Jim stood on the porch and waved goodbye as the last of the regular camp members and their guests loaded into their trucks and began to depart.
The road from the camp was in bad shape. With tires spinning and mud flying, one by one the vehicles headed towards the hard road. The whining sound of trucks in low gear stayed with him until the last mud covered vehicle rounded the bend. Though the vehicles where out of sight to the young man stood on the porch looking out across the field towards the levee until he saw each vehicle from our camp crest its rise. Three quick blasts of a horn echoed across the open field. Doc had remembered to give the all clear. Jim turned and re-entered the empty camp.
For most of his friends Christmas break was all but over. Monday they would all be back in classes catching up with each other on the loot Santa had brought and their social outings from the break. For the men of the camp, work put off during the holidays now had to be attended to. His own father was out of the hunting picture at least through Thursday, but had left me with specific instruction to call him if the birds moved in. There was no phone at the camp, but the fifteen mile trek to the nearest pay phone was worth the effort when the young hunter got to tell his father or other camp members that birds were in. And Jim had a feeling his dad could clear his calendar if needed. The judge he several motions to argue before was a fellow waterfowler and a frequent quest at the camp, postponements where not out of the question.
Alone at the camp, with eight hundred acres all to himself, and thousands of acres of public ground around him Jim felt like a young king. But royalty hardly has to earn their keep. So he decided to get my chores out of the way before surveying his domain.
None of the other member’s children were allowed to have a gate key or stay at the camp alone.Jim had earned that great privilege through his labor. Throughout the season and all through the year he took care of the place. From stocking in groceries to clearing roads, if it needed doing he was their man. Friends often helped out and where in return invited on hunts, so the work was worth it to them. But they all had to get back to school.
Because of some less than admirable behavior on his part, Jim’s parents had sent him to a different school from all the kids he had grown up with. It was a boarding school for the most part, but Jim was a “Day Student”. He still lived at home but his parents thought the school would offer a more ridged structure that, combined with keeping him away from a slightly rougher crowd he had fallen in with at his previous school, might just set their youngest on a better path. It had been a tough transition for Jim but it had it’s up-side as well. While he had to endure Saturday classes and getting the stink eye from a good many of the wealthy boarding students, the rigorous schedule also meant that his break for the holidays was about a week longer than everyone else’s, at least that’s how Jim saw it. He also got long weekends several times a year. So with his friends in school and the camp members catching up on work he had the run of the place to myself.
Once the dishes from lunch where done and the floors swept and mopped he took care of the last in-house details. A lot of these were little touches that no one would have expected him to do, but he did them out of gratitude for the trust all the camp members had placed in him. They would return to find their floors vacuumed, their beds made and any scattered gear put back in its place. Some of them thanked him every time and told him how much they enjoyed coming back to a clean, well stocked camp. Others never said a word.
When the house was in order he threw on my light jacket and went out to reload the wood box and take care of the ATV’s and boats. Restocking the wood box didn’t take that much, above average temperatures had kept the fireplace less active than usual, burning only at night and then more for ambiance than need of warmth. The remaining tasks all took less time than expected and by the time Jim was through he still had enough daylight left for an afternoon hunt.
The thermometer on the porch read 63 when he passed by it on his way to gear up for an outing. It was warmer than he wanted for a decent deer hunt. Jim had a nice buck staked out that was holding up on one of the small hardwood islands among the cypress and tupelo swamp, but he doubted he would be active as warm as it was. Glancing out through the large picture window that overlooked the boat trail he noticed that the light rain that was falling was not accompanied by any wind. It could hardly even be called a rain, more like a supper sized mist.
He considered spending the afternoon scouting local farms and fields for ducks. They never hunted our place past noon and the birds hardly ever came to the timber in the rain anyway, so even hunting the government woods for a late afternoon mallard or two seemed like a waste of time. He sat for a moment considering his options and settled on hunting squirrels. The rain would silence his footsteps and droplets from soaked branches would betray any movement the tree rats made. But it really didn’t matter, staying at the camp was out of the question, even if all the more he accomplished was to wander around the woods for a few hours carrying a gun.
Leaving the camp yard he made a swing through the low thicket just inside the woods edge out of habit. The odd opening in the forest, a tangle of briars and buck vines looked for all the world like it should be a home to countless rabbits but in three years of stomping the small patch of ground he had yet to either flush a cane cutter or convince himself it wasn’t worth the effort. Every stump got a kick as he struggled through the tangles of briars and wandered off on his way, still convinced that one day this fallow ground would produce a fine long ear or two.
The squirrels were slightly more cooperative. By the time he had reached the end of the ridge that parallel the boat trail he had three reds and a black the size of a house cat swinging from his belt. Along the way the forest floor told him he had guessed right about the deer. Here and there among the thicker parts of the woods he found gatherings of dry patches in the glistening blanket of rain soaked leaves. The deer where bedded down and had been for some time, before his clumsy approach had sent them in search of safer hiding.
Sitting on an old log at the end o the ridge he slipped the #6’s out of his gun and replaced them with a slug followed by to OO buckshot. Jim pulled a blaze orange vest out of his jacket pocket and decided to wait out the rest of the day loaded for deer.
Just south of the point was one of the small islands he knew the deer held up on. Many mornings we had flushed them off into the swamp as we sped by in our boats on the way to the blinds. With a little luck he might catch his buck easing back to the island to bed down, if it wasn’t already there.
The woods were still and silent. Jim kept his eyes focused on the edge of the ridge where the open oak ridge transitioned through thick button willow to the cypress and tupelo gum swamp. Two trails intersected less than forty yards from his station and with almost no wind it seemed the best place he could figure to be on the off chance his buck was out cursing before bed.
A fat doe caught him nodding off and snorted her displeasure at the intusion. Her alarm call brought the darkening world to life before his eyes. She stood no more than ten feet away, a yearling a few steps beyond her in the heavier cover of the button willows. Jim watched her for several minutes as light faded and owls called down the night. She was not about to move, content to stand her ground until darkness insured her escape.
“Go on to bed.”He said to her and stood up. In one bound she was gone, disappearing into the growing shadows of the swamp. He listened until her splashing stopped. She had gone straight to the island.
With only the frailest light remaining he set his feet on the road back to the camp. By the time he reached the half way point darkness was complete and he paused to dig my small light out of his pocket. Standing there Jim began to notice something. It was colder now and above he could hear the limbs of the forest collide in a stiffening breeze. The adrenalin from his encounter with the doe and the brisk pace of his return walk had dulled his perception of the drop in mercury. He knew the onset of night would have knocked off a few degrees but the shift felt more dramatic.
By the time he could see the lights of the camp house he was chilled to the bone, his breath exploded in front of him in a thick white fog. Jim began to berate myself for not having laid in a fire before I left. He would need one tonight, and soon.
He hung the four squirrels on the cleaning bench and clutched a load of kindling with stiff, stinging hands. The thermometer on the porch spelled out in detail what his body already knew. Somewhere in his slumber the cold front that had refuse to move for several days had driven down through the delta, the temperature had dropped twenty five degrees in as little as two or three hours.
The coal oil soaked kindling leapt to flame and he hunkered on the hearth before the warmth until his hands became of use again. Tossing several large, split logs on the blaze he turned his back to the hearth to chase the remaining chill from his bones.
Lights glared across the front window of the camp and Jim walked out onto the porch to see who had ventured back to their remote corner of the forrest. The dark green pick-up topped with blue lights told him at once that it was not a camp member, but still a friend.
Samuel was one of the two local wardens and a frequent guest at the dinner table and occasionally one of the blinds. He stepped out of the truck, gave a friendly wave and without a word climbed the stairs up to the camp.
“Got the place to yourself tonight?” he said extending his hand.
“Yes Sir, anybody down at the deer camp?”
The neighboring land owners camp lay on the other side of the field was a frequent haunt of memebrs of the duck camp and the wardens.
“Nope. Henry might be back in the mornin’ but the rest of ‘em are bout done for the season.”
“Come on in. I just got a fire going and the coffee is still hot.” Jim offered.
“Sounds good, thank ya.”
Back inside they sipped coffee and enjoyed the growing blaze. Samuel wasn’t much on small talk but silence in his company was never uneasy and what few words he did speak where always worth waiting for.
Jim told him of his encounter with the doe and the slightest laugh passed his lips as he flipped through our camp records. Detailed accounts of all our hunts where kept and Samuel read them whenever he stopped by. He downed the last swig of his coffee, set the gunning log on the table and rose.
“I was about to throw a steak on if you care to stay for dinner. I got an extra out just in case anyone stopped by.” Jim said as he watched the warden walk to the hearth and spread his fingers before the roaring flames.
“Much obliged, but I got to get on. I would take those squirrels if you don’t want to clean ‘em.” The warden said.
His eyes where as sharp as a hawk’s, the squirrels where a good forty feet from where he parked and the lights of the house did little to illuminate the cleaning table. It seemed impossible that he could have seen them.
“Those boys of mine could use the practice skinning ‘em. Bout ruined mine this season.”
“Help yourself.” Jim said, a bit of surprise still evident in his voice. He turned and walked toward the kitchen his limp evident as he hade his way. “There’s a few cleaned ones in the freezer if you want ‘em?” the young host offered.
“Naw, those‘ll do fine. Just some coffee and I got to get. Some boys from town been shinen’ from the levee and I need to catch up with ‘em and have a little talk.”
Spot-lighters where to blame for his limp, several years back he had chased a truck load of outlaws down a narrow dirt road. They had taken a couple of shots at him when the he kicked on the blue lights, and he was none to happy with their manners. One of the men in the back of the fleeing pick-up had shot out his windshield, missing him by no more than a few inches and causing him to loose control of his vehicle. At a fair clip he had caught a large tree dead center in the grill.
He had darn dear lost his life and the shame of it was that he knew the fellas, at least passing well. They thought they had gotten away clean, but Samuel had convinced the Sheriff and Judge to wait on their arrest until he was out of the hospital and back under his own power. Story had it that he just waited until he saw the three men together in a café one day and just walked right up to them. Folks who saw the event said the men just stared at him in disbelief when he calmly dropped the three warrants on the table. “Let’s go.” Is all Samuel said, and away they went.
“Well, good luck. If you’re gonna be out a while just fill up that thermos and take it along. I got another in my room.” Jim said.
“Much obliged. I suppose you’ll be out chasin ducks in the morning.” He said as he filled his cup and reached for the thermos.
“Might as well. At least the weather is getting right.”
“Yep, and the birds are startin’ to come in. Saw a couple hundred filter down in the field just before dark.” Samuel mentioned as he continued fixing up his coffee without turning around. “Moon’s commin’ full and that north winds gonna have the clouds gone in an hour or so.”
“Sounds great to me. Been kind a slow the last week.”
“Yep, I saw that. But its about to get right. A fella could sit on Henrys log in the morning and make up a lot of lost ground, wouldn’t even have to get there before eight o’clock. These new birds are gonna feed all night and high tail it to the flats in the morning to rest up.”
“Sounds like right where I need to be. Thanks for the information.” Jim replied, taking the Warden’s word as gospel. Few men knew that swamp as well as Samuel.
“Sure thing. Might have to stop by and pick out a few with ya if you don’t mind the company?”
“Come on, love to have ya!”
“We’ll see. Depends on tonight.”
“Well good luck and I hope you get to join me.”
“Yeah, me too.” He thanked Jim again for the coffee and the squirrels and was out the door. From the porch Jim watched the warden leave. The tailpipes of his truck billowing steam as he turned around in the yard and drove out through the field, his headlights never came on and he vanished in an instant.
With the coals burning in the grill out on the porch Jim tossed another log on the fire and thought about Samuel’s words. The season had been poor so far and the temptation to “play catch up” would surly be there in the morning if the ducks were. In his earliest days of hunting with them the men of the camp were not beyond such a thing. Jim had taken part in more than one such shoot. But when duck numbers had begun to fall everyone seemed to take note and “stretching the limit” had happened less and less. So far this season there had never been an opportunity to be tempted.
The thought stayed with him through his meal and beyond. Everything Samuel had said was likely true. A fella could easily kill a sack full of ducks from Henry’s log when the conditions where right. The oak flats the surrounded the old fallen tree would teem with mallards at times, and tomorrow promised to be just such a morning. But other parts of his words now ran through the young man’s mind. “Might have to stop by and pick out a few myself…” Was it a caution, a warning or simply a passing thought? His tone was always so even, his voice let his words stand alone.
Unable to shake the thoughts and declare victory for either the angel of the devil who whispered in his ears Jim decided to ride out to the field and see what the front had delivered in the way of new ducks. The sky was clear and stars shone faintly, their luster outdone by the rising moon as he drove out from the camp.
From the cab of his small truck Jim watched and listened as the ducks poured in, just as the warden had predicted. From every direction loud calls from bossy hens beckoned to their approaching kin. Ghostly hoards of waterfowl could be seen passing near at hand and fluttering down onto the glistening surface of the water. An hour or more he sat enthralled. A constant buzz of drakes talking filled his ears, no one call distinguishable from another. Strident wing beats and the roll of birds lifting off and settling back down in the flooded bean field soon became a constant roar, punctuated now and then by a loud hen’s plea and then another’s until it seemed every girl in the flooded beans of the slash was stating here case as the finest catch for a lucky drake.
Jim went to bed with visions of the moon lit field running behind his closed eyelids. The accompanying sounds ringing in his ears. In troubled dreams he watched the skies fill with ducks, his shots never finding their mark.
Though he scarcely believe he had ever fallen asleep, the jarring ring of the wind up alarm clock told him otherwise. Jim shot out of bed and dressed in an instant, the camp having taken on a strong chill in the passing hours.
With the fire rekindled and the coffee taking its own sweet time he tried to pass the minutes without thinking of his little dilemma. It was no use. The mass of ducks that had moved in during the night made the potential for temptation all too real. He battled back and forth with himself, each decision winning out and then loosing ground, as he tried to picture the day ahead. At last he found peace by simply putting off the decision.
“No point in worrying about that ‘til the fourth greenhead falls.” He told himself, careful not to speak his loose ethics aloud. When his thermos was filled Jim set out in the boat under star filled skies. A skim of ice creaked around the base of the button willows that lined the trail as he wound through the woods toward his destination and decision.
After passing through the permanent spread of decoys in front of The Big Blind Jim turned the tiller hard and pointed the boat east toward the point of the shallow ridge that was home to Henry’s Log. He beached the boat where the ATV trail cut through the swamp between ridges, shouldered his gear and eased off into the darkness.
Wood ducks flushed with eerie wails as he slipped through the shallow waters toward Henry’s log. The slightest traces of ice had formed around the bases of the trees and in the shallowest parts of the flats. He tossed my three decoys haphazardly into the small opening south of his perch and settled in to wait for dawn.
His father and the rest of the men of the camp hunted the flats without any decoys at all. They just stood in the shadows of the oaks, kicked the water and called if necessary. When it was right calling was pointless. If the flats were on you could blow a kazoo and the ducks were gonna come anyway. But Jim couldn’t help but feel like a couple of decoys could give him an edge, or at least they wouldn’t hurt.
Shooting light came and went with the usual onslaught of woodducks. They provided entertainment in the early frail light but Jim’s gun stayed resting on his lap. Children on their first hunts where allowed to shoot woodies and occasionally the whole camp took part in a late afternoon pass shoot, but as a rule they shot only mallards. Pintails were allowed and black ducks where a trophy but greenheads reigned supreme.
Even in the days when “extra” ducks where taken there was an ethic of sorts among us. Hens where a big no-no, after all they where duck factories, and any member who shot one on purpose was scolded and ridiculed enough to ensure they would do their utmost not to repeat the mistake. Guests were made aware of the camp’s standards and a breach of the rules meant the offender had spent his last night at their camp. It was an odd sort of outlaw code, here these men would stack greenheads well beyond legalities and reason, but a hen shooter was lower than low.
When sunrise rolled around the acrobatic display of the squealers was over. Jim had yet to even hear a mallard. Had Samuel been wrong? Twisting his head around every few seconds to scan the brightening skies Jim waited for daylight visions of what he had glimpsed by moonlight the night before. By seven thirty only one greenhead had passed within sight, and fled at the sound of the young man’s calling. Still he waited.
He glanced at his watch, 8:15 and not a mallard in ear shot. Jim stood to stretch my legs and consider his options. If it was going to be yet another slow day he could just as well spend it in the comforts of my father’s blind. He knew better than to go to The Big Blind without express permission from Harold, the member who had claim to the best hole in the swamp. His dad’s blind was not the worst, on some days it was a burner of a blind. But day in, day out, The Big Blind was the best duck hole within several counties. When Harold was in camp he always extended invitations to Jim and his dad to join his group. So Jim wasn’t about to disrespect that kindness and risk losing his seat when Harold was back in camp.
The cold was starting to sink into Jim’s bones and the thought of a heater and a hot can of soup was getting the better of him. What his father’s blind may have lacked in overall duck killing it more than made up for in comfort and amenities. A closed off warming room in the center of the wrap around shooting porch held a two burner stove, heat and a cupboard Jim kept stocked during the season with canned soups, stew and chilli along with the required tins of Vienna Sausages, hot sauce, crackers and other condiments. Slow days in the blind were one thing but his father was more and more about comfort and comradery as the years went by and his latest blind was set up to afford he and his guests with ample opportunity to enjoy both while they waited for another flight of mallards and cursed the steady barrages of shots that usually echoed through the swamp from The Big Blind.
Slinging his gun Jim turned to gather his trio of fakes and head for the boat. It was a short ride from the point to the blind and a warm bowl of something was calling to the young man’s stomach. If the birds did pile in as Samuel had predicted they might just pay a visit to his dad’s blind. And if not at least he would be comfortable. His cold fingers had hardly touched the bright bill of the mallard decoy when at sound from skies made him freeze in his hunched position and twist his head over his shoulder toward the bright blue above.
From the north they came, mallards low on the tree tops and in numbers he had not seen in years. Jim turned his head downward and watched them by their reflection in the waters around his feet as the passed over the bare branches above. He dropped to his knees slowly when they had crossed the little opening. When the birds were moving away he reached for his call and gave a quick comeback to the departing wave of birds. Shuffling on his knees through the water he made it back to the log and crouched behind it as the entire group dropped their wings at the sound of the call and spun around.
There was no second pass. The mass of birds lined up on the opening and dropped their landing gear. All at once the hundred or more mallards where down through the trees and fluttering above the water. Jim struggled to get my gun sling from around his shoulder and the birds that had managed to land leapt into the air. But from above them others where still filtering down as he cut loose on a backpedaling drake. His first shot dropped the bird down through the confused mass of descending and climbing mallards below. His second and third shot went astray and in an instant the birds where gone. Jim quickly reloaded and slipped out to the drake, flipping him upright and staking him out as a fourth decoy, a trick old man Henry had taught him from this very spot.
Before Jim was back in place other groups had begun to work the area. In every direction mallards could be heard and seen. A trio dropped in on him unexpected and he emptied my gun on the lead drake without cutting a feather. Cussing himself he reloaded and tried to talk his nerves down to a rational level of enthusiasm. It was useless.
His next four shots caught only tree limbs and air. He was missing mallards so close he could feel the wind from their wings, or so it seemed. There was hardly time to reload between flights and Jim’s young nerves where a shambles. The next shot winged another greenhead and he ran it down in the shallows rather than firing again. After ringing the bird’s neck it too was staked out as a decoy and Jim returned to his post. Then his shooting slid into an even worse slump.
Nine more hulls floated in the water and he had little more than a few floating feathers to show for it. He was beside himself and nearly becoming irrational. He decided that he just couldn’t shoot sitting down and scanned the area for a suitable tree to lean against. To his right stood the ruins of another old oak, some fifteen feet tall and apparently a favored diner of woodpeckers. It would put him a little further back from the opening but he figured that was not all bad. The birds he had been missing where in the five to ten yard range and tried to justify his poor shooting by being over choked for such close quarters. He knew it was only a justification for letting his excitement get the better of him but he was desperate.
The sun was now glinting off the waters around him so Jim moved around the tree into its shadow. No sooner had he taken up his new position than another large group careened down through the trees. His first shot was on target but the bird was not hit well and he had to use his other two to put him down solid, firing them off in rapid succession as he fluttered toward the water and splashed down turning belly up. He was one away from the limit, but before the previous night’s ethical debate could even enter his mind two drakes made a low swing, calling down to their lifeless friends below. Hastily Jim reloaded and gave them a few short quacks. Those two greenheads however wanted to think about things for a moment.
Jim kept up a mellow series of calls as the pair made circle after circle above the leafless canopy. They were so low at times he thought of taking them at treetop, but confidence in his shooting was still sagging so he continued to assure them that all was well.
At last they made up their minds and began their approach. The debate raged in him anew. The two drakes would be on him in an instant and if he shot well he could have them both. He hadn’t heard an ATV, a boat or even another hunter’s shots from the public side of the swamp. He was alone and the woods were starting to fill with new ducks eager to feast on acorns and loaf in the shallows of the flats.
The pair of drakes broke through the tree tops and their wings stroked hard against gravity to ease their decent. Jim drew down on the drake nearest greenhead and fired. The bird crumpled.
It was decision time. In an instant all the options, emotions and fears assaulted the young man’s mind. The other drake was right there his escape route carrying him towards Jim’s hide. A simple swing of the gun barrel and he knew he could fold the mallard.
With the blast of a shotgun his decision was made and the drake splashed down stone dead at Jim’s feet. Jim felt sick, confused, scared. The realization hit him simultaneously with the sound of a familiar voice.
“Nice shot.” Samuel said as Jim around the tree just and saw the warden break open his stack barrel. A smoking spent hull hit the water and he dropped a fresh shell into the bottom barrel.
“Thanks…thanks.” Jim stammered.
“That wraps it up for you, doesn’t it?”
“Uh, yeah I guess it does.”
“Well, I forgot my calls, how ‘bout stickin’ around and callin for me.”
“Sure,” How could Jim say no?
“Stake out those two, but keep an eye on which ones are yours.” The warden said as he took cover behind a wide based willow oak. Jim did as he was asked and took up his position again by the dead snag, unloading the unspent shell from his own gun.
The flight picked again at once and either because or in spite of Jim’s calling every mallard in the county wanted to pitch in right beside Henry’s Log. Samuel went three for three in short order and his limit was filled.
“Let’s just wait and watch for a minute.” He said “Nice callin’”
They sat for half an hour while the birds continued to fill the woods. Jim didn’t bother to call anymore. The two hunters just stood by their trees and watched the birds make up their own minds. More than anywhere else they wanted to be around Henry’s log, but the rest of the swamp was soon echoing with the raucous call of hens insisting their spots were the best.
Soon Samuel waded out from his tree. “Lets leave these birds alone and let em rest up.” With that the world rose up with ducks around them. Seeming oblivious to the sight the warden waded out to the staked birds and picked up his four drakes. Jim joined him and gathered my own and the three decoys.
“You’re pretty good with that call.” Samuel offed.
“Thanks. Nice shooting by the way. I wish I could hit like that.”
“Awe, you do alright. Nerves can be tough. You’ll steady out with time.”
“Want a ride back to the camp. The boat is just down at the point.” Jim asked, still not sure how the warden had gotten this far into the woods without a boat or ATV.
“Naw, I’m gonna ease back toward the deer camp and see if I can’t get some more practice squirrels for the boys.”
“Alright then, I enjoyed it.” Jim replied. “Stop by later if you want some coffee.”
“Just might.” Samuel said without looking back, his voice even, his foot steps steady as he walked away gazing up into the trees.
It was the last time Jim faced the decision of “catching up”. He never asked Samuel about it and the warden never volunteered. Jim like to think he wasn’t going to shoot the other drake. He like to think Samuel folded that greenhead just so he wouldn’t have to make the choice. He would never know. But since that day Jim have never had to stare that side of himself down again, the decision had been made and never regretted it, no matter who it was that actually made it.