Watermarked (Chapter 2)

deep bayou

My first trip to the camp at Tupelo Brake, or “The Tupe” as it was known by the men who hunted it’s vast cypress and tupelo swamps and low, oak covered ridges, came as soon as the flood waters receded and the brutal heat of our southern summer, which starts in spring, finally baked the gumbo mud roads into a passable quagmire.

The route from our home took us down from the hills of Vicksburg and along the eastern edge of the delta. From Ballground Plantation the road hugged the Loess hills on my right while the flat, fertile, farms stretched out to the horizon through the window that silhouetted my father as he drove me along a road I would come to know by heart.

The trip was narrated by my father as he pointed out scenes of flood damage, old hunting spots and the homes and farms of men I would soon come to know. At Satartia we turned west, crossed the Yazoo River and left the high hills behind.

Farms lined the road on both sides, save for scattered sloughs and brakes and the occasional patch of woods. Farmers had been hard at work and dad remarked at the varying conditions of crops. Soybeans and cotton laid claim to almost every tillable acre as we closed the distance to the camp.

When the numbing flatness of the delta was broken by the rise of the levee where I knew we would turn to make the last leg of our journey I remember trying to picture what it had all looked like just those few months ago, covered in the brown swirling waters of the flood. It hardly seemed the same place.

Though the trees were lush and green, the understory was nearly devoid of vegetation. A heavy layer of silt and debris covered the forest floor. What had been giant lakes were once again fields and the only standing water was in the barrow pits, bayous and sloughs, all still murky brown and filled to the brim from the floodwaters.

When the woods along the levee gave way again to a large patch of farm ground I knew we were nearing the camp. It had been here we had sat watching the waters rise. What look like flood debris spanned the canal that ran along the levee, but its order told me it was man-made.

The bridge across the canal was low, even with the flat ground of the delta, made of broad planks only slightly wider than my father’s four wheel drive, and could best be described not so much as a bridge as perhaps termites holding hands. As we rattled across it I could see the slow-moving waters beneath us through the gaps and missing boards. I could hear the timbers groan and the loose boards rattle. Dad, sensing my unease, assured me the bridge was sound.

“Thomas and them use it to get their tractors in here to the fields.” He said as his way of easing my nerves. It had little effect in that cause. But we clattered across and turned back south, back toward the towering trees of The Tupe and the little tan trailer I knew waited for me on the banks of Deep Bayou.

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Like PawPaw (Final Chapter)

The chill crept inward, into the very bones of his legs, down to the fingertips of his left hand and up to the shoulder. He found himself shifting his weight from one foot to the other, then gradually he began stepping in place. His subdued calisthenics sending waves and ripple out across the opening, making the old wooden block bob and turn.

“Well the motion sure won’t hurt.” He thought. Fifteen minutes past without sight or sound of a ducks. A few gunshots from out on the river, far down stream, boomed hollow and distant. With each small volley his attention sharpened, hoping to coax in the escapees to this wooded safe haven. Nothing came.

With a half hour to go his body began to shiver. The cold had sunk deep into his bones and his teeth began to chatter. The need to move, to get the blood flowing called strong. Maybe he should just call it a day, or slip easily through the timber back towards the trail that led back to the boat. He could try to jump shoot the last of his limit. Sure, that would work; he could get warm and finish out the limit at the same time.

He was turning to gather his gear when he heard the whistle of wings behind him. Sneaking a look over his shoulder he saw a trio of mallards drifting lazily across the tree tops. He turned back to his station, drew out his call and began coaxing the birds back toward the hole.

On the first pass he could make them out, two drakes and a hen. The birds banked and he lost them for a moment as they swung behind his position. He called softly, waiting for them to emerge again, and he waited. Just as he thought the birds had drifted off they appeared again. Two more ducks swooped in out of nowhere and joined them. His calling became more aggressive. He feared the two interlopers would ruin it. Too many times he had seen it happen. You are working birds when and have the ready to commit, only to have a stray single fall in with the flock, and pull them off towards safer quarters.

But the new arrivals must not have had the rank to change the course of the hen and her suitors. The five birds now flew as one circling the Y Tree slowly, unhurried. Two more passes and they began to set their wings, dropped and then broke off at the last moment for another trip around the hole.

Coming back into view again they now numbered a dozen at least. “Where in heaven did they come from?” he thought, now dropping back to a more gentle calling. The birds were working well, all he had to do was keep them interested and they would set down any time now.

Then it was chaos again. From every compass point birds were dropping out of the stratosphere, calling hard, joining in with the whirling multitude. Four here ten there, birds joining in from low and high until the mass that made its rotation around the Y Tree must have number a solid hundred and a half.

The flock swung from the south and lined up to make another pass, directly over the hole. He turned his face toward the water but couldn’t resist peeking up from the bill of his hat at the throng of mallards. On slow steady wing beats the lead birds crossed the edge of the opening. Then without warning they simply fell from the sky. No locked wings, no glamorous glide; the birds just dropped their butts, stuck out their feet and fell towards the water rocking side to side on outstretched wings.

He let the first wave light, then the second. More birds crossed the threshold and cart wheeled down towards the water. When the last of the mallards where beginning their fall and a good quarter of the flock was backpedaling over the throng of splashing swimming birds he pick out two drakes about from the middle of the descending bunch and threw the gun to his shoulder.

He touched off the first barrel and the drake crumpled. As he swung the barrel to catch up with his second target he saw another bird crash down on the far side of the opening, his stomach turned over. A hen, he knew by the brown underbelly turned up in the black water. Lowering the gun he watched the rest of the birds throw themselves into the air and scatter out through the trees.

“Well, I guess that’s how it ends?” he thought. “Sorry Papaw, I never saw her.” He opened the breach of the gun, drew out the smoking hull first and placed it with the other two then put the live round back in the box.

In a mix of satisfaction and slight disappointment he placed the gun on the shelf and waded over to gather his make shift game strap. Only then did he notice the pound of adrenaline coursing through his body. He realized he wasn’t cold any more. But in the pit of his gut their road certain sadness. The hunt was over, sure, that was part of it, but dang it all, A HEN! He tried to brush off his disappointment as he waded out into the decoys to pick up the birds. This drake too was a prime, fat, northern mallard. He slipped it onto the cord with the other and waded towards the last bird. She had fallen in a brushy top belly up and as he eased closer to her he noticed something wasn’t quite right. It was the darkest hen he had ever seen in his life.

A lump rose in his throat. “No, it couldn’t be.” His pace quickened and he tried to hold back the hope that forced itself into his heart. Not until the bird was in hand was he able to believe it. This was no hen mallard. This was a prize bird, a black mallard drake, fat as a house cat and dark as pitch.

He cradled the bird gently and marveled at its beauty, and his luck. For long moments he stood there tears rolling down his cheeks and falling onto the creosote colored feathers of the bird. He lifted his face toward the northern sky and whispered to his creator and to the birds of the autumn wind. “Thank you.”

———————————————

On the day before the opener the following year he pulled into the camp early and unloaded a large crate. Alone he heaved and hauled it into the front door of the camp and began prying the boards away from the package within.

A glass fronted, rough-hewn, cypress box, some four feet tall two feet wide stood before him. Within the case a worn side-by-side leaned against the bark of a young oak cut to fit within the shrine. From one branch hung a simple leather lanyard with a small black call at its end, from another three fat greenheads on a frayed piece of rope. At the bottom of the box resting on a carpet of oak leaves gathered from around the Y Tree on a dry march day, were an old wooden decoy, three spent cardboard hulls and the finest black mallard you he had ever seen, looking for all the world like it had just been shot, and dropped gently to the ground beside the resting gun. Along the top edge of the box a narrow brass plaque read “Taken at the Y Tree, like Papaw would have done it.”

THE END

Like PawPaw (Chapter 6)

Two more smoking hulls were drawn from the gun, these he wrapped in a threadbare bandana and tucked carefully away in the shellbox. He rested the butt of the gun on the shelf and leaned it carefully against the trunk of the tree. Reaching down between the stiff canvas of the waders he drew out a tarnished folding knife, untied the rope from around his waist, cut off a short length of it and tied a loop on one end. The knife was folded and returned to the pocket, deep within the billows of the now sagging waders and he eased out into the opening to pick up his birds.

The two drakes had fallen among the wooden blocks, and he admired each with a deep reverence as the plucked them from the cold black water, smoothing their feathers and admiring how the sunlight made the colors of their heads shift from green to black as the turned them in his hands. They were good birds, fat and healthy, the curls of their tail feathers making full circles, their feet bright orange. With the birds secured in the makeshift game strap he turned to wade back to his hide.

Two steps back towards the tree, the world above him filled with ducks. It was as iff they had just materialized. From every direction he heard the soft chatter of mallards, the harsh shouting of hens and the gentle call of fat greenheads. He broke into a shuffling run.

His mind scrambled and raced, the gun was thirty yards away, unloaded. His hand dug into the folds of his coat searching desperately for his call. His right foot caught a decoy line and he tried even harder to reach the cover of the Y Tree. In two steps he reached the end of the decoy line and the hard wooden block met his shin with a resounding THUNK!

Head first, flailing with one arm while the other held the birds aloft, he plunged into the cold water. The cold water filled his sagging waders in the split second he was down. Coming up with a shout of frustration and shock he saw the unthinkable. The entire opening was filled with ducks, ducks in a panic as a flailing mad man erupted from the water and stood among them, slack-jawed, staring at the mass of web-footed confusion around him. While the nearest ducks, the ones that had managed to hit the water about the same time he had, sprang back into the air, other were still bombing down through the trees, realizing their folly and taking the quickest route they could find that would get them away from the steaming, dripping monster that had just emerged from the backwaters.

His momentary all system failure evaporated. He freed his leg from the decoy, and finished fishing out his call. With a string of notes begging the mass to return he hastily shuffled back to the tree, set the ducks to float at its base, grabbed and reloaded his gun and turned back to face the opening. The din of hungry, confused mallards slowly moved on and he leaned against the massive trunk shaking his head.

Regaining his composure he assessed his situation. The waders were not completely full, but cold water stood in them as deep as his shins. He looked around for the string of birds and found them floating gently beside the tree. He gathered up the loose end of the cord, and waded to a small tree near by that offered a low branch to tie the strap to. With the birds secured he thought about how he might get some of the water out of his boots. It was several hundred yards to dry ground, and he wasn’t about to leave the hole now, not after what he had just seen. He would tough it out, at least for a little while.

Back at his station he leaned heavily against the tree. His eyes and ears strained to find some glimpse of the mass of ducks that had just descended on the bottoms. The skies were empty and the woods were silent, except for the sound of water dripping from the soaked left arm of his coat.

His nerves where shot. At every whisper of wind he twisted his head, sure the onslaught was about to return, terrified of being caught of guard again. Nothing flew. Shivers set and a debate began in his mind. “Two mallards is nothing to be ashamed of. Papaw would be proud to have his gun retired with those two birds.” One voice in his head counseled. But the other egged him on “You know darn good and well as soon as you unload and start out of here the birds are gonna shame you again. Tough it out and you can end this one RIGHT, a full four greenhead limit.”

He took the pocket watch out and check both the hour, and the condition of the old-time piece. The watch ticked away, and he set a time limit for himself. “If they don’t do it by nine thirty, I’m going home. Papaw would come back, dig me up and kill me himself if I let myself die of hypothermia over this.” Less than an hour to go, he was sure he could take it.