CHAPTER XXXIII. HUNTING PEACOCKS ON THE SALWEEN RIVER
From Ma-li-pa we traveled almost due north to the Salween River. The country through which we passed was a succession of dry treeless hills, brown and barren and devoid of animal life. On the evening of the third day we reached the Salween at a ferry a few miles from the village of Changlung where the river begins its great bend to the eastward and sweeps across the border from China into Burma.
The stream has cut a tremendous gorge for itself through the mountains and the sides are so precipitous that the trail doubles back upon itself a dozen times before it reaches the river 3,500 feet below. The upper half of the gorge is bare or thinly patched with trees, but in the lower part the grass is long and rank and a thin dry jungle straggles along the water's edge. The Salween at this point is about two hundred yards wide, but narrows to half that distance below the ferry and flows in a series of rapids between rocky shores.
The valley is devoid of human life except for three boatmen who tend the ferry, but the deserted rice fields along a narrow shelf showed evidence of former cultivation. On the slopes far up the side of the canon is a Miao village, a tribe which we had not seen before. Probably the valley is too unhealthy for any natives to live close to the water's edge and, even at the time of our visit in early March, the heated air was laden with malaria.
The ferrymen were stupid fellows, half drugged with opium, and assured us that there were no mammals near the river. They admitted that they sometimes heard peacocks and, while our tents were being pitched on a steep sand bank beneath a giant tree, the weird catlike call of a peacock echoed up the valley. It was answered by another farther down the river, and the report of my gun when I fired at a bat brought forth a wild "pe-haun," "pe-haun," "pe-haun" from half a dozen places.
The ferry was a raft built of long bamboo poles lashed together with vines and creepers. It floated just above the surface and was half submerged when loaded. The natives used a most extraordinary contrivance in place of oars. It consisted of a piece of tightly woven bamboo matting three feet long and two feet wide at right angles to which was fastened a six-foot handle. With these the men nonchalantly raked the water toward them from the bow and stern when they had poled the raft well into the current. The invested capital was not extensive, for when the ferry or "propellers" needed repairs a few hours' work in the jungle sufficed to build an entirely new outfit.
All of the peacocks were on the opposite side of the river from our camp where the jungle was thickest. On the first morning my wife and I floated down the river on the raft for half a mile and landed to stalk a peacock which had called frequently from a rocky point near the water's edge. We picked our way through the jungle with the utmost caution but the wary old cock either saw or heard us before we were within range, and I caught just a glimpse of a brilliant green neck as he disappeared into the bushes. A second bird called on a point a half mile farther on, but it refused to come into the open and as we started to stalk it in the jungle we heard a patter of feet among the dry leaves followed by a roar of wings, and saw the bird sail over the tree tops and alight on the summit of a bush-clad hill.
This was the only peacock which we were ever able to flush when it had already gained cover. Usually the birds depend entirely upon their ability to hide or run through the bushes. After several attempts we learned that it was impossible to stalk the peacocks successfully. The jungle was so crisp and parched that the dry leaves crackled at every step and even small birds made a loud noise while scratching on the ground.
The only way to get the peacocks was to watch for them at the river when they came to drink in the early morning and evening. Between two rocky points where we had first seen the birds there was a long curved beach of fine white sand. One morning Heller waited on the point nearest camp while my wife and I posted ourselves under a bush farther down the river. We had been sitting quietly for half an hour when we heard a scratching in the jungle. Thinking it was a peacock feeding we turned our backs to the water and sat motionless peering beneath the bushes. Meanwhile, Heller witnessed an interesting little drama enacted behind us.
An old male peacock with a splendid train stole around the point close to the water, jumped to a high stone within thirty yards of us and stood for a full minute craning its beautiful green neck to get a better view as we kneeled in front of him totally unconscious of his presence. After he had satisfied his curiosity he hopped off the observation pinnacle and, with his body flattened close to the ground, slipped quietly away. It was an excellent example of the stalker being stalked and had Heller not witnessed the scene we should never have known how the clever old bird had fooled us.
The following morning we got a peahen at the same place. Heller had concealed himself in the bushes on one side of the point while I watched the other. Shortly after daylight an old female sailed out of the jungle on set wings and alighted at the water's edge. She saw Heller almost instantly, although he was completely covered by the vines, and started to fly, but he dropped her with a broken wing. Recovering herself, she darted around the rocky point only to meet a charge of B.B.'s from my gun. She was a beautiful bird with a delicate crown of slender feathers, a yellow and blue face patch and a green neck and back, but her plumes were short and inconspicuous when compared with those of the male.