“The White Grouse” by John Taintor Foote

“A man is entitled to one good woman and one good dog during a lifetime. He’ll never be happy until he gets them.”

illustration of a white grouse

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American screenwriter and novelist John Taintor Foote wrote scripts for the films Kentucky and The Mask of Zorro.. In his story “The White Grouse” published in 1922, John Jones is a young man who wants to follow his father’s footsteps by finding the perfect woman and a trusty dog.

Published September 9, 1922

A lonely cabin in the hills occupied by a he and a she suggests romance; but the interior of such a cabin — although so occupied — was altogether free from things romantic on a certain star-filled October night.

Gladstone’s Nellie, undeniably feminine, was staring with dreamy indifference into the fire. John Jones, indubitably masculine, happened to be staring at Gladstone’s Nellie. It is to be doubted whether in all the land there was a creature more worthy of inspection than Champion Gladstone’s Nellie; yet John Jones saw her not at all. He had just harked back along a tunnel of dead years and come suddenly on a dun mare hitched to a yellow-wheeled buckboard, trotting briskly along a winding thicket-flanked road.

Startlingly clear, after the dimness of the tunnel, were the high headed, ear-flicking mare and mud-splashed buckboard; startlingly clear was the man with the iron-gray mustache in the woods smelling, sweat-stained, weather beaten canvas shooting coat who was driving the mare; clear also was the gawky, tow-headed boy, perched beside the man, with a shiny, new, single-barreled, twenty-gauge shotgun clasped in his arms. But clearest of all was the black, white and ticked setter, shaking with suppressed desire as he crowded against the boy’s knee and stretched his long deep muzzle above a clicking wheel to read the autumn air.

Yes, clearer than mare and buckboard, clearer than his father, clearer than himself, were the stretching neck and head of old Don. Thanks to the brain within that head and the miracle called a nose at its end, John Jones now exchanges the vision of mare and buckboard and winding road for another. He watches the towheaded boy follow a creeping black, white and ticked shadow, through a thicket, down a gulch, along a watercourse, up a hillside, and so at last to a small jungle of blackberry vines. The shadow moves slower, slower; it has ceased to move.

“Are you ready?” asks a quiet voice.

The boy finds it impossible to speak. Even a whisper is beyond him. He nods faintly. “All right, Don. Go on!” A roar of wings beating up from the briers, a hurtling bombshell all black and bronze and gold, the boy swings his gun and pulls the trigger, not knowing he has done so. A puff of floating feathers in the air, empty of all else except blue sky and flaming branches; a heart-shaking thump and rustle in the dead leaves below. John Jones has killed his first ruffed grouse on the wing! One night during the winter that followed, old Don came to the bedside of the father of John Jones and whined a yearning whine that the man could not understand. He laid a hand on the old dog’s head and asked him what was the matter. Don whined again, stuck a cold nose against his master’s cheek, and returned stiffly to the shooting coat in the corner on which he slept. In the morning the man heard no thump of a tail against the floor when he sat up in bed. A moment later he knew that the whines and that cold nose in the night had been a last farewell. When the next shooting season arrived the father of John Jones began to take long drives through the country with John Jones’ mother. When they passed a flaming thicket he would shift the reins to his right hand and put his arm about his wife. John Jones wondered why his father never hunted any more. One day his father explained.

“A man is entitled to one good woman and one good dog during a lifetime. He’ll never be happy until he gets them. You’re going to be a man and a grouse shot someday, you’re going to know a lot of women and think a heap of some of them — until you find the good one. You’re going to own a lot of dogs and think a heap of them too; but when you get the good one — you’ll hunt him till he dies, and then — well, then you’ll be glad you’ve got the woman.” “Yes, sir,” said John Jones as though he quite understood. Fifteen years had passed since then, passed like the landscape at the window of a train. In those fifteen years John Jones had learned to cut a grouse down with the precision of a machine. But that was all, and it was not enough. He must have the complement of perfect shooting — a perfect shooting dog. For ten of the fifteen years he had been looking for such a dog; for the one good dog to which he was entitled — a grouse dog like old Don.

As for the one good woman to which he was also entitled — there was a certain girl. Sitting on a ribbon of white beach which edged a purple ocean, he had told her many things that summer. He had explained the lack of ambition of which he was accused. Happiness, he had told her, was what the bewildered human race was stretching and yearning toward. He had found it in woods and thickets, on little lakes and streams. He had found abiding tranquility so long as he remained in the environment from which it sprang. A few days in the city and it was gone. In its place would come a restlessness, mental at first, physical later, like a gnawing, deep-seated pain.

The girl had drawn in her breath sharply and touched his sleeve. “I know,” she had said; “I know.”

John Jones went on to tell about his shooting. In doing so he had tried to describe the indescribable — a ruffed grouse roaring up in the brooding hush of a thicket. “But it can’t be told,” said he at last; “you’ll just have to see for yourself.”

That fall he had contrived to have them both members of the same house party in the Connecticut hills. On the opening day of the grouse season they had set forth together. She had exclaimed rapturously at the sight of Gladstone’s Nellie, moving like music, through bowers of scarlet and gold.

But John Jones had recalled for her the black, white and ticked shadow of his boyhood, that could follow a grouse through any cover and point him out again and again, like the finger of fate. He was looking, always looking for another like him, he had told her. He admitted — cautiously, lest she think the matter trivial — that he could never be wholly contented until he found such a dog. Mildred — that was the girl’s name — regarding him with cool gray eyes, had seemed to understand.

It had rained the night before. The woods, when they plunged into them, were filled with the patter of silver drops and smoking with mist. The leaves and branches on which they stole along were too sodden to protest at alien footsteps. It was a day on which a dog with any sort of nose could find birds. Gladstone’s Nellie had done surprisingly well. As for John Jones — with those cool gray eyes upon him he had shot as if inspired. Grouse after grouse, glimpsed through steaming vistas, had crumpled up at the pull of his magic trigger and thumped down on the wet leaves.

John Jones had come to a halt at last and laid the dead birds in a row on a fallen log, smoothing the feathers of each as he did so. “Nine,” he counted, and looked up at the girl in triumph. He found her regarding the dead grouse with a strange white look.

“You told me you gave the birds a chance,” said she. “Of course. They were killed on the wing. A lot got away.”

“None that you shot at.”

“But the dog flushed a dozen or more ahead of us; you heard them get up.”

“Yes, I heard them.” She looked again at the row of grouse on the log. “And that’s why you want the kind of dog you told me about — so that none would get up ahead.” She had spoken softly, half to herself. Now her lips contracted to a thin red line, her eyes became gray agates. “I hope,” she cried, “you never, never find him!” That was the beginning of the breach between them. John Jones might have explained that it had been an extraordinary day; that had the woods been dry nine out of ten birds would have flushed wild before the beauteous but uncertain Gladstone’s Nellie.

But why explain? Why explain anything to a girl who thought her feeling for wild things was deeper than his own? A girl who had brought a little silly sentimentality into his beloved woods and been shocked by what he did therein. Give the birds a chance! She seemed to think one poked a gun at a grouse going like a flash of light through thick cover, and down he came.

So John Jones had not explained. The breach between them had widened that evening. The next day she was gone.

He would never try to close the breach, he now reflected. Never! He had found the one good woman apparently, only to have her think he lacked in sportsmanship. Well, the one good dog remained to be looked for. Some day he would find him; another like old Don.

What if he failed to do so? What if such a nose and such uncanny bird sense should never be combined again? John Jones stirred uneasily at the thought.

Gladstone’s Nellie stirred also and lifted her head from her paws. John Jones snapped his fingers; she rose unhurriedly from before the fire and came to him with a slight wave of her tail. He put out his hand. Her muzzle sank into it. He covered her nose with his other hand and tightened his fingers until her nostrils were closed. For a moment breath was denied her. When he released her she sneezed. He smiled down into her amber eyes, into which came a gleam of amusement.

She adored him openly for a moment, not failing to come to a statuesque pose while so doing.

“You’re a fraud,” said John Jones. “Go and lie down!” 

She obeyed the command with the carriage of a stag and the grace of a fawn. Yes, she was a fraud, he thought — self-conscious, vain, a born poser. A champion on the bench, she was only a fair bitch in the field and somewhat less than that when pitted against a wily old cock grouse. Her nose would do if the day was not too dry. She was quiet, steady, and obeyed his lightest word. But she lacked the quenchless passion of a great gun dog — old Don, for instance. He would go all day through briers or over stubble, gasping with the heat or shaking with the cold, lost in a frenzy of concentration on the finding and pointing of birds.

Gladstone’s Nellie was not like that. Slush and mud distressed her. Burs she abhorred. Always a lady in fine raiment, she shirked too briery thickets, she skirted the edges of swamps. But, oh, the wonder of her poses! The sheer breath-taking beauty of everything she did! At the first scent of birds she became a duchess. On point she dimmed the glory of a queen.

Perhaps, being feminine, this satisfied her soul. Perhaps she simply lacked in nose. At any rate, in solid bird finding qualities she did not improve. John Jones knew she would never make the grouse dog that someday must be his. It was too bad. Just to watch her gave a man a thrill, and, damn it all, she was a sweet old thing.

He watched her now as she sank down and resumed her contemplation of the birch logs pouring an inverted cascade of flame up the black mouth of the chimney. The chimney was a haphazard affair of stones and mortar. At one time the stones had been scattered on the surface of a timber-crested hill, rising like a threatening wave above the valley of the Neversink. The four-room shack which huddled against the chimney was borne up a hundred feet above the valley by the first swell of this wave. Across and farther down the valley was Slide Mountain, its rounded top the highest point in the Catskill Range. The shack belonged to a friend indeed, who was held in New York at present by the anxieties of a falling market.

John Jones had never hunted the Catskills before, but during the previous June he had spent a week with a fly rod anywhere from ankle to waist deep in the rushing Neversink. Above the noise of the stream there had come to him again and again the mysterious hollow drumming which a cock grouse achieves when he beats his love-racked body with ecstatic wings.

Finding the woods and thickets of the Connecticut hills curiously haunted by a pair of cool gray eyes, John Jones had recalled those feathered drums along the Neversink. Good! The grouse would be in the hills above the stream at this season. New country. Nothing to remind him of – he plunged into his packing.

That was on Monday. It was now Tuesday. John Jones and Gladstone’s Nellie had dropped out of the stage from Big Indian that afternoon to find themselves just beyond the five-mile shadow of Slide Mountain. John Jones had a bag full of hunting clothes and shells in one hand and a gun case in the other. In his pocket was a key to the shack — its roof a blank gray square among lemon colored maple leaves well above the road.

Five hours had passed since then. A Flemish-oak clock gesticulated the fact from the mantel with thin brass hands. John Jones decided on a sniff of the night air, a look at the stars, and so to bed. Gladstone’s Nellie accompanied him to the door and slipped out into the night when he opened it. At his whistle a moment later she seemed to float from the darkness into the light from the open door. She, too, stood and raised her eyes to the heavens. Her nostrils worked delicately as she sniffed the portent of a myriad blazing stars. Her tail moved in faint approval.

“Correct,” said John Jones; “it’s going to be a nice day. A little dry for you, Susan Jane.”
He bent his knee against her silken side and gave her a push. Robbed of a marvelous pose she took her injured dignity with her and stalked into the shack.
“Good night,” said John Jones when he was ready for bed.
She only stared into the dying fire.
He chuckled and blew out the light.

It was clear and warm next morning; it became hot as the sun rose with enviable ease above the hills which John Jones was climbing doggedly, the sweat running into his eyes. The sun drained each fern and fallen leaf, the briers and the laurels of every trace of melted hoar frost. It began to crack and rustle and snap under foot.

Gladstone’s Nellie roaded like a spring song past a thicket and paused vaguely, her head lifted. From the thicket came a sudden b-r-r-r-mph of strong wings beating among leaves and slender twigs, followed by th-r-r-r-rh to the left and below her, and then from somewhere ahead another th-r-r-r-rh.

“Three of ‘em,” counted John Jones, deep in a tangle of wild grapevines, with a spider web pasted over one eye. “She was right on top of them,” he reflected. “Well, it’s pretty dry.”

He struggled on and came in sight of what had been a stone fence. Beyond this was a semi-clearing of matted briers and wild grass. A dozen wizened apple trees clung to the hillside, despite the overpowering advance of an army of birch, already swarming among them.

Once more Gladstone’s Nellie paused, exquisite but vague. She began to move in her most royal manner up the hill along the stone fence. John Jones crept behind her — ready. The bird rose on all but silent wing, as they sometimes do. It was an instinct only which turned John Jones’ head to see a flash of brown directly behind him a hundred feet down the hill. He whirled to fire, but there was nothing to fire at by then.

“Susan Jane, Susan Jane!” he said reproachfully.

Gladstone’s Nellie, somewhat abashed, leaped gracefully to the top of the stone fence. Realizing that she was silhouetted against the sky above the clearing, she poised there for an instant in an attitude. A lichen-covered stone rolled sullenly from beneath her feet. She disappeared from view and John Jones heard a yelp. When he reached the wall and peered over she was on three legs. He examined her crushed forepaw and realized that rough miles of steep hillside were not for her for several days.

Words escaped from John Jones for some moments thereafter. They were spoken softly but with extraordinary fervor. He returned to the shack with Gladstone’s Nellie, bathed her forepaw with hot water and witch hazel, sympathized with her for a half hour or so, and set forth, gun in hand, alone.

For the rest of that day he fought his way through tinder-dry thickets, with a snapping and crackling as brazen on those silent hillsides as a brass band. When evening came he was thorn scratched, soaked with perspiration and birdless. He looked about him and wondered where he was. The world just there was made up of birch, Sumac, laurel, wild rose, wintergreen, and nothing more except a glimpse of pale green sky with the evening star hanging like a lantern between two dusky hemlocks.

To his left was a towering cliff, which seemed to sway toward him as he looked up its unscalable side and caught its topmost pinnacle, dark against the sky. Ahead was thicket, thicket without end, apparently. To the right was thicket also, but he knew the-road to the valley must be below somewhere in that direction.

He lit a cigarette before working down to the road, and watched the first puff of smoke hang in the still air. A hermit thrush poured out a throatful of rich contralto notes. A whippoorwill spoke thrice from the leaning gloom of the cliff. As the last syllable of his entreaty died away another sound rose crescendo on the hush of evening. It came from no discernible point. It was as though the muffled heart of the hillside was beating; but John Jones felt that it was somewhere below him.

Making each slow footstep a matter of careful consideration so that not a twig should snap, not a leaf rustle, he stole in the direction from which the sound had seemed to come. Three times more it rose and throbbed through the thicket, a little closer each time.

A gray rock gloomed ahead. Bending low, he moved catlike to the rock and raised his head by inches above its moss-crowned top. Not ten feet away on his drumming log was a great cock grouse. All about him was purple shadow; but he was bathed from crest to toe in a last rosy beam flung across the valley by a red sun just sinking behind Slide Mountain.

John Jones, tense as a panther about to spring, quivered to his fingertips. He had never seen a live grouse so clearly before. He had never seen, alive or dead, a grouse like this; for his feathers, from his spread tail to his lifted crest, were white as forest snow; or rather, heliotrope, for such was their amazing color in that shaft of rosy light.

John Jones, staring, ceased to breathe. For an instant he seemed to hear a strain of fairy music that swelled his heart and dimmed his eyes. For an instant only this lasted, then the hunter’s instinct seized him again. He stepped from behind his concealing rock.

One look of horror that was like a scream the white grouse gave him, then sprang into the air in wild unheedful flight. John Jones glanced along the brown tubes of his twenty-gauge and pulled the trigger. He found the bird, beak down, wings spread, in a bed of ferns, fifty feet below. A drop of blood hung like a ruby from the tip of his bill. Blue-gray eyelids had curtained forever his jeweled gaze, for no matter how swift his end, a ruffed grouse closes his eyes in death.

John Jones stroked the plumage of the unbelievable bird, still shaking from the tenseness of his stalk and the thrill that had followed. Now and then during a lifetime the eyes will receive an impression that the instantaneous dark room of the mind develops into a memory picture that will never fade. John Jones had one such picture — that vision of his boyhood which contained his father in his shooting coat and the never-to-be-forgotten old Don. Now he felt that the white grouse, strutting on his drumming log in the hushed mystery of evening-lighted thicket, would also remain with him for the full length of his days.

He reached the shack in the last of the twilight, received a passionate welcome from Gladstone’s Nellie and promptly moved kitchenward.

He was ravenously hungry. He had promised himself a grouse for dinner. He was just able to fulfill that promise. Having taken the white grouse from his shooting coat he hesitated. Was it Lucullus who had dined on nightingales’ tongues? To eat the bird he held in his hand seemed almost as barbaric as that. What else was there to do — have it mounted? He shuddered. He always shuddered at wild things stuffed and molded to a dreadful parody. Of life. It was nearly as bad as seeing them alive in cages. Creatures in dying served other creatures; that was Nature’s plan, and he never quarreled with Nature. He had no hesitancy in killing fish and game; but part of his creed was “Kill no more than will be used.” Having killed this bird on the wing by fair woodcraft, it should not be wasted.

John Jones proceeded to pick and clean the white grouse. He also prepared a rabbit he had shot for Gladstone’s Nellie. Next he poked about among the pantry shelves for a culinary accompaniment of some sort to broiled grouse. He was hoping for currant jelly, which he did not find. He did find some canned asparagus. He had no idea how long it had been on the shelf where he found it, but he opened the can and sniffed at the contents. It smelled all right. He examined a stalk — it looked all right.

Thirty minutes later he pulled a chair to the oilcloth-covered kitchen table and sat down with something of a gleam in his eye. He ate every morsel of the grouse. He ate the asparagus to the last stalk, despite a faintly bitter flavor that he could not account for. He topped off with canned cherries — another trove from the pantry. He consumed all the juice the can contained, and most of the cherries. At last he sighed deeply and regarded a scattering of well-picked grouse bones and an astonishing pile of cherry pits with a touch of disfavor. He rose, yawned and lit a pipe; then sauntered into the living room, dispossessed the reproachful Gladstone’s Nellie of the couch and stretched himself upon it. For a time he smoked languidly, watching the fire and thinking of that look of horror in the eyes of the white grouse as he had roared up hopelessly from his drumming log. He was recalled to Gladstone’s Nellie by the steady plop, plop, plop of her tongue as she resumed a patient licking of her injured paw. He would not hunt her another season, he decided. He would send her back to the bench, where her matchless poses would avail her more. Between the close of this season and the next he would comb the country for a setter with a choke-bore nose and an uncanny ability to guess the destination of a grouse in flight — a setter like old Don. Surely somewhere there must be –

John Jones became aware of a peculiar numbness in his arms and legs and a weight across his body. He became aware that the light of the fire had grown dimmer. It was as though a veil had been drawn between the flames and his eyes. For a moment he remained motionless, wondering. In that moment the numbness of his limbs increased and a thicker veil was drawn across the fire. He made an effort to sit up. The weight had increased to such an extent that he found it impossible to do so. As he gathered his muscles for a final effort a black curtain cut off the last faint gleams of the fire light. The now tremendous weight across his body seemed to press him down into a faintly humming darkness. At last the humming ceased.

Less than light, more than mist, a faint grayness here and there was breaking through the smothering void of dark which surrounded him, changing it into irregular fantastic patches. This was his first realization of space and form, his first consciousness of being. On its heels came a feeling of unutterable loneliness and then indefinable horror. Horror of what? He did not know. He only knew that he was alone in some place of infinite danger, where help would never come. Cowering, fearful, he eyed the dark patches, striving to understand them, wondering if they contained the nameless pressing danger with which the very air seemed filled.

The grayness slowly intensified. The dark patches became less vague. They were taking noticeable forms. He strained his eyes at them. They were trees. Trees! Towering above him on every side, enormous trees — the largest he had ever seen.

The grayness was — yes, it was the sky. The earliest sky of morning, unwarmed by a hint of the coming sun, still deep below the rim of a gloomy earth.

He was out-of-doors then, somewhere. But where? And why was it such a place of horror, so fraught with fear, so filled with peril? Why should trees, even astoundingly large trees, with the sky above them, shout “Danger!” to his soul? There was nothing to be afraid of in the woods. The woods meant a friendly all-pervading quiet and — tranquility. These woods in which he crouched now meant nothing like that. They filled him with a hair-trigger watchfulness which he dared not for an instant abate.

That watchfulness made him suddenly aware of a tangible and immediate danger. It took the form of a pair of blazing, greenish-yellow eyes fastened upon him with unwavering intensity. Instantly, with no thought whatever, he acted. He seemed to be shot, as though by a released spring, into the air. Straight up he went with no apparent effort. He found himself upon a lower branch of one of the enormous trees. It was a hemlock; in some unaccountable way the feel of the bark of the branch on which he sat told him so. He stared down at the spot where he had been crouching an instant before and saw a tremendous creature. It sniffed longingly at the place where he had been, glanced upward with a soundless snarl and melted into the undergrowth. Watching it as it went he discovered that it was a cat — a bobcat — larger than an elephant.

As he sat with surprising ease on the hemlock branch his nameless horror lessened somewhat. For a time a myriad thoughts scudded through his brain like wind-driven clouds. He was able to grasp none of them. It was a feeling, not a thought, that told him he was not as he had been. He had been — he had been — He could not tell what.

And what was he now? That question, too, he found unanswerable. He only knew that he was alive, sitting in a tree, with innumerable dangers below him. It seemed best to remain in the tree.

He sat on the hemlock bough for some time while the cloudlike thoughts continued to drift through his brain. Merged with the thoughts, and at last overpowering them, was a craving, a bodily craving which grew until his whole mind surrendered to it. Hunger! He had never known such hunger before. He had been hungry, somewhere in that past which he could not recall. That is, he had had a pleasing appetite. Now his hunger was all-pervading. Every atom of his being demanded that it be sustained by food.

He moved anxiously back and forth along the hemlock bough, peering at the earth far down below. Danger was there, ceaseless danger on every side; but there was no food in the tree. He must have food.

He examined the ground in every direction. Each bush was scrutinized — each fallen tree trunk, rock, hollow, tangle and fern bed. He pierced each shadow with his eyes until he read its heart and found it guileless. Lower and lower sank his head, stretching earthward until at last he tilted suddenly from the limb. To his surprise the earth did not rush violently up to shatter him. It swam along, rising gradually until he settled down upon a mossy slope, without shock, without harm.

For a long minute he remained immovable, giving a strained attention to the silence about him, ready for another instantaneous spring into the safety of the air. At last he relaxed a trifle and became conscious of the soft moss under foot. He took a soundless step forward and listened. He took another step, and another, and another. He came to a hollow filled with great dead leaves which rustled, despite him, as he passed through them. He felt something hard below a leaf under one of his feet. He kicked the leaf cautiously aside with a peculiar backward thrust of his foot and beheld a beechnut, large, ripe, sound. He gobbled it like a flash, kicked more leaves aside, and more, and more, to be rewarded now and then by a beechnut. As he became absorbed in his searching he tossed the leaves aside with growing eagerness. An almost constant rustle was the result. A faint little rustle it was, when the clamor of a world is considered, yet he knew somehow that the law of the place he was now in was silence. Hunger was driving him to break the law. It was also detracting from his watchfulness.

He found himself relying on an indescribable new sense which was more than hearing, more than seeing. It was as though there extended from him in all directions invisible antennae that felt the atmosphere for currents of danger. Suddenly these feelers warned him. He froze into immobility. His eyes fastened on a fallen beech tree, the leafless branches of its top smothered in a thicket of rhododendron. He saw nothing alarming for a time. He had almost decided to continue his feeding when something moved. It was an ear — a delicate pointed ear. It had moved along the trunk of the beech tree which angled toward the spot where he stood, rigid, among the scattered leaves.

Again he was shot upward. On a smooth limb of the beech tree which had furnished him with food he found safety. From where he sat he could look down upon the fallen beech and see behind it. A great red fox, his coat gleaming like new copper in the growing light, rose from a belly-flat crouch, stretched, yawned and stood listening. Somewhere in the distance a gray squirrel broke the silence and the law with a low staccato barking. Ears pricked, head raised, the fox stood as though painted. Presently a twig snapped faintly; dead leaves rustled. He watched the fox flatten down and steal toward the sound. Five minutes passed in deathlike quiet. There was a crash, a terror-stricken chatter ending in a scream, a pat, pat, pat of careless padded feet trotting triumphantly away.

Again he sat on his branch, fearful, dismayed. Again his hunger resumed its insistent demand that it be satisfied. It was not hunger, however, which drove him at last from his supposed point of safety. It was a winged shadow which dropped upon him from somewhere higher in the beech tree. With the tail of his eye he saw it coming and sprang from his limb. The talons of a gigantic horned owl clutched the empty air behind him.

Again the brown floor of the woods sped below him — much more rapidly than before. It was only a level blur as he tilted in and out among the trees, going like a bullet. Despite his sudden knowledge that the horror which filled this place reached well above the ground, he thrilled at this hurtling through the air and continued it until a sudden fatigue brought him slanting down.

Into his instinctive rigid listening at the end of his sweep through the air came the tinkle of running water. He pushed thirstily toward the sound through giant ferns and towering laurel. He emerged from the undergrowth at last and came upon a quiet pool, cradled in gray bowlders.

Water! Cold, clear, as pure as the skies. His craving for it at the moment was even greater than his desire for food.

Slipping between two bowlders to the edge of the pool he looked on all sides before stooping to drink. At last his eyes dropped to the still surface of the pool, in which gray rocks, an ancient bending pine, a far and fading crescent moon were mirrored. He did not drink. He remained as motionless as the bowlders that flanked him. Something else was reflected in the pool; something at which he stared with a new and greater horror — his own reflection.

But was it his own reflection? He moved his head to be certain. He lifted his wings and was doubly certain. Wings? Yes, wings — the snowy wings of a white grouse.

So that was what he was — now. And he had been — It was no use! It would not come back. But there was a peculiar horror for some reason in being a grouse — a white grouse. He knew that. It was more than the fact that he was winged by swift destruction, with no single place of refuge, no smallest moment that did not hold a threat. He felt that some dark and terrible purpose must be fulfilled, and he therefore was a white grouse. What that purpose was he could not even guess. There remained for him only constant watchfulness and a continual fleeing from the face of death.

At last his thirst rose above his shuddering thoughts, his trembling fears. He drank, He, following, found her in a bed of ferns, canopied and curtained with trembling scarlet leaves.

Still as death grew the thicket, wrapped in a breathless hush. He took one forward step on the carpet of moss which lay between them. He took no more. His triumphant spread of tail closed like the white fan it had resembled; his lifted crest went down. A faint rustle and snapping and cracking was drawing toward the leaf-walled bower of her selection. Through that red and yellow wall a head appeared. It grew motionless, rigid, except for its slightly working nostrils at the end of its long deep muzzle. White, black and ticked were that head and muzzle. White, black and ticked! The soul within him seemed to scream

“Old Don!”

And then he screamed to her in their wordless silent tongue.

“Fly! Oh, fly!”

He himself burst with a roar through the wall of leaves and, swinging low, shot down the edge of the thicket along the lumber road.

He heard another roar of wings beating up through leaves and branches. He heard a stunning crash, followed by a sickening thump. Downy feathers were floating in the air above the thicket. A wisp of thin blue smoke drifted across the road behind him.

Another crash just as he turned an angle in the road. A tuft of dead grass close beside him was cut down by the stroke of an invisible scythe. Three snowy feathers sheared from his right wing whirled in the wake of his flight. Unbalanced by their loss, he beat his way with unaccustomed effort on and on, until he could fly no farther. He swung clumsily to the left, managed to reach a wilderness of briers, worked his way to the center of it on foot, and crouched there, panting.

Ten minutes passed in which the leaves whispered in a timid breeze; a chipmunk ticked like a tired clock; a downy woodpecker tested his bill on a chestnut limb. Listening, listening, that was all he heard.

But now a blue jay screamed a warning. The chipmunk clock ran down. The woodpecker ceased his knocking at the limb. The whisper of the leaves remained, and something else — the faint swish of briers as they were forced aside by a black, white and ticked shadow, stealing infallibly toward him.

He did not take wing at once. He ran to the far edge of the briers and sprang into the air, beating up as high as he could, then sailing without a sound across a deep ravine to glide down into the center of a chaos of dead timber, half sunk in water and muck.

It was longer this time than before. The faintest of hopes had begun to stir within him, when the black, white and ticked shadow came plowing through the swamp up to its belly in muck, but struggling straight for him. He could not run, he dared not wait. He rose on floundering wing, rose and flew — to the last atom of his strength, blindly, wildly on. Through dark groves of pine and hemlock, across a rushing stream, over a high valley to the high ridge beyond. Up the ridge he hammered, beating desperately at the hard air. Flaming hardwoods swung to meet him. By a stupendous effort he lifted above their tops and pounded on. An immense dark mass loomed before him, obscuring the sun. It was a cliff that seemed to scrape the sky. Half falling, half fluttering, he zigzagged to its base, dragged himself under the loam-caked roots of a fallen tree and collapsed.

He was still shaking to the beat of his pounding heart when the black, white and ticked shadow appeared. It came up the ridge, through the hardwoods across some broken scattered rocks, scrambling, panting, closer, closer, closer. It slowed to a careful walk, to a creep, to a flat crawl. It stopped — its body quivering, its eyes bulging with the suppressed frenzy of its pursuit. It would go no farther. Nothing would move it from where it stood; for it had found what it was seeking. The long deep muzzle with its vibrating nostrils was pointed, like the finger of fate, at him.

He, too, remained without movement, waiting helpless for what must come. He remembered his exultation when he had discovered that the forces of destruction all about him could be offset by vigilance and glorious flight. He had not known about this Nemesis then — this resistless, ever-pursuing, unbaffled creature which was somehow familiar, which he had known somewhere in the past. Its name had flamed through his brain in letters of fire when it had first appeared. He could not remember the name now. He only knew that the dreadful reason for his being a white grouse was about to be made clear. And so with crippled wing and shattered strength he waited for — he knew not what.

It came at last, up the ridge, over the scattered rocks. He heard it coming, step by step, and then at last he learned in a blinding flash that it was infinitely more horrible than he could have conceived. He caught a glimpse of an iron-gray mustache above a faded, weather-beaten, sweat-stained shooting coat; he heard a quiet voice say, “All right, Don; go on,” and he knew what he had been. He had been John Jones, who could shoot even better than his father, for his father sometimes missed.

His father could not miss a crippled grouse out in the open with a great cliff to scale — that was sure. And the grouse, the white grouse under the tree roots, must try to take wing, must try to prevent an unspeakable horror, knowing that he had no chance.

No chance, no chance! He stepped from the sheltering tree roots and hurled himself into the air. A pair of brown gun barrels came up with the swift yet easy swing that a towheaded boy had copied long ago. A shattering crash and a streak of flame. All was flame. Flames danced in his eyes. They were rushing upwards like an inverted cascade of molten gold. Their light was playing on a shining figure stretched before them, a wonderful, an adorable figure.

“Susan Jane, Susan Jane,” whispered John Jones.

It was a timid unbelievable whisper, but the figure rose from before the fire, and despite a painful limp came, with the carriage of a stag and the grace of a fawn, to the couch on which he lay.

John Jones sat up and stared down into a pair of adoring amber eyes.

“I guess it was the asparagus,” he said. Then he wrapped the head of Gladstone’s Nellie in his arms. “Susan Jane, oh, Susan Jane!” he cried. “You’re the dog for me!”

He smoked one pipe after that; not a whole pipe; half of what came out of the bowl when he knocked it a trifle wildly against the fireplace was good unburned tobacco. This waste was caused by his pressing need to write a telegram, which would jolt by stage down the valley of the Neversink next morning, and at noon would go singing along the wires from Big Indian to New York. It would be addressed to a girl named Mildred. John Jones ran it over in his mind as he looked for paper and pencil:

“Can you, will you save Friday night for me? I have something important to tell you.” dipping his bill in the pool and lifting his head until the water ran down his throat. Never had he tasted such water, so cool, so pure, so satisfying.

His thirst marvelously quenched, hunger took command of him once more. He turned from the pool to seek food in the silent scented woods and thickets of which he was now a part.

And the woods and thickets yielded him food — indescribably delicious, unbelievably sustaining. He found and ate the creamy colored meat of scrub-oak acorns, withered purple raisins of the wild grape; bittersweet, brilliant red partridge berries, berries of the mountain ash and wintergreen and thorn; black haws, high bush cranberries and dried wild cherries, chestnuts in dull mahogany, he found; hemlock and pitch-pine seeds, and the crisp fronds of ferns; beggar-ticks, chickweed, frost weed, live-forever — all were to be found for a little seeking. He sought and found them all.

As his crop grew full his fears lessened, his courage increased. The sun rose and swept the thickets clear of shadows with a thousand glinting brooms. It swept the shadow of horror from his soul; he all but strutted through a sunlit glade.

Far up in the sky above the glade was a tiny speck, dark against that dome of blue, but flashing into silver now and then as it rocked and tilted in the sun. His new sixth sense lifted his eyes quickly to that remote dot in the heavens, which seemed as aloof from things of earth as a star. The dot was growing larger; it was falling down the wall of the sky with tremendous velocity. He took wing and flashed toward the cover at the edge of the glade. Through the thickest of the cover he shot — between maple saplings, slender popple and the white wands of young birch. The thorny interlacing’s of a blackberry thicket swung into view. He curved to its edge, lit and scuttled into it. The dot, which had become four feet of spreading wings attached to a rending beak and talons of curved destruction, zoomed out of the glade, sailed across the blackberry patch and came to rest on a weather-smooth, ash-colored limb of a dead tree.

Safe in his stronghold of briers he watched the hawk until it sprang, with a screaming whistle, into the air and spiraled up, up, until it was again a dot. A curious exultation filled him. Ringed and domed by sudden death, he no longer felt helpless or afraid. Each danger could be triumphantly offset, he had discovered, by choosing the proper safeguard from among the many that had been placed about him. It was good to feel the exquisite surge and throb of life within him; it was good to maintain it with pure water and abundant food in the warm bright world. It was even good to be forced to guard it always with quick hearing, clear seeing and instant wing stroke. It was good, good, good to be alive! Good to be a white grouse — capable of eluding every possible danger in sure and dazzling flight. He lifted his crest and spread his great white tail. A fallen log caught his eye. He strutted to it.

With a single stroke of his wings he was on the log. The spread of his tail grew more and more fanlike. His breast swelled with a desire that consumed all thought, all other instincts, like a flame. He beat at his throbbing body with his wings, his breath hard held with a longing that was like a pain. He became engulfed in a hollow booming which filled the air about him with a muffled mystery of sound. It died away as he rested, listening. Again he smote his swelling breast, again the thicket Pulsed with sound. Just one living thing could trace it surely to its source. Just one living thing. And so he beat his breast and waited, listening; and beat his breast and waited, listening, until at last she came — slowly, timidly, with shy reluctance dragging at her feet.

He had meant to strut before her when she came, letting the sunlight glisten on his plumage. He had selected the very shaft of sunlight in which his feathers would show to best advantage. In the red sun of evening he could have turned to heliotrope before her — he knew that. Under the blazing sun of high noon, he could only gleam and shimmer; but she would-be less striking, more modest in coloring, he felt sure. Having dazzled her with his snowy whiteness he would brush her softly with his wings and claim her for his own. Yes, she was more modest in her coloring; he saw that when she stepped out of the briers and stood shrinking before him. Her back and the upper surface of her wings were a sunlit pool of amber water in which were depths and shallows. About her throat was the rich dark of brooding pines at evening. Her breast was a scattering of small brown leaves against ghostly gleaming birches.

He did not strut as he had planned; nor did he brush her with his wings. It was not her loveliness which kept him marble like upon his log. It was a rush of cloudy fleeting thoughts at which he grasped in vain. For her eyes were cool and gray, cool and gray; and this was strange, strange!

As he stared at her there came a faint crackling and snapping from the far edge of the thicket. The sound grew nearer. Something was moving toward them, its stealth frustrated by sun-baked leaves and twigs. Something else followed it with a rhythmic clumsy tread; but he knew that this clumsy something was more horrifying, more terrible than cat or fox or owl or hawk, and looking into her frightened eyes he saw that she knew too.

Through the thicket, straight toward them came the first something, followed, always followed by the clumsy but more dreadful second thing. At last the first something reached the thorny rampart of blackberry briers and hesitated; but it was dry, dry, and the briers were thick, and neither he nor she breathed or stirred a feather. The first something skirted the blackberry patch, vague and uncertain. Through a vista he caught sight of a glistening silk-coated creature, with the carriage of a stag and the grace of a fawn, moving like music along the edge of the blackberry briers, and so away. And now he breathed again, deeply, thankfully. A name swam dimly through the depths of his mind. He reassured her in a soundless language of their own.

“It’s Gladstone’s Nellie,” he said.
The fear went out of her eyes. He waited until the second something had stumped off after the first something, then moved to her side. But he did not brush her with his wings. Her eyes were cool and gray once more, and this troubled him. It seemed to hold him away from her for some reason.

He moved off through the briers with a masterful cluck. She followed meekly behind. He came to what had been a tree stump years before. It was now a reddish-brown hillock, filled with holes, in and out of which busy black ants were hurrying. He gobbled an ant or so, and she, coming to his side, did likewise.

Then he dug into the hillock, scattering it in all directions until he disclosed a small chamber filled with pearl-like larva, delicious beyond words.

They ate these eagerly for a time, their heads only inches apart. He thrilled as she pressed against him, but always, even while eating, her eyes were cool and gray.

Full fed at last, they drifted on. He darted forward and caught a grasshopper, which he offered her. She thanked him with a warmer look, but partook languidly of only a wing and a leg. He disposed of the rest with some difficulty.

They moved ahead to where a one-time lumber road still struggled to force an uncertain curving way through the ever crowding thicket. The road was choked with vines and briers. Now and then, however, it freed itself of all except dead grass. Surrounded, half hidden by this waving grass, were bare patches of sun-washed clay and sand. One of these patches they found. Into it they flung themselves and settled down.

With ruffling feathers and clawing feet they burrowed in the sandy soil, letting the warm grains sift along their skins. A fine dust rose and hung about them, dimming the trees and thicket, shutting them in together behind a translucent golden curtain.

At last they rested side by side in the snug hollow they had dug, the sun beating on them in pulse like waves. Closer she pressed against him in a sort of swooning lassitude, closer and closer until he could no longer feel the beating sun. It was less, far less, than his own internal fire.

And now he found her eyes. Soft they were, and dark and shining — no longer cold and gray. His own eyes swam into them while their world of woodland stole away and time was not. Slowly she rose from his side, her eyes on his. As she melted into the thicket she spoke one word of their soundless language.


The White Grouse
Read “The White Grouse” by John Taintor Foote, published September 9, 1922. Become a subscriber to gain access to all of the issues of The Saturday Evening Post dating back to 1821.

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