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The following article was made available from Cliff Huntingtons' extensive collection of works by Maurice and Will Thompson.



Confessions of an Ancient Poacher
by
Maurice Thompson

Originally Printed In "Outing", November 1900
Reprinted In "The American Bowman", April, May and December, 1936


The all averred I had killed the bird.

That caused the corn to grow! - Coleridge et al.

This is a bad age, an age of selfishness and sin, from the standpoint of a man who likes frequently to take an afternoon, or once in a while, even a whole day in the country, when the shooting seasons opens. Every field and woodland is "posted", that is, the sportsman has a warning against trespass flaunted before his eyes at every turn, "No hunting", No shooting", "No trespassing", these and like legend bedeck the trees and fence posts, to the bewilderment of certain good men who formerly could roam at will in the fascinating rural closes and make a merry din of guns while pursuing the quail, the prairie-hen, and the cotton tailed hare. I detest the doctrines of Henry George until one day a six foot farmer, with a gun which looked eleven feet nine inches long, chased me out of his boggy premises, whereon I had discovered some woodcock.

"I owns this yer farm," he bawled, "and I'll jest everlastingly shoot the clothes clean off'n any ding town scallowag 'at I ketch a-trompin' 'round on it. Git, an git quick! Ye can't do nothin' on this land 'ceptin' ye do it a runnin'!"

If I could have fixed a single tax of nine hundred per cent on that land, what industry I would have displayed in making the levy! I presume the law is on his side. The law is generally on the side of the man with the long gun and the miles of unkempt farmlands. But what a paradise those same lands be for you and me!

Obediently I acted upon the slalwart landlord's order. When he said "git", I got. He followed me across wood and field to the highway, spilling upon me meanwhile the concentrated essence of Revilement.

"Creepin' aroun' over my premises, air ye, with a bow 'n' arrers, dad ding yer onery liver! Tryin' to shoot somethin' fer yer starvin' Wife an' thievin' children, hay? Well, I'll blow ye in two, right at the small o' yer back, an' feed yer to my hogs, dad ding ye!"

I scrambled over the fence into the road and took a deep breath. Since that day I have been a poacher. And I beg to tell you that poaching has delights beyond any record in the Koran! Dangers attend it at every step; but what charming dangers they are! To slip back the very next Saturday and kill those woodcock, while the farmer with the long gun was doing his weekly business in town, was inevitable. I even sauntered down to his house, and while his good wife gave me a cup of cool buttermilk I showed her my bag of birds and told her jest where I killed them, knowing that she would detail the whole story to her truculent lord.

With diligent practice the poaching theory becomes inexpressibly fascinating. It has so many rays of possibility with which to light up the sportsman's chances for a few furtive shots on a forbidden ground here or yonder in the wide domain of Nature. The spirit of Nimrod dies hard under an iron rule. We of the free-hearted and strong handed shooters' guild feel that we have rights that even landlords should respect.

Poaching, however, is a universal practice. I have seen farmers poaching, in absolute defiance of law, on their own lands. Indeed, the farmers kill more game unlawfully in one season than sportsmen do in ten seasons. They drive everybody off their premises and then set traps for the quails, springers for the woodcocks and deadfalls for the hares. They "post" the streams to prevent angling, while they use seines and dynamite.

But I have no quarrel with any poacher in the world. Like love, the poaching of which I write is an activity in which everything is fair. If one landlord chases you off his estate, you will be so good as to enter forthwith upon the estate of another. Never despair.

There was a time, however, when I began to feel blue. The walks were too long and my time too precious. Moreover, a horse and vehicle were not available; they could not be hidden, hitch them where I might, even to a star, and when, after an hour or two of sport, I returned to them with my bag, there stood Bucolicus ready to nab me!

All in vain was my utmost cleverness; the horse and cart always betrayed me. Just fancy my reverie one day when, with four bob whites, a hare and three grouse, I returned to find the hump shouldered and hirsute owner of the soil over which I had been shooting quietly settled in my vehicle, smoking his pipe and waiting to apprehend me for trespass!

But the advent of the bicycle spared me future humiliation, and there will be no difficulty in understanding how the wheel and the bow have mixed their gifts of delight into a new experience for me.

The poacher finds the wheel and the bow just suited to his needs; both of them as noiseless as death. The farmer who has erected the sign, "No shuten' aloud on this farm", can not understand the humor of his bad spelling when set before the archer, who inwardly retorts; "Of course not; I'll shoot neither allowed nor aloud on this farm. Permission superflous when, the shooter is silent". Rubber tires and by-roads bear me into forbidden places. "No tresspassion heare", says a gray board nailed slantwise on a tree deep in an ideal wood for bow shooting - wood where dove squabs, just old 'enough to fly well, twinkle on drab wings from bough to bough. "Keep out", remarks another bit of plank scarred with red letters; but I keep not out.

And I turn from him and trundle away on my wheel.

"Gee erp, there!" he says to his sturdy team, and resumes his fragrant toil. He wags his head and takes it for granted that I have gone back, sad hearted and disappointed, to town. But I haven't. Instead, I have sneaked around to the farther side of his domain by way of a shady lake and have entered.

It is a great joke on the farmer over yonder; he hears no gun; no road cart has clattered along the lane; there surely can be no poacher in the wood today. Yet here I am, busy at my fun, knocking the sqaubs from breakfast to business, filling my bag, and grinning like the faun of Praxitiles. Trudge along O plough man, dreaming your sordid dream of granaries and greenbacks, while I have the reality of a shooter's paradise for two long hours!

Yonder is my wheel, hidden in the thicket close to the worn fence. My books and luncheon hang high above it in the foilage. I sneak from shadow to shadow, from tree-bole to tree-bole, feeling keen relish what time the sense of furtive triumph over a law against freedom spreads through me.

The legend, "No shuten' or feeshen' on these premises", with its idyllic suggestion of broad dialect, always presents, to me at least, infinite temptation of a general nature; but there are special cases, where the features of the countryside take on a leer, as if to say, "See how unkempt, how broken, how coppice covered, how shaded by primitive woods I am!" then I take umbrage and climb over the fence, law or no law. I have always desired to be like Shakespeare. The nearest that I have ever approached his pattern, and there I may have even gotten the better of him, has been in the matter of poaching.

Over the fence-usually it is of barbed wire, eight strands-over the fence I hoist my wheels; then I take off my shooting-coat and hang it upon the wire teeth to protect my legs while I scale the barrier. "No shutten", indeed! My dear sir, plenty of it and to spare! the poacher has his peculiarities of vision and hearing. Every hair on his wise head is a capillary eye, every pore of his skin is auditory. He is wary, quick, hard to catch, and slippery in the hand. His temper is admirable and his humor inexhaustible. What he wants, he gets, and what he gets is wild game things FERAE NATURE from time immemorial property of him whom takes them.

And so here I am, ready for adventure.

I peep between the trees of the wood that I have invaded and look upon a rural scene of memorable beauty. A rolling green pasture between me and the farmer's house is dotted with fat cattle that nip the grass and whisk the flies. Leftward, a little farther off, lies a field of newly ploughed, harrowed, rolled and drilled to wheat, level as a floor, smooth as a jackplaned board. In that direction I hear quails piping. My mouth waters while I think of the dear old days when a quail pot-pie was served to me twice a week throughout the season, or the birds were broiled, deluged with nutty butter and garnished with cress. That was in the golden age. So long as plenty of feed-ground and proper covert remained, no amount of shooting effected the annual number of birds. It is Agriculture that has destroyed game, not the shooters. The tile drain kills more snipe, woodcock and woodduck than all the guns. The closely shaven fields freeze more quail and grouse than we sportsmen could ever.

Time was when I could tramp the country openly in pursuit of the common property of all men. Now, however, "No shutten' aloud" has destroyed my immemorial privilage, and I am compelled to poach. Amen.

Mine enemy, the grizzeled farmer, has a fowling piece and a huge dog with which he is supposed to guard his holdings and make good the prohibitory legend on his trees. If he should see me there would be tragedy. I know the danger and joyously realize it. That is the sauce of my adventure. I plan about the bevy, having located it at a far corner of the field where the briery head of a ravine invades the ploughed land.

Five minutes give me ample time to map my campaign. I am to reach yonder hedge as best I can, thence I shall follow its line, keeping under cover of it to prevent any person seeing me from the house. At a certain point I shall have to take boldly to the open and cross the field's corner. There is the main danger. I had the feeling of going upon a scouting excursion in a danger-haunted region. Remotely, besided there hovered in my mind a stragely invigorating consciousness on inquiry. Every step that I took reacted my imagination and stirred up dregs of predatory instinct.

In the use of the bow I have probably reverted to the aboriginal type. At all events, with it in my hand and my full quiver at my side I retreat a thousand years into the past. My whole being enters into the desire to forstall mine enemy, the man who posts his farm.

The quail had ceased calling, wherever I knew that they had come together at the head of the ravine. Stooping, skulking creeping from cover to cover, I hurried on my devious way, all the time ready for a surprise and a breakneck run back to my wheel. If the farmer, his wife, his army of burly sons and his dogs would but hold off for a while, onlt till I could skillfully drive the quails into the wood, then what a bit of sport I might have. Cool as the October air was, I felt a perspiration creeping down my spine as I hastened along.

At last there was but the bit of open to be traversed. I did not falter here, but took on a great spurt of courage. When halfway over, I saw the birds, as many as fifteen plump youngsters, loitering beside a fringe of blackberry briars. I stopped short, in full view from the farmhouse, and let go an arrow that knocked over one bird right in the bevy's midst. I had expected at least three times that luck, but was well pleased as it had befallen, seeing the whole group scamper into the ravine afoot, instead of flying.

I bagged my bird and hurried on, never forgetting my danger - that would have been to lose the zest of emprise - never ceasing to keep the tail of an eye upon every avenue of approach. I followed the quails by site, not hurrying them or doing anything to frighten them. Indeed, I coddled them diplomatically for the sake of a shot now and then. The ravine was a cool, sweet place, where a few belated rose gerardias shone pink in the shade. Tufts of goldenrod waved their plumes aslant in protected spots, where wisps of blue grass stood kneehigh under blackberry vines. A rich odor of Autumn, the bouquet of maturity, lingered everywhere, and the brooks voice filled the weather as juice fills the grape. On high in the treetops a discord of woodpecker jargon and a rasping of bluejay voices added something excellant to the general effect of things, while I stole along and tried another shot, which, deflected by some obstruction, went wide.

Suffice it on this score to that I laid in an hour's hard shooting and bagged, all together, five birds. Then followed a rest in a dell beside the stream deep in a papaw thicket where the wild fruit was at the point of falling, the green brown clusters glowing dimly amid the foilage and causing the boughs to sag with their weight of almost over-fragrant ripeness.




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