The Judas Goose

I

IT was old Joe Diemouth who told me the story of the goose Judas, and it was a story I always remembered, chiefly at first because it was so different from most of Joe’s stories — no adventures or dangers or heroism on his part, none of the atmosphere of mighty hunter that first made me, a lad in the gun-worshiping stage, the old man’s satellite. And in later years I have remembered it because of its own peculiar quality of somehow epitomizing a kind of life that has disappeared forever. As I look back now, I realize that my own boyhood days bore the last imprints of that disappearing life, and there is in me still a sense of continuity with it strong enough to turn me homesick when I visit the little town now with all its brisk and colorless modernity.

Joe was a very old man when I first knew him, but still a hunter. He lived just behind us, and sometimes I would rouse vaguely out of sleep and hear a rattletrap buggy leaving Joe’s yard and would know that he was up in the cold and dark of three o’clock to go hunting. He would stand for hours in ice water above his knees to get a shot at a wild duck. He nearly drove his daughter and his granddaughters crazy, and of course he did finally get himself pneumonia and they all thought he’d die. He fooled them, though, but after that he had to take his hunting out in talk. He showed me how to build traps and told me stories of the great dogs he’d owned and his adventures with them, explained every trophy that decorated his walls — the mounted fish, and the buffalo and moose horns and antlers that hung on every wall of his cottage home.

His wife, passionately neat, had antimacassars — two or three or half a dozen of them — on every piece of her gold plush furniture. Old Joe could n’t do anything with her when it came to tidies. He himself seemed almost as incongruous in that stuffed and dusted little place. Even with his infirmities, Joe belonged outside, with the marshes and wild things, not in with the tidies and canaries. How Joe despised those canaries! He would tell me about his goose Judas, his voice raised over the inconsequential twitterings of those contemptibly tame and useless canaries — caged things, content to be caged.

At the time he had Judas, when he was a young man with a young family, Joe lived on a farm about ten miles from town. Ten miles were ten miles in those days, and a farmer had to be a self-sufficient person. There could be no running into town to buy a loaf of bread if the wife found she was out just ten minutes before dinner. Joe was a hunter not only because he liked to hunt but because he had to. Ducks and wild geese were plentiful and furnished about the only fresh meat the family got. About thirty rods from the farmhouse was a slough. You can drive all over northwest Iowa now without seeing a slough, — all the water has been drained off, — but in those days farmers simply farmed around the sloughs, and there were acres and acres that were too swampy to cultivate at all. The wild ducks and geese loved Joe’s slough and they had n’t learned yet to be wary. His little girls loved the slough, too, and so did Joe, who spent a lot of time prowling around there. One day he found a wild goose’s nest and brought the eggs home with him to put under a hen. Out of three goslings hatched, two were ganders, and as soon as they were large enough they were killed and eaten. But the one was a goose, and Joe made up his mind to raise it for a decoy.

At first the wild goose was just another fowl around the barnyard. It was months before anyone gave her a name, and then it was n’t a very nice name the goose got for herself. ‘Judas’ they called her, and it did n’t seem right, both because she was a lady and because by that time they were all fond of her, and you don’t call any creature you are fond of ‘Judas.’ But Judas it was, because she had earned her title and it was all too appropriate.

By the time she had acquired her name she had also become a great pet of all the family, but particularly of Joe. She used to follow him about wherever he went, coaxing for extra food and for attention. She loved to be petted, and if she caught Joe sitting down anywhere she’d come up to him and bunt her head against his knee and nuzzle him like a dog wanting caresses. She was a pretty thing, and it gave her endless pleasure to have her long dark throat stroked gently. She’d bend her head down and make little singing sounds of satisfaction just as long as anyone would keep on petting her. The children loved her. Joe’s littlest girl used to take Judas’s dark head in her hand and softly stroke the pretty arrangements of feathers on neck and body, fingering the white mufller around the throat and ruffling the plumage to see it fall back once more into its delicate design.

They clipped her wings so that she could n’t fly away, but it would scarcely have been necessary, for Judas showed no inclination to leave her home. She was far tamer than any of the domestic flock, lovely to look at, and so intelligent that it seemed impolite to refer to her as a goose.

II

The thing that got Judas her name was her extraordinary attitude toward her duties as a decoy. She seemed to know what it was all about, to realize what her function was, and to take an unnatural kind of pleasure in it. There was nothing of the ignorant cat’s-paw about Judas. She knew she was supposed to call down other wild geese out of the sky in order that Joe could shoot them. She did it knowingly and deliberately. It was fantastic to see her. She and Joe worked together like a couple of sportsmen, or a sportsman and his bestloved dog, and the slough was their hunting ground. It was a favorite resort for Judas at all times, and the brush that surrounded it made excellent cover for Joe and his gun.

In the spring and fall, when the wild geese were honking overhead, Judas played her siren part to perfection. Paddling around on the pond, she sent her lonesome call skyward and lured her tribesmen down to doom. She seemed to exult in her powers and liked to show them off under less favorable conditions than the pond provided her. Often and often she would stand in the farmyard, only a few feet from the door of the house, and call down a gander for Joe, lurking in the doorway, to shoot.

You might have thought she was just lonesome, calling for a companion, and too stupid to realize what was going to happen to any bird she brought down to join her. But her conduct when Joe’s gun had done its work left no room for such a charitable supposition. Judas clearly enjoyed seeing other geese shot. When a gander crumpled into a soft heap beside her she jumped up and down in her joy. She did a victory dance about the body, and when Joe approached to pick it up she stretched out her neck to him and discussed the kill in low, wellpleased tones of voice. She definitely knew what that gun meant, for whenever Joe appeared with it on his arm she followed, noisy with excitement and anticipating the sport with all the eagerness of a hunting dog.

There was something a little dreadful about Judas, a little preposterous — something chilling. She was, really, a detestable fowl if one considered her from the aspect of her relationship to her own kindred. But, considered from a human point of view, she was a pet and a loyal helper. Perhaps there was something a little touching about her preference of her human friends to her own kind — a betrayer appears noble if he has done his betraying out of loyalty to you.

Judas was about three years old when she began to show a change of heart toward her own race. It was early spring, and the wild geese were thick in the swamp. Joe got all he wanted and Judas exhibited her usual interest in all the proceedings, calling ganders down in the barnyard to be slaughtered, doing her dance and singing her song when they were killed. It was astonishing that Joe was able to get close enough to kill so many of them, but the gander is a gallant fellow, waiting always for the goose to fly first. And Judas, of course, never flew.

Then, gradually, Joe became aware that Judas was not around the barnyard as much as she used to be. The children reported seeing her on the pond, and with her always a young gander. Judas had taken a mate. He never came around the farm buildings at all, and Judas never tried to bring him there. She seemed to realize that that was no place for her beloved. She made her nest in an old strawstack several fields beyond the house, where the children discovered her devotedly tending her eggs.

The gander was n’t around much in the daytime, now, but every morning he came to the pond and called until Judas left her nest and went to the water for a swim with him. He seemed to be trying to get her to go away. Often he flew a short distance and anxiously called and Judas as anxiously answered. But she could n’t fly far on account of her clipped wings, and besides she had her eggs to tend. So she stayed, and the gander stayed with her.

They were pretty to see together as they took their morning swim, often side by side like a well-married pair talking over domestic affairs. Then again they would have one of their worried discussions of going away, the gander flying and calling and Judas explaining and explaining why it was that she could n’t go. He never seemed to understand that Judas could n’t fly. He put on many a demonstration for her and then she would try, but was able, of course, to rise only a few feet in the air. Her lover never gave up. He seemed to feel that in due time he would be able to teach this strange bride of his all she needed to know for the long, strong flight his heart demanded for him and for her.

Joe got worried about this love affair of Judas. Sooner or later, he thought, the mate would win. Judas’s wings would grow, and she was getting shyer and shyer of human beings. The gander must have been telling her with masculine positiveness that no good could come of her association with them, for it was almost impossible now to catch her.

Joe decided he would have to kill the gander. He could n’t allow such a valuable decoy as Judas to be wooed away from him, and that he was sure was going to happen. The little girls cried when he said he was going to shoot the gander they kept hoping that he would become tame, too, and they liked the idea of having the pair of them around. They liked the idea of Judas’s being happy with a mate. Joe was sure it would n’t work. The gander would n’t tame in the first place, and even if he did he doubted if Judas would be useful as a decoy as long as he was about. So Joe made up his mind to kill him.

III

Joe Diemouth forgot all about what a glorious sport hunting was when he came to this part of his tale. I don’t know how many times I heard the story of Judas, but every time wdien Joe told how he had made up his mind to kill the gander he almost cried. His weatherbeaten little face crinkled up and his bright old eyes grew misty. He could n’t see now how he’d ever had the heart to do it. A wild goose was a pretty, graceful thing, a gallant thing ready to give its life for its mate. It was a treat, now, merely to get a look at one. Old Joe would willingly sit up to his neck in a slough just to see one zooming toward him. He would n’t ask for a shot at it. He would n’t even want to shoot it. But in those days wild fowl of all descriptions were so plentiful that it never occurred to Joe to think of them except in terms of something to be shot if possible. Still, when he came to tell me of the actual shooting of Judas’s mate, he always looked guilty, and he did n’t like the telling of that part of his story.

It was a late spring that year, a tantalizing, procrastinating spring. Just as it began to look as if winter were actually routed, just as the sun began to have some real warmth in it and the green blush on the rolling prairies was more than a hallucination caused by wishing for green in a gray world, there’d come a hard freeze and discourage everything for another two weeks. The family got up one morning as cold as they had been any time that winter, it seemed, and found everything frozen up. The little pond had half an inch of ice.

Joe was in a bad temper over this setback, and when he saw Judas’s mate come down to the pond he decided it was a good time to do away with him. Besides, Judas was n’t around, and Joe, in spite of her antics with other geese, did n’t quite like the idea of killing her mate while she looked on. He went back to the house and got his gun. Then he attempted to creep close enough to the pond to shoot the visitor. But the gander was cautious. A dozen times Joe tried for a shot at him, but each time he made off. Joe was getting irritated. Finally he chanced a shot, which went wild and left the gander flying overhead in circles and making it perfectly apparent that he knew exactly where Joe was ambushed.

Joe was crouched in the brush, cursing, mad enough by this time to kill the bird with a good heart. And then he saw Judas. She was coming dowm to the pond in a tearing hurry. It seemed almost as if, having heard that one shot and knowing well what a shot was likely to mean, she’d left her nest and come rushing to investigate. Joe kept very quiet. All right, let her bring her mate down as she’d brought so many others. He was determined by this time to get that gander.

Judas came out on the ice and called anxiously. She marched about, peering and plaintively inquiring. And her lover answered that cry. Down he came. He lit beside her on the ice and pushed her about a bit with his body and neck. It seemed almost as if he were trying to get between her and Joe. She, glad to see him, stretched out her neck to him and talked. He kept nudging her about, in great anxiety, but he could n’t make it clear to her what he wanted. He flew a little, coaxing, and Judas this time did her best to follow, but her wings were n’t equal yet to flight in spite of the fact that Joe had n’t been able for some time to catch her and clip them. So the gander came back to the ice beside her. He stood in front of her and turned his head in the direction of Joe’s cover. Joe took aim and just as he pulled the trigger it seemed to him that the gander raised his head up haughtily, disdaining or defying death. The next instant he was a heap of wind-ruffled feathers on the ice.

‘I never felt so low-down in my life,’ old Joe told me. He felt so terrible the instant he had pulled that trigger that he stayed in the cover for a long time afterwards. He had a feeling that he did n’t want Judas to see him.

It was like the time he’d had to kill his favorite hound because he’d got so old and sick and deaf. He had to be killed, for pity’s sake, and Joe could n’t bear to turn him over to someone else, perhaps clumsy, to kill. It was up to him to do it himself. The hound was so deaf he figured he could sneak up on him when he was asleep and get it over and the old dog would never know what hit him. And he did find the old fellow snoozing in the sun in a position where he could get a sure shot at him. He crept up close and there was n’t a movement from the hound. He put his gun to his shoulder, took careful aim, and then, just as he fired, the dog looked up — looked directly at his master training a gun on him. And in that last instant of life there was a look in his eyes that haunted old Joe for years. He used to wake up in the night in a cold sweat, seeing the grieved eyes of old WarDance, the best dog he’d ever had.

It was like that when he’d killed Judas’s mate, except, in a way, he felt worse — meaner. He’d killed WarDance to keep him from suffering, but he’d killed the gander just because it appealed to him as convenient. Someway he’d half expected to see Judas jump up and down and express her usual glee when a bird was shot beside her. But she did nothing of the kind. She stayed around the pond for quite a while, looking at her fallen mate, seeming not to understand that he was dead. Then she left the pond reluctantly and went back to her nest.

Joe took the body of the gander and buried it. It did n’t seem decent to eat a creature that had stood up and defied death for his mate the way that gander had. Joe could see him, lifting his head haughtily, contemptuously, as he took aim. Old Joe used to mutter something at this point about a soul. He was rather incoherent about it. Joe was never one to deal in abstractions, and he had no churchly phrases in which to express his meaning, but it seemed to me that he was trying to say that Judas’s mate had a soul and you could n’t eat a creature that had a soul. Soul, to old Joe, apparently meant personality. Any living thing that impressed itself on him as having personality, as being an individual, he thought of as having a soul.

I know he believed his hunting dogs went to some kind of special heaven. And for all I know they did. At least, there is something in dogs, and in wild creatures, that seems to express the soul of a place. There’s something gone from that country now that it used to have, clearly when old Joe was a young man, faintly but still perceptibly when I was a boy. And I don’t believe it’s just that intimations of immortality have fled from me because I’m no longer young. It’s really gone—something that used to be there. The great prairies have to express themselves to-day in terms of scraggly villages full of radios and oil-burning furnaces. And what have those things to say of the spirit of the place? The little wild things, driven away now, forever, said it better because they were in themselves the soul of the marching land and the brooding water. They’re gone, now, and the land has lost its voice and lies inarticulate, though the noise of an alien life fills it.

Judas did n’t show up again after the death of her mate. Old Joe went to look for her. He found her on her nest, dead. The eggs were cold.

No, she did n’t die of a broken heart. Old Joe examined her and found a shot in her. Evidently it had glanced off the ice and struck her, not hard enough to kill her outright, but enough to cause her death. So, said old Joe, he lost his decoy anyway, and he might as well have allowed Judas’s mate to live. And, mighty huntsman though I fancied myself to be, I thought so too.