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A WINTER-NIGHT'S OUTING
NOT long since I was asked — and not for the first time — if I could date the beginning of my taste for natural history pursuits or give any incident that appeared to mark a turning-point in my career.
It did not seem possible to do this, on first consideration; but a recent living over of days gone by recalled an incident which happened before I was eleven years old, and, as it was almost my first regular outing that smacked of adventure, it is probable that it impressed me more forcibly than any earlier or, indeed, later events.
Heavy and long-continued rains had resulted in a freshet, and then three bitter cold days had converted a wide reach of meadows into a frozen lake. Happier conditions could not have occurred in the small boy's estimation, and, with boundless anticipation, we went skating.
After smooth ice, the foremost requirement is abundant room, and this we had. There was more than a square mile for each of us. The day had been perfect and the approaching night was such as Lowell so aptly describes, "all silence and all glisten."
As the sun was setting we started a roaring fire in a sheltered nook, and securely fastening our skates without getting at all chilled, started off. Then the fun commenced. We often wandered more than a mile away, and it was not until the fire was reduced to a bed of glowing coals that we returned to our starting-point.
Here a great surprise awaited us. The heat had drawn from the wooded hill-side near by many a meadow-mouse that, moved by the warmth or by curiosity, ventured as near as it dared. These mice were equally surprised at seeing us, and scampered off, but, it seemed to me, with some show of reluctance, as if a chance to warm themselves so thoroughly should not be missed.
We freshened the fire a little and fell back a few paces, but stood near enough to see if the mice would return. This they did in a few minutes, and, to our unbounded surprise and amusement, more than one sat up on its haunches like a squirrel. They seemed to be so many diminutive human beings about a camp-fire.
It was a sight to give rise to a pretty fairy tale, and possibly our Indians built up theirs on just such incidents. These mice were, to all appearances, there to enjoy the warmth. There was little running to and fro, no squeaking, not a trace of unusual excitement, and, although it was so cold, we agreed to wait as long as the mice saw fit to stay.
This resolution, however, could not hold. We were getting chilled, and so had to draw near. As we did this, there was a faint squeaking which all noticed, and we concluded that sentinels had been placed to warn the congregated mice of our approach.
The spirit of adventure was now upon us, and our skates were but the means to other ends than mere sport. What, we thought, of the gloomy nooks and corners where thickets stood well above the ice? We had shunned these heretofore, but without open admission that we had any fear concerning them. Then, too, the gloomy gullies in the hill-side came to mind. Should we skate into such darkness and startle the wild life there?
The suggestion was made, and not one dared say he was afraid.
We thought of the fun in chasing a coon or skunk over the ice, and bravely we ventured, feeling our way where we knew the ice was thin and rough.
At a bend in the little brook, where a large cedar made the spot more dark and forbidding, we paused a moment, not knowing just how to proceed.
The next minute we had no time for thought. A loud scream held us almost spellbound, and then, with one dash, we sought the open meadows.
Once there, we breathed a little freer. We could see the fast-fading light of the fire, and at last could flee in a known direction if pursued. Should we hurry home? We debated this for some time, but were more fearful of being laughed at than of facing any real danger, and therefore concluded, with proper caution, to return.
Keeping close together, we entered the ravine again, stopped near the entrance and kindled a fire, and then, by its light, proceeded farther. It was a familiar spot, but not without strange features as we now saw it.
Again we were startled by the same wild cry, but for a moment only. A barn owl, I think it was, sailed by, glaring at us, as we imagined, and sought the open meadows.
We turned and followed, though why, it would be hard to say. The owl flew slowly and we skated furiously, trying to keep it directly overhead. Now we were brave even to foolhardiness, and sped away over the ice, indifferent to the direction taken. To this day I have credited that owl with a keen sense of humor.
On we went, over the meadows to where the swift but shallow creek flowed by, and then, when too late, we knew where we were. The ice bent beneath us, then cracked, and in an instant we were through it, our feet well in the mud and the water about our necks. Just how we got out I never knew, but we did, and the one dry match among us was a veritable treasure.
It did not go out at the critical moment, but started ablaze the few twigs we hastily gathered, and so saved us from freezing. As we dried our clothes and warmed our benumbed bodies, I, for one, vowed never again to chase an owl on skates, but to go at it more soberly. From that eventful night the country has been attractive by reason of its wild life. It was there I became — if indeed I ever have become — a naturalist.