A tear for an unknown loss slipped from his eye as he shouldered the decoy bag, cradled his grandfather’s gun under his arm, lifted the shellbox and stepped past the remains of the old house.
The path from the old house site to the river bottoms was well-worn. As the rough grass rope of the homemade shoulder strap on the decoy bag dug into his shoulder he chided himself for his stubborn refusal to believe what his grandfather had preached so strongly to new duck hunters. “Don’t bother with decoys in the timber. Just kick the water and call. If the ducks are coming to the timber decoys are just fancy table dressing, they don’t add to the feast.” He had seen it, but he had always believed that a few decoys would make even those spooky birds work down through the canopy. So, maybe this wasn’t just like Papaw would have done it, but the heavy old wooden blocks had belonged to him, thought they only knew the open waters of the cypress blind in those days. Stopping to catch his breath he shook his head. “Well, I took the time to paint the darn things, I’ll be hanged if I’m not gonna see ‘em float!” he said back through time to the old man he hoped was watching. And with that he started off again puffing clouds of warm breath into the frosty morning air.
By the time his feet carried him to the edge of the timber he was beginning to worry about getting to the Y Tree hole in time. Under the burden of the decoys, in confined by the unyielding canvas waders he had been forced to stop several times to catch his breath and readjust his load of gear. Taking out the pocket watch he turned to let the moonbeams strike the face of the time piece. “Hour to go.” He whispered through rapid breaths.
Setting down the gear he opened the wooden shell box and took out a battered head lamp. With just one match the carbide light leapt to life, again reducing his world to the stream of man-made light. He strapped the light around his cap loaded up again and began crunching through the skim of ice above the leaf cover floor of the flooded oak woods.
The Y Tree stood out in the bare canopy of the forest, a colossus of an oak. Decades of storms, thunder, lightning, ice and wind had shaped the stately figure. Her trunk was broad and straight with two main limbs left to send forth leaves in the spring and shower the bottoms with acorns when fall came around. Half way to its upper limits the evidence of old branches, jagged snags and hollow openings showed the scars of time’s relentless wear. It stood on the east edge of the opening and from the concealment of its great shadow many a mallard had come to know the end of their days.
The north wind was perfect for this hole. It gave the birds a clean approach and kept the hunter out of their sight, hidden beside the towering oak standing knee-deep in black water.
The “hole” was more of a thin spot in the forest than anything. Ages ago, perhaps even before his granfather’s days another grand had fallen, its crash felling smaller trees on to the south, parting the canopy and making a glide path down into a hardwood banquet for travel weary mallards. The decayed remnants of the old tree still remained, a wooden troth that would fill with leaves, acorns and water, a favored pit-stop for the beavers, coons and nutria that lived in the bottoms. It was the focal point of countless yellowing photos, images filled with grinning faces as they posed beside a line prime mallard drakes arranged to show the reason for the broad grins of the men who stood or knelt as the backdrop for the picture. In old black and whites the log still held its round, and it was beside this very marker he too had stood at the end of his first hunt, a small thing boy flanked by grown men proud as every to pose with the boys lone mallard positioned perfectly centered on the log.
He rested the gun case on across the log, balancing the shellbox on one edge and unshouldered his burden of decoys. One by one they were placed around the opening, nine mallards an a pair of black ducks. The blacks were only slightly out-of-place to his way of thinking. Now days few blacks made their way to this part of the flyway, now days there weren’t many black to go anywhere. But in his grandfather’s time, black ducks were no strangers to this area. Old gunning logs told of mornings when, both on the big lake and in the woods, those elegant birds made up a significant portion of the bag. A straight mallard limit was a fine hand, but a brace of blacks thrown in and you were holding a royal straight flush.
“Eleven?” He said in disbelief as he surveyed the spread in the beam of the carbide lamp. “Felt like I carried a truck load.” He thought as he waded gathered his gear and waded over to the Y tree. “Papaw,” he said to the lightening eastern sky. “Was it that you didn’t need em, or you just didn’t want to tote em?” Laughing he leaned against his hide and set the shellbox down on a crude shelf long ago nailed to the tree for just such use. The rusty zipper of the tattered leather case scratched open and he slid the side by side out with a near reverent motion. The case he hooked on a bent nail that he would swear had gotten higher up the tree every year, and likely it had.
He cradled the double gun, breech open in his right arm and flipped open the shellbox. Shining the headlamp down into it he saw the waxed green paper shells. True, they were “modern” nontoxic loads, made for the notion of being “eco-friendly”, a term Papaw would have puzzled over in his day, but the feel was there, and from a far distant childhood memory he could recall the smell of burnt powder from a singed paper hull.
“Close as I could get, Papaw.” And he drew out two shells and slid them into the tubes.
The eerie, lonesome whine of a wood duck snapped his mind back to the present. He put out the light of the headlamp and hung the contraption on the nail with the guncase. Feathers cut the air somewhere in the blackness before him, wings beat hard to slow the decent, water splashed and clipped “WHEEP” the first arrival called out from the opening to others of his kind that buzzed low over the tree tops going to and fro as shooting light finally came.