شگفت انگیز سم را پیدا می کند

مجموعه: سهم من از کوهستان / کتاب: کوهستانِ شگفت انگیز / فصل 9

شگفت انگیز سم را پیدا می کند

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IN WHICH Frightful Finds Sam

In early March the first of the migrating falcons and hawks returned to the Catskill Mountains. Frightful was in her nuptial plumage. She had molted completely. The scarred and broken feathers were gone. The white on her tail and under her chin was as bright as new snow. Her back was thunderhead blue, her rose-tinted breast had the brightness of cloud tops. Her head was almost black. She was healthy, and educated in rats and pigeons.

She knew the pigeons and their flight patterns especially well. Her mews faced the cote, and she watched the birds long hours. She saw how they dodged Jon’s young falcons with twists and turns. She saw them return home to the cote on smooth, slow glides.

Jon noted Frightful’s interest in the pigeons and rats, and on a bright but chilly morning he carried her to the top of his mountain. Susan hurried behind him, jumping patches of soggy snow.

Frightful cocked her head as Jon took off her jesses. She stood free but did not fly. Drawing herself up tall, she mapped the direction to the one mountain among thousands, the one tree among millions. No spring force pulled her north with the returning falcons. She was home, and not far from Sam.

Jon touched her beak with his finger. Susan hugged her arms to her body and watched wistfully. She loved and hated the moment when they set birds free.

“Good-bye,” Jon said, and cast her from his hand with a strong thrust of his arm. Frightful bulleted into the sky and opened her wings.

Susan called, “I’ll miss you, Destiny.” She moved closer to Jon.

“Oh, why do I get so involved with these birds?” she asked. “It’s so hard to tell them good-bye.”

Jon nodded and concentrated on the disappearing speck.

“I wonder why she’s going toward Delhi?” he finally said. “That’s the last place in the world for a peregrine falcon to nest. No cliffs over there.”

Frightful knew exactly where she was going. She sped into the wind and covered the thirty miles to the one mountain among thousands in less than ten minutes.

She dropped down onto the one hemlock among millions and came to rest.

“Creee, creee, creee, car-reet,” she called.

There was silence, then, “Frightful!”

Sam put down the plumping-mill crossbar he was repairing and jumped to the rock by Baron Weasel’s home. Frightful peered at him through lacy hemlock limbs.

“Frightful!”

She dropped down three limbs.

“Frightful.” Sam’s voice lowered to a whisper. “You came back.”

She hopped down to the next limb and looked for her perch. It was not there. But the plumping-mill crossbar was. Frightful alighted on it.

“Creee, creee, creee, car-reet.” She was home.

Sam leaped from the rock and walked slowly toward her. His blue eyes looked into hers. His suntanned face creased with his big smile of wonder.

“Now, what do I do with you, beautiful bird?” he asked. “I can’t keep you. The Feds say I’m not old enough to have a falconer’s license.” Frightful tipped her head and focused an eye on Sam.

“If I keep you, the Fish and Wildlife Service will just take you away from me. Maybe even jail me. You’re an endangered species. I can’t harbor an endangered species. I’ve learned that much!

“But,” he said, leaning closer to her, “if I don’t jess and leash you, you’re not a captive bird.

“Will you stay anyway?”

Frightful made soft noises and flew to the Baron Weasel rock. The plumping-mill stick slipped and fell to the ground.

It hit with a force that scared Frightful. She flew to the lowest limb of the hemlock. Sam sat still.

“I missed you,” he said. She lifted her feathers and softened her eyes. His words held the sounds she recognized as human love and affection. He chatted on.

“I’m pretty good at getting squirrels now, Frightful,” he said. “I had to learn to hunt them after they took you from me. I use the same kind of sling David used to kill Goliath. It’s accurate and packs a wallop. But it’s not like hunting with you. We were a team, and we shared such good food. Tasty rabbit for you, rabbit stew for me; good pheasant liver for you, pheasant pot pie for me. Squirrels just don’t quite make it.“ Frightful bobbed her head and listened. Sam talked on.

“Alice and Mrs. Strawberry eat pork. Alice bred Crystal, her pet pig, and she and Mrs. Strawberry raised the piglets. They sold several of them for lots of money. They butchered one. It’s pretty good. They saved three for breeders.

“I go down to the farm several times a week to help Mrs. Strawberry with her crops and garden. She can’t do the heavy work anymore, and Alice is busy with the pigs and livestock. I like the work. I learn from the land and the sun and rain.” Frightful bent her knees to fly, but Sam spoke on, softly and rhythmically. She straightened up and listened.

“And Bando. Bando’s making Adirondack furniture out of twisted forest saplings and limbs. They’re wonderful pieces. People come from New York and far out of state to buy them.

“Zella’s gotten so she likes their cabin. That is, after Bando and I got the waterwheel generating electricity. She has an electric stove and washing machine now. And—” Footfalls in the woods alerted Frightful to danger, and she flew for the sky. Seconds later Alice came running up the path.

“Alice,” Sam shouted. “Stay where you are.”

“Why?”

“Frightful’s here. You scared her.” He circled the big hemlock, looking up among the limbs for his friend of the mountain.

“How do you know it’s Frightful?” she asked.

“Creee, creee, creee, car-reet,” Frightful called from overhead.

“Oh, Sam.” Alice sucked in her breath and stared up at the hemlock. “It is Frightful. She called your name.”

Frightful flashed her wings and flew over the trees.

Sam whistled the three notes, “Come to me,” and ran to the bare rocks at the top of the mountain. He searched for her.

She was beyond his sight, cruising above the West Branch of the Delaware, looking for rats. She glided past the library and came to rest on the top of a handsome iron bridge. It was a bowstring truss seventy feet high. On each side of the span were iron bows. They were braced in place by a horizontal girder, to which iron columns and webs were riveted. The ends of the bows were embedded in cement pilings.

From the top of the downstream bow, Frightful saw the pigeons of Delhi. They wheeled up into the sky, broke apart, came together, and disappeared among the houses.

Frightful did not chase them. She had found the mountain, she had found the tree, and she had found Sam. But a plumping mill was not a good perch. The bridge top was excellent. She dropped from the upper bow to the wide, horizontal girder.

She walked the girder until she came to a plate that joined the girder to the webbing. It was flat and roofed by the bow. She walked under it and looked out on the river and the valley. She liked this spot.

Frightful rested and pulled a foot into her breast feathers. The sun dropped low. Below her, red-winged blackbirds clinked good-night songs as they retired among the tall rushes. The cars that drove over the bridge trembled it as if they were wind in the trees. Some deep peregrine instinct told her this was where she belonged. Not in the forest. Not in a mews. She preened her feathers and watched the sun set. Night came.

In the morning she was hungry, very hungry. She flew up and down the river, saw nothing moving, and returned to the one hemlock.

“Creee, creee, creee, car-eet.”

Sam burst through the deerskin door of the tree. He pulled on his deerskin jacket and waved his gloved hand.

“Okay,” he called. “Let’s go hunting, old friend.” Whistling and swinging his arms, he ran down the trail to the meadow.

Frightful knew exactly where he was going and flew ahead of him to their old hunting ground. She waited on while Sam kicked through the weeds and grasses, still covered with snow. A rabbit jumped up, but so did a wood rat.

Frightful struck the rat. She covered it with her wings. The sky was full of thieves. Sam ran to her.

“Well, I’ll be,” he said. “A rat! Think I’m going to eat rat?” He laughed as he picked up both rat and Frightful in his gloved hand.

“Well, I’m not,” he said. “You’ve got the whole thing to yourself.” He smiled while Frightful ate. When she had consumed the parts she considered her share of food, she stopped eating. Sam took the food from her, and she rode home on his fist, free and unjessed. He talked happily to her.

“This might work,” he said. “Both of us free.” As they approached the hemlock forest, Frightful looked up. Chup was overhead. She recognized his wing beat and shape. She opened her wings and flew from Sam’s fist.

“Creee, creee, creee,” she called.

“Thanks for the rat, Frightful,” Sam called, but she was out of earshot. Still talking to her, he held up the rodent by the tail. “And just what do I do with this? Huh, Frightful? Pate de rat?” Wings rustled, talons dropped like a jet’s landing gear, and a red-tailed hawk snagged the rat. She flew off.

“Well, that answers that,” he said. “As Bando always says, Ask nature questions, and you will get answers.‘ ”

Sam strode home over a forest floor spangled with flowering partridgeberry plants. He whistled and smiled.

Frightful maneuvered bumpy winds as she descended to the river and her bridge. She landed on the bow with a soft thud and looked up. Chup was flying straight to the cliff above the Schoharie River. She called. He heard but did not turn back. He was a smart missile aimed for a predetermined destination. Every March for ten years he had made this plunge from high above Sam’s mountain to his aerie on the cliff.

Just before he flew over the road to Roxbury, a crew of men in orange vests loaded equipment onto a yellow tractor-trailer. The materials had lain all winter at the end of Jon’s road. A crane operator drove his awkward-looking vehicle off the grass onto the macadam and waited for instructions.

“The Margaretville Bridge is next,” Joe Cassini, the foreman, said. “Then Delhi.”

Although Frightful knew where Chup had gone, she did not follow him to the Schoharie cliff. Like many birds, the birds of prey mate for life, but Frightful had two forces keeping her where she was—Sam and the iron plate under the arc of the bowstring bridge. In a very few hours the bridge had become her aerie. It was home. And up the river on the mountaintop was Sam. She could hunt with him when she could not find food on her own.

Not only did her love for the iron plate and Sam keep her from going to Chup, but so did a new feeling deep inside her. She wanted to lie down. She scratched the plate with her talons several times, then lowered herself to her breast. She got up and scratched again. Frightful was making a scrape, a peregrine falcon’s nest, which is nothing but bare earth or, in Frightful’s case, an iron plate where she wanted to sit.

The more she scraped, the more content she became with her aerie, and the more Duchess, Lady, and Drum returned to her visual mind. That night she slept on her breast. She had never done that before.

The next day Frightful took inventory of the food of Delhi. Pigeons were bountiful, and there would soon be more. Pairs were nesting in the rococo architecture of the churches and Victorian houses. Males and females took turns brooding the eggs and flying to the courthouse park to feast on seeds and bread. The food was scattered by two elderly sisters, who argued every day about which pigeon liked which sister the best.

That morning Frightful watched the ladies open their bags and scatter the food on the ground. A flock that had been waiting for the two women to arrive winged down from trees and cupolas, fighting each other for first place. Frightful caught a loser in midair. She carried it back to her iron aerie and stood over it. She did not eat it. She was waiting for the “psee” cry of baby falcons, or the “good girl, help yourself” words from Sam. Hearing neither, she finally ate.

That afternoon Frightful toured the backyards, the tumbling buildings in town, and dumps at its edges. Rats moved in and out of bags and boxes and auto parts. She saw whiskers twist, eyes move. When the rodents saw her, they disappeared deep in the debris.

Frightful circled wider, looking down on fields and farms beyond town. Female cottontails were preparing nests in the snow-matted grasses. There would soon be an abundance of young, and the young would have young. When they were all rushing around fighting for the limited food supply, Frightful would find them easy to catch. Like all predators, Frightful hunted the most abundant prey. She would take them until the rewards were not worth the energy spent to find and catch them. Then she would move on to other large populations, leaving the survivors to multiply.

Frightful returned to her bridge in the late afternoon. She walked along the broad horizontal girder, feeling in sync with her world. There was an abundance of food in and around Delhi. With Sam’s and Jon’s training, she had become a peregrine falcon of the twenty-first century. Her native taste for ducks and shorebirds had been replaced by an appetite for the pests of humankind.

She was hardly back from her tour when Chup flew over the bridge. He called to her. He cut love arcs before her eyes. She flew out to meet him. She spiraled in a sky roll with him. She copied his aerial loop-the-loop, then flew in tandem with him down the river. She was following closely when Chup suddenly sped toward the Schoharie River. Frightful followed reluctantly.

Over Gilboa, she braked by pulling down on her secondary flight feathers and tail. Turning in the air, she caught a northeasterly wind and went back to the West Branch of the Delaware. She skimmed up to and lit on the graceful bow of the Delhi Bridge.

In the late afternoon she grew very hungry and flew up the river to Sam’s mountain and the one hemlock. She worked her way down through its dense limbs almost to the ground. Her old perch was back up. She hopped down onto it.

“Creee, creee, creee, car-reet,” she called.

Sam poked his head out of the stone water mill he had built with the help of Bando and his wife, Zella, Alice, and the town’s public librarian, Miss Turner. Bando looked out, too.

“Did I hear right?” Bando asked Sam.

“Yes, you did. Frightful’s back. And,” he said, “she’s sitting on her perch.”

“Desdemondia,” Bando gasped, and grinned.

“Yesterday we hunted together. Just like old times,” Sam said.

“She hunted with you?” Bando loved rabbit stew.

“Don’t get excited; she hunts rats now.”

“Rats?”

“Got any good recipes for rats?” Sam asked.

“Hmm,” Bando said. “The wildest of all our falcons, the one most intolerant of human beings, has discovered rats. She will be an enormous asset to Delhi.”

“Well, she’s not helping me,” said Sam. “I’m not going to eat rats.”

Sam and Bando walked to the round stumps Sam had cut from the bole of a tree and sat down to watch Frightful.

“Wonder where she’s been,” Bando whispered. “Do you think she went south?”

“She looks as if she’s been living in a palace,” Sam answered in a low voice. “Her feathers, her posture, her demeanor say she’s in wonderful condition.” “She came back to you,” mused Bando. “That must mean she is imprinted on you—thinks you’re her kind of critter. She probably won’t mate.”

“I’m not sure just how deeply she is imprinted on me,” Sam said. “I got her when she was ten days old. Frightful knew her parents. That’s not like the falcons that were incubated and nurtured from day one by people. They never mate with their kind. Frightful has a good chance to discover she is a peregrine falcon, find a fine mate, and have young.” “That’d be nice,” said Bando. “Imagine having Fright-fuls flying above the mountains and rivers of the Catskills again.”

The two friends lapsed into silence. Bando leaned on the stone table; Sam wrapped his arms around his knees.

“She’s back,” mused Bando.

“I hope she mates,” Sam said. “We sure need peregrine falcons. They’re so important in the balance of nature.”

The silver rays of twilight slanted through the hemlock needles in dusty streams. The kinglets, who were just back from the south, sang their vespers. Frightful was quiet. Sam and Bando were quiet.

Presently Frightful flew from her perch, wove her way up through the dense tree limbs to open sky, and returned to her bridge. She walked to her scrape. As night came to the Catskill Mountains, she pulled one foot into her breast feathers and closed her eyes.

The lengthening hours of daylight worked their spring magic on the birds. Their reproductive organs responded to the light, and they began to build nests. For her part, Frightful slept on her scrape, her breast against the iron plate. Despite blasts of cold winds, rain, and snow, Frightful felt the peregrine falcon spring.

She awoke at dawn to hear Lady calling and glanced up. Lady was headed home to the cliff above the Schoharie River where she had been raised. She had survived the winter in the traditional peregrine way by migrating to South America. She had lived on ducks and shorebirds, and she had ingested DDT. Banned by the U.S. Congress because it killed millions of birds, fish, and amphibians after World War II, the insecticide called DDT was still being used in South America. Lady got her share of the poison when she ate the birds who had eaten the DDT-killed insects in Chile. Each winter she would accumulate more of the poison in her body tissues. The shells of her eggs would be thin and eventually smash when she tried to incubate them. She would not live to be ten or twenty-five years old, as some peregrine falcons do. She would tremble and die after a few winters in South America.

Frightful watched Lady until she was out of sight. She did not see her come down on a sycamore tree near the Margaretville Bridge. Men in orange coveralls were working there. Standing on platforms, they were painting the webs and cords sage green. A cement mixer churned. This was no place for nervous Lady.

She took off for the Schoharie River. Near her birthplace she flew into Chup. Recognizing her, he chased her away. Offspring do not come home. Lady sped east. When she had put forty miles between herself and her first home, she was over the upper Hudson River. Swinging back and forth across the great waterway, she searched for a cliff like the one she had been raised on.

No sooner was Lady out of sight than Frightful forgot her. She flew up and down the river, looping and spiraling; finally she turned and flew to Sam’s mountain. She alighted on her perch. Sam was building a fire to cook his breakfast of wild cereal grains he had collected.

“Creee, creee, creee, car-reet.”

He straightened up, saw Frightful, and his eyes twinkled.

“Good morning, beautiful bird,” he said, taking her measure. “Guess we won’t hunt today. You’re fat and full of rat.”

“Creee,” she called softly.

After eating his porridge, Sam got a bowl he had chipped out of stone and filled it with chunks of pine resin. He put it in his stone oven and threw on more wood. The resin melted; he dipped a stick into the goo and worked it into a crack in the plumping-mill box. When it cooled, he poured water in it. The box no longer leaked.

Frightful looked out at nothing as she listened to old, familiar sounds on the mountain. Behind her the downy woodpecker drilled into a dead tree with a special beat she recognized. He had been a resident of the hemlock grove ever since she had lived there. A flock of ruby-crowned kinglets alighted in the top of the big hemlock. They called to each other a twittering farewell, as they did every year at this time. Sam’s mountain was their last rendezvous on their trip north. From this forest they would fly off by twos to their ancestral breeding grounds.

“The kinglets are here,” Sam said to Frightful. “It’s bird springtime in the Catskills, snow and all.” He looked up at the walnut-sized birds flitting among the tree limbs.

“Time to build a nest, Frightful,” he called.

Frightful stretched one beautifully gray-spangled blue wing, then the other. Bending her knees, she pushed off and wove awkwardly upward through the trees. She was no forest goshawk.

Clear of the last twigs, she trilled a soft tribute to wings and flight, and dove freestyle down the mountain to the river. She was leveling off to land on the bridge when a male peregrine joined her. They landed simultaneously on the top of the arch of the bowstring truss.

“Chep, chep, chep,” he called. Frightful jumped down to the large horizontal web and walked to her scrape. He followed for a few steps, then stopped. Frightful was a third larger than he. He bowed to show his respect. An aluminum Fish and Wildlife Service band ringed his leg. He had been raised in captivity and released to the wild by Heinz Meng. The number 426 was visible on his band.

Frightful looked at him. She did not attack. He held a tasty bite of food in his beak and presented it to her. She accepted it. He bowed again, then shook out his feathers, which were ruffled and bent from travel. 426 had spent the winter in Ecuador and was now looking for a roost like the one he had known in the breeding barn of the falconer. Coming over Sam’s mountain, he had seen Frightful and followed her to her aerie.

The coming of spring was affecting Frightful. She glanced at 426, leaned down, and scraped the iron plate. 426 came closer.

She lifted her feathers to him. He hurtled himself into the air, bulleted down the river valley, made a two-circle loop, climbed, and sped back to the bridge. Frightful watched his spectacular sky dance twice more, then she flew off the bridge and traced the same design in the air. She climbed, looped, and finally, in a graceful maneuver, held on to his feet as he flew upside down beneath her.

For three days Frightful and 426 danced above the river and mountains. They flew so high they could see the Hudson River. They flew so low they scared the nesting redwings. Upside down, they called to each other.

Then Frightful led 426 to the one mountain.

“Creee, creee, creee, car-reet,” she called, and landed in the hemlock tree. 426 came down beside her.

Sam whistled their hunting tune.

Frightful left 426 and flew to the mountain meadow. There she waited on, watching Sam run through the laurel and seedling hemlocks to their field. Just as he arrived, 426 swooped under her, took her feet in his, and swung her in an arc up into the sky. High above Sam they opened their wings and flew in tandem down the mountain over the river, up into the clouds and back to Sam.

Laughing, crying, Sam watched them disappear again.

“Frightful, you’ve got a mate!” he exclaimed, and climbed the nearest tree as swiftly as a marten. Near the top he saw Frightful and 426 drop out of sight in the river valley. Suddenly they reappeared again and, looping side by side, flew straight toward Delhi.

Sam noted their direction. He lined up the top tree on a mountain with the weather-vane rooster on the peak of a distant barn and scrambled down.

He ran full speed downhill for the West Branch of the Delaware, looking at rocks and trees for white streaks of bird excrement that marked a peregrine falcon aerie. He saw no such marks, absolutely none, then remembered that Leon Longbridge had told him no peregrine falcon would nest near Delhi—no cliffs. The bridge was high, and he recalled that peregrines had learned to nest on bridges. Running hard, he took his Peaks Brook trail to town.

When Sam reached the bridge, Frightful was playing with 426, sliding and gliding on the winds at fifteen hundred feet.

Finding no telltale marks of an aerie on the bridge, Sam walked up Elm Street and stopped in the library to get a book on farming wild edible plants. He was returning when Frightful and 426 came back to the bridge. She saw Sam. He did not see her, and she did not call his name.

It was evening. Eighteen miles and sixteen minutes away as the falcon flies, the repair work on the Margaretville Bridge was nearing completion. Supplies were loaded onto trucks and flatbeds, and orders were called in for air compressors and movable work platforms.

“The bowstring bridge at Delhi is next,” Joe Cassini said on a cellular phone to his boss at the Department of Transportation in Albany.

The following dawn the sky was pink and orange with May’s morning light. Frightful and 426 mated. Fifty hours later she retired to the scrape. Sitting down, the wind from the river brushing her face, she laid a pale cream-and-pink egg. It was mottled with rich red-and-brown splotches. Thousands of tiny pores in the shell allowed oxygen to enter and water and carbon dioxide to escape. A thin cuticle glistened on its surface. This would prevent bacteria from getting through the shell. The egg was a masterpiece.

Frightful did not incubate it. She and 426 perched nearby, looking at it and feeling new interest in the bridge and the river valley. Then they took off together, a synchronized pair, looping and diving in the sky.

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