Two Little Savages
By Ernest Thompson Seton
Public Domain Books
The Owls and The Night School
One night Sam was taking a last look at the stars before turning in. A Horned Owl had been hooting not far away.
And as he looked, what should silently sail to the top of the medicine pole stuck in the ground twenty yards away but the Owl.
“Yan! Yan! Give me my bow and arrow, quick. Here’s a Cat-Owl–a chicken stealer, he’s fair game.”
“He’s only codding you, Yan,” said Guy sleepily from his blanket. “I wouldn’t go.”
But Yan rushed out with his own and Sam’s weapons.
Sam fired at the great feathery creature, but evidently missed, for the Owl spread its wings and sailed away.
“There goes my best arrow. That was my ’Sure-death.’”
“Pshaw!” growled Yan, as he noted the miss. “You can’t shoot a little bit.”
But as they stood, there was a fluttering of broad wings, and there, alighting as before on the medicine pole, was the Owl again.
“My turn now!” exclaimed Yan in a gaspy whisper.
He drew his bow, the arrow flew, and the Owl slipped off unharmed as it had the first time.
“Yan, you’re no good. An easy shot like that. Why, any idiot could hit that. Why didn’t you fetch her?”
“’Cause I’m not an idiot, I suppose. I hit the same place as you did, anyway, and drew just as much blood.”
“Ef he comes back again you call me,” piped Guy in his shrill voice. “I’ll show you fellers how to shoot. You’re no good at all ’thout me. Why, I mind the time I was Deer-shooting––” but a fierce dash of the whole Tribe for Sappy’s bed put a stop to the reminiscent flow and replaced it with whines of “Now you let me alone. I ain’t doin’ nothin’ to you.”
During the night they were again awakened by the screech in the tree-tops, and Yan, sitting up, said, “Say, boys, that’s nothing but that big Cat Owl.”
“So it is,” was Sam’s answer; “wonder I didn’t think of that before.”
“I did,” said Guy; “I knew it all the time.”
In the morning they went out to find their arrows. The medicine pole was a tall pole bearing a feathered shield, with the tribal totem, a white Buffalo, which Yan had set up to be in Indian fashion. Sighting in line from the teepee over this, they walked on, looking far beyond, for they had learned always to draw the arrow to the head. They had not gone twenty-five feet before Yan burst out in unutterable astonishment: “Look! Look at that–and that–––”
There on the ground not ten feet apart were two enormous Horned Owls, both shot fairly through the heart, one with Sam’s “Sure-death” arrow, the other with Yan’s “Whistler"; both shots had been true, and the boys could only say, “Well, if you saw that in print you would say it was a big lie!” It was indeed one of those amazing things which happen only in real life, and the whole of the Tribe with one exception voted a grand coup to each of the hunters.
Guy was utterly contemptuous. “They got so close they hit by chance an’ didn’t know they done it. If he had been shooting,” etc., etc., etc.
“How about that screech in the tree-tops, Guy?”
What a fascination the naturalist always finds in a fine Bird. Yan revelled in these two. He measured their extent of wing and the length from beak to tail of each. He studied the pattern on their quills; he was thrilled by their great yellow eyes and their long, powerful claws, and he loved their every part. He hated to think that in a few days these wonderful things would be disgusting and fit only to be buried.
“I wish I knew hew to stuff them,” he said.
“Why don’t you get Si Lee to show you,” was Sam’s suggestion. “Seems to me I often seen pictures of Injun medicine men with stuffed birds," he added shrewdly and happily.
“Well, that’s just what I will do.”
Then arose a knotty question. Should he go to Si Lee and thereby turn “White” and break the charm of the Indian life, or should he attempt the task of persuading Si to come down there to work without proper conveniences. They voted to bring Si to camp. “Da might think we was backing out.” After all, the things needed were easily carried, and Si, having been ambushed by a scout, consented to come and open a night-school in taxidermy.
The tools and things that he brought were a bundle of tow made by unravelling a piece of rope, some cotton wool, strong linen thread, two long darning needles, arsenical soap worked up like cream, corn-meal, some soft iron wire about size sixteen and some of stovepipe size, a file, a pair of pliers, wire cutters, a sharp knife, a pair of stout scissors, a gimlet, two ready-made wooden stands, and last of all a good lamp. The boys hitherto had been content with the firelight.
Thus in the forest teepee Yan had his first lesson in the art that was to give him so much joy and some sorrow in the future.
Guy was interested, though scornful; Sam was much interested; Yan was simply rapt, and Si Lee was in his glory. His rosy red cheeks and his round figure swelled with pride; even his semi-nude head and fat, fumbling fingers seemed to partake of his general elation and importance.
First he stuffed the Owls’ throats and wounds with cotton wool.
Then he took one, cut a slit from the back of the breast-bone nearly to the tail (_A to B, Fig. 1), while Yan took the other and tried faithfully to follow his example.
He worked the skin from the body chiefly by the use of his finger nails, till he could reach the knee of each leg and cut this through at the joint with the knife (_Kn, Fig. 1). The flesh was removed from each leg-bone down to the heel-joint (_Hl, Hl, Fig. 1), leaving the leg and skin as in Lg, Figure 2. Then working back on each side of the tail, he cut the “pope’s nose” from the body and left it as part of the skin, with the tail feathers in it, and this, Si explained, was a hard place to get around. Sam called it “rounding Cape Horn.” As the flesh was exposed Si kept it powdered thickly with corn-meal, and this saved the feathers from soiling.
Once around Cape Horn it was easy sailing. The skin was rapidly pushed off till the wings were reached. These were cut off at the joint deep in the breast (under J J, Fig. 1, or seen on the back, W J, Fig. 2), the first bone of each wing was cleared of meat, and the skin, now inside out and well mealed, was pushed off the neck up to the head.
Here Si explained that in most birds it would slip easily over the head, but in Owls, Woodpeckers, Ducks and some others one had sometimes to help it by a lengthwise slit on the nape (_Sn, Fig. 2). “Owls is hard, anyway,” he went on, “though not so bad as Water-fowl. If ye want a real easy bird for a starter, take a Robin or a Blackbird, or any land Bird about that size except Woodpeckers.”
When the ears were reached they were skinned and pulled out of the skull without cutting, then, after the eyes were passed, the skin and body looked as in Figure 2. Now the back of the head with the neck and body was cut off (_Ct, Fig. 2), and the first operation of the skinning was done.
Yan got along fairly well, tearing and cutting the skin once or twice, but learning very quickly to manage it.
Now began the cleaning of the skin.
The eyes were cut clean out and the brains and flesh carefully scraped away from the skull.
The wing bones were already cleaned of meat down to the elbow joint, where the big quill feathers began, and the rest of the wing had to be cleared of flesh by cutting open the under side of the next joint (_H to El, Fig. 1). The “pope’s nose” and the skin generally was freed from meat and grease by scraping with a knife and rubbing with the meal.
Then came the poisoning. Every part of the bones and flesh had to be painted with the creamy arsenical soap, then the head was worked back into its place and the skin turned right side out.
When this was done it was quite late. Guy was asleep, Sam was nearly so, and Yan was thoroughly tired out.
“Guess I’ll go now,” said Si. “Them skins is in good shape to keep, only don’t let them dry,” so they were wrapped up in a damp sack and put away in a tin till next night, when Si promised to return and finish the course in one more lesson.
[Illustration: Owl-stuffing plate]
Fig. 1. The dead Owl, showing the cuts made in skinning it: A to B, for the body; El to H, on each wing, to remove the meat of the second joint.
Fig. 2. After the skinning is done the skull remains attached to the skin, which is now inside out, the neck and body are cut off at Ct. Sn to Sn shows the slit in the nape needed for Owls and several other kinds.
Fig. 3. Top view of the tow body, neck end up, and neck wire projecting.
Fig. 4. Side view of the tow body, with the neck wire put through it; the tail end is downward.
Fig. 5. The heavy iron wire for neck.
Fig. 6. The Owl after the body is put in; it is now ready to close up, by stitching up the slit on the nape, the body slit B to C and the two wing slits El to H, on each wing.
Fig. 7. A dummy as it would look if all the feathers were off; this shows the proper position for legs and wings on the body. At W is a glimpse of the leg wire entering the body at the middle of the side.
Fig. 8. Another view of the body without feathers; the dotted lines show the wires of the legs through the hard body, and the neck wire.
Fig. 9. Two views of one of the wooden eyes; these are on a much larger scale than the rest of the figures in this plate.
Fig. 10. The finished Owl, with the thread wrappings on and the wires still projecting; Nw is end of the neck wire; Bp is back-pin–that is, the wire in the center of the back; Ww and Ww are the wing wires; Tl are the cards pinned on the tail to hold it flat while it dries. The last operation is to remove the threads and cut all the wires off close so that the feathers hide what remains.
While they were so working Sam had busied himself opening the Owls’ stomachs–"looking up their records,” as he called it. He now reported that one had lynched a young Partridge and the other had killed a Rabbit for its latest meal.
Next night Si Lee came as promised, but brought bad news. He had failed to find the glass Owl eyes he had hoped were in his trunk. His ingenuity, however, was of the kind that is never balked in a small matter. He produced some black and yellow oil paints, explaining, “Guess we’ll make wooden eyes do for the present, an’ when you get to town you can put glass ones in their place.” So Sam was set to work whittling four wooden eyes the shape of well-raised buns and about three-quarters of an inch across. When whittled, scraped and smooth, Si painted them brilliant yellow with a central black spot and put them away to dry (shown on a large scale on Owl Stuffing Plate, Fig. 9, a and b_).
Meanwhile, he and Yan got out the two skins. The bloody feathers on the breasts were washed clean in a cup of warm water, then dried with cotton and dusted all over with meal to soak up any moisture left. The leg and wing bones were now wrapped with as much tow as would take the place of the removed meat. The eye sockets were partly filled with cotton, then a long soft roll of tow about the length and thickness of the original neck was worked up into the neck skin and into the skull and left hanging. The ends of the two wing bones were fastened two inches apart with a shackle of strong string (_X, Fig. 2 and Fig. 7). Now the body was needed.
For this Si rolled and lashed a wad of tow with strong thread until he made a dummy of the same size and shape as the body taken out, squeezing and sewing it into a hard solid mass. Next he cut about two and a half feet of the large wire, filed both ends sharp, doubled about four inches of one end back in a hook (Fig. 5), then drove the long end through the tow body from the tail end out where the neck should join on (Figs. 3 and 4). This was driven well in so that the short end of the hook was buried out of sight. Now Si passed the projecting ends of the long wire up the neck in the middle of the tow roll or neck already there, worked it through the skull and out at the top of the Owl’s head, and got the tow body properly placed in the skin with the string that bound the wing bones across the back (_X, Fig. 7).
Two heavy wires each eighteen inches long and sharp at one end were needed for the legs. These were worked up one through the sole of each foot under the skin of the leg behind (_Lw, Fig. 6), then through the tow body at the middle of the side (_W, Fig. 7), after which the sharp end was bent with pliers into a hook and driven back into the hard body (after the manner of the neck wire, Fig. 4).
Another wire was sharpened and driven through the bones of the tail, fastening that also to the tow body (_Tw, Fig. 7).
Now a little soft tow was packed into places where it seemed needed to fit the skin on, and it remained to sew up the opening below (_Bc in Fig. 6), the wing slits (_El, H, Fig. 6 and Fig. 1), and the slit in the nape (_Sn Sn, Fig. 2) with half a dozen stitches, always putting the needle into the skin from the flesh side.
The projecting wires of the feet were put through gimlet holes in the perch and made firm, and Si’s Owls were ready for their positions. They were now the most ridiculous looking things imaginable, wings floppy, heads hanging.
“Here is where the artist comes in,” said Si proudly, conscious that this was himself. He straightened up the main line of the body by bending the leg wires and set the head right by hunching the neck into the shoulders. “An Owl always looks over its shoulder,” he explained, but took no notice of Sam’s query as to “whose shoulder he expected it to look over.” He set two toes of each foot forward on the perch and two back to please Yan, who insisted that that was Owly, though Si had his doubts. He spread the tail a little by pinning it between two pieces of card (_Tl, Fig. 10), gave it the proper slant, and now had the wings to arrange.
They were drooping like those of a clucking hen. A sharp wire of the small size was driven into the bend of each wing (_0, Fig. 7), nailing it in effect to the body (_Ww and Ww, Fig. 10). A long pin was set in the middle of the back (_Bp, Fig. 10), then using these with the wing wires and head wire as lashing points, Si wrapped the whole bird with the thread (Fig. 10), putting a wad of cotton here or a bit of stick there under the wrapping till he had the position and “feathering” perfect, as he put it.
“We can put in the eyes now,” said he, “or later, if we soften the skin around the eye-sockets by putting wet cotton in them for twenty-four hours.”
Yan had carefully copied Si’s method with the second Owl, and developed unusual quickness at it.
His teacher remarked, “Wall, I larned lots o’ fellows to stuff birds, but you ketch on the quickest I ever seen.”
Si’s ideas of perfection might differ from those of a trained taxidermist; indeed, these same Owls afforded Yan no little amusement in later years, but for the present they were an unmitigated joy.
They were just the same in position. Si knew only one; all his birds had that. But when they had dried fully, had their wrappings removed, the wires cut off flush and received the finishing glory of their wooden eyes, they were a source of joy and wonder to the whole Tribe of Indians.