chose a hollow in the dunes for our camping-place. I gathered wood and built a fire, while my brother scaled and cleaned the fish, and dug a hole in the sand in which to bake them. Wrapped in layers of damp paper, laid over a bed of coals, and covered with heated sand, the largest of our corbina cooked while we ate a pailful of steamed cockles. Baked in this manner, which does not allow the juices to dry out, the corbina is a noble fish. We did him justice, for our appetites, like our digestions, might have been envied by a shark.
We lay on the warm slope of a dune, content to gaze in silence at the scene we loved. From cape to guardian cape not a sail dotted the fifteen-mile expanse of the bay; no sign of man or his handiwork marred the long curve of the shore. Gulls, with snowy breasts and backs of slate-blue, veered and tacked above the surf. Lines of brown pelicans, in close formation, traveled southward, returning from fishing, for a siesta on their rocky roosts. They manœuvred with the precision of troops at drill, each flock following a gray old leader, wise in the lore of the air. Flap, flap, flap, went their wings in perfect unison; then, as if a silent command had been given, the motion ceased — the flock sailed forward on rigid wings. Sometimes, when a young bird in the rear was a second late in catching the time, one fancied that the leader turned his head for a backward glance of disapproval.
My brother touched me, pointing to the sand between us. I saw a circular pit, in the shape of an inverted cone, the perfection of its form showing it to be the trap of an ant lion. This little creature, whose scientific name I do not know, has the air of a small heavily built spider; with a pair of strong nipping arms and powerful legs for digging. He lies at the bottom of his pit, loosely covered with sand, awaiting the prey which comes slipping and struggling down the steep slope. While we watched, a minute red ant, of the kind which inhabits the dunes, wandered to the edge of the trap, looked over, slipped, pawed frantically with his hind legs, and was lost. Down he went in a flurry of sliding grains; there were signs of life at the small end of the funnel — a sinister stir. The ant lost his footing entirely, and rolled head over heels to the bottom. A pair of horny nippers, emerging from the sand, seized him, and there ensued a small tragedy, over which it is best to draw the veil.
Lulled by the warmth, and drowsy with the salt air, we fell asleep. The sun was low over the Pacific when I awoke; the tide had turned long since, and the cool of evening was in the air. On the southern promontory the gorges were filling with mauve shadows, of the evasive quality named by the Chinese ‘the color of distant nature.’ The wind had died away, leaving the air marvelously clear; half-way out on the cape we could see every seam and cranny of the strange spires of rock called the Three Marys. They stood in the sea, encircled by rings of foam, at the base of black volcanic cliffs. Our cattle ranged on the rolling land above.
I knew the place well, for it had a bad name. Many years before, my father had built a road to the end of the cape, passing close to the Three Marys. There was difficulty in getting by this place. One day, while the men were at work in broad daylight, a tall stooping man, dressed in black and with a black hat pulled down over his eyes, made his appearance, walking rapidly toward the sea. He passed close to the workers, who dropped their tools to stare after him, and shouted warningly as he neared the cliff. Without altering his stride or turning his head in answer to the shouts, he reached the brink, stepped off into space, and was gone. The incident caused a buzz of talk among the natives. The base of the cliffs was searched without result, and an examination of the summit proved that not a ledge existed capable of giving foothold to a squirrel. When the same thing occurred a few days later, at precisely the same place, a half-pleasant shudder thrilled the people; but the third visitation nearly stopped work on the road. Since that day, the haunts of the eccentric gentleman in black had been left severely alone; it was unthinkable that a native should pass that way by night; even by day, when a ride along the heights was not to be avoided, the rider might be observed to make furtively the sign of the Cross. There was, in fact, something eerie about the place, a vague malignancy, chilling even now as I gazed across miles of water at its forbidding cliffs, guarded by spires of black rock.
My brother sat up suddenly to stare at something behind us in the lagoon. I turned to look. Weaving back and forth in characteristic aimless fashion, the dorsal fin of a shark cut the still water of the channel.
‘A whopper!’ muttered my brother as we sprang to our feet. In a moment we had launched the canoe; I stood forward with the grains, a heavily barbed trident, fitted with a detachable haft and two hundred feet of line.
A second glance at where the fin tacked against the ebb showed that this was no ordinary visitor to the lagoon, but one of the great sea-going sharks which drift up from the tropics and seem usually to distrust the shoal water leading to inlets such as ours. He moved with an air of lazy insolence, propelled by slow and powerful strokes of the tail; his manner, and the sight of a formidable shadowy bulk beneath the fin, were not reassuring.
As we drew near, there was a gleam in the water beside us — a small bright fish, moving at a speed the eye could scarcely follow, flashed about, for an instant and made off. A pilot-fish! I had often read of them, but this was the first time a shark important enough to maintain a personal courier had visited our waters. A number of reasons why we should give up the chase and return to the sandpit flashed through my mind. We were close to the breachway, and if struck, the shark would probably make for the broken water of the bar. He was capable of towing the canoe for miles, and I had no lance to finish him, even if we were able to get to close quarters. Above all, I felt a sudden desire to go ashore. I turned to my brother.
‘No use, he’s too big,’ I remarked, in a voice that I hoped was casual.
The canoe swung around with a rapidity which proved that the steersman and I were in accord. I dropped the grains — our paddles bent as they dug into the water. The fin disappeared. Next moment I saw the shark range alongside, swimming easily about a fathom deep. Once he turned on his side and seemed to glance up at us; I fancied there was a twinkle of malice in his eye. Our canoe — a slap of his tail would have crushed it — was fourteen feet long. From my position forward, I could see the shark’s head extending beyond the bow, and my brother declares to this day that the tail swept back and forth several feet astern of us. The bulk of the fish was enormous — he weighed a thousand pounds at least. Probably he meant us no harm; perhaps neither shark nor pilot-fish had seen a small boat before, and mistook our canoe for the carcass of a large fish. I believe, however, that a swimmer would have been in considerable danger; as a rule, the long and slender shark is harmless enough, but this portly relative should be respected, particularly in the muddy water of estuaries or the mouths of rivers.
We raced to shore and sprang out on the beach, a little shamefaced at our retreat, but well content to see the fin reappear, tacking out toward the sea.
The tide was turning. The current in the channel slackened; for a time the motion of the waters almost ceased. Then the blue flood began to pour in through the breachway, heralded by streaks of clear water brightening the ebb. The turn of the tide at the inlet was not marked, as in other places, by a period of absolute slack. The sea began to rise on the outer beaches before the lagoon was entirely emptied; the waves beat in against the dying ebb, blue water over brown. At first the current was murky, moving gently seaward; next moment, streamers of blue appeared, advancing over a discolored background; an instant later, the unbridled flood took possession of the channel.
This daily cleansing and purification of the lagoon never failed to touch one’s imagination. We lay in silence, watching the change while the sun set. A black head appeared in midstream, breathed a long sigh ending in a gasp, and disappeared. The turtle were coming in.
I rigged the turtle-peg while my brother loaded our gear into the canoe. My weapon was a small double barb of steel, shaped like an arrowhead and fitted with a socket into which the end of an eight-foot shaft was thrust. Lashed to the socket was one end of a heavy line which passed through a screw-eye on the shaft and terminated at a five-gallon keg, painted white, ready to throw overboard in case of emergency. When a turtle was struck, the keen little barb penetrated his shell, and the pole fell from the socket, leaving the line attached direct to the peg.
We stole in with the tide, my brother propelling the canoe in silence, sweeping his paddle forward without lifting it from the water. I stood in the bow, the spear poised in my right hand, the coiled line in my left. It was not yet dark enough for the sport; the turtle were traveling swiftly, but I made two casts before we reached the feedinggrounds. Each time the distance was too great; the big chelone slapped the water with his flippers as he dove for safety.
It was dark when we lay to off the spring; a moonless night, dead calm and warm — the lagoon aflame with phosphorescence. The turtle were feeding on the eel-grass in three fathoms of water; we heard their sighs all about us, and in the still air we could smell their breath, strangely like the breath of cattle. Now and then some huge old male rose from his pasture for a longer breathing-space, gasping and moving his flippers gently as he lay, halfawash, on the surface. Others passed beneath us, too deep to strike, outlined in broad paths of flame. We moved with the greatest caution, for the green turtle, in spite of his rheumy eyes, sees well, and his hearing is marvelously acute. The least unfamiliar splash or knock against the side of a boat will send him off in panic. Persecuted whenever he enters the inland waters in which he loves to feed, constant pursuit has made him wary as an antelope.
We watched one broad-backed patriarch rise twice at the same spot to breathe; perhaps he was a sentinel, for he remained at the surface longer than any of the others, and moved his head continually as if on the lookout for danger. When at last he dove, my brother paddled softly toward the widening ripples. Minute after minute we waited, scarcely permitting ourselves to breathe. An oval of pale fire appeared beneath the canoe — the turtle broke water, gasping loudly, close ahead. I cast the spear, heard a clear snick as it penetrated the leathery carapace, and felt the line tauten in my fingers. The water boiled.
‘We’ve got him!’ I shouted. Next moment the bow of the canoe was jerked violently around and we started for the inlet at a pace which left a wake of foam.
The turtle made nothing of the canoe or the current against him; mile after mile we swept on at unabated speed — west to the main channel, and north (behind the beach), until we could see the surf flickering on the bar. No canoe could live in the wild water ahead, but he seemed determined to reach the open sea. As we neared the breachway I saw that there was no choice — we should be obliged to cast loose. It was a melancholy moment.
I raised the keg and let it slip overboard, blaming myself a second later for not having cut the line. The canoe lost headway and my brother muttered something unbecoming his tender years. We sat in gloomy silence while the tide swung us in toward home.
Then it was my brother’s turn to shout. The keg, released at the very edge of the breakers, was passing us, glimmering in the starlight as it moved in with the flood. Perhaps the turtle had grown bewildered at the sudden relief from our canoe; at all events, here he was, and heading in the way we wished to go. The pace was moderate, and fearing to turn him again, we followed in his wake.
We beached him within a mile of our starting-point, at a place where the channel passed close inshore. I seized the keg and managed to haul up within a few yards of the exhausted turtle. Before he could run out with the slack, my brother turned the canoe sharply and I leaped out on land. Little by little we brought the monster in, till he lay thrashing in the shallows; then, grasping a flipper each, we turned him on his back, and a final effort pulled him safely beyond high-water mark. To-morrow we would come down with a wagon to fetch him; there would be rich steaks and a soup— the classic soup of the Lord Mayor — for everyone at the house.
Our day was finished. Too weary to take the canoe with us, we hid it in a thicket of sumac, and trudged up the long road to the ranch.